Yes, I’m Two Months Late to the Taylor Swift/Martin McDonagh Directors on Directors; No, That Won’t Stop Me From Being Mad Online About It

Living under a rock certainly has its perks. I quit Twitter in October of last year, when a notorious anti-trans bigot bought the site, because I didn’t want to put more money in his pocket. I don’t regret it–I’d recommend it, even, for anyone whose mental health is adversely affected by their 24/7 access to a latter-day Suffering Channel–but it’s kind of breathtaking how much I miss. Like, the mayor of my own city resigned in disgrace following a massive sex scandal, and I didn’t hear about until days later, when my dad called and was like, “Whoa, rough week for John Tory.” The only news I get these days comes from two sources: my New Yorker subscription and Who? Weekly.

It’s via the latter that I learned about Taylor Swift’s directors-on-directors interview with Martin McDonagh. Two months late. It’s among the boldest salvos in Taylor’s bid for Best Short; I’d known she was gunning for an Oscar, but I hadn’t realized just how hard until I saw her sitting across from Martin McDonagh, grilling him about the animal acting in The Banshees of Inisherin, talking about the “body work” that went into Sadie Sink’s fetal sob.

Let me establish something up top: Taylor Swift and I are in the fucking foxhole. I have been listening to this woman’s music for seventeen years. I paid real human money to attend Taylor Swift’s reputation Stadium Tour at a time when, trust me, scoring a ticket was not an issue. Empty seats. Small children. Some of the worst songs she’s ever recorded, every beat synced to the LED bracelet I’d dutifully strapped to my wrist. I took her side in the Kanye feud at a time when it wasn’t thumpingly obvious to everyone that the bad guy is the one who commissions a lifelike nude sculpture of a woman and places it in bed between likenesses of himself and a notorious wife-beater.

And that incident, more than anything, is maybe why Taylor’s making a mid-career pivot to film direction. She has been papped every single day since she was sixteen. She has been anorexic. She has been groped by adult men who stood in line for her meet-and-greets. You can see how a person would decide, “You know what? Enough. Stop looking at me. From now on, I will be the one who does the looking.”

But, God help us, we’re still looking. More to the point, God help her: she still wants us to look. She subtitled her music video “The Short Film.” She screened it at TIFF and Tribeca. She wanted an Oscar. Here she is, on this couch, sitting ramrod-straight across from Martin McDonagh, wanting it. She is not merely asking to be taken seriously as a film director; she is asking to be acclaimed as one.

In the comments for the Directors on Directors video, a lot of Swifties expressly thank Martin McDonagh for respecting Taylor. None of them seem to really know who he is. A common refrain is, like, “Now I’m excited to see The Banshees of Inisherin,” and it’s a funny thought, all these teenagers who loved seeing the guy from Teen Wolf gaslight the girl from Stranger Things sneaking into an R-rated movie which features, prominently, a severed human finger floating in a pool of animal vomit. There is a mismatch here. One of these people is making art for adults, and one is not.

I’m not calling Taylor Swift a dilettante. At one point in this conversation, she says that she’s directed ten music videos in addition to the short film. I checked Wikipedia; she’s actually lowballing. She’s listed as a co-director of the early Lover videos, and she’s solely responsible for all the Folklore, Evermore, and Midnights visuals. She knows how to make a film. But does she know how to make a good one?

Consider “Anti-Hero,” the lead single from Midnights, and the least embarrassing of the three videos she’s directed for this album. In one scene, Taylor stepped onto a scale, which rolled automatically to the word FAT. Tedious debate ensued: Was the scene fatphobic? Or was it okay, because she’d been anorexic, and she was simply telling her story? (The obvious answer: Yes, it was fatphobic; asking an anorexic to maintain a healthy attitude toward fatness is a multi-week curriculum at a rehab centre, not a one-and-done ask.) But it was also facile, a lowest-common-denominator expression of the experience of anorexia, a moment as substantial as a pint of Halo Top. It did what “Anti-Hero” didn’t: Convince a bunch of sympathetic Taylor Swift fans that Taylor Swift was capable of thoughtless cruelty.

She followed “Anti-Hero” with “Bejeweled,” which comes up in the conversation with Martin McDonagh. He asks Taylor what it was like to work with Laura Dern, and Taylor gushes, and I, watching at home, go cross-eyed. Laura Dern is awful in the video for “Bejeweled,” just dreadful. And she is a great actress, one of our very best–she just can’t salvage the collection of children’s-entertainment-clichés in Taylor’s script. The video is, on the whole, a nightmare, notable only for being Dita Von Teese’s sole appearance in media for five-year-olds. Seeing it discussed, stone-faced, in the same breath as The Banshees of Fucking Inisherin, feels like a practical joke.

I’m circling my central point now, which is that Taylor Swift’s whole sensibility is arrested, frozen in time, forever making space for the next generation of children who are just coming to know her. None of her contemporaries give themselves this burden. Children listen to Beyoncé, but Beyoncé does not make music for children. Taylor does. Beyoncé doesn’t make the same music she made when she was nineteen. Taylor does. Literally. She’s tasked herself with re-making Fearless and Red, placing all these songs about first dates and first apartments and first shitty older boyfriends in the throat of an adult woman. She simply will not let herself grow up. If she could, she’d be unstoppable.

And that brings us to Taylor’s most successful moment as a director: a piece in which she allowed someone else to play the teenager. It seems clear to me that “All Too Well” succeeds on the strength of Sadie Sink’s performance. She was just about the only thing to like about the last season of Stranger Things, and she’s superb in this video, utterly convincing. Maybe that’s why it’s so jarring when the video gives way, in the end, to pure wish fulfillment, a revenge fantasy that undercuts the emotional nadir of Sadie red in the face and breathless, her tiny body shaking with sobs. Taylor appears, in a blazer and an unconvincing wig, to read a novel to a roomful of misty-eyed fans. She’s won: the shit-head guy is outside, in the cold, looking through the window and longing for her. She wants to spray whipped cream and plop a victim-to-victor cherry on top of her Marriage Story, her An Education, her Call Me By Your Name; why? How would she have closed Banshees? With a new house, a new Jenny, a new hand?

Look, I’m as bored of despair for despair’s sake as anyone. Gore is no guarantor of good film; I get the feeling, based on a few friends’ appraisals of Three Billboards, that Martin McDonagh is capable himself of facile storytelling, emotional immaturity, embarrassing oversights. But his sensibility is an adult’s, and Banshees, at least, made plenty of room for ambiguous loss. Taylor says, at one point, talking to Martin, that it’s one of the best films she’s ever seen. (Martin receives this genuinely, eyes going wide, thanking her. It’s sweet.) What did she learn from it, though? When will she go into the wild of herself and bring us back whatever carrion she finds?

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