As quarantine life stretches into its eighth month in the U.S., simultaneously sending us all looking for diverting entertainment and shutting down any new film releases, many of us are returning to the movies of our childhood and adolescence. Which ones were overrated? Which are better than we remembered? And which have just aged terribly? Lindy West — a writer best known for her book-turned-television show, Shrill — is here to answer those questions with her new book Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema.
The book is a critical romp through 23 contemporary classics like Top Gun, Speed, Reality Bites, and of course, Love Actually — West infamously skewered that movie in a 2013 piece for Jezebel, which inspired the book’s title and is adapted here. West loves many of the movies she writes about, but she also loves taking them apart. She has a decade-long text thread with a friend dedicated to the Harry Potter franchise’s plot holes, and she has a lot of thoughts about neglected side characters like Diane, the wife in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, whose unexplored interior life she can only imagine: “WHY DO WE EVEN NEED A SHRINK RAY, WAYNE? Seriously, literally, what need does this fill? You’re sick, Wayne! Sick!”
GEN caught up with West ahead of her book’s release to talk about the lost art of film reviewing, what it’s like to finish a book in quarantine, and why The Fugitive is the only perfect movie.
GEN: A lot of people complain about the state of film reviewing today. Some think access journalism has taken the bite out of film reviews, and others just don’t think they’re necessary. Do you think reviewing is a lost art?
West: Yeah, of course. Every sector of journalism has taken huge hits, and arts journalism more than anything. At The Stranger, where I was a film critic, they don’t have a film department anymore. Everything has shrunk. You don’t have that traditional, institutional, long-form film criticism, except for a handful of places — obviously the New Yorker, the New York Times. But just by degree, the industry has shrunk and those jobs don’t exist anymore.
I was never that kind of film critic. As you may have noticed in the book, I don’t really know that much about film, you know what I mean? I always approached criticism just as a person consuming this piece of art and processing it. I was always trying to be accessible and funny and relatable, and hopefully, slip in a little bit of politics and a little bit of feminism.
You push back on the idea that you can’t be critical of a work you love — like the 1993 film The Fugitive. The only other person I’ve seen talk so passionately about that movie is John Mulaney in his standup special The Comeback Kid. Can you talk about why you think that movie is the pinnacle of filmmaking and how you used it to create the movie rating system for this book?
I remembered there was a long-form Mulaney joke about The Fugitive. But I don’t have a great memory, so, fortunately, I had forgotten how it went. I was like, “Just because John Mulaney talked about The Fugitive doesn’t mean that I can’t also talk about The Fugitive from my own heart.”
I remember when I was a kid you still had to go to the video store to get movies and I asked my parents to rent The Fugitive every week, which is weird when you’re 10. But, it’s just perfectly exciting, perfectly paced. It’s like a murder mystery and a thriller and a police procedural. It’s just all the stuff that I like. Harrison Ford, perfect. I would say Earth’s top person. The stakes are high enough that you’re excited, but I’m not stressed out. There’s not so much suspense that I’m miserable and then there’s a happy ending. Oh my God, it’s all I want.
And then I would say for the rating system, what I did was just semi-arbitrarily assign ratings based on my feelings in that moment. It was really graded on a curve.
With the pinnacle being The Fugitive.
Right, exactly. And something has to be at the bottom, and that has to be American Pie. Does that mean that American Pie, out of all the movies in the world, is a one-star movie? Not necessarily. I was being silly, you know? It’s a silly book. Initially, my hope was to have little icons, tiny little pictures of the DVD box of The Fugitive, and then we would show how many each movie got. But then the design department said, “No, we’re not doing that. You’re crazy.”
You finished this book six weeks into quarantine, which has obviously impacted the film industry. How did the stay-at-home order and the current political situation impact your writing? I remember reading sentences like “Can you guess which month of 2020 this chapter was written during???” that hinted at the frustration and anger you were feeling while trying to simply enjoy a movie this year.
Can anyone simply enjoy anything in 2020? I mean, wow. In a vacuum, the stay-at-home order made getting this book done very easy because I didn’t have anything else to do. I was supposed to be going to Australia on tour for my last book and I had all these speaking engagements. Suddenly my schedule was totally clear and I had all this time to really thoughtfully bang out the rest of my book. I remember people calling it The Great Pause. All of a sudden we were all just home, in the quiet, and trying to figure out how to fill our time. I filled mine with watching movies and writing about them and it was surprisingly difficult to work.
I think a lot of people found that there’s something challenging about working when the world is in this really scary moment of chaos and uncertainty. It’s hard to feel an urgency about your job, especially when your job is as arguably frivolous as mine. But because I had the deadline looming, once I got into the flow of writing, it was really therapeutic to sit on the couch and write jokes and drink coffee. It felt like a return to this old version of my life when I used to be a film critic and I was in my twenties, and I didn’t have any responsibilities besides writing some jokes and drinking coffee.
It was also really nice to think about the book coming out and going out into people’s homes and making them laugh. I knew it was going to come out right before the election. We still really are trapped in that uncertainty and it’s really scary. People feel really powerless and really isolated and people have now gone what, six, seven months, without having a movie night with their best friends? To think about my book providing some feeling of momentary comfort and happiness and connection, it made the writing process feel important in a small way that made it good for me.
Well, you definitely succeeded because I laughed nonstop while reading this book. But I also was struck by some of the thoughtful observations you made, like the small notations when a film would fail fat people with fatphobic language and gags. Did the consistency of the fat jokes across all genres of film surprise you in your rewatch?
Everything surprises me in a rewatch. The stuff that we were putting in movies in 2007 — which is not that long ago — it’s just wild how racist and homophobic and fatphobic and transphobic mainstream comedy was. Mainstream everything.
I’m trying to figure out exactly how to say this… everyone’s so worried about being canceled. And some people, myself included sometimes, are very strident about enforcing social consequences on people who have made socially damaging art. Then there’s this more pragmatic argument that we need to figure out collectively a path for redemption and growth. When you actually start watching media from 10, 15, 20 years ago, you realize that we were all wrong and bad. Not all, I don’t want to say that. It was just pervasive. Obviously, I wrote a whole book calling these moments out.
There are so many people who were trying to be successful and cool, jumping into the parlance of the day, which was this sort of nihilistic edginess that’s really toxic. Going back and watching all these movies and really digging into how prevalent that tone was, which today reads really, really destructive — we know media has a huge impact on people’s attitudes and that changing media changes people’s minds — it’s wild! Everyone hated fat people and it was totally normal to be horrible to fat people. It was just staggering to me how prevalent this toxic edginess was until really recently. I mean, it’s obviously still going on in certain corners, but it’s something that, as a society collectively, we have to really look at and have a reckoning with that doesn’t just scapegoat a handful of people. It’s a widespread problem that’s deeper than people want to believe.
I was trying to determine which of the takes you share in the book would be the most controversial. The one that would become a trending topic that has Twitter furiously debating for hours. I narrowed it down to either “Maverick is the villain of Top Gun” or “butts are genitals,” in reference to a scene from Forrest Gump. What do you think?
It never even occurred to me that butts are not genitals until I had my friend read the book and give me the feedback and he was like, “Just wrote a note that was like, butts are genitals?” And I was like, “What?” Instead of changing it, I just added that footnote because look, okay, I get it that it’s technically not, but come on. It’s like your private area. And I think “private area” and “genitals” should be interchangeable. Don’t try to change my mind.
I found the direct line you draw between Iceman’s repeatedly ignored requests for all-American “hero” Maverick to follow flight safety protocols and America’s disastrous and exceptionalist handling of the Covid-19 pandemic particularly inspired.
Thank you. Maverick is blatantly the villain of Top Gun. I will never back down on that. That is not silly, it is true. Maverick sucks, he’s bad. Iceman rules. The end.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.