This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Mary Magdalene.
The Great Famine is the most significant event in Irish history by some distance. It killed around a million of the eight and a half million or so people on the island of Ireland, and turned another million into refugees. The loss of population didn’t stop there either: devastated economically, mass emigration drove the island’s population down to around four and a half million by the 1920s, where it hovered for a good fifty years. It began to climb steadily from the 1970s onward, so that now, over 150 years later, we’ve just about returned to where we were after a plague wiped out a quarter of our population in less a decade.
The Famine is well-represented in literature and song, but, until last year, with the release of Black ’47, never in film. There was, some might argue, the increasingly obscure silent feature Knocknagow (1918), based on the novel of the same name, which is ostensibly set in rural Tipperary in 1848, but it only depicts evictions, not starvation. The Irish communist author Liam O’Flaherty, whose novel The Informer was adapted for screen by John Ford, wrote his novel Famine with the explicit intention it be made into a film, but it never came to pass. Stephen Rea, who stars in Black ’47, told Today FM he’d been approached about a famine movie in the nineties, but the American producers thought it was too heavy. (“How are you going to lighten it?” Rea’s agent asked, “Feed them?”) So, here we are, with Black ’47, the first film about the Great Famine.
Because the Famine looms so large in the Irish consciousness, yet is so invisible on screen, I’ve often thought about different ways the subject could be approached in a film. The Western seemed the perfect fit, the ruined Irish countryside replacing the lawless desert wastes, so I was really excited when Black ’47 was announced.
Folks, it was bad.
Continue reading “Notes on Black ’47”
In the second season of Bojack Horseman, Bojack is cast as the lead in a film: initially it’s a serious drama, but it’s changed significantly to test better with audiences, and so Bojack ends up going AWOL from production for months. When he returns to LA, he discovers the film has been finished without him: they created a computer-generated version of him based on a full-body scan he was made to take at the start of filming. Not only was the CGI Bojack used in additional scenes filmed when Bojack disappeared, but it was inserted into every frame filmed with the real Bojack to replace him. In the end product, Bojack doesn’t appear at all, just a digital copy of him.
The critics call it the best performance of his career.
When I first watched this episode in 2015, it seemed like comic exaggeration. When actors sign up to big movies, they often sign away much more than just their performance – like their likeness to be used for toys and merchandise – and have no recourse when the film they thought they were making turns out to be something else entirely. It was funny because, like most of Bojack Horseman’s best jokes, it was absurdist with a current of real-world melancholy underneath.
A year later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out.
Continue reading “Digitally Reanimated Corpses”
The police procedural is possibly the television genre par excellence, ever since Dragnet debuted in 1951 and spawned a wave of imitators. Though the sitcom may be the most perfect televisual form, the police procedural is the one best suited to the rhythm of broadcast, each twist and turn toward the mystery of the crime’s resolution keeping the viewer engaged through ad breaks. No other genre has endured so long and changed so little, with some shifts in style, sure, but virtually none in the basic formula.
On just the Big Four networks (plus the CW), in the current television season, there are some fifteen or so police procedurals on the air, including Blue Bloods (in its 9th season), NCIS (in its 16th season) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (in its 20th season). Note my count excludes three superhero shows (Gotham, The Flash, Arrow) whose protagonists are police officers of some kind, as well as any shows about people investigating crimes who aren’t cops. And those are just the ones still in production. The most cursory channel surfing will lead you to a hundred different channels who almost exclusively broadcast reruns of old police shows, from Kojak to NYPD Blue to the lately departed CSI franchise.
Cops shows are popular, ubiquitous and seemingly infinite. When one falls, another rises to take its place. They’re incredibly long-lived compared to other genres: NCIS started during the first term of George Bush’s presidency and it was the most-watched television show in the entire world in 2014 and 2015. They’re beloved by people of all ages, but particularly the middle-aged and elderly. This makes it all the more concerning that cop shows are, intentionally or not, mass propaganda for the carceral state.
Continue reading “Cop Shows and the Carceral State”
Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.
The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.
Continue reading “In Defense of the Canon”
The Purge franchise is one of the stranger phenomena in modern popular cinema. Its financial success is unsurprising – it is virtually impossible not to profit on a wide-release horror film – but it receives constant commentary far outstripping its popularity. All but one installment of the Insidious franchise, Blumhouse’s other four-film horror series, outperformed the corresponding installment of the Purge franchise by a significant distance, but barely made a blip in the cultural discourse. There’s just something about The Purge that inspires furious fits of hot-takery.
Obviously, part of what makes it such a popular topic is that it’s just about as overtly political as horror comes. No one needs to tease out subtext when they’re writing about The Purge, because there is no subtext. Everything is helpfully signposted by the filmmakers. The official rationale for the Purge – a 12-hour period every year when all crime, including murder, is legal – is that it promotes social harmony by giving everyone a sanctioned time and space to “purge” their negative feelings. They credit the Purge with producing extremely low crime and unemployment rates, less than one percent, and they’re right to do so. But it’s not because everyone’s working out their anger issues by murdering each other. It’s because the wealthy are able to fortify their homes to protect themselves from the Purge, while the poor are not only without protection, but actively hunted by the wealthy, who can also afford to arm themselves better than the poor. Every year, rich people spill into the streets of this dystopian future America and murder the impoverished and vulnerable en mass. It’s not psychology, it’s eugenics. The Purge could let you work this out on your own, but it doesn’t want to leave any ambiguity, so the first film is peppered with news reports where this point is made explicitly. Lots of reviewers criticised the lack of subtlety: we get it, we get it. The Purge is about class warfare.
Except it’s not. Not really.
Continue reading “Things Like This Are Not Supposed to Happen in Our Neighbourhood”
I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.
The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.
Continue reading “Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento”
Life under Peak TV is a life of suffocating excess unless you’re prepared to pretend most of it isn’t real. (Apple’s streaming service? Not real. DC Universe? Not real. The Handmaid’s Tale? Definitely not real.) I’m well used to the familiar rhythms of oh-have-you-ever-heard-of-this, no-what-is-it, oh-it’s-this-show-you-have-to-watch, maybe-I’ll-see-if-I-have-time, but now and then someone will catch me off guard. I’ll be reading some article about a series that’s just been greenlit. “Oh neat,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m glad John Leguizamo is getting work. But what the hell is the Paramount Network? Is that new?” Reader, it was.
Peak TV has prompted a wave of networks to break into the “original programming space”. Fresh faces compete not only with established networks, but old ones suddenly deciding they can do more than just show reruns of Becker. On the younger side, you have the likes of Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, which basically only exists to carry his wrestling show, Lucha Underground. Vice launched their own network, Viceland, in 2016, with Spike Jonze as its creative director, so if you were wondering what Spike Jonze has been doing instead of making movies, he’s been overseeing lots of perfectly fine documentaries and also, for some reason, a television show where James Van Der Beek plays Diplo? Pivot burst onto the scene in 2013 with exclusive imports like Australian comedy-drama Please Like Me and British sci-fi thriller Fortitude, followed by some weird Joseph-Gordon Levitt thing and a Meghan McCain talk show, and then folded almost immediately. Even the Scientologists have their own network now! Meanwhile, among the sleeping giants of US cable: Epix, whatever that is, woke from its slumber to make a comedy where Nick Nolte is a former President of the United States; truTV, the reality TV network, realised its apparent true destiny as an incubator for alternative comedy; MTV decided it was time to stop screwing around and commit to original scripted programming with a bevy of often-acclaimed shows, then cancelled everything except Scream, and then announced Teen Wolf would return as a podcast, of all things.
It has been, to say the least, a tumultuous few years for television, with not just wave after wave of shows getting cancelled but whole networks vanishing into thin air. (RIP Chiller, we hardly knew ye.) Unsurprisingly, the casualties have included plenty of great television whose only fault was airing on channels that no one realised had their own television shows. Even shows that could’ve been – that should’ve been – the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
Shows like Manhattan.
Continue reading “Cancelled Too Soon: Manhattan”