Today, we’re looking at texts within texts; shows within shows; films within films. We’ve got everything from Shakespeare to balls.
‘Jules and Mimi’ from Sex and the City
by Danni Glover
Nothing has ever quite surpassed Sex and the City for me as far as comfort TV goes, though I’d also argue that it doesn’t deserve the mantle of ‘guilty pleasure’ that certain TV critics have deigned to assign it. I’ve never seen the movies and I am not likely to either because I’d like to keep enjoying the show. I rewatch it every couple of years and with each passing viewing two things become more apparent: the sexual politics of that show have not aged well and I am the Miranda of my friend group. We’re pretty much exactly the same as HBO’s original Girls except when we can’t afford a house it’s because my generation is the collective victim of the market crash and not because we spent $40,000 on shoes on a freelancer’s salary. Miranda is a pragmatic cynic. She’s unapologetic about her success and, truthfully, a bit of a buzzkill (learning that you’re the Miranda is a burden and a responsibility). Miranda is also a comfort viewer. In the season 6 episode ‘Great Sexpectations’ Miranda discovers that her housekeeper has broken her TiVo, deleting all her episodes of the BBC America romance Jules and Mimi – her own Sex and the City. I had a similar experience with a week’s worth of Eastenders on my Sky box a few months ago; there were tears.
She describes it with the same glee I have known when describing my shows to people who are plainly not interested. “It’s about a beautiful black man from Brixton and a white woman from Hampstead Heath,” she gushes. “I don’t know what that means exactly but apparently there’s a great divide. He rents the flat above her hat shop and tonight they’re finally having sex.” I’m sold! Particularly by 2017 Tony winner Cynthia Nixon in her approximation of a pan-English accent! The clips of Jules and Mimi Miranda enjoys throughout the episode are scintillating snippets of beautiful actors making beautiful vowels at each other and frankly the less plot your comfort viewing has, the better, which is why Sex and the City’s brunch of the week works so well when my annual bout of tonsillitis hits me. Now, Miranda’s response to her love of Jules and Mimi is to fetishistically latch on to the first black person she has apparently ever met in one of the show’s frequent racially tone deaf moments before returning to her adorable but improbable soulmate and babydaddy Steve (seriously, who is she kidding?) which is obviously not ideal. Nevertheless, can’t you see yourself coming home from work and sinking into a mug of ovaltine, a fleecy onesie, and a will-they-won’t-they drama from across the class divide? And I couldn’t help but wonder, are the most ostensibly superficial shows the ones that teach us the most about ourselves? Do we all need to accept our inner Mirandas and replace our Steve-os with TiVos? And why is this video of every brand mentioned on Sex and the City so funny, and so sinister?
‘Ow! My Balls!’ from Idiocracy
by Max Fischer
Mike Judge’s 2006 Luke Wilson-starring comedy Idiocracy painted an unflattering picture of contemporary American culture (refracted through a nightmare vision of the future where the dumb have inherited the earth because they just breed more) as crude, hypersexualized, captured by corporate interests, incurious, quick to anger and to take out its anger on any convenient scapegoat. While we should acknowledge the reactionary nature of Judge’s conceit, his indictment felt accurate then and does so more strongly now, to the extent that I’m pretty sure that Idiocracy’s POTUS, retired pro-wrestler Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), would be doing a better job as the leader of the free world than mere erstwhile wrasslin’ promoter F**ty-F*ve, exhibiting as he does in the film the ability to trust people smarter than him, and to learn from his mistakes. Little bit of politics, thank you very much.
The only television programme we see much of in Idiocracy is “Ow! My Balls!” which consists entirely of its star (uncredited, and listed on IMDB as Ow! My Balls! Guy played by Kevin Klee) repeatedly taking heavy blows in the groin region. When we see the character appear outside the context of the show, people just go up to him and kick him in the balls anyway, because they can’t tell the difference between real life and television, or something.
Although it’s never explicitly said that “Ow! My Balls!” Is the only TV show in existence (cf Demolition Man, in whose future all restaurants are Taco Bell), it’s not that much of a stretch to suppose that Judge sees it as a synecdoche of American mass media as a whole – and sometimes it feels as if the discourse has become so debased that it doesn’t even feel like a stretch. Meanwhile, back in the “real” world, on the evening I sit down to write this, a network news programme is given over to a former anchor/hit-person for a right wing propaganda outlet laundering her reputation by interviewing a froth-jowled conspiracy-chunderer, and is frankly and sadly unlikely to kick him in the nuts. Fortunately Twin Peaks is on directly afterwards on a different channel, I’d wait for that.
‘Body Talk / Relax’ from Body Double
by Blake Backlash
Body Double would be a better film if we got to see Craig Wasson get naked. Now, since you may not know what he looks like and could be about to do a google image search right now, I need to admit straight-up that Wasson looks like a young Bill Maher.
When Body Double begins young-Bill-Maher is a dressed as platinum blond, new-wave / goth vampire, and is baring his fangs at the camera. It’s a striking image but one that suggests a level of presence and dynamism that Wasson lacks for most of the film. He plays Jake Scully, a struggling actor who, when he’s not trying to embody the sexy undead, looks and acts like the kind of nice guy who would describe himself as ‘nice guy’ within five minutes of meeting you. He breaks up with his girlfriend, gets thrown out of the apartment and is given a suspiciously available, suspiciously modernist sub-let (John Lautner’s Chemosphere at 7776 Torreyson Drive in L.A) by a suspiciously ubiquitous friend-of-a friend , Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry). As Sam shows Jake around the place, he points out all those features that an 80s movie-bachelor needs: revolving bed, bar, telescope for spying on the woman in the apartment across the street: Sam tells Jake that every night ‘regular as clockwork’ Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton – or it is it?) dances around with her top off before having a wank, all without pulling her blinds down.
If this all sounds somewhat implausible, well there’s more going on, though the real explanation may be even less believable. The film defines Jake by his passivity (the most spirited thing we see him do in the first thirty minutes is angrily mist houseplants) and he is being set-up to witness a murder (which, when it occurs, is set-piece that’s gruesomely meticulous even for De Palma). After that, and a particularly embarrassing encounter with a sceptical policeman, Jake starts to act.
For reasons too silly and spoilery to go into, this means auditioning for a part in a porn film, Body Talk, starring Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). Jake turns up at the producer’s office, does a quick line reading and is told ‘Alright, take off all your clothes, I want to take some pictures’. We don’t get to see Wasson stripping and dancing around with his top off. It would be neat if leaving behind his average geezer / gazer persona meant we saw Jake had to experience the flip-side of the kind of objectification he (and the film) is complicit in but not only does Wasson keep his top on, the next time we see him he’s in knitwear.
This is a disappointment but one mitigated by ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood starting on the soundtrack. Then – even better – Holly Johnson (another Holly!) appears, dressed as a doorman, and takes Jake by the hand. He leads Jake through a club that’s a bit like the club in the actual Relax video, although one that’s been De Palma-fied enough to include both a reference to Sunset Boulevard and lots of tricksy shots with mirrors. Looked at one way, we could be seeing a scene from ‘Body Talk’ (a film within a film) but looked at another, we could be watching something that stands outside the film, a kind of musical number depicting Jake becoming a porn star.
It’s all over the top and a bit silly, which is usual for De Palma, although the fact that it’s also so camp and funny is a blessed relief. It is as if characters from Phantom of the Paradise gatecrashed their way into one of his Hitchcock pastiches. The sequence gives the film a much needed shot in the arm. It gets giddy here and does not calm down during the rest of the running time. At times in Body Double, De Palma seems like he wants to make some sophomoric points about the existential necessity of doing something – Jake is an actor but he’s so passive he cant’ act, geddit? But Holly Johnson helps him remember that acting is also about performing and showing-off. After his cameo, De Palma loosens-up and everyone enjoys themselves more. Hey Brian! Frankie Says Relax.
The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons
By Mr Moth
I don’t watch The Simpsons any more. Does anyone? Its continued existence is a formality, maintained through general consensus that cancelling it would leave an uncomfortable hole in the schedules no-one has had to think about for almost three decades. When The Simpsons surpassed The Flintstones as the longest-running animated show in television history it was a big deal. Now it’s part of the furniture
I probably think more about The Itchy and Scratchy Show, now. What an odd little beast. Ostensibly a simple reductio ad absurdum of Tom & Jerry, it was (is! Still going!) a playground for Simpsons writers to throw off the shackles of character or plot and run full-tilt into a jet engine of sight gags. When first encountered, Itchy and Scratchy feels transgressive and challenging, a sour parody of Looney Tunes and the like. But Jones and Freleng were never this extreme, never this cruel and inhumane, never took the violence of their humour to the logical limits.
In reality, it’s a joke on the audience – a mocking answer to calls for cartoons to be more “Adult”, more extreme, edgier. More violence is what you want? Ok, you can have all the violence you can handle, stuff yourselves stupid. And what do Lisa and Bart do? Laugh and laugh, immune to the excess. They’re you, you idiots – you’re the dumbasses lolling on the sofa and yukking it up at our horrible, senseless jokes.
The one problem with all of this is that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is fucking funny. That’s because it doesn’t have the heart or the humanity of the shorts it parodies. The grotesquery and gore, the sheer over-the-top ugliness of it, that’s what’s good. It has no idea where the limits are, it has crossed the line with glee so often its feet have rubbed a groove in it. When a cartoon mouse’s psychopathic hatred of a cartoon cat extends to punishing its corpse in the grave – that’s funny.
The Simpsons is now powering on to become the first animated show to continue past the death of the Sun, and soon enough there will be more episodes of The Itchy & Scratchy Show than there ever were of The Flintstones, and they’re all about a million times funnier.
Joe Harper’s Hamlet from In The Bleak Midwinter
by Kate Phillips
Artists at their mainstream commercial peak will often be moved to look inside themselves for renewed inspiration. For Kenneth Branagh, rolling off his biggest film to date in his mega-budget epic Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that meant finding a story about the enduring passions of his life: actors, acting and – above all things – Shakespeare.
Hamlet had been the most constant character in Branagh’s life; Derek Jacobi’s stage performance led him to want to act and by 1995 he had played the part at RADA, on radio for the BBC, for his own Renaissance Theatre Company and, triumphantly, for the RSC. It was no surprise that it would become the backbone of his first original screenplay. In what can be seen either as a triumph of meta-textuality or a severe case of saying what you see, he would assemble a rag-tag band of actors to make In The Bleak Midwinter, a self-funded film about a passionate actor-director assembling a rag-tag band of actors for a self-funded production of Hamlet.
It is not by any reasonable standards a great film. The plot and characterisations are so diagrammatic that one can practically see the cork board on which it was planned. Each of the grab-bag of actors – including Ken’s old mates John Sessions, telly comedy stalwarts Julia Sawalha and Celia Imrie and possibly-doing-it-for-a-bet Joan Collins – gets a clearly laid out personal crisis waiting to be wrapped up in the last ten minutes. The jokes range from hackneyed to laboured and the debt to early Woody Allen in structure and staging is almost embarrassingly obvious.
The heart of the film, though, is in the production of Hamlet that Michael Maloney’s Joe Harper – the most thinly veiled authorial stand-in since, er, Woody Allen – mounts in a condemned church. It’s a piece of pure thespian romanticism as the ramshackle players mount a production which transcends its circumstances to inspire both the cast and the audience. Characters perorate on the importance of Shakespeare in their lives, reflect on theatrical history, rehearse beloved anecdotes, bicker and – finally – bring forth a show which enthrals. It’s impossible not to warm to the actorly wish-fulfilment sequences of an audience of children cheering on Hamlet as he duels Laertes before weeping in the aisles as the bodies mount up, and hard to begrudge the tears its onion-wringing sentimentality evokes. It ends up proving its own thesis that sincerity, heart and commitment can overcome any rough edges of craft.
It came at just the right time for Branagh too; its modest critical and commercial success was a balm after the high-profile failure of Frankenstein, the first stumble in an otherwise glittering career. He would climb back on the horse with his lavish cinema production of (of course) Hamlet – bringing along a healthy chunk of his Midwinter cast (Maloney, Richard Briers, Nicholas Farrell) as a tribute to the film which let him articulate what the play meant to him.