It was deep in one night at the end of the year and I wanted to shut things down to head for bed--so all I wanted to know about this YouTube video was whether I needed to revisit it. But I’d already swallowed the hook before it occurred to me (1) that since it only got posted at the end of December and (2) had already been viewed by more than 10 million people, just turning it off and heading off to la-la land might be impossible.
Several viewing experiences over the past year are worth crowing about—and we’ll get to a few more of them in a minute—but none more than Eric Grankvist’s hour-and-a-half documentary. The kid left his home in Stockholm for a patch of woods that his family already owned in a remote part of the country. He spent three of his teenage years (from 18 to 20) building a log cabin from scratch with hand tools he was also learning how to use for the first time. In a miracle of self-possession, he’d undertaken this adventure alone. And almost as unbelievable, he filmed himself building as well as struggling and thriving throughout the whole experience with a GoPro camera and tripod.
That’s what I was watching: the documented result, and as soon as I saw the first cross-cut images I was hooked. Because what he filmed was less a continuous narrative than a sequence of jumps from one task or decision of his to another. And after every break in the footage, all I wanted to find out was where Eric Grankvist would land next in a journey that was, all at once, both epic and mundane.
The log cabin, it’s basement and outbuildings and “picnic tables,” and his keeping at it for three whole years of non-stop craftsmanship was a mesmerizing feat, but not more so than trying to figure out how he ALSO managed to film himself doing it so compellingly and so well, frame by storytelling frame. The magnitude of this last miracle only gradually dawned on me, probably in the middle of some longshots that he took of himself on an excursion to ice fishing when he appears to be trudging through the tundra against the horizon of a fading sun from about a quarter of a mile away.
So of course, the sheer amount of advance and daily planning here also had to be staggering. Not only how Grankvist “was going to see himself doing the work so others could join in his experience,” but also the assembly of hand tools (all manner of saws, lathes, axes, hammers, even a forge to make nails) and the stream of basic provisions from outside that would enable him to keep going through three Nordic winters and supplement his growing resourcefulness.
There has been much reported recently about the tragic state of Grankvist’s generation, including a sobering essay in the Wall Street Journal this week (The National Crisis of Gen Z) but this kid’s story offers a powerful counter-argument. In his courage (to take on a gamble of this magnitude), inner strength and relentless drive, watching him seemed a lesson in a quiet heroism, particularly since we never hear him talking about it.
I want to say a couple of other things about this short film before leaving you to decide whether you want to spend an hour and half with him too.
This is Grankvist (finally) describing his experience, in his own words, before posting his video for an apparently hungry world to see:
“4 years ago I felt lost, even though society had clearly paved the path for me. I was 17 and living in Stockholm Sweden. After seeing the documentary "Alone in the wilderness" by Dick Proenneke, I became completely obsessed with the idea of just packing a rucksack of hand tools and wondering off into the vast forest of Sweden to create my own life, living off the land and build a log cabin. I found my meaning, but I was still in high school. My Grandparents owned forest so I started spending more and more time with them every weekend, wandering out, dreaming of my obsession and asking for advice. I had absolutely no prior knowledge of anything how I was going to do this, just the obsession to learn. When I turned 18 I told everyone of my plans. I received a GoPro camera from my parents, so I could at least film some of my adventures. I hadn't even thought about filming anything but I did so and am I glad I did. It is a long story from here of hard work, pain, cold, making many many mistakes and figuring out how to solve problems all alone by trial and error. But I finally built the cabin all alone after 3 years. Along the way I also became passionate in filmmaking, so I invested in a better camera. The whole journey is filmed on a tripod by myself, which was let’s just say a struggle (I am insane). Some people will doubt this and say I had a film crew and construction team, which I just take as a big compliment. I know my journey and I hope to inspire others the same way Dick Proenneke inspired me.”
And then this:
Deep into his film, after maybe 34 straight months of living on his own, Grankvist has plainly invited family and friends “to come see the place” and enjoy a feast that he’s prepared. The cabin and outbuildings and outdoor tables and benches and firepits have been built and the wild boar has been hunted and trimmed, cooked and carved. We get glimpses of merriment from the camera (maybe more than one, at this point) as they capture the gathering.
In the few shots where he enters the frame, what (I wondered) does he think of this sudden conviviality after spending all these months alone? I was searching the frames for his face and that answer. And while I was doing so, all I could think of, because his face was so hard to read, was Sartre’s famous remark about how (sometimes, and maybe especially after a stretch of solitude like this one) hell can be other people.
How glad was Eric Grankvist when all his visitors returned home and the only sounds around him were those of songbirds and the other forest animals who'd been keeping him company for all of this time?
“Northern Flicker perched on snowy conifer branch,” an award-winning
Audubon Society photo by Dawn Key from 2022.
Despite having “watched” many things over the past year, there are only a couple more that left their mark on me.
I wrote an entire post in August on The Bear called The Original Beef of Chicagoland. This 8- episode show (on Hulu) is about a lunch-hour meat palace in a working class Chicago neighborhood. It’s a story about unresolved grief, dedication to craft, team-building and -breaking, and a miraculously “just right” consummation for the characters and plotlines at the end. Since I raved about The Bear several months ago, I’ve learned how Christopher Storer (the show’s creator, executive producer and director) brought his own experiences of deep, family dysfunction along with his drive to escape them into this juggernaut of storytelling. I still can’t say enough about it.
My other favorite streaming show (on Apple+) was Slow Horses. The excellent Gary Oldman presides over an island of misfit toys that have been exiled from Britain’s domestic intelligence service for one infraction or another. Oldman, as Jackson Lamb, appears the odious slob, slurping Chinese noodles, dribbling on his shirt and belching loudly while ridiculing those who have fallen-from-favor for their past and (he reminds them) future shortcomings. But Lamb is more than he appears, and so are the others (especially Jack Lowden as River Cartwright and Saskia Reeves as Catherine Standish). It’s hilarious, closely-observed, beautifully acted and deftly plotted with a rafter of British put-downs and the sample sentences that will show you how to use them too. Here’s a link to the trailer for Season One that ran earlier this year, although Season Two, which kicked off towards the end of 2022, is just as good. As I watch it, I find myself asking: why isn’t this the most popular show that’s streaming today? Maybe it’s because the satire is a bit too British and a bit too thick for American taste buds, but I can tell you that it has certainly tantalized mine.
2022 also birthed a fairly remarkable Ad-Vert (or advertising commercial). I admit to watching almost nothing on a screen with commercial interruptions, so this 3-minute triumph came via marketing types who let me know as the year was drawing to a close that this particular one, from the makers of Dove soap, was among the best of the best—and they're probably right. The ad launches with awkward pairs of mothers and daughters talking about the impact that social media is having on kids generally and on girls in particular. Because it’s Dove soap, the messaging they're interested in is about “beauty,” but in a Mommy Dearest kind of flip, the toxic peer and influencer advice about becoming more beautiful that’s everywhere on social media suddenly starts coming out of the mouths of these same mothers as if they’re suddenly appearing on their daughters’ cellphone screens. You need to see for yourself what happens next. Toxic Influence: The Dove Self-Esteem Project. It's some 3 minutes.
Finally, it’s easy to miss what you most want to see because you’d need to subscribe to far more streaming platforms than I’m willing to subscribe to. So just like there are books from 2022 that I want to read but have not yet gotten to, there are also a couple of movies.
One of EO's favorite things is apparently carrots.
For much the same reason that I’m looking forward to reading Ed Yong’s An Immense World, about the unrecognized worlds of life that swirl around us, I can’t wait to see EO, a Polish film from Jerzy Skolimowski that re-creates some of the beauty and harshness of our world as seen through the eyes of a donkey.
It’s the kind of film that a movie trailer has a hard time capturing, so this one gives us more of its mood than its story about EO—it’s literally the sound that a donkey makes—and the humans around him. On the other hand, more of what this movie is really about comes through this (paywall–free) review of the film in the New York Times. Unlike the Disneyfied animal versions of humans that we’ve known all our lives, Manohla Daris describes how Skolimowski:
“consistently emphasizes the animality of EO and, by extension, the donkey’s essential un-knowableness and mystery. Although EO is repeatedly shown in long shot, say, when trotting over a ridge or across a field, he is often shown in closer, more intimate views. Again and again, you see one of EO’s eyes in extreme close-up, so that they become darkly shimmering pools in the center of the frame.”
It’s a technique that invites the film’s viewers to see (if only we could) what EO is seeing when he “takes in” the people and places that he’s encountering.
“These close-ups have seemingly distinct yet finally harmonizing consequences: They bring you close to EO…but they also underscore his differences, the integrity of his being. He walks on all fours and eats grass, is covered with thick hair rather than naked skin, and has a muzzle, a mane and clopping little hooves. Over and over, Skolimowski reminds you that EO is an animal, not a prop or a plushie, a comic contrivance or a child substitute. He is not human, and yet he is nevertheless a being with a sense of the world and he deserves a place in it....
“in this remarkable movie, [Skolimowski] is inviting us to make the empathetic leap across species and consciousness, to look at the world we’ve made for ourselves and to see, really see, what we lose by treating other beings as lesser.
"We lose the world.”
Michele Yeoh has miles to go before she sleeps.
My other can’t-wait-to-see-it movie is Everything Everywhere All At Once. Once again, most of what I have to go on is what others have told me about it. From the minds of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as “the Daniels”) EEAAO centers on a Chinese-American woman (Michelle Yeoh)—it's also the acronym for the sound she keeps making—who, in the midst of being audited for her taxes, realizes that on top of all that drama she also must connect to versions of herself in parallel universes in order to prevent the destruction of the multiverse.
In a year where everyone felt a tad over-whelmed, EEAAO could be the perfect “you-think-you’ve-got-it-bad” escapist fare. On top of that, it may be a creative masterpiece of sorts, the Times calling it “a swirl of genre anarchy” with film elements from comedy, science fiction, fantasy, martial arts and animation. I’ve mentioned the young, terrific, YouTube-based film reviewer Thomas Flight to you before. His takeon the audacious hilarity that's apparently at play here only makes me want to see it more. (I also think Michelle Yeoh--from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Crazy Rich Asians-- is one of our greatest acting treasures.)
So let’s all sit down together and watch something great!
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Have a good week at work and outside of it. With any luck, I’ll see you next week.
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