Bad Lieutenant and the Cacophony of God

Bad Lieutenant is ninety-six minutes because there’s no way you could stand it being any longer. It’s a horrible film, and frequently hard to watch. It’s not a descent into hell; descents have forward momentum. If you’re descending into hell you can envision ascending out if it. But in Bad Lieutenant, you’re already in hell. You’re so trapped that you wonder if hell is all that’s ever existed.

If I described the plot of Bad Lieutenant, it sounds like classic noir. Not completely – the sin and vice that would have been left implicit is rendered in full detail – but almost. Harvey Keitel plays the (unnamed) bad lieutenant, all hard liquor and harder drugs, and a hardened exterior unaffected by the crimes he investigates. He’s the cynical antihero, alienated, disaffected and corrupt. He’s hardboiled. He makes bets on a baseball match at the scene of a double murder.

Then a nun is gang-raped on the altar. The sequence is lit in red, like the fires of hell, and we see Christ on the cross, his screams of agony mixing with the young nun’s. The bad lieutenant is on the case. You imagine that he’ll devote himself to solving it, maybe going too far and bending the rules, stumbling towards some kind of redemption. That’s the plot Bad Lieutenant sets up, but doesn’t set in motion. It’s driven by the bad lieutenant himself – pulled in strange, painful directions – and he’s not a good enough person to be that kind of bad cop. He is, as Desson Howe described him in the Washington Post, just “a notch nicer than Satan.”

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You Should Watch Ishtar

I am a big fan of Wikipedia’s List of Films Considered The Worst. A big part of that is finding “list of films considered the worst” an amusing phrase, but the other part is that it’s fascinating as an alternate path through the history of cinema. It’s so easy to think of film history through the lens of what’s successful – the rise of auteur directors in Hollywood in the late 1960s giving way to blockbusters after the popularity of Jaws and Star Wars, for example – that Wikipedia’s List of Films Considered The Worst feels like getting to see everything from a new angle. It’s got everything from B-movie trash and weird vanity projects to big-budget Hollywood flops and failed sequels that contradict everything in the preceding movie.

Some of the films on it, I’m sure, are unwatchable. Many are merely mediocre. But at least a few are misunderstood, unfairly maligned masterpieces. I am excited to watch pretty much any film on there that I’ve seen someone sincerely champion. I can’t wait to watch I Spit on Your Grave and Mommie Dearest and Showgirls. Martin Scorsese says The Exorcist II is good and I’m willing to roll those dice. The films that I love that are on that list are films that I love with all the fire in my belly, that I love all the more to make up for everyone who hated them. I think Heaven’s Gate is astonishingly beautiful and I will fight anyone who blames it for the death of director-driven Hollywood filmmaking. I think Freddy Got Fingered is a surrealist masterwork and hilarious besides.

And I fucking love Ishtar.

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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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