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