Screen Kings: Reviewing the Films Men Showed Me in Lockdown

Searchlight Pictures

The 2020-2021 national lockdowns were a time of increased isolation, stress, and boredom for many of us. Due to COVID restrictions, the majority of our social interactions were shrunk down to the people, if any, we found ourselves locked in our homes with. And, as is the nature of sharing a singular television, a lot of compromises regarding entertainment were made. But now that the UK is finally starting to ease restrictions and many of us are finally being allowed back out into nature to drink beer, go to cinemas, and make our own decisions about what to watch (as is our god-given right as human beings) I find myself reflecting on the strange, varied collection of films I watched this past year. And in what sounds like a bad Twitter joke made by the kind of person who uses the insult of ‘snowflake’ unironically, I realised that I, a female film critic and academic, had most of my quarantine watch history dictated by men. 

This phenomenon was informed by three things: one, my laptop not working with the TV set up in my old flat, and therefore becoming a subject of a semi-benevolent entertainment dictatorship headed by my roommate’s partner. Two, virtually hanging out with my friends and then boyfriend, bound by mutual admiration to respect their picks for movie night, and three, teaching Introduction to European Cinema online to undergrads, a course designed by my male supervisor. Unknowingly, I was taking part in an anthropological study, the magnitude of which I would not understand until now. I would like to clarify that this is not an attack on any of these male curators – they’re all cool people and many of the films they showed me were actually pretty good. Many were awful. All were alright enough to keep me distracted from the creeping realisation that time is an empty construct and we’re all going to die some day, and for that I am grateful.

So now that I can somewhat safely enjoy an overpriced pint in the sun again, I would like to look back and reflect on my accidental gender study, and rank just some of the good, the bad, and batshit insane movies men showed me for the first time over lockdown. 

THE GOOD: Starship Troopers (1998)

Touchstone Pictures

If there are three things I love in films, it is high camp, big scary monsters, and critiques of fascism. Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s 1958 novel of the same name combines all three to such perfection that I became mildly obsessed with this film after seeing it. Not only does Starship Troopers fit into the very specific genre of late 90s action sci-fi blockbuster, a true gem of American cinema, it also does what science fiction does best: address a real philosophic issue through telling a highly stylised story about giant bugs with big pinchy claws and big spaceships that go pew pew pew.

By embodying fascist aesthetics to an absurd degree, the film reveals the inherent emptiness and pageantry of the ideology, portraying fascist propaganda narratives as they truly are: thoughtless fairytales based on a philosophy that exploits humanity’s vanity and anxiety in order to push an agenda of violence and mindless obedience to an abusive state created out of fear, hierarchy, and fantasy. All in a movie that’s so engaging and stupidly fun, you actually find yourself going along with it until the end, when you realise, oh shit, you were actually rooting for blonde, blue eyed space Aryans to blindly decimate an entire species – that’s satire at its finest.

THE BAD: Zorba the Greek (1964)

20th Century Studios

Due to our physical separation at the beginning of the lockdown, my then boyfriend and I decided we would have virtual movie date nights. In what should have been a sign of our incompatibility, our double bill was a mess. My choice was the original Friday the 13th, because I’m a red-blooded American woman and I am patriotically bound to enjoy 80s slasher movies and baby Kevin Bacon. His was 1967’s Zorba the Greek, the most playfully xenophobic movie I’ve seen in a minute and one he assured me he had loved as a child. And yes, you might say, it is a classic of woman murdering cinema, but it is also boring. By the hour mark, I had looked up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia so I could text him my “reactions” whilst I instead joined my roommates to watch Tiger King.

Whatever, he’s not going to read this. 

THE BATSHIT: Detention (2011)

Samuel Goldwyn Films

I don’t even know how to describe this movie other than it feels like the first draft of a time travel story someone wrote and filmed on a DMT bender. There was no editing done for the sake of continuity and clarity, and honestly, thank god for that, because the result is an absolutely coconuts plot that changes its visual language each scene like they’re pulling techniques from a hat. At one point in this film, I just broke down in a  laughing fit of pure chaotic confusion over what the fuck was happening. Truly the result of just letting someone follow their own wild creative vision, and I demand we return to this style of filmmaking. It was so endearingly wackedy schmackedy I wasn’t even bothered by the presence of Dane Cook as the nerd principal turned cool step dad, and that’s a feat.

THE GOOD: The History Boys (2006)

Searchlight Pictures

The world really lost one of our most talented artists in 2013 with the passing of Richard Griffiths, and this film is a devastating reminder. An adaptation of the acclaimed play, The History Boys was a surprise: not only is it a poignant and subtle exploration of three different generations’ attitudes towards sexuality, it also concerns the elitism and inherent classism of the education system, especially the assumption that intelligence can determined by an individual’s association with a particular institution. The film is full of effective, poetic moments that explore these ideas, but perhaps the most impactful moment for me personally was Griffith’s short monologue on the allure of stories, in which he says:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

In a time of increased isolation, when we were all relying more and more on narrative media to fill the space of family and friends, hearing the human relationship that is inherent in art expressed so beautifully by one of the best actors in living memory was the hug I didn’t know I needed. In a frisson-inducing parallel, I was comforted in what felt like a unique depression, by the words of a stranger, recited by a man who had by then been dead seven years. A hand, outstretched through time and space, reality and fiction, life and death, to take my own. 

THE BAD: Ready Player One (2018)

Warner Bros.

I know that corporotocracy is inevitable. I know it is more likely that the world will run out of clean water than it is Gen X will ever release its death grip on pop culture. But Jesus Christ, I did not enjoy Spielberg’s Gamer Gate male power fantasy. Imagine saving the world all because you know a weird amount about a stranger’s only date to a Kubrick movie with an uninterested woman over fifty years ago. Or thinking you’re beyond appearances because you’re still attracted to a hot avatar girl after you find out that, in the real world, she’s actually a hot human girl with a birthmark.

Yes, there is a reading of the film to be had that surrounds community organising and the ownership of virtual spaces, but that would require me to overlook its hyper-commodification of Internet culture and corporate accruement of nostalgic media property, a dystopian marriage that assures the future of popular filmmaking is not so much in originality but in the ability to reference popular culture and show off how many cinematic universes your parent company owns (hi, Space Jam sequel).

THE BATSHIT: The Prince of Darkness (1987)

Universal Pictures

During my friend Ronan and I’s deep dive into John Carpenter’s filmography, I have become convinced the 1980s were the best decade to be a filmmaker. Not only was it the decade of synth soundtrack supremacy, but the lack of computer generated graphics meant that practical effects were still king. You know what’s better than a man disintegrating into beetles on camera? Knowing there is a beetle wrangler on the other side of the camera, making sure those beetle actors have their rights protected. The transformation of the beautiful blonde grad student into a faceless, gooey agent of Satan is both wonderfully grotesque and materially intriguing- they really don’t do giant, oozing face blisters like they used to. Add a plot that revolves around an ancient container of cognisant devil juice and a truckload hairspray and we’ve got a movie, baby. 

THE GOOD: Escape from New York  (1981)

Goldcrest Films

Of all the films I watched to impress boys in middle school, I’m incredibly mad I somehow skipped this one. Any movie with a protagonist named Snake has me at hello, but this was something special. Does it feature only two female characters? Yes. Do they both die pointlessly? Yes. But it’s also a film that features criticism of the American prison system, purple cadillacs with mounted chandeliers and Kurt Russell calling everyone ‘baby’ while bulging out of a muscle shirt, and if that’s not art then what is. 

And yes, the man I watched this with did preface it’s beginning with no less than 50 messages explaining how it inspired Metal Gear Solid

THE BAD: Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

The Weinstein Company

Oh, Kevin Smith. The dark angel of my film education. One day I fear we’ll meet on a field of battle and only one of us will be able to leave alive.

I was introduced to Kevin Smith an eleven years old when I watched the season of Degrassi where he makes a Jay and Silent Bob movie at Degrassi High – an absolute bananas plot that I’m still unsure what the show-runners were thinking. Catholic school girl rebellion led me to finding Dogma, which I greatly enjoyed. I eventually rented one of the Jay and Silent Bob sequels and hated it. I never really sought him out, but he always found me: in the bits of Jersey Girl I caught on cable, in the weird Sunday viewing of Red State, in horror movie anthologies and pop culture podcasts. For some reason, he is the director I cannot escape. I don’t remember how to calculate the volume of a cylinder, but I know Kevin Smith thinks the giant robot spider reveal was the most idiotic thing he’s ever seen in a film.

Over the pandemic, Kevin Smith came back into my life. If there wasn’t a movie or music playing in the apartment, it was probably Kevin Smith’s batman podcast, where he was usually talking about how cool Grant Morrison is (fair). After watching and being pleasantly surprised by Clerks, I agreed to watch Zac and Miri Make a Porno, thinking maybe it would also sneak up on me with its quality the much same way.

It did not. 

How dare this man mock the concept of a giant robotic spider as a plot point then make this

The best way I can describe this film is if a twelve-year-old  boy wrote what he thought was a genuinely romantic gross-out comedy. By god, does the movie believe in its own sincerity. This is best illustrated in the confrontation between Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) after shooting their sex scene, in which a bout of clothed missionary with prolonged eye contact has them realise their true feelings for one another. Perhaps I am a heartless, cold woman but the scene where Seth Rogen passionately insists (completely unirionically) that the two of them did not just “fuck” for the camera, but “made love” on that pile of coffee beans, dammit, sent me into a fever dream. Not even the schadenfruede of seeing the annoying guy from Clerks literally getting his face shat on in a surprise close up shot could take away from my shock at just how much this film, padded as it was with almost as many gay jokes as there were poop jokes, really believed in and wanted me to take that cheese seriously as moment of true, heart-warming character growth.   

However, I do have to give Smith credit for incorporating male full frontal nudity in his porn film instead of chickening out and only showing the female characters’ bodies. So, good for you, Kevin. When we meet on the battlefield, know that while I may not have always enjoyed your work, I have always respected you. Son in Lockdown really sucked, though.

THE BATSHIT: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Warner Bros.

Okay, I have a pitch for a movie: What if instead of some scrawny brat, King Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) was actually a wise cracking beefcake lad living in the criminal back alleys of Jude Law’s medieval, greyscale London? And like, he and his boys had semi-rehearsed bits for when they had to intimidate Vikings and but everything falls apart when he has to participate in the city-wide sword pulling contest Jude Law organises to find and kill the true heir? The whole thing can be edited like a sports drink commercial and culminates – no, shut up, I’m not done – with Jude Law murdering his daughter so he can turn into a demon knight creature – seriously, shut up- but it’s okay because Arthur beats him in battle with his magic sword and forgives him before he dies. Then Arthur becomes King and forms the Round Table, and we end the whole thing with a comic scene that suggests England’s new foreign policy going forward will be conducted with all the strategy and wit of a late night dick measuring contest between two opposing groups of football fans fighting over who gets to stay in the pub? Also, Merlin’s busy so we got him a hot girl assistant. 

I will say the movie has a saving grace in the form of baffling dialogue scenes I have and will continue to quote whenever someone brings up Guy Ritchie. “She’s a good girl, that Lucy! A real good girl! A good girl! Doesn’t deserve this, that Lucy! LUCYYYYYYY!”

by Hannah Granberry

Hannah Granberry is a graduate student and critic based in Edinburgh. More of her weird opinions can be found on Twitter

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