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,

Demi-semi-quavers,

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.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, S/T (2009)

I am not a difficult man to please, on the whole. But once, when I and my friends were looking around for houses to inhabit, we found that none were quite right. There’d be a promise of cheap rent, or a nice location, or a good space to cost ratio, but something would just be off. We eventually settled on the least “off” house of the bunch, but I remember that period as being one of pure indecision, as none of the houses we looked at, despite initially appearing to be okay, fit the bill.

This is roughly how I felt listening to “The Pains of Being Pure At Heart”‘s first, self-titled album. Everything was all there; lashings of shoegaze fuzz, syrupy chords, hooks of the kind Weezer stopped putting out in 1994, and melancholy tweeisms that wouldn’t be out of place in a Belle and Sebastian song. All the elements for my kind of thing were there… But in this instance, all I could see were the seams. This album is a useless composite.

It’s a real shame. Opener, “Contender”, sets things off with a splash of feedback , a little bit of drum machine wizardry, and some “Loveless” style guitars, before Kip Berman’s vocals trip through a tale of misplaced youth; “you traded books for film/you traded films for time/now that you’ve got none” is a lovely lyric and there’s a plainspoken quality to it that’s quite endearing. It’s nothing special, but it’s not a bad way to spend two and a half minutes. It could signal better things to come, or make sense as part of a wider whole.

Then second track, “Come Saturday” continues with a splash of feedback, a bit of drum machine wizardry, and… Yeah. For the remaining half hour of this disc, track after track rushes by with little nuance or variation. There are bright spots; the aforementioned opener, for one, and the 80’s jangle and sheen of “A Teenager In Love”, and the sweep of closer “Gentle Sons” (which is a cruel track, breaking the funk of the previous songs but at the least useful moment). However, these are rare blips of activity on the heartbeat monitor of this comatose, inert album.

There is no sense of urgency, or cohesion, no flow or sweep to the whole thing that makes you feel like you’re listening to an album. It’s just a dump of very similar-sounding songs, strung together in a fairly uninspired way.

It’s a shame, because in theory this is right up my alley. I also don’t go out of my way to listen to music that I know doesn’t appeal to me (hence why all my previous reviews have been positive). But here I was all set to enjoy this thing… And it carried nothing for me. It’s just a load of recycled bits from bands I like more. I’d recommend it to people with a similar taste to mine, but sadly I found nothing here to like.

Battles, “Mirrored” (2007)

Opening with a pulsing snare and what sounds like the bottom of a tin can being tapped mercilessly with a drumstick, introducing a whistle, and then notes that could either be coming from a guitar or a keyboard, the aptly titled “Race: In” sets “Mirrored”, Battles’ first full-length, off like a line of flame slowly making its way to a truck full of TNT. It’s all there; the propulsive riffs, the heavy use of repetition, the interplay of instruments like gears rotating inside a child’s kaleidoscope.

This is a supremely confident and energetic album, at once cool and detached and yet also bleeding from what is obviously the work of four committed musicians, Dave Konopka (bass, guitar and effects), John Stanier (drums), Ian Williams (keyboard, guitar), and Tyondai Braxton (guitar, keyboards, vocals). Listening to this disc’s sheer craft, it is no surprise that most of these guys have played in bands long before forming Battles, and in a sense the four represent a low-key super-group. However instead of talented male guitarists butting heads, we get a sense of cohesion that carries you through all 51 minutes of this superb, unforgettable record.

It undulates and oscillates; it moves forward both with a supple, sublime grace, and the exquisite logic of a military operation; it is both muscular and bulky, and yet also slinky and lithe; it is a diminutive box car secretly packing the power of a thousand galloping horses churning the shore into foam; it is a muscle car chiseled out of bits of The Rock that doesn’t make a sound when it goes from 0-60. Aggression and comfort, machine and organism, often in the space of the same song.

And what songs! “Atlas”, Battles’ biggest hit from the album has a pulse that gets yours racing, with chipmunked vocals and crunchy licks akin to crowd-surfing. Some tracks, such as “Ddiamondd” and “Leyendecker” are nimble exercises that resemble more conventional songs if only because the vocals are pushed to the fore; others, like “Tonto” and “Bad Trails” are expansive, noodling efforts that push themselves to the limits that these four guys have set for themselves, setting their own tempo, building to rushing crescendos that leave you aghast. “Tij” pushes forward and forward, bringing an unfettered momentum that you don’t think can pay off (it can, though, obviously).

Throughout, the instruments vary in tone and modulation. The guitars sometimes sounding crisp and clean, at other points sounding like a prog improvisation. The drumming switches between drill-like hits of hardcore hammering, at others gilded and effortless. And the vocals ice the thing like a cake, high-pitched but never irritating, human and yet inhuman. You can recognise the shape of the words, but not their contours and precisions.

Then there’s “Rainbow”, a cataclysmic composition of precision and beauty that begins with the tap of a drum, a skittish bassline, and atonal guitar backdrops, that expands outwards and onwards, packing in enough bombast to give you weapons-grade tinnitus, before dipping into an ambient interlude and then… a vocal cue that sounds like a God intervening in the affairs of humans by splitting a mountain in two. It’s one of the most chilling, and awe-inspiring moments in music I’ve heard this year (and when you look up the hard-to-parse lyrics, and realise that the song is basically commenting on itself, you think… Yes, of course).

I realise that I’ve described all of these tracks in roughly the same way, in that they’re working towards something; indeed, the whole album feels like it’s working towards something. This disc is absolutely fixated on payoffs, whether it’s the aforementioned vocal break of “Rainbow”, the throwback of the last track, “Race: Out”, or the final two minutes of “Tij”, which explodes like wrought-iron gates being split apart by white-heat. This is a deeply rewarding disc that, in 2007 (what a year for music) sought out new boundaries for music in this digital millennium, and offered them up to us on a gilded plate.

It’s a tricky album to find footing on, given the constantly shifting tectonic plates that constitute its eleven tracks. But when you can navigate it’s rocky terrain, you feel like an ant amongst the mountaintops. It’s a hell of a payoff.

Ezra Furman, “Perpetual Motion People”, (2015)

(Using they/them pronouns for this one, because Furman has come out as gender fluid and this album has a lot of material about that and that’s one of the reasons I love it and TBH it would be disingenuous of me to not do that).

Thank God for this album. As Father John Misty lumbers forward on his odious one-man crusade to kill (breezeblock, sack, canal) Radio 6-friendly, literate pop music, discovering this disc felt like a reassuring hand on my shoulder from the folk above. It’s a palpitation of an album, running to and fro, about gender identity, mental health problems, existential angst, in a way that’s both optimistic and realistic. The central message seem to be; if you embrace yourself for who you are, in an authentic way, then that’s half the battle fought and won.

The music is an absolute grab-bag, reflecting Furman’s restlessness in their identity and their musical proclivities. The first four tracks are something of a suite, exploring doo-wop and jitter-pop variations with a breathless verve. The aptly titled opener “Restless Year” throws out reworked variations on a central refrain, a Joy Division-esque riff, and Furman’s fraught growl of a voice throwing out eye-catching, ear-grabbing statements left and right; “Death! Is my former employer/Death! Is my own Tom Sawyer”.

This continue onto the doo-wop infused second track “Lousy Connection”, in which Furman bemoans their inability to connect with those around him, and skewers their own construction of self; “I wanna see myself from the outside”. The ‘connection’ could also refer to Furman’s lack of mooring; “there’s nothing happening and it’s happening too fast” (there’s a million and one first tattoos there, calling it now).

“Hark! To The Music” presents, in a minute and a half, the kind of sentiment that The Smiths would have taken two minutes and a half to work through, hug the blessed DJ, and then “Haunted Head” really delves deep into the subject matter, with Furman addressing head-on their depression, “going through the motions like a champ”.

And on, and on. We get a couple of old-school folk/country ballads thrown into the mix (“Hour of Deepest Need” and “Watch You Go By”). “Pot Holes” is a pleasingly old-school honky-tonk alike romp. There’s recurring musical moments and ideas, such as a blaring clarinet (such an underused instrument), and backing vocals dishing out doo-wopisms left right and centre. The whole album sticks to a theme but can hardly be called “concept”; it’s way too disorganised and cluttered for that. It is a perfect reflection of the kind of mental state Furman spends 42 minutes describing to us.

I love this album to bits. It’s so candid, and fresh, and innovative. It’s got a sense of humour, and it isn’t preachy. As the world turns and moves towards a more sexually diverse state, music (and art in general) like this is a necessity. It’s an entry point, an airlock of empathy, that can get the general listener tapping the toes and then going “huh what’re they on about?” Then, hopefully, they learn.

It takes the rock myths of lore about gender binaries (Furman is a huge fan of Bowie and Reed) and finally makes them explicit. It’s no longer framed as a liminality, one foot in the traditionally straight world of rock and one foot in the queer camp. This is the real-deal, and I support Furman as much as I can.