The Documentary Called Life: A Review of How To with John Wilson


This isn't so much a critical review but more of an overview of a certain genre of experimental documentary or personal narrative characterized by a practiced informality that sets the tone and form of the work. It's prompted by my recent watching and enjoyment of the new TV show How To with John Wilson. Admittedly, I've only seen a few of the episodes, but I was immediately smitten.

In a typical episode John has a loping voiceover. There's a minimal premise: he's trying to buy some wine for a party, or decide whether to buy his own apartment house when his landlord wants to move and sell it to him, or go on vacation. He's always alone but wandering the streets of New York city. We don't see him but out the lens of the camera. He comes across people, sitting on the ferry, arguing in public, carrying huge odd objects down the street, offering free energy drink samples, getting their cars towed. People speak to him and the camera. People with bad teeth, strange clothes, uncommon interests and fixations. And for a moment he veers into their world, letting them tell their own stories or expertise, from proponents of a conspiracy theory that says our history has been rewritten but preserved in memory to a subculture built around energy drinks to the subculture of superfans around the movie Avatar. John intercuts this with short snippets, Instagram-sized in length, of the effluvia of New York City street life. It's a shaggy dog story and the scenes veer from one conversation or view to the next until reaching some final brief fanfare on the title of the episode with nary a logical throughline or narrative arc. In this way it defies all previous television and film to my mind, with the exception of the non-narrative of the Eric Andre show (minus the antics, personality and stunts).

I recognize a bit of myself in John, or at least, I recognize some of the same situations and feelings of getting lost in little moments of life. Not just because he's filming the streets of New York City during the pandemic, the gross subway, the ridiculous situations and people that are characteristic of New York life, the mundane dollar slice pizza, subway trash sculpture installations, mishmash collage storefront signage, pigeon shit realism - it's also the fact that John's about my age, used to live in an artist warehouse in my old neigborhood, and currently lives in a neigborhood that I know well. In each scene or moment of the TV show (shot in subway, on the streets, in restaurants, on the ferry...) I keep thinking I'll recognize myself or one of my friends.

Zooming out a bit, the show is in a lineage with Louis Theroux's anyman film-making as well as the mundanity of the Fishing with John TV show with John Lurie. It has some of the self-centering of Karl Ove Knaussgard with a bit less blathering and maybe a bit less cockiness. I recognize some Werner Herzog without the gravity. And photographer Alec Soth's genuine love for the overlooked corners of America. I'm also reminded of some of the gonzo journalism that took off in the 1960s. Or prior to that was Studs Terkel's book Conversations with America and later his radio interviews with 'common' Americans as well; maybe that's the closest in fact.

All of these programs star a middle aged white man. My friend was agitated by this and expressed disinterest when I described How To to her. From her perspective there's a particular privilege with framing one's own narrative as worthy for other viewers/listeners. I get where she's coming from and I'm thinking the show probably couldn't be made the same way by a marginalized person because they wouldn't be able to get in the door or be given the basic respect that John is privileged to receive as he bumbles through his encounters. The show's producers includes celebrated writer Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief, The Library Book), and other writers as well, along with producer Nathan Fielder (Nathan For You). I wonder what they do in their roles and how they shape the show. Could the show work as well for me if one of them was the 'host'? Possibly, though it would probably be a very different show, as it feels like an extension of John's personality.

I'm really enjoying How To with John Wilson, but it also reminds me that what I want are many more kinds of John Wilsons, stories that seem to shoot out of nowhere, not following a particular path or narrative arc, but just revealing moments of lives, a better view of what the world may be like than what I'm seeing elsewhere on TV or in the news, and where we all feel invited to enter to talk to each other, no matter how distant we all seem from one another.


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