Michael Abernethy

His quest has made Ben the most tortured man on TV. He's been beaten, buried alive, drugged, paralyzed, and forced to commit murder.


Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Nick Stahl, Michael J. Anderson, Clancy Brown, Amy Madigan, Adrienne Barbeau, Clea Duvall
Network: HBO
The clock is ticking, brothers and sisters... counting down to Armageddon.
-- Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), "The Day That Was the Day"

Fifteen years ago, Michael J. Anderson played "The Man from Another Place," a.k.a. "The Dream Dwarf," on what was then television's strangest series, David Lynch's Twin Peaks. "The Man" was a backwards-talking midget from another dimension, where the forces of evil resided and plotted. Apparently, time has not diminished Anderson's appreciation for the macabre, as he now stars in television's new strangest series, Carnivàle. Here he plays Samson, manager of a traveling circus, who is committed to helping one of his carnies stay a step ahead of sinister forces from that other dimension.

Anderson is not all that these series have in common. Both showcase a struggle between good and evil, taking viewers to a surreal dimension where this struggle is foreshadowed before being played out on our earthly plane. Both feature characters who appear ordinary, but are full of riddles, wisdom, and special "gifts." Carnivàle, however, does not stage its struggle for the souls of a few individuals in a small town, as in Twin Peaks. The stake this time is the fate of all humanity.

If Carnivàle is not the first show to deal with apocalyptic visions (Buffy saved the world at least once a year), it is the first to present this fight in a historical context. We don't see prophecy of what is to come, but reflections of what has been. Still, with Carnivàle, nothing is certain.

Set in 1934, five years into the Great Depression, the series' first season slowly introduced enigmatic primary characters. Now, in season two, their secrets are put into play with more frequency and greater relevance to the story arc. Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), the convict with the power to heal, has emerged as the tragic soul destined to be savior, while Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) has assumed his place as the catalyst for the coming apocalypse. Management (voiced by Linda Hunt), the never-seen man who runs the carnival, schedules the traveling show to benefit Ben in his quest for his missing and, we are led to believe, evil father.

This quest has made Ben the most tortured man on TV. He's been beaten, buried alive, drugged, paralyzed, and forced to commit murder. He has also appeared in visions and dreams to Brother Justin, who has sent escaped prisoner Varlyn Stroud (John Carroll Lynch) to hunt him. As Justin has also been haunting Ben's dreams, it's clear they will eventually face off.

If Justin seems familiar, one need only to flip over to the Christian Broadcast Network to see why. He too has used the media to make a name for himself and build a massive temple of worship from which he will oversee his empire. Justin is doing the work of the anti-Christ with the same flair and enthusiasm as those who claim to be doing the work of Christ today, raising the question: who are the false prophets? Those who claim visions from heaven telling them to lead the masses, or those whose visions lead them quietly in the direction of salvation?

Carnivàle complicates this question in the sheer number of "prophets" it provides. Communication is a major theme here, and many characters receive messages in unusual ways. Ben has gotten clues about his father's location from the host of freaks he has met, while Justin was sent a mask of Ben that allowed him to see through Ben's eyes. One carnie, Sophie (Clea Duvall) reads Tarot cards for Ben. And both she and fellow carnie Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), the Snake Charmer, have been getting visits from Sophie's deceased mother Apollonia (Diane Salinger). During season one, Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) received visions from the dreams of his coworkers, while in season two, Varlyn receives his orders from Justin through radio transmissions no one else can hear.

Still, it is Management who specializes in the most mysterious messages. His knowledge of Ben's destiny is extensive, and he uses it in a push-me-pull-me game that both repels and intrigues Ben. Management is the organization's CEO, controlling the direction of his company through the established hierarchy, the road-weary and wise Samson. Toying with his employees' livelihood for his own gain, Management is also driven to find Ben's father, Henry Scudder. His intentions remain unclear -- he could be the conflicted leader living with his losses in order to obtain a greater good or the heartless boss who doesn't care who is hurt or used in the quest for "the prize."

Again, the analogy becomes apparent. In a social environment lacking structure and populated with the disenchanted, business remains the omnipresent force through which forward economic and social motion is achieved, theoretically benefiting both owner and worker. The cynical would chose to believe that this motion was motivated solely by greed, and any benefits the masses reap is purely accidental. Likewise, it is easy to make the same assumptions about the character of Management.

Although set in the past, Carnivàle reflects America today. We're now seeking clear direction, with choices about whom to should follow. Our desperation for easy answers may cloud the options: we could fall in line with the religious prophets who promise manna while delivering carnage, listen to the corporate hierarchy and hope their directives will make us all better off, or keep searching for that unknown soul who will provide salvation. When he, or she, arrives, will we be so lost in our obsession with pedigree and personality that we will fail to recognize our own deliverance? As on Carnivàle, there are no clear answers yet. While all the players assume their places in the game, the rest of us wait to see what comes next.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

In this exploration of the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it can be inferred that religion is likened to a spatial cave within a wider world of cultural beliefs, ideas and means of expression.

Menashe (2017) marks Alex Lipschultz's debut as a screenwriter. He shares co-writing credit with director Josh Z. Weinstein for whom the film marks his own narrative directorial feature debut. In as much as it is a film of firsts, Menashe is a reemergence of an historical Jewish language that has been absent from the modern cinematic art form for many decades. For Lipschultz it's certainly the continuation of his storytelling journey, building on his producing credits that include feature films Computer Chess (2013) and Lovesong (2016), as well as Richard Linklater's television series Up to Speed (2012).

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.