Now then, if you watched Stranger Things you might think that you got the strangeness of it all, with the chicanery of scientists at Hawkins National Laboratory, an unknown dimension and plus-sized monster.
Not so. You want peculiar and strange in the sense of strange being idiosyncratic, then one of the stars of Stranger Things has a doozy for you. You’ll laugh; you’ll frown; you’ll be very, very puzzled.
Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein (now streaming on Netflix) is a work of stupendous weirdness. It’s an elaborate experiment and it’s a very good elaborate joke. It’s a gorgeous joke about acting and about ego, and it slides from silliness into vicious satire.
David Harbour, who plays Chief Jim Hopper on Stranger Things, plays a fictional version of himself and informs us that he’s researching the life and work of his late father, the fictional David Harbour Jr. (also played by Harbour). He says he found lost works by his father, while in his mother’s attic and battling rats. Turns out his father, like his grandfather (also played by Harbour), was a great man of the theatre, but as times changed, he went into “the noble experiment of producing plays for television.”
Right, well. We see much of one play, which is some wonky version of the Frankenstein story. That’s “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein." It is very stiffly acted. Harbour of course plays Dr. Frankenstein, and there’s his young assistant (Alex Ozerov), and a young woman (comedian Kate Berlant, who does a brilliant turn as moonfaced dumb fool) who is there to figure out if this Frankenstein thing is worth investing in.
The play turns inside itself when Harbour the elder starts giving acting lessons to the young assistant. This part is hilarious, an exquisite bit of hammy tomfoolery. Meanwhile, Harbour the younger is interviewing people about his dad’s work and showing footage of his father being interviewed. Then, back in the play, there’s an ostentatious running joke about the theory of Chekhov’s Gun in theatre.
Along comes Alfred Molina playing an alleged acting great Aubrey Fields, who does a stage show explaining the techniques of acting. Also, we see the older Harbour doing TV commercials. These are clearly meant to send up Orson Welles at that point in his career when he was peddling wine on TV. Further, back in the play, an elderly woman appears from upstairs and announces, “I like the morphine.”
It is indescribable, this Netflix special. Coming in at about 35 minutes, it’s unique. It’s more than a sketch and more than a comedy doodle. It’s a ludicrously knotted send-up of the craft of acting and a near-hallucinatory mocking of the seriousness that actors place in hokey, blood-and-thunder work.
Principally, it’s hilarious. As it winds down it also turns into a nonsensical murder-mystery. The elder Harbour was not a nice man, it turns out. And, yes a gun does go off, adhering to Chekhov’s theory. It is nothing like Stranger Things, by the way. Except that there is a monster. Although you might not notice because you’re too busy laughing or asking, “What the heck is going on here?”
Also airing this weekend
The Moon Landing (Saturday, CBC NN, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is a new doc that promises “surprising details” about the Apollo 11 moon landing. These include near-disasters that almost derailed the end of the mission and Neil Armstrong getting rid of the trash on the space rocket. Bisbee 17 (Sunday, most PBS stations, 10 p.m. on POV) is a startling, excellent doc that examines, in a visceral way, what happened in a mining town on the Arizona-Mexico border a century ago. What happened was the deportation of 1,200 immigrant miners. They had unionized and were members of the Industrial Workers of the World and they were on strike. The strikers were forced onto trains and dumped in the New Mexico desert with a warning to never return. In the doc, local people help to stage recreations of that controversial part of their past.
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