#020 — Nonnarrative Mind Scenery

Hi, hello, how are you? Welcome to Tendrils, a weekly update newsletter in which we keep our promises. Autumn is now properly bedding in for the long weekend here in Oxford, and I’m ready for it. This week I heard the opinion that summer is the favourite season of those people at peace with the world and with who they are, whereas autumn is the choice of people who want to seem complicated and interesting. I’ll just leave that with you, along with a photo I took this morning, of the ivy reddening on Christ Church.

I would consider myself something of a Joseph Kosinski fan, though that assignation has come upon me without my having realised it. I enjoyed his feature debut, TRON: Legacy (2010), more than most — I even wrote about it here (sheesh! that was 12 years ago!). The follow-up, Oblivion (2013), was a mid-size success that’s probably considered a mid-size flop by Tom Cruise standards ($286,168,572 box office from a budget of $120,000,000). Again, I thought it was more interesting and better executed than it was widely given credit for. (It’s very much filed away in my brain next to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, which also came out in 2013 (also, FWIW, a spookily-similar reported box office: $286,140,700 from a budget of $115,000,000) — a pair of high concept, high budget sci-fi movies with huge star leads and delightful, nuanced world design. I should go back to both of them.) Kosinski’s latest to hit cinemas has catapulted his career into the stratosphere: his second team-up with Tom Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick (2022), has (to date) made $1,455,304,523 from a reported budget of $170,000,000. It’s also Kosinski’s best-reviewed film to date; I’m not someone who puts a whole lot of stock in Metacritic scores, but they provide a good basis for comparing averages: TRON: Legacy 49%; Oblivion 54%; Top Gun: Maverick 78%.

However, Kosinski also has another film out this year: Spiderhead — an adaptation, for Netflix, of a George Saunders short story. It’s that movie I want to talk to you about a little, but first we need to discuss the Saunders text. Initially published in The New Yorker in 2010, and later part of Saunders’ award-winning collection, Tenth of December (2013), the story (originally titled ‘Escape From Spiderhead’) reads like a short thought experiment: what if drugs were developed that made it possible to control people’s feelings, and therefore actions, with targeted precision? Characters in the story, including its narrator Jeff, are subject to experiments in which they are administered experimental chemical compounds designed to make them fall in and out of love at the turn of a dial. But, whilst the potentially life-enhancing (and war-ending?) repercussions of this drug are alluded to, there are also other, similarly potent drugs being trialled that have more conspicuously darker and harmful effects.

Saunders presents a lot of this through Jeff’s somewhat wry narration, littered with numerous faux brand names for the drugs themselves, winkingly appended each time they occur in the text with a little ™️ symbol. It’s reminiscent to me of some of what Margaret Atwood was doing in Oryx & Crake (2003) — a knowing observance of mankind’s folly in meddling with the natural order. The strange thing about Saunders’ story, however, is the suddenness with which he ends it. Having done the work of setting up an interesting question, he abdicates the duty to answer, or even really address it.

It seemed to me, watching Kosinski’s Spiderhead, that the director (and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) felt the same way: intrigued by Saunders’ set-up, but puzzled by his (lack of) ending. As such, and as befits a 106 minute movie born of a 37 page short story, they have worked to enrich the setting, give more colour to the characters, and to actually work towards some version of an answer to the question that the story raises. In particular, I was grateful that the adaptation (in a 2022 quite different from the 2010 in which the story first appeared) doesn’t stretch for metaphors about social media companies’ algorithmic manipulation of attention span (and yes, also mood). It’s content to remain a thought experiment, and one which I found compelling enough, as brought to the screen through solid performances from Miles Teller (always great), Jurnee Smollett, and Chris Hemsworth. The latter is slightly out of his depth — I couldn’t help but wonder what Oscar Isaac, or perhaps Michael Keaton would have done with the role — but not distractingly so. I’m deliberately stopping short of saying much more about plot developments, because I think it’s a trip worth taking. And, even as an admirer of George Saunders, I actually think Kosinski’s film is the richer rendering.

If you see it, and enjoy it even a little, I’d like to recommend a pair of excellent recent TV shows that really make the most of having more space to explore somewhat similar topics: Maniac (Netflix) is a brilliant, madcap 10-part series from 2018, which I have watched twice and want to watch again; and Severance (Apple TV+) is a slow-burn, off-kilter masterpiece in the making — season one is out now; join the fun before the second arrives!

Side note: I will now make a point of completing my Joseph Kosinski experience, by catching up with the one film of his that I’ve not seen: Only The Brave (2017) — a true story about Arizona firefighters. Look at this cast: Miles Teller, Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andie MacDowell! How have I not already seen this?

• • •

A reminder to you that this is likely the antepenultimate Tendrils prior to me taking my annual autumn / winter break from the internet. Adjust your Sunday schedules accordingly. I didn’t know where else to mention that, so I snuck it in awkwardly before… the bullets:

• if you have a spare £225,000 you might be able to buy this copy of The Catcher in the Rye;

• Craig Mod writes a pæan to electric bikes;

• here at Tendrils we worship at the altar of Donna Tartt, and so have to note that Friday of this week was the 30th anniversary of the publication of her debut novel, The Secret History (1992). (FWIW, her follow-up — The Little Friend (2002) — turns 20 next month.)

• an idea from this profile of Yiyun Li in the New York Times Magazine, which I liked:

I don’t think writing is the beginning of the thought, the beginning happens before we start typing the first word; and usually the thought doesn’t end when a story or a novel ends. The thought (several thoughts) still goes on.

• Stephen King double-pack: The Simpsons’ Hallowe’en episode this year will be a riff on It; and, someone building sets from Kubrick’s The Shining in LEGO;

• did you play Immortality yet? I’m still thinking about that game a lot, and this week I had the pleasure of watching my special lady friend work her way through it, and solve the mystery of what happened to Marissa Marcel — a joy! (Still no word on the release date for iPhone, iPad, & Android — I’ll keep you informed.)

• music pick of the week: Beacon’s 2018 LP Gravity Pairs took 5th on my end-of-year list that year; and the new album — Along the Lethe — has been on heavy rotation.

That’s it. I hope you’re well and that wherever you are in the world you don’t begrudge us autumn-lovers for our comfy corduroy jackets, and our wanting to seem interesting. We have suffered under the oppressive heat of your sky star for long enough; let us kick our piles of leaves in peace. I’ll write to you again next week, to discuss every frame of the first three episodes of Andor in excruciating detail. So you have that to look forward to. In the meantime, have a week!


— Adam