I wrote a short essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and mental health for Unwinnable‘s zine Exploits. You can buy the issue here.
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.
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.
Fall Out Boy are (for me, and precisely no-one else) a band uniquely burdened by history. There isn’t a band I’ve written about more – in MySpace bulletins and Tumblr text posts and diaries that I inevitably abandoned and destroyed – and there isn’t a band I find harder to write about. I can’t be objective: I mean, I don’t really believe in looking at music “objectively”, because art is about subjectivity, but to the extent that objectivity is a possible and desirable thing in criticism, here I have none. Every time I listen to a Fall Out Boy song, it’s the hundreds of times I’ve listened to it before – on the CD player in my childhood bedroom, on MP3 players and iPods and phones, on my laptop in the apartment where I lived in my first year of college – compounded.
Nothing sounds like being thirteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like being eighteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like right now like Fall Out Boy.
Here’s a brief cultural history of “the villain is actually right” hot takes, as I understand it. People were like “What if Claudius is the real hero of Hamlet? Makes you think” and it didn’t really stick. Then a couple of hundred years passed and someone pointed out Walter Peck from Ghostbusters was obviously correct to not let the Ghostbusters run a nuclear reactor without permission, and it got clicks, so people were like “I wonder if I can do that with other eighties movies” – haven’t you ever noticed it’s always eighties movies? – and now we live in a world where three people in the comments of an already terrible article about why some eighties bad guys were the secret heroes of their movies suggested Mr Vernon from The Breakfast Club be added.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, this is a man who threatens a teenager with assault before leaving him locked unsupervised in a closet. I understand why unscrupulous click-hungry hucksters publish this rubbish, but the traction it gets online is baffling and a little scary, to be honest. I know that people disregard and even hate teenagers, consistently treating their problems as if they didn’t matter and then acting shocked – SHOCKED, I tell you – when they kill themselves at higher and higher numbers. I know this, I’ve written about it before, I’ll probably write about it again. But, I have to admit, I don’t understand why. I don’t see what anyone gets out of shitting on teenagers except, I guess, the grim, bloodthirsty satisfaction of kicking someone while they’re down. People do like to just hate and hurt other people for its own sake, though they also tend to come up with ad-hoc rationalisations for it, so they don’t have to acknowledge their own sadism. Maybe the reason so many people get older and suddenly start yammering about how the antagonistic authority figures of teen movies were actually the heroes all along is because it lets them tell themselves they’re still the heroes of their own lives, now that they’ve become the villains of their adolescence.
Ed Rooney is not the secret hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
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.
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.
I went to see Split on my twenty-third birthday, and I was very excited. That was partly because my birthday was the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and it was a way to not think about, you know, events. But it was mostly because I am an M. Night Shyamalan apologist, and he was back! I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Happening, and after a string of bad decisions, he was resurgent. He’d had a surprise hit on television with Wayward Pines and his previous film, The Visit, had been both well-received and profitable. Now it was time for his redemption story to go mainstream with his biggest success since Signs.
And it did.
Measured by return on investment, Split was Shyamalan’s most profitable movie, turning $9 million into over $250 million, and it received some of the best reviews of his career. It was number one at the US box office for three consecutive weeks (a record in Shyamalan’s filmography matched only by The Sixth Sense), it had a sequel greenlit by April, and James McAvoy is one of the year’s prototypical examples of an actor locked out of the Oscars race by genre rather than merit. M. Night Shyamalan brought his reputation back from the dead with one of the year’s most successful movies.
And I hated it.
This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, My Chemical Romance as armour in a world full of misery and cruelty.
It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time it was quite a thing for a pop punk band to write a downbeat song about depression. Pop punk has always had a deep and abiding commitment to sincerity, but the genre’s early breakouts, especially Green Day, generally maintained a weird ironic distance from their feelings even as they exorcised them. “Basket Case” is a typical example: it’s not that it isn’t upfront about its subject matter – the sense of disorientation and purposelessness that is most definitive of Gen X alternative rock – but it’s delivered with a kind of self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, throwaway attitude that’s very hard to describe and very uniquely pop punk.
Partially that’s a product of the inherent irony of pop punk as a genre – the tension of sad lyrics over upbeat music – and partially it’s a product of the pervasiveness of irony in Gen X pop culture at large, from Kurt Cobain deadpanning positivity slogans to the relentless cynicism of Seinfeld, which is one reason the balance shifted heavily (but never completely) towards sincerity as this early wave of pop punk bands were succeeded by bands like My Chemical Romance, Paramore and Fall Out Boy in the noughties. Though mostly not millennials themselves (MCR’s Gerard Way is only five years younger than Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), their fanbases are, and these bands were at the vanguard of millennial pop culture’s reaction to the excessive and counterproductive irony of much Gen X art, a reaction that came to include Green Day themselves with American Idiot (2004).
Several successful singles from the turn of the century played a big part in that reaction: “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, “Perfect” by Simple Plan, and the first and most devastating shot, “Adam’s Song” by Blink-182, one of the most perfect songs ever written.
This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, Paramore and demanding the time and space to deal with emotions that we’re shamed for expressing.
My Chemical Romance existed to save lives.
It’s hard to talk about with the uninitiated. It’s not unlike talking about faith to unbelievers: when you have to describe it out loud, you can hear how bizarre it is. A believer can hold their faith and their knowledge of their faith’s absurdity together without contradiction, but an unbeliever cannot understand that. CS Lewis wrote about faith as completely derived from reason, and sure, he was a lot more educated about theology than me, but that’s nonsense. Faith isn’t rational, and it wouldn’t matter if it was. “No one could have in a billion years of their gripping testimony or by showing me a radiant life of good deeds or through song or even the most beautiful of books brought me to Christ,” Nicole Cliffe (from The Toast, now sadly defunct) wrote about her conversion, “I had to be tapped on the shoulder.”