In ‘Shit, Actually,’ she uncherishes our pop-culture memories
In recent years, shitting on Love, Actually has become as much of a hallowed holiday tradition as actually watching it, for good reason. It’s a hymn to workplace sexual harassment, a symphony of fat-shaming, whose most famous, most copied scene is a white man acting silently stalkerish towards his best friend’s wife with the help of cue cards. Lindy West started that tradition. “This is a movie made for women by a man,” West writes in Shit, Actually, a collection of essays inspired by a series of movie re-watches the journalist and author of Shrill wrote about for Jezebel. “Thank you for telling a generation of men that their intrusiveness and obsessions are ‘romantic,’ and that women are secretly flattered no matter what their body language (or mouth!) says.”
We may not remember the late ‘80s and ‘90s as a Golden Age of cinema, but they’ve left an indelible mark on pop culture, for better and for worse. West re-examines 23 cultural touchstones of the era from the perspective of post-#MeToo, post-recession, pandemic-ravaged America. “Watching Titanic for a third time for the purposes of this essay . . . I could not wait to get to the second half and watch all these motherfuckers drown,” she confesses. Along the way, West points out now-glaring plot holes (she titles the Harry Potter chapter “Harry Plot Hole”), now-famous faces (Jim Parsons was in Garden State?), and movies that would fail the Bechdel test (“In 1993 it was still okay to make movies all about men”) or basic diversity training. “Yeah, there are technically black characters in Harry Potter, but tell me one thing about Dean Thomas.”
“What do we do now with beloved cultural works that don’t hold up?” West asks in the introduction. “Are we ‘allowed’ to like imperfect things that mean something to us?” They’re good questions, but she’s not really interested in answering them, or attempting any kind of serious cultural analysis. Instead, she delivers snarky, sometimes silly recaps as she rates films like Twilight, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, American Pie, and The Notebook on a scale of 1 to The Fugitive (the subject of the first chapter, titled “The Fugitive Is The Only Good Movie”). I watched The Fugitive recently. It totally holds up. It’s even better than you remember.
But not even The Fugitive escapes West’s snark. The film’s jailbreak scene “features all four types of prisoners: spooky white guy, great big black guy, Latino guy, and Richard Kimble.” Harrison Ford’s wrongly accused doctor out for revenge hits different in the Trump era. (“Crashing a pharmaceutical gala when you are fugitive drenched in blood? This movie is from 1993, but that’s a 2020 mood.”) So does the coolly competent U.S. Marshal played by Tommy Lee Jones. “You know where nobody is ever competent or assembles an incredible team, which they lead with a just, firm, fatherly hand?” West asks. “Real life! Which makes this basically sci-fi.”
Next to The Fugitive, West reserves her highest praise for. . .Rush Hour, the 1998 Chis Tucker/Jackie Chan buddy cop movie. “The Fugitive is the only good movie, but so is Rush Hour,” West insists. But while the “gorgeous umami flavor” of The Fugitive’s complex moral universe has only improved with time, Rush Hour is more of a guilty pleasure today; it’s both warm and hilarious and fraught with racism and sexism, not to mention the retroactive ick factor of director Brett Ratner, the target of a volley of sexual harassment accusations. Unfortunately, West observes, “whether or not to watch Rush Hour is the kind of sticky post-#MeToo judgment call we now have to make all the time.”
In addition to the title essay, the book is worth buying for West’s well-deserved takedowns of Speed, with its “pointlessly baroque speed-based bus bomb,” and Top Gun. She explains that Top Gun is “an elite fighter pilot combat weapons academy training fly guy bad boy bang bang school in San Diego,” later calling it “fighter boy pew pew school” and “plane Hogwarts.” West’s hot takes on the top-grossing movie of 1986 include “Anthony Edwards is hotter than Tom Cruise” and “The unapologetic homoeroticism is, frankly, woke as hell.”
In retrospect, it’s obvious that “Maverick is the villain of Top Gun,” while poor Iceman is just trying to “build some more productive teamwork strategies.” Instead, Maverick brands Iceman as the bad guy because of Iceman’s valid concerns about his contempt for basic safety rules. “THIS IS HOW AMERICA BECAME A HOTSPOT OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC,” West concludes. “Because my generation was raised to believe not just that safety is for dweebs but that it’s EVIL!”
Decades after she first watched these movies, West notices the awkward slavery references in Titanic, the potential pitfalls of lion-based government if you’re a zebra in The Lion King, and the way the acting in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “so vastly outstrips the script and direction it is frankly problematic.” She calls out the typical ‘90s villain’s weapon of choice (“Man, everything in the ‘90s was about C-4!”) and modus operandi (“That was always happening in the ‘90s—a pay phone ringing and on the other end is a psychopath who’s about to explain the plot”). She raises lingering questions like: Why does the Terminator have a dick and an Austrian accent? And: What are the chances of “someone whose last name is Lupin coincidentally getting bit by a werewolf”?
You can still read about half the book for free on Jezebel, largely intact. In some cases, it seems like all West did was delete the .gifs. Indeed, Shit, Actually could have used a stronger editorial hand. She clearly wrote many of the chapters on deadline, then revised and rushed them into print in the early days of quarantine. West’s conversational writing style—overegged with acronyms, exclamation points, and caps—GETS ANNOYING LOL!!!!! And your mileage may vary depending on your affection for and knowledge of the films discussed. While the book contains plenty of genuinely funny material, the rat-a-tat jokes don’t all land, and their relentless pace quickly becomes exhausting.
But I’m probably not the only one who’s been revisiting many of these same films as nostalgic quarantine entertainment, the cinematic equivalent of childhood comfort food. “More than anything I want this book to make you feel like you were at a movie night with your best friend (me),” West writes in the introduction. “I had no way of knowing, when I proposed Shit, Actually back in 2017, that I’d be writing it in a time when movie nights with your best friend no longer existed.” I can’t imagine a better companion for a cathartic night on the couch.