The People’s Tramp [Current Affairs]

Even if you’ve never seen a silent movie, you know Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. His too-big trousers and too-tight jacket, his bowler hat, his toothbrush mustache, his cane, his too-big shoes pointed at right angles to his body: you can recognize him from his silhouette. Samuel Beckett doodled him in his manuscripts, and Pam on The Office dressed up as him for Halloween. You can buy a poster of the Tramp in every pop-up poster shop in the world. He is the most iconic figure in classic cinema, one of the most iconic figures in any visual art, and was certainly one of the most beloved.

A hundred years or so later, it’s fascinating to consider that The Tramp was a character living in extreme poverty and frequently homeless—that is, the kind of character who has almost no place in the biggest, most popular movies of our time, even as homelessness and extreme poverty are as endemic as ever.

I wrote about Charlie Chaplin for Current Affairs! You can read it here.

The Evil Dead / Evil Dead II: The Sundae Presents Episode 8

Ciara and Dean co-host The Sundae Presents, a podcast in which each of us makes the other watch films they haven’t seen. For our first Halloween Spooktacular, Ciara shows Dean a Sam Raimi double bill: The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. They talk about the genius of Bruce Campbell, innovation born from ignorance, and all the different kinds of goo.

The Evil Dead / Evil Dead II The Sundae Presents

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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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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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Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon

You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it

“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.” 

The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body. 

Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye

The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester. 

Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres. 

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You Should Watch Short Films Forever

I’ve been struggling for years to express to other people exactly what I love about short films as an art form. Some of that is definitely that short films have no significant constituency in popular culture, so you can’t really assume a lot of priors. I don’t need to explain what feature-length films are like as an art form before I tell you why I like feature-length films, but most people don’t watch a lot of short films so in almost every conversation I have about them, I’m on the back foot from the get-go. I think there’s a popular view of short films as either Very Important Movies About Very Important Issues, like the tens of thousands of anti-bullying short films on YouTube, or pretentious film school nonsense, and probably shite either way. 

And there is a lot of stuff like that, sure, but if it feels like that’s all short films are, that’s really just a reflection of how accessible they are as a medium, if not necessarily for audiences, then certainly for filmmakers. All you need to make a short film is a camera, a way to edit the footage and the time to make it. Every phone in the world has a camera on it right now more powerful than almost anything imaginable just thirty years ago, and there’s loads of free editing software, some of a very high quality, available on your phone or computer. All that leaves is the time, and short films by definition are generally less time-consuming to produce. Even with the constraints of needing a computer and Internet access to do it, I’m not sure there’s a medium other than the written word with a lower barrier to entry as both an artist and a publisher than short films right now. It’s no shock it produces tons of rubbish, any more than it’s a shock most self-published novels are total shite. But the vast and overwhelming shiteness of self-published novels has never impugned the novel as an art form. Yet the glut of bad short films on the Internet has undeniably tainted the reputation of the medium. 

The most obvious explanation is there are virtually no large commercial interests behind short films (and there haven’t been for decades), whereas novels are produced and distributed by some of the biggest commercial interests in the world. Short films are a relatively uncommodified form, which is fantastic in a lot of ways, but it also means they aren’t marketed outside a small niche of filmgoers and largely lack even the infrastructure for formal, large-scale distribution outside the festival circuit or self-publication on the Internet. For novels, there are official routes to publication that, however flawed they may be in other areas, do provide some level of quality control just on the basic level of competence with language. It’s a reassurance that, if nothing else, a bunch of people who aren’t the author read the book before you and made sure it wasn’t just absolute unreadable gibberish. The line it draws is imperfect and hardly meritocratic, but it mostly succeeds at sorting some of the wheat from most of the chaff. The only guides people interested in or curious about short films have to finding the good stuff is articles like this by critics and other enthusiasts. And then you have to be able to get your hands on the films to watch them, which can be pretty tricky given the lack of distribution. Unless you have a load of cash to drop on expensive Blu-ray boxsets or Vimeo rentals – and even then, not everything is available to buy – you end up dependent on people willing and able to upload them for free, legally or not, just to be able to see them, and even official uploads can be pretty low-quality if they haven’t been reuploaded since YouTube started allowing higher-definition video. 

But I love short films despite all the hassle. I love short films because they’re films and there’s almost nothing in this world I love as much as I love films. 

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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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You should watch No More Jockeys [Digital Spy]

Originally invented by Mark Watson and Tim Key in 2001, No More Jockeys had a brief life on the BBC Comedy website in 2009 as a spin-off from Horne, Key and Watson’s panel show We Need Answers. But it was given new life earlier this year when the guys started filming episodes over video call during lockdown.

I wrote about the brilliant, wonderful, delightful No More Jockeys for Digital Spy. You can read it here!

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.