Against Relatability

Against Relatability

I once had a friend question how I could possibly like Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago when I’d never been through a breakup. (That isn’t strictly true, but I’ve been with the same person for my whole adult life, so it’s much of a muchness.) I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but it was something like: just because I haven’t been sad over a breakup doesn’t mean I can’t relate to being sad. He seemed sceptical but didn’t push the point.

Roughly six years later, I have a better answer.

Fuck relatability.

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The Recession, by Soderbergh

The Recession, by Soderbergh

When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.

I feel like that’s worth stating baldly because it seems at times like people have forgotten, or at least misremembered. It wasn’t a little blip on the road to progress, or a tough couple years we all made it through relatively unscathed. The economy didn’t disappoint or underwhelm, it fucking imploded. The financial crisis became the Great Recession became the “recovery”. It wasn’t that long ago – and it arguably never ended – but its impact on popular culture seems absurdly slight for something that transformed the world. For something that killed so many people. So I feel like it’s worth stating baldly.

When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.

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The Rashomon Effect Effect

The Rashomon Effect Effect

The “Rashomon effect” describes the tendency of witnesses to or participants in the same events to give mutually contradictory accounts of what happened due to the subjectivity and fallibility of human memory. It’s named after the 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four witnesses to a murder give contradictory accounts of what happened. The term is bandied about a lot in pop psychology (and philosophy) articles, and one of its more recent applications is, of course, This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit. In the aftermath of the two major political upsets of 2016, the mainstream media churned out hundreds of handwringing articles about the “post-truth world”, because it’s insufficient for cloistered political and media elites to have merely been wrong, their opinions and expertise are so important that if they were wrong, the only explanation was that the fundamental human ability to distinguish reality from fiction had completely disintegrated.

With its emphasis on an immutable failing of human nature – a fundamental inability to ever truly recall events accurately or, in effect, to know the world at all – it was inevitable that the Rashomon effect would be trotted out as a buzzy term to explain the new reality. Michael Wolff even mentions it in his insider account of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. The appeal of the term is easy to understand: it describes a basic and insurmountable flaw, so it absolves everyone of responsibility to think about how and why falsehoods may have played a more decisive role in recent politics than in a supposed past era where people were more honest, or at least where the public was harder to hoodwink. I’m not saying they have done – I’m sceptical of the notion of a “post-truth world” – but if they did, I could think of reasons other than the Rashomon effect. Off the top of my head, it’s possible formerly authoritative news sources destroyed their credibility with the public by, among other things, helping the Bush administration manufacture the pretext for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. I’m no expert, but I have to wonder if perhaps public trust in the media was damaged when literally no one lost their job over one of the most massive and systemic failures of journalism in recent times.

Of course, that’s just my interpretation, and here’s where I should be putting the obvious joke about how it’s just like in Rashomon, where everyone remembers things differently. But there’s a problem. Unlike most people who reference the Rashomon effect, I’ve seen Rashomon. And Rashomon isn’t about the subjectivity and fallibility of memory. It’s about lying.

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Notes on Hamlet (2000)

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

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 Redistribution of Art

The Redistribution of Art

If you read a lot of pop culture criticism, you’ll very quickly come across three words: vital, essential and necessary. Critics, especially film and TV critics in my experience, love to describe the very best art in the same way most people describe things like food, shelter and healthcare. The instinct might be to treat this as hyperbole, but I like to take people at their word, and besides, there’s no shortage of writing out there that makes explicit what’s merely suggested in most uses of “vital”, “essential” and “necessary”. Moreover, I agree completely: art is an essential part of life.

There are as many explanations for why art is vital, essential and necessary as there are thinkpieces explaining why. Art is how we understand each other when we can’t see inside each other’s skull prisons. Art has profound social value, capable of transforming how people see the world by forcing them to confront unfamiliar realities or new perspectives on age-old issues. Art and the appreciation of art is what makes life meaningful at all for lots of people. I don’t disagree with any of those points of view, but they’re all a bit piecemeal for my taste, failing to provide a universal justification for why art is necessary.

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Oliver in the High Castle: Nazis in Pop Culture

Oliver in the High Castle: Nazis in Pop Culture

The fourth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl – was called “Crisis on Earth-X” and I…enjoyed it? I’ve written previously about my visceral hatred for superhero TV show crossovers, and “Crisis on Earth-X” certainly doesn’t avoid all the problems of the genre, but, as a self-contained story – as a TV movie, essentially – it’s certainly the most successful Arrowverse crossover yet.

It was about Nazis.

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