God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 2

This is the second part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?

Discourse around freedom of speech is so terrible that it’s difficult to read the words “free speech” without rolling your eyes. Free speech is a joke: at best it’s an embarrassing forum post by a guy who is absolutely furious that the moderator keeps deleting his My Little Pony memes, at worst it’s a far-right dogwhistle. As outlined by William Davies, the right has diligently spent the last few years manufacturing a “crisis” in free speech that is supposedly infecting everywhere from college campuses to major media outlets. This tactic began in the United States, where freedom of speech is more of a hot button issue in general, and – if cable news is to be believed – college-aged liberal activists have a more developed apparatus for no-platforming speakers or demanding trigger warnings for assigned reading. (I am generally sceptical of the truth of this, because I was immersed in liberal-left university circles here in Ireland for several years at the height of this whole thing and never once encountered a “safe space”, even as middle-aged media personalities went on the radio to complain about safe spaces. I would not be in the least surprised if there are plenty of Americans for whom the same is true.)

Most of the stuff this debate is about is either not censorship or not even really happening, at least at any scale. It is not censorship that some college kids don’t find your gay jokes very funny or that someone put “trigger warning: rape” on their blog post or that The Guardian publishes an article disagreeing with your argument. The fakeness of this whole debate is something everyone left-of-centre is intensely aware of: there might be good-faith arguments to be had about the legitimacy of, say, no-platforming, but free speech warriors – from Fox News hosts down to the lowliest Twitter troll – are not approaching the issue in good faith. When they talk about threats to their free speech, they usually mean threats to the legitimacy of their authority. They say, “why am I not permitted to speak?” because “why are people disagreeing with me? I’m right!” would give too much of the game away.

But this has created a problem on the left. Not that the left “hates free speech”, as the right claims, but in liberals and leftists allowing the right to define the parameters of the debate. The right has made such a habit of calling the dumbest shit censorship – where most of the supposedly silenced end up regularly appearing on Question Time – that the left-of-centre has defensively embraced a minimalist approach to free speech.

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God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 1

This is the first part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Eminem is an underground horrorcore rapper who, through some mix-up in the cosmic order, instead became the best-selling artist of the 2000s. To remember how incredibly big Eminem became in the late 1990s and early 2000s while rapping about killing himself, raping his mother, and murdering his wife seems like peering into some long-distant era: much further away than twenty years should be, more like a time memorialised only in photographs and letters. But that’s not quite right, either. It’s less like a far away past than a hole torn in the fabric of the universe, just wide enough to let a single impossible thing leak through. Eminem managed to feel dangerous even as he became ubiquitous, at once a fact of life and a radical notion that must be supressed at all costs. That tension is one of the defining features of Eminem’s discography: both boundary-pushing and mainstream, both snotty, scrappy underdog and superstar.

Listening to his early albums, it seems at times like he’s trying to Tom Green himself and see what he has to say to get kicked out of the music industry. (“I’m so sick and tired of being admired / That I wish that I would just die or get fired / And dropped from my label,” he raps on ‘The Way I Am’.) He pushes at the extremes in a way that is frequently grotesque, and right when you expect him to pull back, he doubles down.

We’re living in a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive. Quite apart from the politics of it, I think a big reason is that we are still coming off a bit of a saturation point for shock humour in the 2000s, which necessarily meant a lot of people doing it who were quite bad at it. I mean, we lived through a time when Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show were all on the air at the same time, we’re worn out on it, I get it. It’s the same fall from grace that has afflicted slapstick. But good slapstick is hilarious and delightful, and the same goes for good shock humour. Quality shock humour pokes and prods at the inherent arbitrariness of taboos and takes glee in smashing them. Eminem was, in his younger years, as skilled a shock humourist as you’ll find. Much of that is his wit, his self-awareness, his multisyllabic and internal rhymes, and his mesmerizingly slick flows, but a big part is that the guts of two decades has not diluted his early work’s effect. A lot of art that is primarily shocking loses its power with age – the original Frankenstein is a brilliant film, but it sure as shit isn’t scary – but I can’t imagine a time where people don’t gasp and giggle the first time they hear ‘I’m Shady’.

Eminem’s detractors at the time loved to use that against him: to argue that he was just saying stuff for shock value, a meaningless spray of diarrhoea for which he refused to be held to account. But what makes Eminem’s first three major releases – The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show, what you might dub his original trilogy – so special is that they go so far beyond that.

Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.

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The Anarchic Beauty of Taskmaster

If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows. I’m kind of a connoisseur.

A great game show combines luck, risk-taking and some kind of skill or knowledge. Deal or No Deal was just luck and risk-taking, but they always pretended as if there was all this strategy where none could exist, it was bizarre. Winning Streak is the worst because it doesn’t even test risk-taking, just luck, so it effectively just throws money at people with the only variant being how much. Shows that have the potential to lapse into being just a dry test of skill usually have a time constraint to force the risk-taking element. But my favourites combine genuine difficulty with being a ton of fun to watch. Way too many shows are stupidly dramatic: every time someone gives an answer on Tenable, there’s probably a full thirty seconds of dramatic reaction shots and lights going up the answer board. It tries to be “fun” by having Warwick Davis deliver terrible pun after terrible pun, instead of striving towards a fun tone overall.

My favourite has long been Pointless: its reverse Family Fortunes format that rewards the most obscure correct answer makes it incredibly fun to play along with, whether you know a lot or very little about the category. The banter between its hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is charming and makes the tone of the whole thing light and fun, in sharp contrast with the most self-serious quiz shows (Mastermind, mostly). I love Only Connect, the hardest show in the world, both because host Victoria Coren-Mitchell is delightful and because I feel elated if I get an answer right. I am kind of obsessed with Richard Osman’s House of Games, and love following the throughline of each week, rooting for my favourite contestants and waiting with bated breath for the day someone wins all five shows.

But there is one game show that is more fun to watch than basically anything on television, and that’s Taskmaster. Pitched perfectly between a light-hearted “normal” game show and Shooting Stars surrealism, it’s both one of the best game shows I’ve ever seen and such a weird, inventive thing that to even classify it by genre feels wrong. It’s glorious.

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What Gets Lost: TV archiving, preservation and accessibility [Current Affairs]

I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.

Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.

Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.

I wrote an essay for the new issue of Current Affairs. It’s about TV wiping, the inaccessibility of popular art and the precarious archival implications of streaming. You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.

UPDATE: You can now read this piece online here!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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