Arrested Development: or, when to say Enough is Enough

Like a lot of people, I love Arrested Development. It’s the ultimate show for neurotics, taking the format that Seinfeld pioneered (awful people doing awful things while the programme itself maintains a deceptively breezy tone) and doubling down on the obscure, the minutiae, the bizarre. Jokes were set up, riffed on, and a couple of season’s later twisted inside out; there is no such thing as an idle minute in Arrested Development, where everything will be called back to, or is setting up some obscure payoff however far in the future. It is the hardest show to explain the appeal of to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s just… Funny. Not because of this joke, or that joke, but simply because the whole show operates as a joke.

It takes a little while for this to sink in, but once it does it’s hard not to stay hooked (if you’ll pardon the reference). And the beauty of the show is that everyone who is a fan has that secret feeling like they discovered it. When you spot jokes, or callbacks, or pick up on a line of dialogue or a craftily hidden piece of set-dressing, it feels like a minor achievement. It forces you to become some kind of amateur detective, scouring the show for clues. When it is rewarding, it is very rewarding indeed. When it is inscrutable (which it frequently is), you are at least aware that some kind of higher prank is being played that will be revealed to you in time, or at least with another watch.

This almost interactive element made the show’s being cut down seem cruel and almost cosmically unfair at the time; this was a show that had firmly hit it’s stride, and the powers that be decided that enough was enough. There was, of course, outrage, especially from the show itself, as in season 3’s ninth episode “S.O.B.s”, which is effectively one big middle finger erected towards FOX, the studio producing the programme (not that I picked up on that the first or second time).

Yet in this media-led age we seem condemned to get just what we want, and as I trawled through the interminable, recently released (by Netflix) Season 5 Part 2 of the revived programme the thought struck me that things would have been much, much better if the show had never come back at all.

Of course, before all this happened, any fan would have wanted new Arrested Development and they would have been right to; while Season 3 does offer up a meaningful conclusion, it’s thuddingly apparent that the ending was premature, a fact only just masked by the fittingly cyclical nature of that last episode. A show so intricate deserved a send-off that, really, ought to have taken a whole season to prepare for; you can certainly imagine how showrunner Mitch Hurwitz could have orchestrated it if the show’s demise had been on his terms.

Yet here we are, thirteen years, two seasons, and one remix of one of those seasons, later, and I can safely say there are probably only a handful of fans who are happy with what we got. Season 4 was not bad, necessarily, and it took the central relationship between Michael (Jason Bateman) and his son George Michael (Michael Cera) to strange, darker territories, but it was hampered by the very structure that it committed to, a sort of free-form portmanteau of stories focussed on just the one cast member, with all the stories overlapping at later dates. It wasn’t so much that it was bad, as much as it was merely overwhelming. It feels like, in retrospect, Hurwitz was doubling down on the intricacies of the show to make up for the fact that the cast was no longer all together, which was the central pull of the show in the first place.

And then the show went linear again, and in taking the exploits of Season 4 as canon, came rapidly undone. Where Season 4 could have functioned as a very literal incarnation of the ways in which the family was doomed to tear itself apart, Season 5 picked this up again and tried to shoehorn it back into the original format. The punch between Michael and George Michael was resolved far too tidily, undermining the original impact that it landed. The silliness with Lucille 2’s disappearance became steadily more to the front of the narrative, eventually dominating, even though by that point it had been so long since the original events that it was hard to know precisely what was going on. Certain characters such as Tony Hale’s manchild Buster became an aimless grab-bag of recycled tropes with very little context in which for them to land, and other new characters (Rebecca Drysdale’s ‘Lt Toddler’, The Guilty Guys) were introduced and then dropped again at random.

And then there’s the making of the show itself, which is, frankly appalling; much has been written about the awful sound editing and shoddy camerawork, but it really cannot be overstated how amateurish the production of this show is. In once scene in the finale, the camera cuts a speaking character out of the frame, and then arbitrarily zooms out to reveal him speaking, but not before his dialogue track audibly changes, obviously masking a piece of exposition probably delivered by a different actor. In another scene from an earlier episode footage is reversed and played again to expand a scene by three seconds, with no real payoff.

This is to say nothing, of course, of the scandal that plagued the show before release, of Jeffrey Tambor’s actions, of Jessica Walter’s fraught admission that Tambor is abusive. The optics of that are probably better-suited to another piece of writing with another focus, but I will say that I am very willing to believe that Tambor is as bad as all that.

It’s apparent that the show is less of a coherent programme and more of a cut-and-paste collage job, trying to salvage a morass of aimless footage (which would account for why it took so long for this second part of the season to surface).

But the ultimate effect is one of sadness. Aside from an admiration of Season 4 in retrospect (nobody really likes it while they’re watching it), and a brief flash across the central episodes of Season 5 Part 1, there is nothing in this run of episodes, which in length are probably equal to the original run, that warrants the show having been brought back at all. The lightning in the bottle that made those first three seasons so electrifying has been let out, and as the show has now presumably come to it’s final end (for real this time), it’s hard to fathom what was the point of it all.

Not that you’d be able to communicate that to the fans in 2006; perhaps going forward, this whole sorry affair should act as a warning that sometimes a little of a good thing is just enough, actually.


Dennis Woodruff’s ‘Spaceman’

I spend a lot of this review essentially disparaging the director of this film, who has embarked on a career largely focused on perpetuating his own cult of personality. I admire that. I also admire how utterly mysterious this guy is. To remain mysterious after literally jobbing yourself, after putting your phone number on the header of your website, takes some doing. You can read about this cult of personality here. You can look on his website here. Whether his persona is some kind of knowing ironic send-up of the jobbing actor is not for me to say, because I don’t know. If this is, indeed, a stunt, then I will say that this Woodruff guy has got Tim and Eric, and Eric Andre, utterly beat. But as I say, I don’t know. You have to take these things at face value; and I’m sure after reading what I had to write, you’ll understand what face value means.


Every now and again, a film comes along that redraws the map a little on what you thought cinema was capable of. This can be good (A Bout De Souffle), or it can be bad (the August Underground Trilogy). Films that open your eyes to new pathways in the medium are, necessarily, few and far between, but they are always miniature landmarks in the lifetime of the committed viewer. Roger Ebert spoke of the top-shelf of the mind, a place where films stay and leave a lasting impact, where other, lesser films simply come and go.

Dennis Woodruff’s Spaceman is, I fear, one of these films. It is also an anguished film of deep despair, and I utterly lack the lexical faculties necessary to convey the sheer valley of existential hopelessness that it plunged me into. I am being 100% sincere when I say that if I found out that Woodruff held his actors at gunpoint, I wouldn’t be surprised. It is the sound and vision of a mind coming untethered from itself, and I genuinely worry about the mental states that led to it.

The plot? Woodruff plays an alien who comes to earth, for reasons unknown. That is the plot. He meets various people, including a reporter, a woman with a jealous boyfriend in a club, and potentially another alien. He goes on a tour of L.A, where the film was shot. He steals a dog, and kills two people, maybe more. He has a gun. He wears a blue bodysuit, and has open-toed brown sandals.

We learn about his planet; there are no women, everyone lives underground, and his entire species looks like him.

A lot of the film is composed of shots of Dennis walking around, getting lifts, occasionally firing his ray-gun at strangers. Other shots of the film show Dennis talking to the camera in a clipped, brusque voice. Sometimes in films the rules of the game are broken; if someone looks into the camera, this is known as a mistake. When a film does it intentionally, it is known as breaking the fourth wall, and is often used to serve a higher purpose, as in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. In this film, there are no mistakes, and there’s no breaking the fourth wall either. Sometimes we see shots of the film we are about to watch being filmed, on a tiny handheld digital camera. Vertov played with this technique in his masterpiece, Man With A Movie Camera, who I somehow doubt Woodruff has heard of.

This film exists in a place beyond. To compare it to, say, Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’, that film is glistening jewel of comprehensibility. We knew, in that film, roughly when a rule was being broken, or a mistake being made. You cannot do that here. I have never been less able to discern the methods of production of any film I’ve seen before, and I wrote an essay about Stan Brakhage for my MA.

A stray thought: Woodruff either knows more, or less, about the human condition than any living human, but no more, and no less.

The dialogue has a certain chopped and screwed quality to it, like listening to The Books, which I recommend you do instead of watching this film. What is disturbing about this is that it isn’t down to bad mixing, or bad sound editing (this film had no sound editor). We have literal, actual, diegetic evidence of the dialogue being said in front of us. There is no reason for it to sound so disconnected, and yet there it is. I took a transcription for you, in a scene where Woodruff is being interviewed.

Interviewer: “So it’s kind of like Japan, what you’re saying?”

Spaceman: “I don’t know Japan.”

Interviewer: “Okay, it’s not important. Do you like cheese?”

Spaceman: “I like Swiss Cheese. May I have a cigarette?”

Though I will claim that, as bad as this reads, there’s an anguish to this exchange, and all other exchanges in the film, that can’t be understood through reading alone.

There is a musical sequence where Woodruff attends an anti-Bush rally and loudly proclaims that he is having ‘so much fun’. Later, he will be asked what he does for fun, and claim that his planet has no such thing. All the mysteries of human nature occupy this claim.

This film is an affront to every notion I have ever had about cinema and what it can, should, would, or could do. This makes HG Lewis look like Robert Rossellini. It’s a flat digital K-hole, unsettling and dull. There are outsider works of art, and then there’s this. I have sat through corporate training videos, early gore films, avant-garde pornography, Godard’s Maoist works, the Lasagna Cat videos, Trash Humpers. I’ve seen No Wave filmmaking, I’ve listened to the Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, James Chance, The Residents. And whatever frisson of unseated artistry, of the profound other, of that sense that this shouldn’t be seen, exists in those, is blown up to epic proportions in this film. I do not mean that as a recommendation. This film doesn’t exist to be watched.

After this film, grass will seem greener, tastes more vibrant, beauty more apparent. But at what cost?

(Dennis Woodruff, if you read this please can you explain your film for me)


The Anguished Man: Dismantling Simon Sinek’s Empty Platitudes

Look at The Man. Behold Him. The Man is Anguished- can you tell? He is so anguished, the Anguished Man. He holds his head, barely able to contain the affliction of his mighty intellect, for his is the Brain; The Biggest Brain. He speaks and you listen (we must all listen to Anguished Brain Big Man). You note the words coming out of his mouth. You register that he is speaking. It is very scary, what he is speaking like. His voice is scare, so we, too, must be scare. Then, perhaps, later, you listen to what he is actually saying, the content of his speech, its meaning. You dig through the noise vibration gently pummelling your eardrum, emanating from Big Man Brain. You hear- is it?- yes! Yes. It is. It is phone. Phone bad! he says. Phone is the big bad.

Why? No, no. No my friend. There is no time for that now. No ‘why’. Just bad- phone bad. Phone bad! Phone very bad.

Simon Sinek is, according to his Wikipedia page, a motivational speaker and organisational consultant. You’ve probably seen him flying across your social media feed like a malodorous streak of flatulence in one of those viral videos people share. You know the ones; you know the people. You’re not one of these people, if you’re reading this, unless you are. “THIS MAN NAILS WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE MODERN GENERATION”. Etc, etc.

One of his videos, entitled “Simon Sinek On Millennials in the Workplace” was particularly popular around a year ago. It’s an interesting, reasonably argued video, in which Sinek calmly puts forward his perspective on why millennials are bad (bad!), designed to be watched and consumed by anyone who isn’t a millennial.

Except it isn’t interesting or reasonably argued, it’s an irritating piece of pop-propaganda designed to lightly reassure employers, business owners, and anyone over forty that actually yes, it is the kids who are wrong. I hate it, and I hate it because unlike the usual millennial-bashing discourse, Sinek laces the mouldy corners of his argument with surface-level ‘reason’. He talks about how millennials are impatient, and selfish, yes, but he says it slowly and calmly and with pauses so we know when to agree with him.

And you watch it and you think, we want everything now, don’t we? We have no concept of ‘length and difficulty’. In Sinek’s toxic worldview, we want to get to the top of the mountain without having to climb it. He loves drug metaphors, too, blindly positing that we’re all going to become addicted to drugs. And dopamine! How I crave my dopamine, sat here in this coffee shop, twitching, like a sentient Burroughs novel. He talks in hushed tones about how doomed we all are, about how suicide will go up in future generation. He uses words like “epidemic” and “instant gratification”.

He talks, a lot, about how we’ve been dealt a ‘shitty hand’, but when he delivers these talks they are, often, to the people who have dealt us the shitty hands; employers, companies, businessmen. He doesn’t interrogate the causes, or offer any solutions. Capitalism, to him, is as natural as the air we breathe, and he would laugh in your face if you mentioned if as a critical factor. He just states his agenda as if it’s fact, and perpetuates the cycle of loathing towards the young.

The trouble with Sinek is, more broadly, the trouble with motivational speakers. He will, necessarily, only ever say what you want to hear. He does not exist, he is a phantom, a human-shaped space where a personality might reside. You hire him because he agrees you. His Linkedin profile talks about “bright futures” and “lasting impacts”; this means, of course, nothing. He means nothing. He stands for nothing and he signifies nothing. But because he says it calmly, and to people who already agree with the things they’ve paid him to say, he is popular. He’s nothing more than an advertisement for himself. And he is radically insincere. I mean, seriously, utterly, completely unconvincing. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t give a shit. He’s only in this for the money. He’s a modern-day Raffles the Gentleman Thug for the bizniz class, a cynical walking cash-grab.

He’s at the more respectable end of millennial-bashing, but it’s a spectrum not a binary, and it’s pernicious. But, y’know; people have bitched and moaned about young people since time began. Aristotle literally had a go at it. When mass-market paperbacks came in, there was a genuine worry that kids were becoming antisocial. The whole ‘TV will give you square eyes!” thing is a quaint way of dating modern media set in the 80’s. People even complained about chalkboards in the classroom.

It is one of the oldest traits going, the tendency of the old to criticise the young. And you’d think we’d know by now, to avoid it, to recognise it as a cliché, but here we are.

The particular trouble with Sinek is that he legitimises this bashing. Anti-millennial discourse is ten-a-penny, but Sinek is one of the only ones who makes you feel clever for listening to him (which is probably the secret to the success of his career). He alarms and reassures you over the spread of the same sentence.

Of course, this is not say that our era is immune from criticism, but it’s not only millennials living in this era, and arguments require more nuance than Sinek’s barely-warm watery-discourse-vomit. Stewart Lee, for example, lampooned both the ‘what if phones but too much’ brigade and raised genuine points about our over-reliance on phones, in his recent “Content Provider” tour. Aziz Ansari’s book “Modern Romance” was a witty, even-handed treatment of the ways we’ve succumbed to ‘paralysis of choice’ with dating apps, talking as much about their benefits as their negative points. Fuck, even the new Arctic Monkeys record made some salient points about modern technology and how we respond to it.

Kids have always taken drugs; they will always be enamoured with new technology; they will always create subcultures; they will always, in their way, lead the future. I’m reading Simon Reynolds’ “Rip It Up And Start Again” at the moment (one of the best books about music ever written, for my money), and almost every band he talks about was started by kids in their late teens. Last night Pete Shelley passed away, lead singer of the Buzzcocks, which was met with a flood of tributes; he started the band when he was 21! The youth are bad, until they’re not young, and then they’re legitimate, by which point they’ve probably stopped making art that’s interesting. This hypocrisy runs through our society like a river with piss in it.

The trouble is that simply saying “phones are bad” has replaced any semblance of discourse. And everyone uses phones; everyone. If you’re friends with even one older person on Facebook you’ll see that, if anything, they’re the ones we should be most concerned about, sharing racist memes and fake news articles, spamming the ‘H’ button, getting lost. But the olds are good, they have earned their right to exist un-interrogated. Old good; young bad.

Making points is fine, talking down is not. Starting a discussion is fine, assuming the superior position is not. Being informed is fine, pretending to be is not. Simon Sinek is guilty of all the above, and none of it, and oh how I loathe him.

The people sit, rapturous, in front of him. Say it again, they think, now that they have tuned in. Say it. “Phones” he says, “phones bad”. The harsh glow of the Ted sign behind him, illuminating his smug, bespectacled face. Everyone applauds. “Phones bad- phones bad! Millennials very bad! Old good, young bad! Screens, bad. It’s bad!” Everyone explodes in a cacophony of joyful noise, of glee. He has said the thing, and the thing was good! This is what they wanted, everyone, the thing, the words coming out of his mouth, the words they have paid him to say. Sinek surveys the audience in front of him, their eager eyes drinking in his words, his voice. He commands them like the conductor of an orchestra.

But how does Sinek feel? He draws a blank. He looks inside, at himself, at the flesh vessel he is currently inhabiting. What is there? He flinches, and recoils, instinctively, but then has another look, pushing away the urge to stop. An empty pit, a crevice filled with nothing. These words are received with such sincerity, such earnestness, but does he believe them?

He goes home, and opens his laptop, the warm glow of the screen illuminating the square outline of his face. He checks his bank account. He responds to an email. He feels better. Phones bad? Yes. But- no. Can he? No. Best not to. The fact that he might be wrong crosses his mind guiltily, like a mime running through a battlefield. Then it comes back, stronger this time. Maybe he is wrong. Maybe the only think making millennials feel bad is the systemic and prevalent discourse telling them that they are bad, simply for being.

A pang of guilt, as quick as a thief in the night, and the accompanying thought, scary and clear, unavoidable. As quick as a flash, he thinks;

What if I’m the problem?

Sinek sits back in his chair, and takes a sip from his perfectly chilled Voss water bottle. He mulls this thought over in his head, turning it over and over like an artefact, inspecting it.

What if he’s the problem?

I mean, it would make sense, thinks Sinek. Millennials are just like any other age group. They have good and bad points to them; sure, they are a little stubborn, but their hearts are in the right place. They are one of the first generations to actively put into practice the principle that everyone is equal. They’re big on gay rights, on stopping racism, on lifting up women in the workplace. They talk about these things a lot. As much as social media is used for cat memes, they do a lot of talking about politics. That’s good, right? And they interrogate their own values, too. They’re very conscious of everyone else. Caring too much is better than not caring at all?

And he, himself, he thinks; I sit there, and say about the phones, and the youngs, and the screens, and the fear. They are bad, I say, I think. I think? I do not think, he thinks. I do not know what I think, he thinks. I say about how bad these things are, but I do not offer any solutions, and me saying that they are bad makes them bad.

He thinks, I put these thoughts into people’s heads, and I perpetuate the badness. I say that millennials are being dealt a shit hand, but am I not the one dealing it, or at least arranging the deck? Phones- bad?

He carries these thoughts with him as he switches off his laptop, and brushes his teeth. He looks at himself in the silver-framed mirror in his bathroom, thinking. He gets into bed, and pulls his covers up over him, warm, cosy. He thinks about his future speaking engagements, the flight he’ll have to get tomorrow. Sleep begins to claim him, his mind drifting sporadically into that restful void, inching ever closer. And as he gets too close to avoid it, as his mind drifts into the REM highway, on the precipice of a deep and restful sleep, smiling into his pillow, he thinks to himself;

No. No. It is the kids who are wrong.

Phones bad.

Phone bad!

Untangling The Hallmark Thicket

(In this article, I reference a genre of films synonymously associated with the term “Hallmark”. This also covers Lifetime movies, and general made-for-TV movies. You know exactly what I mean, even if the precise label may not fit. In this instance, I’m referring to all the movies currently airing in the UK on Christmas24. If Barthes wrote that some things are signified, and that some things are a signifier, then you know exactly what is being signified by the signifier Hallmark.)

…Christmas comes but once a year, and with it comes the Hallmark Channel (‘Christmas24’ over here in the UK, ‘Movies24’ for the rest of the year), dispensing formulaic saccharine tripe over our screens. Cookie cutter rom-coms, barely indistinguishable from one another, which begin the same and end the same, a flat circle of ‘cinema’, and endless kaleidoscope of cheese, and crap, and false emotions, in which white women find love with average suburban dads and giddily pop out kids forevermore.

God it’s easy to be cynical about Christmas Hallmark movies. So easy. Endlessly easy. And I’m not saying that all of the criticisms of the films are unfounded; the films are almost entirely white, and completely entirely straight. Even when there is a display of diversity onscreen, which has become more common in the more recent Hallmark movies, their place within the films seems to be measured entirely in how much they can slot into the corny, parochial, white worldview that these films appear to act as propaganda for. Diaspora is as alien to these films as diets are to Homer Simpson. They exist in a world away from BLM, from Occupy, from Planned Parenthood, from politics.

Other than that, however, I run out of reasons to resist them, and yet resist them I must. Why is that? They’re not actual propaganda, in the way that Kirk Cameron’s films are, or the God’s Not Dead trilogy is. On that front, they’re only about as problematic as your average episode of Grand Designs. All of the Hallmark films pass the Bechdel test (an unverified claim, but one I’m willing to stand by); they certainly all feature female protagonists, with careers, and lives, and defined social circles, and that can sometimes be a rarity in modern cinema. Yes, the Hallmark films are all formulaic, but most films follow a formula. Most of them are ‘domestic’, but so are the films of Mike Leigh, David Lynch, and Chantal Akerman. And yes, you’re thinking; comparing Hallmark films to the work of David Lynch? Isn’t that just disingenuousness par bullshit?

Well, yes, but also no. Watch the trailer for “Merry In-Laws”, and tell me the filmmakers weren’t channelling some outsider-y spirits. At times it felt exactly like if Inland Empire was set at Christmas; it’s stuffed full of disconcerting close-ups, brazen and angular handheld digital photography, giddy disregard for the 180 degree rule. It channels the same skewed energy of Bob Balaban’s Parents, one of the great cult horror films. It’s a fascinating watch.

This is, of course, an exception, but it does prove that the Hallmark-y films are not always bland and faceless by-the-numbers filmmaking (though that is very common).

So, the films are more interesting from a technical standpoint than they are often given credit for. What about thematically?

A common criticism levelled at them is their sentimentality, which is sometimes used as a byword for insincerity, or a level of ‘fake’. But all studio-produced films operate on some level of fakery. A more valid criticism might be ‘unconvincing’, but most criticisms don’t get that far, and ‘unconvincing’ would mean that you acknowledge there’s something the films are trying to convince you of. But nobody talks about these films, really, at all.

Yet these films are convincing you of… something. They’re unusually emotionally open; people talk freely of their hopes, their fears, and their worries, and yes those hopes and fears and worries might be a little sanitised, but shouldn’t we be championing any film which displays emotional openness? The intent might be cynical, maybe, but the actual end-result is often anything but.

They are also, sometimes, alarmingly twee. Everything in these films has a cosy sheen to it; coffee shop tables can be moved to accommodate large gatherings; everyone knows the friendly old guy selling cocoa; banter between men and women flows easily, and smooth, knowing but not knowing, chaste, yes, but not repressed.

But as Marc Spitz writes, Disney is one of the pinnacles of ‘twee’, and it is also one of the most universally beloved corporate franchises of all time. But in fact there are ways you could argue Disney is somehow more dishonest than Hallmark, hiding their rote romanticism behind disarming layers of the thinnest artistry. Hallmark movies have significantly less artistry than Disney, yes, but they are also more personal, in some regards. Hallmark have never, for example, recycled their shots with different skins to somehow reassure the audience of a false continuity (a deeply indefensible, almost Pavlovian tactic, in which Disney tries to reposition their cinematic displays of movement as the only ‘acceptable’ form of this movement).

You could argue that the Fordist nature of these films, churned out en-masse at a startling rate, is the most cynical element, but again, what film isn’t Fordist in some sense? The Marvel films are a tightly scheduled production belt playing to ‘markets’ and ‘demographics’. Disney are currently in the process of remaking their own films, in an attempt to canonise their own self-perpetuated greatess. When you go into a DVD store, or a cinema, through signifiers you can see that a film is ‘action’, ‘romcom’, or something else.

Westerns were, for a period, the most studied genre in film studies, and Westerns were often made with alarming efficiency by re-using the same sets with different actors.

In short, there is nothing that the Hallmark movies don’t do that isn’t widely practiced by mainstream cinema, but because it happens on a small scale and the films are largely made for, and consumed by, women, they’re largely ignored. On those rare occasions where they are talked about, they seem to attract undue critical ire; one particularly nasty-minded article at a Penn State university blog is written by someone psychoanalysing his own mother, looking for ‘flaws’, because she’s ‘addicted’ to these movies. By this criteria my own mother is addicted to these movies, in the sense that she watches two or three a week; she’s not, of course, this is just her taste. You could say that she’s also ‘addicted’ to action films, to sci-fi, to Star Trek, to Marvel, but she simply enjoys them as well. Tastes can be diverse, and encompass a number of things. But sometimes things are tarred with the ‘unacceptable’ label for undue reasons.

Another (slightly more tongue-in-cheek) article slightly reframes the films as horror films, but any film, with a shift in tone, can take on different meanings, such as the Shining recut into a rom-com and Mrs Doubtfire recut into a horror film. And the feminist critique undercutting said article is valid, until it isn’t; if these films are accepted and adored by women, then it becomes slightly harder to pin a misogynist label on them. The only thing I could say is that there’s an undeniable undercurrent of anti-careerism in the Hallmark films; it is a very common trope for women to jack in their careers in these movies, and careers are viewed as some kind of albatross around women’s necks. And it’s not in an anti-capitalist way either.

This is something that, personally, I find disagreeable, but Twilight had politics that I found disagreeable until I sat back and realised they were just fantasy. Hallmark films, too, are fantasy, and being financially taken care of by a perfect man in a homely setting, is, for a lot of people, a very palatable fantasy indeed.

I can’t deny, of course, that the films are conservative, but they’re soft-conservative; Michael Oakshott, instead of Kelly-Ann Conway. They are an excellent example of “[preferring] the familiar to the unknown”. Candace Cameron Bure might be a Hallmark bastion, and a particularly dogmatic Republican (she’s also Kirk Cameron’s brother), but she’s not exactly Mel Gibson on the right-wing celebrity scale.

In short; the films are often interpreted in the most miserable ways, when they’re paid any attention before. The worst anyone could say about them is that they softly peddle a slightly conservative worldview, albeit never explicitly. Yet we forgive a lot of other cultural objects for less vicarious sins, and I don’t really know why that is.


Last year I attended a fascinating lecture by Deborah Jermyn entitled “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Nancy Myers? Approaches to an Unworthy Subject” (in support of her book), in which Jermyn dissected the often brazenly sexist approaches to Myer’s films. She put forward the argument that Myers is one of the most bankable female directors of the American studio system, with a distinct visual style, motifs, and generous returns at the box office; she might not be strictly feminist, but she makes women visible in the box-office, which is a worthwhile venture.

Whilst her films perhaps fall short of masterpieces, they’re certainly not bad, and there is a distinct lack of discourse surrounding them. Transformers attracts enormous critical attention, despite being roundly reviled; people don’t talk about Myers at all, unless it’s in a dismissive way.

Much the same can be said about the Hallmark movies (in fact, Myer’s films have a lot in common with the Hallmark brand on the whole, including the soft-conservative vibe and female leads, although Myers is a raunchier filmmaker). Upon researching this piece, I was quite surprised at how little attention is afforded them via the medium of articles and thinkpieces. I’ve seen “Hallmark” used as a synonym for the false, the saccharine, the brazenly emotional (though the whole greetings card thing doesn’t help), but upon actually sitting down and watching the films it’s hard to see these qualities so upfront. Most of the films are just light character studies, working in ‘types’, reworking a number of situations.

Jermyn’s ultimate conclusion wasn’t that we should blindly reappraise Myers as some kind of architect of high cinema, just that her treatment inside the discourse speaks to a certain male-centric view of film, and that as a high-profile figure in the industry she warrants discussing. I feel somewhat the same way about Hallmark films. They’re rarely (but not never) excellent cinema, but they are effective. They evoke community, togetherness, and a certain small-town friendliness in quite an earnest way. In particular, Finding Father Christmas is a relatively nuanced study of grief. They’re an institution, a household name, and yet they’re never ever discussed.

(and they really are an institution; any TV channel that gets away with a regular ‘Christmas in July’ slot, and turns over a profit after releasing thirty-four (!) films this year, has some popularity; the Hallmark Channel itself has an over-15% share of the TV viewing market this year, according to this statistics website.)

My critical line on Hallmark films is this; the best ones work like pop songs. As a serious-minded 22 year old with a bank of music reviews behind him, this is no bad thing. The films are short, punchy, repetitive variations on a number of themes (love, children, grief, parents), and function in the same way as pop songs, which are often about love, children, grief, and parents. Pop songs fade, but the themes linger on; a pop song is as much about consolidating the form of the pop song as it is about creating an artistic statement to endure.

And when I say pop, I don’t mean an obscure artsy Pitchfork band that happens to work in pop structures. I mean Human League, I mean Abba, I mean Taylor Swift. This is Hallmark’s register. Sometimes they rise to the level of the touching, or the profound. Sometimes they are awful. Most of the time they’re somewhere in the middle.

But we still keep listening to them, and it’s disingenuous to deny their prevalence, even as we pretend we’re above such things. And if something is prevalent, discussing it is no bad thing.

John Grant and the Absurdity of Metamorphosis

John Grant has always been a musician good with contradictions. On “Love is Magic”, he pushes this theme to its extremes and seems to come to terms with his own holism. This is his most explicit album, in that it combines so many of the opposing features of his much and works them into a, sometimes disjointed, but nevertheless fully convincing whole for the first time in his career. This is the most evident on Metamorphosis, the albums’ opener, and one of the best tracks of the year. The song lays this dichotomy bare, beginning with a crunchy 8-Bit stomp and listing disparate things on Grant’s mind in his trademark caustic, childlike manner. The first third of the song culminates in the following stretch of lyrics, which gives you a fair sense of Grant’s new depths of ridiculousness.

Yeast infections, synthesisers,


Who created ISIS?

Emotional blackmail,

(she knows what I mean)

Broccoli with cheese sauce,

How long you’ve been clean”

However after this point, the song transitions into a heartfelt and bruised segue exploring Grant’s feelings (or lack thereof) at his mother’s passing. This is no kids stuff, and Grant is not fucking around. It’s as sincere as the preceding lyrics weren’t, and it jars hard.

They took her in an ambulance,

And that is where she died,

And still until up to this very day,

I don’t think I have cried”

On the one hand, this scans as insensitive, and even for Grant’s tendency to use the song as a confessional, more than a little overt. The fact that the song is literally different, stitched right until the middle of what’s come before, gives the listener pause, and whilst on the first couple of spins it takes some getting used to, as a statement of where Grant is at, it works perfectly.

Few musicians have ever approached their albums so explicitly as an emotional document, or testimonial; perhaps only Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart comes close. Yet whereas before Grant’s songs could be sorted into categories, the sincere (Glacier, Disappointing, Queen of Denmark), the funny (You and Him, Sensitive New Age Guy, Where Dreams Go To Die), and both (Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Outer Space, Black Belt), on Metamorphosis Grant takes those contradictions and pushes them to their furthest limits.

It’s akin to a confrontation, with Grant saying ‘I contain multitudes, and you can take me or leave me’. If this ends up taking the form of heartbreak and life-defining loss next to free-associative banality, then so be it.

However, this approach asks a question that’s much bigger than Grant, concerning the constitutive elements of a life, and how utterly absurd it can sometimes be. On a given day we might find out we have cancer, but later we still will need to think about what to have for dinner. On the same day we get married, we might still check the news. As chronicled in Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s Shut Up and Play The Hits, the morning after James Murphy ended LCD Soundsystem he still had to get up and walk the dog.

We are not, and never, allowed the privilege of knowing how and when to demarcate the mundane and the noteworthy, and throughout most of our lives they sit awkwardly next to one another, rubbing shoulders. It’s one of the key aspects of being human, the lack of control we have over the when and where of things. Life is constantly in flux, and we move from moment to moment with little to no control over what those moments are going to be. We are constantly undergoing a metamorphosis of the self, and change is a part and parcel of living. Sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s fun, but it’s unavoidable and we have to find a way of coping with it one way or another.

In Metamorphosis, Grant seems to have found his answer for, or a way of living with, this bizarre human trait, and that is to just throw himself in at the deep end and accept life for the totality of its absurdity. It might seem disingenuous, placing such incredibly disparate elements next to one another, but it is honest, and true, and those are qualities that nobody would deny Grant has in spades.

Caudal- “Fight, Cry, Fight” (2018)

Disappointing scenes from the Krautrock legacy today, as three-piece Caudal churn out an tepid, emotionless set of repetitive psych-ish jams. We seem to be undergoing a renaissance of repetitious space-rock, and this is one of the most squandering efforts I’ve heard come out of the milieu.

Repetition can, of course, be a wonderful thing, signalling an increase in intensity, the reframing of a musical perspective, a way of navigating every permutation of a song. Unfortunately, the songs on this album rarely consist of more than one uninspired riff playing out past the point of sense. Opening trio of songs “Well I Suppose”, “Divisible”, and “Slope” are indistinguishable from one another, and frankly dull. Things pick up marginally in the mid-section, with the (only slightly) aptly-named “Flourish”, and the palate-cleanser “Low Red”.

But this is, largely, a massive botch, an obviously talented band chasing their tail down a dingy rabbit hole (and dingy is the word; the production on this thing is muddy and awful). Trimmed of fat and released as an EP, this could have been quite promising. As it is, it’s not quite a complete failure, but it’s not exactly great. And, as Michael Bluth would say, that’s worse.

(band info can be found here:

Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)


Star Wars has taken root in the collective consciousness to such an extent that trying to comment on it in any detached way feels redundant, seeing as I’m not Roland Barthes. I ruddy love Star Wars. It’s a big corporate behemoth, and also one of the great popular myths of our time, and whilst a younger and more cynical me would have focussed on the former, I’m going with the latter. It’s a part of my (cultural) life and a part of our (cultural) lives, a part of our (cultural) family, and just as when I was younger the idea of big family get-togethers bored me a little (I was (am) a precocious shit who’s always worrying about being somewhere more exciting), now I really look forward to them, because they’re rare and to be savoured.

There aren’t many films I feel comfortable talking about in such an intimate way, but there we go. The Last Jedi is fantastic. It’s a perfect continuation of the series, that draws heavily on what has come before, and also brings something genuinely new to the table. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It signals growth for the characters, in particular Luke Skywalker, and it is a much needed injection of shades of grey into a franchise that has been almost gleefully Manichaean in the past. It expounds on previous myths of Jedi, Sith, the light, the dark, and the force, to the point where it is actually a little unclear who is good, and who is bad.

For example, we see one scene (a flashback) three different times, each time with new information, and in each instance our sympathies shift slightly until we get at something resembling the whole truth. Another scene, involving Rey, includes a presentation of Lacan’s mirror phase idea that’s too overt to mean anything else, but also represents a break from the series’ previously dominant idea that the past is always connected with the present. It stops short of fully embracing the dialectic of negation, but there’s always the third film.

That’s the subtext stuff out of the way. The film is really, really fun. It’s got space battles, cool scenes with lightsabers, and lashings of derring-do. There’s also a genuine emotional involvement going on, particularly with General Leia, for obvious reasons, but also the subplot involving Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Real tears were shed. Daisy Ridley’s a better actor this time around. There were three or four moments that stand out as not just exemplary blockbuster filmmaking, but of sheer heart-stopping intensity that makes you think that intelligent auteurs should be given £250 million more often.

Also: the sexual tension between Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac is worth the price of admission alone.

To link it to music, this is a full-on symphony. And a damn good one.