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John Wilson's How To does magic with his staggering archive of street footage

  • How To with John Wilson is, says Nitsuh Abebe, "(nominally) a tutorial, offering advice on subjects like wine appreciation and parking, and (formally) a documentary, following its themes to a bowling-​ball factory or to interview a teenage real estate agent — and (ultimately) a form of memoir, a personal essay on video. But Wilson does magic with his staggering archive of street footage, all full of details that, if you encountered them yourself, you’d ponder for days: peculiar behaviors, dreamlike coincidences, strange omens and general 'glitches in the Matrix,' as he puts it. Two workers mop a sidewalk in balletic unison; a man in a parked car idly sucks a woman’s toes; a woman places a live pigeon in a Duane Reade bag like a salad she’ll finish later. 'Sharing your most intimate thoughts can be a disturbing and messy experience,' Wilson observes, as we watch a police officer pluck a sweater from a pool of blood on a subway floor. It would take a lot of footage to craft a timeline of romance from images of people publicly flirting, groping, proposing, marrying and bickering, and even more to end it with paramedics removing a corpse from an apartment building. Imagine the volume you’d need to be able to end it, as Wilson does, with paramedics dropping that body. There are highbrow precedents for Wilson’s close attention to the strange-and-ordinary, but what How To often resembles is the stuff you’d see posted to Twitter or TikTok in 20-second chunks, with glib captions about urban living or relatable moods. Wilson, who is 35, says that he loves seeing that kind of stuff online — 'but I find it so tragic that it just kind of disappears.' He’d always felt compelled to build something larger from that material, lest it vanish into a “formless blob of content” or rot on an old hard drive. 'The impulse to make the work like this to begin with,' he says, 'was about giving a shape to all the stuff I was afraid of losing.' People talk about television’s capacity for novelistic depth, but surely the medium has more in common with pop music: We expect it to obey certain rhythms, resolve its motion in certain ways, pulse appealingly in the background even when our attention is divided. Part of what’s bewitching about How To is the extent to which it manages to replace those conventions with its own."


    • John Wilson sees limitless possibilities for How To, even though Season 2 had to be done faster: "Yeah, I think that's cool. I feel like this season had to happen in almost half the time that the first season did, and on top of the whole life thing. We had a much, much faster turnaround time for the second season," he says. "Everything from my whole life, past and present, is still fair game. And that's kind of an endless well for me. And I think there are a lot of different elements that sustain the show and make it easy to reproduce, for me at least, where there will never be any shortage of people in New York who are willing to just bear it all, or just these little tiny communities. And I will actively keep engaging with it, and my life will always be a part of it. And I still have other weird stories from childhood that may resurface at one point. There's something about the speed of doing the second season that really intimidated me at first, but it was just so much fun. And I felt so much more confident crafting each episode, because I was so long in season one. And I had no idea what the show was supposed to be, but thankfully Nathan Fielder, and Michael Koman, and a bunch of other people really helped to shape everything. And that was just so important."
    • So what the hell was NXIVM founder Keith Raniere like?: "He's very wafty, if that's the word," says Wilson, who knew Raniere in college. "He just floated around the egg in Albany. To everyone else that worked for the A Capella Innovation event, he was this sacred figure. Even back then, I had a finely tuned bullshit detector. I’m very sensitive to when the content of someone's speech is completely hollow and has no actual meaning. He spoke in all these grand overtures about discovery and expression and uplifting voices. And he would refer to us as a collective."

    TOPICS: How To with John Wilson, HBO, John Wilson, Documentaries