This piece is by our guest writer, Julia Blackwell.
I am sure that many of you will be well aware of the phenomenon that is Mamma Mia (2008), and its recent sequel Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018), the latter of which I have now watched at least five times. The first film has also had multiple viewings over the years and contains one of my most beloved scenes from cinema. Predictably, I was in tears when Donna (Meryl Streep) sings “Slipping Through My Fingers” to her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). The song expresses a mother’s realisation that her daughter is now growing up and that she has been unable to spend as much time with her as she had planned. In the film, Donna sings it to Sophie as she helps her dress for her wedding, preparing to give her away. Despite her potential fathers telling Sophie they will give her away during a previous scene, Sophie chooses to reach out to her mum. After all, her mum is the person who has supported her throughout her life so far. “Slipping Through My Fingers” plays over Donna and Sophie not just getting dressed, but laughing together and enjoying their time away from the chaos of the rest of the wedding planning.
My mum passed away when I was ten, four years before the release of Mamma Mia and, as I’m sure others who have lost someone close to them will agree, the full impact of that person’s absence rarely hits you right away. For some it can take years to sink in as you gradually adapt to going through your life stages without them and encounter moments when you wish that, at the very least, you could talk to them. This is how I listened to and watched the “Slipping Through My Fingers” scene. For me it awakened moments I will never have with my mum. I don’t have any burning ambition for a wedding day, but I did find myself wanting to curl up next to her and have her paint my nails.
In the years that followed my first viewing of Mamma Mia, important events began happening for me and even though my mum was not around, I was by no means alone as I went through them. I was fortunate enough to have an incredible group of supportive women around me, especially in the wake of other losses. My dad is a wonderful person, but there are certain topics I would never discuss with him. He’s not very good at painting nails either! In Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, it is revealed very early on that Donna has passed away and that Sophie now lives with one of her dads, Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Yet Sam is not the character we see Sophie confide in regarding subjects such as her relationship with her husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper). Instead she turns to her mum’s old friends, Tanya and Rosie (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters), who have travelled to Greece to visit her. While there may be men in her life that Sophie can turn to for advice and support, I for one have no interest in listening to Pierce Brosnan wail “Angel Eyes.”
Achieving financial stability in the film journalism industry is a difficult feat for anybody. With regular gigs few and far between, ridiculous amounts of competition and low rates of pay, it’s pretty much an accepted fact that even the best of freelancers will struggle to make ends meet. As a community we joke about this frequently: we should have specialised in STEM subjects, we’re the disappointing creatives of the family, we’ll never pay off our student loans, and so on and so forth.
As a working class freelancer, financial insecurity is something that has plagued my attempts to crack the industry from the very beginning. Whilst I am incredibly privileged in some areas – my family are emotionally supportive, my workplace is flexible (something which is rare in working class environments) and I have a university education – the feeling that I am ridiculously out of my depth remains. The fact that I, as a relatively privileged (and white) working class person, still struggle, opens up a plethora of questions on the exclusive nature of our work. How can a person on a zero hours contract, living without the luxuries of university connections or familial support possibly engage in film criticism in the same way that a comfortable middle class person can?
With David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) releasing on Criterion today in a beautifully restored 4k edition supervised by Mr. Byrne himself, I have been thinking a lot about what makes the film so unique, and loved by so many. There is a tendency to see the film as a scathing critique of small town southern life, rather than a celebration of the idiosyncrasies that can exist in a place so removed from the rest of the world. To see True Stories this way, however, is to seriously misinterpret not only the film, but David Byrne as a person.
It is understandable that fans of Byrne’s band The Talking Heads – known for its deceivingly upbeat pessimism – would want to see a film about a town full of neurotics, fools, and people whose favorite pastime is going to an outlet mall as a harsh criticism of suburban life; that we are meant to laugh at these people rather than with them. However, what True Stories really marks is the beginning of Byrne stepping away from that pessimism. It is only in hindsight that this becomes abundantly clear, as we see what Byrne is up to now. His new album, pointedly called American Utopia takes a much more positive (although not at all ignorant) approach to the current state of the world than, say, songs such as Only the Flowers or Life During Wartime. In fact, Byrne has been working continuously on a project called Reasons to Be Cheerful that shares technological innovations, social movements, and optimistic profile pieces from all over the world, with the sole purpose to restore faith in humanity during a time where it feels like there may not be much of that left.
Despite the disorder that permeates Shirkers by Sandi Tan, it ultimately is a defiant ode to the gendered poetics and politics of filmmaking. Above all, it reminds us there is no future in our nostalgia, and no nostalgia in the future of our past, to recall Arthur Yap’s poem on the well-known Singaporean mourning for a past snatched too soon from us.
As a Singaporean film writer, I am acutely aware of the difficulties of breaking out of impossible censorship and a meagre amount of funds granted to independent cinema. It is rare to even see Singaporeans believe in our own artistic potential. That’s why Tan’s internationally-acclaimed work not only holds extreme cultural significance in our country, but also instills hope for the next generation of Singaporean filmmakers. For the first time, I am seeing a piece of Singaporean work talked about by my fellow colleagues here at Much Ado. It may simply be casual chatter to them, but for me this chatter reflected the visibility I have desired so much for Singaporean art. And I did not know how much I have wanted our art to be part of a simple, off-handed discussion on an international stage. Shirkers changed all that.
Riverdale’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. It compellingly criticises the culture which produced it, but this scrutiny reveals the show’s own inadequacies. Archie, played by KJ Apa, has an incredibly cliché arc in the first few episodes. Veronica calls out his struggle of balancing his passion as a musician and obligation as a football player as a tired dichotomy, something which they, as young people woke to the system, should actively resist, and seek greater depth in their lives. Despite blatantly criticising its own genre Riverdale got a lot of content out of that so-called tired dichotomy.
Riverdale, it seems, wishes to have its woke cake and eat it too.
In perhaps the most striking scene of Claire Denis’ debut Chocolat, we see Proteé – the “houseboy” of a French civil servant in the colonialized Cameroon of the late 50’s – working on a generator in a small hut. After a while, he notices that someone is observing him. It’s France, the infant daughter of the civil servant. There is a somewhat hard emotion palpable in the air. France asks Proteé if one of the parts of the machine is hot. Without stirring an emotion, the man presses his hand on a tube. France tries to do the same but cries out as she realizes the tube is in fact incredibly hot, and leaves her hand burned. Proteé’s hand is burned to a much more severe degree, but he doesn’t flinch. He just looks at her. There is nothing more to say. He leaves into the night and never comes back.
This scene is a crucial component to understanding Claire Denis’ cinema, which has separated itself from the majority of European auteur cinema and moves on its very own heady and uncompromising path.
From a cultural perspective alone, there’s a lot about Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade that fascinates me. To put it lightly, it’s simply surreal to witness Burnham – a classic YouTube star turned musical stand-up comedian known for his edgy humor – make his first foray into the film medium as a writer and director. It’s perhaps even more surreal that his debut, an indie dramedy about a pre-teenage girl’s last week of middle school, also happens to be one of the best films of 2018 thus far. Burnham’s behind-the-camera presence is more than just a marketing gimmick, his identity is embedded in the DNA of the narrative. It goes without saying that this film is one that could not have been made even ten, maybe even five years ago.
Whether in consequence of A24’s clever marketing or their inherent legacy as indie distributors, the film has been compared to the likes of Lady Bird. While the sentiment is nice, that implies an entirely different film than Eighth Grade is. Lady Bird and the coming-of-age genre are characterized by throwbacks, sweet self-reflective dramas following a character during a time of challenge, change, and transition in their life. While Burnham’s debut carries over some of those elements, make no mistake – for this is far from a nostalgic piece. In fact, Eighth Grade is a film about the everyday anxieties of the edge of fifteen, but its also about the daily horrors the current generation of kids are living in. While the past and even future are still part of its thematic journey, the predominant focus of Eighth Grade is what is happening now.