Hollywood, the Bush Years, and America’s Memory Hole [Current Affairs]

Few films have tried to interpret the Bush era, but the ones that have are worth examining in detail. W.Vice, and The Report are some of the few major films about the Bush administration that Hollywood has produced, and despite their different approaches to history, each speaks to an important truth: to the personal moral character of George Bush; to the moral character of Republican Party in the decades before Donald Trump; and to why, exactly, America chooses to forget. 

I wrote about W., Vice, and The Report for Current Affairs. You can read it here!

The Mere Possibility of the Movie Musical

Earlier this year, video essayist Lindsay Ellis uploaded a dissection of the 2019 film adaptation of Cats. Cats is a cinematic monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed, and Ellis’s video seeks to figure out why. Cats (2019) is awful in ways both rooted in the source material – the whole thing is basically a succession of cats walking into frame and singing a song about what kind of cat they are – and entirely its own – the uncanny valley visual effects make the cats somewhere unsettling between human and cat – but Ellis places a lot of the blame on the tricky business of moving from stage to screen.

“Some musicals – not all, but most of them – require a visual medium that jives with the way the musical itself is constructed. Les Misérables was constructed for the stage. Cats was constructed for the stage,” Ellis says, citing the way actors on stage frequently pantomime props or sets that aren’t there, “That is the thing about theatre… it is constructed so that the audience has to imagine what’s going on in the story. Overcoming that suspension of disbelief is built into the design of the medium in a way that it is not with film.”

These ideas about the film musical – that the suspension of disbelief required for musicals as a genre is at odds with film as a medium, or that the process of adaptation from stage musical to film is a particularly and perhaps uniquely fraught one – are really common. People talk about film musicals as particularly difficult to pull off in ways they don’t about pretty much any other genre. “The genre’s lack of realism and inherent camp” is “alienating for modern audiences”, according to Film School Rejects. Ellis basically concludes that film adaptations of stage musicals are totally unnecessary, at least outside of animation. Musicals as a form are naturally suited to theatre in ways they’re just not suited to film, is the point. But all of this is bizarre: it sounds hypothetically plausible, but isn’t at all borne out by the evidence of nearly a century of movie musicals.

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Make It, Don’t Fake It

Trash Humpers is a difficult film to talk about without people dismissing it as, well, trash. Shot on VHS and edited in part on a pair of VCRs – sometimes blindfolded – it follows an anonymous gang of misfits in rubber old person masks1 as they traipse around Nashville, TN and film themselves doing a bunch of weird shit, like humping rubbish bins. Right from the second shot of the film, they hump rubbish bins, and fences, and trees, and whatever other inanimate objects strike their fancy. (They hire some sex workers at one point, but mainly to play drums on their asses.) It’s vulgar, strange and unsettling. It has less than no plot and almost no sense of linear time: the only thing that suggests any particular order to the events is the fact that some scenes are taped over others. 

“It’s not for everyone” is a cliché and a truism, but the audience of people both able and inclined to enjoy a film like Trash Humpers is vanishingly small. Some of that is the weird sex stuff, sure, but Pink Flamingos features unsimulated blowjobs, sex scenes involving live chickens and a guy who makes his asshole sing “Surfin’ Bird”, and it has a thousand times more popular appeal than Trash Humpers ever could. When we talk about taste in art, I feel like there’s a tendency to try and sort people into “types” or “taste profiles” or whatever. Usually on the basis of genre – the horror fan, the action fan, the romance fan – or, increasingly, based on weird, niche stereotypes like the “IMDb 250 fan” (a subject of derision in many online film communities for reasons that remain unclear to me) or the many varieties of “bro”. But our tastes are a lot more granular, specific and individual than that. I am, in theory, the target audience for a film like Hell or High Water. I love Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. I love westerns. The premise – two brothers rob the bank that duped their late mother into getting a reverse mortgage – fits me like a pair of moulded leather gloves. I wish at least 800% more films were about the recession and earnestly believe that movies should depict as many bank robberies as possible. But I don’t like Hell or High Water. It’s not a bad film, and there are lots of things I like about it, but it left me cold in the end. When I look back on it now, my overwhelming memory is how its desaturated colour grading reminded me of watery dilutable orange. It’s simply not to my taste. 

I don’t know if I could ever explain exactly why Trash Humpers appeals to me, but it does. In spite of all the reasons to find it mindless or boring or ugly, I just love this little film. It’s beautiful and funny and scary and moving. It rules. 

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You should watch No More Jockeys [Digital Spy]

Originally invented by Mark Watson and Tim Key in 2001, No More Jockeys had a brief life on the BBC Comedy website in 2009 as a spin-off from Horne, Key and Watson’s panel show We Need Answers. But it was given new life earlier this year when the guys started filming episodes over video call during lockdown.

I wrote about the brilliant, wonderful, delightful No More Jockeys for Digital Spy. You can read it here!

Notes on The Conjuring

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, The Last Jedi.

The Conjuring was a smash hit on release in 2013. It tested so well with audiences that Warner Brothers moved its release from the February dead zone to the summer blockbuster season. It was the first horror film to get an A from CinemaScore, who calculate an average score based on surveys of cinema audiences (and have been since 1979). It’s inspired an entire cinematic universe of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, with three more in the works. It was critically praised, too: reviews routinely described it as a classy throwback to films like The Exorcist, a kind of slow-burn horror in marked contrast to James Wan’s directorial debut, torture porn pioneer Saw.  

The problem with this, of course, is that The Conjuring sucks. Here’s why. 

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You Should Watch Figures in a Landscape

I find it easy enough to sell people on a film I love when it’s widely hated. The bad reputation of a film like The Happening is obviously an obstacle to selling people on it, but it’s also kind of a hook. At the very least, it saves me some explaining and gives me an initial impression to subvert. People also get a bit of a thrill from contrarianism. It feels good to reject the consensus, especially in such a low-stakes way as liking a film most people – or most critics – think is shit. Discovering a hidden gem or a misjudged masterpiece makes you feel like you’re in on a cool secret. It’s countercultural in the most literal sense. I know exactly how I’d pitch someone on the surprisingly moving Adam Sandler comedy Click or the director’s cut of the 2003 Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck. 

But sometimes films aren’t just hated or underrated. Sometimes, they’re not even forgotten: no one paid them enough attention in the first place to forget them. They’re the tough sell. It’s one thing to have been received with disdain, but to have simply been ignored? At least films that were panned were deemed worthy of recording in the annals of pop cultural history. If no one even took the time to hate something, I think our instinct is to assume it’s probably bad, and not even bad in interesting ways. Boringly bad. But even if that’s likely true of most such films, just as it’s likely true of most art ever, there’s nothing fundamentally meritocratic about what gets left in or out of history. The sheer volume of production over the last century-and-change of cinema practically guarantees some good films – maybe even some of the best films ever made – have managed to come into the world with very little notice. Even films by critically well-regarded directors. Even films by Palme d’Or winners. 

Figures in a Landscape is one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. And no one else seems to give a shit about it. 

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Swift as Jackass: The Forgotten Genius of Nathan Barley

Nathan Barley, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s 2005 satirical sitcom about the East London media scene and tech-saturated hipsterdom, was a flop when it first aired on Channel 4: by episode five of its six-episode run, its audience had dropped to just 500,000 (a 2% share). The title character, played by Nicholas Burns, was originally created for Brooker’s TV listings parody website TVGoHome as the star of a documentary called Cunt. Nathan is softened for the sitcom from an outright cunt into an insufferable twat: he’s a self-described “self-facilitating media node”, running a website called Trashbat.co.ck (registered in the Cook Islands) where he posts prank videos and assorted shite. “It’s an online urban culture dispatch,” he says. The sitcom puts Nathan in contrast with Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt), a frustrated cynic working at SugarApe magazine (stylised to emphasis “rape”), an obvious parody of Vice. In the first episode, Dan writes an article about the rise of the idiots, lambasting people like Nathan and his colleagues at SugarApe. Nathan and all the other idiots think it’s genius. It’s a brilliantly funny, weird little show, alternating between unabashed silliness and jet-black shock humour.  

A second season of the show was never commissioned. Morris and Brooker both went on to bigger things – Brooker created Black Mirror, and Morris continues to be an incomparable genius – as did much of the cast – a host of now big stars play bit parts, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Ben Whishaw – but it has not prompted much of a return to Nathan BarleyDigital Spy once claimed it became a cult hit on DVD, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Every retrospective on some flop no-one remembers claims it later became a cult hit. It’s not like people are going to Nathan Barley conventions dressed as Nikolai the Barber’s dead cat. 

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Do I Look Like the Kind of Clown That Could Start a Movement?

It’s a pretty old story at this point, but it’s a good one: when Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, a lot of film critics expressed concern that it would inspire black people to riot. The film follows a day in the life of the residents of a racially-mixed but largely black neighbourhood in Brooklyn that culminates in the murder of a black man, Radio Raheem, by the police. The police came because of a fight between Radio Raheem and the owner of the local pizzeria, Sal, so the onlookers who saw the murder blame him. One resident, Da Mayor, tries to persuade the crowd to walk away, but Sal’s employee, Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, throws a bin through the window. The crowd runs into the pizzeria and smashes up the furniture. One of Radio Raheem’s friends sets it on fire. It’s one of my favourite setpieces in the history of cinema and it terrified several white critics at the time

It should go without saying that none of those fears were borne out. No riots broke out at screenings of Do the Right Thing. And that’s why the story lingers. It’s a story about the racism of white critics, a nice shorthand explanation of how criticism itself is distorted when the field is dominated by people from a narrow set of backgrounds, whether the skew is racial, gendered or economic. But I think it’s worth recognising that when those critics wet themselves over the possibility of a film inspiring real riots, they weren’t only racist. They were also wrong. And not just wrong because riots didn’t occur, but wrong because riots were never going to occur. Sometimes people have rioted about films, like The Birth of a NationThe Rules of the Game or Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic from a couple of years ago that enraged Hindu nationalists and Rajput caste extremists who heard – incorrectly – that it portrayed sex between a Muslim king and a Rajput queen, among other things. But there is no evidence in the history of film that exposure to a movie’s content, as opposed to the mere fact of its existence, has ever inspired anyone to riot. In fact, everyone who has ever promoted panic about art causing violence of any kind has been wrong. They were wrong about Do the Right Thing. They were wrong about Doom and Grand Theft Auto every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem

They were wrong about Joker

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A Film Less Likely [Film Stories]

The Likely Lads – the 1976 film spin-off from the BBC series of the same name and its sequel series Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? – was released at the tail end of a deluge of British sitcom film spin-offs in the early 1970s. Most of these films are clumsily elongated episodes of the show they’re adapted from, straining mightily to find ninety minutes worth of material using story structures designed for half-hours. Critics generally regarded The Likely Lads as more of the same. The Times considered it amusing in places but thinly stretched to feature length; the Telegraph found it uneven; the Financial Times dubbed it “just another pre-packaged product on the assembly line of low-budget British comedy.” But over forty years later, The Likely Lads doesn’t seem like assembly-line product at all. It’s a great film, both as a conclusion to the TV series and in its own right. It’s a brilliantly funny and deeply melancholy look at a changing Britain, and not at all the sex comedy it was sold as.

I wrote about The Likely Lads movie for Film Stories! You can buy the issue here.