• essays

    Commentary ~ Jon Stewart’s return to The Daily Show is a regression for Late Night

    If you are a left-leaning liberal or centrist, you might remember Jon’s politics aligning more with yours. In fact, Jon was never very interested in partisan politics; The Daily Show under his tenure was mostly about holding media to account. A single interview of John Stewart by Tucker Carlson was responsible for shutting down an old Fox show called Crossfire – the best example of Jon’s interests on TDS. But even though he often stood in opposition to Fox News due to their poor journalistic standards and entertainment news, it’s not really because he’s “anti-Conservative” or something. I’d say he’s about as centrist as a man of his wealth can be.

    (If you’re not familiar with my usual speeches about class solidarity, I will say “class solidarity always comes first” and Jon’s part of the ruling class in America by virtue of provisional whiteness, extreme success in the entertainment industry, and the access his money provides him. Hence, we would consider it strange if he did not behave like a Rich American, right?)

    Jon’s a true believer in American exceptionalism, which is a viewpoint making someone vulnerable to a lot of blind spots about America’s role in the world. He’s mostly wielded his power and opinion for good, though! He advocates for 9/11 rescue workers and American veterans, which is the exact kind of activism I hope to get from that stance. His persistence navigating political systems to advocate for these folks is my favorite work of his.

    Unfortunately, Jon has also espoused some marginal, paranoid viewpoints. I don’t have anything to point to besides a really strange interview with Colbert about the “Wuhan lab leak” covid conspiracy – but Jon left TDS to go into a farm in the woods and grow a beard, and it seems like he maybe bought into the crazy bearded guy in a farm in the woods bit too well. He may have had more marginal, paranoid viewpoints in his pocket when he lost his Apple deal, but I suspect Apple was also being weird. Either way: Jon has strayed further from mainstream appeal in the intervening years and he might have something *really* weird in his pocket.

    But I think that he wants to go back to TDS because he feels a sense of responsibility. His mission to point at American journalism and say “this sucks” didn’t end up helping much; our infotainment and propaganda systems have worsened, radicalizing an already polarized country. I think Jon Stewart wants a platform to return to media accountability in the year of the 2024 election because he wants to put his finger on the scale against another Trump presidency.

    We’re in a really different world than the one left at the end of TDS. Correspondent Jordan Klepper is doing some really challenging, agile work exploring right wing extremism in America. Former correspondent Roy Wood Jr had a vision for TDS moving forward, but Comedy Central refused to play ball with him, so they lost one of their best voices. There are other great potential successors in the wings, like Amber Ruffin, who could bring something completely new to TDS – and John Oliver, the most leftward late night personality, voiced his support for Uncle Roy and Ruffin.

    It’s impossible to say what Jon Stewart is going to do on his return, but the temporary nature of it makes it clear this is a special project for him, and I question how much meaningful sway he’s going to have on this election. Comedy Central has chosen to do away with a regular host for the foreseeable future, and a late night host is a big boss who organizes correspondents, facilitates comedy careers, and also gets a platform for her own interests.

    It feels like this is promoting Jon’s desire to save us from Drump, and Comedy Central’s desire for advertising dollars, at the expense of other performers’ careers — without actually adding much to the conversation. Late Night in general is more vessel for PR than an effective tool for organization, as proven by Stewart and Colbert’s own 2010 Washington rally that was only a comedy show and didn’t register a single voter (or do anything else). We have already seen what Jon does with peak TDS; I would rather see Uncle Roy or Amber behind the desk full-time (or Leslie Jones! or Charlamagne tha God! my two favorite guest hosts) in an election year, a time of political turmoil. We should not burden any Late Night show with more responsibility or expectations of relevancy when America’s problems are much more profound than Jon’s perspective, limited by his own successes, can pick apart.

  • essays,  resembles nonfiction

    I said what I said: Defiance as diversion in current pop music trends

    Ariana Grande has dropped “yes, and?”, which is a track that sonically draws from Madonna’s Vogue and visually from Paula Abdul’s Cold Hearted Snake, forming a generically pleasing bop that never quite rises to the sum of its parts but is nonetheless EXTREMELY catchy. The “yes, and?” video frames the song as an anthem for pop stars vs critics. (Youtube link.)

    On Celebitchy, my favorite celebrity gossip blog since Dlisted shuttered, Kaiser noted that it’s poor taste for Ariana to release a song dismissing criticism when she’s been on her worst behavior. I guess you could summarize what’s going on with this one sentence from the post:

    Ari started f–king a married man who had a wife and child at home, then Ari threw a huge tantrum when [the wife] openly bad-mouthed her.

    The lyrics do seem to be a direct response to that. Full lyrics on Billboard, but pointing here:

    your business is yours and mine is mine
    do you care so much whose dick i ride

    It seems to directly address issues that you’d think Ariana would prefer we avoid discussing. (Releasing a big pop song is always the best way to avoid talking about things.) I would like to add that the seemingly direct approach is just a sophisticated method of PR smokescreen.

    First off, the lyrics could also be referring to other parts of her famous love life; I suspect more people think about Pete Davidson in regards to Ariana and Dicks rather than her current paramour. Also, the chorus is focused on empowerment. So plausible deniability is strong.

    The video has an entirely different message. The implicit cyclical nature of Music Video Ariana performing her song, then turning to a statue, which crumbles so she can perform the song again, has the same atmosphere as a music box which we can wind and open to play for us whenever we want. By the ending, critics who bad-mouth her have let loose, rescued by the liberation of Ariana, who only exists to entertain and better those who criticize.

    Most of the criticism about Ariana lately has not been related to her music, though. She’s been filming Wicked and working on other projects for a while. She’s been making news in her personal life to the point that people who don’t pay attention to celebrity news might hear about it. But most people haven’t.

    Sassy, defiant messaging is one of the mainstays of pop music, where the tropes are manufactured to appeal to the heightened emotions of adolescence. It’s probably different kids who got hyped listening to Rage Against the Machine saying “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” but Ariana intends to hit a similar nerve. In order to control the narrative surrounding Ariana, PR has decided to summon defiance (with a twist of empowerment as a treat).

    “My life is none of your business, begone” is the attitude expressed here. It’s adjacent to Ariana’s real issues without directly addressing them: savvy PR in a performance borrowing elements from well-established pop hits that is meant to have us discussing Ariana in the same breath as Madonna and Paula Abdul. She is in ownership of her sexuality and liberated and cool, above all else, and fuck the haters.

    Considering “the hater” is a new mother left at home with her baby, is such a high-budget and finely-tuned responding salvo tasteless? Sure, if you put it that way. But Ari put it in a sexy way! With a hat!

    It’s also inevitable in pop music, which commodifies the entirety of a human in our hyper-capitalist era of everything-is-product. Taste is only relevant to the point that it doesn’t detract from the brand’s ability to generate capital. The permeability of barriers between individual and branding has become widespread in the social media era. Stars like Ariana Grande must sell herself as a product more expertly than anyone else, and the narrative she constructs is worth multimillions. Every single event, good or bad, must be a stepping stone that builds her value.

    One of the main methods of getting big numbers currently remains TikTok. Sassy, defiant lyrics from this song are guaranteed to be isolated and disassociated from Ariana’s affair, instead given associations like funny memes, cool dances, and relatable posts.

    Whatever commentators are saying on blogs, most people are going to be exposed to Ariana and this song in a way that makes it feel personal and intimate. Not about an affair that turned out kinda gross and depressing.

    Another pop star who benefits a lot from this model, especially TikTok, is Doja Cat. She’s well-known for her personal behavior, which this Rolling Stone article touches upon.

    On Friday, Doja Cat uploaded the selfie donning a shirt with the image of Sam Hyde, an internet-infamous edgelord with ties to both the alt-right and neo-Nazi movements.

    There are a boatload of stories about Doja’s behavior online that I won’t recant here; she’s such an online person that you can just do a search and see everything for yourself.

    Yet this is another case where the average person doesn’t know enough entertainment news to realize that Doja’s actual behavior is legitimately troubling; they’re much likelier to have heard of her social media posts where she fights and insults fans.

    Reality Doja’s vocal idealogy is a problem to the degree that her PR — which often packages Doja like pop music, though she’s also a talented rapper — has no choice but to fold Pop Music Product Doja Cat into an especially defiant package. Chances are good that her social media posts insulting fans directly are PR the way that Ariana Grande announcing song titles wearing sweaters are. (UPROXX)

    The Doja Cat Team (because we really must see pop stars as the entirety of the machine surrounding them, as well as the individual whose face covers the brand) is embracing her public flaws and steering the narrative as they want. It’s better to talk about Doja fighting fans and releasing a song where she doubles down (with lyrics like “bitch, I said what I said”) rather than letting the conversation focus on Doja’s alt-right associations. (Youtube link.)

    The way that their Pop Star Branding handles the various “controversies” of their life is certainly tasteless, but there’s no other way for the product to work; it is part and parcel of becoming such a valuable brand. You can’t make the individual a better person, but you can amplify the most commercial aspects of them, which often means leaning into cathartic adolescent feelings for their mass-appeal and allowing virality to dissociate the artist from their actual issues. It’s a whole industry of turd-polishing set to a catchy beat. Oh my goodness, does the shiny turd have a catchy beat.

  • essays,  movie reviews

    The Worst and Best of 2023 Movies

    It’s that time again! Last year was the first time I really got into tracking my movie-watching habits, so my 2022 watches are the first meaningfully populated year. But 2023 has been full-throttle Letterboxd and I’ve got opinions. (Click for the list on letterboxd. Links in this article either go to my reviews on this website or my reviews on letterboxd.)

    I’ll probably keep watching 2023 movies as we move through awards season; I’ll be back with future reviews if something changes.

    ~

    Your Place or Mine, Cocaine Bear, and The Weeknd: Live at SoFi Stadium were the worst movies I saw come out of 2023. The former two are movies I completely bounced off of and barely finished. The Weeknd’s concert feels a little more like a personal rating because I used to really, really like his music. He’s pulled off great staging at some of his live events. I had high expectations, and this was…not good. He stood around singing the whole time, and his dancers don’t really dance. This marked falling out of love with The Weeknd’s music (his TV show, The Idol, and the extreme amount of cringe resulting from it was the real death blow).

    ~

    In the category of mediocre things I still kinda enjoyed, we have Little Mermaid, Red, White, & Royal Blue (aka RWRB), and Rebel Moon.

    Little Mermaid isn’t the worst of the Disney live action remakes and that’s the faintest praise with which I may damn it. Halle Bailey was charming and seemed to understand she was mostly doing a modeling job; she looks pretty through all the extremely artificial shots, projects princess vibes, and throws a giant middle finger to people who can’t handle princesses with melanin. Plus she’s great at singing!

    RWRB was just so much not my interest. I don’t remember it well, but the main thing that sticks out when I reflect is how much the guy playing the prince looked like a Windsor, and how much that was a *massive* turnoff. The fairytale mirror universe version of real-world politics didn’t work for me either. But honestly, if you’d just switched these out for fake countries, this might have been one of my favorites of the year.

    I already talked at length about how much I loved hating Rebel Moon, and I keep thinking about watching it again so I can laugh at it again. Zack Snyder is good at making movies I think are so wonderfully bad. He always makes me ask myself how bad his movies *really* are, when I have so much fun. You know? But I can’t defend his disaster screenplay and wouldn’t try.

    ~

    My next tier includes surprisingly enjoyable watches like Renfield, Five Nights at Freddy’s (aka FNAF), Elemental, and Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain.

    I’m never sure if I’m going to enjoy Nicolas Cage or be annoyed that I’m watching a Nicolas Cage movie. Renfield is one where I enjoyed him, albeit not as much as Mandy (my personal favorite recent Cage flick). The sheer ambition of the gore levels in Renfield was really endearing. It made me just want to go watch What We Do In the Shadows again, but also, I never feel like my time is wasted by yet another Dracula movie that uses whole buckets of blood.

    FNAF was a long-anticipated movie in my household; I couldn’t help but enjoy it because my eldest did. I can tell you, knowing as much as I reluctantly know about this franchise, the FNAF adaptation was perfect for its audience.

    Elemental was a weird slippery one for me. I liked it a lot and thought it was beautiful, but deeply flawed. The flaws didn’t seem to matter when Elemental was obviously made with so much love? I wonder if I would have rated Elemental higher a little higher when my kids were younger and more likely to sit in front of its bright colors for hours on end. I don’t get tired of loving immigrant stories, regardless.

    Please Don’t Destroy is a movie by a nepobaby and his friends where you don’t hate them for the nepotism. They’re so harmlessly, stupidly funny, and concerned with the arrested development of new adulthood, that it’s hard to resent them for much of anything. Bowen Yang elevates everything he bats his eyelashes in. Plus two of the heroines are fat. That’s cool. The kids are all right.

    ~

    In the tier of really great movies that came out of 2023, we have Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Blue Beetle, Nimona, and Bottoms.

    My love of genre is surely showing here. Whatever else is going on in Dungeons & Dragons, I just freaking love second world fantasy, and I’ve enjoyed D&D since I forced guys to play with me in high school. This movie is charming and funny and only a little plodding. We get tracer beasts, a mimic, and Tiefling racism on-screen. For better or worse, this is my exact kind of steaming heap of genre.

    Similarly, Blue Beetle reminded me why I’ve been a lifelong superhero fan. It’s healing to remember I do love superheroes so much when it feels like movies have made me mostly resent their presence these last few years. As a love letter to the classic origin story, Blue Beetle was exactly the shot of family-friendly energy I wanted this year.

    Nimona was much the same, playing with all the fantasy and science fiction tropes I love in the queerest way possible. It’s the most honest, authentic expression of how *excruciatingly* lonely it is to be trans. But it’s also fun.

    If you don’t want to feel any bad vibes about being gay, you might like Bottoms as much as I did. I related strongly to the ugly, untalented lesbians at the center of the movie, which reinforced one important fact: Nobody in this world will hate you for being gay, just being gay and absolutely useless. Doggedly chasing high fashion cheerleader tail when you, yourself, barely know how to wear a t-shirt and jeans is exactly the bullshit nonsense I got up to at this age, and Bottoms is the dadaist gay comedy of my dreams.

    ~

    Given the themes of May December, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it. I almost didn’t make it through the first ten minutes. I’m so glad I did. This is a breathtakingly complicated movie by artists operating at the peak of their power.

    The director is responsible for Velvet Goldmine, one of my all-time favorite movies. That one happens to be like colorful fanfic about David Bowie and Iggy Pop. It’s weird getting so personal about real-life figures, but May December gets even weirder by being colorful fanfic about Mary Kay Letourneau and the man she began abusing when he was a child.

    You’re not allowed to be comfortable with the situation at any point, but it’s all done so well, it’s problematically good. The extreme recursive conflict of being a soapy, pulpy movie about the worst parts of real humans’ lives is centered in May December, accusing itself of exploitation while being exploitative. I’ve found that I like feeling kind of weird and gross and guilty, and the negativity of feelings from May December almost makes me want to shelve it with horror. The masterful control of storytelling made this one of the biggest standouts of the year.

    ~

    There was nothing I loved this year the way I loved What Happens Later. It’s one of those things where it arrived at the right time and place in my life. I was already doing a big watch of romcoms, including romcoms with Meg Ryan, so a new Meg Ryan romcom was serendipity. (No, not that Serendipity. That’s Kate Beckinsale.)

    Imagine this movie like having an air travel layover in Heaven. No, you’re not dead, despite the fact this movie definitely makes it look like the leads are dead. It’s more like something divine (God? Angels? Gen X pop-rock muzak?) has plucked Meg Ryan and David Duchovny out of their lives to force them to help each other.

    With a screenplay adapted by Meg Ryan and the gift of this woman’s directorial vision, What Happens Later feels like the most beautiful sublime dream with wonderfully bittersweet emotion at its core. I’m not yet in my fifties, which is where these main characters find themselves treading water, but even now I can already relate to the strangeness of looking back on a life and asking, “What if?”

    Those unanswerable questions ring in the hollow spaces of Meg Ryan’s deft work. This woman understands love and romance. She only gives us an HEA in this one (fair warning), but the power of love and hope and change is so healing that it’s way more satisfying than so many other romcoms with more definitive conclusions.

    You want these two to get it together and talk things out so badly. And when they do, I was crying along with them. I loved What Happens Later a lot. I think it fell softly on the year in terms of release impact, but it’s one I plan to revisit a lot in the gray winters to come.

    How would you rank your 2023 movie watches, buds?

  • Diaries,  essays

    You might be overlooking sources of cope close at hand

    When I was almost 30, I spent a hundred hours in a mental hospital on suicide watch, though I wasn’t suicidal. I had been switched to a new antidepressant by my general practitioner. I had a strongly negative reaction, flooded by serotonin, and could feel myself going crazy every time I took it. One time I took it and had a meltdown. I went to the hospital trying to relay what was wrong with me, but I couldn’t do it effectively, and I ended up on suicide watch with weird markers on my chart that nobody else had.

    I was fine once I came off that antidepressant. Even so, they gave me strong, strong sedatives in the hospital and I remember nodding off sitting up at random times. This hospital has since been condemned; it was sinking while I was there. With nothing else to do, I organized activities for the bored younger people in the ward. The cafeteria served great food so I obsessed about eating as much as possible while there. There was plenty of time to read books. I herded young women around because we were not in a segregated ward and old men sexually harassed them. I only got to see the sunlight when I was walked outside in a group by a student therapist. I think we went outside once while I was there.

    Basically it was miserable, but I made the best of it, and aside from the enormous trauma I did learn things.

    During that one time we sat outside, I think we had the most productive (for me) group therapy session.

    Group therapy is my favorite. Other humans are so compassionate in this setting, when we are vulnerable about the things that hurt us most deeply. I shared some of the thoughts I hadn’t been sharing with anyone, and the kindness of others really helped me see that I was having some basic issues of rationality.

    Primarily: Why hadn’t anyone in my family known something was increasingly wrong with me?

    The medication alone was not the only problem. I was swallowing poison-bombs of stress constantly, to the point where I did pop a massively bleeding ulcer the prior year. I internalized everything in my body. I was hurting myself without ever hurting myself, just by turning myself into this crazy, bolted-down, feverish ball of I CAN’T COPE. When I did cope, it was maladaptive, like controlling my diet so my body shrunk to its smallest size ever, drinking way too much alcohol, and other things you expect an almost-30 femme to do to herself. I never felt good. Ever. I could never relax.

    But I had a genuinely loving family standing around me who really didn’t know the severity of the problem. They saw me hiding myself away to over-work, but I didn’t have any way to explain what was going on. I didn’t know. I was locked up.

    I had to learn radical new ways to cope in order to change into the person I am now.

    These days, I am happy and relaxed and only productive in ways that feel constructive.

    The changes were radical in effect, but they were super duper easy in practice. It turns out that coping well is something that fills up your cup and makes everything better, and you shouldn’t run away from it into the arms of toxicity (or just self-destruct quietly on your own).

    My four radical coping mechanisms:

    1. Talking to loved ones
    2. Conscious time with loved ones
    3. Food (ideally eaten/prepared with loved ones)
    4. Seek perspective on the role of personal responsibility in a hierarchical world

    ~

    Talking to loved ones kind of has to be the first step. It means saying all the messy stuff, even the hurtful things, the stuff that sounds bad no matter how you put it. It means vulnerability.

    This isn’t safe with everyone you know. Your family may not be your loved ones. If you’re already resisting the natural human impulse to talk to your loved ones, you’ve probably been exposed to derision when you were vulnerable at *some* point.

    But the wonderful thing is that *most* people *are* safe to be vulnerable with. Yes, I’m including random strangers here. Most humans are kind in response to vulnerability. It’s a human quality. If you feel like everyone is going to judge you, you’re just wrong! The world is not made up entirely of people who are derisive and cruel. That is an experience you had with some particular folks, and I’m really sorry.

    If “people will usually be nice to you” doesn’t ring true, consider: Humans form social groups (families, cliques, whatever) that have develop personalities unto themselves. A social group in itself may foster toxicity. And it may foster toxicity *selectively*. People perceived as lower in the social hierarchy of this group will be the subject of abuse from people higher in the social hierarchy as a bonding mechanism. If you’ve been picked as a punching bag by a group, they might even be good people to each other, or to others outside the group, but uniformly awful to you. It feels like The Whole World is awful. That’s not the case. You’ve been chosen as a punching bag. Your role will be different in different social units.

    You can find people to treat you kindly anywhere, as long as you don’t wait around expecting toxic people you know to change.

    Talk with loved ones.

    “I don’t want to be a burden,” sayeth your mind.

    Doesn’t it feel good when you help people work through things? People will feel good helping you too. Give them the opportunity.

    You have to try to say the things that are hardest to say. Whatever is stuck deep in there, get it out. Don’t hold any grudges. You can’t fix what you won’t address. Say things quickly, when they come to mind, so you’re not building up pressure to explode everything out. State your intentions with your loved ones clearly: “I feel really embarrassed talking about this but I need help because I’m too scared to do xyz.”

    Solutions can happen quicker than you think, if you don’t simmer on stuff. And for the things that can’t be solved, or don’t need it, loved ones can then be a big emotional hug of validation.

    For me, my loved ones are my spouse and sibling foremost. But I really don’t stop there with expressing my emotions. I’m a whole fountain of it. The more I talk openly about what I’m dealing with, the more I find other people I’m dealing with, and they become loved ones (at least on this subject).

    If people react negatively to you, they’re not your people. Move on. It doesn’t reflect on you.

    Therapy actually can fill in a lot of this, and some folks do need therapists for specific causes, but you can get a lotta emotional work done just in your community like this because it’s so natural to humans. Before therapists, we had hair dressers, neighbors on an adjoining stoop, the other guy sharpening spear heads beside the fire. Use your community.

    (FWIW, I’m under the care of a psychiatrist and on multiple psychiatric meds. I’m so happy I did many many years of therapy and plan to return. I absolutely believe in handling the medical side of things in a medical way. I just don’t talk about it much here because it’s not always very accessible to folks.)

    ~

    Conscious time with loved ones actually isn’t the same as talking. Think of it this way: We talk shit out the way that we demolish rooms of a house. Then we spend time with people to sweep it all away and clear the space.

    I used my family as a way to get away from life. I gave them my kids and pets and house and said, “Take care of this while I have my bildung,” and then I traveled alone. Does that sound like a healthful use of family? Maybe sometimes, honestly. But not exclusively.

    If you’re with your family and you spend the whole time visiting with internet friends via your phone, are you actually with your family?

    Do stuff with your loved ones. Bonus points if you get casual physical contact. Make stuff, cook things, play games. Engage with them in a way that is just fun and doesn’t involve any kind of emotional burden.

    Having a cleaner mind and a happy heart makes room for so much abundance. It’s just as important to create happiness as it is to process unhappiness.

    Anxiety, grief, stress, et al can also steal us away from perfectly pleasant moments. I have some really nice memories surrounding funerals because we were sad, but it was still nice to just be together. Making someone laugh with a remark can be your cope when the greater context sucks. Be in your nice moment, whatever the context.

    ~

    Having food with loved ones is a really important one that I neglected personally. I had come to see food foremost as a medical thing. I counted my macronutrients to make sure I had the ratio where I wanted, and I ate whatever I was eating — always prepared separately from the family.

    Although my food problems were a thing unto myself, this can also develop over time if food has to be functional for another reason. I think diabetics can really fall into seeing food as medical sometimes. A method of delivering the correct amount of carbohydrates to one’s body. It’s true but not *entirely* so.

    I would have thought of food as a coping method derisively. Maybe you would think of food as a coping method sadly, like, “I can’t eat for fun because xyz food intolerance/concern.”

    But I want to put forth the idea that food should be cope and social bonding *first*. It is so important to us because of its role in fueling our bodies, but humans have always oriented their cultures around eating in a more meaningful way. Whether it’s coming together for feast holidays or regularly doing food preparation in a group, food is really a whole activity that can refill your cup…if you let it.

    The simple act of eating whatever else my family is eating is a bonding thing. We are sharing a culture. It’s healing.

    Let’s say that you can’t eat with loved ones, though. I’m gonna tell you that’s even better. You’ve never met a method of cope like eating distraction-free. Full attention on a balanced meal, tasting every bite, is an amazing cup-refiller. It doesn’t necessarily have to be gourmet food. Consider what you’re eating. What does it remind you of? Can something simple like french fries from the burger place transport you to the nicest memory of your adolescence, every time you eat them?

    The taste can be good, the textures, the memories, the peace and solitude. Try putting everything away and really eating. For reals, it’s awesome.

    ~

    Getting perspective on personal responsibility is such a difficult one, but I really needed it.

    Anxiety can make people feel like they need to control things so that bad outcomes don’t happen. The not-so-secret truth is that we don’t control things. Like, almost nothing.

    I know that’s a horrible thought, but isn’t it a little liberating, too? Stuff happens to us. Shitty stuff happens to us. We often couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

    Something shitty we’re all living with is a society that isn’t designed for everyone. In fact, it’s intended to enrich an increasingly narrow portion of “everyone.” It’s never been a secret that governments suck. Hippies knew what was going on. You’ve always seen folks going Walden off the grid to try to escape it, it’s so shitty.

    There are better and worse ways to cope with the shitty uncontrollability of reality, but one of the better ways is to simply accept it *is*. So much of what is stressing you out isn’t your fault, at all. Period.

    A lot of things you are holding yourself responsible for are simply not your fault, and a lot of your future’s path isn’t up to you.

    On this thought, some idealogies are better than others for fostering a pro-cope environment. If you find yourself getting caught up in any sort of idealogy that preys on your anxiety and an outsized sense of personal accountability about something systemic, the long-term impact is going to be negative more than positive.

    Capitalism likes you to think that bootstrapping is the moral ideal; fad fitness trends want you to think you can willpower your way through having a human body; radical politics wants you to think the pains of living as the proletariat under the bourgeoisie are your fault. This stuff really doesn’t serve you personally. Even if you are someone benefited by inequity — you are the socially preferred race, gender, religion, whatever — the environment fostered by haves and have-nots can leave you lingering in terror of losing your status and helps you cultivate a personality of superiority over your fellow human.

    Like, it’s just not good for you, my dude. You gotta let go of all that stuff. Take a quick breath in and let it out slow and blow out all your sense of responsibility for the huge systemic games humans think they’re playing. The games are playing the humans. You can’t opt out entirely, but you can remind yourself of your size.

    You’re just a person. One person, like anybody else. Exactly the same. You are not great or terrible. You are a person. Isn’t that kind of a relief? You might be a person having a shit life. It’s not your fault. You might have even done some shitty things. Everyone does shitty things. You’re normal. Let it go. <3

    Sweep away the junk and make room for better things to grow in the future.

    ~

    There are many other ways of coping that I’ve found helpful, and which you’ll hear suggested elsewhere. Letter writing, for instance. Journaling. Gardening. Crochet. Obviously I enjoy all of these things too. But personally, I found I couldn’t make use of those things as coping methods reliably until I took care of the big ones above. I had to reorganize my life into something where I fell into the embrace of my loved ones more easily before anything else really took root.

    Whatever coping methods you use, just make sure they serve *you*. You’ll know it’s healthy when it helps connect you to more humans and doesn’t isolate you. It’s also good when it helps you express yourself and process everything you’re going through.

    Resist the allure of coping methods that “turn off” your feelings regularly, isolate you, or cause any kind of damage to yourself or community. I am a huge fan of destructive coping, so I get the idea might be offensive, but but trust me on this one. You don’t have to feel like this.

  • essays,  movie reviews

    The John Experiment (2023) – Colors as a Visual Language

    I was invited to view The John Experiment by its co-creator and voice of IVY, Lux Karpov Kinrade. As one half of publishing and marriage duo Karpov Kinrade, Lux has a great many talents to her name: many books, a USA Today Bestselling author title, a romance game on the Dorian app, and an inclination toward illustration. Bear in mind this is only skimming the surface of this particular artist’s interests based on my rugged research (citation: “paying attention to Facebook for a few months”).

    We’ve been acquainted with one another for a while since we’re both SFF-loving indie authors of a similar “generation.” A similar interest in movies only recently came to my attention when Lux began posting about her film festival experiences and I started posting movie reviews. Turns out we’re both obsessives about a lotta similar things.

    So when she asked if I wanted to watch her movie, my tits got real jacked.

    To my pleasure, “The John Experiment” is a short film that invites interpretation–my favorite kind. I adore it when I get to watch something and then be Extremely Opinionated About What It Really Means. Hence, I decided to write an analysis of the film before asking Lux Karpov Kinrade anything about it in the style of my usual reviews.

    Spoilers for The John Experiment from this point onward. (All images credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade.)


    Be aware: STROBE WARNING. The John Experiment contains explicit on-screen death by suicide. Themes of death and possible implied child abuse.

    In a focused fifteen minutes of film, The John Experiment takes us from an apparent thought experiment (can hot-button tech like AI help us heal from grief?) into a metaphoric space of punishment (do you deserve to heal from grief?).

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    John is looking happier already!

    John is doing therapy in a sparse red room, like a studio apartment stripped of personality. He spends much of his time in bed. When he’s not in bed, he’s at his laptop at a small white table. The only method of physical interaction with the outside world is an unremarkable white cabinet. From this cabinet, John can retrieve his coffee or expel bodily waste. These things are cared for by IVY, an AI character voiced by Lux Karpov-Kinrade.

    Also, John seems to be trying to write an email to his wife, and it’s not going great.credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade

    Ostensibly, the purpose of John and disembodied IVY semi-coexisting is for IVY to help John overcome his grief. The email changes throughout the course of the film as John begins to accept his own role in a baby’s death. He stops blaming his wife as much.

    Eventually, John even admits he should have checked on the baby instead of watching football.

    If that was the point of IVY and the red room, I guess that would be the end of the movie, huh?

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    John does not feel better.

    Unfortunately John is still trapped. Initially it’s not clear whether he’s suffering from psychosis or not–is there really a baby crying?–and his distress rises as he should be healing.

    Maybe John isn’t telling the whole truth to himself, to his wife, or to the audience.

    The room isn’t getting smaller, but it’s getting “smaller” as he realizes how little control he has over the situation.

    The white cabinet permitting ingress and egress of Things to John’s room is not there for him, and exiting the room is simply not an option. John wants to go home to his wife.

    IVY says, “I’m sorry Hal, but I can’t do that,” or something to that effect. He signed a contract.

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    “Of course I didn’t read the EULA! Nobody reads the EULA!”

    The therapeutic room changes in increasingly distressing ways. John cannot access the internet to talk to his wife anymore. There’s a new picture in the room: a red circle upon a white field, bold and accusatory, and here to tell half of the story with its abstract form.

    Why is such a red circle so upsetting to John?

    Why is John’s room so red?

    Hey, let’s take a look back to his video chat with his wife, Ana, at the beginning of the movie.

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    One of the blue things in this film is the room Ana chats from. Also, Joe’s mug.

    These two were permitted one conversation, where Ana begged for John to get out of the program. She was bothered by how little he was allowed to take in, and even more so, how he doesn’t seem allowed “out.”

    Initially, John is not so terribly bothered being trapped in the red room.

    He still has comforting sources of blue refuge: video chat with his wife, his mug, the bedspread under which he is usually lying to do therapy, and parts of the painting. Anything signaling comfort is blue. Blue is hope and peace in Western color theory, and this applies to John’s world.

    But there is that damn red dot painting.credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade

    It’s like the redness of it all doesn’t want John to find refuge. It wants him to see that he is in the red place.

    The red dot upon white can be emblematic of so many things: The nipple a baby nurses upon, the roundness of a pregnant belly, the sphere of a newborn’s head. In Western culture, red is often hostile and angry. It is a bloody evocation of John’s sins.

    Because as we established, if this was a therapeutic environment, he would have probably already made enough progress to leave.

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    The blue sweater, blue jeans, and blue bedspread are no longer comforting, but cold and deathly.

    If John is in Hell, communicating with Ana in Heaven, we could read deeper meaning into this than parental neglect. John’s fury over a crying baby could be the normal frustration of a sleepless parent, the pain of a grieving parent, or a sign that this man gets *real* angry when he hears a baby cry.

    Though the size of John’s grief could belong to anyone struggling, the heightened emotional state in the end, and Ana’s position in a “blue place,” suggest a family annihilation to me. That red dot is the bloody thumbprint of his legacy, and he will never reconcile his actions enough to exit that red room.

    ~

    The John Experiment is supported primarily by a compelling, human performance by Evan Gaustad as John. This movie was produced, directed and written by Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade. This was an Official Selection at the LA Sci Fi Film Festival.

    Lux assures me this film will be available for streaming once it leaves the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for future updates.

  • Art by Sara
    essays,  movie reviews

    Exploiting Pretty Queerness in Single All the Way

    First off, I just want to say, I love Single All the Way. I could sum it up by saying that it’s the most wholesome commercial for a gig work app featuring gay guys, and actually mean it in a nice way. (Sometimes commercials are great. Have you seen Long Long Man?)

    I review a movie for the first time mostly based on how much I like it. It’s hard to dislike Single All the Way. You must be a Grinch who is somehow immune to Jennifer Coolidge’s cleavage or something.

    Always, I narrow the scope of reviews because I could say a lot about most projects. The writing alone could gives room to discuss themes, subplots, craft, tropes; I also really love visual art and could talk a lot about that too. The music, the actors, the movie in its time-and-place… I usually just pick one to elaborate on, or I brush over a couple.

    But I’m someone who loves rewatching movies into the ground because it’s fun to think about all those things! Focusing on music cues and sound design on one watch can be so educational. Editing always deserves a close eye.  I’ll rewatch a movie until I run out of angles to think about it, basically.

    I just rewatched Single All the Way. My opinions from the first review hold strong: it’s genuinely wonderful.

    Yet there is something itchy like an ugly wool Christmas sweater if you look too long at Single All the Way, and that reaction is also worth exploring.

    ~

    Please note my rants get spicy because I’m a rowdy human, but if you love Single All the Way, I’m not saying anything about you by criticizing it. Taste is deeply personal. You know your relationship with any given project; you know you’re not being like a fascist or whatever by just enjoying guys in sweaters. I know this too.

    Also, almost no single movie is a cause of massive societal harm, but rather a small symptom of a greater culture, a single voice in a choir, or even a shard of a great shattered mirror that slices us to bloody shards even while showing us our own beauty. I will criticize movies for what they do while also respecting the difficulty of a complex art made by people just trying to work in a difficult world.

    Still, I think criticism is healthy, so I focus it upon the ideas that a project summons with its existence. I hope you’ll get rowdy with me about these ideas, and hold them with exactly the importance they deserve: very ephemeral ideas from some writer on the internet.

    Let’s have fun here, but let’s be super honest.

    ~

    Single All the Way is kind of a hellhole abomination and gay people have every right to loathe it.

    Where the hell was the funding for this? You can’t tell me that some CEO couldn’t gave farted out some cash for this project. Netflix is always using its money in stupid ways. Give all your stupid money to the gays, Netflix.

    Forcing us to watch a Task Rabbit commercial to get gay guys?

    Especially when gig work is so deeply exploitative? (I didn’t see recent articles about the app, but their history isn’t great, as you would expect.) (Salon)

    Is this where we remain as a society, where cute romances about gay guys can only get funding if they’re bland enough to be worthy of advertising some polished capitalist turd?

    Like yeah. (Associated Press)

    I guess we are still here. (New York Public Library)

    ~

    Being conventionally attractive and economically secure demands a variety of enrollments into cisheteronormative patriarchy that is hostile to the queer community. I apologize for being awkwardly multisyllabic. Please imagine that sentence roared in a monster-voice to help set the tone appropriately.

    Standards of beauty are strongly tied to culture. Conventional attractiveness is a combination of youth, time and money investment into beauty rituals, and myriad other transient privileges. “Good genetics” don’t really matter. Models look weird as heck! But in a nice way, obviously.

    This investment into being attractive is so expensive.

    A greater proportion of queer people are disabled than with those who are straight. (LGBTmap – link is a PDF) (HRC)

    A greater proportion of queer people are unhoused and have lower socioeconomic status. (APA – link is a PDF)

    Conventional beauty is work that a lot of queer people can’t perform, or aren’t willing to perform, and queer beauty is often fully rejected by straight people. A gender binary enforces rigid dimorphism based on assumed sex. Drag queens are conditionally accepted because we love clowns (Tumblr), but we are still extending generosity to people putting vigorous effort into looking great. This vigorous effort to appeal to narrow beauty standards can hurt. (CNBC)

    *Cost* of beauty isn’t the only connection to work. Meeting beauty standards is an important safety mechanism when ninety percent of trans workers reported harassment at work. (American Progress – link is a PDF)

    In capitalism, you are not enfranchised unless you are working and earning money. This has gotten even harder for marginalized groups, including queer people, since the beginning of COVID. (Rutgers) America tangos with fascism (Lawyers, Guns, & Money) so overt that even your elderly neighbor with the Hillary 2016 flag noticed, so we know that these precarious situations are at risk of worsening.

    It’s interesting to know that fascism loves beauty. (Open Democracy)

    ~

    The beauty of queerness is how it is a sprawling, eldritch thing, encompassing everything about the experience of Being a Human outside of the center stripe of societal convention. Queers can be pretty and rich, but oh, how many of us are? How many of us ooze? How many of us are covered in hair and bruises? How many live out of bank accounts with all red numbers? How many more aren’t getting nearly the medical care they need, and smile their beautiful smiles around broken teeth, batting triple rows of stick-on eyelashes and acting fabulous no matter how crappy they feel? How many queer people have just straight up fucking died because our world hates them so much?

    We don’t need to see this stuff when we’re in a Christmas movie mood, necessarily, but do we really have to watch *this* much sponcon to get the scraps they’ve tossed our way?

    ~

    Who exactly is benefiting from the representation in this movie?

    This is a big world, so it’s safe to say that a good number of queer people feel close to this experience…but not a big number.

    I think there are plenty of families (with or without queers) who like Christmas movies and enjoy having better representation on their screens, which has nonzero value.

    But mostly, the beneficiary is TaskRabbit and Netflix. (Vox)

    I’m sure TaskRabbit enjoys an aura of inclusivity among its target demographic. Given that one of the gay leads is actually taking on this gig work, one might wonder if this is more a recruitment ad than a sales pitch to consumers. “We know you’re broke,” they say. “Let us exploit your labor.”

    The genre is usually disinterested in the reality of socioeconomics (and fairly so), but it feels far more conspicuous when a vulnerable population is given such a glossy once-over for the benefit of a late-stage capitalist monstrosity. (Economic Policy Institute)

    ~

    Queers deserve access to escapist fantasies about love and hope, which is the point of the holiday romcom genre.

    And representation matters for so many reasons. A conservative state will not radically transform overnight, and in the meantime, queers deserve to see themselves in every situation, no matter how imperfect the reflection. The hope we feel when we watch this — for those of us who can get hope out of it — can help get through to the next fight in the generations-long work for progress.

    I especially like how representation in Single All The Way might help shift the Overton Window for nice-but-conservative old white ladies who will never watch, say, Queer as Folk (YouTube), but might watch a Hallmark-like movie and think, “Love is love and this is very cute.”

    But I’ve seen folks revolted by Single All the Way, and if you sit with that feeling a minute, it’s easy to see it in a totally different light.

    We can celebrate our cute representation but remain discontent and ungrateful. We can’t ever stop expecting better because it’s easy for the world to be dreadful, and honestly, we’re still a long way off from doing right by all our neighbors.

    Now where’s my fat disabled dyke romcom? If this exists, sincerely, please tell me yesterday, because I want to be wrong about missing this representation *so much*.

  • a dog with 3d glasses. he's sooo cute
    essays

    Criticism Is Dead, Long Live Romance

    Earlier I wrote a mini-vent on Facebook. That little diddy went like this.

    Gotta say, it’s really disappointing to go on Letterboxd and see all the bad reviews that romcoms get. Even the better-starred reviews seem self-conscious for enjoying comedies.

    There’s a lot of movie culture that thinks simply disliking things is criticism. Let me tell you: It is not.

    You are allowed to dislike things of course, that’s fine, your reaction is your reaction and very valid.

    But criticism involves looking at a piece of media in its time and place. It means looking at its intentions. It means looking at all the artists involved and seeing how they were managed, how they were allowed to perform. What is it saying? What are the themes?

    Sometimes criticism involves *research* at some point or another, because only some of that information is visible within the movie. If you don’t know what the cinematic and cultural and political landscape was in 1995, or what 1992/3/4 comedies led into the comedies of 1995, your criticism isn’t going to be able to meet the media on its level, you know?

    I often criticize movies for being bad, but I love them. And I often hate movies that I think are critically fine. There exists within me a two-axis formation of opinions allowing for nuance that I don’t see on Letterboxd much! Or frankly, anywhere.

    Literacy is grim, y’all.

    “Literacy is grim” is one of my favorite refrains, and sometimes I might say it like “literacy is grim THESE DAYS” as if there was a period of time where people were overwhelmingly literate.

    That mythical time probably doesn’t exist, which means I’m exasperated with whole generations of humanity, and humanity didn’t really have a choice.

    It’s really not like there used to be whole swaths of General Populace who were given the kind of language & literature education you need in order to be able to “read” things critically. People who had an abundance of books and the time to read them until the point where they Understand Things and can see the whole meta level.

    I’ve got the time. I’ve got the abundance of books. And then I get annoyed that other people dare to Read Things Wrong.

    So I do recognize that this is coming from a grumpy privileged place.

    ~

    Years ago, Goodreads became a bane of many authors because it grew an outrage culture, which smothered any beginnings of an actual critical culture. (It might still be like that, but I disconnected.)

    YouTube is very predatory with its outrage culture, too, especially in terms of misogyny, which means that romcoms aren’t likely to get a fair shake.

    Letterboxd doesn’t have an algorithm, per se, and thus does not push any reviews in front of anyone. But the biggest users tend to bring their own followings in from elsewhere. If the big reviewers are coming in from YouTube…yeah.

    Even the less-outragey reviews might say, “The script is so bad and predictable,” not realizing that in most commercial genres of movie, a predictable script is kinda like a foundation you build a house on. Nobody’s really looking at the foundation, you know?

    ~

    Also, you would think people might be able to recognize a movie/tv show has a lot more than a screenwriter at work.

    You have the writer who does the screenplay, of course. (Or many writers.)

    The director writes things, too.

    They do a lot of the big picture stuff, arm-in-arm with a cinematographer who sets up the shots to fulfill the director’s dream.

    An actor is a character super-specialist who adds nuance to the story.

    My favorite writer on movies is actually the editor. The pacing of a movie is one of those things that is hard to put a finger on, but a few frames cut off here and there can radically change tone. A generous editor can save a bad acting performance by cutting it right. An incompetent editor can ruin a movie that is otherwise excellent.

    It takes a whole symphony of writers to pull off a good movie.

    So if you don’t like the “predictable” writing you might find in romance, then why aren’t you looking at the work these other storytellers did? Is there really nothing there for you?

    ~

    Sometimes the answer to that last question is actually yes. Or there’s the fact that someone dropped the ball so hard, you can’t enjoy anything else about it.

    Now we’re getting into criticism because we know *why* we have bad feelings about something.

    We have expectations for the movie. The movie has expectations for itself. A bar is set, somewhere, and you have to be able to see where the bar is to know when someone doesn’t step over it.

    ~

    What’s funny is that if people actually learned to do criticism, they might realize the reason they disliked that romcom is because they aren’t getting anything out of commercial genres right now. Maybe they just aren’t in a place to enjoy something that involves predictable tropes. That’s going to rule out a lot of stuff, but I totally get it.

    Maybe people would keep their blood pressure down and feel way less outraged if they understood things and could better navigate their media environment.

    (But then where would the clicks come from?)

    ~

    The frustrating thing is that any amount of criticism has become treated as hostile by people who wanna actually enjoy stuff.

    Criticism now has the aroma of the negativity from outrage culture.

    If you don’t like it, don’t talk about it.

    Right?

    That sounds like a really great way to kneecap culture to me. Critical response flexes muscles to maintain and further grow our literacy; critical response also shapes the culture that creates the art that comes next.

    Right now, in left-leaning spaces, the criticism I see permitted is…outrage criticism! I came across a reviewer on Letterboxd earlier who uses movies as a platform to eviscerate the morality of capitalism, on a big scale that the movie really has nothing to do with. Does it sound like I’m talking about myself? Well, when I tell you this individual surprised me, maybe that should tell you what a breathtaking wall of text I saw taking out all their anarchist rage on warmly nothingburger Single All the Way.

    It’s indeed okay to criticize things for being amoral, racist, fascist-supporting, etc. You can generally find plenty of things in the creator lens to reinforce your standpoint.

    But let me tell you, if you get tripped up on that part of the analysis, you’re missing literally *everything else* about the art. Bad morals in the society that literally made the movie you’re watching doesn’t invalidate the fact some skilled artists are in there, and their work is deserving of recognition.

    Leftists are certainly not immune to the allure of an algorithm boosting them for their outrage, though.

    That kind of algorithm-fueling reaction both misses the point and deprives the community of quality criticism. Reading well-considered reviews of other work helps all artists get better.

    ~

    It’s probably not going to change any time soon, tbh.

    Public education in my country is being attacked, including broad book bans, which makes it harder for such necessary development to happen.

    The internet is increasingly limited. It feels like a lot of net neutrality is a distant dream. All the big sites people go on have narrow algorithms that show you whatever pleases that algorithm, and as far as I know, outrage will be evergreen in algorithmic engagement.

    This is a cyberpunk dystopia all right.

    Thank the gods we’ve got romcoms in such a bleak world.

    ~

    Romance in books and movies isn’t actually defined by the central couple falling in love and kissing. That’s why a lot of stuff that ends up listed as romance isn’t actually Romance, yet why it’s hard to explain the difference.

    An HEA (like seeing the couple having a baby at the end of Four Christmases) or an HFN (like at the end of The Holiday) is required, but even the presence of an HEA/HFN may not make something feel like romance.

    Romance is about the healing ability of love and hope. (I’m going to talk about mostly romantic stories here, not romance in contemporary fiction, because it’s really complicated and dark romance exists and I’m just not as literate in that area.)

    In much the way horror is supposed to make you scared/sad/excited, and comedy should make you laugh at some point, romance usually makes you feel better. The story believes that love can make everything work out, somehow. There’s often a wish fulfillment element. You step into the fantasy that everything can be all right and truly believe it.

    Something may also have a lot of the tropes of romcom (like My Best Friend’s Wedding) but lack in hope completely. There’s an HEA between one couple, but the heroine has to obliterate herself in a wildly unhealthy relationship to do it. You’ve Got Mail is truly a romcom, but it’s one that feels askew because the heroine loses so much and never gains it back.

    Something like Last Holiday feels like a romcom even though the plot is almost exclusively about the heroine’s solo emotional journey because it is drenched in hope.

    ~

    Why does that matter?

    If you take a step back to look at the role storytelling plays in the whole existence of humanity, you gotta think it’s necessary to our survival in some way…right? We’ve been doing storytelling since the very beginning.

    It’s a great way to communicate information with one another. Some of our oldest known fiction is just writing down parables passed down from generations through oral tradition. We’ve been teaching with stories for as long as we’ve been telling them. Our ability to network human knowledge in such a way is absolutely intrinsic to our survival.

    That hasn’t really changed.

    Stories now may be commodified up the wazoo, and we increasingly rely on information storage outside of ourselves, but we’re still communicating something important to our survival by telling stories.

    Hope helps people survive.

    If you don’t think there’s a chance things can get better, you won’t try to make it better.

    And the only way it gets better is if you try.

    Romance gives us something to feel hopeful about, and it gives us a mental playground where we believe things will improve. That alone is enough.

    When you’re hurting, a story modeling hope can be like a bandaid and a kiss on the forehead.

    We need to be reminded that life isn’t just the hurting parts.

    Critical killjoys don’t want to engage with the role that romance plays in modeling that kind of happiness, but that doesn’t change the fact that romance is doing it anyway. The whole genre is just sitting there, waiting to embrace you on a bad day.

    You can keep scoffing at it because it reminds you of your aunt sitting around watching Hallmark all Thanksgiving weekend, but maybe someday you’re going to want to remember your aunt, and Thanksgiving, and the times you were in the same place together, and those stories of hope will remind you that good things can indeed happen again.

    Romance keeps us going until we reach the better tomorrow, which is waiting for us. I’m pretty sure we’ll get there if we drop everything to race across this bridge and confess our love to the woman we fell in love with in Paris.