I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.
The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.
Continue reading “Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento”
American Animals is a documentary. It’s built around interviews with four men who robbed a university library in Kentucky in 2004, interspersed with the most elaborate, well-made recreations you’ve ever seen.
American Animals isn’t a documentary. Its structure is basically the same as I, Tonya: a narrative interspersed with after-the-fact interviews, but in the case of American Animals, the interviews are with the real people, not the actors portraying them.
Whether American Animals is a documentary is irrelevant. It’s a film that collapses any difference. It’s a film about the relationship between reality and the representation of reality: reflecting and refracting through each other, as we watch a heist movie about a group of teenagers who rent out Reservoir Dogs and Point Break and Rififi to learn how to do a heist, as what they (and we) remember, or choose to remember, makes reality contentious, as the lines between the film’s documentary and fiction elements blur and break down.
“So, this is how you remember it?” Warren (Evan Peters) asks his real-life counterpart, Warren Lipka, who has suddenly appeared beside him in his car.
“Not exactly,” Lipka – who thinks this conversation that’s about to happen took place at a party, not in a car – says, “But if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.”
Continue reading “Don’t You Want To See What Happens Next?”
In 1994, feminist writer bell hooks wrote an article about gangster rap. She both condemns the misogyny and violence of gangster rap and the hypocrisy of its white critics, who treat that misogyny and violence as unique to young black men. Gangster rap, she says, is not an aberration or subversion but a reflection of mainstream culture’s values. I don’t really agree with a lot of her points – the part where she describes the cover of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle as pornographic seems over the top, and she makes no room for genuinely subversive racial politics in gangster rap – but I get where she’s coming from. To make her point, she wants to draw contrast with another popular piece of art, made by a white woman, that also reflects the mainstream valorisation of misogyny and male violence but hasn’t received the same backlash. She picks a terrible example.
bell hooks is wrong about The Piano.
Continue reading “bell hooks is wrong about The Piano”
Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.
Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.
But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.
“Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”
The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.
At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?
Continue reading “Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex”
I can name for you every western I’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be hard. That’s not even close to true about any other genre: I always feel I came relatively late to horror, but the idea of listing all the horror films I’ve seen seems absurd, a job it would be impossible to finish. But I’ve seen, like, fifteen westerns – I’m a total novice, fumbling around in the dark in a genre in which I have yet to grow roots.
But as I slowly, stumblingly get into westerns, I’ve become acutely aware of the gap between the way people talk about westerns and what they’re actually like. The western – especially for people my age, who didn’t grow up watching them on Saturday afternoons – is treated less like an artform than a rhetorical device, and this means, necessarily, reducing a huge, varied film genre to a static set of characteristics. It means assuming that everything westerns were, are or can be fits in a little box.
Continue reading “Westerns: A Take”
This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, notes on Hamlet (2000).
I was looking forward to Mary Magdalene for like a year. I liked Lion, director Garth Davis’s debut film, and Rooney Mara has an outsized place in my heart thanks to her work with David Fincher. But mostly, I love religious films. It’s hard to say that when Pure Flix have made a cottage industry out of crap like God’s Not Dead, films designed to reassure Christians that of course you’re better than everyone else, don’t worry. But great religious films can wrangle with all the messy complications, can be free to be more art than indoctrination. A lot of the best ones are made by atheists – usually Marxists from Italy. Great religious films are great films that focus thematically on something I care intensely about, and they inevitably mean a lot to me.
But you’re always rolling those dice. Christianity is an extremely loaded thing, and it often seems like reviews are written in code: I’m pretty sure Martin Scorsese’s Silence didn’t get its due because secular audiences didn’t or couldn’t fully engage with it and religious audiences found it uncomfortable, challenging viewing, but then it’s hard to know what the reviews would be like if it really was a dull slog.
So I was excited to see Mary Magdalene, even if the reviews were pretty mixed. I love religious films, and I love unorthodox Gospel retellings, and I’m a feminist, and I’d been looking forward to it for like a year.
It was a disappointment. Here’s why.
Continue reading “Notes on Mary Magdalene”
Dennis Reynolds is a bad man. All the characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are awful people – it’s kind of the premise of the show – but Dennis still stands apart. Like the rest of the Gang, he’s all narcissism, bigotry, and rage, ready to explode at any moment at anyone he perceives to have crossed him. Once, when a guy called him a narc, Dennis’s revenge was getting the guy to chain himself to a tree overnight during a storm while Dennis slept with his girlfriend, and that’s pretty mild when you’re grading on the Dennis curve of bad behaviour. He’s a prolific rapist, and he might be a serial killer.
He’s also one of the best characters in the history of TV.
Continue reading “A Mid-Life Crisis in North Dakota”