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.

Staring into the Great Unknown in Mistress America

There’s a scene roughly 20 minutes into Noah Baumbach’s 2015 film Mistress America where Brooke (Greta Gerwig) takes her younger step-sister to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) to the restaurant she is planning to start. The shutter anticlimactically opens up to reveal an empty, echoey series of rooms. But as Brooke walks through them, she tells Tracy about her vision for the place and it gradually blossoms into life in our minds. “It would be like a community center and a restaurant and a store, all in one… It would be the place that you, like, love to be.” Tracy is whisked away in this vision, thrilled by Brooke’s passionate explanation and the restaurant’s nostalgic name: “Mom’s.”

In a later scene, Brooke pitches the restaurant to her former boyfriend and potential investor Dylan (Michael Chernus). She stammers nervously and fidgets awkwardly as she tries to explain it again: “It’s a restaurant… but also, like, where you cut hair. Can I start over?” Brooke finally gets her time in the spotlight, her potential big break to finally realise her dream, and she chokes. 

These two scenes perfectly capture everything about Brooke Cardinas. On first impressions she appears supremely self-confident, delivering a seemingly unlimited stream of entrepreneurial ideas and pithy witticisms that Tracy quickly falls for. Brought together by the imminent wedding of Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s father, Brooke is everything that Tracy, an insecure, rudderless college freshman, aspires to be: driven, wildly-passionate, and unstoppable. A resident of Times Square (where they first meet, Brooke stretching out her arms to yell “welcome to the great white way!”), she is the kind of person who becomes the center of attention in any situation, a confident modern American woman who always appears both one step behind and ahead of everyone around her. 

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You Should Watch Family Plot

Quentin Tarantino loves saying that directing is a young man’s game. He’ll talk about not wanting to end up like Billy Wilder, as if the bum notes at the end of Wilder’s career make him a vaguely pathetic figure, instead of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who happened to end on a bad run. Tarantino will compare filmmaking to boxing, an analogy that makes no sense if you think about it for ten seconds. “A boxer,” Abel Ferrara said, “—one split second of distraction and you could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life… [W]hat’s gonna happen to you on a set, honey? Your assistant is going to spill hot coffee on your lap. How the fuck does that make you a boxer, Jack?”

But still, it’s easy to see where Tarantino is coming from, because even great directors do not generally make great films in their seventies. I love Billy Wilder dearly – The Apartment might be my actual favourite film – but by 1978 he was making Fedora, a film that’s bad in ways that make it seem almost doomed. It’s not fun enough to be an enjoyable piece of trash and way too dumb to be anything else, and is clearly written to have a legend go hog-wild in the lead but instead has, essentially, some lady, who is fine. I love Charlie Chaplin, and I can’t imagine ever watching A Countess from Hong Kong again. It has a creaky, slow quality, like it should be a 1930s screwball comedy but it was made in 1967 by a seventy-eight-year-old. Both feel like movies made by old men trying and failing to make films that you can’t really make anymore, in ways that make me miss what those men could do when they were younger. Martin Scorsese is seventy-seven and just made three of the best films of his decades-long career, not even counting the documentaries he made in the same period, but that feels more like an exception that proves the rule.

At least, that was my line of thinking going into Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-third and last film. I expected it to be an interesting failure, or at best, hopelessly in the shadow of the great films Hitchcock made decades earlier.

But Family Plot is great. It is about as thoroughly enjoyable a way to spend two hours as has been committed to film.

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The Anarchic Beauty of Taskmaster

If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows. I’m kind of a connoisseur.

A great game show combines luck, risk-taking and some kind of skill or knowledge. Deal or No Deal was just luck and risk-taking, but they always pretended as if there was all this strategy where none could exist, it was bizarre. Winning Streak is the worst because it doesn’t even test risk-taking, just luck, so it effectively just throws money at people with the only variant being how much. Shows that have the potential to lapse into being just a dry test of skill usually have a time constraint to force the risk-taking element. But my favourites combine genuine difficulty with being a ton of fun to watch. Way too many shows are stupidly dramatic: every time someone gives an answer on Tenable, there’s probably a full thirty seconds of dramatic reaction shots and lights going up the answer board. It tries to be “fun” by having Warwick Davis deliver terrible pun after terrible pun, instead of striving towards a fun tone overall.

My favourite has long been Pointless: its reverse Family Fortunes format that rewards the most obscure correct answer makes it incredibly fun to play along with, whether you know a lot or very little about the category. The banter between its hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is charming and makes the tone of the whole thing light and fun, in sharp contrast with the most self-serious quiz shows (Mastermind, mostly). I love Only Connect, the hardest show in the world, both because host Victoria Coren-Mitchell is delightful and because I feel elated if I get an answer right. I am kind of obsessed with Richard Osman’s House of Games, and love following the throughline of each week, rooting for my favourite contestants and waiting with bated breath for the day someone wins all five shows.

But there is one game show that is more fun to watch than basically anything on television, and that’s Taskmaster. Pitched perfectly between a light-hearted “normal” game show and Shooting Stars surrealism, it’s both one of the best game shows I’ve ever seen and such a weird, inventive thing that to even classify it by genre feels wrong. It’s glorious.

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You Should Watch Big Business

Jordan Peele’s Us was one of the best films of 2019: the scale of its ambition dwarfed Get Out, Peele’s directorial debut, and it hits all its marks. It’s one of those horror films that I can imagine watching over and over, becoming richer without ever becoming less scary. The best comparison I can make is that it made me feel kind of like how The Shining makes me feel, and The Shining might be my favourite horror film ever, so.

Us is incredibly dense with allusion and multiplicity of meaning. Even something as simple as its title can be read two ways: us and US. Much has been said about its many references to other films, from Jaws to The Goonies to CHUD. But no-one has said anything about how it’s basically a horror version of the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business, which it totally is. This is not least because no-one remembers the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business – except for maybe Jordan Peele – but they should, because Big Business is great: a tightly constructed, very funny comedy of errors about class and corporate America.

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You Should Watch Ishtar

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.

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The Suicide Comedies of Jack Lemmon

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 unsettling, 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.

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