[Sundance Review] ‘Miss Americana’ Tries (and Almost Succeeds) to Paint an Honest Portrait of a Pop Star

Four long years ago, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping was released then immediately forgotten about. The much-adored The Lonely Island (the comedy music group and SNL darlings, comprised of comedians and childhood friends Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) were back with their first real contribution to film since 2007’s cult hit Hot Rod, but it came and went with barely a murmur. However, in recent years, the film been reevaluated in parts of the film criticism sphere, acknowledging its overlooked status as somewhat of a comedic masterpiece, as well as a scathing take on the music industry, on the cookie-cutter rise and fall narratives that shape most celebrity profiles, and on the inherent insincerity that comes with attempting to craft a realistic portrait of a person whose entire public identity is more of an idea.

Thus, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping’s legacy entered my mind more than once while watching Miss Americana, the documentary about pop music phenomenon Taylor Swift, and the twists and turns her fast rise to fame endured. It’s the country-turned-pop star’s first public attempt at setting the record straight over a tumultuous past few years, starting with the infamous Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs. This event sidewinded into Kanye and Taylor’s public feud; the recorded phone call, the namedrop in Kanye’s song “Famous,” and a new narrative being crafted around the once-perceived innocent and beloved pop star. Maybe she wasn’t as benign as we had thought. What is with her need to victimize herself in all of her songs? And after her vengeful, bad-girl album “Reputation” dropped in 2017, the public seemed to be making their voices clear. They didn’t want Taylor Swift anymore.

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‘In Fabric’ is a Mystifying Send-up of Holiday Shopping

This is my sixth year working the holiday season in retail, and though each year doesn’t get much harder than that first one, it doesn’t get any easier, either. The coupons, the difficult customers, the long hours, and the ravenous crowds. The longer you’re exposed to it, the more jaded you become, the more hardened you are to the shouting, the impatience, the complicated transactions, and unending gift receipts. To bemoan or fear Black Friday becomes an afterthought to simply enduring it. The maligned day will come, and it will soon be over – then the holidays will ensue, and soon they will see their end, as well. But their finality comes with the price of knowing that they will come back. As long as I work in retail, I am a slave to the whims of customers and of corporations. And once I finally escape, the only thing that will change is that I no longer have to deal with the customers.

Peter Strickland’s In Fabric sews itself as a film about the horrors of beauty standards and materialism, but blossoms into near-farce about the ludicrousness of the holiday season under capitalism. A department store is a cover for witchcraft; television commercials for sales are hypnotic spells; an enchanted dress brings pain and suffering to all who wear it; no one in the entire town can stop talking about the one fucking sale going on from one, single store. What starts off as horrifying and baffling becomes almost comical, as the absurdity of our shopping habits and of retail work during the most wonderful time of the year are put on the bloodthirsty spotlight that they deserve.

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‘Jojo Rabbit’ is Cute, Confused and Nothing Particularly Gutsy

Taika Waititi wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s evident from all four of his sad, quirky, New Zealand-based cinematic adventures, not including his plummet into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and absolutely including What We Do in the Shadows, a film that somehow manages to find the warmth and humanity in horny, blood-slurping vampires. He’s been called a master of “sad-happy cinema”; adept at finding the perfect balance between melancholy, humor, and real joy. His films such as Eagle vs. Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy work to this concept with the utmost precision, playing for laughs during awkward, tear-jerking moments and treating darker subject material with a gentle, playful touch. Waititi wants people to understand that happiness and sadness aren’t opposites, but two emotions that can and should coexist. There is beauty in despair and humor in our strife. Light is ever-present even in the utmost darkness.

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The Body Eclectic: Blood, Guts, and Human Mortality

In David Lynch’s quintessential feature film, Eraserhead, a young man is faced with something both horrible and inescapable: his own impending fatherhood. And he doesn’t just become the father to any child, but to a mutated creature with a long, giraffe-like neck and skin that glistens as if covered in something akin to a mucous membrane. It has bulbous eyes, a face like a salamander, and a body that is never seen, hidden beneath taught bandages of swaddling. It groans, it screams, and it shrieks into the days and nights. It even refuses all food, haunting the young man, Henry, until he is compelled to kill it with his bare hands. But what is it that makes this child so particularly grotesque? It is unnatural, practically inhuman, and it defies all natural laws of what we believe human bodies to be.

But then, what about that is particularly scary or, perhaps, why does an unfamiliar body upset us? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “body horror,” a subgenre of horror film, as “horror elicited by the depiction of destruction or disfigurement of the human body,” but I like the Wikipedia definition better: “Body horror, biological horror, organic horror or visceral horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the unnatural graphic transformation, degeneration or destruction of the physical body. Such works may deal with decay, disease, parasitism, mutation or mutilation.” So what does body horror say about how we view the human body? Why are our own bodies scary, and why is their potential mutation and destruction able to be exploited to incite fear and terror in us, other than for the obvious reason that it just looks, well, horrifying? I believe we fear our bodies, even hate them, because our physical forms are a constant reminder of our mortality. “Contemporary horror films play on the fear….of one’s own body and its potential destruction” (Ronald Allen Lopez Cruz). Body horror exploits our fear of our flesh, which will soon rot and decay and cease to exist.

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