You know what’s better than one film? A double bill. And you know what’s better than a double bill? Five double bills.
The Irishman gets the band back together, but not just to play the old hits.
I reviewed Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman (or, if you have a contrarian streak, I Heard You Paint Houses) for Scannain. Spoiler: it’s great, and you should see it on the big screen if you can.
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.
I am a big fan of Wikipedia’s List of Films Considered The Worst. A big part of that is finding “list of films considered the worst” an amusing phrase, but the other part is that it’s fascinating as an alternate path through the history of cinema. It’s so easy to think of film history through the lens of what’s successful – the rise of auteur directors in Hollywood in the late 1960s giving way to blockbusters after the popularity of Jaws and Star Wars, for example – that Wikipedia’s List of Films Considered The Worst feels like getting to see everything from a new angle. It’s got everything from B-movie trash and weird vanity projects to big-budget Hollywood flops and failed sequels that contradict everything in the preceding movie.
Some of the films on it, I’m sure, are unwatchable. Many are merely mediocre. But at least a few are misunderstood, unfairly maligned masterpieces. I am excited to watch pretty much any film on there that I’ve seen someone sincerely champion. I can’t wait to watch I Spit on Your Grave and Mommie Dearest and Showgirls. Martin Scorsese says The Exorcist II is good and I’m willing to roll those dice. The films that I love that are on that list are films that I love with all the fire in my belly, that I love all the more to make up for everyone who hated them. I think Heaven’s Gate is astonishingly beautiful and I will fight anyone who blames it for the death of director-driven Hollywood filmmaking. I think Freddy Got Fingered is a surrealist masterwork and hilarious besides.
And I fucking love Ishtar.
Kevin Smith has had a really weird career. He’s one of the directors I’d be least surprised for someone to mention as a key influence in getting them interested in films and filmmaking, and also one of the directors I’d be least surprised to hear mentioned in pure contempt, no explanation necessary. He seems to be more known as a generic pop culture figure of the internet at this point: he’s responsible for the worst tweet of all time, which I’m sure more people have seen than saw Tusk. He has like a hundred podcasts and mostly makes films based on episodes of those podcasts now? I don’t even know. I couldn’t watch the trailer for Yoga Hosers through to the end, but I’ll still probably go see Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in the cinema.
I like Kevin Smith a lot more than people who hate Kevin Smith. I like a lot of his early films. I think Clerks is a masterpiece. I love Dogma, a film that is legitimately important to me as an… idiosyncratic Catholic. I think Chasing Amy has become sort of misunderstood because its logline – lesbian falls in love with a man – seems pretty gross in 2019, even though watching the film, it is made clear that she was bisexual the whole time, as is every other character. I never rewatch Clerks II because I would rather just watch Clerks, but it’s legitimately pretty good, and I would watch Jeff Anderson play Randal in anything.
But then there’s Mallrats. Smith’s second film – about a bunch of goofy misadventures of some twenty-somethings in a mall – was a critical and commercial flop on release, but it became a cult hit on home video. In the VHS episode of Harris Bomberguy and Shannon Strucci’s Scanline series, Bomberguy talks about how the aesthetic differences between watching a film in a cinema vs. watching it on a television work in favour of Mallrats, as it becomes something much lower-stakes, a backdrop to you and your friends doing something else that pulls you in at the funnier parts rather than something blasted at you from all angles like it’s the most important thing in the world. “The joy of [Kevin Smith films] is in crowding round a small TV at your friend’s house and watching little people on it with no pretensions of grandiosity,” he says.
But unfortunately, even in the lowest-stakes environments – from a VHS at your friend’s house to on your laptop while you scroll through your phone – Mallrats still sucks. Continue reading “Notes on Mallrats”
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.
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 unsettlingly, 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.
Tragically, since I last broached the subject, the world hasn’t responded to my plea to watch more short films. “Dining Room or There Is Nothing” hasn’t taken the Internet by storm, the commentariat has yet to return the great “Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd” debate to its rightful place at the heart of public discourse, and no one in my life has bought a boxset of subtitled Jan Švankmajer films I can borrow. I have no one to talk to about that Scott Barley short, “Hinterlands”, and how I think it’s good, but I feel desensitised to it because the colour palette reminds me too much of elements of the YouTube found footage horror series Marble Hornets.
All I can do is try again. I’ve tried a more populist approach this time: we’ve got a war movie and some horror films, a lovely sentimental children’s film and a cute little rom-com, a couple of animated classics and one of Martin Scorsese’s least Jesus-y films. (In the interest of clarity: I like my Scorsese Jesus-y. I recognise that I’m in the minority on this.) And if this doesn’t work, I’ll just have to go hard experimental for the next round.
Here’s another ten short films – covering seventy-odd years – that you should watch.
In the largely forgotten 1994 film Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino shows up for one scene to explain the gay subtext of Top Gun. “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality,” he says, explaining that Maverick is torn between “the gay way”, represented by Val Kilmar and the fighter pilots, and heterosexuality, represented by Kelly McGillis. “The more he talks, the more plausible his theory sounds,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. By the end of the scene, initially sceptical Todd Field is enthusiastically on-board.
Despite gay subtext’s long history in literary studies, it’s recently gotten a bit of a bad rap, in part due to the over-extension of the term queerbaiting. Queerbaiting, a fandom-coined term, refers to media, usually in serial formats like TV shows, teasing characters as LGBT or forming same-gender relationships in order to pander to LGBT fans but with no intention to follow through. Queerbaiting is definitely a thing that has happened on occasion – the TV show Supernatural, mostly – but it’s a term without nuance or historical root, that requires both projecting intent on the creators and flattening the relationship between subtext and text into a simple dichotomy.
But the relationship between gay subtext and overt gay text is complex and contingent. When Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, many news outlets called it the first LGBT winner, and it made me feel vaguely uneasy. It is true, in some sense: there definitely hadn’t been a Best Picture winner that portrayed gay relationships as openly as Moonlight. But is Midnight Cowboy an LGBT film? Many of these articles rationalise that it is not because Joe (Jon Voight) only has sex with men for money, but that’s equally true of Keanu Reeves’s character in My Own Private Idaho, often listed as an unfairly snubbed LGBT film in these same articles. In one scene, Joe is unable to get an erection when with a female client, so they play Scrabble, and she spells out “G-A-Y”. The relationship between Joe and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) is one of intimate partnership: I think often of Joe wiping Ratso’s face with his shirttail and Ratso clinging to his bare belly. Hoffman asked director John Schlesinger (a gay man) why they weren’t sleeping in the same bed, and Schlesinger said, “Oh God! Please! It was hard enough to get the financing.” After Midnight Cowboy was awarded Best Picture in 1970, John Wayne infamously called it “a story about two f*gs” and a “perverse movie”.
A decade earlier, Biblical epic Ben-Hur won Best Picture, into the screenplay for which Gore Vidal had consciously written a homoerotic subtext. A decade before that, All About Eve won, a film that only makes sense if Eve is a lesbian. (All About Eve has been criticised for homophobia while simultaneously achieving cult status among gay audiences, in no small part due to Bette Davis’s fabulousness.) At the very first Oscars in 1929, one of two Best Picture awards was given to Wings, the first film to portray a man kiss another man on the lips, accompanied by the title cards, “You – you know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship” and then, “I knew it – – all the time – – ”
But whether a film has a gay subtext is ultimately a question of whether the viewer can make a legitimate case that it does. Something doesn’t have to be widely agreed to be present in a film for it to be present. Three years after John Schlesinger couldn’t have two men share a bed in Midnight Cowboy, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) share a bed in Mean Streets, a film almost no-one thinks has a gay subtext. But as one of those few and proud: the film cuts from Charlie and Johnny in bed together to Charlie sleeping with his girlfriend, in a kind of displaced homoeroticism. Later, there’s a scene where two gay guys get into the car with Charlie and his friends, and it’s a bizarre, meaningless and pretty homophobic detour unless you think that the guy flirting with Charlie has clocked him – LGBT people recognise each other in a way cis straight people do not – and Charlie’s discomfort is his unease with his own sexuality.
It can be easier to make the case for the homoerotic undercurrents of Midnight Cowboy or Ben-Hur because we know that people involved in their production were LGBT – John Schlesinger and Gore Vidal, respectively – but meaning exists in the piece of art itself, it is not just injected into it from its surrounding context. If a higher burden of proof is placed on gay readings than on other interpretations, it eliminates the possibility of stories from the closet – whether that means art about closeted characters, or art that is itself closeted. It’s rooted in the assumption that all people are straight until they disclose otherwise, and cuts the contemporary moment off from all historical precedent. It paternalistically reduces the glint of recognition in the eye of the LGBT audience to being hoodwinked.
“You can watch any movie, and it doesn’t matter what the director was thinking, or what the people making the movie was thinking, if you can make a case for it, you can lay in a subtext into a film, make it a… much more enjoyable way to watch the film,” Quentin Tarantino told Craig Ferguson in 2010, “Like gay subtext! Gay subtext for instance. Always makes every movie better.”
Which brings us to Reservoir Dogs.
For the last several years, an increasing number of celebrities and other powerful figures – mostly but not exclusively men – have been exposed for sexual assault and harassment. People call it the #MeToo “moment” and it’s fair to say the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator in the pages of the New York Times and New Yorker was a kind of tipping point. But it was a tipping point in a trend that’s been growing for years and many of the people exposed since Weinstein are people whose behaviour were the stuff of rumour for a while before. Sometimes, people ask me why I’m so willing to believe accusers when they speak out when it’s all just “he said, she said”, and there are a lot of reasons, but one is definitely that I’d been hearing things about several of the people recently exposed years before anyone came forward. I’m not some celebrity insider or anything. I’m just some guy from a small town in Ireland who’s never met a famous person I couldn’t fail to make small talk with before falling completely silent and walking away mumbling to myself, as Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon could attest if our encounter in a pub in Galway had been memorable in any way whatsoever. I’m not connected. But if someone had asked me to name sexual predators in Hollywood a year before the Weinstein story broke, I could have named at least a few of the men whose crimes were about to be dragged into the light: Bryan Singer, John Lasseter, Louis CK.
These past few years have raised a lot of challenging questions about how to relate to artistic works made, at least in part, by sexual predators. I’ve written about some of these questions before, and I will probably write about them again in the future. They’re not questions with easy, straightforward or final answers, if they have answers at all. An argument that might persuade you in one case could fail in another: when people say Woody Allen’s movies are inseparable from the man and his crimes, something about it just rings truer to me than when people say the same about the songs of Brand New, whose lead singer Jesse Lacey admitted to sexually exploiting teenage girls while he was in his twenties, and it’s hard to pin down why. Why can I listen to Brand New without guilt but just the thought of listening to Lostprophets, whose lead singer Ian Watkins is a convicted child rapist, turns my stomach? Why do Lostprophets songs turn my stomach when I was recently able to watch multiple episodes of Glee starring Mark Salling, who plead guilty to possessing child pornography before hanging himself, with minimal discomfort? The details differ, obviously, but all four of these men hurt children. What makes me want to take back Brand New’s music from its association with Jesse Lacey but not Lostprophets’ from Ian Watkins?
I’m not sure and may never be. Certainty may not even be the point. Perhaps constantly questioning ourselves and our judgement is the response these issues require. Not to the extent that we suspend judgement indefinitely and let ourselves off the hook from making decisions, obviously, but maybe a satisfying answer shouldn’t be the goal.
Let’s talk about Louis CK.