What I’ve Been Watching: 07/04/21 – 13/04/21

Racism, homophobia, men getting raped by animals, and Ed Wood.

CW: discussions of suicide attempts real and imagined.

Oh, I really need to learn to stop ending the preamble check-in parts of these WIBWs with encouraging signs that maybe things are turning around for me.  It’s almost Kafkaesque at this point in just how sharply things go to shit once I’ve put that mildly hopeful energy into the world.  So…

At the start of last month, my Dad tried to kill himself.  Specifically on the one-year anniversary of his accident, he had saved up several days’ worth of pain medication he’d deliberately not taken and downed them all at once in an attempted suicide.  Luckily, he got the dosage required wrong just enough to wake up again physically unharmed, although from what I heard, since I wasn’t able to talk with him for the rest of the week, he was apparently in the headspace where he was upset over having gotten the dosage wrong.  He was voluntarily admitted to the Great Oaks mental health hospital under close surveillance for a week before being discharged back into the care home he’d arrived from once multiple mental health doctors concluded that he would definitely not try something like that again.

Being honest with you reading this, I didn’t feel a whole lot when I was told the news.  Perhaps some of that was the antidepressants successfully taking the edgiest of the edge off of the tornado that is my unmedicated self-destructive mental state and resultantly meaning I could better process the news instead of spiral.  Somewhat more likely could be that I initially had the news misreported to me by Nan (who relayed everything to me first) as an accidental overdose instead of a deliberate one, which was something I figured would happen at some point, and from there it’s not too big of a shocking leap to go to “no, it was a deliberate suicide attempt.”  Part of it could’ve been because it was yet another thing happening to me or someone I know that wasn’t in my immediate vicinity (thanks to the plague and all) so the effects just wouldn’t process as real in my brain until whenever I got the chance to see him physically – much like the first time I heard about his accident where I didn’t properly cry until I saw him in the hospital in a coma four days later.

But I think most of all, the reason why, whilst still baseline upset at the situation, I wasn’t sad or angry or scared or distraught or anything like how society has codified how you’re supposed to feel in situations like these… was that I got it.  I understood why he tried to kill himself.  And not in a horribly condescending way like mother claimed to when I told her the news – “if I couldn’t walk again, I’d probably try to kill myself too;” Jesus, how bad is your bedside manner at work?!  But I get it.  Not exactly, of course, because nobody can fully understand someone’s mental state and especially not after an accident which leaves that someone else paralysed waist-down for life, but I get that headspace which leads to trying something like that.  The hopeless isolation, the ripping away of any semblance of purpose in life, the biting self-loathing left to fester day after day, the crippling fear of being a burden or needlessly worrying those you love so you close up and don’t talk meaningfully, the loss of autonomy and the little pleasures you used to enjoy, the growing alienation from those around you who can’t relate without inadvertent patronising, the seemingly endless forever of this situation right now being all there is stretching skywards…  I understand all that because I have gone through it so many times.

Bluntly, I’m still amazed even now that I made it to 25.  Although I can trace the roots of my depression back to Secondary School, I can confidently say that it was at its worst in the first three years following my graduation from university.  Where I began to lose my sense of self, my opportunities shrank one after another, isolated from the life I had built up at uni, a drain on everyone, and seeing this miserable seemingly-helpless situation catastrophise as all my life would ever be for good.  I fantasised about ending my own life a lot during that period, especially in 2018.  Knives, oncoming traffic, tall buildings, abuse of my diabetic needles, really far-fetched daydreams involving being murdered for whatever reason.  I never tried to go through with any of them, but only because I was too petrified by the concept of death to take that step – ironically, of course, this meant every fantasy of my suicide caused a panic attack which further wrecked my mental – and there was always the risk that such a fear could not manifest in time to stop any action being taken.  How my death would affect my family and friends never figured into the fantasies.

So, I wasn’t angry or hurt or sad or betrayed by my Dad attempting to kill himself.  Because I’ve been there so many times myself over the years and I get it.  I get it better than perhaps anyone else he’ll talk to, even if I cannot completely get it for obvious reasons.  And when I got to see him at the end of that week in Great Oaks, this was the first thing I told him…

But that’s a story for next week.  Not something I want to do, splitting this up into multiple parts cos with this subject it seems exploitative, but we’re already at 1,000 words and still only in the preamble.  Myself and Dad are finally moving into the bungalow a few days on from this posting, most likely without Internet for a short while, so that’s gonna force me to just sit and watch some Blu-Rays instead of endless YouTube essays.  Plus, I need to get back on track if I’m gonna hit my target of 12 of these by year’s end.  So, we’ll continue this in the next instalment.

Meantime, here’s what I’ve been watching this week.

Eddie Murphy: Delirious [Wednesday 7th]

Dir: Bruce Gowers

Year: 1983

First-time viewing

This has not aged all that well, and I’m not solely talking about the aggressive homophobia and sexism either.  Although, yeah, those are just as bad as I’d heard.  The first five mins of stand-up really is just Eddie finding the idea of gay people inherently hilarious or disgusting without any subversion or clever twist.  That he’s worried they’ll stare at his arse in the iconic form-fitting red suit on-stage, gleefully throwing the other f-bomb around with impunity, or how just the mere idea of paragon of 80s black masculinity Mr. T being gay is hysterical enough by itself.  Admittedly, Eddie has apologised repeatedly over the years for this material and seemingly shown himself to be a chill and open guy willing to move with the times, whilst it’s not like this kind of ‘comedy material’ has gone away in the near-forty years since, even in alleged leftist circles – which is to say, yes, you bet your arse I have an exhaustive list of side-eyes towards everyone who peddled “Mike Pence the homophobic bigot is secretly gay” jokes across the previous four years.  But it’s still, y’know, homophobic as fuck and not funny to me, as someone in the LGBTQA+ community.

Even aside from the more toxically 80s material, I still find Delirious at large pretty dated.  Specifically, there’s a formula to much of the material that’s very noticeable as the hour runs on.  Eddie makes an observation or presents a hypothetical, then busts out a funny voice to act that observation with some degree of ‘shocking’ raunch as the ultimate punchline.  The simplicity and formula aren’t inherently bad things, every comedian has their own versions of both that you’ll notice either once you watch enough of their material or just break down a special to its component parts to learn the craft.  But if that material by and large isn’t landing – and the nature of shock-value, where the inherent comedy of something vulgar and/or disgusting being said is going to lose that effect as the years go on and societal standards shift, means that it wasn’t for me – then it becomes more noticeable and breaks the spell of the set in the moment.

Still, although I laughed nowhere near as much as I’d hoped I would, there are some great individual segments.  The bathtub and ice cream stories have a lovely specificity entertainingly delivered.  The Poltergeist bit near the end is still hilarious – in general, much of the race humour still holds up (excepting the yikes-y Asian and Middle-Eastern skits) as they’re very finely observed rather than purely shock.  Best of all is the lengthy digression of a drunk step-father at a cookout which goes to some surprisingly off-beat places, Eddie’s delivery having an enrapturing Rudy Ray Moore flow which cleverly distracts from the ultimate payoff of a runner involving his mother’s remorseless shoe-throwing habit.  And, of course, Eddie himself is an undeniable charismatic delight who’s electrifying to watch even when his material doesn’t land.  Some of the film’s best moments are when he’s working the crowd, you can see him be disarmed or emboldened by their reactions as he flashes that megawatt grin which would soon make him the biggest movie star in the world.  So, I understand the iconic significance of Delirious in pop culture and Eddie’s career, but it’s not holding up great almost 40 years on.

All this said, yes, I would absolutely be dropping all my money in a heartbeat on tickets for myself and my friends if Eddie does go ahead with that stand-up tour he was repeatedly floating before the Stupid Apocalypse happened.

Bad Trip [Friday 9th]

Dir: Kitao Sakurai

Year: 2021

First-time viewing

SPOILERS, I guess?

Quintessential 3-star comedy, this.  Some funny moments, with the best producing proper belly-laughs in the moment, but nothing that’s gonna stick for longer than a few hours.  I know that sounds like the mother of all backhanded compliments, but it’s not intended to be.  Like, sure, it would have been nice to see more audacious pranks that don’t rely so heavily on gross-out comedy whose humour can be genuine but is often fleeting and subject to diminishing returns, but there’s also nothing wrong with a simple funny movie that engages just enough to minimise whatever negative crap is going on in one’s world for 90 minutes.  Bad Trip manages that, playing too safe or not.  I do really like how most of the pranks aren’t actually on the ordinary people unsuspectingly roped in, instead putting them in the roles of inadvertent Greek chorus to the lunacy Eric Andre and Tiffany Haddish (Lil Rel Howery is mostly the straight man) enact in their vicinity.  It keeps the tone less meanspirited than other hidden-camera prank comedies and lets individual crowd members reveal unexpected characterisations akin to a well-gelled improv group.

If I may continue to out myself as (what I’ll be inevitably tagged) a humourless grump, however, I would like it if we could maybe cut it out with jokes involving men getting raped by animals?  Like, I know that we as a society ascribe different levels of value to humans than animals vis a vis the food chain and there are massive double standards as to the reaction towards male rape compared to female rape but… it’s still rape.  I’m just not sure what the joke is supposed to be here, just like how I wasn’t sure what the joke was supposed to be when Sacha Baron Cohen did the same bit in Grimsby five years ago or when Jonah Hill got devil-raped in This is the End eight years ago.  Like, yeah, I will admit that I let out of a brief series of shock-chuckles at the Bad Trip example, but those sorts of reactions function as tension-diffusers due to the sudden turn; they’re not the same as an actual laugh and they very quickly get replaced by a queasy unpleasantness.  Again, humourless grump who can’t take a joke so nobody’s gonna listen to me, but it bothers me, especially since I know if it were Tiffany Haddish getting railed by a gorilla against her will as the punchline to her character’s stupidity instead of Eric Andre there’d be an almighty riot in the discourse-sphere.

Palm Springs [Saturday 10th]

Dir: Max Barbakow

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

Absolutely worth the near-year-long wait for distributors to pull their goddamned fingers out and release this in the UK.  Loved Palm Springs to pieces.  Was significantly more existential than I was expecting going in, and that’s not a knock in the slightest especially since Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara deftly manage to balance that existentialism and surprisingly involved sci-fi plot mechanics without sacrificing the fun of the concept or the laughs.  In fact, Siara’s screenplay does that great dramedy trick of having many of the film’s funniest lines work just as well as punches to the gut when looked at through a different lens in ways which don’t diminish either read – one I keep terming ‘the Inside Llewyn Davis sleight’ for that film’s “I don’t see a lot of money in this” always being the first and best example of the form that I think of.  Pretty much everything to do with Roy is the primo of this, there’s so much feeling and heart and philosophical calm put into the objectively hysterical line (and accompanying sight) “little Joey is watering dogshit.”

But it’s also not showy about that fact, either.  The storytelling momentum is one of a constant push forward with tight-as-hell editing which adds a real snap to each punchline whilst also effectively communicating the collapse of time as this purgatorial hellscape stretches ever onwards for Nyles and Sarah.  There’s a great economy and focus to what parts of the typical time-loop formula Barbakow chooses to elide, trusting the audience will cotton onto things like Nyles’ having timed much of his loop down to the second through an opening dancefloor crossing, or the gradual change in the protagonists’ demeanours via a shift of camera placement during the opening phases of the loop.  On that note, Quyen Tran’s cinematography really should’ve gotten nominations at the very least.  Her chosen visual style adds so much to the film’s mood, visualising the isolating borderline-nihilism felt by Nyles and (for a time) Sarah, and artistry without going overboard.  There’s just enough desaturation in the colour scheme, just enough off-centre framing, and just enough Dutch angles to make Palm Springs and its surrounding desert seem endless and disassociated from a recognisable reality in a way that makes the moments of intimacy all the more beautiful and hopeful.

Speaking of awards, Cristin Milioti should also be nominated for a bunch of them and also finally get those mega-starring roles she’s been deserving for yonks now.  She and Andy Samberg – who, despite my focus on Milioti, is absolutely no weak link and also deserves plaudits upon plaudits – have excellent chemistry together that’s completely believable from almost the instant that they start talking to each other, something the film very smartly plays upon for (in-universe) good and ill.  But even more than that, the way in which she is able to demonstrate Sarah’s evolution from denial to resignation to something approaching contentment only for that brilliant reveal before the start of the last third to plunge her back into despair and determination is masterful.  It’s one of those performances where I think the film would still be great if someone else were in her role, but because she gives as good as she gets it means her and the film lift each other up to an excellence that feels inseparable from her work.  God, the heartbreak I felt at the aforementioned whiplash reveal, ripping away something good with a firm reminder of one’s worst mistake upon waking up every morning in a physical manifestation of what depression can do to a person, is incalculable.

Just a wonderful, wonderful little movie.  I’m definitely gonna be giving this a whole bunch of additional watches across the rest of the year, it’s got those Good Place fuzzys I like so much.  But, seriously, whomever fucked up in making sure this couldn’t get a UK release until nearly a year after the US deserves to be stuck in their own infinite wedding time-loop hell.

Plan 9 From Outer Space [Sunday 11th]

Dir: Ed Wood

Year: 1959

First-time viewing?

The question mark is because I distinctly remember the 2005 video game Destroy All Humans!, a love letter to crap 50s/60s alien invasion B-Movies, having an unlockable bonus video of Plan 9 From Outer Space as a late-game reward.  However, a] I can’t remember if it was the entire movie – I recall reading things online and in gaming mags stating that the entire film was included as an unlockable – and b] I don’t actually remember if I ever sat all the way through to find out on account of being 11 years old at the time and yet to fully appreciate movies properly.  So, maybe this was a first-time viewing, or maybe it’s the kind of rewatch that functions effectively as a first-time viewing due to it being nearly two decades on.  Semantics, gotta love ‘em!

Anyway, that important distinction dealt with, I rather enjoyed Plan 9 and that was without actively riffing on the thing for most of the runtime.  It’s honestly not that bad?  Obviously, it’s bad on the objective levels one considers a movie “bad” – the acting atrocious, the sets cheap, the editing distracting, the effects laughable, the plot stupid, the earnest message undermined by unlikeable characters working in bad alignments, the Bela Lugosi replacement.  But, all of that is also kinda genuinely charming to a degree that overrides my cynicism about incompetent filmmakers who think their audiences will eat up anything, mainly cos I don’t think Wood is that type of filmmaker.  There’s something intangible about the kind of sincerity which separates plain-bad movies from “so bad, it’s good” movies, the kind you can’t really explain given that many other terrible filmmakers overstretch themselves with uniquely terrible projects that are just torture to get through, and Plan 9 has that.  It’s too singular, operating within its own strange pocket dimension that’s fascinating to witness, and continually pulls new unintentionally campy tricks of strange badness out from its sleeves to ever become painful to get through.  It’s willing to be earnest and potentially embarrassing.  More bad movies should strive to hit this kind of reverse-entertainment.

King Kong [Tuesday 13th]

Dirs: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

Year: 1933

First-time viewing

Well, this would probably still be an all-time classic were it not for the uncomfortably virulent racism.  Look, I know, I know.  “It was a different time, you can’t judge these things by modern societal standards, and the classic Western-made adventure genre was inherently racist and colonialist anyway.”  And I try, I really do try despite what this entire article may have you believe.  Respect motherfucking craft, and all that.  And that motherfucking craft in the original King Kong is still jaw-dropping even without taking into account the wizardry it must’ve required to pull this off with the technological limitations of almost 90 years ago.  The consistent sense of scale to a degree which instils the exact right mix of fear and wonder in the audience, the compositing and rear-projection work that’s mostly just as convincing in its own way as today’s CGI-assisted digital-scapes, the charmingly rough stop-motion monsters, and every non-Kong face practical effect adding a jarringly effective tangible weight to the vicious violence on-display.

But also that “motherfucking craft” is inextricable from the racist subtext which fuels the movie to a degree where giving praise to said craft feels like giving a pass to that blatant racism.  The sets and costumes are still absolutely spectacular and eye-catching, given tremendous sense of scale and power from effective cinematography and angles… but they’re also based on racist stereotypes and wilful misrepresentations of actual native cultures as savage backwards people not smart enough to adapt to a Western colonial world.  Kong’s animation and subtly-conveyed character via his movements and body language are enrapturing and believably animalistic… but Kong himself is coded as the most savage racist caricature of Black people imaginable.  At best, a mentally-deficient child incapable of communicating without lapsing into destructive violence.  At worst, an actively rampaging monster coming to steal and potentially rape our beautiful Aryan women because non-White blonde women don’t do it for him.  (Even at best, things veer too close to the latter; the scene at the mountain-top where Kong curiously undresses Anne mid-tickle put heavy similarities to things like The Birth of a Nation in my brain.)

The half-hour on the other side of the gate is still edge-of-seat thrilling adventure filmmaking… but it’s predicated on the invented horrors of an uncolonized world being left to run rampant that will mercilessly slaughter civilized white folks if ever allowed to spread.  Theoretically, King Kong has an anti-colonialist subtext since Denholm is portrayed as a selfish money and fame-hungry douchebag who gets 12 crew members killed, an entire isolated native settlement destroyed, and much of Manhattan demolished from his insistence on bringing Kong back as a spectacle-attraction.  But I’m not completely sure the text of the movie supports that?  Especially with the trauma Ann Darrow goes through, and especially especially the unrepentance Denholm displays in the final scene with that iconic closing line which puts the blame more on the irresistible desirability of White blonde women than anything he or the rest of our (thoroughly unlikeable save for poor Ann) cast do.  There may subtextually be a message about leaving well enough alone with cultures the Western world has yet to discover and defile, but it also ends with a real sensation of “well, what are you gonna do, eh?  Savage ape, modern world.”

To be abundantly clear, I think that King Kong is really, really, really good.  Great, even!  I liked it despite what the tone of this entry might otherwise indicate, and was often thrilled or excited or scared in exactly the ways the film wanted me to be.  But, goddamn, that racism (and sexism which we obviously cannot forget about) is so baked into the movie’s every single facet that I feel kinda icky for enjoying myself as much as I did.  It’s stellar craft excellently executed in service of a deeply problematic central concept.  This, incidentally, is why I’m so fascinated by Kong’s current place in pop culture as a character who, over the course of nearly a century, has mostly had that racist coding stripped out to such an extent that he’s mainly just ‘big monkey’ in most new media depictions of him.  But that’s a whole individual essay for smarter folks than I with more time on their hands to write.  (E.g.: keep an eye out for Kelechi Ehenulo’s Monsterverse piece going up on JumpCut in the near-future which touches on some of that.)

Callie Petch is one fist of many fingers.

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