Issue #65: Performative Grab Bag 💼
Rothaniel + Belle
We could call it a mystery theme, but we’ve been here before: This week is two pieces that find themselves matched because we found ourselves with an issue to put out. Such is life! Feel free to @ us if you see any connections we don’t. But otherwise enjoy a grab-bag of a week: First Cate on Jerrod Carmichael’s new HBO special Rothaniel, then Zosha on Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle. Happy movie yelling!
Cate on Rothaniel
The first time I encountered Jerrod Carmicheal was as the lead in NBC’s The Carmichael Show in 2015. A social issues sitcom in the vein of Norman Lear, it tackled cultural and political issues through the lens of a modern black family. Three seasons later, the show was canceled, and I didn’t hear anything more about Carmichael for years. Now, Carmichael has re-entered the scene with his new special Rothaniel, currently streaming on HBO Max.
Coming in at just under an hour, the special — directed by fellow comic Bo Burnham — is a moving meditation on secrets, generational trauma, and the grief of family rejection. I’ve never been a connoisseur of stand-up comedy. I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next gal, but I’ve never been able to locate or appreciate the artistry of one person alone on a stage, fishing for performative approval. Rothaniel changed that calculus for me in a moving and profound way.
Carmichael begins by talking about his name. Named after his two grandfathers, his legal first name — his identity — has always been a source of shame for him, and he has kept it a secret his entire personal and professional career. Keeping secrets, he says, is the best way to honor the two men — both of whom were serial philanderers whose sex lives and infidelity were a poorly kept secret. He talks about the impact of generations of people knowing something deep in their bones but never acknowledging the truth out loud. Secrets he seems to be saying, are learned behavior.
Carmichael then connects this keeping of secrets to shame, and his own guilt about knowing his father was a cheater. And when he finally forces his father to confess, he’s left with the only secret he never thought he’d reveal: he is a gay man.
At this point, Rothaniel becomes an excavation of how Carmichael became the man he is today. Weaving deeply emotional stories with bawdy punchlines, Carmichael explains how and why he became burdened with the secrets that have defined his life. At multiple points, he seems to be processing his feelings in real-time, plumbing his own depths for universal truths gleaned from his own experiences. The camera’s tight shots and the room’s intimate venue bring us in uncomfortably close. Often, the frame is filled by the back of Carmichael’s head, as he leans forward in a defensive posture in his chair. Even as he admits his truth, he folds his lanky body into smaller and smaller segments, as if bracing for mockery that thankfully never comes.
Carmichael finds support in the audience, who whoop and cheer after his confession. But he admits that it’s not their love that he’s missing. His family is all in various stages of acceptance, and many of his friends feel betrayed by his late in life revelation. Carmichael visibly struggles with this knowledge. The love of the people in his life has suddenly become conditional, just as he needed their limits to expand, not contract. Their tepid rejection is the manifestation of his worst fear.
But the thing that seems to have its hooks into him deepest, is the strain on his relationship with his mother. “I’ve always felt like I was the result of my mother’s dreams,” he says, as a way to describe the connection with his deeply religious mom. There is a sense that before now, he truly believed her love was unconditional and the grief of finding the strings is a profound blow to his sense of self. “Love with an asterisk” he calls it.
It’s at this point that the audience begins to engage with him directly, asking him if he thinks he’ll ever be ok without his mother’s acceptance, and if he regrets coming out to her. His answer is no — his whole has been shrouded in secrets, and the only thing he hadn’t tried was the truth.
And then he reveals his name: Rothaniel.
Last week, I had a conversation with a friend about the fact that the throughline of millennial storytelling is familial trauma. Storytellers of our generation are taking the time to reflect on the harms of our insular family lives and find ways to break the cycle of silence and sometimes abuse that has permeated our lives. Rothaniel is the high watermark in this regard. With skill and urgency, Carmichael creates a truth that reflects not just himself, but the painful pasts we all share — and figures out how to not be as sick as his secrets.
Zosha on Belle
If you haven’t already watched the first three minutes of Belle (embedded below) I think it’s time to treat yourself to that now. Whether you usually jive with anime or J-pop*, it’s an instant hit of serotonin packed into just three minutes, a delicious offering that makes it virtually impossible to not wonder what happens next. I, myself, have used three minutes of the titular 30 to go rewatch it right now.
Right away you can see why people have called Mamoru Hosoda “the next Miyazaki;” we won’t be using that language here (there can be more than one type of guy!), but it’s worth noting that yes, this is indeed a confident presentation of an animated world that immediately feels lived in. Hosoda’s opening is grabby because of all the things we know it’s playing upon. A little bit Apple shareholder meeting; a little Social Network; a dash of Disney Princess, and a massive helping of technofuturist anime possibility.
It’s the latter that most intrigued me about Belle. The movie is certainly strong as a whole — visually scrumptious, if a mostly familiar retelling of Beauty and the Beast. But the way Hosoda (who also wrote the film) captures the role the internet plays within our lives is commanding. There’s a fluidness to the transfer between them, as we watch Suzu (whose name translates to “Bell” in English) balance her melancholy life in the real world with her triumphant debut on U, the virtual social media world.
Because he clearly builds on such a solid foundational understanding of the internet, it makes it easier to accept the leaps that Belle takes when first tries on the futuristic tech that will introduce her to U. It’s a thing we’ve seen before — even, sadly, attempted in the real world to much less interesting result — yet here it seems fantastical and appealing. The world stretches impossibly in every direction; motion is beautifully fluid, like everyone is soaring. Hosoda uses 3D animation when inside U, and compared to the 2D-anime of the real world, the virtual reality seems at once artificial and visionary.
While the story is never too unpredictable, it’s certainly more ambitious than a fairy tale reheat could get away with. There’s a version of this story that’s about the parables of living on the internet, or even something more lilting about it will set us free. Instead, Hosoda is clear-eyed about what the internet is: an extension of what we need it to be.
Avatars within the film were drawn by a “number of different designers” to capture how wide-ranging aesthetic choices can be on something as massive as the world wide web. Things that happen there don’t necessarily relate to the real world, but they’re not removed from them either. Suzu’s friend Hiroka dutifully sets up a mission control to help manage Suzu’s burgeoning online pop stardom. As Bell (the latter e of the title is projected onto her by adoring fans), Suzu is able to find her voice — literally, as she hasn’t been able to sing out loud since her mother died. Between Suzu and Hiroka’s skill sets, the movie balances the real life passions, responsibilities, and personalities that bubble to the surface in the anonymity of the internet.
Of course, what is Belle without a beast? It’s not too long before hers interrupts a worldwide concert Belle is giving, and she is immediately taken with the mysterious “Dragon” as he’s known. Their blossoming romance is at once the central thrust of a Beauty and the Beast story and the thing that threatens to overwhelm it in mundanity. But, again, Belle is too ambitious for that. You’ll get no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Belle grounds its story in the heroine’s very real life and very real struggles. What narrative glitchiness it is left with is a byproduct of that: Whatever Bell does in the virtual world isn’t enough. Suzu has to transfer that lesson into the real world to fully make things happen.
So Belle isn’t as neat as its art style, and certain beats in the script get hit a little extra. But the movie manages to get at something better maybe, certainly more true. It’s a movie that shows how our drive for imagination and connection might actually be more powerful tool than even all the computing power in the world. To do that, without being too trite, cute, pessimistic, or boring — it’s just nice to watch.
*The version embedded here is, sadly, the dubbed version; all the more reason to go watch the original. #subsnotdubs, baby!
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: On Girls again, boobs and bee stings on Bridgerton, excavating Denzel Washington’s Mississippi Masala, Janelle James on being a breakout star, the perpetual disappointment of a queer text gone wrong, Syd on breaking a heart, Ambulance is a thrill-ride the movies were made for, and the legacy of aughties trash YA.
ZOSHA: The erotic thriller is still the best way to talk about sex. An old piece on dancing through New York’s joy and grief. Bridgerton’s weird prudishness and colonial failure of imagination. How TV became obsessed with “workism.” How we got NGE. Tumblr decided Jack Sparrow and Barbossa got married once.
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Zosha + Cate <3