Staff Picks: Monsters, Monarchs, and Mutinies


This Week’s Reading

Still from Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

There’s a gently anarchic spirit to William Greaves’s 1968 experimental documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, which follows Greaves and his crew as they attempt to film two actors staging a breakup scene in Central Park. This description barely scratches the surface of what’s really going on: Greaves himself is playing a role, that of the bumbling director—but he’s the only one in on it. The script is melodramatic; the actors—mostly a middle-class white couple, but other actors of different ages, backgrounds, and races are swapped in and out—overact; the crew—instructed to always have three cameras going, on the scene, the crew, and the park itself—stages a mutiny. Unbeknownst to Greaves, they film their grievances and critiques and present them to him once it’s all over (these make up three major sections of the movie). As one crew member remarks, this is a movie about power. But as it turns out, that was the conceit all along: at one point, Greaves explains that he was hoping they’d call him out on the bad script and provide some lines of their own. (The edits suggested by one crew member are equally terrible, to my ears, but in a kind of charmingly sixties way clearly born out of the sexual revolution.) Toward the end, they stumble across a man who claims to be homeless and living in the park; the last vestiges of an old New York bohemianism, he gives a flamboyant speech about all that’s wrong with the world. As I watched the crew wander again through the park while the credits rolled, something reminded me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a merry band of revelers, role reversals, the breakdown of hierarchies, that summertime feeling of possibility. Immediately, I queued up Greaves’s 2005 follow-up: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2. —Rhian Sasseen 

Earlier this year, I discovered Lindsay magazine, and I’ve been making my way through their backlog ever since. Lindsay’s articles are rooted in culture and place, so reading from their global contributors feels like something resembling travel. I’ve absconded into stories about free diving in Australia and mud-brick buildings in Morocco, recipes from Lebanon. This week I’ve been thinking about the magazine’s 2019 interview with the writer Sisonke Msimang. Stories, in Msimang’s experience, are transformative, and the telling of them creates intimacy, community. But still, she says, they are insufficient. There is no call to action in stories, so while they can be a tool for social change, they are not the change themselves. It felt potent to read this now, as I try to come to new understandings about stories and what they can do, and writers and what they feel like they have to do. She says she no longer calls herself an activist, just a writer, and others fill in the rest on her behalf. Beyond the burden of those labels, self-imposed or otherwise, Msimang finds freedom: “This helps storytellers to not feel the burden of people’s expectations and it also helps us to not have big egos. My story is just the story I’m going to tell and people may or may not do something with it.” There’s an agency here for the writer but also the reader: there is no call to action, but there is always the choice. —Langa Chinyoka


Still from the video game Risk of Rain 2. Courtesy of Hopoo Games.


I’ve barely been able to tear myself away from the ever-shifting alien terrains and howling electric guitars of Risk of Rain 2. In this indie game, you play as an astronaut trying to survive an endless onslaught of monsters and scrambling to escape an increasingly hostile world. As you collect items, unlock new characters, and advance the difficulty progression of the game merely by existing, you will die repeatedly. But when you don’t die, you’ll get into a groove: your fights start lining up perfectly, too perfectly. Instead of feeling the jumpy anxiety of the first few areas, you’ll start rampaging through all of these creatures thoughtlessly. And odds are, it’ll be incredibly satisfying. But then one of two things must eventually happen: you will die, or you will win, and flee this dying world. In death, you’re left with the emptiness of what could have been; you once held so much power, but now you’re forced to start from zero once more. If you win, though, the tainted lens of the game falls away to reveal something more sinister—how, in succeeding, you have become the invading force of this world, the extraterrestrial destroying everything in its path. But the game has continued to pull me back in because before the emotional vacuum of either outcome, there’s the romp of getting there. After all this fighting that is routine in many video games, Risk of Rain 2 makes you look back on why you enjoy it, all while indulging you time and again. —Carlos Zayas-Pons

I got into Dirty Projectors through my record-of-the-month club, which sent me a lovely double-vinyl reissue of the band’s seminal Bitte Orca on clear LPs with swirls of red and blue. They were yet another band from the aughts that I missed because I was looking the other way, but I was instantly hooked by David Longstreth’s wiry and willowy and wandering guitar work, the dynamic ups and downs of his songwriting, and the band’s utilization of various male and female vocalists. Their new record, 5EPs (first released separately over the course of 2020 and now collected as an album), features five sets of four songs sung by different band members. Each set has its own mood and sound. My favorite is the first, Windows Open, sung by Maia Friedman, which includes “Overlord,” a catchy and sparely arranged pop song that is to die for. For some reason my family’s puppy, Cashew, hates the second group, entitled Flight Tower—she barks and whines through all four songs. There must be some supersonic overtone in Felicia Douglass’s voice that I can’t detect; I think it’s lovely. Overall, these twenty songs are lighter fare than the band’s previous albums, but playing through all of them, I feel a sense of renewal, as if the seasons are changing with each EP. I’m pretty desperate for renewal these days, so I’m a fan. —Craig Morgan Teicher

We seem to love television that catches the wave of the twentieth century, the way history serves to bolster and electrify the lived banality of ad men and affectless monarchs. Derry Girls, an Irish show about a group of teenagers (four girls and one haplessly misplaced English boy) in Northern Ireland during the nineties, rejects any easy metaphors. In season 2, Erin Quinn—a stand-in for the show’s creator, Lisa McGee—writes a hokey poem that she explains is “about the Troubles, in a political sense, but also about my own troubles, in a personal sense,” to which her teacher flatly responds, “I understand the weak analogy.” Instead of becoming entangled, the foibles of everyday life separate from civil conflict like water from oil, allowing characters to maneuver underneath the fire. Unrest is sometimes literally a backdrop, TV news playing as the Quinn family hypothesizes that Gerry Adams’s voice has to be censored because it’s too “seductive” for the English (“apparently he sounds like a West Belfast Bond”) and comments that John Hume is “really dyin’ for peace-like, isn’t he? It’s all he ever goes on about. I hope it works out for him.” A plot to get after-school jobs spirals into the staging of an IRA robbery, which results in a lifetime ban from their favorite chip shop; an integration youth program, Friends across the Barricade, is an opportunity to make out with (Protestant) boys. Derry Girls skirts flippancy—season 1 wraps with a moment of sweetly deployed poignancy—but articulates with sharp wit how to live, happily, in an abnormal normal. —Lauren Kane


Still from Derry Girls.