You Should Watch Wallace and Gromit

Unlike some other people on this very website, I am a sceptic when it comes to short films. It’s not that I have anything against it as a form inherently – it’s just that a lot of short films are bad. I would go as far as to say that most short films are bad. There are a lot of bad features, too, but their length requires a level of commitment that does at least a little weeding out. Of all the shorts I’ve seen, most have one idea, or one twist, or one – God forbid – lesson to be learnt. Too many shorts feel like the very first idea someone thought of. Way too many seem like a single idea stretched to breaking, and feel much too long even as that should be definitionally impossible.

These problems are a trend, not a rule, and there are a few categories that bypass these problems entirely, that feel naturally suited to the form. One of them is experimental films – like those of Maya Deren or David Lynch – which aren’t bound by traditional narrative and can pack their short running time with strange, affecting visuals. But the main exception is animated shorts: the short film feels like the platonic ideal for a cartoon. Maybe it’s because the commitment necessitated by a feature’s length is there in a cartoon regardless of its length, just because animation is hard and takes a long time. Maybe it’s that cartoons are the short films I grew up on, like old Looney Tunes shorts repackaged for television, while live action shorts were virtually absent. Maybe it’s just animation’s greater respect for the importance of colours. But my short film scepticism retreats to the background when the short happens to be animated.

Case in point: Wallace and Gromit.

Continue reading “You Should Watch Wallace and Gromit”

Dirty Harry Is and/or Isn’t Fascist Propaganda

In 1971, Dirty Harry set out the blueprint for pretty much all cop movies that followed. Clint Eastwood plays a cynical detective – a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules – who gets teamed up with a rookie cop even though he prefers to work alone. Its reputation is more or less as an entertaining action film and a nasty piece of fascist propaganda: Harry couldn’t give less of a shit about your civil rights, and the film is emphatically not about him learning the error of his ways.

Harry is an extraordinary piece of shit. A guy is about to jump off a building, and they send Harry up to talk him down: Harry punches him in the face. Another cop explains to the rookie why they call him Dirty Harry, saying Harry hates everyone, including a whole list of racial slurs. In the famous “are you feeling lucky?” scene, Harry’s so fucking cold-blooded, reciting his memorised cool-guy speech while he threatens to kill someone, and it’s chilling. But also: it is a cool speech, and he is a cool guy. Like his spaghetti westerns, Eastwood plays an essentially monstrous character with such rock-solid charisma that you find yourself drawn in. The way he speaks through his teeth, the way he squares his jaw, the way he holds a gun: he’s magnetic. This is the essential dilemma of Dirty Harry: are his coolness and his monstrosity in tension with one another, or are they one and the same? Does the film think all the awful shit Harry does is cool? Is it part of what makes him cool?

Roger Ebert called the film fascist (he gave it three stars out of four). Pauline Kael also called it fascist. Gene Siskel called it dangerous. And Dirty Harry is definitely not one of those films where its point of view on its immoral characters is so obvious and forthright that I find debate about it vaguely exhausting: like, there are real people in the world who think The Wolf of Wall Street is pro-Jordan Belfort because even though it’s an incomparable descent into hell, it’s also funny, and those people are geniuses next to the people who think Starship Troopers is fascist. But Dirty Harry is not a misunderstood satire, not really. I think seeing it as fascist makes a lot of sense: if Harry is cool, if you like him and root for him, if you take the ticking time bomb torture scenario the film sets up at face value, then Dirty Harry is an argument for extrajudicial torture, violence as first resort, and a police state.

But Dirty Harry isn’t an “argument”. It’s a film.

Continue reading “Dirty Harry Is and/or Isn’t Fascist Propaganda”

You Should Watch Big Business

Jordan Peele’s Us was one of the best films of 2019: the scale of its ambition dwarfed Get Out, Peele’s directorial debut, and it hits all its marks. It’s one of those horror films that I can imagine watching over and over, becoming richer without ever becoming less scary. The best comparison I can make is that it made me feel kind of like how The Shining makes me feel, and The Shining might be my favourite horror film ever, so.

Us is incredibly dense with allusion and multiplicity of meaning. Even something as simple as its title can be read two ways: us and US. Much has been said about its many references to other films, from Jaws to The Goonies to CHUD. But no-one has said anything about how it’s basically a horror version of the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business, which it totally is. This is not least because no-one remembers the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business – except for maybe Jordan Peele – but they should, because Big Business is great: a tightly constructed, very funny comedy of errors about class and corporate America.

Continue reading “You Should Watch Big Business”

Gender Troubles in The Crying Game

The Crying Game has been reduced to a single scene in the public imagination. Fergus (Stephen Rea, it wouldn’t be a Neil Jordan film without Stephen Rea) is about to have sex with Dil (Jaye Davidson) for the first time, when it’s revealed – both to Fergus and the audience – that she is transgender. She takes off her robe and the camera tilts down her body to show a penis. Fergus’s reaction is, to say the least, not great: he hits her in his attempt to push her away, and he throws up in the bathroom. Dil meekly says she thought that he already knew.

If you know anything about The Crying Game, it’s this scene. It’s this twist. To some extent, that reputation was deliberately cultivated: after flopping in the UK, it became a hit in the US with a marketing campaign built around the twist. And in isolation, it makes The Crying Game sound like a relic, in a way I’m sure puts people off watching it. When critics revisit The Crying Game now, it’s mostly to measure its understanding of trans people against our modern sensibilities. It’s good to re-examine representation of trans characters from the past, obviously, but it can be reductive when historical transness is purely viewed through modern lenses. Mainstream understanding of trans people has transformed so quickly so recently that a film from 1992 sounds like an ancient artefact.

But The Crying Game is an incredibly rich, complex, and beautiful film. It has a deft touch for the nuances of gender and sexuality, but it’s about so, so much more than that. It’s a film about shifting identities whose own identity is in constant flux: it’s a thriller, a romance, something else entirely. And at its centre is a character whose identity is shifting: not Dil, but Fergus.

Continue reading “Gender Troubles in The Crying Game”

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.”

Continue reading “Bad Lieutenant and the Cacophony of God”

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.

Continue reading “You Should Watch Ishtar”

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.

Continue reading “Still So Young, Desperate for Attention”