Fleabag, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and The Case for Self-Denial

Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:

 

There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).

But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.

The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.

But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.

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Notes on Hamlet (2000)

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, notes on Split


Sometimes a film is so set up for me to like it that nothing speaks to its failure like my thinking it’s only okay. It might tick a bunch of boxes of things I reliably enjoy, like Hell or High Water, a neo-western about the Great Recession featuring comedic bank robberies and a great performance from Jeff Bridges, one of my favourite actors. It might be targeted at a very specific niche of which I am a part: Mary Magdalene was described as not appealing to Christians because it’s such a different take on the Gospel story, and not appealing to non-Christians because it’s so religious, but I’m a feminist Christian whose favourite film is The Last Temptation of Christ, king of unorthodox Gospel films. It’s kind of heartbreaking, when a film stacks the deck so in favour of me loving it, as if it was made with me in mind, but fucks it up so badly that I think “it’s basically fine, I guess, I don’t know, it has some problems.”

Hamlet (2000) is one such film. Here’s why.

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Michael & Me

I figured I’d kind of missed the boat on Michael Moore. He was a really big deal when I was growing up in the 2000s – somehow becoming that most unlikely of things, a blockbuster documentary filmmaker – but I never saw any of his films. Though he’s always been divisive, over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency the tide of public opinion seemed to turn against him. We seemed to think of Michael Moore in the same category as JNCO jeans or bucket hats: a terrible fad that we are embarrassed to recall having once indulged.

So I’ve spent longer listening to Michael Moore being treated like a punchline than like a serious cultural phenomenon: Michael Moore, the manipulative liar; Michael Moore, preaching to the choir; Michael Moore, who can’t understand that things just aren’t that simple. Like the left-of-centre equivalent of Dinesh D’Souza. As I got older and my political opinions developed, I figured that Michael Moore must be a certain irritating kind of liberal, who roots for the Democrats like a football team, who, at best, was – like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show – more concerned with hypocrisy than justice. That’s not true at all, but it’s what I extrapolated as the only thing that made criticisms of Moore make sense: because if he was preaching to the choir, it must be the choir of Beltway and Hollywood and Silicon Valley liberals, who are more terrified of tax hikes than oligarchy.

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The Problem with Netflix Originals

Netflix is a very successful business, and I don’t know the first thing about business, so far be it from me to tell them what they should do. (I know so little about business that I can’t understand why owning a company that has never made a profit has made Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guy, the richest person on the planet.) But I do co-run this blog about pop culture, and Netflix has been one of the most important and transformative forces in film and TV (mostly TV) in recent years. The effects of that have been a mixed bag, but it’s hard to deny their sheer scale.

This kind of scares me, because Netflix’s share price does not seem at all proportionate to its profits, and while I don’t know anything about business I have seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, so a part of me is convinced that Netflix will suddenly and unceremoniously collapse one day. Which, aside from anything else, means all the art made exclusively for Netflix might just… disappear? The archival implications of the streaming model are pretty terrifying if you think about it for more than a minute, which is why I’m one of the few people my age that spends her money buying second-hand DVDs.

But, like I said, I don’t know the first thing about business, so that might be nonsense, and my DVD collection might be no different from stockpiling tins of food in a bunker in case the Cold War turned nuclear. But I do think I know a small bit about film and TV, and film and TV is Netflix’s business. So, on that basis I would like to make this humble suggestion to Netflix HQ: stop making so much fucking original content.

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Some Unspoken Thing: In Praise of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For at least a decade, we’ve lived through a pretty unprecedented boom in superhero films. Disney releases three Marvel Cinematic Universe films a year, Warner Brothers is trying desperately to make the limping DC universe hold together, Fox has the X-Men, and that’s not counting failed experiments like Fantastic Four or Sony’s Spider-Man universe, which, as far as I understand, they’re attempting to still do, but without Spider-Man. Superheroes aren’t suddenly popular out of nowhere or anything, but the sheer glut of superhero movies being produced now makes the progenitors of the superhero boom – like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman – look modest by comparison.

It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the superhero boom. I would support a ten-year ban on producing superhero films if such a thing were possible. But that isn’t out of snobbiness, or even out of a dislike of superhero films. I think Spiderman 2 is a masterpiece. I saw The Dark Knight Rises in the cinema twice and think anyone who criticises its many plotholes is a pedantic killjoy. I think Logan had one of the best screenplays of last year. But the superhero boom is a feature of a much bigger problem: a trend in blockbuster filmmaking, and popular cinema in general, away from the thoughtful, interesting and weird and towards bland, hollow pleasures. It started with superheroes, and now it’s creeping all over the place, from Star Wars to the Universal monsters.

Superhero films tend to get a disproportionate amount of praise because they’ve spent a decade wearing us down, calibrating our expectations to just the right frequencies. I hate the word “overrated,” but I don’t think there’s a better word to explain the phenomenon of every Marvel release apparently being one of the best films ever made, if Rotten Tomatoes scores are anything to go by (and they aren’t). I really liked Wonder Woman, even if it had third act problems, but when people started talking about it as one of the best films of the year and it being “snubbed” by the Oscars, I felt like I was going insane. So I’ve never felt the need to speak up for a superhero film, really.

But then there’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

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I’m Addicted To Words and They’re Useless

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, why Adam’s Song is an all-time great


Motion City Soundtrack’s Commit This To Memory is one of my favourite albums: bright, hooky pop-rock with a heavy dose of synth, it’s got some of the most fun songs about anxiety, depression and substance abuse in my collection, and I’m not short of fun songs about anxiety, depression and substance abuse to choose from. Its upbeat melodies, I suppose, contrast the lyrical content, but what’s more impressive is how the sound manages to evoke high anxiety while still being a total blast. Commit This To Memory does occasionally take the time to get dark in its musical tone, not just its lyrical one: after three fantastic pop songs, only one of which is longer than three minutes, we get ‘Resolution’, a noble contribution to the melancholy canon of New Year’s songs, which is slower, longer and much less danceable. The opening three songs on Commit This To Memory are a bundle of nerves, but ‘Resolution’ is lyrically both more removed and more desperately sad: She would tend to my wounds and fill me with food when I’d stumble in drunk for breakfast. She was right to take off before she was consumed.

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God Allegedly Has Bigger Plans for Me: Religion in Lost

When Michael Schur was coming up with The Good Place, he asked Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof for advice. “[Lindelof] told me, ‘Here are the pitfalls. Here are the traps you can fall into. Here’s the problem you’re going to hit’…” Schur said, “He actually I think said to me, ‘You just need to know where you’re going.’”

Lindelof’s advice was presumably drawing from experience, because Lost absolutely did not know where it was going. For the six full-length seasons it ran, it was an incredibly messy show, narratively convoluted and incoherent, brimming over with set-ups that were never paid off – and not in a David Lynch way, where it’s meant to be surreal and not intended to be “solved”. It only took Lost until its second season to do a “what if this character is in a psych ward and this is all in his head” episode, something Buffy managed to stave off for six years. The finale of Lost aired eight years ago to a polarised reception, and its reputation has only depreciated in the interim. It regularly makes lists of the worst finales of all time, and is practically synonymous with “all the mystery-box shit turning out to be nonsense” and “wasting years of your life on a show that turns out to be crap.”

So here’s the thing: Lost was a great show, finale and all. And I think that those who came away from the finale scratching their heads kind of missed the whole point of the show – because Lost was always a show about religion.

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Sofia Coppola’s Sad Rich People

In 2003, Sofia Coppola released Lost in Translation. It was critically acclaimed, grossed 119 million dollars on a budget of four million, and made Coppola the first American woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. It’s about two Americans – Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson – in a luxury hotel in Japan, two lonely people who find some solace in each other, an almost-romcom where nothing happens and everyone wants to die. It’s a beautiful film – I often say that subtlety is overrated, but Lost in Translation is quiet and soft, a reminder that a film can be those things without for a moment being boring or pretentious.

It’s 2004, and Sofia Coppola might become one of the most important film directors of her generation. Not because she’ll be tokenised as a woman, and not because her dad made The Godfather, but because of her incredible talent.

It’s fourteen years later, and it hasn’t really worked out that way.

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The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates

Why do people still love Friends so much?

To be clear, I love Friends. I’ve seen every episode of Friends multiple times. It was a good show, and often a great one. It was such a massive juggernaut hit at the time that it’s inevitable that it would have some staying power – I can’t imagine a world where Friends was forgotten, consigned to the ash heap of history. Anything that big hangs around for a while. Culture doesn’t have a reset button, you just turn it at right angles and draw over what’s already there.

But Friends isn’t just hanging around in the background. It’s still hugely, actively popular. BuzzFeed’s clickbait pop culture listicle/quiz department pumps out posts about Friends on at least a biweekly basis. People get engaged on the Central Perk couch on tours of the Warner Brothers lot. The whole series was recently added to Netflix in Ireland and the UK, and – even though the show finished fourteen years ago, even though it’s been in reruns constantly, unavoidably since then – it was treated as a legitimately big deal.

And that’s weird. It is so far outside of the norm of televisual afterlife that “it’s a good show” doesn’t go a tenth of the way to explaining it.

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Weekend at Bernie’s Is Not the Film You Think It Is

Weekend at Bernie’s might be the most misunderstood film I know. It was a hit in 1989, despite bad reviews, and has had staying power since: the image of Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman propping up Bernie’s lifeless body is seared onto the cultural memory, one of those iconic cinematic images that has been parodied and homaged and referenced enough to take on a life of its own beyond the film itself. It’s a very famous film, is the point – though not exactly acclaimed – but when I watched it, I kind of felt like the first person to ever see it.

Here’s what I assumed Weekend at Bernie’s would be like: an extremely dumb, extremely wacky 1980s comedy, in the vein of Porky’s or a National Lampoon movie, that is probably not very good but has a kind of charm that not very good films from the 1980s tend to have. I knew the basic plot – two guys pretend another guy, Bernie, is alive, while staying at his place for the weekend. I assumed – either because it’s how it turns out in any given Weekend at Bernie’s-inspired TV episode, or because of the existence of Weekend at Bernie’s II – that Bernie wasn’t really dead. That our heroes found him unconscious and panicked, but, by the end of the film, Bernie would wake up, and we’d arrive at our happy ending.

Weekend at Bernie’s is something much stranger, and much more interesting.

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