Defending the Maligned
The Writers' Roundtable is an open-ended discussion forum in which a question or idea is posed, to be discussed at length by our team of contributors.
This month's question: Which film or album, which was poorly received or is generally considered bad, do you proudly defend?
- Anthony Kellaris: Batman & Robin
- Richard S. He: Metallica – St. Anger
- Jemima Bucknell: Man of Steel
- Ash Beks: Magical Mystery Tour
- Bradley J. Dixon: Panic! at the Disco – A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out
- James Zarucky: Oasis – Be Here Now
- Luke Lewis: Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
- Simon Di Berardino: Cosmopolis
Anthony Kellaris: Batman & Robin (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1997)
What makes Batman such a compelling character is his chameleon-like ability to seamlessly integrate into any type of story; it is for this reason that such a high number of the greatest comics ever made are Batman stories.
In recent years both audiences and Warner Bros./DC Entertainment have become obsessed with the “serious” incarnation of the caped crusader (which certainly has its merits, as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight can attest to), so it’s no wonder this goofy adventure — more akin to Adam West and Burt Ward’s 1966 Batman the Movie than the hyper-dramatic Tim Burton films it followed — was not well received.
The only Batman film in the modern era with a sense of humour, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin never takes itself too seriously with its rubber lips, chauffeur Bane, punny Mr Freeze and atmosphere-surfing Batman and Robin. Cast members have told stories of Schumacher yelling through a megaphone before each take, “Remember people, we’re making a cartoon!”. Whether there is any truth to this rumour remains to be seen but it’s a perfect representation of everything that’s great about this film. I’m not even going to try to defend the rubber nipples, though.
Richard S. He: Metallica – St. Anger (2003)
There are many different ways for art to fail; to the unreceptive ear, Metallica’s St. Anger sometimes feels like all of them happening at once. If most art aims to be aesthetically pleasing - and so much of metal is an acquired taste, requiring conscious readjustment to be at all susceptible to its charms - then St. Anger sure as hell doesn’t aim to please. It’s musically and cognitively dissonant - where most extreme metal usually finds one pummelling sound and sticks to it, St. Anger by and large resembles conventional, groove-oriented heavy metal, but the result is corrupted just unrecognisably enough that the brain can’t quite comprehend it. Here is an album where virtually every songwriting, melodic, or production choice deliberately makes it stranger. That infamous snare is the perfect metaphor for St. Anger as a whole, its extra layer of dissonance almost taunting - poor listener, you complain about it giving you a headache like it’s not supposed to?
Certain songs stumble upon emotions that’ve rarely been committed to record before, or since. "The Unnamed Feeling" replaces what would be a logically placed guitar solo with James Hetfield’s tunelessly, voice-breakingly yelling "get the FUCK out of here / I want to hate it all away", the sound of a millionaire rockstar retreating into a fetal position every bit as exposed as John Lennon’s primal screams on "Mother". Too genuinely disconcerting to be petulant, so lyrically inarticulate it expresses nothing but its own inarticulateness - which, considering the song’s title, is entirely the point. Or take "Invisible Kid", where Hetfield first plays a victim of abuse, then channels a shrill parent’s falsetto - sarcastically mocking himself, the character, even the song itself. But where the similarly sardonic "Master of Puppets" was about drugs’ ability to subjugate, both intimidating and empowering the listener, "Invisible Kid" trades in confusion and emotional withdrawal, something that can’t exactly be enjoyed.
In the end, St. Anger expresses perfectly what it is; a bizarre, frustrating, recursive album that fixates so uncontrollably on self-loathing it can’t identify its own traumas. Every song reaches a frenzy of borderline noise-rock dissonance, yet never reaches any emotional resolution in itself. St. Anger ultimately achieves catharsis simply by having been recorded, and by extension, taking it out on the listener. Imagine if Eraserhead was as oppressive as ever, but also about David Lynch’s deep contempt at his own inability to make a narratively coherent film, to the extent that the viewer can’t decide whether the metaphor even exists, let alone whether or not it’s effective. "Not only do I not know the answer – I don’t even know what the question is." The world might see St. Anger — understandably! — as an unrepeatable mistake, but to me, there’s something brave about the ugliness of Metallica’s pure, unhinged id. If you’re open to a certain kind of masochism, St. Anger’s unique transcendence is entirely fascinating.
Jemima Bucknell: Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)
Man of Steel will be appearing on far more worst of 2013 lists than best. Under Christopher Nolan’s guidance, Zack Snyder has achieved a much bolder and more purposeful musing on morality and the individual than the Dark Knight trilogy could ever boast. Its apparent brandishing of Plato’s The Republic is not to be scoffed at, but acknowledged as an enduring monument of modern justice. The glorious and yet intimate showdown in Grand Central Station, marble-white with Roman pillars, can not be touched by the expectations of superhero films or muddled by political or social allegories. The film is plainly and purely philosophical, and happens to star Superman in the 21st century.
Ash Beks: Magical Mystery Tour (dir. Bernard Knowles & The Beatles, 1967)
Easy as it may be to dismiss this cinematic exercise from The Fab Four as nothing more than a bunch of stoned hippies misusing their extra cash; Magical Mystery Tour has as much merit to be taken seriously as any of their other big screen adventures. Considering the film came about so haphazardly — the band decided to head out on the road in a wacky bus with a camera crew to simply “capture the magic” — suggests the attitude of the band at this time magnificently. Further to this, it perfectly replicates the mindset of the entire American counterculture in 1967. It’s floral, it’s psychedelic, it’s magical and — fuck it, man — it’s free.
The music here also highlights The Beatles at their absolute peak. Tracks like “Penny Lane”, “Hello Goodbye”, “I Am the Walrus” and “The Fool on the Hill” litter the film like speckles of confetti, ensuring the film the strongest soundtrack of any of their other features (and most other films in cinema history, for that matter). Combining one of their greatest collection of songs with a simply one-of-a-kind visual smorgasbord makes Magical Mystery Tour an essential artefact which must be regarded in awe like a mystic relic from lost and forgotten times.
Bradley J. Dixon: Panic! at the Disco – A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (2005)
Emo. A genre so mercilessly derided, so strongly associated with maudlin teenagers, black mascara and self-harm in the early-to-mid 2000s that even today, after the genre has been effectively dead for five years, I find myself compelled to defend its honour.
To dismiss an entire movement out of hand the way emo was dismissed is to be narrow-minded in all the ways that serious music enthusiasts profess to disdain, akin to discounting all metal as artless or all jazz as pointless noodling. Generalisations like these are not only lazy, they also deny the possibility that even one album could transcend an otherwise disrespected genre. Panic! at the Disco’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out towers over emo the way Purple Rain towers over 80s pop.
Along with My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is one of the crowning achievements of 2000s pop punk, a record bulging with energy, exuberance, richness, theatricality and bravado in a sea of music drenched in unjustified earnestness. It’s a great album.
But with Brandon Urie’s aggressively emotive warble, an incessantly speedy pace, schizophrenic dub-techno breakdowns and frequent flights into the cartoonishly baroque, there are plenty of genuine reasons the record alienated listeners. But the funny thing about a lot of the criticism leveled at the album, and at emo in general, is that so much of it was about anything but the music.
A famously scathing Pitchfork review rated the album a woeful 1.5 out of 10, with the reviewer spending roughly half of his analysis discussing points that are, ultimately, irrelevant to the music: the album’s verbose song titles (I do hope the author had an EpiPen handy when he first laid eyes on a Red Sparowes record) and the fact that Panic! at the Disco were barely out of high school when the record was released.
A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out — as a musical composition — never got a fair go. Listen to it free of preconceptions, judge it on the artistic merit of its music, and you may discover that all those mascara-wearing, maudlin teens were onto something.
James Zarucky: Oasis – Be Here Now (1997)
I’ve already defended Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in my Overlooked Hotel feature for this month, so I’m going to shift gears to a musical selection: Oasis’s 1997 album Be Here Now.
As many of you may recall, this was the Gallagher brothers and co’s follow up to the wildly successful (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, which spent 10 weeks at the top of the UK album charts in 1995 and spawned a parade of hit singles including “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Wonderwall”. To date, that album has sold 22 million albums worldwide, a figure which no album released today would even dream of hoping to achieve.
Put simply, Oasis were kind of a big deal in the UK by the mid 1990s. Perhaps no better evidence of this exists than the band’s record breaking shows at Knebworth in 1996, where they played to audience of 250,000 people across two nights. Rather than trying to downplay the fever pitch anticipation for Be Here Now, Oasis, their management and record label did virtually everything they could to heighten it, spurred on by the sort of confidence only obtainable through a sudden influx of money, celebrity status and boundless amounts of drugs.
It’s debatable whether anything Oasis could have released in the wake of Morning Glory would have truly satisfied the new mass audience it had acquired in the preceding years. But reassessing it 15 years on, Be Here Now has certainly held up a whole lot better than its now infamous reputation would suggest. Yes, almost all of the songs are much longer then they need to be, and the overblown top-heavy production was no doubt a consequence of the debauched cocaine-fueled recording sessions. But beneath the layers upon layers of guitar tracks and orchestral overdubs, it does contain some of the band’s strongest material with songs such as “Stand By Me”, “All Around the World” and “It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)”, which in my opinion have been unfairly excluded from many best-of compilations and tour set lists.
It would be the last Oasis album to be penned solely by Noel Gallagher, and he has admitted since that much of the material was held over from the previous two albums. But since this was a time when even the B-sides were nothing less than impressive, the album serves as a definitive end point for the band’s first prime era before an extended transitionary period of sorts. If Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory told the tale of a band of working class stiffs from Manchester dreaming of the rock star life, Be Here Now stands as an authentic document of what happens once they actually reach the top of the mountain.
I hope you enjoy this clip of the band barely managing to mime their way through a Top of the Pops performance of lead single “D’You Know What I Mean?” as much as I do:
Luke Lewis: Arctic Monkeys – Humbug (2009)
I really don’t know why this was loathed the way it was (is?). Produced by Josh Homme, it has that tight fuzz only he seems to know how to get, underneath Alex Turner’s 21st-century-John-Cooper-Clark lyricism. It’s one of those albums where every song is good, not just a couple of killers spread throughout the fillers. And it has “Cornerstone”, which is not only a great song, but also has one of the best (and cheapest) videos ever made.
Simon Di Berardino: Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg, 2012)
There is something about the work of Canadian director David Cronenberg that feels incredibly tangible, as if his entire career exists as a living, breathing organism. Even though his work is always evolving, there seems a clear through-line to his entire filmography. Notions of man’s relationship with technology/modernity and its impact upon our bodies, the externalisation of psychological trauma and the function of cinema as an arena of the concerns of men are alluded to in almost all of his films, and with each new step he comes to more clearly articulate their complexities.
One man’s clarity however, is another man’s pretentious turd. Such is the case with Cronenberg’s last film Cosmopolis, in which he took tween heart throb Robert Pattinson, put him in a suit, told him he was a billionaire asset manager and rode him round in the back of a limo as riots broke out in New York City. Cronenberg doesn’t make it easy to love his film, as it crawls along at a glacial pace with an endless supply of highbrow soliloquies about everything from the growth of the Yuan to Judeo-Christian jogging.
While there were a handful of critics and spectators who responded to Cosmopolis with intrigue or admiration, most were put off by his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, declaring it a messy outing yearning for a plateau it never had the means to reach. Obviously I exist in the former category, as not only did I find Cosmopolis to be one of Cronenberg’s best films, but I placed it as my number one film of 2012. Viewing it in the cinema was like a sharp jab to the ribs, with the force of the film’s impact leaving me short-winded. Through a cold and austere aesthetic Cronenberg details the crumbling role of the human body in the presence of technology and industry coupled with a loss of purpose in the face of the diminishing returns of actual, corporeal experience.
As Pattinson’s businessman cruises around the collapsing New York City he constantly seeks direct experience, be it through sex, violence or a good old-fashioned prostate check, and yet is never fulfilled. He makes financial decisions that will affect the lives of millions with the flick of a switch through his hyper-modernised module, not once considering the impact it might have. People have become statistics in a globalised, mechanised world, easily manipulated by those in power positions. There is no satisfaction in grappling supremacy either, as by the end of the film Cronenberg shows that this dehumanisation takes its toll on all, as Cosmopolis culminates in the most bizarre exchange, oscillating between existential anguish and nervous absurdism.
Cosmopolis is Cronenberg working in a realm that many find offensive, lethargic and downright pompous. In reality, it’s a perfect distillation of ideas he’s been wrestling with since he began committing them to celluloid. I now look forward to the day in which Cosmopolis will be directly beamed into my brain for consumption. I’m fairly certain all I’ll be able to do is sit and quietly nod.