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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You Should Watch Vic Reeves Big Night Out

One of the most common refrains about Peak TV is that the sheer volume of television produced means there are more weird, interesting, niche shows getting made. If there’s more stuff getting greenlit, there’s a better chance of something outside of the box getting greenlit, not because the gatekeepers are more interested in broadcasting that kind of show, but because they have to cast a wider net to keep up with the demands of just how much original programming they’re pumping out despite previously being able to fill out their schedule with reruns of Rules of Engagement. This is true, up to a point. But for all the weird, interesting, outside-of-the-box shows being made in the last few years – Lady Dynamite, Legion, The Young Pope – none come close to Vic Reeves Big Night Out.

Vic Reeves Big Night Out – no apostrophe, no colon – aired two seasons on Channel 4 in 1990 and 1991. The first television outing for the double act of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, it’s a parody of light-entertainment variety shows, with Vic in the role of host and Bob playing a variety of characters. It might sound like Big Night Out could bend into some familiar shapes – that it would seem recognisably like a light-entertainment variety show, like if you were flicking through the stations it would take a minute or two to realise it’s not. But Big Night Out is one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of surreal comedy that makes most surreal humour look mundane.

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Deconstructing Louis CK, Part 2

Read Part 1, on the fraught expectations around reexamining the artistic works of bad people, here. 


“There were some changes in how certain shows are classified this year. For example, Orange is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is now technically jazz.”

– Andy Samberg, 2015 Emmys Opening Monologue

The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism. It’s hard to say why, though I have some theories: a lack of historical literacy, particularly with younger critics; an increase in critics, especially reviewers and recappers, using broad language and easy shorthand due to the punishing deadlines demanded by a hectic 24/7 online publishing environment; a growing tendency towards a mindset of critic-as-advocate in a crowded pop culture marketplace, which encourages critics to overstate the virtues of works of art they want to support in the hopes it will persuade more of their audience to give them a shot. Probably there are other reasons, but I like my theories because of all the first-hand evidence I have. I’ve called movies and TV shows innovative out of ignorance, expedience and a desperate want to convince other people to like the things I like so I have someone to talk about them with. Sometimes the truth – that something is “merely” fresh, interesting or novel – can seem a bit lacklustre. But “innovative” is a word with some heft behind it: not just new, but so new it represents a major break with the old way of doing things.

But artistic innovation is rare, and only gets rarer the longer a medium is around. Every medium has its limits, and while its early days will be a flurry of invention as artists create the basic vocabulary of material, structure, form, etc. eventually most things an artist can possibly do with paint on canvas or light on film will have already been done. Irmin Roberts, an uncredited second-unit cameraman (or cinematographer, sources vary), invented the dolly-zoom in 1957 during the making of Vertigo, and that was the first and last time a dolly-zoom was innovative. People have used them in new and interesting ways since then – the reverse dolly-zoom from Goodfellas melts my face off to this day – but it was innovative once. It opened up the medium to new possibilities once.

Maybe this seems pedantic, and it would be if “innovative” was a perfect synonym for “fresh” and “new” and “original”, but the concept of innovation is an extremely loaded one. It’s no surprise the term has grown in use over the last few decades given the valorisation of “innovation” spread by Silicon Valley and its pantheon of “visionary geniuses”, each as mythical as the last. But it’s exactly in that source we should see the danger in throwing it around so loosely. Technological innovations are constantly credited in the public imagination to people who did not create them, treated as the breakthroughs of singularly brilliant minds whose sole role, very often, was owning the companies where the workers who actually created the innovations were working at the time. Even to credit those workers is usually too simplistic, because their breakthroughs are frequently just the final step in a years- or even decades-long process of inquiry, research, design, testing, etc. that likely involved dozens if not hundreds of people who deserve recognition for their contributions. But they don’t get it. Even the one who makes that final jump doesn’t get it. Irmin Roberts invented the dolly-zoom and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

The word “innovative” is thrown around a lot in contemporary cultural criticism, and it wigs me out. It’s such a bold claim to make: not just something you’ve never seen before, but something no one has ever seen before. And even when you’ve correctly identified something as innovative, if you’re not careful, you can credit it in such a way as to bury the contributions of people without whom it would not exist. It’s not a word to be used lightly, not when criticism is often where the history of an art form – or at least the dominant narrative of that history – is written.

Let’s talk about Louie.

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What is Beyond the Frame

M. Night Shyamalan knows that you know who he is – or, at least, that you think you do. He’s the twist guy! His early work, particularly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, received such acclaim that Newsweek declared him “The Next Spielberg” in a cover story published three days after the release of Signs. It’s a cliché of latter-day Shyamalan coverage to contrast this praise with the direction of his subsequent career, as the diminishing returns on his work turned him from wunderkind to has-been.

He’s since made a proper comeback, with the runaway success of Split, which sucks, but back in 2015, he was still a joke. A literal punchline, a memetically bad writer and director, whose most recent movie, After Earth, was a sterile, indulgent pile of crap based on an idea by star Will Smith, operating at the height of Smith’s ego. His previous three films – Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender – regularly appeared on lists of the worst films ever made. But, most importantly, he was the twist guy. So the story goes, he got so much praise for the genuinely brilliant twists of his early work that he couldn’t stop chasing the same high, trying to outdo himself with each film. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true – it’s astonishing how many people have made fun of the twist in The Happening, a film that does not have a twist – because it quickly became the totalising narrative of his career. Particularly on the Internet, his shittiness and this specific explanation for his shittiness became the conventional wisdom, in much the same way that memes and groupthink convinced people Nicolas Cage is one of the worst actors in the world, rather than the best of his generation.

M. Night Shyamalan is the twist guy. Except he’s not. But he knows you think he is. So, back in 2015, he decided to play a prank on everyone. It’s called The Visit and it was his best film in fifteen years, so obviously it got wildly mixed reviews. People’s brains just go all wobbly when it comes to this guy, for some reason.

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The Rise and Fall of Last Week Tonight

This article is part of the Rise and Fall series, taking a look at shows that were once great and are now not. Previously, Brooklyn Nine-Nine


Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.

I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.

Now it sucks.

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