Notes on Mallrats

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Black ’47.


Kevin Smith has had a really weird career. He’s one of the directors I’d be least surprised for someone to mention as a key influence in getting them interested in films and filmmaking, and also one of the directors I’d be least surprised to hear mentioned in pure contempt, no explanation necessary. He seems to be more known as a generic pop culture figure of the internet at this point: he’s responsible for the worst tweet of all time, which I’m sure more people have seen than saw Tusk. He has like a hundred podcasts and mostly makes films based on episodes of those podcasts now? I don’t even know. I couldn’t watch the trailer for Yoga Hosers through to the end, but I’ll still probably go see Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in the cinema.

I like Kevin Smith a lot more than people who hate Kevin Smith. I like a lot of his early films. I think Clerks is a masterpiece. I love Dogma, a film that is legitimately important to me as an… idiosyncratic Catholic. I think Chasing Amy has become sort of misunderstood because its logline – lesbian falls in love with a man – seems pretty gross in 2019, even though watching the film, it is made clear that she was bisexual the whole time, as is every other character. I never rewatch Clerks II because I would rather just watch Clerks, but it’s legitimately pretty good, and I would watch Jeff Anderson play Randal in anything.

But then there’s Mallrats. Smith’s second film – about a bunch of goofy misadventures of some twenty-somethings in a mall – was a critical and commercial flop on release, but it became a cult hit on home video. In the VHS episode of Harris Bomberguy and Shannon Strucci’s Scanline series, Bomberguy talks about how the aesthetic differences between watching a film in a cinema vs. watching it on a television work in favour of Mallrats, as it becomes something much lower-stakes, a backdrop to you and your friends doing something else that pulls you in at the funnier parts rather than something blasted at you from all angles like it’s the most important thing in the world. “The joy of [Kevin Smith films] is in crowding round a small TV at your friend’s house and watching little people on it with no pretensions of grandiosity,” he says.

But unfortunately, even in the lowest-stakes environments – from a VHS at your friend’s house to on your laptop while you scroll through your phone – Mallrats still sucks. Continue reading “Notes on Mallrats”

Still So Young, Desperate for Attention

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, on grieving through pop punk. 


Panic! at the Disco were one of my favourite bands during the mid-2000s emo heyday, and for the first time since then, they’re having mainstream pop success. They’ve always maintained a large and dedicated following, but suddenly I was hearing Brendon Urie’s voice on the radio again. In 2018, ‘High Hopes’ became their highest ever charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, beating out their 2006 breakout single ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’. This year, Urie appeared on ‘ME!’, the lead single for Taylor Swift’s latest album, which is the kind of thing I couldn’t have imagined ever happening right up the moment it did.

And I hate it. I hate it I hate it I hate it.

‘High Hopes’ is a monstrosity. It’s horrible. It hurts my ears. It’s not that it’s a straight pop song, it’s that it sounds like it was written to appear in ads. It’s not that it was written by other songwriters and given to Urie, it’s that it is so obviously not written for Urie in particular: I found out the song’s hook was conceived as being for a rap song, and everything snapped into focus. The lyrics about starting from the bottom but having the drive to succeed – “Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing / Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision” – are pretty generic for hip hop, but bizarre from Urie, who recorded a triple-platinum album a month after he graduated high school. The whole thing is somehow both cloying and bland.

Urie’s appearance on ‘ME!’ is even more bizarre, if slightly less difficult to listen to, spelling/marching band breakdown aside. I don’t know why Swift wanted Urie to appear on this song – she’s the biggest pop star in the world, she doesn’t need anybody to appear on her songs – but for Urie, it represents a pivotal moment in his journey towards selling out. When I say that, I don’t mean “going pop”, because Panic! were always, in some basic way, a pop band. And I don’t think getting more pop is an inherently questionable artistic choice. But, as Todd in the Shadows points out, Urie is essentially turning into Adam Levine. Like Maroon 5, Panic! has shed members until it has become a strangely named solo project; like Maroon 5, Panic! has finally shed any shred of a distinguishable sound to mould itself into ads and Spotify playlists; like Maroon 5, Panic! fucking sucks now.

But it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, Panic! at the Disco didn’t consist of Brendon Urie and a revolving door. It was a band, with songs written primarily by Ryan Ross. They recorded two albums – 2005’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out and 2008’s Pretty. Odd. – before splitting, with Ross and bassist Jon Walker (briefly) forming The Young Veins. No matter how much the act currently recording as Panic! at the Disco suck, those two albums are still special to me. And I would hate to think of some sad teenager never finding them because, I mean, they know who Panic! at the Disco are, and they suck.

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You Should Watch Vic Reeves Big Night Out

One of the most common refrains about Peak TV is that the sheer volume of television produced means there are more weird, interesting, niche shows getting made. If there’s more stuff getting greenlit, there’s a better chance of something outside of the box getting greenlit, not because the gatekeepers are more interested in broadcasting that kind of show, but because they have to cast a wider net to keep up with the demands of just how much original programming they’re pumping out despite previously being able to fill out their schedule with reruns of Rules of Engagement. This is true, up to a point. But for all the weird, interesting, outside-of-the-box shows being made in the last few years – Lady Dynamite, Legion, The Young Pope – none come close to Vic Reeves Big Night Out.

Vic Reeves Big Night Out – no apostrophe, no colon – aired two seasons on Channel 4 in 1990 and 1991. The first television outing for the double act of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, it’s a parody of light-entertainment variety shows, with Vic in the role of host and Bob playing a variety of characters. It might sound like Big Night Out could bend into some familiar shapes – that it would seem recognisably like a light-entertainment variety show, like if you were flicking through the stations it would take a minute or two to realise it’s not. But Big Night Out is one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of surreal comedy that makes most surreal humour look mundane.

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You Kill That Man, You Die Next

In the largely forgotten 1994 film Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino shows up for one scene to explain the gay subtext of Top Gun. “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality,” he says, explaining that Maverick is torn between “the gay way”, represented by Val Kilmar and the fighter pilots, and heterosexuality, represented by Kelly McGillis. “The more he talks, the more plausible his theory sounds,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. By the end of the scene, initially sceptical Todd Field is enthusiastically on-board.

Despite gay subtext’s long history in literary studies, it’s recently gotten a bit of a bad rap, in part due to the over-extension of the term queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, a fandom-coined term, refers to media, usually in serial formats like TV shows, teasing characters as LGBT or forming same-gender relationships in order to pander to LGBT fans but with no intention to follow through. Queerbaiting is definitely a thing that has happened on occasion – the TV show Supernatural, mostly – but it’s a term without nuance or historical root, that requires both projecting intent on the creators and flattening the relationship between subtext and text into a simple dichotomy.

But the relationship between gay subtext and overt gay text is complex and contingent. When Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, many news outlets called it the first LGBT winner, and it made me feel vaguely uneasy. It is true, in some sense: there definitely hadn’t been a Best Picture winner that portrayed gay relationships as openly as Moonlight. But is Midnight Cowboy an LGBT film? Many of these articles rationalise that it is not because Joe (Jon Voight) only has sex with men for money, but that’s equally true of Keanu Reeves’s character in My Own Private Idaho, often listed as an unfairly snubbed LGBT film in these same articles. In one scene, Joe is unable to get an erection when with a female client, so they play Scrabble, and she spells out “G-A-Y”. The relationship between Joe and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) is one of intimate partnership: I think often of Joe wiping Ratso’s face with his shirttail and Ratso clinging to his bare belly. Hoffman asked director John Schlesinger (a gay man) why they weren’t sleeping in the same bed, and Schlesinger said, “Oh God! Please! It was hard enough to get the financing.” After Midnight Cowboy was awarded Best Picture in 1970, John Wayne infamously called it “a story about two f*gs” and a “perverse movie”.

A decade earlier, Biblical epic Ben-Hur won Best Picture, into the screenplay for which Gore Vidal had consciously written a homoerotic subtext. A decade before that, All About Eve won, a film that only makes sense if Eve is a lesbian. (All About Eve has been criticised for homophobia while simultaneously achieving cult status among gay audiences, in no small part due to Bette Davis’s fabulousness.) At the very first Oscars in 1929, one of two Best Picture awards was given to Wings, the first film to portray a man kiss another man on the lips, accompanied by the title cards, “You – you know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship” and then, “I knew it – – all the time – – ”

But whether a film has a gay subtext is ultimately a question of whether the viewer can make a legitimate case that it does. Something doesn’t have to be widely agreed to be present in a film for it to be present. Three years after John Schlesinger couldn’t have two men share a bed in Midnight Cowboy, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) share a bed in Mean Streets, a film almost no-one thinks has a gay subtext. But as one of those few and proud: the film cuts from Charlie and Johnny in bed together to Charlie sleeping with his girlfriend, in a kind of displaced homoeroticism. Later, there’s a scene where two gay guys get into the car with Charlie and his friends, and it’s a bizarre, meaningless and pretty homophobic detour unless you think that the guy flirting with Charlie has clocked him – LGBT people recognise each other in a way cis straight people do not – and Charlie’s discomfort is his unease with his own sexuality.

It can be easier to make the case for the homoerotic undercurrents of Midnight Cowboy or Ben-Hur because we know that people involved in their production were LGBT – John Schlesinger and Gore Vidal, respectively – but meaning exists in the piece of art itself, it is not just injected into it from its surrounding context. If a higher burden of proof is placed on gay readings than on other interpretations, it eliminates the possibility of stories from the closet – whether that means art about closeted characters, or art that is itself closeted. It’s rooted in the assumption that all people are straight until they disclose otherwise, and cuts the contemporary moment off from all historical precedent. It paternalistically reduces the glint of recognition in the eye of the LGBT audience to being hoodwinked.

“You can watch any movie, and it doesn’t matter what the director was thinking, or what the people making the movie was thinking, if you can make a case for it, you can lay in a subtext into a film, make it a… much more enjoyable way to watch the film,” Quentin Tarantino told Craig Ferguson in 2010, “Like gay subtext! Gay subtext for instance. Always makes every movie better.”

Which brings us to Reservoir Dogs.

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Rape Jokes: The Michael Scott Story

The American version of The Office is a much lighter, goofier show than its BBC counterpart. Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s original show is cynical and essentially misanthropic, such a pure distillation of cringe comedy that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Although the NBC version started as an almost beat-for-beat remake, it quickly became a radically different show: warm and pleasant, with characters who seem like nice people. The BBC show is painful, exquisitely so; the American remake is a go-to comfort show for many.

So it’s kind of weird that it’s in the American version that the main character gets raped.

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Double Features #3: Partners in Theme

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


The best way to learn about films, in my experience, is to watch a lot of films. Duh, I know. But every film you watch teaches you how to watch the next. One of the good things about double features is that watching films together can illuminate both, each teaching you how to watch its partner. Here are five pairings that clarify genre focus, help to situate each other in history and otherwise enrich each other, both as films and as guides to future films.

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Gutless, Spineless, Gormless, Directionless, Neurotic, Underachieving, Cowardly Pile of Smeg

In the long and strange history of Red Dwarf – spanning thirty years and two television channels, surviving the departure and return of one of its leads, the permanent departure of one of its creators and fifteen years of being terrible before suddenly, inexplicably, blessedly becoming good again – it’s always been, at its heart, an odd couple sitcom. It takes extreme versions of the Felix and Oscar archetypes and drops them into a high-concept sci-fi premise. Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a disgusting slob, is the last man alive after spending three million years in stasis aboard the Red Dwarf mining ship. Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), an anal-retentive coward, was one of Lister’s crewmates, who the ship’s computer revives as a hologram to keep Lister company. The computer picks Rimmer because he’s the person Lister exchanged the most words with in his time on Red Dwarf, not factoring in that all of those words were antagonistic.

Even as Red Dwarf became more and more of an ensemble – there’s Cat (Danny John-Jules), the end result of three million years of evolution from Lister’s pregnant cat, Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), a service robot the Red Dwarf boys rescue, and the ship’s computer Holly, who is sometimes Norman Lovett and sometimes Hattie Hayridge and sometimes entirely absent for seasons at a time – the dynamic between Rimmer and Lister remained the show’s beating heart. (Which is one of the many reasons the season where Rimmer leaves sucks.) They bicker endlessly, and are at times astonishingly cruel to one another. But the arc of the show is their becoming best friends: not because either of them “develop” or become better people, really, but because they get to know one another inside out. They are, after all, the only two human beings left, even if one of them isn’t technically alive.

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Linguistic Intimacy in The Boy Downstairs

Last year’s The Boy Downstairs is a small, quiet romcom. It’s the kind of film that’s very easy to dismiss without even seeing, because it’s “annoying” or shallow or twee, because of its offbeat sense of humour not registering for all viewers, because it’s catnip for the unbelievably tedious “pointing out that a fictional character in New York lives in an apartment they could not realistically afford” crowd. But that’s a mistake. Equal parts Nora Ephron and Noah Baumbach, The Boy Downstairs succeeds at being both funny and romantic. If it, at times, follows the romcom formula a little closer than it needs to, it is elevated by Zosia Mamet’s great lead performance and especially its dialogue. How you execute the formula always matters more than how closely you follow it.

Diana (Mamet) has returned to New York after moving to London when she finished college. She works at a bridal shop, but she wants to be writer, even as she studiously avoids working on her novel. She finds an apartment through Meg, a real estate agent, and after signing her lease discovers Ben (Matthew Shear) – her ex-boyfriend, who she broke up with right before she left for London – lives downstairs. And is dating Meg. The film cuts between scenes from Ben and Diana’s relationship and eventual break-up, and their living in the same apartment building in the present day.

The Boy Downstairs does a decent job of portraying post-college anxiety, even if there’s no economic component in how it portrays that anxiety. At one of Diana’s low points, her landlady –who has become a mentor figure for her – asks her how her book is going. “Uh… not great,” Diana says in a small, high voice, and when her landlady asks why not, she says, “I just haven’t really been working on it.” Making the protagonist of a movie a writer is a total cliché, but Mamet plays it with unexpected clear-eyed honesty, making “being a writer” both foundational to Diana’s sense of self and a vague childhood aspiration that has become yet another expectation when expectations are already weighing her down. The day her father meets Ben, he warns her not to get tied into something when she should be focusing on her writing. It’s a film about how we cannot predict what we will regret, cannot know for certain which are the commitments that tie us down, lock us in place, and which are the commitments that give our lives meaning.

But the thing that sticks with me about The Boy Downstairs – the reason I’m still thinking about this film almost no-one but me saw – is how its characters talk, because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film. They talk just like me.

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On Cinema(s)

In 2018, Ireland had the highest per-capita cinema attendance of any country in Europe, averaging 3.3 visits per person and just edging out France’s average of 3.2. This really surprised me, because I go to the cinema a lot more than that. I go to the cinema most weeks, and it’s not unusual for me to see two or three films in a row on the same day. Last year, the Pálás cinema in Galway had a Jeff Goldblum day, and I went to see The Big Chill, The Fly and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and really regretted not seeing Independence Day because I was at such a loose end, and I don’t even like Independence Day. I once saw Justice League, Murder on the Orient Express and Suburbicon on the same day for some reason. I pretty regularly miss out on seeing films in the cinema that I’m interested in, and yet I regularly beat the Irish annual average in a week without even thinking that I’ve been going to the cinema “a lot”.

This means that just by myself, I’m skewing that average up a bit. I can’t imagine going to the cinema three times a year, but there are obviously loads and loads of people that go far less than that. I think for some people, going to the cinema is something you mostly do as a child, the way lots of people think of libraries or bowling. It makes me sad.

Cinemas are special places, and they offer a special experience. And I’m terrified of them dying.

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I Feel Far Away: Class (and) War in The Deer Hunter

Hollywood has made a lot of films about the Vietnam War. There’s the stuff set directly in the war, like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or Good Morning, Vietnam, and there’s stuff in which the Vietnam War is a persistent background detail that somehow defines life back in America, whether that be in Travis Buckles’ fucked-up psyche in Taxi Driver, the gut-punch epilogue to American Graffiti, or the senseless slaughter of youths in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Films that aren’t about the Vietnam War at all still seem to be, because it is always there. Vanity Fair says that in Midnight Cowboy, “the Vietnam War lurks at the edges of the frame, all the more insistent for being virtually absent.” You can even read the Vietnam War into Grease, if you wanted to: maybe the reason it lapses into complete fantasy at the very end, as Danny and Sandy fly off in a flying car, is because an ending grounded in the real world would be the one where Danny goes halfway around the world to die. Basically every movie from the 1970s is about the Vietnam War to some degree, and plenty more since.

They are, in aggregate, terrible. I don’t mean that they are bad films – all the ones I’ve mentioned would comfortably make it onto my list of my favourite films ever, except for Good Morning, Vietnam, which sucks – but, taken as a whole, the Hollywood-Vietnam-War-movie genre distorts our understanding of the war itself. “The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in the war, while multiple millions of Vietnamese lives were lost, possibly nearly 4 million. This is 20 to 60 times as many deaths, almost half of whom may have been civilians,” Nathan Robinson writes for Current Affairs, “Yet… the story of the Vietnam War is almost always told from the perspective of American soldiers. The Vietnamese are nameless fungible extras.”

Films aren’t history lessons, nor do I think they should be, but when we’re shown something the same way and from the same perspective over and over, it helps to mould how we understand that thing in real life. The Vietnam War has been depicted so often on screen that it’s easy to feel like we know all about it, when in reality, there has still been very little reckoning all these decades later with the sheer devastation the war caused. More than three times as many tons of bombs were dropped in south-east Asia during the Vietnam War as in all of World War II, and yet almost all films about the conflict – including strident anti-war polemics – place American experiences, and particularly American suffering, front and centre.

The Deer Hunter is the patron saint of this critique.

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