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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: “Uncut Gems,” Taylor Swift’s documentary, and more

Feb. 6, 2020
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Watch: Uncut Gems (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie)

This prepackaged migraine is anything but a movie. Adam Sandler plays a Jewish jeweler in a career-defining performance almost on par with his role in Punch-Drunk Love, and the Safdies up their tension-building by a thousand from their breakout, 2017’s Good Time. Right from the start you get caught up in the middle of everything before you even realize what’s going on. The lightning-fast pace is bolstered by the directors’ penchant for sensory overload: the close-ups are (literally) invasive, there’s always a yell or a phone ringing in the background, and the camera is rarely stationary. 

While relatively sloppier, what makes Uncut Gems work is its ability to elicit a visceral reaction. You don’t just feel thrill—you feel adrenaline, pulsating veins, immense anxiety. The Safdies took “show and tell” and obliterated it, throwing away exposition and choosing to infiltrate your very psyche. By the third act I was basically an expert on basketball parlays.

If you’ve seen the Safdies’ earlier work, there will be very little surprises; in fact, their directorial prowess is showcased better in Good Time. But even their lesser work feels revolutionary, still feels like pushing the limits of what the medium can do. In the era of rehashes, the existence of such a unique movie experience is a thrill in itself.

Uncut Gems is in U.S. theaters now and available to stream on Netflix International.

Watch: Miss Americana (dir. Lana Wilson)

Culture has dictated Taylor Swift as much as she has dictated culture, and Miss Americana is her taking back her narrative. This 85-minute documentary follows Swift from 2017’s reputation era to the making of last year’s Lover, interpolated with her rise to stardom and the career moments that have influenced where she currently stands in the zeitgeist. 

Everything is told from her perspective, with the gift of hindsight: she speaks about how Kanye West’s interruption of her VMA speech in 2009 was actually formative (“That was sort of a catalyst for a lot of psychological paths that I went down, and not all of them were beneficial.”), her struggle with body image and an eating disorder, and how constant online backlash caused her to reevaluate what external validation meant to her not just as an artist but as a person. 

Miss Americana works beautifully when it deconstructs Taylor Swift The Spectacle, drawing the curtain back and showing us Taylor Swift The Person. She’s known for being calculated—she drops clues about songs and projects everywhere, like the number of trees in an Instagram post—and the documentary shows the process behind that calculation, demystifying Swift and, in some moments, redeeming her. Here is a woman whose very womanhood is placed in the panopticon, who, as she explains in one scene, can’t afford to figure things out as she goes because her life is planned for the next couple of years. The industry’s disdain for women found a punching bag in Swift (“That’s such a slappable face,” she muses while watching dailies of the “Me!” music video shoot). Successful women are constantly vilified because it’s not in the DNA of women to be successful, to be industry-defining; Swift’s work is deviant, and so she has to pay the social sanctions.

In a separate scene, she sees “#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty” trending on Twitter and declares that sometimes she feels it’s not about the music anymore, and watching that scene, it’s hard to deny it. Swift is personal in her work, and this is often misinterpreted as an invitation: the public demands entry to her interiority. The artist’s service is no longer their work but themselves. The artist becomes the art, subject to criticism.

While the documentary has moments that cultivate the spectacle more, perhaps even placing her on a pedestal, it’s Swift’s self-awareness that provides a balance. She’s very privileged—that’s why she got to remain apolitical for so long—but now she’s learning and breaking her silence. In one scene she talks about feeling frozen at the age she got famous, and in Miss Americana we see the beginning of the thaw. 

Miss Americana is streaming on Netflix.

Listen: “Beautiful Faces” by Declan McKenna

English musician Declan McKenna has beautifully scored the 21st-century Gen-Z experience, first with his debut What Do You Think About the Car? released in 2017, and now with the lead single of his sophomore album. “I wanted it to be a big song… Scary big,” he told NME. “It very much relates to now, but I wanted to reimagine social media in this future-sphere where it has become even more immersive so that we cannot see where it ends and we begin.” This is reflected in the music video, where blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clips of animation renderings are inserted throughout a live performance. 

McKenna is vocal about his music being politically charged (songs from his first album were inspired by religious hypocrisy, Fox News, and former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, among other things), and “Beautiful Faces” is no different. “[It’s] about young people in the modern world and how intimidating it can be. How scary it is to see so much and feel as though you’re doing so little,” he addd. While the instrumentation leans toward pop and the hook is more polished and radio-ready, it’s still Declan, aged and wiser with time.

Watch the music video for “Beautiful Faces” here.