MMuch to my initial disappointment, How to With John Wilson (BBC2) is not a guide to the life of the Radio 4 presenter, although surely there is a market for it. It’s an HBO series, which has arrived here two years after it first aired in the United States, consisting of thematic documentaries by filmmaker John Wilson, although at times it looks more like an art project with surreal comedy undertones. Each week, Wilson takes an idea or prompt and tells a story in voiceover, using an extraordinary collage of footage taken from the streets of New York City and beyond, to illustrate his words, literally or symbolically. It’s extremely strange – I can’t think of another show like this – and strangely more.
The first episode, How to Make Small Talk, sets the tone, and in a way it’s a shame because the second, How to Put Up Scaffolding, is much, much better and seems to have a clearer idea of what’s to come. this project. be. But first, he has to find his feet. To investigate what gossip is and why we do it, Wilson captures people on the streets of New York. He films pets, plants and actor Kyle MacLachlan trying, and failing, to swipe his MetroCard on the subway. He meets with a philosophy professor to ask a high-profile question about the future of humanity, then asks the same question of a man attending a massive WrestleMania event. This man reveals that in his spare time he creates fake internet profiles to trick child predators. Wilson follows him to Pennsylvania to watch him work.
This sets up the idea that it could be a Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends artier, but that quickly deviates. Wilson follows small talk to a point of discomfort, then continues. He buys a bloodstained rug from a man online and hears all about his ex-wife recently. (It reminded me of Miranda July’s It Chooses You project from 2011, in which the artist//writer/performer/director documented the people she met after answering classified ads.) He assists at a concert by a Red Hot Chili Peppers band The bagpipe tribute band, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, then tries to make friends by wearing their T-shirts. A travel agent tells him about his love life. He goes on vacation to Cancún in Mexico and meets a man called Chris, who is there to party but later reveals much more about why he is looking for oblivion.
Wilson is still present in voiceover, although he is barely there physically. There are rare moments when he appears, caught in a reflection in a mirror or a window, as if he had stumbled upon his own films by mistake. This has the effect of making it very intimate – as if there were no middleman – and sometimes uncomfortably intrusive. (Wilson said he is followed by a team of people who have “almost everyone” filmed to sign release forms.) some statements disguised as facts that may not be facts at all, and trite descriptions or flowery, depending on his mood.
Episode two explains why there’s so much scaffolding in New York, and the extra accent works better, though calling it the accent is overkill: it winds through work that Wilson once filmed beef for an online shopping channel, a scientist explaining cellular scaffolding, the use of scaffolding in classic movies, and a scaffolding convention in New Orleans, which speaks volumes about the lucrative industry of the scaffolding. Just as Seamus Heaney once did, Wilson chooses the scaffolding as a metaphor, but in this case, not for lasting love, but rather for our desire for protection from imagined dangers.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s arch and arty, a compilation of deceptively ordinary images and imaginative ideas. Wilson looks at the scaffolding and sees a homogeneous world: As he talks about the similarity of the fancy scaffolding that proliferates in affluent neighborhoods, we see images of two men walking, dressed in the same smart-casual attire. Although Wilson is a compelling narrator, he’s unreliable – I couldn’t be sure what was true and what was written in jest: he signs each episode like a newsreader; it is fanciful to confuse a nightclub with a religious service. It’s very quirky and unusual, and when it finds its sweet spot, it’s an empathetic and charming celebration of the characters and eccentricities that make life interesting. I liked it.