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 It’s gonna take a few years to make the shift, as deals that were signed before launching these services cannot be rescinded.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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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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Mythic Quest and the Pursuit of Anti-Capitalist Media [Current Affairs]

There’s an idea—passed down from Adorno in a game of telephone—that products of the culture industry must necessarily reflect capitalist values. This is superficially very convincing: if I were a capitalist, I would probably fund works that reassert the status quo, even subconsciously, since if I were a capitalist the status quo would be going pretty well for me. You can find lots of supporting examples if you look around: the valorization of ragstoriches stories that obscure the near-impossibility of real-life social mobility, particularly in the United States; the entire cop show genre, which essentially functions as propaganda for the police; even the original Ghostbusters, which has a plotline about how the EPA shouldn’t investigate unlicensed nuclear reactors.

I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet and the problem of making art in a corporate environment. You can read it here!

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off – Masterpost

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off is a four-part series about Eminem. Links to all parts are below. You can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.

There’s Slim Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers, three persons in one rap god. 

Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?

Eminem’s early music feels like a vital window into this radically different free speech debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.

Nobody embodies the white rapper in popular imagination quite like Eminem.

Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.

Watched in the context of his discography, 8 Mile feels less like a film about Eminem, the person, than about the environment that birthed him, that permeates his music.

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 4

This is the final part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.

Lose Yourself’ is one of the best songs of Eminem’s career. It’s an incredible showcase for his virtuosic rhyming and his mesmerising early-2000s flow, but there’s also the urgent intensity of his delivery, the tense, relentless guitar lick, the instantly recognisable piano intro and how the piano gets layered into the rest of the song. “Mom’s spaghetti” has been memed into oblivion, but the whole song is full of rich, striking imagery of poverty and desperation, from the evocative and metaphorical – “I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot” – to the horrifically mundane: “These goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers.” It’s one of the only “inspirational” songs that it’s possible to imagine actually inspiring someone. It’s full of an aggressive kind of hope: a hope born of hopelessness, a hope that you cling to because otherwise you’ll die. I knew every word many years before I would listen to any of Eminem’s albums.

‘Lose Yourself’ has largely eclipsed the film it was written for in the cultural consciousness: 8 Mile is remembered as the film that ‘Lose Yourself’ is from, not the other way around. Like Purple Rain, 8 Mile is still well-remembered and -regarded, but more like an appendage to its star’s music career than a film in its own right.

But 8 Mile is a great film: a working-class sports drama in the tradition of Rocky, with rap battles in place of boxing matches. Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, Jr., nicknamed Rabbit, an aspiring rapper in mid-1990s Detroit. It’s an extraordinary performance, underrated on the assumption that he’s just playing himself. Many people who come to acting from another kind of performance just sort of coast on charisma and presence – The Rock has made a career out of it – but Eminem never coasts. He’s electric. He has extraordinarily expressive eyes: as Ryan Gibney writes for Sight and Sound, he conveys “vulnerability with a simple well-timed blink or wince.”

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God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 3

This is the third part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Find the masterpost here.


Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.

In my late teens, I was immersed in a certain kind of politics that I find very difficult to put words on. So many of the words I have belong to the right, are loaded with implications I wish I could wash away: social justice warrior, virtue-signalling, identity politics. I spent a lot of time on Tumblr – a site I joined to reblog Glee gifsets that became a source for my political worldview – which checks out, because it’s politics that can only really exist online. Centred myopically on privilege/oppression dynamics, even where none are obvious; wielding the word “intersectionality” like both a weapon and a shield; pushing down my doubts because I was told I needed to “unlearn” all the oppressive, toxic shit I’d absorbed from society at large. I was drained of all my self-esteem – wracked with guilt for my whiteness and my cisness, panicking over mistakes I might make, terrified of men who I felt sure would hurt me – and was provided only self-righteousness in its place. I thought of politics as a collection of rules, most of which demand my passivity.

I’m twenty-five now. I’m a democratic socialist, and I think of politics as a coalition of like-minded people fighting for a better world. I find it hard to talk about the politics I held in my late teens and how it affected me, still affects me, because it plays right into the right’s narrative: the leftist hivemind, the shame people from privileged groups are allegedly made to feel, the disinterest in dissenting voices. I don’t want to sound like someone who believes trans bullies beat up kids while shouting “Die, cis scum!” or whatever. But I did feel suffocating anxiety, and that was real, and I think it’s worth talking about. Not just for personal catharsis, but because it’s a story I’ve only ever heard with a different ending to mine, where that kind of politics is rejected to move to the centre, or even the right. (If you think of political alignments as a straight line, that makes sense. But political alignment isn’t a straight line, or a horseshoe, or even an x-y axis.)

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Cancelled Too Soon: Lodge 49

This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, One Mississippi.


Gradually during the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not “Joe Versus the Volcano.”

Roger Ebert, “Joe Versus the Volcano” Review

I’ve watched a frankly absurd and unhealthy amount of television over the last decade, and while a lot of it has been quite strange, there’s not a lot I can say was truly unlike anything else I’d ever seen. Most of the best pulled off a very recognisable formula at an unusual level of excellence and a clear creative voice, like Top of the Lake with “small town with a dark secret” shows or Review with fake reality shows. The list of sincerely original shows I’ve seen is quite short, but I think about those that make the cut – Twin Peaks: The Return, Sense8 and The Young Pope, for example — probably every day. It’s not only that I love those shows, though I do, or that they changed my notions of what was possible on television and in storytelling generally, though they did. It’s that the thrill of watching them for the first time and slowly realising I was watching something that really felt like the first of its kind gave me such a rush of excitement, it practically tattooed them onto my brain. I have yet to rewatch any of those shows, but I could tell you a hundred scenes from any of them at the drop of a hat.

Lodge 49 was just such a show.

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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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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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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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