Westerns, Part 2

Two years ago, I wrote about starting to watch westerns. It was mostly about the gap between westerns as I imagined they would be through cultural osmosis and westerns that I actually watched: defending westerns from the preconceptions of those who haven’t seen them. I was rejecting the view of westerns as a reactionary monolith. No genre is as uniform as the popular imagination frequently remembers westerns to have been.

I’m not sure if the rhetorical function of the western in popular discourse has shifted or if I’ve just noticed different parts of it, but I haven’t seen much of “westerns, of course, went into decline when audiences became uncomfortable with racist depictions of Native Americans” lately. Instead, westerns seem to be more often invoked as… a defense of superhero movies. The westerns/superheroes comparison is probably as old as the contemporary superhero boom – westerns, the story goes, dominated Hollywood for a time, just as superheroes have in the last few years – but was kicked into overdrive when Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies “theme parks” and a million nerds lost their minds. There were a lot of arguments made against Scorsese, from calling him a racist for not thinking Black Panther is extremely important to long Twitter threads of ugly CGI landscapes or medium shots of actors looking sad to “prove” that Marvel movies are cinema.

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You Should Watch Family Plot

Quentin Tarantino loves saying that directing is a young man’s game. He’ll talk about not wanting to end up like Billy Wilder, as if the bum notes at the end of Wilder’s career make him a vaguely pathetic figure, instead of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who happened to end on a bad run. Tarantino will compare filmmaking to boxing, an analogy that makes no sense if you think about it for ten seconds. “A boxer,” Abel Ferrara said, “—one split second of distraction and you could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life… [W]hat’s gonna happen to you on a set, honey? Your assistant is going to spill hot coffee on your lap. How the fuck does that make you a boxer, Jack?”

But still, it’s easy to see where Tarantino is coming from, because even great directors do not generally make great films in their seventies. I love Billy Wilder dearly – The Apartment might be my actual favourite film – but by 1978 he was making Fedora, a film that’s bad in ways that make it seem almost doomed. It’s not fun enough to be an enjoyable piece of trash and way too dumb to be anything else, and is clearly written to have a legend go hog-wild in the lead but instead has, essentially, some lady, who is fine. I love Charlie Chaplin, and I can’t imagine ever watching A Countess from Hong Kong again. It has a creaky, slow quality, like it should be a 1930s screwball comedy but it was made in 1967 by a seventy-eight-year-old. Both feel like movies made by old men trying and failing to make films that you can’t really make anymore, in ways that make me miss what those men could do when they were younger. Martin Scorsese is seventy-seven and just made three of the best films of his decades-long career, not even counting the documentaries he made in the same period, but that feels more like an exception that proves the rule.

At least, that was my line of thinking going into Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-third and last film. I expected it to be an interesting failure, or at best, hopelessly in the shadow of the great films Hitchcock made decades earlier.

But Family Plot is great. It is about as thoroughly enjoyable a way to spend two hours as has been committed to film.

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Mythic Quest and the Pursuit of Anti-Capitalist Media [Current Affairs]

There’s an idea—passed down from Adorno in a game of telephone—that products of the culture industry must necessarily reflect capitalist values. This is superficially very convincing: if I were a capitalist, I would probably fund works that reassert the status quo, even subconsciously, since if I were a capitalist the status quo would be going pretty well for me. You can find lots of supporting examples if you look around: the valorization of ragstoriches stories that obscure the near-impossibility of real-life social mobility, particularly in the United States; the entire cop show genre, which essentially functions as propaganda for the police; even the original Ghostbusters, which has a plotline about how the EPA shouldn’t investigate unlicensed nuclear reactors.

I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet and the problem of making art in a corporate environment. You can read it here!

We Are the Sunshine Nation

McFly – guitarist and singer Danny Jones, guitarist and singer Tom Fletcher, bassist and singer Dougie Poynter, and drummer Harry Judd – had seven number ones in the UK. With their 2004 debut Room on the 3rd Floor, they became the youngest band to ever have a number one album, a title previously held by the Beatles. And I hated them. I hated them in the shallowest way imaginable. I was a Kerrang! kid, dressed in black, listening to pop punk and emo and nu-metal. Genres were much more stratified then, and I thought pop music was more or less inherently suspect. I thought McFly were a boy band, so I turned my nose up at them on principle.

I was a dumb kid, but I wasn’t alone. “[A]ll the usual credibility-gap closers – numerous Beatlesque albums, gigging at the Barfly, releasing on an indie label – still haven’t quite shifted the perception of McFly as Busted Club Juniors,” Iain Moffatt wrote for the BBC in 2010. McFly were a punching bag, more often than not: dissing McFly was a shorthand to credibility. Kasabian went after them, calling them a “pop band for kids”. An extremely young Daniel Radcliffe went after them, lamenting that the kids at his school like McFly instead of The Libertines. Someone who came fifth on RTÉ’s talent show You’re A Star in 2005 went after them. They were nominated four times at the NME Awards… for Worst Band and Worst Album.

All these years later, pop music is taken seriously by default. Rock is basically dead, and everybody listens to everything now. Calling something “pop” as a way to dismiss it seems like a relic of a time long past. No-one would claim that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Ariane Grande aren’t serious artists, even when they’re criticising them. Rolling Stone declared One Direction one of the greatest rock bands of the century this year, tongues barely in their cheeks.

Yet McFly have not gotten the re-evaluation they deserve. I got into McFly as an adult, basically by accident, and discovered a yawning gap between the band McFly are and the band they were, and still are, perceived to be.

Part 1 – the boys in the band

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McFly have spent pretty much their whole career being referred to as a boy band. But were they ever one?

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I Was Cured, All Right

“The book is always better” is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that people tend to parrot back and forth to each other without really believing. It’s obviously untrue in a dozen different ways: even if we leave aside all the ways that books and films being just fundamentally different artforms makes direct comparison reductive at best, I don’t think anyone would argue that The Godfather or Jaws are better books than films, because the books are enjoyable pulpy novels and the films are masterpieces. Besides, good and great films are adapted from books that nobody cares about, or has even heard of, all the time. It’s hardly worth taking “the book is always better” seriously as an idea because the weight of counterexample is so strong.

But people still say it, as a way to fill a silence if nothing else. You mention some new film adaptation of a literary classic or a recent bestseller, and they say, “well, I think the book is always better,” as you nod along sagely, even though neither of you actually think that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a pale imitation of the novel. “The book is always better” is just the visible trace of something larger, in how we think about adaptation and how different mediums relate to one another.

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Double Features #6: The Same, But More

This article is part of the Double Features series, which pairs great films that go great together. Check out previous installments hereherehere, here and here


Films are great, so why not watch two in a row? And if you’re going to watch two films, why not watch two that complement each other well?

Here are four more double feature recommendations.

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God Sent Me To Piss The World Off – Masterpost

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off is a four-part series about Eminem. Links to all parts are below. You can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.

There’s Slim Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers, three persons in one rap god. 

Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?

Eminem’s early music feels like a vital window into this radically different free speech debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.

Nobody embodies the white rapper in popular imagination quite like Eminem.

Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.

Watched in the context of his discography, 8 Mile feels less like a film about Eminem, the person, than about the environment that birthed him, that permeates his music.

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 4

This is the final part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.

Lose Yourself’ is one of the best songs of Eminem’s career. It’s an incredible showcase for his virtuosic rhyming and his mesmerising early-2000s flow, but there’s also the urgent intensity of his delivery, the tense, relentless guitar lick, the instantly recognisable piano intro and how the piano gets layered into the rest of the song. “Mom’s spaghetti” has been memed into oblivion, but the whole song is full of rich, striking imagery of poverty and desperation, from the evocative and metaphorical – “I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot” – to the horrifically mundane: “These goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers.” It’s one of the only “inspirational” songs that it’s possible to imagine actually inspiring someone. It’s full of an aggressive kind of hope: a hope born of hopelessness, a hope that you cling to because otherwise you’ll die. I knew every word many years before I would listen to any of Eminem’s albums.

‘Lose Yourself’ has largely eclipsed the film it was written for in the cultural consciousness: 8 Mile is remembered as the film that ‘Lose Yourself’ is from, not the other way around. Like Purple Rain, 8 Mile is still well-remembered and -regarded, but more like an appendage to its star’s music career than a film in its own right.

But 8 Mile is a great film: a working-class sports drama in the tradition of Rocky, with rap battles in place of boxing matches. Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, Jr., nicknamed Rabbit, an aspiring rapper in mid-1990s Detroit. It’s an extraordinary performance, underrated on the assumption that he’s just playing himself. Many people who come to acting from another kind of performance just sort of coast on charisma and presence – The Rock has made a career out of it – but Eminem never coasts. He’s electric. He has extraordinarily expressive eyes: as Ryan Gibney writes for Sight and Sound, he conveys “vulnerability with a simple well-timed blink or wince.”

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God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 3

This is the third part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.

In my late teens, I was immersed in a certain kind of politics that I find very difficult to put words on. So many of the words I have belong to the right, are loaded with implications I wish I could wash away: social justice warrior, virtue-signalling, identity politics. I spent a lot of time on Tumblr – a site I joined to reblog Glee gifsets that became a source for my political worldview – which checks out, because it’s politics that can only really exist online. Centred myopically on privilege/oppression dynamics, even where none are obvious; wielding the word “intersectionality” like both a weapon and a shield; pushing down my doubts because I was told I needed to “unlearn” all the oppressive, toxic shit I’d absorbed from society at large. I was drained of all my self-esteem – wracked with guilt for my whiteness and my cisness, panicking over mistakes I might make, terrified of men who I felt sure would hurt me – and was provided only self-righteousness in its place. I thought of politics as a collection of rules, most of which demand my passivity.

I’m twenty-five now. I’m a democratic socialist, and I think of politics as a coalition of like-minded people fighting for a better world. I find it hard to talk about the politics I held in my late teens and how it affected me, still affects me, because it plays right into the right’s narrative: the leftist hivemind, the shame people from privileged groups are allegedly made to feel, the disinterest in dissenting voices. I don’t want to sound like someone who believes trans bullies beat up kids while shouting “Die, cis scum!” or whatever. But I did feel suffocating anxiety, and that was real, and I think it’s worth talking about. Not just for personal catharsis, but because it’s a story I’ve only ever heard with a different ending to mine, where that kind of politics is rejected to move to the centre, or even the right. (If you think of political alignments as a straight line, that makes sense. But political alignment isn’t a straight line, or a horseshoe, or even an x-y axis.)

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