Puppets, Powerline, parties, and passing the mic.
TW: depression talk, suicide references, antidepressant discussion.
Two months back, although it now feels way longer than that thanks to lockdown and dad’s accident, I got into a massive blowout argument with my mother about my desire to go back on antidepressants. I had been in a mental and physical slump post-1975 – excepting my finally getting to see Sleater-Kinney which was fantastic even without Janet and them not playing anything from The Hot Rock – of the kind I had already been in earlier this year and have been in varying instances of throughout my adult life. The kind of depressive rut where I cannot focus, can’t work up the energy to do anything at all even when I know that a certain thing would cheer me up, and spend basically the entire day in bed and am a drag to be around/talk to. You probably know the kind. (*best Logic impersonation* WHO CAN RELATE? WOO!) But this time it got me to thinking of the times in my life when these ruts were least prevalent, to consider what I could change within an environment that is largely out of my hands. I zeroed in on two specific productive spans in my post-uni life: mid-November 2016 to the start of March 2017, and May of 2019 through to mid-July of same.
The common thread linking them is that I was on antidepressants. The former period was supplemented by my being in therapy and the latter was supplemented by steady recurring work at a record shop, both of which providing much-needed weekly structure, but I also found my mind at the time to be a clearer and more helpfully focussed place which I can logically put down to being on antidepressants as a common denominator. They minimised the chaotic self-loathing maelstrom that is my daily thought process, blocking out the kinds of petrifying catastrophising existential thought-spirals about myself, my life’s direction and impending death my evil mind loves to fixate on, and making me, bluntly, functional for extended periods of time. I ended up coming off of both under medical advisement due to the recurrence of nasty side-effects – that first period threw up several disturbing dreams involving the suicides of myself and my friends; the second I had the kind of panic attack the pills were supposed to stop – but I expressed a willingness to keep trying others because I know that there is no one-size-fits-all to this treatment and you need to keep going until you find the one for you. But other than a few sporadic attempts, I have yet to stick with them, abandoning ship the second any side-effects appear.
Partly that’s due to my perpetual inability to see shit through to the end – I promise I’ll get back to We’re #2! eventually – but it’s largely due to my mother. I’m gradually becoming more convinced that my mother doesn’t actually want me to get better despite her insistence that she wants me to be happy and her often telling me how miserable my being miserable makes her. She is unshakeably convinced that my sole problem is that I refuse to let myself be happy and, as such, has been actively dismissive and vocally against much of my time in the mental health service. She was dismissive of my first extremely helpful therapist and took my eventual discharge from the programme as evidence of that fact. She poisoned the well against my second (honestly kinda terrible) therapist from the very start, feeding my scepticism in a way that on reflection led to me being far less receptive to his treatment (that is just as much on me and him as it was her though). And, most relevantly, she is dead-against me being on antidepressants. During that first period, even though I felt much better mentally and thought I was more personable and energetic, she constantly voiced her belief that I was doing much worse since starting them. I could feel her judgemental disdain every time I took them and her palpable relief when I came home from one therapy session with news that I had to stop taking them immediately. And in my on-and-off attempts at other pills, she would be the one at the forefront of going straight off of them the second a side-effect cropped up.
My mother is a nurse, by the way. Has been for 30 years, still is. But she is forcefully adamant and refuses to listen or understand me about this because, and I am not making this up, she believes my taking antidepressants will turn me into a burnout drug addict like the ones she has to deal with around A&E night after night. Once again, her unshakeable professional opinion (she has no psychology training) is that I just refuse to let myself be happy and that is all I need to do. She does have kind of a point – this specific argument occurred because I, for whatever stupid dumbass reason, decided to blow up what had been a really nice day beforehand by mentioning my desire to go back on antidepressants to her just before I went to bed, with her being stumbling-drunk as per usual, and my knowing in my gut exactly how telling her this fact would go – but that’s a symptom and not the complete problem. My broken Asperger’s brain is a nonstop barely-controllable gatling gun of thoughts and insecurities, most of them not in the least bit pretty, and that volley occurs damn-near every second of damn-near every single day, chipping away piece by piece at my ability to even remotely function. This is not something I cannot just turn off, that I can just let myself be happy. I need treatment to be able to function and, maybe, I need antidepressants for that treatment. I have explained this repeatedly to her for over five years.
But she doesn’t get it, she didn’t get it, and she seemingly never will get it. The blatant hypocrisy of insisting she will support and love me no matter what I am (she knows I’m biromantic) or what I do in life and then, not even a minute later, firmly refusing to allow me to do something I know can help me stated that loud and clear even before she pivoted the argument entirely to being about her and making me feel bad for feeling bad, ultimately resolving nothing. That night was when I decided I had to move to my dad’s once he’d finished the renovations he was working on, regardless of how difficult I had found it to relate or connect to him and my natural fear of change, because I couldn’t live any longer with someone who was so unwilling to help me get better. On a trip down to London the following Monday, I told my dad about the argument and my desire to go back on antidepressants and he was immediately supportive and ready to help, which was the most I’d felt connected to him in a long while. Four days later, he’d be in a coma and literally everything went so to shit that the whole thing’s been rendered moot anyway.
So’s we’re clear: no, I’m not currently on anything cos I’ve not heard anything from my GP or mental health specialists since the pandemic started. Also, my dad’s been awake for the past fortnight and is currently holding a “it is what it is and I have no regrets” to the whole “being most-likely permanently paralysed from the waist down due to racing motorbikes” thing so I once again feel completely disconnected and incapable of meaningfully relating to any member of my family, but that’s all for the next one of these. It’s fine. Everything’s great. I’m great.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
A Goofy Movie [Friday 24th]
Dir: Kevin Lima
First time rewatching this in at least 15 years, cos I had this on VHS but never upgraded to DVD once we junked all tapes, and what really stuck out to me now that I’m more versed in Disney history and animation was how much it looked like a… real movie? That’s obviously the completely wrong turn of phrase to utilise, but what I mean is that A Goofy Movie does not look like the reduced-budget spin-off of an early 90s concluded syndication cartoon series. The studio would do a number of these and their practices would end up being a precursor to the direct-to-video sequel/spin-off quagmire Disney would drown in from this point onwards, but Goofy looks close enough to the real deal of Disney’s canon. The character animations are more fluid and expressive than something like the Cinderella sequels, the colour palettes more vibrant and warmer than the Beauty and the Beast sequels, there’s even a genuine setpiece or two! Disney’s 90s spin-off cartoons… you could tell that they were operating on a heavily-reduced budget and having to cut corners whilst preserving the style of their more expensive theatrical source materials and the results were often stiff, faded, and a tad uncanny; none of which are labels you can apply to A Goofy Movie. Condescending, sure, but it really does look like a proper Disney film which is pleasantly surprising.
Outside of focussing on the production mechanics, I found the film to be pleasant but insubstantial. Not exactly bad, but a tad unfocussed and heavily reliant on that 90s sitcom thing where characters refuse to just talk to each other meaningfully because doing so would expose that the conflict isn’t all that deep or strong enough to power a whole narrative. So, everyone is forced to take the most extreme option possible at all times and nobody suffers any lasting consequences for their recklessness in a manner which undermines the story’s big dramatic beats. I can relate to the dynamic between Max and Goofy, I just wish that the screenplay did a better job of exploring it consistently rather than falling back on that easy standby “parents should learn to let go more and kids shouldn’t be so hard on their parents” and unrelated Bigfoot detours – often unresolved, too; how the film just cuts away entirely from both Bigfoot and the journey to L.A. instead of writing a solution to each is the main tell-tale that Goofy is working with more budget-conscious straight-to-video means. Still, given the complete drubbing my mental health has taken in the last few weeks, something pleasant but insubstantial is kinda just what I needed right then. It’s sweet, it’s mildly amusing, and Radio Disney Prince and the New Generation surprisingly slaps.
Beastie Boys Story [Saturday 25th]
Dir: Spike Jonze
Oh, I wanted to like this way more, especially as someone who has the Beasties on their own personal Top Five, cried when the news of MCA’s death broke, and still finds them three of the coolest motherfuckers to ever do it. But, whilst I will give credit to Spike Jonze and Adam Horowitz & Mike Diamond for trying something different conceptually from your typical music doc, the stage show set-up just does not translate well onto film. It saps the free-wheeling weirdo energy of the group’s music, that electric fun sensation of hearing three guys mucking around making each other laugh, and Adam & Mike are too buttoned-up and uncomfortable as, effectively, the synthesis between a stand-up comic and a TED Talk lecturer to keep the material from feeling stilted in delivery. The necessary sacrifice of having to squeeze the massive tangent-heavy Beastie Boys Book into a two-hour stage show also comes with the negative that a streamlining of the Beasties’ story ends up like, well, basically every other rise-and-fall-and-rise rock doc story, one that spends half the runtime on Licensed to Ill and skips their last three albums altogether to jump straight to Adam Yauch’s passing.
There is some good stuff here, primarily in the wide breadth of archival footage and images that are a treat to see in motion. The odd aside and ad-lib between Mike and Adam that properly lands does so because it demonstrates the kind of goofy in-joke looseness which made the Beasties so goddammed cool in the first place. And whilst the doc’s narrative follows the boilerplate structure, Adam and Mike refreshingly demonstrate a very candid self-reflection to pretty much everything they’ve done that’s great to see, most particularly their paying frequent justice to (and expressing regret over their treatment of) original member Kate Schellenbach. But nothing hits like it should and things eventually devolve into the same quickfire surface-level checklist of late-career accomplishments that all middling music docs end up doing. The last 20 minutes are a genuine sprint of “and then we made Ill Communication and then the ‘Sabotage’ vid and then we started Grand Royal and then reconnected with Kate and then Yauch’s apologia for our past misogyny and then Hello Nasty dropped and then NOTHING ELSE.”
Mostly, though… I think it’s missing Adam Yauch’s voice. I think it’s really missing Adam Yauch’s voice. Obviously, the sad fact of life is that there’s no way to get around his death, but I think his voice in archive material could’ve been more prominent rather than leaving it to Adam Horowitz and Mike-D to eulogise him the best they can. I get the impression that all of my issues with Beastie Boys Story would have been greatly reduced were I to have been there in person watching that show live, 10ft away from Adam & Mike with the accompanying rhapsodic atmosphere. But watching the film at home is kinda like watching back footage of a wake that you weren’t invited; that deflating distant melancholy sensation of something you really had to be there in order to understand.
The Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think [Sunday 26th]
Dir: Adam Smith
Finally managed to snag this on Blu-Ray for a surprisingly affordable price (£12 and still sealed) which means I now have one of the greatest concert films of all-time to hand and a Chemical Brothers live album (a slightly edited CD version of the set is included), both of which mean I don’t have to keep trawling YouTube several times a week when I need my live Chems fix! I already miss live music so goddamned much, although I am still sane enough to know that gigs should stay cancelled for a good long while with *gestures to everything* going on. Hell, at time of writing, My Chemical Romance still haven’t postponed or cancelled their Milton Keynes shows in June despite the very obvious fact that there is no way in hell they should go ahead which is giving me massive anxiety, let me tell you. Cos, like, with my whole immunocompromised being, I would rather not go and stand in a football field with 100,000-odd other people, but I’m also the lead ticket person for a few of my friends I don’t particularly want to screw over – not to mention, y’know, money for travel and accommodation and shit that I don’t want to book if the gig ain’t happening. Just cancel/postpone your shows, Gerard, for fuck’s sake!
EDIT: Almost exactly four hours after writing this diatribe, My Chem did actually announce the postponement of their UK shows to next year. This is definitely all my work and no-one else’s, you’re welcome.
…what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Don’t Think. It’s fantastic. I wrote in-depth about it and filming live music in general two years back, so go read that piece for legitimate thoughts. I did try doing this rewatch with a critical eye so you’d have something of substance to read, but by the time of “Three Little Birdies Down Beats” my brain went “dude, stop overthinking this, just switch off and enjoy cos you’re tired and need something good right now.” And I did and it was excellent.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot [Tuesday 28th]
Dir: Michael Cimino
Right, I mostly really liked this because of course I did – it’s a star-power buddy movie, made around the time of New Hollywood, and also a heist movie – but also this might be the most aggressively “NO HOMO” film I have watched in at least the last seven months. I know that depiction does not equal endorsement, so hot-tempered casually homophobic villains don’t inherently represent the views of the film overall, but Cimino’s screenplay seems to want to be a homoerotic love story between the titular leads (it’s the only way the ending carries a proper surprise punch) whilst actively pushing back against the subtext by loading up on gratuitous female nudity and leering camera shots, using Lightfoot’s fluid sexual expressions and intimacy as a shorthand for post-hippie youthful arrogance, and also much of the comedy in the final third coming from the image of Jeff Bridges in drag and its supposed inherent hilarity. None of this objectively drags the film down, and obviously 1974 was a vastly different less enlightened and less accepting time, but it’s just something that kept pulling my queer arse out of the good time I was otherwise having and I just wanted to note that.
Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges really should’ve done more films together, their chemistry in this is excellent.
The Great Gatsby [Wednesday 29th]
Dir: Baz Luhrmann
I always respect Baz Luhrmann for unashamedly and unreservedly going for it every single time he gets behind the camera, swinging big and taking gaudy chances that work just as often as they fall flat on their face. He has big ideas and radical takes on the material he tackles that actually sound surprisingly solid on paper; drowning Gatsby in Luhrmann’s trademark Moulin Rouge excess is honestly a pretty clever way to expose the hollowness of high society and the empty meaningless indulgence in Gatsby’s parties. He always gets committed performances out of his actors, sometimes genuinely great ones – as with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire (he’s actually really fucking good as Nick Carraway and I shall not stand for slander that claims otherwise), and Elizabeth Debicki here. His films are a sumptuous treat to look at, if nothing else the production design by Catherine Martin and set decoration by Beverly Dunn is staggering, and sometimes the Michael Bay music video approach to editing works… I just wish he were a better director so I could like his movies instead of just respecting them.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby is, bluntly, a hot mess that oscillates between being really genuinely compelling and an appallingly misguided garbage fire on a minute-to-minute basis entirely due to the man’s direction. The acting is consistently great. The visuals are largely fantastic even if Luhrmann overdoes it on the CGI cityscapes and his insistence on also applying that deliberately indulgent over-stylisation to everywhere outside of the West Egg (most egregiously the Valley of Ashes) turns New York as a whole into a cartoon that rather undermines what I believe is meant to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s true tragedy (I’ve not read Gatsby). Craig Armstrong’s score is no reservations fantastic. The film doesn’t shy away from or demean the homoerotic subtext between Gatsby and Carraway. All the pieces are there… and then Luhrmann shoots and arranges the whole thing exactly like his Romeo + Juliet adaptation.
Sometimes it works on a pure filmmaking level, there’s a melodramatic sweep to the narrative that is highly engrossing thanks to the raw elements making it up and some of the numerous party sequences slyly reveal a hollow centre that’s in keeping with the novel’s themes. Sometimes it fails because Luhrmann doesn’t seem to realise the story’s true tragedy is that of the uncaring vacuous nature of high society, but he instead has his camera and screenplay primarily fixated on the doomed romance between Gatsby and Daisy at the expense of damn-near everything else. It’s not that the romance isn’t compelling, but simply that Luhrmann’s focus flattens the rich text into something much more basic that the actors have to try their best to shade in where they can – that’s my loquacious way of saying I think DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Maguire are more aware of the unseemly implications in some of Gatsby’s behaviour towards Daisy than the film at large is. And sometimes it fails because Luhrmann insists on augmenting his period piece with turn-of-the-2010s hip music drops for no useful goddamned reason, especially since his infrequent anachronistic touches don’t add anything to the movie’s themes because Luhrmann isn’t interrogating class to the same degree as the novel.
Is Baz Luhrmann the version of The Wachowski Sisters who are straight-up bad at filmmaking? A director with such a unique, campy, often-queer and wildly indulgent big idea approach to storytelling but without the chops, focus and modicum of restraint that can synthesise his enthusiasm into genuinely great non-frustrating movies? I’m glad he’s out there doing his thing, I await his Elvis biopic with great interest, and I will always respect the hell out of him… I just wish that I could like him as well.
The Dark Crystal [Thursday 30th]
Dirs: Jim Henson & Frank Oz
The puppetry is legitimately astonishing. As a lifelong Muppet fan, I obviously have a great respect for the craft of The Jim Henson Company and have been forever left agog at how the group’s designers and performers manage to pull off even the most basic of things in the medium. But, good lord, Dark Crystal still astonishes to this day! As a feat of practical effects, set design, worldbuilding, and performance through body language, this is one of the most consistently outstanding things I have ever seen. The Skeksis designs, vocal affectations, and physical movements are the most obvious standouts, loaded as they are with fascinating walking subtext about greed and class, and still the stuff of truly unnerving nightmares – the stripping and exiling of The Chamberlain is mildly horrifying and would definitely have haunted my dreams had I seen it as a child. But the entire film is up to that standard. Every creature having this fully-realised grotesque, sometimes animalistic but oftentimes not design – even the human-reminiscent Gelflings have a deliberate fantastical uncanniness to them – all distinct from one another, all with unique puppeteering and mannerisms yet they and their world fit together into a cohesive whole that’s inviting to get lost in with much the same allure as all the best dark fantasy worlds; kudos to main designer Brian Froud for that.
There’s so much thought and character and detail put into the designs and the surface of The Dark Crystal. It’s a goddamned shame that the actual narrative, storytelling and character-work are all so comatose. I get why Henson had screenwriter David Odell go so archetypal and simplistic. This is a movie with such a unique and fully-realised alien world that keeping the narrative itself basic and comprehensible for viewers is a necessary olive branch – for example, a refusal to play ball like that is what really sank Jupiter Ascending for anyone outside of the Wachowski Sister cult rather than anything to do with bees recognising space queens. But Odell and Henson go way too far in that direction, not only going bare-bones on plotting but also substantive characterisation, to such a degree that I found the film shockingly dull whenever I wasn’t fixated on the pure spectacle of the production. All of the creatures are interestingly designed and their physical performances suggest character, but there’s never a sense of interiority or convincing life expressed through their actions in the story. They’re all props to guide through the world which creates this disappointingly empty sensation at the movie’s centre which gets harder to ignore thanks to the godawful pacing. If the characters don’t grow or meaningfully interact and the narrative spends 90% of the runtime with the handbrake on, a creeping sensation of boredom and emptiness starts to permeate proceedings.
Again, some of this is by intentional design, but it made the experience of watching Dark Crystal one of a gradually encroaching disappointment that the admittedly astonishing effects work and designs were the only things going on here. From what I hear, that Netflix prequel series is what I really want so maybe I’ll check it out at some point but, yeah, Dark Crystal is no Labyrinth, I’ll say that.
Callum Petch always winds up in second place.