Drink, drugs, dreamers, and David Bowie.
I crashed hard in the week since the article on My Top 50 Songs of 2016 was filed (two days before it went up, for the record). Up until that point, I thought things were going great. I’d made it through December and the accompanying Holiday Season with only brief flashes of misery or that creeping malaise that always knocks me on my arse. I was running about doing a whole bunch of stuff at all times, I was out seeing old friends, I was writing a near-unbroken 3-week streak of new articles, properly lengthy new articles at that. The new anti-depressants I had been (and still am) taking had burned through their “insomnia” phase and now appeared to be taking the worst of my crushing-depressive spouts off of me. Sure, I couldn’t cry anymore, which is something I value greatly and especially since I really only ever cry at media rather than my own life, but that’s a small price to pay for getting some semblance of passion back again!
Then the crash happened. Initially, it began just as a brief break from working, a chance to sit down and play DOOM like I’d complained about wanting to do in many of my articles penned before the crash. But then a combination of a trio of minor and insignificant things – an unprompted phone call from my uni’s career service, my brother continuing to act like I simply don’t exist, and the ever-present difficulty of getting friends to respond to my requests to just chat – conspired to bring everything crashing back down again. I’m really bad at this, at letting tiny and relatively insignificant things wreck me totally. They always reawaken that crippling self-loathing and arguable-catastrophising that send me spiralling to the point where I’ll spend a day laying on my bed doing absolutely nothing until, before I know it, it’s night-time again. Where I’ll ruminate on just how isolated and lonely I feel, how all of my progress feels negligible with days bleeding into one another, where I’ll ask myself why I bother to keep on existing when there’s little here to incentivise my doing so.
This round coincided with a new kind of insomnia that I’m currently attributing to the anti-depressants. Whereas before I just couldn’t sleep, now I sleep but with such a roughness that I may as well have spent all night pouring sawdust into my eyes. I’ve been dreaming a lot more since I started taking these pills. Dreaming is a warning sign for me anyway, because my dreams have always been weird and a little unsettling, but this latest batch have been something worse. A lot of the most negative and deep-rooted thoughts and feelings that I used to have prior to taking these pills, and that I hadn’t given much thought to during that month where things seemed good, appear to have banished themselves to my subconscious, so each night they take form in these vivid, endless-seeming, memory-associative nightmares. They base themselves around friends, family, media, and whatever fears and deep-seated issues I have that they can attach to those aforementioned pillars, and the results stick with me long after I wake up. I’m gonna refrain from detailing any of them on here because they’re too heavy and uncomfortable for me to share in a public forum, and the last thing I want is for any of you to worry about me, but rest assured that they’re bad.
Having given this some thought, I think I have come to the assumption that I can only really avoid these spectacular crashes and live something close to a “happy” life if I am busy all of the time. That means working all of the time, or writing all of the time, or socialising all of the time, or always being in the vicinity of physical people all of the time; otherwise I find it too easy to see this hole that I am currently in as endless and inescapable. This assumption does not fill me with joy, in fact I fear that it’s unhealthy. That the only way I can minimise the risk of these “episodes” is to work all day, every day, or to force people to hang out with me either all of the time or enough of the time that it’s not an issue. The former is near-impossible, since we all need breaks, and would inevitably lead to me having to give up this (writing) again because of tiredness and an intentional smothering of free time. The latter, meanwhile, is needy at best, and at worst is asking other people to put their lives on some kind of hold for me for nothing in return. You can hopefully see why I feel incredibly shitty about this breakthrough.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Labyrinth (Saturday 14th)
Dir: Jim Henson
No, really. I had never seen Labyrinth prior to last Saturday. As a child, I adored The Muppets, the visual stylings of Jim Henson, the works of Monty Python, and (as my teenage years encroached and to a lesser degree at the time) David Bowie, yet I had somehow never seen Labyrinth. Hell, I don’t think I’d even heard of it until a few years ago! If you’re reading this now with a look of pure incomprehension, then that makes two of us, particularly since my Dad revealed just before I went to this special cinema screening that he is a huge fan of the film. Plus, to make things worse, I did in fact have this on my watch-list ever since Bowie’s death and just never got around to watching it – I can take a long while to get around to watching stuff I say that I’m going to watch, in all honesty. So, yeah, I am ashamed of how long it took for me to see Labyrinth, particularly since, after having finally seen it, I feel like my childhood was legitimately deprived by my not having done so.
My reasons for loving Labyrinth are primarily twofold. The first is the film’s utterly magnificent visual design. Henson was always a master of puppetry and set designs, to a degree still largely unmatched by today’s designers and 9-figure computer-aided budgets, but even by his standards Labyrinth is a visual tour-de-force. There’s obviously a lot of influences taken from Medieval folk-tales and early-19th Century Fairy Tales, but Henson and his team seem to be using this film as something almost akin to a free space where they can indulge all of their wildest imaginations and ideas without risk, yet it still feels like a cohesive living world that’s effortless to get lost in. I was so in awe of this film’s visual designs and special effects that I barely paid attention to David Bowie’s crotch, which itself was MAGNIFICENT.
The other reason why I love Labyrinth is just how sincere and earnest the film is. All of Henson’s works are sweetly campy in a completely earnest and unashamed way, it’s arguably the reason why The Muppets have floundered in the 21st Century – less due to The Muppets themselves (although we do not talk about their 2000s output), more due to the world and generation around them turning more cynical and mistaking earnest sincerity for stupid childishness – and its fully prominent here in Labyrinth too. It has its moments where it draws a slight attention to the tropes of Morality Play Fantasy tales, but for the most part it plays the whole thing straight and that abundance of heart and joy is near-impossible to not be won over by. (Keep that last observation in mind, it’s gonna explain my love for another film in this article in a moment.) Seriously, I feel robbed for not having seen this as a child, and the knowledge that my first viewing of it was on a nice big cinema screen is only bringing me mild comfort!
Live by Night (Saturday 14th)
Dir: Ben Affleck
Watching Live by Night is to watch a film in real-time announce to you that you’re about to waste 2 hours watching something with great potential actively refuse to embrace any of it. Much of this is down to the fact that it is trying to do way, way, way too goddamn much within too short an available timeframe. There are tonnes of characters running about the place, all with various relationships to Joe (Ben Affleck), with potential backstories and subplots and conflicts, but the film bumps each of them off at random, barely shading any of its cast outside of Joe beyond a brief descriptor of how they relate to one another. And each of these different plots carry different tones and themes – there’s a revenge plot “tying” everything together, plus squabbles with the Irish and Italian mobs, Joe’s attempt to take the illegal mob business straight, evangelicals, the KKK, interracial relationships, and lots more – that the film can’t do any semblance of justice to because it simply doesn’t have the time. Resultantly, the film ends up as little more than an empty Scorsese homage with Affleck playing The World’s Nicest Gangster; he even gives himself a big speech denouncing White Supremacy, for crying out loud!
In a way, I wish Live by Night were poorly or, at least, trashily made. If it embraced its pulpy nature more, then it could have at least been a ridiculous blast, cos boy does this movie ever get absolutely ridiculous at points – I actually burst out in laughter at the ending, because it comes out of nowhere and is just so damn silly. Affleck is too competent a director for that, however, so the film we get has a few great individual scenes and solid direction, enough to give off the veneer of Serious Filmmaking but not enough to sufficiently paper over the gaping hole in its centre. It’s decent watching, but it can’t escape the nagging feeling that one’s time would be better spent doing anything else. It’s like watching all 5 seasons of Boardwalk Empire at 10x speed, and I really can’t help but think that this would have been far better suited to being a television series; I can even point out the exact moments an episode cliffhanger would occur if it were one. Elle Fanning is damn great, though. One day she’s going to star in an actually-great film and she will be a revelation in it.
La La Land (Saturday 14th)
Dir: Damien Chazelle
La La Land is not perfect, not in the slightest. One could even say that it is heavily-flawed and be totally correct in that statement. It gets more than a little aimless around the Summer mark, in fact I’d argue that it should have had an actual Intermission at the end of Spring as doing so would have worked wonders for the pacing. It throws its all behind the two main characters and doesn’t bother to craft any semblance of a supporting cast to back them up, rather like Whiplash but without that film’s Psychological Drama excuse for not doing so. Gosling and Stone mostly – MOSTLY, Stone absolutely kills her final number, and thank God that she does – are just OK singers, which takes a bit of the shine off of what is supposed to be a hyper-faithful recreation of Golden Age Hollywood Musicals. And there are definitely a lot of unintended White Saviour/Focus undercurrents that run throughout the film that especially do not fly in 2017.
But… I had a huge smile on my face and a soaring feeling in my heart from pretty much start to finish. I adore La La Land, absolutely adore it, warts and all. It’s a completely sincere, kind-hearted, and beautiful love letter to dreaming, risk-taking, love, hope, creativity, connection, music, life, made with pure passion, almost no cynicism, and a willingness to look goofy without a single care as to what anybody else thinks. (This seemed to be a stickler to the audience at my screening, who I could hear giggling and mocking during the more elaborate songs and dances, as if they were completely unaware of what goddamn movie they had paid money to see.) That joy, that passion, that optimistic hope radiates from every single frame, and I couldn’t help but be won over. With the mood and life I’d had in the days (or even year) leading up to seeing La La Land, I needed that kind of pure-intentioned heartfelt joy, and La La Land was all too happy to oblige, which I cannot thank it enough for.
Plus, the “I Ran” joke is instantly one of my favourite musical gags ever. This film was basically made for me.
Trainspotting (Tuesday 17th)
Dir: Danny Boyle
I could watch Trainspotting every day for a month and never tire of it. The day after I watched it again in the cinema for its special anniversary re-release, I put on my Blu-Ray at home to watch the “Memories of Trainspotting” bonus feature, then found myself re-watching the entire opening sequence again before forcibly stopping because I knew, for a fact, that I would just watch the entire film if it kept on going. Trainspotting is one of my favourite films of all-time. In fact, more than that, it’s one of the most important films I’ve ever seen, on a personal level. It’s the film that first introduced me to Danny Boyle, who would go on to become one of my favourite directors. It was one of the first films to introduce me to the power of a perfectly timed music cue. It was also one of my first properly adult films that wasn’t in the form of a British Rom-Com of some description. And it was the film that convinced me immediately to never, ever take drugs. As that list should probably tell you, Trainspotting was one of those vital films that deeply influenced the person whose words you’re reading right now today.
Even now, something close to 12 years after first seeing it, I still find new things to admire in it or particulars that I didn’t get from a prior watch, especially since my last viewing of the film was just before I started university 3 years back. For example, having read up on Robert Carlyle’s interpretation of Begbie being a deeply closeted and self-loathing homosexual, which in turn bled quietly into his snarling performance, really adds an extra menacing undercurrent to many of the character’s scenes, particularly once Begbie tracks down Renton in London and forcibly moves in with him. Another: Boyle mentions in the “Memories of Trainspotting” that himself and screenwriter John Hodge were emboldened to be so liberal with the narration that is so vital to the flow and tone of the movie as a result of watching Goodfellas, a fact that makes the style and speed and subtle nudging towards the “correct” interpretation without ever being overly explicit of Boyle’s direction even more understandable – Trainspotting is Goodfellas but for drug addicts.
I think that’s why it caught on with the public so totally, which may also explain why a lot of British film is in a sort of rut at the moment. It’s unafraid to be fun. This is serious subject matter and the film does get bleaker and bleaker the further on it goes, but it also dares to show the allure of the lifestyle, to show why those Working Class members of the drug community in the UK during the mid-90s did it. The film doesn’t butt in constantly to moralise and sermonise and drown itself in the same grim-and-gritty Serious Filmmaking that characterises so much of British drama (both theatrical and televised), it instead recognises that audiences are smart enough to grasp the consequences when they crop up without having to bash them over the head. And I think it’s that lack of condescension, that willingness to be fun in the way that most British Drama feels scared to be, and its nailing of that hopeless Working Class malaise of the mid-90s that caused Trainspotting to become the phenomenon that it is, in addition to just being near-flawlessly constructed and blessed with one of the best screenplays I personally have ever come across.
So, before we move on, allow me to briefly address the inbound T2. I am still excited, and I am still hopeful, despite all prior evidence of how these things usually go yelling at me to lower them through the floor and expect the worst. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t need T2 to be amazing. It can’t match the original Trainspotting, that’s a simple fact, it just cannot, not in the way that Trainspotting tapped into popular culture and popular sentiment in the mid-90s and not in the way that it smashed into me at age 10, and to expect it to is to be setting the film up to fail immediately. So, no, I don’t need T2 to be amazing. Hell, arguably, I don’t even need it to be great. I just need it to be good. That’s all I am asking for: good. To be able to walk out of that cinema on Saturday night with Irvine Welsh super-fan Lucy, and for us to be able to turn to one another and confidently state that the film was good. Trainspotting is not going anywhere, and it cannot be tainted in any way, so all I need T2 to be is good. If it can do that, I’ll be satisfied. Bring on Saturday.
xXx (Friday 20th)
Dir: Rob Cohen
So, I expected to full-on hate this. To find it repellently juvenile and masculine or, worse, mind-numbingly boring. I fully expected to just hate this. But, truthfully, I enjoyed xXx, both for the stupid movie that it’s trying to be, and for the STUPID movie that it is completely oblivious to being. Cos, err, yeah, this movie is super fucking stupid and the most 2002 thing to ever 2002. In the first 10 minutes alone you are treated to: a Rammstein concert, a Bond expy being brutally shot in the head, a Californian Senator who wants to ban Rap music and Video Games having his expensive car stolen by Vin Diesel (whom he assumes is Mexican cos why not also throw “flagrant racist” onto his list of crimes), Vin Diesel proclaiming that said Video Games are “the only education we [the kids] got, man” with full sincerity, and the bridge jump from Fast Five with “Bodies” by Drowning Pool blaring at full volume. Those are the first 10 minutes.
Yeah, it’s not “good,” do not ever mistake it for “good,” but I had fun, both genuine and unintentional! Its whole existence is basically to middle-finger the whole concept of the Bond movies and how outdated they were for 2002, like a particularly petulant teenager who was caught by the Cool Kids watching cartoons and is desperately trying to prove that, nuh-uh, they totally weren’t cos that stuff is, like, totes hella lame, brah! Its plot makes basically no sense. Its acting is uniformly terrible, with an even worse porno-grade screenplay to go along with it. It uses the exact same scene transition 3 separate times in the space of 5 minutes! Vin Diesel gives an anti-smoking PSA before blowing up said smoker with a heat-seeking missile during the climax! The bad guy looks like Andy Serkis cosplaying as all 3 members of The Shield at once! xXx is pure nonsense, but I enjoyed watching it, nonetheless, which is what all Bad Movies should aspire towards.