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Category: How Film Changed Me

A bi-monthly column, from Jon Paul Roberts, using film to understand millennial life, how it changes us, and what we can learn from it.

Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Depressing Movies

January 17, 2021

There are certain films I’ve only been able to watch once. Not because I didn’t like them, but because they were such an ordeal that I couldn’t stomach them again. Lately, I’ve been thinking about those films and why, even though I know they’ll tear me emotional-limb from emotional-limb, I choose to watch them in the first place. 

It might be that this type of thinking is brought on by this time of year. The jovial aspect of the holiday season that romanticises snow and the cosy winter nights has given way to the cold bitter light of January; a period of time in which we’re forced to look back on the previous year (something especially tough now) and consider what might change about the year ahead, only to wonder if anything will at all.

Schindler’s List / Credit: Universal.

There are, of course, those films that everyone is told they need to watch, despite them being depressing, like Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, but they seem to fall into a slightly different category. They are depressing, for sure, but I’m not necessarily talking about movies that are just sad or difficult. I’m talking about movies that have sadness in every frame, that are soaked in gloom, and whose sadness oozes from the screen like dark vines which wrap their tendrils around you. Movies that don’t offer a sense of abject hope, that lean strongly into their nihilism.

One such movie is Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a movie the critic Guy Lodge called “an opaque, bruise-blue mist.” The film focuses on the addictions of four Coney Island natives: there’s Jared Leto’s heroin addict Harry, Jennifer Connolly’s wannabe fashion designer Marion, and Marlon Wayans’ Tyrone, who wants to escape his overbearing mother and the circumstances of his upbringing. None of these are a match, however, for Ellen Burstyn’s Sara, a widow whose sanity is pushed further and further by an addiction to amphetamines which fuels a psychotic delusion that she is taking part in a TV game show. 

Requiem for a Dream / Credit: Artisan Entertainment

Burstyn’s performance is not only devastating but it digs its claws in and, though it’s been around ten years since I last saw it, I still feel pangs of horror each time it crosses my mind. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why I have this reaction. It is similar, in some ways, to Gena Rowlands’ performance in A Woman Under the Influencewhich I am both in awe of and deeply affected byBoth performances commit fully to the sadness at their core, both are complex and heart-wrenching, and both unjustly lost out on an Oscar (ironically, it was Burstyn who beat out Rowlands for the statuette in 1975). They have this vacuum-like quality, that pulls you in and positions you in that depression. 

Speaking of the Oscars, it may have also been Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman which sent me spiralling down this rabbit hole of sorrow, and its star, Vanessa Kirby, is high on the list of Best Actress hopefuls this year. I thought, whilst watching the first half, that Kornél Mundruczó’s story of grief and loss might find its way onto my list of one-and-done movies. Much has been written about the film’s 30-minute birthing scene, but nothing can really prepare you for how it feels to actually sit through it. Kirby sells the pain, the stress and, ultimately, the loss so exquisitely that your heart is on the floor by the time it’s over and has been stamped on repeatedly. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the movie (bar one complicated sex scene) is never able to quite live up to it.

Pieces of a Woman / Credit: Netflix

It did, however, make me wonder what draws me to this type of film. I was, after all, the one who convinced my bubble to watch it on a Saturday night. Back in 2016, researchers at Oxford University found that watching traumatic films “boosts feelings of group bonding, as well as increasing pain tolerance by upping levels of feel-good, pain killing chemicals produced in the brain.” In essence, it provides a kind of quasi-schadenfreude. Not that we find joy, specifically, in the characters’ misfortune but, subconsciously, it triggers something in us that ultimately leads to happiness. 

If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I lean away from escapism. When the pandemic hit, I found myself reading and watching anything and everything that dealt with a global collapse. I, for better or worse, find it hard to tear myself away from Twitter and its constant supply of doom. I know I’m not alone in this either. A friend recently pushed back a FaceTime call by an hour because she had been endlessly scrolling on Twitter and needed to “walk it off”. 

Maybe this, my seemingly masochistic tendency towards gloom, is one of those things I’ll try to shake this year. 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On the Cultural Void

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On The Cultural Void

January 3, 2021

As 2020 drew to a close, writers and critics began to assess the year in terms of how film and television had managed (or struggled) as a result of the global pandemic. It was at this point that one writer’s assessment caught Twitter’s attention.

Julia Alexander’s article for The Verge proclaimed that a year without Marvel movies “left a pop culture void”. Admittedly, her central reference point was one that I, too, found somewhat moving; a packed movie theatre screaming in wild excitement during a screening of Avengers: Endgame in 2019. It wasn’t that I found that particular movie scene as rousingly exhilarating as those fans did on opening night, but I did sympathise with the desire to be seated in a full cinema again. 

Where Alexander lost me – and quite a few others, it seems – was in her conclusion that 2020, the first year since 2009 which lacked the release of a Marvel movie, had created an“absence of a very specific kind of excitement”. While she admits that other films can generate discussion, memes and discourse, none can do so quite like a Marvel film can. In some ways this is true, but this phenomenon doesn’t just extend to Marvel movies; any type of superhero tent-pole designed as a marketing ad first and a film second will create this kind of buzz.

Wonder Woman: 1984 / Credit: Warner Bros.

Over the Christmas period, Wonder Woman: 1984 found itself at the centre of this familiar blockbuster storm. Released simultaneously in theatres worldwide and on HBO Max in the US, it garnered both harsh criticism and intense defence. The group against the film (of which I, admittedly, am a member) thought it to be bland, nonsensical, and oddly racist. Those for the film thought its critics were paid off as part of some wider conspiracy against DC or floated theories that, due to most Americans watching it at home, they disliked WW84 because they were easily distracted by their phones.

This is a familiar story: the internet whipping itself into a frenzy over the latest comic book movie. Last year, it was Joker. In previous years it’s been Man of SteelAquamanX-Men, or some other such champion ‘man’. As Jia Tolentino wrote in Trick Mirror, the internet thrives on its ability to maximise our “sense of opposition”. As such, we are divided into two cultural camps: the childish-unintelligent-bro who adores these movies, and the snobby-elitist who considers the existence of such franchise films to be the very death of cinema itself.

Joker / Credit: Warner Bros.

This divide might seem overly simplistic and, in a way, it is, but its existence provides what the internet needs in order to thrive: clicks.

Think back to when Martin Scorsese decried superhero movies as not being cinema, or when Stephen Spielberg blasted Netflix. How many think pieces, hot takes and Tweets did that generate? A lot. One person’s opinion requires a near-immediate response, and that rebuttal requires one too until the original point is so cannibalised it is almost unrecognisable (hell, I’m even contributing to the phenomenon now with this column!).

This discourse seems to be shifting and distracting from the real issue: that audiences have simply become lax in what they will accept as good. This might be as a result of spending a decade arguing that the thing they enjoy is worth enjoying. It may also be that those aforementioned snobby-elites have forgotten that maybe there is some joy to be had or fun to be shared in the specific cultural experience of the superhero movie. Who’s to say?

Well, Fran Lebowitz is to say. In a recent clip that surfaced on Twitter from the documentary Public Speaking, Lebowitz discusses an audience’s role in maintaining the quality of the culture it consumes. She explains plainly that as a particular audience – one that paid attention and valued quality – died out due to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, it gave way to a different, more accepting, one; a group that were happy to get what they were given and were content to simply like it. She also attributes the decline in culture to the fact that many great artists and filmmakers were also lost during this time.

I would say that, in 2020, we do a have a pop culture void – but it isn’t what Alexander reckons it to be. At the centre of our culture we have these five-hundred million dollar movies that, because they’re primarily considered a product, have to be bankable and provide profit. How do studios plan to recoup their investment? By presenting something that will appeal to as many people as possible while simultaneously saying nothing that might offend (in either direction) or indeed say anything at all beyond a basic, agreeable message like “girl power” or “good triumphs evil”.

Instead of focusing on this, putting our money where our mouth is and demanding better, we simply feed into the model of opposition and say: ‘it’s me, and not you, who is right about this’. We seem to just accept that DC plans to release six movies a year from here on out, or that Disney recently vomited up plans for over fifty-two new Star Wars, Marvel, and other franchise entries over the coming years. 

So yes, there is a cultural void. One into which we just keep throwing money and time, until nothing matters at all.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On 2020 in Film

More On This Topic: Stand Off: Superheroes Vs Art

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On 2020 in Film

December 13, 2020

2020 has been a year of reckoning for film. We lost access to cinemas for a considerable portion of the year, film festivals moved online, and online screenings became the norm. Big blockbuster releases ran the gauntlet early on, like Tenet, or retreated into 2021 like No Time to Die and Black Widow. Most films arrived via streaming platforms, like Netflix or Amazon, while some trialled video-on-demand services day-and-date with a theatrical release. But it all meant smaller films were pushed into focus because the monolith that is blockbuster filmmaking was, for the most part, absent. Their model of filmmaking, which requires movies to make hundreds of millions of dollars just to breakeven, was exposed as unsustainable, and it meant independent film could shine through (and some especially great performances.)

I’m not naïve enough to think this will last. Wonder Woman: 1984 is due next week, the first significant tentpole movie since Tenet, and is also the first to be included on Warner Bros. plan to release their entire 2021 slate on HBO Max alongside theatrical releases. Disney also just vomited up about a thousand new Star Wars and Marvel projects to air on Disney+ over the next few years. So, yes, blockbusters will make a comeback, but how you consume them might be different. 

Still, 2020 provided some respite and, so, in no particular order, these are my favourite movies from this past year…

Kajillionaire

(dir. Miranda July) 

Kajillionaire
Kajillionaire // Annapurna Pictures

Miranda July, feminist oddball, artist, and author, returned this year with her third feature; Kajillionaire. It was a strange, lush, and queer heist comedy about family and love. I loved July’s previous films for their introspective look at loneliness and connection. I love the weird performance art videos she makes on Instagram, and I love her short stories and novels. Basically, I’m all in on Miranda July. 

Kajillionaire sits in line with all the things I love about her work as it follows a dysfunctional family, who get by on running small scams, when they are faced with an interloper and all she can offer. It’s a beautifully queer story about finding your value and understanding that you don’t have to sit with the cards you’re dealt. It also has a lot to say about how our parents will ultimately disappoint us, but that might not ring true with the kind of folk that has a family Whatsapp group. 

You can read my full review here


On The Rocks

(dir. Sofia Coppola)

On The Rocks - directed by Sofia Coppola
On The Rocks // A24

Sofia Coppola has made a name for herself by exploring the specific malaise of young women. From The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring, Coppola has given reverence to a period in woman’s lives that is so often ignored or used as background noise to a male protagonist’s story. On the Rocks, her latest film, instead looks at a woman approaching middle-age and a marriage that is, as the title suggests, struggling. 

One night, when Laura (Rashida Jones) is sleeping, her husband (Marlon Wayans) returns home from a business trip, he climbs onto the bed, half-asleep, and starts kissing her only to wake up and look surprised that it’s Laura in front of him. Suspicious, Laura begins to spiral. Is he cheating? Who was he expecting to see? Is their marriage falling apart? She enlists the help of her bachelor, and vaguely misogynistic, father (Bill Murray) to help find out. 

I’ve been a fan of Coppola since I first saw Lost in Translation nearly a decade ago and On The Rocks, significantly lighter in tone than her previous films, feels like a notable pivot in direction for her. It excites me to think about what might be to come. 


Shirley

(dir. Josephine Decker)

Shirley - directed by Josephine Decker
Shirley // LAMF

Shirley Jackson is one of the most famous American authors. Her story, ‘The Lottery’, is a staple on US high school syllabus’s and one of her most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House, was loosely adapted for Netflix last year. Shirley, the latest film from Josaphine Decker, turns its gaze on the ghosts that haunted Jackson herself, namely paranoia and depression. 

This pick is mostly about Elizabeth Moss, who plays Jackson, though I think the direction and writing are masterful too. Moss has provided some brilliant work on both film and TV in the years since leaving Mad Men such as in last year’s claustrophobic and chaotic Her Smell, her supporting role in the satirical artworld comedy The Square, or her comedic contribution to Jordan Peele’s Us. She has made a name for herself for giving spirited and wrought performances, and Shirley might well be the pinnacle. As Jackson, she exudes unpredictability, panic, and yet remains engrossing. 


Never Rarely Sometimes Always

(dir. Eliza Hittman)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always // BBC Films

I was a strong critic of Eliza Hittman’s debut, Beach Rats, when it arrived in 2017. While Harris Dickinson’s performance was commendable, the film felt like an inauthentic look at queer life without really doing the legwork. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the complete opposite; a well-considered feminist polemic that sits with you long after the credits roll. 

As the story of a working-class teenage girl travelling to New York City to get an abortion, the film has a specific brand of American social realism that wraps itself around you. The central performance, by Sidney Flanigan, is one of the most outstanding performances of the year and I couldn’t shake the scene from which the film gets its name for weeks after watching it. 

A lot of the visual flair that Hittman brought to Beach Rats (its cinematography, to be fair, was stunning) is honed further here, and the gritty dangers of New York are captured with simple, but gorgeous, shots. 


The Assistant

(dir. Kitty Green)

The Assistant - directed by Kitty Green
The Assistant // 3311 Productions

Again, this pick is a lot to do with its central performance. In The Assistant, Julia Garner plays the only female assistant to a predatory film producer. As sensational as that may sound, for the most part, we never see the producer. Instead, we follow those around him who cover for him, aid him, or find their morals are in question. 

Throughout a single, long, day Garner’s assistant signs off large cheques to undisclosed women, watches as young starlets are co-opted into signing NDA’s, and listens as her male colleagues dismiss it all. All this, which could have been seen as reactionary or in bad taste, becomes something sensitive and gripping in the hands of director Kitty Green in her fiction film debut. 


Stray

(dir. Elizabeth Lo)

Stray - Elizabeth Lo
Stray // Magnolia Pictures

Is it insane to say that one of the greatest performances of 2020 comes from a Turkish street dog? Well, it might be insane, but it’s true. 

Stray, Elizabeth Lo’s stunning documentary, follows Zeytin, a stray dog living on the streets of Istanbul. Due to Turkish law, stray dogs can’t be detained or killed, and so they often roam the streets in huge numbers searching for kindness and food. Zeytin, an independent and oddly charismatic dog, spends his days idling around the streets, fighting with other dogs, and forming a bond with a group of Syrian refugees displaced by the war in their country. 

Impressive for its emotional depth as well as as a feat of production (Lo followed him every day for six months), Stray is, ultimately, a didactic story of resilience, connection, and love. 


Lovers Rock

(dir. Steve McQueen)

Lovers Rock - directed by Steve McQueen
Lovers Rock // BBC

I was introduced to Steve McQueen through his 2011 drama about sex addiction, ShameLovers Rock could not be further from that in terms of subject matter, though McQueen’s slow and lingering style shines through. The film, which is part of the anthology Small Axe, follows a group of mostly young people at a party in 1980’s London. 

It’s hard to point out precisely what makes Lovers Rock so appealing. It’s an ode to community, to music, to sisterhood, to young love, and blackness. It is also meandering and experimental, opting only loosely to consider plot and instead position the viewing as a guest at the party the film revolves around. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, the closest thing the film has to a lead character, is beautifully strong and restrained in the role of Martha and Michael Ward is handsome and stoic opposite her. 


Clemency 

(dir. Chinonye Chukwu)

Clemency - directed by Chinonye Chukwu
Clemency //

In a year of excellent performances, Alfre Woodard’s in Clemency is probably the most under-seen. As prison warden Bernadine Williams, Woodard navigates the complexity of a life spent presiding over executions – mostly of young black men. As Bernadine considers her legacy and her position, she tries to connect with Anthony Woods (played with quiet restrain by Aldis Hodge), a young inmate who has lost his final appeal despite maintaining his innocence and is sentenced to death.

In my opinion, Woodard was grossly overlooked during awards season earlier this year and deserved not only a nomination but a win at the Oscars. Still, it’s nice to see a seasoned actor get a role that is worthy of her immense talent, and Clemency provides just that. It also works as a great debut for Chinonye Chukwu, who recently signed on the direct the first to episodes of HBO’s Americanah adaption and announced her second feature will look at the murder of Emmett Till.


The Human Voice 

(dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

The Human Voice - directed by Pedro Almodóvar
The Human Voice // Sony Pictures

Coming in at only 30 minutes, Pedro Almodóvar’s short film The Human Voice, is one of the most refined and fleeting pleasures of the year. Shot during lockdown earlier this year and put together in time for Autumn, the film follows a woman (played with campy reverence by Tilda Swinton) as she takes a phone call from the man she loves. Dressed in bright clashing colours and wandering around her luminous apartment with her Airpod’s in, she languishes over the end of their relationship in what is, essentially, a monologue. 

The film, loosely adapted from the play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, keeps the slick and vibrant melodrama style that has come to characterize Almodóvar’s more recent work and, when paired with Swinton, who irrevocably belongs in that world, it’s pure magic. 


Mattias and Maxime

(dir. Xavier Dolan)

Mattias & Maxime - directed by Xavier Dolan
Mattias and Maxime // Sons of Manual

Xavier Dolan’s lavish, and more recently star-studded, melodramas can have a somewhat marmite effect on some. His commitment to using pop music, his angst, or his youth can lead people to either love or hate the work he puts out. Mattias and Maxime is a return to the smaller-scale filmmaking that Dolan made his name with, following two friends whose relationship is tested when they’re asked to kiss on camera for a student film. 

I’m, more often than not, in the “love it” camp when it comes to Dolan. In Mattias and Maxime, he offers a tender portrait of young love and how it can be confused when it’s looked at through the prism of friendship. Dolan, who also stars as Maxime, is suitably moody and aggressive opposite Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas as Mattias, a beautiful (supposedly straight) young professional. 

What I love about Dolan’s work, and it’s present here, is his commitment to queer romance on screen. There is a gorgeously hot and romantic kiss during a house party that made me thump the sofa with glee as I watched and he also continues to highlight Hollywood’s sexiest male stars as Harris Dickinson shows up as a douchey American businessman who really wants to go to a strip club (why, oh, why do I find him so hot in the role? *dials therapist*) 


One Night in Miami

(dir. Regina King)

One Night In Miami - directed by Regina King
One Night In Miami // Amazon Studios

In September, Regina King became the first black woman to have a film premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Outside of this, or maybe in spite of it, King’s film, which follows four famous black civil rights figures over one night, is a strong, political, and powerful film that dissects so much of what we’ve been talking about this year. How do we make progress, with peace or violence? How do we advocate for change, with passion or restraint? 

King, who is critically lauded as an actor and director of television, deftly guides this dialogue-heavy drama in a slick and smooth manner. The performances of her four leads are distinct, and each offers depth and insight. It’s likely to be high on the list of awards ballots come January.

You can read my full review here.


Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Nicole Kidman

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Happiest Season

November 29, 2020

Anyone who knows me will understand that Christmas is not my thing. I do not get swept away in the magic, I rarely listen to Christmas songs unless they’re sad and gloomy (‘River’ by Joni Mitchell, come through!), and I don’t spend December watching Christmas movies. In fact, I have a list of only five movies I find acceptable during the season of giving: Die Hard, The Family Stone, Batman Returns, Carol, and Tangerine. However, in 2020, I was willing to expand that list with Happiest Season, the latest Christmas rom-com from Clea Duvall because, well, it was gay.

The film follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) as she agrees to spend Christmas with her girlfriend, Harper (McKenzie Davis), and her family for the first time. The catch? Harper isn’t out to her parents, and for the five days they’re staying with them they’ll have to pretend to be “roommates” and hope that no one picks up the 1970s undertones of that word. Abby begrudgingly agrees, but their trip brings into question Harper’s commitment to their relationship and also brings up her past; one in which she has acted cruelly towards an ex-girlfriend and has an ex-boyfriend who her family thinks she’ll eventually marry. It pits Stewart and her queer world against Harper’s family – a wealthy, white, seemingly conservative, political family who are seeking donors for the father’s mayoral campaign.

Happiest Season
“HAPPIEST SEASON.” (Credit: Sony Pictures / Hulu)

Despite my reservations about the holiday itself, I was excited for Happiest Season. Clea Duvall is a great comedic actress who I loved as Margery on Veep, and, on top of that, I enjoyed her directorial debut well enough, The Intervention, in 2016. The latter being a mid-range ensemble comedy that dealt with the breaking down of a relationship. I also love Kristen Stewart from her reckless swearing on SNL, to her fashion sense, to her nuanced performances in films like Personal Shopper, Certain Women, Still Alice, and The Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she won a César (the French Oscar) and became the first American woman to do so. When you add to that a cast that includes Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, and Mary Steenburgen I was entirely sold. After watching it, however, I’m not so sure.

Whether or not Happiest Season is “queer” enough isn’t a conversation I’m interested in having any more. I think there are valid conversations to be had about its whiteness and its cis-ness, though. While art can be inherently political and, through its casting and narrative it does subvert typical norms, it still conforms quite neatly to a heteronormative ideal – with Abby planning to propose to Harper at Christmas despite her friend John (Levy), reminding her that she’s “engaging in one of the most archaic institutions in the history of the human race.”

The Family Stone - Happiest Season
“THE FAMILY STONE.” (Credit: Sony Pictures / Hulu)

In the film, even though the spectre of heterosexuality looms large, the two leads are lesbians (well, one of them might be bisexual but the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of this interpretation.). In the past, mainstream Christmas movies have allowed queer couples only to exist as supporting characters. In one of my acceptable Christmas movies, The Family Stone, Tyrone Giordano, and Brian White play a gay couple who are members of the titular family. Their sexuality, which is used occasionally to develop the stony and lost-for-words Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), is not often discussed (but, in a movie that features so much bed-swapping and romantic drama it is sad to see them sit it out.)

There is no straight romance to counteract the gay in Happiest Season and there is no straight drama to hide behind. Yet, it does feel like it’s accessible to both gay and straight people. Usually, that would bother me. It did with 2018’s Love, Simon, or even, a few months ago, with Supernova, the Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci two-hander. The desire to appeal to straight people by either offering a diluted version of queer people – i.e. basically classically handsome straight-acting white people – or (spoilers for Supernova) killing them off so audiences can feel sympathy for them. God forbid straight folks might have to empathise with the gay experience that doesn’t involve death!

Anyway, I’ve digressed slightly, but what I mean to say is this; Happiest Season is potentially a step in the right direction but it depends how you look at it (well, apart from the overwhelmingly white part, that’s bad from every angle.) Stewart, an openly queer woman, shines in all her pantsuit, beanie hat, and sneakers glory. She is funny and awkward, while able to capture the difficulty her character has with being forced back into the closet. Also, spoiler alert for Happiest Season, no one dies.

I might watch it again next year, if not just to see the palpable sexual tension between Stewart and Plaza (I know I’m not the first to say it, but those two should be together.) It may even open a conversation with people who might not normally engage in that kind of discussion, about how the holidays can be difficult for queer folk who often have to hide who they are.

I suppose, it’s time for me to stop expecting so much from mainstream movies. I still will continue to be vocal about the number of queer characters that die, but I don’t think it’s time for me to give up on seeing myself in them. Instead, I’ll reframe them gateway films (so they don’t make me so mad!)

Gateway films, like gateway drugs, are a low-level intro into something larger. Happiest Season is sedate enough that it might creep into the average home but, just like Love, Simon it’s queer enough for young folks to get it. These films might reach the young queer kids who aren’t able to see the more radical or bold queer cinema such as Kajillionare or Ammonite (both of which premiered this year too.) It might act as their gateway to seeing themselves on screen, which in turn will feed a curiosity in other representations. It might lead them to bigger and better things.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Nicole Kidman

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Nicole Kidman

November 15, 2020

If you, like me, are just desperate to feel something other than existential dread during Lockdown 2: Back in the Habit, then you’ve likely been watching The Undoing. If you haven’t, the twisty thriller, based on a book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as a wealthy New York couple caught up in a horrific murder case. Not only is it providing some level of escapism, with its lavish Manhattan apartments, dramatic plot twists, and its lack of social distancing (it was filmed pre-pandemic), but is also airing one episode a week, reminding me that time is indeed passing and we are not stuck in some stagnant version of hell. Instead, each week is marked by an hour of Nicole Kidman doing what she does best; wearing wigs and acting everyone off the screen.

As a queer person, I routinely discuss how much I love actresses. From Laura Dern to Dakota Johnson, Holly Hunter to Kristen Stewart I love the work of women (I am basically that clip of Saorise Ronon saying “women” emphatically) but Kidman, has always been a point of specific interest. The first time I remember seeing a Nicole Kidman film was likely Moulin Rouge when I was around thirteen. My high school, quite inappropriately, decided to adapt the movie for the stage as that year’s school play (long before the Broadway version existed) and I watched the film over and over during rehearsals. Not so much because I had a big role (I was in the chorus and had three dance numbers which I slayed) but because I became obsessed with Kidman as Satine, a courtesan dreaming of a life elsewhere. I used to listen to her version of ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away; as if it applied to my own teenage existence on frosty Winter mornings as I wandered to school. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Moulin Rouge was also a crucial film in the emancipation of Kidman.

Moulin Rouge

When Kidman first broke into Hollywood in the late nineties, she was primarily seen as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend. Despite success with the thriller Dead Calm, Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world, and ultimately his overall star power consumed Kidman too. They worked together in films like Days of Thunder, Far and Away, and Eyes Wide Shut – all of which gained attention for starring the real-life couple. Her other films, well-reviewed but lacking impact (like Gus Van Sant’s To Die For or Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady) flew mostly under the radar. At the same time, her more significant blockbuster roles (in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever) were often written off as campy. Her move, from a respected indie actress to a major movie star, facilitated by her marriage to Cruise, provided both pros and cons. As Ingrid Sischy wrote in a 2002 profile of Kidman, “She went from being an actress who had begun to taste success—and who had always insisted on living on her own, even during her various romances—to a woman inside the engine of the Hollywood machine.”

When Kidman and Cruise divorced, the tabloids raised the question of who would “win” the break-up. Would it be Cruise? The megastar with millions of adoring fans and a proven track record in Hollywood. Or would it be Kidman? An Australian actress whose highest-profile roles were directly connected with her husband. The answer seemed obvious.

To Die For - Nicole Kidman
To Die For (Columbia Pictures)

In early 2001, the couple announced their divorce, and later that year, in May, Moulin Rouge premiered at the Cannes film festival. The film went on to be nominated for eight academy awards the following year including a Best Actress nod for Kidman. That year she lost to Halle Berry – a historic win of its own – but this nomination cemented her position in Hollywood moving forward. Not only was she well-reviewed and Oscar-nominated but the film made $179.2 million at the box office, more than doubling its original budget. When this was put together with The Others, which came out a few months after Moulin Rouge and was also a critical and financial hit, it was clear Kidman was more than the sum of her celebrity marriage.

A few years ago, a friend asked me if Nicole Kidman had ever won an Oscar. “She’s been nominated four times and won once,’ I said, surprised at how quickly that knowledge came to my mind. My friend followed up, asking which films she’d been nominated for. “In chronological order,” I said, “Moulin Rouge, The Hours (which she won for), Rabbit Hole, and Lion.” Again, I hadn’t realised I’d absorbed so much “kidmanformation” (I just coined this, we’ll see if it catches on) in my everyday life. Of course, my daily life (as a queer movie person that watches Oscar acceptance speeches on YouTube in my spare time) is not the same as everyone else’s.

Nicole Kidman - Big Little Lies
Big Little Lies (HBO)

Her performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours is one of my all-time favourite Kidman performances. Spurred on by the rawness of a significant public break-up, Kidman embodied the writer who was on the brink of suicide. She captured a woman lost and struggling with how to be and how to act. She transformed herself physically too, something Kidman regularly does but often doesn’t get much credit for, proving that she was an actress to reckon with. Despite the Oscar win, her public persona was somewhat confused. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Kidman was written off by many and was often cited as having a “comeback” any time she made something critics liked. In a 2017 article for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen wrote,

Kidman — like Witherspoon and Dern, like Stewart and Woodley, like so many actresses, of seemingly every age, who aren’t named Meryl Streep — has to prove herself as more than the sum of her pretty parts every time she comes onscreen.

Alan Helen Petersen, Buzzfeed

Post-The Hours, Kidman straddled arthouse movies and big blockbusters. She had critical hits and major flops; she moved into producing, and through her work on Big Little Lies she made a huge impact on TV too. She has worked with Yorgos Lanthimos, Sofia Coppola, Park Chan-Wook, Lars Von Trier, Nora Ephron, and Noah Baumbach, to name a few. She routinely takes risks and jumps between genres, but isn’t afraid of a big pay check gig – like Aquaman – either. She is the modern movie star who understands the requirements of Hollywood (one-for-me-and-one-for-you) but plays that so keenly to her advantage that it never feels like she’s selling out. To put it plainly, Kidman is the GOAT and we’re lucky that we’re alive to see her thrive. 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Sex Scenes

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How Film Changed Me: On Sex Scenes

November 1, 2020

There is nothing that emphasises a dry spell more than your upstairs neighbours having near-pornographic sounding sex at 7am on a Thursday. It’s incredibly tricky when that dry spell is government-enforced. In May, the government in the Netherlands told single men and women they should organise a “sex buddy” if they wanted to enjoy physical contact during lockdown. They asked people to consider their sexual partners based on how many other people they might see and plan the safest way to meet up for a shag. Going through someone’s social calendar and organising which position you’ll be in based on how likely it would be to transmit an airborne virus is not precisely foreplay though, is it? 

As for in the UK, the government offered no such suggestion – although,  having Chris Whitty or Boris Johnson dictating the specifics of my sex life would kill what little libido I have left – and thus, we were told we wouldn’t hug a stranger until 2021. So whether it was organising a sex buddy with the precision of a NASA Space Launch or being forced into celibacy by government restrictions, for most single people, sex has become, well, unsexy. 

This has become increasingly harder to deal with when watching movies with sex scenes. The touching, the kissing, the licking, the panting, the sweat; all of which feel both dangerous and off-limits now. Recently, I watched Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannell’s get it on in Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band remake. It’s only for a few seconds, but the two beautiful men kiss, drenched in sweat and passion, and all I could think was they’re definitely not six feet apart. I couldn’t find it hot (which objectively it was) because all I could think of was all the germs that might be passed around in their hot breath. 

The Boys in the band
The Boys in the Band (Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment.)

The pandemic has made sex unsexy and has made even watching sex scenes tough because it requires a physical closeness that most of us fear now. We can’t be near people, but when we see actors on screen, in movies filmed sometime last year, getting too close, it’s hard to un-train the brain to not panic at the sight of their touching. 

As Raven Smith noted in Vogue earlier this week, it’s not only the closeness but also the current climate stopping us from “feelings super-duper horny” these days. News of Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson, death tolls, tiered lockdown systems, social unrest, racism, violence, and corruption are not exactly subjects that lead to being turned on. It’s hard to spend all day on Zoom taking in news updates, and rumours of impending lockdowns, and still have the mental capacity for sex – if the option is still available to you. Plus, any sex scenes I watch just serve to mock me. Not only because I wince at the touching but because they say to me: Look at all the fun you could have been having if you weren’t in the throes of a major historical event. 

Disobedience (Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye. )

I used to see sex scenes as a marker of boldness, especially in queer cinema. Whether that was Jake Gyllenhaal bottoming on a stomach full of baked beans, or Taron Edgerton, as Elton John, getting into bed with Richard Madden, it often signified a film’s willingness to “go there”. Was the filmmaker unafraid of alienating a straight audience by showing queer sex? Rachel Wiess spitting in Rachel McAdams mouth in Disobedience, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu rolling round in the mud in God’s Own Country, or the sandy-handy on the beach in Moonlight set them apart from the “straight-friendly” LGBTQ+ movies that tried to toe the line. 

I hope, soon, I can return to that mindset. One in which I’m excited by sex scenes again and take pride in the unabashed sexiness. In fact, I’m just as keen to enjoy sex scenes as I am literal sex. Still, as my neighbours taught me at 7am last Thursday, not everyone is in the same boat.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On the Value of Youth


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How Film Changed Me: On the Value of Youth

September 20, 2020

Hollywood’s preoccupation with youth goes way beyond the propensity for plastic surgery. At the 72nd Golden Globes in 2015, Tina Fey joked, as if explaining an alien concept to the room of actors, directors, and agents; ‘Birthdays are a thing people celebrate with they admit that they have aged.’ As such, youth is something highly valued, a commodity to trade in and barter with, but also, increasingly, it’s becoming a marker by which to measure success. I mean, there’s even a ‘30 stars under 18’ list… 

I recently turned 27, an age at which dying is now cool (at least for the next 365 days) and also when Hollywood thinks you start to age. No longer a prodigy, nor an ingénue so you have to wait until old age and become a legend in terms of status. Yet now, it feels like more than ever we’re seeing young stars promoted to the pantheons of stardom and they’re younger and younger. From someone like Justin Bieber, found at age 12 from videos he posted to YouTube, to the twin girls that Ellen DeGeneres used to parade around her supposedly toxic sets, we see everyone from young kids to teenagers get recording deals, starring roles, and even producing movies. It makes me wonder, do we value youth more than we ever have? I suppose the answer is yes and no. 

Addison Rae
Addison Rae / Photo Credit: Byrant

About a week ago, Variety reported that Addison Rae Easterling, a 19-year-old Tik Tok star, had been cast in a gender-swapped remake of She’s All That. The 90s original, itself an updating of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, starred Freddie Prinze Jr. (a.k.a. another childhood crush of mine and I know it might seem if you read these columns regularly, that I have crushes on a lot of men and the answer is yes, I’m thirsty…) as a hot jock offers to makeover an unpopular girl as part of a bet only for the two to fall in love. Easterling, who already has 60 million followers on the app was reported to be one of the highest-earning Tik Tok stars with over $5 million in endorsement deals, will take on the Prinze Jr. role. 

As Tik Tok has grown in popularity, I’ve been very much in the Dolly Alderton camp, who observed that millennials joining Tik Tok is like boomers joining Instagram; ‘very ungroovy’. So when this news broke last week, apart from making me think/google pictures of Freddie Prinze Jr. (I told you, thirsty), I was mostly struck by Easterling’s age. The idea of being 19, having over $5million, and being cast in major films once would have seemed like the dream, but now it gives me anxiety. Still, in the original movie, both leads were in their mid-twenties playing high schoolers, and I can’t help but wonder if there is a vast difference between 19 and 23? I would try and use myself as an example to answer this question, but I was a mess at both ages. 

To try and understand further, I looked up a compilation of her videos online (under the user Addison Rae) and, I have to admit, the whole concept of Tik Tok goes over my head in a way that makes me feel old. I remember the obsessions of my youth (The Jonas Brothers, Pokémon cards, and those weird liquid-filled balls on a string that were banned after someone supposedly choked themselves with one)  and how my Dad didn’t get them. At some point in the past five years, I crossed over from that place of youthful knowing, into aged misunderstanding. 

Damian Chazelle
Damian Chazelle / Credit: Lionsgate.

All that said, there is a value to youth that is often discounted. This is not the value set by those who crave to return to it, but rather it’s the value of perspective. There’s a myth that you have to wait and earn your right to speak on a public stage, pay your dues, and kiss the ring of those that came before. The institutions that have to power to grant you opportunities see youth as a disadvantage, as a lack of experience so when some do breakthrough early, like Xavier Dolan at 19, Zadie Smith at 22, Sally Rooney at 27, or Damian Chazelle at 29, it’s treated as gifted prodigies defying a system of the faux meritocracy because there is little value given to the youthful perspective. Visually and aesthetically, Hollywood and the industry in general, value youth, but when it comes to entrusting or giving power to the young, then it gets complicated. 

I’m not sure if I’m realising this now because I’m of an age where people have started paying for my voice? As such, writing for this publication and various others is markedly different from everything I did for free at University. Or whether this introspection is a long-winded way of trying to understand the nerve-wrecking nature of seeing 19-year olds with $5 million while I, at 27, am just trying to make it work? I’m not sure I have an answer this time. 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Sofia Coppola

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How Film Changed Me: On Sofia Coppola

September 6, 2020

During the brief period in which I studied film at university, we didn’t talk about Sofia Coppola. There was a module on ‘auteur filmmaking’, a somewhat archaic and potentially moot theory around style and aesthetic, that covered, well, a lot of men. Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Federico Fellini, and Dario Argento, amongst others, were touted as ‘auteurs’ and, as such, they were a specific type of filmmaker that my, mostly male & straight, lecturers admired. There was one woman on the syllabus; Kathryn Bigalow, a great director who deals into predominantly masculine stories of violence and war. 

For our end of year examination, we had to sit an exam on auteur filmmaking (I mean, why?) and we were told to familiarise ourselves with two different directors to make sure we had a suitable range of examples to answer whatever essay questions came up. Choose one from the syllabus, my lecturer told us, and then, if you like, you can choose one of your own. From the syllabus, I chose Tarantino, for my sins, and then I decided on Sofia Coppola. No one told me she was an auteur, but I’d recently watched Lost in Translation, and The Virgin Suicides in quick succession and her pastel pinks and blues, her muted silence, and the stiltedness of both films stood out me.  Her devotion to the female experience, though notably middle-class and white, felt different from the hypermasculine bloodbaths I’d been watching in class.  There was a slowness to her work, a reflective quality that allowed room for interpretation and thought. 

Lost in Translation / Credit: Focus Features

At the risk of sounding basic, Coppola’s films deeply affected my twenties. The motionless malaise that she perfected felt akin to my wandering, unsettled, life.  I shifted myself from city to city, watched them all pass by in a haze of cigarette smoke. I often had trouble connecting, finding my purpose or identity, and so, someone like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson)  in Lost in Translation felt deeply personal to me. She was a woman out of place, both literally and mentally, in a relatively new marriage in which her husband is thriving. ‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be,’ she tells Bob (Bill Murray) as they lie next to each other in a Tokyo hotel room. I didn’t either. For the longest time I bounced from possible profession to possible profession; actor, writer, teacher, filmmaker, and many others. Sometimes, I regret the aimlessness of those years, especially when I see people my age or younger thriving (Justin Bieber is my age, for example. As is four-time Oscar nominee Saorise Ronan…) Still, there is something artistic in that aimlessness, in that lack of direction, something in that space that is charged, and that’s what Coppola digs into as a filmmaker. 

So many of Coppola’s characters, especially her women, feel stuck. The Lisbon Sisters are stuck within an existence they want to leave in any way possible, Marie Antoinette is stuck within the social entrapments of Versailles, and girls at Martha Farnworth’s Civil War-era school feel trapped in place (a few miles from the fighting) and stuck with their repressed sexual desires. But, let’s be honest, if a sweaty and half-naked Colin Farrell were sitting in your drawing room, you’d be just as flustered. You would do anything to bathe him with a wet rag and don’t even try to tell me you wouldn’t. Still, lust aside (and because if I keep talking about Colin Farrell I won’t stop), Coppola captures a millennial longing for a particular life, one that always seems out of reach, always taunting you. 

The Beguiled / Credit: Focus Features

Recently, the trailer for her latest feature, On the Rocks, was released online. The film reunites Coppola with Murray for the third time and also adds Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, and Jenny Slate (she isn’t in the trailer but IMDB lists her fourth and, honestly, I’m very excited about it). The story follows another stuck woman, Laura (Jones), this time in her late 30s, as she reconnects with her philandering father and also suspects her husband is having an affair. ‘I’m in a rut,’ Laura says, she’s ‘the buzzkill who’s waiting to schedule things’ and feels separate from the life she’s living. 

It’s hard not to feel, as I enter my late twenties, and find myself with a flat, writing jobs, teaching jobs, and more responsibility than before, that the fun is slowly stopping. The rut Laura is in doesn’t feel a million miles away from my own. I’ve been waiting for my life to change for a while and yet, it’s not happening no matter what I do. I often feel monotonous, controlling, or a fun killer when I note the time, the early morning we all have the next day, or the expense we’d incur. All things which, at one time, we bore next to no concern for – at least, until afterward. 

Sofia Coppola / Credit: Mark Borthwick

It’s been just over three years since Coppola released her last film, The Beguiled, and On the Rocks feels like a small, but significant, shift. Coppola usually explores the aspirations and issues of younger women, in their teens or late twenties, but with Laura, she’s exploring the late-30s. ‘A woman is at her most beautiful between the ages of 35 and 39,’ her father (Murray) tells her over dinner. ‘Great. So I have many… months left,’ she retorts. 

Coppola is a filmmaker whose films I’m going to see. In 2017, I went with two friends to a packed Curzon in Aldgate for a preview screening of The Beguiled and I followed the news of her, now abandoned, Little Mermaid remake with great interest. So, whether I watch On The Rocks in cinemas or if I restart my AppleTV+ account (I mean you know I cancelled that the second I finished The Morning Show…) I’ll be super excited to see what this new (okay, slightly new) direction has in store. After all the madness of the past summer and almost nothing tangible to look forward to film-wise, this finally feels like salvation. 

Sofia Coppola’s ON THE ROCKS will be released in Select Theaters around the world October 2 and on Apple TV+ October 23.⁣⁣⁣⁣

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Trailers

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How Film Changed Me: On Trailers

August 16, 2020

Sometimes I wonder if I love trailers even more than I love the movies themselves. As a kid (and, hell, even now) I never wanted to miss the trailers, the two-minute mini-movies that reek of possibility. Sure, I’ve seen most of them before, at previous screenings or on YouTube, but that doesn’t quell my excitement. Last year, for example, I felt the same wide-eyed wonder every time a saw the trailer for Hustlers, which was exceptional and set to Cardi B’s ‘Money’, and every time Jennifer Lopez delivered her lines, it felt like the first time. It was the same the year before with the trailer for A Star is Born, when Lady Gaga belted gibberish over images of private jets and motorcycle rides, I felt a giddy, childlike glee. 

It’s not just me who is excited by them either; there is a whole industry built around trailers. Now, studios rely on YouTubers and internet sites to deconstruct them frame-by-frame, to search for clues, and talk about them on Twitter. They hope that the internet erupts with discussion and excitement. Remember last summer? Was there anything more discussed than the Cats trailer? From the horrified to the morbidly curious, digital fur technology and a-sort-of-sexy-but-I-don’t-really-want-to-think-about-it-because-he’s-meant-to-be-a-cat Jason Derulo captured the hearts and minds of the internet. It became instantly meme-worthy, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hadn’t seen it. Cats is an example of how a trailer can become a cultural event in the same way music videos like ‘WAP’ and shows like Tiger King were this year. Even if the movie itself bombed, it cemented itself within our cultural consciousness in just two-minutes-and-thirty-three-seconds, and that’s exactly what the studios want. 

Jason Derulo - Cats
Cats / CREDIT: Universal Pictures

These days, you have to have a keen eye when it comes to trailers. I can generally tell a studio is trying to promote a stinker from the trailer they release. After all, millions of dollars go into these films, and then, when they’re presented with a naff final product they have no choice but to try and sell it. However, if you look closely, you can tell. When I saw the trailer for The Goldfinch, I knew. Jojo Rabbit, I knew. Downhill, I knew. How to Build a Girl, I… well, actually I had no idea about that one (lol jk, I knew). Advertising teams try to hide bad films by editing bombastic trailers for them; they use quick cuts and let it all build to climax. Still, even if trailers act as smoke and mirrors for bad movies, there is nothing better than seeing a great trailer; one that gets your blood racing and has you on your knees asking your God (in my case, Stevie Nicks) not to let you die before that film comes out. 

At the end of August, the cinema’s will finally have new releases to screen and the trailers for those are already out there. Tenet, the Bill & Ted sequel, and The Kingsmen prequel are all slated to open in September. October holds Wonder Woman 1984 and Candyman (which had a stellar trailer set to a creepified version of ‘Say My Name’ by Destiny’s Child) while November offers Black Widow and No Time To Die. The trailers for these all came out months ago, and the studios are hoping that audiences remember them. 

Tenet
Tenet / CREDIT: Warner Bros.

As for me, the most exciting trailers released recently are both for Netflix. I’m Thinking of Ending Things Charlie Kaufman’s latest endeavour starring a cast of people I adore – Jessie Buckley (who deserves all the world), Jesse Plemons (who is one of my favourite actors working today and is also married to Kirsten Dunst which is a huge bonus), and Toni Collete (who is literally incomparable to everyone else) to be precise. The trailer is a weird mix of spooky and challenging which, if you look at Kaufman’s oeuvre, fits perfectly. It’s the first time, since lockdown began, that I’ve felt excited about a film release and I’ve watched the trailer about fifteen times since it dropped last week. 

Then, they also have the star-studded and much anticipated The Devil All the Time which brings together everyone’s internet crushes: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, and Riley Keough into a bizarre-looking gothic tale of the American South. This one could go either way, quality-wise, but it also has Robert Pattinson pouring spiders onto his own face so… well, do with that what you will.

Soon, we will be able to sit in dark spaces and revel in the coming attractions. Hopefully, those films will keep coming and, after a nearly six-month break, the back end of 2020 could be pretty crowded. To stand out, they’ll need some killer trailers and I, for one, am ready for them. 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Moving House

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How Film Changed Me: On Moving House

August 2, 2020

A classic car, maybe a people carrier, crawls slowly up a dusty drive. The young family inside crane their necks to look at a large house, one that’s kind of old and a little creepy. The car comes to a stop, and the kids (maybe a dog too) burst out from the backdoors and go running into the house – screaming about which bedrooms they want. The mother and father stand, gazing up at the house, holding each other. ‘This will be a new start,’ one of them says and they both smile. 

How many times have you seen some variation on that scenario? I’ve seen it in about 100 horror movies. They’ve likely bought the house at some reduced rate, for sketchy reasons they don’t understand, but, because they’re facing financial hardship, they had no choice. After arriving, the father might become possessed and start chopping wood shirtless, or maybe the mother becomes ‘paranoid’ about all the spooky things that happen when she’s home alone. The youngest kid, the quiet one, might make a new invisible friend or start hearing things in the night. Then comes the demons, or the ghost, the serial killers, or the zombies.  

No wonder we find it all so stressful. Often touted as one of the most stressful life events, along with divorce, moving house can be a nightmare. To top it off, when we watch people move on screen, it never really ends well. The family in The Amityville Horror? Bad. The Conjuring? Awful. The Shining? Oh, boy. 

The Shining
The Shining (Credit: Warner Bros)

Since I’m on the precipice of moving house, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might do if the place I’ve bought is haunted. I’ve had visions of myself, walking around the apartment in a chic grey turtle neck, being frightened by the slightest noise. Pulling back shower curtains or opening wardrobe doors with a quickness to see if there’s a demon hiding inside. Or waking up late at night and scoping out some disturbance in the next room while wearing delicate silk pyjamas. I’m thinking of myself as Sarah Michelle Geller in The Grudge, obviously. 

In actuality, it’s unlikely my new place is haunted. It’s in a building that was only built around seven years ago, and, to my knowledge, it isn’t on any ancient burial grounds. Yet, I could be wrong. I mean, how often do the families in those films insist the place isn’t haunted before they admit it to themselves? Anyway, the idea of a ‘haunted house’ has been around for centuries and was imbedded within gothic literature. Over time, that has expanded into the mainstream as houses themselves became, as Edwin Heathcote wrote in the Financial Times, ‘the embodiment of evil.’ He goes on to write that the success of this type of horror comes from the subversion of the home as somewhere safe. ‘Home should be a place of comfort and refuge,’ he writes, ‘its violation is a kind of mental rape.’ So, in the decades since those gothic stories – in which haunted houses were distant, creaky, places that were eerie and decrepit – we’ve moved towards the suburbs, the everyday home, the new apartment I’m moving into, as a place of terror. In short, you can’t spot a haunted gaff anymore. The ghosts could be anywhere, and they’re just as likely to be in that abandoned Victorian house around the corner as they are to be in a new build semi-detached on the latest development. 

The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror (credit: MGM)

It seems these horror films, which throw families into the midst of a ghostly nightmare after moving house, play on our fear of change? The idea of ghosts or demons might all be fantasy. Still, they represent the genuine fear of homeownership and the concerns about responsibility, permanence, repossession, house insurance, solicitor fees, burglary, choosing the wrong colour for the bathroom wall, and burst pipes that come after a purchase. The idea of owning something like a house or a flat is scary, and so it makes sense that horror films play on that fear by showing us the horrendous things that happen to these families once they’ve moved in.  After all, the genre is famous for tapping into our innermost fears and exploiting them in various ways. 

At the end of these films, the ghost is dispelled or the demon banished back into the depths of hell and, eventually, through some exorcism of the soul, I’ll send my doubts and fears packing too. I will grow into owning my own place, and it will all pass. Though, I’ll still have to keep an eye on the neighbours because, well, don’t get me started on Rosemary’s Baby… 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On ‘I May Destroy You’

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How Film Changed Me: On ‘I May Destroy You’

July 18, 2020

What hit me first was how the title edits itself. The words appear as if typed on a screen, the blinking cursor at the end awaiting its next command. I May Destroy You. Quickly then, milliseconds before the title card disappears, the cursor backspaces and deletes the ‘you’. I May Destroy. Destroy what, exactly? You? Me? Everyone? Everything? This minor blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment speaks to what makes Michaela Coel’s 12-part BBC series the ground-breaking work of television that it is: it is in detail. 

That, in its way, speaks to the conversations that have evolved around sexual assault. What’s in the detail? The small pieces of DNA that disappear so quickly, the intricate specifics of the assault, and how it all comes together in the mind. The memories of those who have been assaulted are so often questioned, the details of a story might change, and deniers latch onto that as a sign of deception. The fallibility of memory is weaponised against survivors, and the societal shame attached to it used to discourage those who might want to speak. 

In I May Destroy You, Coel plays Arabella, a young writer trying to finish her second book. As her deadline looms she pulls an all-nighter but, when inspiration doesn’t come, she heads out and meets up with some friends in a local bar called Ego Death. It is there, in that cunningly named bar, that Arabella’s life is altered when she is spiked and sexually assaulted. Over the next eleven episodes, Arabella reckons with the trauma of the assault and explores the boundaries of consent. When is it given? In what circumstances is it taken away? How can it be manipulated? In this journey, Coel leaves no stone unturned as the show explores ‘stealthing’, withholding information, rape, and so much more while delving into those commonly discussed ‘grey areas’, which was something that hit hard with me. 

I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You / CREDIT: BBC/HBO

In January of 2014, when I was living in University halls, I met up with a guy from Grindr. We were both back on campus earlier than anyone else, and we struck up a conversation about how quiet the city was without the throngs of students piling into clubs and bars. He suggested we meet up for a cigarette, for some in-person conversation to fend off that post-Christmas isolation. 

Outside my halls, we smoked together. He talked about his friends, most of whom were international students and weren’t due back in Liverpool for another few weeks. He hadn’t been able to afford to go home and so spent Christmas alone in his halls. He became emotional – talking about how hard it had been and how much he’d missed being with people. This was his first time living away from home and each day seemed more laborious than the last. 

He asked if I wanted to go back to his halls. They were a short walk away, and he needed to piss but didn’t want our conversation to end. I agreed under the understanding that I wasn’t going have sex with him – something that I felt I needed to say because we’d met on Grindr. He smiled, sweetly, and said he understood. 

I May Destroy
I May Destroy You / CREDIT: BBC/HBO

In his room, I sat on his single bed while he pissed in the small en-suite bathroom. When he came out, he sat down next to me and said he was grateful that I’d met up with him, that he was feeling so much better. He put his hand on my leg and slowly drew it up my thigh, and I froze. It dawned on me that I’d taken him at his word and foolishly not told anyone where I was going. No one knew where I was and, from what he’d told me, his flatmates hadn’t yet returned. 

He reached over, took off my glasses, then leaned in to kiss me. I made no effort to receive his kiss, my face remained utterly still,  but that didn’t seem to bother him. He kept on pushing, slowly asking more of me – not with words but with his hands, rubbing against me, unbuttoning my jeans – and because I was afraid, I didn’t stop him. 

I knew that what had happened wasn’t within the realms of acceptability. As I got in the lift afterwards, I knew I had been taken advantage of. I questioned everything he’d told me. Was he really alone? Was it all a ruse? Had he actually spent Christmas surrounded by loving family members?  Mostly, I felt stupid and, when I played it back to myself, I saw how it would sound to others. I met a guy on Grindr and did sexual things with him in his bedroom. What did I think would happen? I felt, though I hadn’t seen it yet, I understood that deleted ‘you’. I May Destroy… my relationship with sex, men, and intimacy. 

I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You / CREDIT: BBC/HBO

I told a few friends what happened in the weeks that followed, but it was so hard to find the language to convey how it made me feel. Outside of that, I rarely talked about that night but watching I May Destroy You has allowed me to revisit it over and over. I’ve thought a lot about Terry, played expertly by Weruche Opia, who enters into a threesome that seems liberating only to realise it wasn’t quite as it seemed. She didn’t have all the information when she consented, and thus the consent she gave was rendered moot. I’ve thought a lot about Kwame, brilliantly brought to life by Paapa Essiedu, who is assaulted on a Grindr hook-up and feels immense shame about it – which is fuelled by the response of the police. I’ve considered Theo, a teenage girl abused in various ways, lying about an assault at the hands of another black male student. I’ve wondered about the ramifications of Zain’s exposure as a rapist and his scope for redemption. 

This is the power of Coel’s writing; she explores her subjects without judgement. She leaves room for a viewer to consider what is presented and for them to examine themselves in relation to it. The root of the show was her own experience with assault, and that truthfulness has extended to allow Coel to work from a place that is both radical and empathetic. 

I May Destroy You is bold television; in fact, it might be the boldest. I am already comfortable writing that is the best show of 2020, and there are still five months left. It has, for me and likely many others helped reframe and contextualise experiences in a way that only art can. It has also opened up space for discussion, forgiveness, and light. It also speaks to the broader debate around consent that began with this show and Normal People and will continue with the release of Promising Young Women, and I Hate Suzie later this year. Hopefully, this is a sign of the tide turning. 

In episode eight, entitled ‘Line Spectrum Border’, Arabella walks out into the ocean, seemingly to kill herself, but at the last second, she reappears. She is reborn. She sheds the choices she’s made and the trauma she’s been through and emerges as a different woman. That is precisely what Coel has done to the landscape of television – remade it. Be wary of those who enter post-I May Destroy You; it is an entirely different world. 

I May Destroy You is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Change

Read the rest of the How Film Changed Me series

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Editorials, How Film Changed Me

How Film Changed Me: On Change

July 5, 2020
Barbara McLean

On January 20th 2016, Kylie Jenner dubbed the year ahead as the ‘Year of Realising Things.’ Indeed, 2016 did seem to be a year in which things were realised. For example, a lot of white liberal Americans ‘realised’ racism still existed when You Know Who was elected, while we here in the UK realised that Brexit had divided us almost precisely down the middle, and the whole world realised that our favourite celebrities could die – something we realised over, and over, and over again.

If I were to put myself in Kylie Jenner’s philosophical seat this year, I’d likely call 2020 the ‘Year of Change’. Albeit, back in January I thought that change was going to be more to do with real estate than global upheaval. But still, I have, during this pandemic, bought a flat (my first) and two of my friends are preparing to move into a house they’ve bought together. Other friends have gotten engaged, while some have moved in with their partners to get around lockdown restrictions, acquired new jobs that require them to move across the country, or made plans to pack up and head for sunnier shores.

This change is likely due to my age (I turn 27 in September) and that famously I’m approaching what some call ‘Saturn’s Return‘. This is the idea that Saturn takes around 27 to 30 years to orbit the sun and so when you reach my age, it’s getting closer to the place in the sky it was when you were born. This, in astrological terms, means that your life is disrupted, thrown off course, and you’ll face hardship for a few years as Saturn, well, returns. Of course, your late 20s are often when you’re expected to be more independent, and bills, house sales, taxes, hair loss, and bad knees come into play so Saturn’s Return might just be astrology’s way of trying to make sense of adulthood.

The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada / CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

Whether the planets cause it or whether we just blame them, change can be hard to handle. So much so that I often find myself wishing it could fly by in one niftily edited montage. The seasons will change, and I’ll walk down the street in different weather appropriate outfits that allude to the passage of time. They’ll be a shot of me signing the contracts for my new place, and it’ll cut away before showing the stress and anxiety of buying property. Then, without showing the hassle and stress of finding affordable movers, it will show me directing two strong removal men to put the beautiful fancy sofa I’ve spent too much money on down against the far wall. In the next shot, the walls will have been painted, the shelves will be up, and my books will be all unpacked. Ultimately, it will end with everything done and I’ll sit down on my expensive sofa, look around at my finished flat, and smile. I’d be fully moved in, and ready to go back into the main storyline.

Change is a lot easier to process on film, and it has all these ways to deal with the passage of time that we don’t. For example, on Tuesday, I went for my first run in two years, and it ended with me spending £15 on Epsom salts and muscle relaxant bubble bath. It was the muscles in my groin, specifically, that felt like they were over it, as if they were some much-ignored cog in this machine I call my body. Each time I stood up, they ached, and trying to climb the stairs felt Herculean. It’s at this point that the idea of recasting is appealing. Out with the old and in with the younger model like James Bond or Aunt May. Yes, bring in someone more spritely to play the part of me for the next few years – ideally someone who has Hollywood-level personal trainer and doesn’t share my love for potatoes. Let the young hot bushy-tailed ingenue take over and then maybe I could be tempted to step back into the role in a few years (but only if the money is good.)

Bond, James Bond
Bond, James Bond

The last option, of course, is the full-blown reboot. Go back to the origin story, do it a little differently, and re-write the mistakes in the hopes that this time it will all go better and that people will be more receptive to it. Make this new version glossier, smoother, and put money into it. Recast everyone and start again. Of course, by this point, everyone will already be sick of it. Why bother bringing back a story that no one really cared about the first time? Why not make something new instead of regurgitating this old shite. I imagine that’s what the YouTube comments would say under the trailer for my new rebooted life. Nothing is ever original these days. 

Instead, I’ll just have to weather the change like everyone else. Ride with its ebbs and flows and try to make the emotional space to deal with it. I can hope and wish that I had smart ways to process change like film does. I can dream about 4 hours’ worth of shopping becoming a 3-minute montage set to a pop-rock song at the end of which I have a new haircut and a whole new outfit. I can fantasise that, as the inebriated man rambles on about politics, I could just cut away and skip the rest of his drunken lecture. But, instead, my makeovers are more gradual and my night outs often ruined by pontification.

In his book In The Blink of an Eye, film editor Walter Murch writes that Francis Ford Coppola had 1,250,000 feet of film printed after shooting Apocalypse Now. This works out to be about 230 hours of footage, all of which was edited down into 2 hours and 25 minutes. With this in mind, I guess we could try and look at life in a different way. We shoot it all, every second of life, and our memory acts as the editor. Our memory can cut out the excess, reduce the time between scenes, and even dub the dialogue. Right now we’re just the exhausted actors that have shot nearly 27 years’ worth of footage, but at the end of our lives, we’ll be able to play our own personal movies over and over again. We just have to wait until then.

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Reese Witherspoon

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