Notes on Bully

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


I watched Bully because Roger Ebert said it “calls the bluff of movies that pretend to be about murder but are really about entertainment”. It’s based on the real murder of Bobby Kent in 1993 by people he’d bullied and raped, and others who were along for the ride. Ebert goes on: “His film has all the sadness and shabbiness, all the mess and cruelty and thoughtless stupidity of the real thing… this is not about the evil sadist and the release of revenge; it’s about how a group of kids will do something no single member is capable of. And about the moral void these kids inhabit.”

His description of the film immediately brought to mind American Animals, one of the best films of this decade. It isn’t about murder, but it is about a violent crime, committed by young people who are propelled forward as much by the interpersonal dynamics of their group as their stated motives. It takes the violence its characters commit extremely seriously, setting you up to expect stylised film violence and then dropping you suddenly and horribly in something upsettingly realistic. I didn’t go into Bully hoping it would be the same as American Animals, but I like seeing how different films – and filmmakers – handle similar subject matter and themes.

Bully is a great film in almost every way. The cast are phenomenal, especially Rachel Miner and Brad Renfro as Lisa and Marty, the ringleaders of the murder. The camera stalks moodily through Florida suburbs perched precariously on the edge of the Everglades, everything cast in light and shadow by the harsh streetlamps. You can almost hear the ambient buzz of electricity through overhead wires. The screenplay avoids the pitfalls of many realistic treatments of teen life written by adults. It isn’t full of outdated slang. The teenagers sound like teenagers, especially in all the ways teenagers try not to sound like teenagers. It’s a great film. Almost.

The co-writer of that screenplay, David McKenna, disowned the finished film, writing in a furious letter to the director and producers that it “resembled a porno” with “unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation [and] no character development”. He is credited as Zachary Long in the finished film. I don’t agree with McKenna or others who gave Bully harshly negative reviews, like David Edelstein. But I also don’t agree with Roger Ebert, who said it was basically perfect.

It’s not perfect. It’s almost perfect. But it’s too goddamn creepy to get there.

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Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento

I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.

The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.

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It’s a Little Childish and Stupid, But Then, So Is High School

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.

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What About Me? What Am I Going To Do?

Rewatching The Inbetweeners in 2018 has been full of surprises. Mostly, I was taken aback by how evocative it is of its time. I rarely think of the late 2000s as having any kind of distinct culture – it seems most of the time that we haven’t had a decade, in a cultural sense, since the 1990s – but The Inbetweeners looks and feels like a show made very specifically between 2008 and 2010, like a weird kind of time capsule. The cringe comedy, the music choices (remember The Wombats?), an honest-to-God reference to Crazy Frog. There’s some stuff that hasn’t aged well – the voiceover narration always struck me as gratuitous, but I think I’d blanked from my memory how every episode ends with basically a highlight reel – but mostly it made me feel very fond. I love teen movies and shows, but rarely because they remind me of my own teenagehood outside of the broad emotional strokes. The Inbetweeners feels like a show about kids that I grew up with: there’s a relentless ordinariness to it, and a disgustingness that feels, watching it as an adult, surprisingly, sweetly innocent.

The Inbetweeners follows four teenage boys in some anonymous small suburban town in England: Will, a posh ex-private school wanker moved to a comprehensive after his parents’ divorce; Simon, who initially seems like “the normal one” but quickly reveals himself as probably the most fucked-up of all, short-tempered, needy and incredibly sensitive; Neil, who is basically a complete idiot but probably the most together of the four when it comes to actually interacting with other people; and Jay, self-appointed sex expert and pathological liar. They want to get drunk, and pull a girl, but mostly just hang around, talking shite.

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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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Duct Tape on Armchairs: Frasier and the Working-Class Sitcom

It’s the golden age of TV.

455 scripted television shows aired in America in 2016 – that’s compared to 192 in 2006. There’s been years of back and forth about whether current TV is the best thing ever – quite possibly the central cultural output of our time – or actually not very good at all, because so-called prestige TV is so often shallow self-serious bullshit. The obvious fact that TV has always been good, and that the “golden age of TV” corresponds only to the rise of paid subscription services (HBO, Netflix, Amazon) and cinematography that made TV look like movies, might be mentioned, but is never of concern. We’ll talk about the fracturing of the television audience – how three of the last five TV seasons had football at the highest rating, because sport is the only thing diverse audiences watch live anymore – but we’ll pretend that it fractures more or less at random, and its only implications are for advertisers.

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