Love Note Year in Review: 2019

Like 2016, 2019 has, in many ways, been a stellar year for me, but has been societally shambolic and difficult to digest. Here, I have written about some of the films, music, TV shows and podcasts that have been my companions along the way. These have all inspired me, taught me new things, expanded my thoughts and given me a richer understanding of the world and the people in it. Enjoy and do let me know what you think.

Book: Crudo by Olivia Laing

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I have read a few books this year that have completely blown me away, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  and Circe by Madeline Miller. Here, however, I want to discuss dearest Crudo. I bought this book from Shakespeare and Company whilst in Paris on the recommendation of a great friend with great taste. Crudo is a very short book but it is an absolute gut punch of hilarity, darkness and tenderness. Indeed, it’s hard to really pin down exactly what happens in it because it is such a heady mixture of consciousness, recollection, projection and commentary. For me, this spells perfection: I have always loved character studies and don’t think an exacting plot is always necessary all the time. What I can get to with Crudo is that it centres on Kathy, who is getting married but has all sorts of qualms and skeletons to negotiate with first. Almost every page I declared ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ as it twisted and turned unpredictably through the mental chaos of anxiety, exhaustion, eating, friendship, loss, Twitter and drunken chaos in beautiful Italian locations. It is a love letter to anyone who is in despair at recent political turns of events, sardonically laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst also grieving and mourning the rise of hatred, fear and intolerance in the West. I think this book will benefit from many readings, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again.

Film: Apocalypse Now

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I was horrendously late in joining this film’s bandwagon, but was so glad when I did earlier this year. From that first shot of palm trees and the withering notes of The End by The Doors floating in like a breeze before the chaos, I was completely enthralled. This film is one of the greatest examples of a disorientating, arthouse viewing experience blended with the hallmarks of an epic: dramatic helicopter sequences and iconic lines offset with simmering delusion and madness all the way throughout. One such line, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, is a case in point: the line is delivered so much more softly than I thought it would be. I imagined that line to be a yelled declaration in the heat of conflict, but it is almost a tender revelation: an insight into how war and nationalism has warped and disfigured these men’s emotional engagement with the world around them. Amongst a host of spectacular performances, and there really isn’t a bad one in the whole film, Dennis Hopper stood out for me. With cameras draped around his neck like beads, Hopper plays a sycophantic, voyeuristic photojournalist, an unnamed self-declared ‘little man’ who has been brainwashed by Colonel Kurtz and is always ready to get a picture. An embodiment of a culture and a media that will transmit horror without reflection, Hopper’s photojournalist is the keenest harbinger of the shit state that is our current retinue of communication and media affairs.

Music: Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly

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Music-wise, this year has been a stunner. With the returns of Lana Del Rey (who I wrote about here), Michael Kiwanuka, fka Twigs and Nick Cave amongst many others, and Billie Eilish’s brilliant debut, this year has felt particularly golden. I want to give my attention here to singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose album Beware of the Dogs is undoubtedly one of my favourites from the brace of brilliance that was 2019. If there were to be any soundtrack to the #MeToo movement, it would be this album. From a sassy , beachy opener that holds a ‘grabbing’ middle-aged man to account, in what I would argue is a direct middle finger up to the likes of Donald Trump, to the searing and devastating ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, Donnelly keenly and devastatingly  confronts rampant toxic masculinity and a patriarchal culture that is riddled with sexual assault and violence. And yet, even with these serious concerns, the album is undeniably fun. With a contents list that features the maddening performativity of relationships, the deconstruction of awkward family dynamics and cake allergies in a register that nods to Noughties Lily Allen and Kate Nash (but with plinky plonky music exchanged for a wilting easy-breezy Australian nonchalance), this album feels assured, mature and endlessly witty. I can’t recommend it enough.

TV: The Politician, Netflix

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As the Golden Age of Television enters its late period of peak saturation, this year has once again been brilliant, if not slightly exhausting. Shows I loved included Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Real Housewives of New York City which, quite frankly, deserves an Emmy (that trip to Miami, in particular the first night, was the trip to end all Bravo trips), The Last Czars, which expertly wove dramatic reconstruction with historical analysis, and His Dark Materials. The Politician, made by the producers behind Glee (which I never much cared for) is an absolutely hilarious, obscene, outrageous drama which follows a group of Californian uber-rich teenagers taking part in a high school election campaign. Whilst this may ring with all the hallmarks of another glossy, predictable teen drama, The Politician is hilarious, piercingly dark and shocking, with some of the biggest knots of twists and turns I have seen on a TV show. We had to take a break after watching the first couple of episodes because it was so intense. Yet, the show’s astute political and social commentary feels absolutely essential in a ravaged post-truth Western world, in particular the stand alone episode ‘The Voter’, which serves as a microcosm of the lives of undecided and politically disaffected members of the electorate. With a soundtrack reminiscent of Western revenge tragedies and dramas, and a wardrobe department to rival seminal teen show Gossip Girl, The Politician is a sensory riot, and one of the most groundless viewing experiences I have had: I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next or which bizarre direction the drama was going to take. This all serves to make it utterly compelling and brilliant television.

Podcasts

I have found it impossible to pick one podcast that has stood out as my favourite this year. Different podcasts serve very different moods and purposes, and there is no singular podcast to be drawn from my list of regulars and favourites.

Reasons

Reasons to Be Cheerful – Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast forms the audio backdrop to my Monday mornings. This podcast has introduced me to many exciting concepts and policy ideas that I hope will become a part of the fabric of our politics in the future. Favourite episodes included topics like social care for the elderly, tax on frequent fliers, music and history education, the power of protest, community organisation, architecture and town planning and sustainable fashion. I am also exceedingly proud that my email on green fashion alternatives and tips was read out by Ed himself. #goals

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Dressed: The History of Fashion – This podcast fills the gap that glossy magazines have left in my life (I still buy the September issue of Vogue and the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar but that’s just about it). Instead, I have a podcast full of incredible interviews and explorations into the personal and cultural stories of my favourite designers and some of the clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis. I have enjoyed listening to episodes on The Met Gala, fashion and physique (mapping the female body), the history of the penny loafer, the biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the history of the French haute couture industry (Worth, Vionnet and Louis Vuitton being some of the most interesting stories) and a compelling conversation with Dr Monica Germanà about Bond girl style, looking at sexual, racial and colonial implications of women’s bodies and women’s dress in the franchise. I have shunned James Bond for many years but this conversation, with its focus on masculine and imperial anxiety, has shifted my perspective entirely.

DIDs

The Desert Island Discs Archive – This year, I discovered the delights of conversations and the musical favourites of some of Western culture’s greats. Tucked away in the archive, I found Powell and Pressburger, Leonide Massine, Tennessee Williams and Lauren Bacall amongst others. Gregory Peck was as dreamy as I hoped he would be and had a great story about the filming of Moby Dick, which coincidentally was shot down the road from where my grandparents lived in Wales; Jessica Mitford was hilarious and sassy; Roald Dahl was a bit of a snob; and P L Travers wasn’t as scary as I thought she’d be and picked a list formed exclusively of recordings of poetry being read aloud. One such recording was of Alec Guinness’s reading ‘Little Gidding’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was a balm I never knew I needed. Utterly transporting listening.

One last thing…

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Netflix

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Originally broadcast in 1988, and which I watched on Netflix this year but has now been removed, this series of six conversations in six episodes between comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is one of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever seen. Combining conversation, story-telling, animation, archive footage and film clips, this series takes a deep look into the psyche and collective unconscious of human beings. Campbell takes us on a bewildering but utterly brilliant journey through indigenous ritual, Jungian archetypes, the world religions, Western capitalism, the sacred feminine, the interplay of symbols and allegory, the sublime, the liminal passage and many other areas to present a multi-faceted, deep and intriguing portrait of human behaviour, interconnectedness and culture. Every single episode had something profound to learn from it, but the episode that stood out to me the most centred on animal-human relations, including the role of sacrifice, the transcendence of Death and the horror of a world where human beings are divorced from where they get their food, their clothing, almost everything. Additionally, I loved Campbell’s ideas that stemmed from the Buddhist teachings: that the present is all there is, and in the present, when you sit wholly aware, unblinkered and unfettered from trappings of ego (fear, envy, jealousy, anger, boredom etc.) we are witness to and subjects of, what could be called, the divine. I have never thought of myself as a religious person, and I still don’t think I am, but I found immense power in what Campbell had to share. There are iterations of ancient behaviours and beliefs all around us, and Campbell’s myth work is a great source of inspiration and an anchor when the ocean of chaos, anxiety and societal disruption feels too overwhelming. His work prioritises the power of metaphor beyond what is material, and it has enriched my life immensely.

 

First response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 1/2

Part One: The Spahn Ranch scene

I went to see ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, on the 14th August 2019. As soon as the credits began to roll, opinions began to surface from cinema-goers around us:

‘It wasn’t very ‘Tarantino’ until the end’.

‘I wanted more of Margot and Leo together’.

‘Nothing happened’.

In many ways, this confirmed what I thought the whole film was reaching towards: expectation. Or rather, the dismantling and reflection upon what we want and what baggage we bring with us to a cinematic experience. The film focused on a number of things: the film itself, Tarantino as writer and director and Hollywood as a mechanism for hopes, dreams and ideology. In many ways, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a perfect fit within Tarantino’s oeuvre, offering many moments of self-reflection, humour and a fluid sense of history. In two parts, I would like to discuss some important aspects of the film that stood out upon my first watch of the film: in the first, I offer a close reading of the ranch scene half way through the film and in the second, I challenge some of the commentary regarding the representation of women in the film, in particular Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Primarily, I think it is important to acknowledge what I thought was problematic about the film and made for uncomfortable viewing. I was not a fan of the exchange between Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. I found Pitt having to take his fake hair off before their fight absolutely hilarious, but I did not think the representation of Lee’s karate fighting, including all of his sound effects, were the homage that Tarantino claimed they were.[1] It fell into the realm of mockery, in the same way that Kill Bill Volume Two descends into a kung-fu farce for a while. Any subtlety around these moments in both films is lost, and Lee is reduced to a laughable caricature. Similarly, I found the storyline of Booth killing his wife and getting away with it in slightly poor taste. Arguably, there is almost a Gatsby-esque ambiguity to this story: even with the flashback of Booth and his annoying wife on a boat, it could be argued that this is an event fabricated through rumour and speculation of extras and film crew, neither confirmed nor denied. Yet, with the number of women who are killed every week by a partner or former partner still not being treated as seriously as the social issue that it is, including the fact that funding for domestic abuse charities in the UK comes from the luxury tampon tax that menstruating women are subject to, I am not sure that ambiguity on such a subject should be pissed around with.[2]

There are many aspects of the film where Tarantino is playful with expectation, in a script that is often light-hearted, funny and self-deprecating in a way that we have not seen Tarantino play with before. Primarily, there are the references to feet all over the place: Pussycat’s feet squished against Booth’s windscreen; Sharon Tate’s bare feet in the cinema; Squeakie Froome using her foot to point Booth to George Spahn’s room etc. Tarantino’s foot fetish is something of Hollywood legend and the fact that there were so many shots of feet in this film suggests that he wanted to take the piss out of himself and the rumours for as long as he is able to. Similarly, there was the mention of Spaghetti Westerns not being worth Rick Dalton’s time: Django Unchained is famously an homage to the Spaghetti Western genre also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for an Oscar in that role, who here plays Rick Dalton. Additionally, the long, weighty scenes spent filming Dalton’s Westerns, and Dalton’s typecasting in Westerns in general, perhaps pokes fun at the fact that Tarantino’s last film, and the film that succeeded Django Unchained, was The Hateful Eight, another Western that had a Roadshow running time of over three hours and was described as sluggish, slow and boring by many critics.[3] Tarantino doesn’t let himself off the hook in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the film feels, in many ways, humorous and self-aware as a result. It doesn’t perhaps command the edginess of Pulp Fiction or the epic odyssey-feel of Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained, but the humour is still on-point and the effect is a lightness that has rarely shown up in Tarantino’s films before, where crime and violence is purposefully more prolific and commonplace.

The part of the film that most demonstrates Tarantino’s toying with expectation comes when Cliff Booth is taken to the Spahn hippy ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The scene is already set for expectations and stereotypes being toyed with as Booth rejects the sexual advances of the hitch hiking hippy Pussycat on account of her age. She reveals that she has performed all sorts of sexual favours for men who have picked her up in the past. The couple have chemistry and Booth has signalled his interest in the number of times he spots Pussycat around Hollywood prior to their actual meeting; however, this white middle aged man decides to go no further with her when the sexual opportunity is presented to him on a plate. For a cinematic white alpha male to turn down a spontaneous encounter feels pretty progressive: James Bond certainly wouldn’t have done. It seems here that Tarantino is playing with what we expect from white leading men in Hollywood and, in turn, the representation of women, which I explore more deeply in my next essay. In a film that has ‘Treat Her Right’ by Roy Head and the Traits as its first soundtrack listing (with lyrics like ‘If you want a little lovin’ / You gotta start real slow / She’s gonna love you tonight now / If you just treat her right now’) Tarantino is offering something more progressive in the realm of relationships between men and women. It is appropriate that the stereotype of the older man involved with a younger girl is subverted, especially in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood itself becoming the epicentre of the worldwide #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

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Once at the ranch, Tarnatino sets a ghoulish and eerie scene, with waifish young women and long-haired men looming about evidently having drunk the Manson Kool-Aid. Tension builds as Booth pushes to see his old colleague George Spahn, whom he suspects has been overruled and overrun by the hippy family. We are told, however, that he is ‘napping’.  A woman called ‘Gypsy’, played by the infamously controversial Lena Dunham, seems to be in charge of the place; George’s house is a dirty hovel; and Dakota Fanning, playing Squeakie Froome, is formidable with her piercing eyes, her commands and her commitment to watching television. Booth doesn’t take no for an answer and enters George’s room where… George is napping. George wakes up, becomes pissed off that he has been woken up, seems to be absolutely fine and wants to go back to sleep so he can watch television later. Tarantino builds up a big expectation that there is something rotten at the ranch, that George is probably out of his mind and that a big bust-up or reckoning is on the cards. However, everything is fine. Weird but fine. Squeakie is freaky, but she’s fine. She doesn’t lie to Booth about George being asleep and she is as ruthless about what she wants as Booth is himself. With Lena Dunham hanging about, in her first major on-screen role after the divisive and complicated Girls, we assume that there must be something questionable going on. Her casting in this part of the film feels almost deliberate precisely because she irks people and makes people uncomfortable. And yet, she is relatively harmless.

Similarly, and moments later, we begin to expect a big bust-up between Booth and Tex, a male hippy on a horse who is summoned back to the ranch after Booth beats up a guy who burst his tyre. Tex epically races back to the ranch, Tarantino giving him lengthy screen time as he rides through the canyon, providing beautiful wide panning shots of him galloping in the sunshine, as per the Westerns parodied at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately, he arrives too late because Booth has already driven off, happily listening to the radio. Over the course of his writing career, Tarantino has never shied away from surprising us with violence or building up action to a violent crescendo; yet, in the instance of Tex in particular, the time for violence to erupt is slightly out of joint. This is an opportunity for violence to bubble up into a lengthy fist-fight or shoot-out but he arrives too late. As such, I would argue, the opportunity for violence to be delivered to us on a plate is purposefully missed. Tarantino attempts to frustrate what we come to expect from a Tarantino film by holding our lust for quintessential Tarantino violence at bay. Booth beats up a hippy for puncturing his tyre and he kind of deserves it. Beyond that, there is nothing superfluous.

Furthermore, I would argue that casting the likes of Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning to lead an anonymous cast of slightly weird but, in the moment, harmless characters, is a nod to cultural anxiety held around youth. Lena Dunham is interesting casting because she is held simultaneously in high regard and disdain by the viewing public; Fanning, on the other hand, has successfully navigated child stardom, has a brilliant reputation in the industry and has many impressive performances to recommend her.  In a time where Millennials and Gen-Zers are treated with disdain for their focus on the climate crisis, identity politics and everything a conservative older generation decries as snowflakism, Tarantino delivers a bunch of layabout hippies who, in this moment, are weird but ultimately fine. The familiarity and renown of these actors in particular helps to convey and play with this. Of course, there is the spectre of Charles Manson looming over the hippies, but Tarantino makes the point to distinguish between a misunderstood misfit youth and actual psycho killers. To cement this, he uses another surprisingly familiar face: Maya Hawke, daughter of famous Tarantino regular Uma Thurman. [4] Hawke plays Flower Child, a member of the hippy group who abandons the three murderous ‘pig-killing’ hippies (whose exchange reminded me of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction), steals their car and leaves them in the lurch. Using such a recognisable face to play a weirdo but who wants no part in violence and carnage helps Tarantino to establish this spectrum of youth and to play with our assumptions and expectations. There are always going to be weirdos and arseholes, but not all of them are going to go on a killing spree; we may expect certain behaviours and outcomes from a group of people, or violence in a Tarantino film, but that is because we bring our own baggage of what we want and what we think with us wherever we go.

Tarantino is at an interesting point in his career where he can toy with being self-referential and also with the expectation of what we think we are going to get with a Tarantino film. He has a backlog of material with which people are extremely familiar and, as such, he can and does frustrate and toy with what he has constructed for us to want over the thirty years he has been writing. The ranch scene isn’t explosive and I can see how people might interpret that it all falls slightly flat and underwhelming, because nothing actually happens. However, with beautiful irony and in a way that builds up to the later chaos, this scene is rich with posturing, preconceptions and imagery, and I think that is perfect story-telling within the world of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In some ways, this is a sunny, light and hopeful film and Tarantino leaves out violence until it is truly necessary at the end of the film (and he really goes to town with it in the best possible way). But that does not mean that the rest of the film is passive and blank: it seethes with tension, with frustration, weirdness and curiosities. As I will explore in my next essay, it is also tinged with undeniable melancholy and bittersweetness. Whatever expectations we have of a Tarantino film are healthily disrupted by the ranch scene in particular and I think it is a brilliant move on Tarantino’s part.

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino Defends ‘Arrogant’ Portrayal of Bruce Lee in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’’, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/quentin-tarantino-bruce-lee-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-1203299921/ [accessed 17:07 19th August 2019].

[2] ‘The women killed on one day around the world’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-46292919 [accessed 21:24, 20th August 2019].

[3] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hateful_eight/reviews?type=top_critics [accessed 21:22, 20th August 2019].

[4] I want to show an awareness here that Maya Hawke’s presence in the film is an interesting one, considering her mother’s estranged relationship with Tarantino, who forced her to drive an unsafe car during the filming of Kill Bill. Click here for Thurman’s interview with the New York Times detailing the incident as well as the harassment and violence she was subjected to at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s financier and creative partner: ‘This is why Uma Thurman is angry’, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/this-is-why-uma-thurman-is-angry.html [accessed 21:46, 20th August 2019].