Notes on Black ’47

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Mary Magdalene.


The Great Famine is the most significant event in Irish history by some distance. It killed around a million of the eight and a half million or so people on the island of Ireland, and turned another million into refugees. The loss of population didn’t stop there either: devastated economically, mass emigration drove the island’s population down to around four and a half million by the 1920s, where it hovered for a good fifty years. It began to climb steadily from the 1970s onward, so that now, over 150 years later, we’ve just about returned to where we were after a plague wiped out a quarter of our population in less a decade.

The Famine is well-represented in literature and song, but, until last year, with the release of Black ’47, never in film. There was, some might argue, the increasingly obscure silent feature Knocknagow (1918), based on the novel of the same name, which is ostensibly set in rural Tipperary in 1848, but it only depicts evictions, not starvation. The Irish communist author Liam O’Flaherty, whose novel The Informer was adapted for screen by John Ford, wrote his novel Famine with the explicit intention it be made into a film, but it never came to pass. Stephen Rea, who stars in Black ’47, told Today FM he’d been approached about a famine movie in the nineties, but the American producers thought it was too heavy. (“How are you going to lighten it?” Rea’s agent asked, “Feed them?”) So, here we are, with Black ’47, the first film about the Great Famine.

Because the Famine looms so large in the Irish consciousness, yet is so invisible on screen, I’ve often thought about different ways the subject could be approached in a film. The Western seemed the perfect fit, the ruined Irish countryside replacing the lawless desert wastes, so I was really excited when Black ’47 was announced.

Folks, it was bad.

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Don’t You Want To See What Happens Next?

American Animals is a documentary. It’s built around interviews with four men who robbed a university library in Kentucky in 2004, interspersed with the most elaborate, well-made recreations you’ve ever seen.

American Animals isn’t a documentary. Its structure is basically the same as I, Tonya: a narrative interspersed with after-the-fact interviews, but in the case of American Animals, the interviews are with the real people, not the actors portraying them.

Whether American Animals is a documentary is irrelevant. It’s a film that collapses any difference. It’s a film about the relationship between reality and the representation of reality: reflecting and refracting through each other, as we watch a heist movie about a group of teenagers who rent out Reservoir Dogs and Point Break and Rififi to learn how to do a heist, as what they (and we) remember, or choose to remember, makes reality contentious, as the lines between the film’s documentary and fiction elements blur and break down.

“So, this is how you remember it?” Warren (Evan Peters) asks his real-life counterpart, Warren Lipka, who has suddenly appeared beside him in his car.

“Not exactly,” Lipka – who thinks this conversation that’s about to happen took place at a party, not in a car – says, “But if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.”

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My Body is a Cage

The first thing you know about your body is that you’re stuck in it. Only later, when your tiny infant brain develops object permanence, do you learn your body is stuck in the world.

Cake is a 2014 black comedy-drama film starring Jennifer Aniston as Claire Bennett, a woman living with chronic pain after a car crash. Claire is, to put it mildly, not the most pleasant person. The film opens on a support group meeting following the suicide of a member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), where everyone is encouraged to voice their feelings about her death by speaking to the group leader as if she was Nina. Some express sorrow, others anger that she didn’t reach out and that she left her five-year-old son motherless. Claire watches with part-amused, part-scoffing indifference until she’s finally prompted to share against her will:

“She jumped off a freeway overpass, right? Specifically where 110 meets the 105? And is it true that she landed on a flatbed truck that was full of used furniture that was heading to Mexico? And that no one discovered the body until it reached Acapulco? That was, like, more than 2,000 miles away? And that they sent her body back in a Rubbermaid cooler which then got stuck in customs for, like, a week before Nina’s husband could even claim it? Way to go, Nina. Personally, I hate it when suicides make it easy on the survivors. But please, continue.”

Critics didn’t seem to know what to do with Cake. While there was near-uniform praise for Aniston’s performance (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe), the rest of the film received a more mixed response, especially the screenplay, and was often treated as mere fodder for puns. “This cake needs more layers” goes a typical riff. I’m not sure why, because Cake is one of the richest and most rewarding films about suicide I’ve ever seen, and probably the only one to seriously explore suicidality as an embodied experience.

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What Is It You Like About This House So Much?

When I saw mother! in the cinema, I could feel the discomfort of people around me. Shortly before the film ended, I heard a woman declare at the full volume, “Well, that was crap.” It was a big chain cinema in a screen with rows going back to Q or something ridiculous, and it was almost empty.

mother! was given about as wide a release as is possible, and it was buzzy and controversial and starred Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, and besides, it’s a horror film, which are virtually guaranteed to make a profit. But most people will not like mother!, and lots and lots of people hated it. It’s a brave, strange thing, that made me think I can’t believe what I’m seeing in a way that I thought was kind of impossible in the internet age. Every swing it takes is big. And it couldn’t give less of a shit if you don’t like it.

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Notes on Hamlet (2000)

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, notes on Split


Sometimes a film is so set up for me to like it that nothing speaks to its failure like my thinking it’s only okay. It might tick a bunch of boxes of things I reliably enjoy, like Hell or High Water, a neo-western about the Great Recession featuring comedic bank robberies and a great performance from Jeff Bridges, one of my favourite actors. It might be targeted at a very specific niche of which I am a part: Mary Magdalene was described as not appealing to Christians because it’s such a different take on the Gospel story, and not appealing to non-Christians because it’s so religious, but I’m a feminist Christian whose favourite film is The Last Temptation of Christ, king of unorthodox Gospel films. It’s kind of heartbreaking, when a film stacks the deck so in favour of me loving it, as if it was made with me in mind, but fucks it up so badly that I think “it’s basically fine, I guess, I don’t know, it has some problems.”

Hamlet (2000) is one such film. Here’s why.

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God Allegedly Has Bigger Plans for Me: Religion in Lost

When Michael Schur was coming up with The Good Place, he asked Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof for advice. “[Lindelof] told me, ‘Here are the pitfalls. Here are the traps you can fall into. Here’s the problem you’re going to hit’…” Schur said, “He actually I think said to me, ‘You just need to know where you’re going.’”

Lindelof’s advice was presumably drawing from experience, because Lost absolutely did not know where it was going. For the six full-length seasons it ran, it was an incredibly messy show, narratively convoluted and incoherent, brimming over with set-ups that were never paid off – and not in a David Lynch way, where it’s meant to be surreal and not intended to be “solved”. It only took Lost until its second season to do a “what if this character is in a psych ward and this is all in his head” episode, something Buffy managed to stave off for six years. The finale of Lost aired eight years ago to a polarised reception, and its reputation has only depreciated in the interim. It regularly makes lists of the worst finales of all time, and is practically synonymous with “all the mystery-box shit turning out to be nonsense” and “wasting years of your life on a show that turns out to be crap.”

So here’s the thing: Lost was a great show, finale and all. And I think that those who came away from the finale scratching their heads kind of missed the whole point of the show – because Lost was always a show about religion.

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Sofia Coppola’s Sad Rich People

In 2003, Sofia Coppola released Lost in Translation. It was critically acclaimed, grossed 119 million dollars on a budget of four million, and made Coppola the first American woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. It’s about two Americans – Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson – in a luxury hotel in Japan, two lonely people who find some solace in each other, an almost-romcom where nothing happens and everyone wants to die. It’s a beautiful film – I often say that subtlety is overrated, but Lost in Translation is quiet and soft, a reminder that a film can be those things without for a moment being boring or pretentious.

It’s 2004, and Sofia Coppola might become one of the most important film directors of her generation. Not because she’ll be tokenised as a woman, and not because her dad made The Godfather, but because of her incredible talent.

It’s fourteen years later, and it hasn’t really worked out that way.

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Cancelled Too Soon: The Booth at the End

Two weeks ago, I sat down to start writing an article about one of my favourite TV shows, The Booth at the End, for a new recurring feature called Cancelled Too Soon. Just like every other article I write for this blog, my first stop was Wikipedia, to refresh myself on the basics: the names of all the actors, writers and directors; who produced and distributed it; how high were its ratings or box office; what was the general timbre of contemporary critical reception. I always check this stuff first because it’s the stuff I’d be most embarrassed to get wrong, especially since I routinely see professional writers get them wrong, and my second-hand embarrassment on their behalf is so intense that I’d probably throw up if I experienced it first-hand.

Most of this information does not exist on the Wikipedia page for The Booth at the End.

The very first line of the article says it was “originally produced for the US cable channel FX”.

That’s not true. Very little of the information in the article is true, and some of it is contradictory – it claims that it first aired on Canada’s City TV network in one part of the article, and that it first aired on FX in another. I spent hours searching for contemporary reporting on The Booth at the End and it was even more contradictory and confused. So, I decided to do some primary research of my own.

Two weeks later, I have a pretty good grasp of the true story of The Booth at the End. Most of it came from a Twitter conversation with its creator and writer, Christopher Kubasik, and an email exchange with Doug Miller, the media contact for the show’s production company, Vuguru. I don’t have all the fine details, but I’m reasonably satisfied I know enough to tell you the mysterious tale of this strange, ground-breaking and now tragically-forgotten show, cancelled before its time, its history rendered opaque thanks to shoddy reporting by contemporary news sources.

The Booth at the End is the best TV show you never knew existed.

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The World is Going to Crack Wide Open

“HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.”

Halt and Catch Fire has never been subtle about its view of capitalism. The very first thing that appears on screen at the start of the pilot is a definition of its title, worded to produce a clear double meaning: this is a story about how endless competition causes a system to implode.

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A Town Called Fortitude

How do you talk about a show influenced by Twin Peaks without burying it in the shadow of Twin Peaks? Twin Peaks is widely considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and certainly one of the most important. Now more than ever we are awash in a sea of shows – good and bad – that follow an investigation into a murder or disappearance in a small town that kicks up buried secrets and drags unspoken darkness into the light. And whether a show like that is good or bad, someone is going to compare it to Twin Peaks.

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