Hollywood, the Bush Years, and America’s Memory Hole [Current Affairs]

Few films have tried to interpret the Bush era, but the ones that have are worth examining in detail. W.Vice, and The Report are some of the few major films about the Bush administration that Hollywood has produced, and despite their different approaches to history, each speaks to an important truth: to the personal moral character of George Bush; to the moral character of Republican Party in the decades before Donald Trump; and to why, exactly, America chooses to forget. 

I wrote about W., Vice, and The Report for Current Affairs. You can read it here!

The Mere Possibility of the Movie Musical

Earlier this year, video essayist Lindsay Ellis uploaded a dissection of the 2019 film adaptation of Cats. Cats is a cinematic monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed, and Ellis’s video seeks to figure out why. Cats (2019) is awful in ways both rooted in the source material – the whole thing is basically a succession of cats walking into frame and singing a song about what kind of cat they are – and entirely its own – the uncanny valley visual effects make the cats somewhere unsettling between human and cat – but Ellis places a lot of the blame on the tricky business of moving from stage to screen.

“Some musicals – not all, but most of them – require a visual medium that jives with the way the musical itself is constructed. Les Misérables was constructed for the stage. Cats was constructed for the stage,” Ellis says, citing the way actors on stage frequently pantomime props or sets that aren’t there, “That is the thing about theatre… it is constructed so that the audience has to imagine what’s going on in the story. Overcoming that suspension of disbelief is built into the design of the medium in a way that it is not with film.”

These ideas about the film musical – that the suspension of disbelief required for musicals as a genre is at odds with film as a medium, or that the process of adaptation from stage musical to film is a particularly and perhaps uniquely fraught one – are really common. People talk about film musicals as particularly difficult to pull off in ways they don’t about pretty much any other genre. “The genre’s lack of realism and inherent camp” is “alienating for modern audiences”, according to Film School Rejects. Ellis basically concludes that film adaptations of stage musicals are totally unnecessary, at least outside of animation. Musicals as a form are naturally suited to theatre in ways they’re just not suited to film, is the point. But all of this is bizarre: it sounds hypothetically plausible, but isn’t at all borne out by the evidence of nearly a century of movie musicals.

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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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Notes on The Conjuring

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

The Conjuring was a smash hit on release in 2013. It tested so well with audiences that Warner Brothers moved its release from the February dead zone to the summer blockbuster season. It was the first horror film to get an A from CinemaScore, who calculate an average score based on surveys of cinema audiences (and have been since 1979). It’s inspired an entire cinematic universe of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, with three more in the works. It was critically praised, too: reviews routinely described it as a classy throwback to films like The Exorcist, a kind of slow-burn horror in marked contrast to James Wan’s directorial debut, torture porn pioneer Saw.  

The problem with this, of course, is that The Conjuring sucks. Here’s why. 

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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 every other video game. They were wrong about comic books and “video nasties” and Eminem

They were wrong about Joker

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A Film Less Likely [Film Stories]

The Likely Lads – the 1976 film spin-off from the BBC series of the same name and its sequel series Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? – was released at the tail end of a deluge of British sitcom film spin-offs in the early 1970s. Most of these films are clumsily elongated episodes of the show they’re adapted from, straining mightily to find ninety minutes worth of material using story structures designed for half-hours. Critics generally regarded The Likely Lads as more of the same. The Times considered it amusing in places but thinly stretched to feature length; the Telegraph found it uneven; the Financial Times dubbed it “just another pre-packaged product on the assembly line of low-budget British comedy.” But over forty years later, The Likely Lads doesn’t seem like assembly-line product at all. It’s a great film, both as a conclusion to the TV series and in its own right. It’s a brilliantly funny and deeply melancholy look at a changing Britain, and not at all the sex comedy it was sold as.

I wrote about The Likely Lads movie for Film Stories! You can buy the issue here.

Westerns, Part 2

Two years ago, I wrote about starting to watch westerns. It was mostly about the gap between westerns as I imagined they would be through cultural osmosis and westerns that I actually watched: defending westerns from the preconceptions of those who haven’t seen them. I was rejecting the view of westerns as a reactionary monolith. No genre is as uniform as the popular imagination frequently remembers westerns to have been.

I’m not sure if the rhetorical function of the western in popular discourse has shifted or if I’ve just noticed different parts of it, but I haven’t seen much of “westerns, of course, went into decline when audiences became uncomfortable with racist depictions of Native Americans” lately. Instead, westerns seem to be more often invoked as… a defense of superhero movies. The westerns/superheroes comparison is probably as old as the contemporary superhero boom – westerns, the story goes, dominated Hollywood for a time, just as superheroes have in the last few years – but was kicked into overdrive when Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies “theme parks” and a million nerds lost their minds. There were a lot of arguments made against Scorsese, from calling him a racist for not thinking Black Panther is extremely important to long Twitter threads of ugly CGI landscapes or medium shots of actors looking sad to “prove” that Marvel movies are cinema.

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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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