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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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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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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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.

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!