Cancelled Too Soon: Mindhunter

This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, Lodge 49.


Television has changed so drastically in the last decade that it’s hard to comprehend in hindsight. The history of television is full of drastic change, from the move to colour to the rise of cable and satellite channels, but the emergence of streaming has exploded the very concept of what television is. Something literally no longer has to appear on TV to be a TV show. We watch TV shows on computers and telephones, instantly available and on our own schedule. So much of what we call TV now would not be recognised as TV by time travellers from twenty years ago. Cable television was small fry by comparison: it was still recognisably television, there was just a lot more of it. A dozen new places to watch Murder She Wrote reruns. 

Streaming is different. It’s not just the rise of major new companies in the TV landscape, it’s the transformation of both how we watch TV and how TV gets made. In 2013, Netflix started pivoting in earnest to original programming with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, and in the years since, basically every tech or media company has decided to launch its own subscription streaming service, each offering original, exclusive programming. Most of it is released a full season at a time, although Disney+ and Apple TV have tried (with varying degrees of success) to release episodes weekly. The season lengths are generally short: if the typical seasons of American television were twenty-two episodes or so on a network and around thirteen on cable, recent streaming shows tap out at about ten. While short seasons are typical of how TV is produced in a lot of countries – six episodes has been the consistent norm in the UK for decades – those old-fashioned long seasons are now at death’s door in the US, too. 

This is important because it’s transformed what TV is actually like. In the early days, the rise of streaming services was often discursively bundled in with the Golden Age of TV that was set off by The Sopranos: complex, serialised storytelling, the story goes, was now possible on television, usually in the form of dark antihero dramas. If the rhetoric about the Golden Age of TV was sometimes overblown – a strange form of backhanded snobbery that put television as a medium down in order to praise its programmes – it was describing something real and tangible and exciting. Watching Breaking Bad for the first time was one of the greatest thrills I’ve had with any piece of art. Although to this day Wikipedia frames this golden age as ongoing, there was a clear shift at a certain point. Bundling modern streaming television in with The Sopranos totally misses what streaming shows are actually like to watch. 

Television as a medium has traditionally been both short and long: you watch it for half an hour or so, but over months and years. Streaming television has effectively reversed this: episodes bloat and bleed into one another, which combined with the shorter seasons, gives the feeling of a stretched-out movie. And then it gets cancelled prematurely. So much of great old television is tight, short episodes churned out for the better part of a decade – an epic mosaic made from tiny, carefully crafted individual artworks – and so much of modern television is two bloated and sluggish seasons and then cancellation. The second season of Jessica Jones was such a bloated mess that didn’t even really feel like it had episodes, it just rolled credits at around the hour mark. Most people around me seem to have adjusted to the new television landscape fairly well, even if I am convinced they have forgotten exactly what they’re missing. When people talk about binging shows, too often it sounds to my ear less like they are enjoying the show so much they want to stay with it that bit longer and more like they’re racing to get it over with. 

If you love television – and I do, dearly, since I was a tiny tot sat in front of the box to watch cartoons – it’s easy to despair and retreat into old detective shows and classic sitcoms. Emily VanDerWerff captured my feelings perfectly

The things I love about older TV are precisely the things that are missing from TV right now. In the olden times, TV sprawled and took its time and unfolded over many episodes over many years. Even a show like Breaking Bad took several years to unspool its story, and when you look at something like Cheers, it’s impossible to imagine something with that level of depth and complexity getting that long to tell its story today. We are built not for the long haul, but for an endless assault of the new… That makes me sad, or maybe it just makes me old. But it does seem like whatever this medium I love is becoming, it’s not quite the thing that made me fall in love with it.

But it is possible for great shows to still get made. Great shows get made all the time, in fact. I Think You Should Leave is quite possibly the greatest sketch show of all time, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten made in any previous era of American television. But too many great shows feel like they were born too late, trapped in a time that can’t appreciate them the way they deserve. Shows like Mindhunter

Continue reading “Cancelled Too Soon: Mindhunter”

Nightmares / Phases / Professions

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Asked to picture a mental hospital in a horror film, most of us would think similarly. From old B-movies to Halloween to the recent Happy Death Day and IT, they house dangerous maniacs itching for an escape, a weapon and an unsuspecting innocent to murder. It’s a trope A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors plays into: a nun reveals that Freddy Krueger was the result of her gang-rape in an asylum, making him “the bastard son of a thousand maniacs.”

But Dream Warriors also flips this on its head. Our heroes, teenagers in a psychiatric unit, are all tormented by Freddy in their dreams, and Freddy is both a metaphor and a catalyst for mental health problems. Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) lands in the hospital after Freddy slits her wrists, but the other kids – in desperate attempts to stay awake or just deal with the trauma of their dreams – exhibit symptoms of mental illness. Jennifer puts out cigarettes on her arms. Will is paralyzed at the waist after a botched suicide attempt. Joey, once a high school debater, is mute.

Continue reading “Nightmares / Phases / Professions”

How Christopher Landon Is Reinventing The Slasher Movie [Fangoria]

Slasher movies occupy an unusual position within horror, and within film in general. As a genre, its scope is extremely narrow, yet its formula is endlessly replicable: somebody stabs a bunch of teenagers, culminating in a face-off between the killer and the final girl. Laurie Strode fended off Michael Myers and launched a thousand imitators.

The slasher movie’s peak, both creatively and in popularity, is also when it was most reviled critically. In the 1970s and 1980s, slasher movies were considered the bottom of the barrel, barely inching out pornography in artistic merit (and second only to pornography in VHS rentals). Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so disgusted by the original Friday the 13th that they told their viewers to write letters of complaint to its producers and star Betsy Palmer. It’s only in the subsequent decades that slashers have been taken seriously enough to recognize that great slasher movies are great movies, period. Yet simultaneously, the genre has gone into decline.

I wrote about Christopher Landon’s recent run of slasher movies, Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U and Freaky, for Fangoria! (Fangoria!!!) You can read it here.

God Help Bobby and Helen: Panic in Needle Park at 50 [Crooked Marquee]

“God help Bobby and Helen,” reads the original poster. “They’re in love in Needle Park.” Helen (Kitty Winn) leans on Bobby (Al Pacino, in his first starring role), arm around his shoulder and eyes downcast; Bobby kisses her cheek. It’s not clear from the still image of the poster if Helen is hanging onto him carefree and in love – a candid shot in motion as she laughs and moves – or if she’s out of it and can barely stand. The film itself answers: both. 

I wrote about The Panic in Needle Park on Crooked Marquee for its fiftieth anniversary. Read it here!

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows Transcends the Genre It Pioneered [Fanbyte]

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is one of the best documentaries about anything ever. It follows Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s last year in the WWF in 1997, as the promotion battles Ted Turner’s WCW in the ratings and the rise of antiheroes makes Hart’s status as wrestling’s number one good guy precarious. Like so many of my favorite documentaries, Wrestling with Shadows is about something narrow—vividly capturing a specific, strange moment in the history of professional wrestling—in a way that grasps towards the universal, telling a moving human story. Like so many of my favourite documentaries, I can’t believe how much the filmmakers totally lucked out in being there to capture this story. Yet Wrestling with Shadows tends to get slotted into the category “wrestling documentary” as a kind of ghetto. The assumption by wrestling fandom and the general public alike that it could only appeal to existing wrestling fans is self-fulfilling: Only wrestling fans end up watching it, proving that it could only appeal to existing wrestling fans.

I wrote about the amazing documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows for Fanbyte! Read it here.

The Tragic Intimacy of Asif Kapadia’s Archival Trilogy

Documentaries are too often not treated as films proper. They’re talked about less as a type of film than a totally separate art form, shunted off in the back somewhere. No documentary has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. I realise the Oscars have a pretty blinkered point of view, but even other forms of cinema ghettoised at the Oscars have gotten some Best Picture nominations: thirteen films not in the English language, only a handful of horror movies, just three animated films, but not a single documentary. It’s kind of insane, if you think about it.

Part of it is that way too many documentaries are not made like films proper. Far too many rely so heavily on their subject being of interest that they don’t make the telling interesting in its own right. You just film a bunch of talking heads saying what happened and call it a day. I’m not criticising documentaries as a whole, here – lots and lots and lots of fiction films are visually lazy and uninteresting, and if the subject is strong enough, a documentary can be great whether it’s boldly ambitious or just talking heads telling you what happened. I recently watched a TV documentary about Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and even though the talking heads were more or less entirely boring and terrible, I still enjoyed it because it had lots of clips of Nichols and May sketches. But I think that exact strength allows us to imagine that documentaries are good if their subjects are interesting, that nothing much else goes into it. It allows us to buy into the division of documentaries from the rest of filmmaking. I think all the time about Michael Moore’s frustration at being called a “documentarian”, rather than a documentary filmmaker, since it’s not like people call Martin Scorsese a fiction-atarian. (The irony, of course, is that Scorsese is an accomplished documentary filmmaker too, but most of the time nobody talks about his documentaries in the same breath as his fiction films.)

I love Asif Kapadia’s documentaries in part because there’s no way that anyone, even subconsciously, could think of them not as “real” films. His 2010 film Senna – about the life and career of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna – is a sports movie in the truest sense, following his rivalry with Alain Prost like Rocky and Apollo Creed. Senna was followed by Amy, his Oscar-winning documentary about Amy Winehouse, in 2015, and Diego Maradona in 2019. Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona form a trilogy both thematically and stylistically: each is a chronicle of creative genius and the pressure of fame, pieced together from archival footage.

Continue reading “The Tragic Intimacy of Asif Kapadia’s Archival Trilogy”

A Woman Waging War: Ms .45 at 40 [Crooked Marquee]

Abel Ferrera’s directorial career has spanned grindhouse to arthouse, making his debut with a hardcore porn film – 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976) – and ending up, four decades later, the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The best of his films encompass both ends of the spectrum simultaneously, upending the very idea of each as the other’s opposite: grimy exploitation and transcendent beauty, all at once. 

I wrote about rape-revenge classic Ms .45‘s fortieth anniversary for Crooked Marquee! Read it here.

The Noirs of Melville [Current Affairs]

Film noir is an elusive, amorphous thing, something you recognise when you see it but is incredibly difficult to pin down. There are things you can point to that you expect from film noir—plots from hardboiled crime fiction, cinematography from German Expressionism, private eyes, and femme fatales—but nothing firm. 

Paul Schrader wrote that film noir is defined by its tone—a fatalistic, hopeless one—but even that is slightly too specific. More than a genre, a style or a tone, noir is a vibe: something’s film noir if it feels like it is, and any definition is an attempt to backfill a reasoning. When classic films noirs were being made in Hollywood, the industry wasn’t consciously making film noir, the way people consciously made westerns—as James Naremore outlines in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, the idea was only defined retrospectively. The dozens of tropes, stock characters, and shooting styles that make up film noir don’t have a standard arrangement, or even an obvious connection to one another, but through the act of repetition, they collectively acquired new meaning. Film noir is fall guys, cynical detectives, down-and-out boxers, and struggling writers; it’s shadows cast from Venetian blinds, rain on a city night, low angle shots and first-person voiceover narration; it’s Humphrey Bogart looking as cool as possible while smoking a cigarette.

I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about one of my top two artists who fought in the French Resistance, Jean-Pierre Melville, and film noir! You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.


UPDATE: You can now read this piece online here!

The Social Network and Me: A Love Story

Ten years ago, I saw The Social Network for the first time. It changed my life.

Saying something changed your life is a cliché in personal-essay-inflected media criticism: the truth is usually somewhere closer to “it is good and I like it,” exaggerated to something that might drive clicks. Individual pieces of art very rarely change lives, generally. But The Social Network changed mine. It’s the movie that made me love movies.

I’ve always really liked movies: as a kid, I would watch pretty much anything on TV, and in my early teens, Casablanca blew my hair back and I quickly became a big TCM guy. This gave me a somewhat skewed view of film history, where no-one could possibly think Ordinary People was an unworthy Best Picture winner. My mam showed me Kramer vs. Kramer and said I wasn’t allowed watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, before acquiescing a week later. I loved 1980s teen movies and Farrelly Brothers comedies and Steven Spielberg, and thought Fight Club was the most amazing film ever made. Then when I was sixteen, I saw The Social Network.

Continue reading “The Social Network and Me: A Love Story”