Wrestling for Sceptics: Ten Matches to Whet Your Whistle

Wrestling is in a weird place right now. In some ways, it’s going through a bit of a golden age, with a massive international independent scene that’s no longer dependent purely on local interest for support. I’ve never been to Germany – apart from a nightmarish layover in Munich Airport – but I’ve enjoyed dozens of matches from the German Wrestling Federation thanks to their availability online. I know lots of people with video-on-demand and streaming subscriptions for companies all over the world, from Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre to Japan’s DDT Pro-Wrestling to my home promotion, Ireland’s Over the Top Wrestling. You can watch high-quality wrestling with solid production values every week on YouTube for free from NWA Powerrr and China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. WWE, the largest wrestling company in the world, is facing serious competition from a rival for the first time in years courtesy of All Elite Wrestling and its weekly TV show, Dynamite. There’s even a pretty good women’s wrestling show from GLOW founder David McLane called WOW that I’ve reviewed over at Bell to Belles. More great wrestlers are working today than you could ever imagine and with so much variety, there really is something for everyone.

But, in other ways, it’s a scary time for wrestling fans. WWE might have a new rival, but it’s not a rival really capable of breaking their effective monopoly on wrestling in the US. AEW is showing WWE up regularly in terms of the quality of its programming, but WWE is such a big company, and has such deep pockets, that its mere existence distorts the entire industry. It can outbid any competitor when offering contracts and constantly signs new wrestlers while rarely releasing anyone or doing anything to encourage retirement, which shrinks the pool of talent available to other companies. Unlike most companies, it demands complete exclusivity from most of its employees (sorry, “independent contractors”) and even the rare few on its British brand, NXT UK, who are allowed to perform in other companies do so under heavy restrictions and with the constant risk of being pulled from shows at the last minute. The vast majority of independent wrestling companies run on very thin margins, supported entirely by ticket and merch sales, with virtually no cushion if financial disaster strikes. There may be more companies than ever before, reaching more people than ever before, but it’s not clear whether the wrestling audience is actually expanding or if fans are just spending more and more on wrestling. I kind of suspect it’s the latter and that most of the industry is built on a foundation of fan support and audience goodwill that’s not sustainable unless more people get into wrestling. When the next big financial crisis hits and pocketbooks shrink, it’s likely it will be the end of many independent companies, not to mention the careers of the wrestlers they employ.

I’m not writing this article to save wrestling or anything, though if I did, that’d be neat. But as someone who got into wrestling in just the last couple of years, I understand a lot of what the wrestling-sceptical and even the wrestling-curious can find off-putting about it. I want to talk about some of these issues and point those who are open to wrestling, but not yet convinced, in the direction of some matches that represent the various shades of what wrestling has to offer right now. It’s not at all exhaustive. I’ve left some really weird shit on the drawing board, and it’s limited to a handful of mostly English-language companies, but, with a little help from my friends, I’ve put together a list of matches that, in my personal opinion, (1) slap hard and (2) can and should be enjoyed by people coming to wrestling with fresh eyes, whether you’re interested in hard-hitting technical wrestling, operatic emotional storytelling or silly nonsense (the three things that make wrestling great).

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No Harm, No Foul: the Bobby Hicks Story

The Florida Project is one of the best films of the last decade and one of my favourite films of all time. It’s also a movie whose name makes me wince when I hear almost anyone else mention it, because so many people – even people who like it – end up saying truly horrible things about its lead characters, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is the young mother of Moonee, and they’re part of the invisible homeless, living out of a single room in a motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, near Disney World. The two main strands of the film are Moonee’s adventures with her friends Scooty, Dicky and Jancey, inspired by the Our Gang short films popular in Depression-era America, and Halley’s struggles to keep them off the street. There’s no real narrative throughline for Moonee, but Halley’s story is one of steadily escalating peril as the exploitation and indifference of others – and some bad decisions of her own – make it harder and harder for her to get by. She loses her job at a strip club because she refuses to have sex with a client. She loses her benefits because she loses her job (the circumstances were not considered extenuating). Unable to find work elsewhere, she starts selling stolen perfume to tourists and babysits Scooty in exchange for his mother, Ashley, giving her and Moonee stolen food from the diner where she works. When they fall out and Ashley cuts ties with her, Halley ends up, ironically, doing the exact sex work she lost her job over to pay rent. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about how poor people are punished for being poor (along with Wendy and Lucy) and it moved me more deeply than I can ever express.

I’ve been aware some people hate these characters since I saw The Florida Project in the cinema. I was homeless at the time, all alone in the smallest screen until five minutes through the ads, when a large contingent of very posh-looking older people joined me. When we reached the climactic scene, where Moonee finds out she’s going to be taken from Halley by child services and runs away so she can say goodbye to her friends, I was sobbing very hard. There’s a particular moment where the realisation sets in for Moonee. She’s trying to tell her friend Jancey that they’ll probably never see each other again and Jancey asks why. Moonee bursts into tears and starts wailing in pain and fear and sorrow because she can’t bring herself to say what’s happened. For reasons I will wonder about until the day I die, the rest of the people in my screening laughed. I was prepared to write it off as one of weird group of people with empathy problems, but then I sat through this horrible review of the film where Ben Mankiewicz calls Halley “the worst mother in the history of movies” and talks about how he spent most of the film wanting Moonee to be taken from her, and a dozen like it besides.

I don’t go in for casting aspersions on the morality or motives of people based on how they react to a work of art, but, I’m not gonna lie, it was very hard not to do it with a lot of people’s responses to The Florida Project. People would say Halley is an unfit mother and that, even if it was sad, Moonee would be better off in foster care and it just baffled me. Halley is kind of obnoxious, sure, and not all her choices are the best choices. She perhaps doesn’t monitor the children enough sometimes and she assaults Ashley in front of Scooty when Ashley criticises her for doing sex work. But, despite the poverty they live in, Halley keeps Moonee fed and sheltered and happy and safe. They live in awful conditions, but Moonee is happy, she’s a sweet, joyful, adventurous child whose mother lets her live in blissful ignorance of the world’s shittiness. No, she doesn’t have great prospects in life, but that’s because she’s a homeless child, not because Halley is “the worst mother in the history of movies”. And the idea that she’ll definitely, or even probably, be better off in foster care is absurd if you know even a little bit about it. It’s not just the horror stories – though God knows there are plenty of them – it’s the simple fact that, in most circumstances, separating a child from their parents is a harm in itself.

But that’s not what baffled me. I know people look down on homeless people, single mothers and sex workers. I know that poor people are villainised for doing things our society ignores or even lauds when rich people do them: one of the foundational principles of neoliberalism is that it’s bad for poor people to passively receive income for unemployment, but extremely good for the rich to passively receive income for already being rich. I know people think of child separation as a miracle solution to poverty, neglect and abuse. What baffled me is there’s a character in the film with these kinds of attitudes and he’s not the hero of the story.

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Double Features #5: Here We Go Again

This article is part of the Double Features series, which pairs great films that go great together. Check out previous installments here, herehere and here.


Double features are great. You watch one film, and then you watch another? Sign me up! Every time I’ve seen two movies right after another in a cinema, it’s been great. (Except when I had to sprint from The Handmaiden to Raw. I am not a man made for sprinting.) But I find they’re even better when there’s a throughline connecting the two films, so, y’know, here we are.

Check these double features out if you like movies. If not, suggest them to your friends who do like movies as a power move. Either way, read on.

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DVDs Don’t Buffer

Debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of the rise of streaming services are among the most frustrating cyclical discourses in the world of film and TV critics, entertainment journalists and other people who just like to argue about pop culture. It’s right up there with the annual “pick one film in the Oscar race and arbitrarily designate it the evil one” discourse, the quarterly attempts to cancel Martin Scorsese, and the monthly skirmishes over “letting people enjoy things”. Yet, as with those tangles of bullshit, I am drawn inexorably toward streaming debates like a shrimp to an anglerfish’s luminescent head frond. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about film or television and not care about the material conditions under which they’re produced, distributed and exhibited.

There are lots of interesting ways to think about streaming: whether it offers more creative freedom to artists (kinda), whether it’s more democratic than theatrical distribution (no), whether it’s all just gonna implode one day and thousands of original movies, television series and stand-up specials will just kind of vanish from any legal distribution channels (probably). I’m glad to see more of a sceptical eye turned to immoral business practices in the industry lately, from Disney’s attempts to destroy independent cinemas to talent agencies selling out their clients for their own benefit to the obvious moves towards monopoly by the major media conglomerates. (Not how exploitative record deals are, though. I guess I’ll have to dust that one off sometime.) It’s important these issues are not just highlighted but explored thoroughly, so we don’t end up with situations like the California law ostensibly designed to stop Uber and similar companies misclassifying employees as independent contracts, which has (1) not stopped Uber et al. doing anything and (2) ruined the lives of basically every freelance journalist in the state.

But I also think a robust engagement with streaming requires looking at narrower issues with user experience. I kind of hate talking about topics like this, because you end up using terms like “user experience”. Materialist analysis is a useful and important way to look at art as a function of the economy, but it still makes my skin crawl to hear works of art described as “products” or, worse still, “properties”. I would rather never have to think about the minutiae of how movies and TV shows are presented to me, but since they are both literally and figuratively embedded in the mediums they’re distributed in, it must be done. Especially because there’s an issue in the debate over streaming vs physical home media that I’ve never seen anyone else really articulate.

DVDs don’t buffer.

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You Should Still Watch More Short Films

I threatened to go hard experimental with this list if I didn’t see a visible uptick in appreciation for short films after my last paean to short cinema. But I also said no one in my life had bought a boxset of Jan Švankmajer shorts I could borrow and now someone has bought me one, so I’ll go easy on you all this time. Today’s selection stretches exactly one hundred years, starting in 1919 with a silly British cartoon and closing out in 2019 with a surreal masterpiece of the online. Nine decades, six or seven countries (depending on how you want to count Scotland), five animated and five live-action, it’s another cornucopia of fantastic art to sample.

Here’s another ten further more short films also again for you to enjoy.

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Have You Considered Shooting Franklin Roosevelt?

BOOTH: You know, you really ought to do something about that stomach. ​

ZANGARA: I do everything about this stomach!

BOOTH: Oh, yes?

ZANGARA: I give up wine, no good. I give up smokes, no good. I quit my work, no good. I move Miami, no good. I take appendix out, no good. Nothing no good. Nothing, nothing, nothing!

BOOTH: Have you considered shooting Franklin Roosevelt?

ZANGARA: You think that help?

BOOTH: It couldn’t hurt.

In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, lots of people wrote lots of thinkpieces about lots of different art that could putatively “explain” This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, whether through its content (e.g. Idiocracy) or the cultural discourse surrounding it (e.g. the truly wild amount of controversy and debate about the Ghostbusters remake). I understand the impulse, even if I find it misguided and sad. People want a piece of media to unlock everything because it creates the illusion that you can understand and control things that are either inexplicable or which require you to re-evaluate yourself and your life in a way that’s uncomfortable or even painful. It’s not really that different from why people become conspiracy theorists, though art is usually a less dangerous lens through which to seek clarity. The main musical afflicted with this unfair burden was Hamilton, which was held up as either a celebration of bipartisan procedural democracy or a rebuke to rising xenophobia, depending on what was convenient. But some other musicals got the same treatment, including Evita and Assassins. (Not The Fix though, because no one gives a shit about The Fix.)

Assassins¹ is a very strange musical, even for Stephen Sondheim, one of the form’s most idiosyncratic writers. (He wrote the music and lyrics; John Weidman wrote the book.) It concerns some of the various men and women (mostly men) who assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States, with a particular focus on those who succeeded: John Wilkes Booth, Charles J. Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald. You could say it has a non-linear plot, since it presents the assassinations out of order, but that understates the oddness of its narrative structure.

Between assassinations, all the characters hang out in a kind of purgatory that exists before, after and alongside their lives. John Wilkes Booth, who died in 1865, gives Giuseppe Zangara the idea to shoot FDR in 1933. John Hinckley, Jr. and Sara Jane Moore sing a duet about their plans to kill Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford respectively. Like Into the Woods, another Sondheim musical, it has an omniscient narrator who comes into conflict with the characters and is eventually destroyed by them. It’s very weird, very dark and very, very funny. It’s one of my favourite musicals of all time.

I don’t think Assassins can explain the current political moment. I don’t think any work of art can, because art just isn’t very good at providing answers like that. But art is excellent at asking questions or reframing how we think. Not much leaves me thinking quite like Assassins does.

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Notes on Bully

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


I watched Bully because Roger Ebert said it “calls the bluff of movies that pretend to be about murder but are really about entertainment”. It’s based on the real murder of Bobby Kent in 1993 by people he’d bullied and raped, and others who were along for the ride. Ebert goes on: “His film has all the sadness and shabbiness, all the mess and cruelty and thoughtless stupidity of the real thing… this is not about the evil sadist and the release of revenge; it’s about how a group of kids will do something no single member is capable of. And about the moral void these kids inhabit.”

His description of the film immediately brought to mind American Animals, one of the best films of this decade. It isn’t about murder, but it is about a violent crime, committed by young people who are propelled forward as much by the interpersonal dynamics of their group as their stated motives. It takes the violence its characters commit extremely seriously, setting you up to expect stylised film violence and then dropping you suddenly and horribly in something upsettingly realistic. I didn’t go into Bully hoping it would be the same as American Animals, but I like seeing how different films – and filmmakers – handle similar subject matter and themes.

Bully is a great film in almost every way. The cast are phenomenal, especially Rachel Miner and Brad Renfro as Lisa and Marty, the ringleaders of the murder. The camera stalks moodily through Florida suburbs perched precariously on the edge of the Everglades, everything cast in light and shadow by the harsh streetlamps. You can almost hear the ambient buzz of electricity through overhead wires. The screenplay avoids the pitfalls of many realistic treatments of teen life written by adults. It isn’t full of outdated slang. The teenagers sound like teenagers, especially in all the ways teenagers try not to sound like teenagers. It’s a great film. Almost.

The co-writer of that screenplay, David McKenna, disowned the finished film, writing in a furious letter to the director and producers that it “resembled a porno” with “unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation [and] no character development”. He is credited as Zachary Long in the finished film. I don’t agree with McKenna or others who gave Bully harshly negative reviews, like David Edelstein. But I also don’t agree with Roger Ebert, who said it was basically perfect.

It’s not perfect. It’s almost perfect. But it’s too goddamn creepy to get there.

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The Problem with Your Netflix Recommendations

I despise The Big Bang Theory to an almost pathological degree. According to Netflix, The Big Bang Theory is an 88% match to my interests. By contrast, Blackadder is just a 71% match, even though it’s a show I’ve watched and loved my entire life. Breaking Bad, which I’ve watched from start to finish multiple times on Netflix, has a healthy 96% rating. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I used to watch on Netflix until it got crap and I stopped three and a half years ago, has an even healthier 97%. Hannibal, another show I’ve watched from start to finish on Netflix, clocks in at 84%, narrowly ahead of Peppa Pig at 82%. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a show I would only watch if paid a princely sum to review, is a 90% match to my interests. Only Fools and Horses, a show I watch all the time, is rated too low for Netflix to even bother giving me a number. My recommendations are full of anime, even though I haven’t watched any anime since I was a child. Netflix thinks I’d like every single Louis Theroux series it has, even though I have never, ever watched any documentary TV series in my life.

Netflix’s recommendation algorithm seems like it’s broken. But it’s not, it’s working just fine, at least for now. The problem is the algorithm’s job isn’t to help users find TV shows and movies they would enjoy. It’s to trick Netflix’s investors into thinking the company is worth more than it is.

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What Disney Will Destroy Next

We don’t much like giant media conglomerates around here – they make art inaccessible to the poor and abuse the copyright system to steal from the entire human race. But if I could smash just one of the huge corporations that dominate the entertainment industry, it would be Disney, no question. The Walt Disney Company is now the second-largest media conglomerate in the world following its acquisition of Fox, just behind AT&T. It is by far the largest film company in the world, collecting over a third of the global box office this year alone. And it’s a terrible, evil company that can’t be trusted with the power it’s acquired.

The merger’s first victims – after the thousands of people who lost their jobs because of it – were independent cinemas. Disney has a unique policy about who can screen its new and old films. It divides theatres into commercial theatres (which can show new Disney films, but not old ones) and repertory theatres (which can show old Disney films, but not new ones). Most independent theatres don’t fit this binary, of course. Many will screen some new releases so their foot traffic can subsidise smaller films or releases. After the merger, Disney extended this policy to the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, with disastrous implications for independent theatres. Disney is arbitrarily ruling theatres commercial or repertory, often without communicating this fact to their management, so they only learn when an attempted booking goes nowhere. The Fox catalogue contains loads of classic films whose well-attended rereleases are the financial backbone of many independent theatres: Young Frankenstein, Alien, Raising Arizona, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Die Hard. Without them, independent cinemas will struggle to survive. (There is a purported exemption for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for unexplained reasons.)

But it won’t stop there. Disney doesn’t care about the collateral damage of its endless pursuit of profit for its own sake. The people who run it are perfectly willing to lay waste to anyone who delays them even one second on their way to the next billion dollars. Disney will only grow more and more powerful unless it’s broken up by state action.

Until then, here’s some other things Disney will destroy.

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The Suicide Comedies of Jack Lemmon

We live in a weird moment for suicide humour, where it seems simultaneously omnipresent yet also impossible to find. Go on social media, and you’ll find an endless amount of jokes about wanting to die from millennials. Lots has been written about this tendency and how it acts as a form of catharsis for a generation with very little to look forward to in life. It’s a way to spit up a bit of the poison that we’ve spent our whole lives ingesting, a source of relief and even community, as we signal a shared anxiety about the future to other people and their likes, shares, retweets, comments, etc. signal to us that we’re not alone. Or so the theory goes anyway.

I’ve enjoyed and participated in this kind of absurdist suicide humour plenty. I sincerely believe the change.org petition to “let people drink the red liquid from the dark sarcophagus” should be studied as a defining work of millennial neo-Dadaism. Who else has spoken for their generation so succinctly as petition author and video game programmer Innes McKendrick when he wrote “we need to drink the red liquid from the cursed dark sarcophagus in the form of some sort of carbonated energy drink so we can assume its powers and finally die”?

But I’ve begun to have my doubts about “lol please kill me” as the dominant genre of suicide joke in our age. Because it’s not really about suicide, is it? It’s about suicidality, about the abstract feeling of wanting to die, not about suicide as it happens in the world. While it can gesture at a wider context – e.g. tweeting “just put a bullet in my brain now” in response to some horrible news stories – there is something self-centred about it. Not selfish, but literally centred on the self, on the individual and how they feel inside. It’s always “I want to die” and “please kill me” and “every night I pray that a burst of gamma radiation from space will incinerate the atmosphere and end my suffering”. And that’s fine as part of a diversity of comic approaches to suicide, but I have to ask: where are the jokes about a hanging gone wrong? Where are the jokes about other people’s indifference to your pain? (“I told my therapist I was gonna kill myself. He said I have to start paying in advance.”) Where are the funny scenes of attempted suicide in mainstream comedies? I get a kick out of the occasional funny tweet about wanting to die, but the genre isn’t hospitable to other kinds of jokes, particularly jokes with scenarios and characters where we’re looking at suicidal people, not being them. When just one style of humour has become this totalising and suffocating, it’s not enough. It’s overplayed and unsatisfying and dull.

It also dovetails unsettlingly well with the growing tendency to treat mental illness, and therefore suicide, as an issue of individual brains and their damage. Mark Fisher, the left-wing writer who took his own life in 2017, wrote in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism that treating mental illness as purely an issue of brain chemistry, or even of personal health, is necessarily comorbid with the depoliticisation of mental health. “It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin.” We may agitate for more funding for mental health treatment, but if we don’t also agitate to change the social conditions that lead to such high rates of mental illness in the first place, it’s little different than fighting for medical care for the children of Flint, Michigan, but not fighting to get them lead-free water.

I’m not laying the responsibility to build a revolution at the feet of the mummy juice petition or any other similar jokes, obviously, but I am curious about the way these tendencies seem to have come of age together and how the first generation raised to think of mental illness and suicide this way is also (1) extremely mentally-ill and suicidal and (2) constantly joking about it in this particular style. I love suicide jokes, to a degree others often find unsettling, especially if they know I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking obsessively about murdering myself. I’m not here to shut down the party by any means, but Christ does it need some shaking up. We need more yucks from guns misfiring and melodramatic motivations.

We need Jack Lemmon.

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