Meanwhile, the best segment from The New Yorker Presents is a short documentary from filmmaker Jonathan Demme, entitled What’s Motivating Hayes. The titular figure is Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an herbologist who decided to speak out against Syngenta, an agrochemical company that wanted him to study the effects of their atrazine on frogs. When he found that the effects of atrazine affected the reproductive organs of male frogs, atop concerns of making people prone to breast and prostate cancer, he spoke out.
The non-fiction film is only around 15 minutes long but is detailed and nuanced, exploring Hayes’ work for amphibian habitats in the wilderness as well as his own habitat where he grew up in South Carolina. As a boy, Hayes’ home was adjacent to a swamp and it wasn’t long before he began adopting and caring for many of the wetland creatures just outside his window. Despite the film’s curt length, Demme finds color and compelling insight from both Hayes’ upbringing and his current outrage and activism. The herbologist reads from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to close the short, appropriate since he deals with complaints from residents of the Salinas area that populate that author’s stories. Thus, Demme turns Hayes into one of the downtrodden but virtuosic characters that Steinbeck wrote about.
If any section from this Amazon pilot fails to intrigue or expand one’s intellect, it is Andrew Garfield’s recitation of a Matthew Dickman poem. Titled “King,” the version presented here is a memorial to Harris Marquesano, who suffered from mental health issues and died of an accidental overdose in 2013. While this segment jumps from Garfield sitting in a chair and reciting the text to images of Marquesano in his youth, the images displace the power of Dickman’s words. (The poem, sadly, is not even presented in its completion.) It’s a muddled piece that concludes a promising collection of features.
The New Yorker Presents will probably delight viewers who do not already subscribe to the magazine, and may not have the time or money to go through 48 issues each year. On its own, the material here is promising, even if it some of it feels curtailed to suit the half-hour episode runtime. Regardless, there are gems here, notably Demme’s documentary short and the revealing interview with Abramović. If Amazon could extend the episode’s length to allow for longer, more insightful content, this should be a valuable extension of the magazine.