Pop culture, by its very definition, is intended to reach as wide an audience as possible. Profit is the name of the game and the more people you can convince to part with their hard earned cash, the better. It’s one of the reasons we see so many stories, themes and character types repeated across film, TV and much more. Once something clicks with enough people and becomes a massive hit, it doesn’t take long for dozens of wannabe copycats to scurry in their shadow. Think of how basically every major blockbuster of the past few years borrowed the Marvel mould in desperate attempts to replicate the shared universe model.
Majorly popular things obviously resonate with a lot of people - why else would they be so popular? - but there’s a big difference between loving something and finding something so precise to your interests that it feels tailor made just for you. That’s a special emotion that only comes along once in a rare while. When you find that film or album or book that clicks in the hyper-specific way that aligns with your person, you latch onto it with all your might. You’re torn between wanting to recommend it to everyone you encounter and hoarding it for yourself because surely nobody else will get it in the way you do. Nothing is ever made for just one person - talk about the world’s worst business proposal - but the joy in finding that thing that hits your wavelength is that your own response to it will always be completely different from everyone else on the planet.
Sometimes, explaining why something resonates with you so keenly is its own task. Parsing into words the emotions of such a thing can often sound silly out loud, especially if you can’t quite find the words to have it all make sense. But of course I have to give it a go for the purposes of hot take information and your entertainment. Here are a couple of pieces of pop culture that were made just for me. If you like these things too, then more power to you, but they were obviously made for me and me alone.
My favourite movie since I was about 15, acclaimed director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of the Doug Wright play is the sort of story that can be hard to explain in polite company without people thinking you’re a bit weird. It’s a dramatization of the last days of the Marquis de Sade, as he resides in the Charenton Asylum and finds cunning means to disperse his latest editions of filth to the French masses. After Napoleon puts his foot down, a sadistic doctor is sent to clean up the madhouse and ensure the Marquis is silenced forever. Of course, you can’t keep a determined pervert down, and so a battle between art and religion unfolds.
Quills is probably a tad too kind to de Sade, a genuinely detestable creep and abuser. It seeks to use his abstract life as a way to explore various issues of human sexuality, the separation of church and state, the limits of censorship and the influence of art on our reality. Still all of those issues are ones I’m particularly fascinated by, so how could I resist a movie where they’re all deployed to the backdrop of a story featuring porn, puns bad theatre and shit on the walls? It’s florid and twisted and provocative and bleakly funny. The story uses erotica in a unique way and it’s anchored by a lead performance, wherein Geoffrey Rush can’t decide if he wants to play de Sade as a horny mountain goat or an actress in a Douglas Sirk movie. Quills is also greatly helped by the presence of baby Joaquin Phoenix playing a tortured priest who engages in self-flagellation. I’m an easily satisfied woman.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
I’ve never read A Little Life, the 700+ page doorstopper of emotional turmoil that made Hanya Yanagihara a household name, mostly because I was spoiled on its contents and I only have so many hours in the day to dedicate to books. Instead, I decided to buy her debut novel, a shorter story that hit all my buttons as a reader. The People in the Trees is partly inspired by the story of Daniel Carlton Gajdusek, a revered American physician who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the kuru virus, before being sent to jail for molesting one of his adopted children. Yanagihara’s version takes those basic elements and introduces them in the opening chapter. From there, we are sent into the mind of Norton Perina, a genius physicist who is penning his memoirs from jail. His studies lead him to an undisturbed community in Micronesia, where natives consume the meat of a rare turtle, which prevents physical ageing but does nothing to stop mental degradation.
I’m a sucker for stories that had unreliable narrators, and The People in the Trees has one of those, but it also has an unreliable editor. Perina’s toadying associate provides fawning footnotes and cuts the text accordingly, leaving the reader trapped between the truth and the enthralling narrative created by a self-confessed genius. The reader gets an insight into this curious life of a man whose intellect has given him a God complex that’s only been strengthened by time and society. He views the world with coldness, believing his intelligence has allowed him to dehumanise everyone around him in the name of science. This makes for a gripping and often unsettling read, because the prose is beautiful and utterly addictive, even as it delves into the most disturbing things.
I remember when I first read this book, and how difficult it became for me to put it down and get on with my life afterwards. It lingered with me like clouds around the mountaintop, and I simply couldn’t shake it. Yanagihara’s prose has a way of getting under your skin. There isn’t a word wasted in this stunning tale. I hope others read this one, if only because I need people to talk about it with!
I’ve actually been a bit obsessed with all things Hannibal Lecter since I was a teen. I remember getting Read Dragon out of my school library, much to the confusion of the librarian, and devouring it in a couple of nights. The same thing happened with The Silence of the Lambs, then Hannibal, although I had to go to my local library to procure the battered hardback edition of that one. The magic was lost on me a little by that point, as I couldn’t get over how much Thomas Harris fucked over Clarice (Cleolinda Jones, the writer and internet friend of mine, once joked that we all remember exactly where we were when Thomas Harris fucked over Clarice Starling, and the sad thing is I do remember). Once my parents introduced me to Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, I found myself on stronger ground, and it remains one of my favourite films ever.
But Hannibal the TV show is in its own level of special for me.
Let’s take count of everything in it that feels so special to me: The baroque stylings, the melodramatic dialogue, the weird sex scenes, the queer reinterpretation of the source material, the music that sounds like a cross between Angelo Badalamenti and Aphex Twin, the otherworldly approach to the murder mystery genre, the presence of several figures from my Pajiba 10 list, all the plaid suits, the dynamic of two geniuses having to decide if they kill each other or join forces or fuck, and the moment in which Hugh Dancy asks a man if his social worker is inside a horse. Honestly, best show ever.
Bryan Fuller’s sensibility is completely in line with everything I want in TV, and Hannibal feels like his magnum opus in many regards. For me, I love how it is inimitably a Fuller series, but one that remains utterly true to everything I love about Thomas Harris’s creation. Fuller also cuts out the unsavoury stuff - Harris and LGBTQ+ depictions are not great bedfellows, but thankfully the show fixes that. The much discussed fourth season may never happen, and I’m honestly happy with how the series ended. Of course, I’d take a new season in a heartbeat, don’t think I wouldn’t!
Randall, or The Painted Grape by Jonathan Gibbs
My favourite kind of art is weird, obtuse performance and modern art that seems designed mostly to piss off tabloid newspapers. Everything from the Young British Artists era of the 90s enthrals me, be it unmade beds or pickled sharks. So, of course, I would be obsessed with a novel that both depicts and mocks that specific moment in recent history.
Jonathan Gibbs’s debut novel imagines the YBA scene without the enfant terrible Damien Hirst. In his universe, Hirst died before he could become the defining figure of the movement, so in his place, Gibbs offers us Randall: A brash working-class kid with big ideas and an eerie ability to make money. His pioneering project involves creating portraits of people’s ahem… toilet paper leftovers, something that people are willing to spend millions on to procure. The metaphor of people paying six figures or more for literal shit is lost on nobody, but it’s that kind of brashness that makes this book so pinpoint accurate about the era.
This is another book with an unreliable narrator. Randall’s friend-slash-hanger-on has written a book on the man and his art, wherein he seems determined to cement his status as a key figure in the decade. What makes Randall so specifically for me is how it depicts genius. We’ve all consumed pop culture wherein we’re repeatedly told about the undeniable genius of some beloved figure by every character in the story. It’s hammered home how this man - it’s always a man - is so special and beloved and does things nobody else can, yet when it comes time for the story to prove this genius, it falls flat. Writing about true genius is tough. Randall is smart because it not only perfectly develops the kind of genius who would have flourished in that hyper-specific era of art and culture, but the described artwork he makes is exactly the kind of stuff that would have made Hirst-style headlines. Randall is almost too right about the era to be satire, but it’s still a marvellous read for those who know exactly how strange the time of pickled lambs and butterfly murals was.
What pop culture do you feel was made specifically for you? What stories appeal to you in such incredibly specific ways that you’ve become wildly attached to it? Let us know in the comments.