Burying J.K. Rowling

No question has dominated pop cultural writing over the last decade as much as this: what do you do when one of your faves is problematic? The situation is obviously a lot more nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of the dilemma, the question that people struggle with. How should you feel, and what should you do, when – not if – the creator of a work of art you love does something evil? How should you feel about them? How should you feel about their work? Should you go see their next film or buy their next book?  

Last year, J.K. Rowling publicly confirmed, after years of speculation by fans of her work, that she hates transgender people. Rowling would obviously disagree with this characterisation, but I’m not interested in trying the case against her, I’m just describing my view. She’s often described by critics as a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, but I don’t actually think that label is accurate. I remember when the term “TERF” was first popularised, and the entire point of it was to describe a specific kind of transphobic bigot, a radical feminist who denied that trans women are women, not just anyone who uses any kind of feminist rhetoric to justify their hatred. While some figures involved in recent anti-trans political activity in the UK fit that description, the vast majority wouldn’t be caught within a country mile of the actual political tradition of radical feminism. Those that are feminists at all are almost exclusively liberal feminists borrowing the arguments, but not the principles, of genuine TERFs, just as certain elements of the far-right use the contemporary rhetoric of antiracism to advance a white nationalist agenda

J.K. Rowling is one of those liberal feminists. She’s not a TERF, just a garden-variety bigot trying to coat her hatred in a thin gloss of moral righteousness. I appreciate this might seem like a pedantic point, but I think it’s important to be fair, accurate and precise about people’s political positions, especially those of your political opponents. You can tell Rowling and other anti-trans feminists of her ilk aren’t proper TERFs because they can’t even make their shite arguments as well. They’re just regurgitating dunks they saw on Twitter or Mumsnet, passed on through some massive game of transphobic telephone, without ever understanding the underlying philosophy that motivates them. All their arguments are purely instrumental, just a way to advance the cause, itself motivated by more-or-less unmediated hatred and disgust toward trans people (especially trans women), rather than any even internally coherent set of values or ideas. Not that proper TERFs are less motivated by hatred, exactly, but at least it’s an ethos. These liberal knock-offs (I’m shocked “astroTERF” isn’t a thing yet) say shit like “you can’t just go around changing the definition of womanhood”, because that’s what all the other transphobes – or “gender-critical feminists” – say. But underneath it, even if they were speaking in good faith, it’s doubtful they could elaborate beyond a few more online talking points on how they define womanhood or how trans people’s existence undermines it.  

This is not, despite the title, a takedown of J.K. Rowling’s personal bigotry towards trans people or her political activism to curtail efforts to expand their civil rights, access to healthcare and general ability to live safely in a world so hostile to their lives, not least because the definitive takedown already exists. She’s just a useful tool for thinking about the relationship between the art and the artist. Partly because she is, for better or worse, one of the most famous, influential and successful artists of the last fifty years. Partly because her common habit of publicly asserting things about the universe of Harry Potter that aren’t present in the books – e.g. that a Jewish wizard named Anthony Goldstein attended Hogwarts during the events of series or that wizards used to shit on the floor and magic it away until the eighteenth century – has already provoked lots of discussion on whether fans have to accept, believe or give a shit about what Rowling says is true of the world she created. But mostly because she’s been one of a few constant cultural figures my entire life, someone whose works were formative touchstones of my childhood that I returned to regularly up until a few years ago. I even wrote a (not very good) dissertation on them in my final year of college. Every shift in my attitude towards this question of the art and the artist – a topic I’ve been struggling with for years – has been informed at least in part by my changing relationship to both her work and her public persona. I learned how to bury authors from watching her dig her own grave. 

Part 1 – Joanne 

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Will You Still Love Me in the Morning?

Happy Madison Productions – the production company founded by Adam Sandler in 1999 – has been so prolific, so successful and produced work so instantly recognisable that its films practically constitute a genre of their own. The company is named for the two films that essentially form the blueprint for their core formula, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and most of their films are just variations on their basic gimmick: a pathetic man goes through a series of humiliations and learns a lesson about himself. 

It’s a story that can be told more or less sincerely, with genuine heart (Happy Gilmore) or none at all (Billy Madison), as a rags to riches tale (Mr. Deeds), a buddy comedy (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), a rom-com (50 First Dates) or a sci-fi action movie (Pixels), but always with that same central character arc and Happy Madison’s trademark broad, vulgar, puerile sense of humour. The most famous and successful usually star Sandler himself, but they’ve produced vehicles for other members of his posse, from the comparatively successful David Spade (Joe Dirt) and Kevin James (Paul Blart) to bit players like Allen Covert (Grandma’s Boy) and Nick Swardson (Bucky Larson). In recent years, they’ve begun to do more ensemble comedies (Grown Ups, Pixels, The Ridiculous 6) and dual-lead films (The Do-Over, The Week Of, Father of the Year) with multiple pathetic men, and they’ve produced films outside that mould altogether (Reign Over Me, Funny People, The Shortcut), but the formula of their core product hasn’t really changed in over twenty years. That is the Happy Madison film. 

Click is the sixteenth film released by Happy Madison. It’s about a guy who gets a TV remote that controls reality. The first thing he does when he realises that he can manipulate the flow of time is fast-forward his pooping dog. Click is also the first film I ever cried at. I’d certainly had intense emotional reactions to movies before, like when a teacher in my primary school showed us Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 adaptation of The Secret Garden and I realised for the first time that my parents would die one day. I remember films before Click that got me choked up or made tears well in my eyes. But the first film I cried at – sobbed at, really – was Click. I’ve revisited it every couple of years since I saw it as a child, and every couple of years, I still like it. Sometimes more than the last time, sometimes less. Sometimes exactly how I remember it, sometimes as if I’m watching it for the first time. It’s not the best movie Adam Sandler has ever done (Punch-Drunk Love) or his best performance (Uncut Gems) or the best film ever produced by Happy Madison (Funny People). But it is a great film, one I’ve loved for most of my life and expect I will always love in the simple, uncomplicated way we love the movies that made us. 

If you know anything about Happy Madison, you know their films are considered lowbrow trash, and not particularly unfairly. I’ve called the entire existence of Happy Madison a scam before, and I’m happy to do so again now, because it is. But just as Vox publishes a lot of great cultural writing while pretending to be a journalistic outlet, Happy Madison has produced good films. There’s a temptation in defending single works of a largely reviled kind to try and distance the particular from the general, to say “I know this is technically one of those, but it’s not really one of those”. That’s not necessarily a dishonest move: Reign Over Me, a drama about a mentally-ill 9/11 widower starring Sandler and produced by Happy Madison, is very much not a Happy Madison film in the sense I described above. But it’s too often less about clarity than not admitting you like something disreputable. I love Click, but I would never claim, as I have with Reign Over Me or Funny People, that it “isn’t really a ‘Happy Madison’ film”. Of course it’s a Happy Madison film. It’s the most Happy Madison film ever made. It’s the vindication of the Happy Madison film as a genre. 

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Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon

You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it

“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.” 

The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body. 

Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye

The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester. 

Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres. 

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You Should Watch Short Films Forever

I’ve been struggling for years to express to other people exactly what I love about short films as an art form. Some of that is definitely that short films have no significant constituency in popular culture, so you can’t really assume a lot of priors. I don’t need to explain what feature-length films are like as an art form before I tell you why I like feature-length films, but most people don’t watch a lot of short films so in almost every conversation I have about them, I’m on the back foot from the get-go. I think there’s a popular view of short films as either Very Important Movies About Very Important Issues, like the tens of thousands of anti-bullying short films on YouTube, or pretentious film school nonsense, and probably shite either way. 

And there is a lot of stuff like that, sure, but if it feels like that’s all short films are, that’s really just a reflection of how accessible they are as a medium, if not necessarily for audiences, then certainly for filmmakers. All you need to make a short film is a camera, a way to edit the footage and the time to make it. Every phone in the world has a camera on it right now more powerful than almost anything imaginable just thirty years ago, and there’s loads of free editing software, some of a very high quality, available on your phone or computer. All that leaves is the time, and short films by definition are generally less time-consuming to produce. Even with the constraints of needing a computer and Internet access to do it, I’m not sure there’s a medium other than the written word with a lower barrier to entry as both an artist and a publisher than short films right now. It’s no shock it produces tons of rubbish, any more than it’s a shock most self-published novels are total shite. But the vast and overwhelming shiteness of self-published novels has never impugned the novel as an art form. Yet the glut of bad short films on the Internet has undeniably tainted the reputation of the medium. 

The most obvious explanation is there are virtually no large commercial interests behind short films (and there haven’t been for decades), whereas novels are produced and distributed by some of the biggest commercial interests in the world. Short films are a relatively uncommodified form, which is fantastic in a lot of ways, but it also means they aren’t marketed outside a small niche of filmgoers and largely lack even the infrastructure for formal, large-scale distribution outside the festival circuit or self-publication on the Internet. For novels, there are official routes to publication that, however flawed they may be in other areas, do provide some level of quality control just on the basic level of competence with language. It’s a reassurance that, if nothing else, a bunch of people who aren’t the author read the book before you and made sure it wasn’t just absolute unreadable gibberish. The line it draws is imperfect and hardly meritocratic, but it mostly succeeds at sorting some of the wheat from most of the chaff. The only guides people interested in or curious about short films have to finding the good stuff is articles like this by critics and other enthusiasts. And then you have to be able to get your hands on the films to watch them, which can be pretty tricky given the lack of distribution. Unless you have a load of cash to drop on expensive Blu-ray boxsets or Vimeo rentals – and even then, not everything is available to buy – you end up dependent on people willing and able to upload them for free, legally or not, just to be able to see them, and even official uploads can be pretty low-quality if they haven’t been reuploaded since YouTube started allowing higher-definition video. 

But I love short films despite all the hassle. I love short films because they’re films and there’s almost nothing in this world I love as much as I love films. 

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Make It, Don’t Fake It

Trash Humpers is a difficult film to talk about without people dismissing it as, well, trash. Shot on VHS and edited in part on a pair of VCRs – sometimes blindfolded – it follows an anonymous gang of misfits in rubber old person masks1 as they traipse around Nashville, TN and film themselves doing a bunch of weird shit, like humping rubbish bins. Right from the second shot of the film, they hump rubbish bins, and fences, and trees, and whatever other inanimate objects strike their fancy. (They hire some sex workers at one point, but mainly to play drums on their asses.) It’s vulgar, strange and unsettling. It has less than no plot and almost no sense of linear time: the only thing that suggests any particular order to the events is the fact that some scenes are taped over others. 

“It’s not for everyone” is a cliché and a truism, but the audience of people both able and inclined to enjoy a film like Trash Humpers is vanishingly small. Some of that is the weird sex stuff, sure, but Pink Flamingos features unsimulated blowjobs, sex scenes involving live chickens and a guy who makes his asshole sing “Surfin’ Bird”, and it has a thousand times more popular appeal than Trash Humpers ever could. When we talk about taste in art, I feel like there’s a tendency to try and sort people into “types” or “taste profiles” or whatever. Usually on the basis of genre – the horror fan, the action fan, the romance fan – or, increasingly, based on weird, niche stereotypes like the “IMDb 250 fan” (a subject of derision in many online film communities for reasons that remain unclear to me) or the many varieties of “bro”. But our tastes are a lot more granular, specific and individual than that. I am, in theory, the target audience for a film like Hell or High Water. I love Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. I love westerns. The premise – two brothers rob the bank that duped their late mother into getting a reverse mortgage – fits me like a pair of moulded leather gloves. I wish at least 800% more films were about the recession and earnestly believe that movies should depict as many bank robberies as possible. But I don’t like Hell or High Water. It’s not a bad film, and there are lots of things I like about it, but it left me cold in the end. When I look back on it now, my overwhelming memory is how its desaturated colour grading reminded me of watery dilutable orange. It’s simply not to my taste. 

I don’t know if I could ever explain exactly why Trash Humpers appeals to me, but it does. In spite of all the reasons to find it mindless or boring or ugly, I just love this little film. It’s beautiful and funny and scary and moving. It rules. 

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You Should Watch Figures in a Landscape

I find it easy enough to sell people on a film I love when it’s widely hated. The bad reputation of a film like The Happening is obviously an obstacle to selling people on it, but it’s also kind of a hook. At the very least, it saves me some explaining and gives me an initial impression to subvert. People also get a bit of a thrill from contrarianism. It feels good to reject the consensus, especially in such a low-stakes way as liking a film most people – or most critics – think is shit. Discovering a hidden gem or a misjudged masterpiece makes you feel like you’re in on a cool secret. It’s countercultural in the most literal sense. I know exactly how I’d pitch someone on the surprisingly moving Adam Sandler comedy Click or the director’s cut of the 2003 Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck. 

But sometimes films aren’t just hated or underrated. Sometimes, they’re not even forgotten: no one paid them enough attention in the first place to forget them. They’re the tough sell. It’s one thing to have been received with disdain, but to have simply been ignored? At least films that were panned were deemed worthy of recording in the annals of pop cultural history. If no one even took the time to hate something, I think our instinct is to assume it’s probably bad, and not even bad in interesting ways. Boringly bad. But even if that’s likely true of most such films, just as it’s likely true of most art ever, there’s nothing fundamentally meritocratic about what gets left in or out of history. The sheer volume of production over the last century-and-change of cinema practically guarantees some good films – maybe even some of the best films ever made – have managed to come into the world with very little notice. Even films by critically well-regarded directors. Even films by Palme d’Or winners. 

Figures in a Landscape is one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. And no one else seems to give a shit about it. 

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Do I Look Like the Kind of Clown That Could Start a Movement?

It’s a pretty old story at this point, but it’s a good one: when Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, a lot of film critics expressed concern that it would inspire black people to riot. The film follows a day in the life of the residents of a racially-mixed but largely black neighbourhood in Brooklyn that culminates in the murder of a black man, Radio Raheem, by the police. The police came because of a fight between Radio Raheem and the owner of the local pizzeria, Sal, so the onlookers who saw the murder blame him. One resident, Da Mayor, tries to persuade the crowd to walk away, but Sal’s employee, Mookie, played by director Spike Lee, throws a bin through the window. The crowd runs into the pizzeria and smashes up the furniture. One of Radio Raheem’s friends sets it on fire. It’s one of my favourite setpieces in the history of cinema and it terrified several white critics at the time

It should go without saying that none of those fears were borne out. No riots broke out at screenings of Do the Right Thing. And that’s why the story lingers. It’s a story about the racism of white critics, a nice shorthand explanation of how criticism itself is distorted when the field is dominated by people from a narrow set of backgrounds, whether the skew is racial, gendered or economic. But I think it’s worth recognising that when those critics wet themselves over the possibility of a film inspiring real riots, they weren’t only racist. They were also wrong. And not just wrong because riots didn’t occur, but wrong because riots were never going to occur. Sometimes people have rioted about films, like The Birth of a NationThe Rules of the Game or Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic from a couple of years ago that enraged Hindu nationalists and Rajput caste extremists who heard – incorrectly – that it portrayed sex between a Muslim king and a Rajput queen, among other things. But there is no evidence in the history of film that exposure to a movie’s content, as opposed to the mere fact of its existence, has ever inspired anyone to riot. In fact, everyone who has ever promoted panic about art causing violence of any kind has been wrong. They were wrong about Do the Right Thing. They were wrong about Doom and Grand Theft Auto and every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem

They were wrong about Joker

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Double Features #7: Genre Buddies

The worst thing a cover of a song can be is faithful. The point of a cover should be to shift a song in a different direction, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix transforming “All Along the Watchtower” from a cryptic folk song to an apocalyptic howl of electric madness or Take That turning Barry Manilow’s dark, dramatic piano ballad “Could It Be Magic” into a synth-driven dance track. It’s fascinating how a change in genre – something so often treated as cosmetic, even superficial – can make the same song sound completely different.

I wouldn’t describe any of these films as covers of each other exactly, but I feel a similar thrill watching them together and thinking about them, the thrill of common elements changed utterly by their context, style and genre. Like they’re singing from the same hymn sheet, but with wildly different approaches to the material. Some of the shifts are smaller than others, but all of them reflect on each other in really interesting ways, and most importantly, all of them rule.

Here’s five more double features.

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Notes on The Last Jedi

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


I feel like I need to clear the air a little before I start. I knew I’d want to write about The Last Jedi for this series pretty much immediately after watching it. It had parts I found breathtakingly beautiful, among the best things in the entire Star Wars franchise. It also had parts so bad I sincerely entertained the notion my screening was shown a joke version of the film for a prank show (the Yoda scene, mostly). I don’t know what an interesting cinematic failure is if it isn’t The Last Jedi. In accordance with our ethos of cold takes, I waited to start writing until (1) I’d given myself adequate time to sit with my thoughts, move beyond my initial impressions and hopefully deepen my analysis, and (2) there was no ongoing cultural discourse of significant scope or fervour around the film. I didn’t want my take on the film to be hot in either the sense it came too quickly after I watched the film or the sense it was too pegged to any particularly heated discussion unfolding when I wrote it. The former to ensure I developed my ideas well and the latter to ensure I wasn’t overly invested in responding to specific takes on the film that might be personally infuriating, but weren’t actually that interesting or relevant. So I waited.

It took the most devastating global pandemic since the Spanish flu to get people to shut up about this movie for five minutes.

The Last Jedi might not be the most controversial film of all time, but I can’t think of another that has continuously generated such a consistently high volume of discussion and debate for so long. People may have committed acts of terrorism over The Last Temptation of Christ, but they didn’t keep doing it for three years after release. The film came out, people saw it, the controversy abated, the world moved on. Not so with The Last Jedi. Obviously, a major part of that is the existence of social media as a permanent global forum with no space limits. Even with a 24-hour news cycle, only so much can fit in a newspaper or in a broadcast at a given time. News websites don’t have space limits, but they have the practical constraints of a human workforce that can’t pump out endless coverage of infinite topics (at time of writing). Social media knows no such limits. If thousands of people decide to spend their time arguing about whether a film is good or not, the only limit is their own patience.

But the changing nature of how we communicate only explains how The Last Jedi discourse lasted so long, not why. The 2016 remake of Ghostbusters also generated lots of controversy and discussion, months of it, but it was a dead topic within a year of its release. Not The Last Jedi. Until just a couple of months ago, it was still an active battlefield of culture war nonsense. Tens of thousands of words in op-eds and essays, thousands of hours of video on YouTube, and that’s not even touching on the tweets. People have written books about it. And I guess I needed to give all this context just so I could be clear about one thing before I dive into my own thoughts on the film.

I do not care about any of this.

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You Should Watch Even More Short Films

One of the reasons I’m such a proselytiser for short films, despite the overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of them (especially nowadays), are quite shit, is that shorts have always been the refuge of upstarts and underdogs, experimenters and innovators, and weirdos of various stripes too non-commercial to ever command a feature budget. Some truly great, influential and just bizarre filmmakers have cut their teeth and even built their careers in short films, and it’s not fair they’re lumped in with the glut of grey-toned anti-bullying PSAs and twee self-indulgent positivity culture shite that’s plastered all over social media for some reason. They deserve better. And you deserve better.

Here’s even more short films that are actually good.

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