You know what’s better than one film? A double bill. And you know what’s better than a double bill? Five double bills.
Dirty Dancing (1987) / 8 Mile (2002)
Rocky is one of my favourite films of all time, a masterpiece that I’ve returned to again and again for over a decade and only loved all the more. It’s a film whose influence is easy to see: the entire genre of “sports movies” is essentially riffs on the Rocky formula applied to other sports. A scrappy working-class underdog trains really hard to go the distance in the big fight/game/competition against the arrogant, wealthy champion.
But two of my favourite Rocky-type movies aren’t about a sport at all, but music: 8 Mile is about Rabbit, a white working-class aspiring rapper (Eminem) in Detroit who competes in local rap battles, and Dirty Dancing is about Baby (Jennifer Grey), who spends the summer in the Catskills with her family and has to learn how to dance to take the place of a woman who is getting an abortion on the day of the big competition. Where Rocky runs up those steps in his grey tracksuit, Rabbit writes lyrics on the bus to work while the camera lingers on the derelict buildings passing by, and Baby learns to dance in one of the all-time greatest montages.
Partially because they don’t dwell on the “sport” part of the formula too much, both take more substantial lessons from Rocky: both are centrally about class and are, ultimately, love stories. Rabbit is a working-class character who desperately wants to hide his class from his love interest but whose arc is, more than anything, about finding class pride. Baby is an upper-middle-class character who falls in love with a working-class man and realises just how sheltered and naïve she is.
Frances Ha (2012) / A Date for Mad Mary (2016)
Frances Ha and A Date for Mad Mary are both about intense female friendships that are the central partnership of a woman’s life, and what happens when that partnership is displaced by marriage. “It’s just if something funny happens on the way to the deli, you’ll only tell one person and that will be Patch,” Frances (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay) tells her best friend in Frances Ha, “And I’ll never hear about it.” Frances is left behind, unmoored. She’s poor, and lonely, and at twenty-eight, trying to make it as a dancer seems less like the romance of being a starving artist and more like a chasm of hopelessness that she might fall into at any moment.
A Date for Mad Mary has that same quality of teetering on the edge of something as the things from your youth that seemed solid and permanent, that seemed like they would last, slip away – but in Dublin instead of New York. “Mad” Mary McArdle (Seána Kerslake) is released from prison, and assumes that her friendship with Charlene will pick up just where it left off. The film’s central conceit is Mary trying to find a date to Charlene’s wedding – a desperate attempt to save face – but it’s about Mary’s left-behindness, her unmooredness, compounded by her stint in prison. Like Frances, she is realising that she is not Charlene’s one person anymore. Kerslake’s performance is excellent, layering Mary with toughness and vulnerability, like you’re not sure if she’s about to punch someone or burst into tears.
Bob Roberts (1992) / Starship Troopers (1997)
At the start of This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, a swathe of thinkpieces tried to find the piece of pop culture that could explain everything. Whether it was to blame or to credit with the power of prediction, a lot of people seemed desperate for some cultural key that would unlock the mysteries of the political moment. This is deeply silly, obviously, because trying to understand politics through the lens of pop culture shallows discourse about both. But then there’s Bob Roberts and Starship Troopers.
I watched Bob Roberts and Starship Troopers back-to-back in 2017, and even though they’re both really funny, I’d describe the overall effect as harrowing. Bob Roberts is a mockumentary written, directed by and starring Tim Robbins about a Wall Street executive turned right-wing folk singer running for US senate. The parallels with Donald Trump are impossible to avoid: his slogan is “the times are changing back”, which is just a hair’s breadth from Make America Great Again, and he literally goes on SNL during the campaign. It’s less a prediction than a warning: it takes stock of America in the Reagan and Bush eras and lets us know how things might end up if we’re not careful. It’s a warning that still feels important not just because it has, basically, come true, but because there’s still something we can do about it.
Starship Troopers is much less grounded than Bob Roberts: a sci-fi anti-war satire, it’s set in a world where the earth is in a perpetual war with a race of alien bugs. Critics at the time weren’t sure whether it was a satire or straight-up fascist, but in 2019 – when American soldiers are being sent to Afghanistan who weren’t alive when the war began, and “forever war” doesn’t sound remotely hypothetical – its intentions are unmistakable. As Paul Verhoeven has said, “War makes fascists of us all.”
The Mission (1986) / Rome, Open City (1945)
I’ve written before about how the best way I know to articulate my religious feelings is to point to other people’s articulations, and when you have the particularly idiosyncratic religious feelings that I do, pieces of art that actually resonate with me on a religious level is pretty rare. But The Mission and Rome Open City both feel like they were made for me.
The Mission is about Jesuit missionaries in eighteenth-century South America, and Rome, Open City is about Catholics and communists in the anti-fascist resistance in Rome in 1944. Neither of them are really about what the institutional Church is like, but they are about Christianity in a higher sense. They’re about what Christians should be, not in a way that’s prescriptive, but in a way that is open and transcendent and loving.
I’m not sure I’ve seen any other films which so openly make the case for Christian socialism. When a plantation owner says he sees no difference between his plantation and the farm run by the Jesuits and the native peoples, a native-born priest explains that they all own this farm together. (The plantation owner thinks there’s a commune in France that follows that doctrine. The priest says they were inspired by the early Christians, who owned all things in common.) In Rome, Open City, a fascist baits a priest by saying that his communist friend rejects God, but the priest calmly says that anyone who wants to make the world a more just place is on the path of God.
I wouldn’t turn to either film for history lessons, but I don’t think films are supposed to be history lessons anyway. The Mission and Rome, Open City both offer something much bigger than that.
The Thing (1982) / The Hateful Eight (2015)
I liked The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s western-turned-Agatha-Christie-mystery – a lot more than most, and I think the trick is understanding that it’s a horror movie. Its mystery plot explodes into violence, and it transforms into an Evil Dead-style splatter film. There are a lot of allusions that reinforce this genre shift – the blood on Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face is splattered in the almost exactly the same pattern as Carrie in Carrie – but none so much as its relationship to John Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing.
There are tons of superficial connections between these two films: Kurt Russell in the leading role, the Ennio Morricone scores, and the basic set-up of a group of people stuck in a confined space as heavy snow falls outside. But mostly they’re both studies in paranoia, in trying to decide who can be trusted when you know there’s someone untrustworthy among you. In The Thing, an alien can take the form of other living beings, and so anyone could in fact not be who they appear to be. The Hateful Eight tells a non-sci-fi version of the same kind of story: everyone’s a big piece of shit, but they need to figure out who exactly is the big piece of shit that poisoned the coffee.
Watching The Thing trains you to watch The Hateful Eight in the most fruitful way: as a horror film, and an excellent one.