What I’ve Been Watching: 12/06/20 – 18/06/20

Queerness, blackness, aging, and whatever the hell that last thing is.

I am so tired.

I don’t truly sleep anymore.  It has, admittedly, been years since I have slept properly on a consistent basis, where I wake up feeling rested and energised, but these past *checks calendar* three months have been especially bad.  During the day I feel myself losing all focus and my energy slipping away in real-time, often to the extent that I fall asleep at random times should I sit down anywhere and let my eyes close for even a second which obviously doesn’t help the sleeping at night.  But even on nights where I haven’t napped during the day, I do not truly sleep.  I get no comfort in bed, my head and neck don’t feel rested no matter how many or how few pillows I use, my body aches and pains no matter what position I lay in.  My dreams are violent anxious things, heavily free-associative in who or what populates them, often involving being chased and ending with a non-cathartic release of anger and/or violence upon my family or some nebulous other or more often than not myself.  I awake from them exhausted, restless, drained, deeply unhappy and/or guilty about what happens within them.

My body feels like it’s falling apart, also way more so than usual.  Blood sugars for my diabetes have been temperamental and inconsistent, to say the least.  Even though I have arguably gotten out and moved more ever since this prior-detailed series of events kicked off, I’m getting tangibly fatter and my gut is becoming noticeably portlier.  My gums keep bleeding in spite of heavy consistent brushing like one is supposed to do, recently having escalated into mere contact causing searing pain, but I keep being told it doesn’t fall under the parameters of needing emergency dentistry.  My knuckles bleed a lot, ironically it seems from consistent handwashing and the usage of handwash.  I keep getting these aches and pains all over my body, sometimes in the form of these brief spasm surges that feel like they’re in my bloodstream and are hard to describe, which regularly scheduled stretches are so far failing to alleviate.  I stare at my ineffectually shaved perma-stubble (which is still there even after a proper wet shave) and feel disgusted at myself, though that’s definitely nothing new but is being exacerbated thanks to time and solitude.

I am angry and scared all the time.  Every time I turn on the news, every time I log online, every time I boot up YouTube on my PS4 to try and escape into the works of content creators I love only to be greeted with an entire fucking row of Boris Johnson’s hateful sneering cunt face cos the service somehow thinks I’m not already checking the news a minimum of three times a day, I get angry and scared and a million thoughts speed through my brain too fast and too numerous to stem.  My brain fixates on every injustice, every recorded act of political bigotry and incompetence, every line of transphobic hatred spewed from the mouth of a mildly-talented bigoted privileged white woman adjacently-denying my existence and shortly after that compounded by a change in governmental policy designed to make whatever comes of my mental health referral – still no word on that, btw, which isn’t a surprise given that it can take several years for patients to see someone in the Gender Referral Service – even more of an endless living hell.  I get angry about *gestures to all that*, I get angry about the continual condescending shitpile of my family situation, I get angry at myself for this self-centred anger and a hatred over this body and this gender I was born with.

And I am so fucking lonely.  It’s not like I can talk about any of this with anyone – they all either got their own stuff going on that’s way more important than my self-centred whine, both in general and their own exhausted crushing anger long overdue a release with the current Black Lives Matter moment, or would not understand or feel comfortable discussing this (especially since even I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with me).  I only dump here cos barely anyone reads my work so I don’t have to worry about my brain having a meltdown by oversharing with the wrong person.  Christ, I got fanmail the other month and spent three days having an internal terrified calamafuck about the fact that someone read my shit!  For much of the past month, I’ve been binging Happy Endings cos I imported the complete Blu-Ray from America and, even though that show was fantastic and I loved watching it and only did three half-hour episodes a day, I gradually experienced this gnawing sensation of hollowness like I was wasting my life.  I can’t even self-care without feeling tired and angry and scared.

I am so very tired.

Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.

Tomboy [Friday 12th]

Dir: Céline Sciamma

Year: 2011

First-time viewing

Allusions to SPOILERS

…I really like it but I don’t love it, and I think that’s entirely down to a personal bugbear in that I wish I could see a mainstream/acclaimed film about gender fluidity and trans-identity which ends completely happily for a change.  Again, this is not the fault of Sciamma whose direction is empathetic and understated.  In particular, it’s nice to get a version of the inevitable finale which doesn’t revel in torturous borderline-exploitative melodrama for once (it’s like Lukas Dhont’s Girl was designed to be the complete opposite of Sciamma’s soft considered touch), rooted in and conscious of the reality its protagonist faces but not using that fact to make those scenes crass and indulgent.  But as someone who’s struggled with their gender for most of their life without the help they need – still am, thanks COVID – and is assailed by tragic (both capital and lower-case T) narratives in media or barely-disguised hate-speech by prominent figures on the subject as standard… I’m just tired of that, y’know?  It both benefits and suffers from Sciamma’s admitted insistence on playing around in the layers between trans-awakening and cis gender-nonconformity rather than picking a definitive side, especially with that last scene which I still don’t know how to read.

Other than that personal hang-up I may be able to get over on a rewatch someday, Tomboy is really damn good.  Sciamma is such a passionate filmmaker; her movies are carefully arranged and composed but they course with a thrilling empathy, love and energy for their characters that her supposed art-film peers believe is somehow beneath them.  Her eye for character detail, and particularly believable child behaviour, is borne out in every facet of her work here.  The way her cinematography interrogates and communicates stifling body dysmorphia with care and compassion, but finds a freeing joy whenever Laure/Mickäel can be their true self around the group.  How she’s able to coax such rich yet natural performances out of her young non-professional cast; Zoé Héran is sensational and puts actors thrice their age attempting similar material to shame.  Her predilection for the little details that linger for far longer than they occur on-screen – I’m still thinking about the exchange where the mother ignores Laure/Mickäel’s head shake over being told they look nice with make-up not out of maliciousness but because she’s casually oblivious to the seriousness of Laure/Mickäel’s frustration over their gender.  How Sciamma seems to always know exactly when to finally add music to the narrative for maximum impact.

It’s a damn great film, and that’s without even addressing the wonderful sweetness of Laure/Mickäel and Jeanne’s sibling relationship.  Maybe another day I’ll feel comfortable unreservedly singing its praises.  Today, I can’t quite get out of my own head when that reveal of the new-born being a boy is lingered on for just long enough to make my soul sigh.

Artemis Fowl [Saturday 13th]

Dir: Kenneth Branagh

Year: 2020

First-time viewing



Cassandro, the Exotico! [Sunday 14th]

Dir: Marie Losier

Year: 2018 (2020 in the UK)

First-time viewing

Sweet but slight.  Cassandro is a compelling character clearly brimming with charisma and energy even as his body gives out, but Losier neutralises that at all turns by deliberately shooting the entire film in the style of an impressionistic mid-60s Goddard-ian documentary.  She doesn’t dig deep into his history prior to her meeting him in the twilight of his career, or his homosexuality and how it plays into his ring work, or even really his psychology – if she did, since it’s established that Losier and Cassandro have a buddy dynamic closer than most documentarian-subject relationships, she seems to have cut that from the finished edit.  I don’t feel like I know much more about Cassandro, both the wrestler and the man, after 75 minutes than I did beforehand (which was basically nothing).  Losier is more fixated on how someone grapples with the inbound forced retirement of a performer who still wants to go, but the energy and melancholia of the film’s last third isn’t all that different from its first two thirds so the emotional effect is muted.  A more direct and more traditional style of documentary filmmaking would’ve served this subject far better.  Cassandro feels like the work of a video artist rather than a documentarian, the kind of semi-abstract curio played in a museum wing at half the film’s already brisk runtime.

The one aspect of Losier’s filmmaking I would keep in that better alternate version, however, is the way her camera shoots bodies.  In the ring, even with the jumpy editing and undercranking, she zeroes in on the balletic nature of lucha libre and the joyous expression of its participants’ movements; the non-verbal character and charisma they exude with each flip and every slam.  Out of the ring, she draws attention to the toll those performances can take on one’s body but in a rather awed appreciative manner rather than stark pity – an early sequence where Cassandro goes through all his biggest injuries in order, accompanied by illustrative close-ups, is the best example of this – at least until the forced retirement.  That reverence for bodies in motion pays dividends during the montage of Cassandro teaching a class of students during a London stop of his tour, the only time in the film where Aël Dallier Vega’s fidgety editing enhances instead of detracts from the experience, a rapid glorious cascade of bodies passionately throwing themselves about the place.  Some gracefully, some gangly, all celebrated equally.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse [Monday 15th]

Dirs: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Year: 2018


What stuck out to me most on this latest watch of the best superhero movie ever made (don’t @ me) was how directors Persichetti, Rothman and Ramsey managed to deftly work race into the undercurrent of their narrative.  Spider-Verse isn’t about race, but the trio of directors plus co-screenwriter Phil Lord understand that having a black protagonist brings a subtly different viewpoint to the tried and tested Spider-Man narrative in ways that extend beyond a penchant for black culture and a soundtrack of hip-hop cuts.  They’re brief but those early scenes and lines about Miles’ friends in Brooklyn joking about how he’s left the neighbourhood due to his Visions Academy scholarship despite him still living there, how the effortless social game he has with said Brooklyn friends gets stonewalled and crumbles in the face of Visions’ students, and the telling (paraphrase) “I only got in because of some stupid diversity check” admission to his father sets up a specifically black fear about not having earned his way into these opportunities that is enacted on a grander scale once he gains those superpowers.  Just as Miles is struggling with the fears and anxiety over being expected to excel – not just succeed, excel – as a young black man in the predominately white space of academia for those in his family who could not without losing himself, he’s also having to not just protect New York as Spider-Man but live up to the legacy of the deceased forebear of that mantle.

It’s a small little tweak in terms of implementing that unique viewpoint into the film, and maybe not even something that a lot of more privileged viewers will recognise on first pass (I include myself in that assessment), but it adds so much additional subtextual resonance to proceedings that it then becomes integral to the story and impossible to envision without.  Again, Spider-Verse is not explicitly about race in the way that, say, Do the Right Thing or *wretches* Green Book are, but it’s not not about race either because there are fundamental differences in perception and (for lack of a better term) historical baggage that come from inserting a POC character into a usually white story.  The best storytellers recognise that fact and lean into it, usually by having diversity up and down the production chain so that they can draw attention to these differences and work that into the finished art.  (Which is to say that I bet you Rothman was just as vital a creative component as the much-ballyhooed producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller.)

Yet another way Spider-Verse is the greatest superhero movie ever made, I said don’t @ me.

Coming to America [Tuesday 16th]

Dir: John Landis

Year: 1988

First-time viewing

Following on from that Spider-Verse observation, and in an effort to distract from the deserved shaming that yes it did take me 25 years and 9 months to watch Coming to America for the first time, look to the ways in which staffing a culture-clash class-conscious rom-com almost entirely with and about black people adds additional rich subtext to that tale as old as time, even before the film leans into it.  The jerk-ass uncaring rich poseur boyfriend (here brilliantly realised by Eriq La Selle) isn’t just a snooty xenophobic ass about low-class immigrants, he’s actively ignorant of his own history and racial lineage.  The blind and uniquely American hypocrisy in the way McDowell treats Akeem and Semmi as employees until they made a big step up to the plate (the foiled robbery), not all that different from how white employers undervalue their black employees, because American capitalism works on a very hierarchical white supremacist structure where shit falls downwards yet indoctrinates everyone into thinking the bootstraps mentality is a viable career path for all and selling out your race is second nature.  The slightly caricatured but lovingly presented version of pre-gentrification Queens and its sense of community, that early fundraiser scene being an especial highlight.  Even with white faces explicitly handling the direction and screenplay, you can tell that Murphy’s perspective is all over this thing and it adds a still-striking thematic undercurrent to proceedings.

And just like Spider-Verse, Coming to America is also a delightfully breezy and relaxing watch that’s extremely easy to lose oneself in for its surface pleasures… at least whenever the gay panic and transphobia standbys of Murphy’s 80s heyday don’t rear their heads (thankfully less pervasive than in Beverly Hills Cop but still disheartening when they appear all the same).  I said this back when I saw Boomerang and I’ll say it again now, Eddie Murphy should have done more rom-coms in his golden period.  Not only is he an effortlessly likeable screen presence – his smile is pure infectious serotonin, fact – his more earnest performance as Akeem shows he had the vulnerability to pull off a more everyman rom-com protagonist if he tried, rather than having to do so in a manner that played with his “IT’S EDDIE MURPHY!” superstar image.

By the way, when we’re all listing off Nile Rodgers’ many, many, many accomplishments over the course of his immaculate career, why don’t we include his Coming to America score among them?  Sure, it’s sparingly used and mostly overshadowed by the various needle-drops, but it adds a real adventurous flavour to the film that mirrors both the culture-clash of America meeting Zamunda and the fairy tale romance which develops between Akeem & Lisa.  Also, come on, the Soul Glo jingle is the definition of perfectly tacky and should get its due more often!

Dave Chappelle: 8:46 [Wednesday 17th]

Dir: ?

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

It feels wrong to try and “review” or “critique” this in the same way as other stand-up specials or pieces of art.  Hell, I don’t even feel comfortable saying any variation of “it’s the most I’ve liked a Dave Chappelle work since his comeback started,” true though it may be and not least cos it’s free of the dispiriting transphobia of his recent specials, because that frankly seems wildly inappropriate.  This is less a comedy special – every ‘joke’ he tries is barely-constructed and delivered with an obligatory sigh like a coping mechanism sputtering out ineffectually – and more a public soul-baring session.  The roughness is the point, the coarseness is the point, and to nitpick that the infrequent audience reaction shots feel like a sop to traditional stand-up framework that have no place here is to be kind of an asshole about the whole thing.

What I think will stick with me most from 8:46 is how Chappelle chooses to end.  The anecdote of his great-grandfather, William D. Chappelle, leader of the first black delegation in American history to receive an audience with the President at the White House, was born into slavery.  That his wife, Rosina C. Palmer, was also born into slavery and that their son, Dave’s grandfather, called out for Rosina on his deathbed.  That stark horrifying venomously-delivered reminder that actually, no, slavery and the abolition of it were far more recent than white society would have us believe.  That generational trauma I’ve been hearing my black friends talk about during weekly group discussion sessions, barely a century removed from its legalised occurrence and still being acted out every single day on thousands of screens and thousands upon thousands of people who deserve better.

I don’t know what else to add. Black lives matter.

CR Guide [Thursday 18th]

Dirs: Critical Role, I guess?

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

…yeah, it’s not a film or TV show or anything even the slightest bit meaningful like the Chappelle special above.  I was meant to finally watch Wadjda on its last night before being pulled from MUBI but, as you can probably tell from the opening spiel of this piece, I had a horrible mental day and an accidental two hour nap in the early evening so was in no mood to watch a real film regardless of its relative brevity.  (Despite what my second therapist from two years back attempted to insist, one’s mood going in does in fact affect one’s enjoyment and receptiveness to a film and I don’t think it’s fair to films like Wadjda if I’m going in with a less than optimum mindset.)  But I need to make this cover seven days somehow, since I saw bupkiss on the Thursday before Tomboy, so I watched Lindsay Ellis’ latest excellent video essay (on mainstream protest music in the Bush-era which you should obviously check out because Lindsay Ellis is The Best) and then this shit-post from the Critical Role folks that I didn’t get most of because I still only watch everything they put out besides Critical Role itself but was just mildly comforting enough to end my day not in total exhausted angisery (anger-misery).  Had flashbacks to being 10 years and unable to sleep at my Dad’s so would quietly turn on the TV in my room and just leave it on Teletext and BBC BiteSize until school-time or natural passing out.

I should really just actually watch Critical Role already, shouldn’t I?  It’s not like I’m doing anything else with my days.

Callie Petch thinks they’ve fucked it royally.

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