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.

Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

IN WHICH THE WRITER OF A BLOG THAT IS ENTITLED “AN ALBUM A DAY” HAS NOT LISTENED TO AN ALBUM TODAY AND INSTEAD IS WRITING ABOUT A FILM HE SAW, THUS FAILING IN HIS STATED AIM OF WRITING ABOUT ONE ALBUM, A DAY. HE DOESN’T EVEN BOTHER TO TRY TO LINK IT TO MUSIC UNTIL THE VERY END, THE LAZY GET

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.