Happy New Year! Now is probably as good a time as any to start blogging again on a regular basis.
Scanning and cataloguing my film photos has become a chore. It’s an enjoyable chore, but a chore nonetheless. I now have to manage a backlog. I currently have 1 roll waiting to be developed, 4 waiting to be scanned, and 6 already scanned awaiting cataloguing. Guess it’s time to start working in earnest on Unspool again to smooth that process down. I spent some of my holiday time this week at Rapid Eye making prints, something I’m still a beginner at. Fun, though, and useful for gifts.
Here is a list of media I enjoyed, and didn’t enjoy so much, in 2023:
Hit: HEARTSTOPPER on Netflix
"You've befriended the school lesbians!"
I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed this. Maybe it’s because I didn’t watch it until series 2 was out, where the show’s dark heart becomes more apparent—despite the appearance of a cute teen romance where Nick, a year 11 rugby player, develops feelings for Charlie, a year 10 classics nerd, HEARTSTOPPER largely eschews romcom tropes or diverts slightly left of them, and is more of a psychological drama about the pressure of growing up not-straight. The script by Alice Oseman (who, like me, grew up in the home counties around London—she was in Kent, I was in Surrey) is delivered in a vibrant but un-fussy way by a stunning cast, under the helm of emeritus Doctor Who director Euros Lyn.
Yeah, there are bits that are a bit ropey, or attempts to be didactic or turn things into a teachable moment, but HEARTSTOPPER might be the loveliest show on TV. Episode 3 is one of the best things I’ve ever seen: that euphoric dance party scene set to Clearest Blue by CHVRCHES; the tension being a nerd surrounded at a house party by people you don’t like; the best on-screen kiss (Nick is terrified, Charlie is brave, the kiss itself is tender and magical); the mother of all cliffhangers. Kit Connor and Olivia Colman’s two-hander at the end of series 1? Kit Connor and Joe Locke’s two-hander at the end of series 2? Both are stunning coming-out moments (in different ways) that are easily contenders for TV moment of the century.
There are so many quietly authentic moments that writer Oseman has clearly lifted from the unique experience of growing up queer in the suffocatingly heterosexual British suburbs. My only real complaint about accuracy is that I can’t believe you could use “Char” as a shortened form of Charlie without an immediate barrage of Pokémon jokes. There are parts of myself, and my own experience, I recognise in all of these characters. Tara’s tearful rant in episode 6 about going from barely even being able to say the word lesbian and then having people saying to her, “oh my god, you’re a lesbian”—swap ‘lesbian’ for ‘gay’ and that describes my coming-out experience and the transition from secondary school to sixth form perfectly. Like Nick, I remember trying to hide my queerness even when everyone pretty much knew, finding coming out to be a terrifying prospect. Like Charlie, I got good at bottling up and deflecting my emotions, disappearing to hide from homophobic bullying.
At the same time, I think about how much has changed in 15 years, or even in the 5 years between me leaving secondary school and Oseman publishing HEARTSTOPPER’s forebear, Solitaire, which introduced Nick and Charlie as principal supporting characters. The idea of anyone being openly queer at my secondary school was unthinkable. There was a sportier boy in the year above me who I remember having a crush on, and he was always kind to me in a way that I don’t think many other people were. I obviously can’t know if anything would ever have come of it. If I was going through secondary school today and having a similar experience, maybe I’d be braver and more like Charlie. Maybe HEARTSTOPPER would’ve helped with that.
Season 3 will be coming this year. I’ve read the comics, so I know what’s coming. I hope they can pull it off. It strikes me as quite difficult material to adapt to the screen, but Oseman has done right by her source material so far (and in many cases, by shuffling plot points around, tweaking details, and rewriting dialogue, they’ve improved on it.) I also hope that season 3 is allowed to be angrier at the inciting circumstances (for reasons that will become obvious if you’ve read ahead in the comics) but we shall see.
Miss: FOR ALL MANKIND on Apple TV+
Krys Marshall’s and Wrenn Schmidt’s backs must be sore from carrying this show for four seasons. The bulk of FOR ALL MANKIND runs like a high budget soap opera, with sluggish pacing, technobabble, and melodrama. Many episodes follow the same plot formulation as an episode of Casualty, but don’t have Charlie-from-Casualty there to lighten the mood. If this show were in Spanish or Turkish or Filipino, in the Western world we’d probably be unfairly looking down our noses at it.
There are flashes of brilliance—the heartstopping cliffhanger to season 2’s opening episode, with Molly sprinting to another astronaut’s rescue in a solar storm, is extraordinary. Tracy’s character arc was delightful, although her being killed off with her husband at the end of season 2 was a shame. The odd throwaway gag about Tom Cruise or Al Gore is very funny.
Hit: IN MEMORIAM, by Alice Winn
"This ward is haunted. I’d like to be moved, please."
Add this to books I was not expecting to enjoy—when I first saw the display in the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones, I thought that it was a memoriam to a dead author rather than the title of the novel. IN MEMORIAM is very much in the tradition of ‘sad gay stories,’ this one following two private school boys sent to war in World War I. Yes, this means it’s extremely bourgeois. Yes, the author was inspired to write it because she was reading the ‘in memoriam’ dispatches in the archives of her own private school’s newspaper.
But to my surprise, even if the book isn’t especially interested in anyone other than its two posho protagonists, IN MEMORIAM does have some intelligence about how class and oppression in Britain works. We see the kindlings of doubt in the two protagonists’ minds as they lose faith in the war, and in Britain and the Empire, and with life in general. To the book’s credit, Winn understands that war is shit, and wicked, and evil. The pacing is relentless. Some of the imagery and descriptive passages hits you like a train (it shows that Winn is a screenwriter by trade.) Even with a little too much melodramatic licence, the walls of names of deceased boys (for these truly were boys sent to die, not men) from the school newspaper are positively nightmarish.
I’ve seen it compared to The Song of Achilles, which I didn’t like that much. I connected to IN MEMORIAM much more, possibly because World War I is still something burned into the British national psyche, but likely more because there is no subplot of needing parental approval to be together and happy in the end.
Miss: RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE on Amazon Prime
Oh dear. If we’re going to talk about boujie gay stories… I will confess that after devouring the entirety of Heartstopper, I wondered if I had unfairly dismissed the romance or rom-com genres as a whole. Even if I am unfairly dismissive of these genres, RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE was definitely not for me.
These people’s world is so far detached from my own experience that I cannot comprehend it. True, there are technical issues with the film as well: the script is creaky and not all that funny for a “comedy,” densely packed with gags that left me cringing more than laughing. The soundtrack consists of Windows Movie Maker-bundled orchestral stings. The direction feels naff and does a disservice to the actors. The whole thing feels massively abbreviated and we’ve got no reason to believe the “enemies to lovers” story. But the characters—or, specifically, the versions of the characters we see in the film—are so one-note, such caricatures of rich arseholes, that I couldn’t interest myself in anyone’s emotional journey.
I understand the book is a lot better.