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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fall Out Boy are (for me, and precisely no-one else) a band uniquely burdened by history. There isn’t a band I’ve written about more – in MySpace bulletins and Tumblr text posts and diaries that I inevitably abandoned and destroyed – and there isn’t a band I find harder to write about. I can’t be objective: I mean, I don’t really believe in looking at music “objectively”, because art is about subjectivity, but to the extent that objectivity is a possible and desirable thing in criticism, here I have none. Every time I listen to a Fall Out Boy song, it’s the hundreds of times I’ve listened to it before – on the CD player in my childhood bedroom, on MP3 players and iPods and phones, on my laptop in the apartment where I lived in my first year of college – compounded.
Nothing sounds like being thirteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like being eighteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like right now like Fall Out Boy.
Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.
I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.
Now it sucks.
Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
– Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices
Kevin Smith shot Clerks in black-and-white because black-and-white film was cheaper than colour. You could probably guess that, because it’s not lit properly for black-and-white. It doesn’t look like a classic Hollywood movie: it looks like security camera footage, particularly because the film’s camerawork is so simple and basic, consisting mainly of static medium shots of characters talking to each other.
If some established and acclaimed auteur with money to burn made Clerks, deliberate and purposeful, it would be easier to recognise its brilliance. Even if I’m not talking about the people who actually made the film and made the decisions, I still find myself reaching for the language of on purpose, as if the artist has to consciously put something into a piece of art for it to be really there. Clerks looks like security camera footage, and that’s perfect for a film set almost entirely in a convenience store and a video store: it both makes everything seem relentlessly ordinary and makes us feel like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to. But since it only looks that way because it was cheaper, it’s harder to talk about. The shutters are closed because they could only film at night, when the store was closed, and accounting for that within the story both creates one of film’s most striking images – “I assure you, we’re open” written on a sheet with shoe polish hanging on the storefront – and contributes to a feeling of claustrophobia in what is basically a bottle-movie. They weren’t able to film the scene Smith had written where Randal knocks over the coffin at a wake, and it’s so much funnier just to hear Dante describe it after it happens.
Clerks is a film made brilliant by limitation and circumstance. It’s an accidental masterpiece, and the accidental part doesn’t diminish the masterpiece part.
In the second season of Bojack Horseman, Bojack is cast as the lead in a film: initially it’s a serious drama, but it’s changed significantly to test better with audiences, and so Bojack ends up going AWOL from production for months. When he returns to LA, he discovers the film has been finished without him: they created a computer-generated version of him based on a full-body scan he was made to take at the start of filming. Not only was the CGI Bojack used in additional scenes filmed when Bojack disappeared, but it was inserted into every frame filmed with the real Bojack to replace him. In the end product, Bojack doesn’t appear at all, just a digital copy of him.
The critics call it the best performance of his career.
When I first watched this episode in 2015, it seemed like comic exaggeration. When actors sign up to big movies, they often sign away much more than just their performance – like their likeness to be used for toys and merchandise – and have no recourse when the film they thought they were making turns out to be something else entirely. It was funny because, like most of Bojack Horseman’s best jokes, it was absurdist with a current of real-world melancholy underneath.
A year later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out.
Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.
The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.