August Van Sant: A Film Diary

Until we recorded the fifth episode of our podcast, I’d only seen two Gus Van Sant films: his infamous 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and his 2018 biopic of the late cartoonist John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. I thought the former was interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable, and the latter I thought was simply a good film. But I was never really drawn to Van Sant as a filmmaker. I’m not sure why. I’d heard high praise for some of his films, especially My Own Private Idaho, but I’d heard others panned into the ground. Maybe it’s just because he doesn’t have a public persona the way a lot of directors do: he’s a private enough guy that he doesn’t even have a personal life section on his Wikipedia and he doesn’t seem to have much appetite for self-promotion or even making calculated career moves.

Then I watched Good Will Hunting and it piqued my interest in the films of this mysterious man with a name that just about rhymes. So, I decided to watch them. All seventeen of them, over the month of August. I initially recorded my brief thoughts on each over on my letterboxd, now I’ve compiled them here, with some elaboration. I found very little advice on navigating Van Sant’s filmography when I started, so hopefully this can act as, if not a guide, then at least an example of how someone did it for others to follow or ignore as they see fit. You can hear my thoughts on Good Will Hunting on the podcast, but the rest of the gang is all here.

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Eternal Subscriptions of the Spotless Mind

We’re living through a time that future media historians will call a major turning point in the digital era. The younger, techier companies that created the modern streaming market, like Netflix and Amazon, have used up their first mover advantage and the regrouped old guard are gearing up to crush them. (Apple are on the tech side, but did not use their first mover advantage, because they’re idiots, presumably.) The biggest conglomerates in the film industry – Disney, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS – will stop licensing their films to streaming services owned by other companies in favour of exclusively streaming them on services they own: Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) respectively. It’s gonna take a few years to make the shift, as deals that were signed before launching these services cannot be rescinded. But they’ll pretty much all be expired by the end of this decade and very few will be renewed, especially once HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount+ go international. That’ll leave any streaming service without a major studio archive increasingly reliant on their original releases as enticement to stay subscribed, which will always be a worse value proposition for a consumer than original releases plus loads of existing films. Amazon seem to be futureproofing Prime against this threat by buying MGM and securing a back catalogue of their own. Netflix and Apple seem to be doing sweet fuck all, but that could change any minute. It’s Silicon Valley vs Hollywood in a fight to the death over which shower of assholes in California get to shape the future of global media, and it terrifies me.

Streaming has only been around for the bones of a decade and it’s already transformed the industry so much, mostly for the worse. Suffocating overproduction, cinemas decimated, expanding power of corporations to censor art. The casualties of the first streaming war (June 2011March 2020) have already been severe, and that was before Disney, one of the most awful, nihilistic media companies in human history, got involved. What fresh horrors will come now the second streaming war (May 2020 – present) is afoot? I obviously can’t know what Bob Iger and his ilk are cooking up in their high rises, but I can try to think like them. I’ve looked at graphs of market trends and nodded slowly, I’ve brainstormed and wordclouded and powerpointed, I’ve put a photo of Martin Scorsese on a dart board and shot it with a revolver. I’ve danced with Minions in the pale moonlight, huffed the helium from Walt Disney’s cryopod and sought prophecy in the entrails of a still-living Boots the Monkey. I’ve read the fucking Economist. And lo, the Invisible Hand came forth from the great maelstrom of the market, laid a single finger on my forehead and answered my prayers. I have seen the future that Disney and all the other rogues will bring about in their ruthless, pointless pursuit of wealth. It has come to me as if in a vision, and, buddy, it is fucked up.

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Nightmares / Phases / Professions

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Asked to picture a mental hospital in a horror film, most of us would think similarly. From old B-movies to Halloween to the recent Happy Death Day and IT, they house dangerous maniacs itching for an escape, a weapon and an unsuspecting innocent to murder. It’s a trope A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors plays into: a nun reveals that Freddy Krueger was the result of her gang-rape in an asylum, making him “the bastard son of a thousand maniacs.”

But Dream Warriors also flips this on its head. Our heroes, teenagers in a psychiatric unit, are all tormented by Freddy in their dreams, and Freddy is both a metaphor and a catalyst for mental health problems. Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) lands in the hospital after Freddy slits her wrists, but the other kids – in desperate attempts to stay awake or just deal with the trauma of their dreams – exhibit symptoms of mental illness. Jennifer puts out cigarettes on her arms. Will is paralyzed at the waist after a botched suicide attempt. Joey, once a high school debater, is mute.

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The Tragic Intimacy of Asif Kapadia’s Archival Trilogy

Documentaries are too often not treated as films proper. They’re talked about less as a type of film than a totally separate art form, shunted off in the back somewhere. No documentary has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. I realise the Oscars have a pretty blinkered point of view, but even other forms of cinema ghettoised at the Oscars have gotten some Best Picture nominations: thirteen films not in the English language, only a handful of horror movies, just three animated films, but not a single documentary. It’s kind of insane, if you think about it.

Part of it is that way too many documentaries are not made like films proper. Far too many rely so heavily on their subject being of interest that they don’t make the telling interesting in its own right. You just film a bunch of talking heads saying what happened and call it a day. I’m not criticising documentaries as a whole, here – lots and lots and lots of fiction films are visually lazy and uninteresting, and if the subject is strong enough, a documentary can be great whether it’s boldly ambitious or just talking heads telling you what happened. I recently watched a TV documentary about Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and even though the talking heads were more or less entirely boring and terrible, I still enjoyed it because it had lots of clips of Nichols and May sketches. But I think that exact strength allows us to imagine that documentaries are good if their subjects are interesting, that nothing much else goes into it. It allows us to buy into the division of documentaries from the rest of filmmaking. I think all the time about Michael Moore’s frustration at being called a “documentarian”, rather than a documentary filmmaker, since it’s not like people call Martin Scorsese a fiction-atarian. (The irony, of course, is that Scorsese is an accomplished documentary filmmaker too, but most of the time nobody talks about his documentaries in the same breath as his fiction films.)

I love Asif Kapadia’s documentaries in part because there’s no way that anyone, even subconsciously, could think of them not as “real” films. His 2010 film Senna – about the life and career of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna – is a sports movie in the truest sense, following his rivalry with Alain Prost like Rocky and Apollo Creed. Senna was followed by Amy, his Oscar-winning documentary about Amy Winehouse, in 2015, and Diego Maradona in 2019. Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona form a trilogy both thematically and stylistically: each is a chronicle of creative genius and the pressure of fame, pieced together from archival footage.

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The Sundae Film Awards 2021

We usually begin these with some reflections on the year that’s been, but you know how the last year has been and it would feel condescending to repeat. Half the films we anticipated we would be writing about this year at the start of last year didn’t even come out, and almost none of those that did got a theatrical release. We usually define the “film year” through a combination of Oscar eligibility, Irish release dates and our own gut feeling about whether a movie is part of a given cultural “season” or not. This year, it’s all gut feeling, so if you’re wondering why I Care a Lot, released February 2021, was eligible, but not Zack Snyder’s Justice League, released March 2021, it’s because we say so.

Just like every year, we gave one award for each of the eight major Oscars: we care about most of the others (except for the fake awards like Best Original Song) but this post would be absurdly long if we picked those too. We each did out our personal nominees and then selected the winner by consensus, so the winners only come from films that both of us have seen and nominated, but we’ve each picked a personal runner-up regardless of whether the other has seen or nominated it. We also each gave a Special Achievement Award for something that doesn’t quite fit the regular categories. You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of this post, which we strongly encourage you to check out if you’re looking for recommendations. There was a surprising number of great films this year, and we only got to award a small fraction of them.

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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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The Social Network and Me: A Love Story

Ten years ago, I saw The Social Network for the first time. It changed my life.

Saying something changed your life is a cliché in personal-essay-inflected media criticism: the truth is usually somewhere closer to “it is good and I like it,” exaggerated to something that might drive clicks. Individual pieces of art very rarely change lives, generally. But The Social Network changed mine. It’s the movie that made me love movies.

I’ve always really liked movies: as a kid, I would watch pretty much anything on TV, and in my early teens, Casablanca blew my hair back and I quickly became a big TCM guy. This gave me a somewhat skewed view of film history, where no-one could possibly think Ordinary People was an unworthy Best Picture winner. My mam showed me Kramer vs. Kramer and said I wasn’t allowed watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, before acquiescing a week later. I loved 1980s teen movies and Farrelly Brothers comedies and Steven Spielberg, and thought Fight Club was the most amazing film ever made. Then when I was sixteen, I saw The Social Network.

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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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2020 in Film(s That Didn’t Come Out in 2020)

Check out previous installments herehere and here.


It goes without saying that 2020 was a bizarre year for films, because it was a bizarre year for everything. But all the same, a lot of insane things happened in the movies this year. Cinemas all over the world closed down and it’s not clear they’ll survive long-term. Several blockbusters that were supposed to draw a billion-dollar box office ended up with a streaming debut, to unclear results. The industry got thrown into such disarray that the Oscar eligibility window was extended and the ceremony rescheduled for April.

By some twist of fate, that’s also when we’ll be looking at the best films of 2020 in the fifth annual Sundae Film Awards. For now, we’d like to look back at some of the gems from throughout film history that caught our attention this year. One of the few upsides to a year in lockdown was a lot of time to watch movies: in our case, literally hundreds. We’ve whittled them down to eight each, from the early thirties through to 2016, covering films as diverse as a war drama about the French resistance, a psychedelic Japanese anime about witchcraft and a documentary about race and class in America through the lens of high school basketball. Check them out and stay tuned for more cold takes from the Sundae in 2021!

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You Should Watch Santa Sangre

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is the kind of film that makes you fall in love with cinema. Even though it’s almost exactly two hours, it feels longer – not because it’s dull or slow, but because it’s so full to bursting with different styles, genres and stories that it seems impossible that it could all fit inside a two-hour movie. It’s a four-hour sprawling epic that is somehow, through some kind of time warp, only two hours long.

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