The trailer for Maximum Overdrive begins with a voice: “Hi, my name is Stephen King.” A bearded man steps out of shadows. Behind him, we see a giant Green Goblin head. “I’ve written several motion pictures,” King says, “but I want to tell you about a movie called Maximum Overdrive, which is the first one I’ve directed.” We then get our first shot from the film itself: Giancarlo Esposito, bathed in orange-red light, staring down at the camera and saying, “Wowwwww….”
Alas, there is very little wowwww in Maximum Overdrive, but it is not as bad as its reputation. Watching it now, you are more likely to find the movie dull than truly terrible. Its kitsch is not delirious, its actors try hard with bland characters, it had a large enough budget for adequate special effects. It is not, in other words, the 1986 equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Blood Feast.
The year before Maximum Overdrive hit theatres, Stephen King appeared in an American Express commercial. His face had certainly been well known to fans before (he acted in Creepshow in 1982), and he was already suffering some of the pains of celebrity, with his house in Maine frequently besieged by people seeking autographs and souvenirs, but the amusing commercial increased his visibility exponentially. The opening, in which King descends a gothic staircase with a candle in hand, now seems like a bad wish: “Do you know me? It’s frightening how many novels of suspense I’ve written. But still, when I’m not recognized, it just kills me.” (His 1987 novel Misery would offer a very different opinion about being recognized.)
It is little surprise, then, that the star in the trailer for Maximum Overdrive is King. The only person in the film whose fame might have rivalled his was Emilio Estevez, who had recently acted in The Outsiders, Repo Man, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire—but the film needed to be sold to people who wanted to see horror movies, not quirky comedies or teen flicks.
What King said in the trailer, though, didn’t do anything to help manage expectations. Previous King films had been directed by, among others, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter, and yet in the trailer, King said, “A lot of people have directed Stephen King novels and stories, and I finally decided, if you want something done right, you oughta do it yourself.”
The trailer didn’t stop with King positioning himself as superior to some highly accomplished directors; it then went on to make viewers expect the movie to be really, really, really scary. King points his finger out at the audience and says, “I’m gonna scare the hell outta you—and that’s a promise!”
To find some virtues in Maximum Overdrive, you must give up on all of the ideas the trailer instills. This film is not better than Carrie, The Shining, Creepshow, The Dead Zone, or even Christine, with which it shares a premise of vehicles developing a desire to kill. Nor is it likely to be even briefly scary for viewers over the age of 5 or 6.
Whether a movie can “scare the hell outta you” depends very much on the you watching the movie. Myself, I don’t remember being scared by a film since I was a child. Revolted, yes. Startled, certainly. Disturbed, definitely. But scared? Of what?
In Maximum Overdrive, we are supposed to be scared of big trucks that drive themselves and don’t like people.
One problem for a motion picture that seeks to make gangs of big trucks scary is that big trucks can’t accelerate from 0 to 60 fast enough to be good at targeting people. Trucks lack even zombies’ advantages. Zombies, at least, can swarm and overpower the speedy non-zombies by sheer numbers, as there are more dead people than living ones. Also, zombies can sneak up on you in a way that a 40-ton, 600-horsepower truck cannot.
Maximum Overdrive attempted to overcome these challenges in two ways, one effective and one less so.
The effective method was to have a group of trucks constantly drive in a circle around the Dixie Boy Truck Stop, the primary location in the film. The trucks can get up good speed, and successfully lock everyone in, creating a standoff until the humans discover an escape through a drainpipe.
The less effective method was to have people run in a straight line away from trucks, or directly toward them, or just stand around and scream. The results are generally amusing, seldom convincing, and not even remotely scary.
Cars and trucks should scare us—they kill tens of thousands of people every year. But we repress the knowledge of their deadliness, and it is not so much the vehicles themselves that possess a power to frighten us. It is, rather, certain types of drivers and roads. The young Steven Spielberg knew this when he made Duel, and Duel demonstrates something else that injures Maximum Overdrive’s ability to scare: individuals are more consistently terrifying than groups. Hordes of zombies might be repulsive or unsettling, but it is the individual zombie that scares us with its enstranged familiarity: once-lively eyes hazy and dead, skin grey and torn, body rigid. Maximum Overdrive plays most of its individual trucks and vehicles for laughs, or else tries to make them scary because they are very, very big and loud.
Tone and style are essential tools for horror, as King well knew when he wrote the original short story that provided the basis for the movie. “Trucks” was published in the June 1973 issue of Cavalier, at that time a “men’s magazine” in competition with Playboy, and it was reprinted in King’s first short story collection, Night Shift. It’s a first-person story with a hardboiled tone: tough, tight, macho, relentless, and bleak. A lot of short sentences. Utterly serious. Characters are labels as much as names: the kid, the girl, the trucker, the black counterman. The story survives its absurd premise by cloaking it in a patina of “just the facts ma’am” grizzly grit, Hemingway by way of Mickey Spillane, the sort of Big Penis Prose that, were you to laugh, would get you a punch in the mug.
The style of the film, though, is more Disney by way of Roger Corman, more obviously infantile than the style of the short story. The film’s style is one of bright colors and clichéd emotions and groin shots and plenty of bathroom humor. There’s gore, but it’s less splatterpunk than goofypunk. (The jokes in Maximum Overdrive make The Love Bug look sophisticated.)
The plot of the film and short story differ primarily in their endings. The film expands the scenes, adds subplots, and increases the firepower on both sides so there’s an excuse to blow stuff up, but the premise is the same. The premise is rationalized in the film, however, with an opening shot of the Earth in space, over which yellow titles are superimposed:
“On June 19th, 1987, at 9:47 A.M. EST, the Earth passed into the extraordinarily diffuse tail of Rhea-M, a rogue comet. According to astronomical calculations, the planet would remain in the tail of the comet for the next eight days, five hours, twenty-nine minutes, and twenty-three seconds.”
Misty green light then covers the Earth. The characters wonder what caused most of the vehicles around them to become sentient, and a few speculate that it’s the comet, as we have been led to believe from the opening. But Bill (Estevez) has another idea, saying, “It isn’t the comet. It’s a broom. Imagine you’re a race of aliens, right? And, you’re looking for a new place to live. Say you’re looking for a planet like you and I looking for a new place to live. A new house. So here’s Earth. Only it’s like this big old house. And, it’s kind of polluted, dirty, and smoky. Grease on the walls, soot in the chimney. So, they send in their interstellar housecleaners. Send in their broom. Sweep us all up. That’s what this it is, it’s a broom. Using our own machines to sweep us right off.”
Bill, it turns out, is a genius, and intuited what no-one else understood—titles at the end tell us that, indeed, “a large UFO was destroyed in space by a Russian ’weather satellite,’ which happened to be equipped with a laser cannon and class IV nuclear missiles.”
Thus, it turns out not only that the commies had nukes in space, but it was a good thing they did!
This is all very different from “Trucks”, where the rise of the machines is not explained so clearly, and there is little sense of hope for the planet at all. In Maximum Overdrive, the characters escape to a Luddite island and wait for the comet to pass. “Trucks” ends with a meditation on the return of humans to cave dwelling. A sense of futility fills the last page of the story. The narrator clearly doesn’t think the humans can win against their machines.
Had King brought the tone of his original story to the movie and not merely the premise, he might have been able to create a film near the quality of Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of King’s novella The Mist—not a masterpiece by any means, but still a far more effective study of people stuck in one place and terrorized by forces beyond their understanding. (It’s a situation King has used many times, not just in short stories, but also in such hefty novels as The Stand and, especially, Under the Dome.)
Maximum Overdrive was clearly not meant to be Great Art. King was trying to have fun and to create an entertaining little movie. I have no doubt he knew his characters were thin clichés, his plot was ridiculous, and much better movies had been made from his writings. It was his first time directing, and he probably just wanted to play around.
Various obstacles prevented King from making a particularly entertaining film (substance abuse not least among them), but Maximum Overdrive seems to me to stand primarily as a warning against low ambition. Had King at least aspired to make something more than a disposable film, it might still have been as bad as Maximum Overdrive, but it would have been a more interestingly bad film. Despite some of the reported problems on the set (including cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi losing an eye when a sequence with a remote-controlled lawnmower went wrong), King does not seem to have been a dreadful director. He integrates songs from AC/DC well, blocks the actors competently, sets up shots and action competently. An early sequence on a drawbridge that opens of its own accord is amusing and well choreographed—watermelons that cascade out of a farm truck and onto the windshields of cars below are a particularly nice touch. Many of the later scenes are forced or flaccid, but that seems to be at least as much an effect of the script as the direction. With Maximum Overdrive, King showed himself to be, if anything, a better director than screenwriter.
Like the trailer, the opening scene of Maximum Overdrive stars Stephen King. The character he plays in the film is rather different from the character in the trailer, however. We see an establishing shot of a bank in Wilmington, North Carolina. The electronic marquee above the door flashes the time and temperature a few times, and then a word: FUCK. And another: YOU. Again and again. Cut to a closer shot of an ATM, called the “Money Man II”. A man in white approaches: Stephen King. He puts his card into the machine. Cut to the ATM display: “YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.” Close on King’s face—the machine’s POV. He turns over his shoulder and calls out to his wife to come over here. Back to the screen, now filling with one word: “ASSHOLE ASSHOLE ASSHOLE…” The man calls to his offscreen wife: “This machine just called me an asshole!”
We could interpret the fact that King gave himself this role in many ways. It’s a fun moment, and fits the basic theme of the film: our machines hate us. But we also know that this actor here is Stephen King, even if it’s Stephen King affecting a Southern accent. We know he is a man who has earned lots of money (is he Money Man I?). We know he is the man who is making this movie, a movie he said he had to direct because, he told us, “if you want something done right, you oughta do it yourself.”
Now here he is staring into a movie camera and saying, “This machine just called me an asshole!”
Maximum Overdrive is not a movie made by an asshole (and, anyway, plenty of assholes have made good films). Maximum Overdrive is a movie made by a man who tried too hard to entertain us and not hard enough to do anything else with all the machines required to make a motion picture.
Matthew Cheney is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies, a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons, and a blogger known as The Mumpsimus. He currently teaches English and women’s studies at Plymouth State University.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife