I made a mistake today.
YouTube offered me a free episode of a Red-exclusive web series and I watched it.
I don’t know why I did. I mean it’s kind of YouTube’s fault; they recommended it despite knowing how much Wang Chung I listen to and how often I watch other people play pinball machines. YouTube Red is not for me. I cannot name more than three relevant YouTube stars and I’d pronounce at least one of them wrong.
Yet I was compelled to click, but some unseen, lazily ambiguous force. A fate shared by the handsome blank of a host that awaited me in Escape the Night, YouTube Red’s ambitious cross between Clue, Survivor and that friend who idolizes life in the The Great Gatsby because they don’t get The Great Gatsby.
Somehow based off an episode of Lizzie McGuire, Escape the Night follows YouTube “personality” Joey Graceffa as he inherits a spooky mansion and throws a party for his YouTube “personality” friends. You know it’s a spooky mansion because his voice-over includes breathy, nonsensical revelations like it was “built without hands” and the fact that it perpetually exists in the year 1920.
The surprisingly complicated set-up for Escape the Night would almost be entertaining on its own if the show didn’t immediately ignore it. See, not only is the mansion stuck in 1920, but all of the YouTube stars are given era-appropriate characters to play and forbidden from any modern behavior and technology (which fades out of existence).
The first talking head (unconvincingly) plays along. The second calls it a “1920s-themed” party, admitting its fake. The third blatantly mentions YouTube. We’re not four minutes deep into a 12-episode season of 24-minute episodes and Escape the Night already breaks its own rules. Here’s an example of the subtle way they try to stick to the premise:
In the middle of a mingling montage with the “personalities”/characters, the host tells someone off-camera, “No technology works, which is crazy.” Then he spots a maid with drinks and says, “Ooh! I’d love one!”
Escape the Night is like watching an unnecessarily lavish costume party thrown for 20-somethings comfortably modern enough to call themselves “Influencers” on LinkedIn. They make no attempt to commit to their characters and, in some cases, misunderstand them completely (a “fixer” does not literally fix broken things). The acting is as grim as you’d expect from a cast known solely for playing exaggerated versions of themselves.
There’s nothing to enjoy in Escape the Night unless you have a deep, abiding love for one of the personalities involved.
Which brings me to a TV show, a movie, the most famous contestant on Escape the Night and, against all notions of viewership or common sense, the first to die.
I mentioned Shane Dawson the last time I wrote about YouTube. In 2014, he participated in another reality show, this one for Starz, this one called The Chair.
The rules of The Chair are simple and tantalizing to the creative type – two aspiring directors are handed the same script and sent off to make very different versions of it.
Shane won with Not Cool, which I noted in that earlier article, but I only watched the trailer. I summarized that the first 14 seconds included a gloryhole, public masturbation and a walking cartoon stereotype of the “crazy” girlfriend. I then foolishly promised it said more than I ever could about Not Cool.
Now I’ve seen Not Cool, I’ve seen The Chair and because two provide a frighteningly intimate glimpse into the psyche of the one-time highest-grossing YouTube star in the world, I have more to say.
On The Chair, Shane Dawson is introduced in drag as he drops below the camera, pantomimes a blowjob, then stands back up to spit out the result and criticize the helpless camera op’s diet. Even by the over-edited standards of reality TV, it’s a brutal way to present a contestant.
Brutal, but honest, as time will soon tell.
Chris Moore – producer of Good Will Hunting and American Pie, executive producer of The Chair and its stagier forebear, HBO’s Project Greenlight – provides the most objective and entertaining commentary throughout the series. He also chooses Shane as a representative of what he smartly (if not exactly presciently) considers the future of filmmaking – YouTube. Moore admits he doesn’t fully understand the culture of the world’s favorite cat video repository or its budding stars, but he respects an audience when he sees one.
The same audience Shane wants to outgrow, or so he claims. I knew him only by reputation and trailer when I started The Chair, neither of which endeared me, but his opening testimony gave me hope – he wanted to step outside of his YouTube comfort zone and become an honest-to-Godard filmmaker.
His competition, meanwhile, is already a few steps ahead. Anna Martemucci studied screenwriting at NYU and already co-wrote a produced feature film by the time The Chair rolled around. In talking about her education, Anna mentions that the screenwriting students handed their scripts over to the directing students as final projects. By her estimation, they always did a horrible job with her work. This is what we like to call “foreshadowing.”
It’s hard to tell from the first episode, but whether by design or divine tragedy, there will be a de facto hero and de facto villain in The Chair.
Spoiler alert for a three-year-old show: Shane is the villain. Anna is the hero. Almost.
The directors’ first meetings with their script’s author, Dan Schoeffer, lays the hairline fractures that become canyons by the last episode. Without exaggeration, it’s these scenes that convinced me to finish The Chair.
Shane Dawson meets Dan and wants more Shane Dawson-brand jokes in the script, but he also wants the main character, whom he’s decided to play, to be less like Shane Dawson.
Anna Martemucci tells Dan she won’t be using a single word of his script and brings in writing partners – her husband and brother-in-law – to further explain to him why his script isn’t “revelatory” enough.
The script, it should be noted, is an accessibly entertaining romantic comedy about college students’ first Thanksgiving home from school.
Maybe I’m prejudiced, maybe I’m staring too hard, but almost immediately, the directors don’t respect the writer and it’s only downhill from there. Shane and his controlling manager Lauren Schnipper argue with producers over a writing credit, which said producers explain is against Writers Guild regulations. Anna frets over her rewrite not being “profound” enough, though the dry-humping scene included in the eventual film (where the lead admits he forgot how fun it is) apparently passed that test. She later calls Dan’s original script a slick Hollywood product, but about as “real” as store-brand bologna. Eventually, Dan stops showing up to her set, which the producers understand and Anna doesn’t mind.
But in those small, almost invisible early conflicts with the writer, the show’s broadest dramatic arcs are forged:
Shane can’t help himself and Anna has trust issues.
Shane Dawson’s edict to step outside his comfort zone lasts twenty minutes, maybe twenty-five. While interviewing his director of photography, he admits he’s just aiming for Superbad (making it a Mixtape, as per my last look at YouTube movies) because he knows his audience and they want a raunchy, Shane Dawson-brand teen comedy. When producer Zachary Quinto warns him that his rewritten script is inappropriate enough to hurt its production, Shane brushes it off as an old man complaining about that dang rock and roll music. But when they can’t find a black actor in Pittsburgh willing to eat his own waste on camera or flash his considerable genitals, Shane just accuses the local talent of being entitled, lazy or non-existent.
Almost immediately, Anna stops acting as a director and becomes a filmmaking hivemind with her husband and his brother. Decisions rarely come without the approval of at least two of them. A later point of contention centers on her husband seemingly directing a few scenes, if not at least being a constant artistic whisper in Anna’s ear. After the screenwriter gives up, Chris Moore and co. show up to watch a day’s shooting only for Anna’s crew to refuse them entry to the set. It’s a privacy concern for Anna – she wants her actors as comfortable as possible for their almost fully clothed sex scene – but it’s painful to watch the series creator try to get a straight answer as to why he’s not allowed to see a contestant work. She holds up her crew well into the second episode with dissatisfied rewrites, as the Screenwriting 101-mandated notecards cover her walls like plot-covered paintchips. She spends nearly a whole day on a single set-up, shooting her lead falling onto a bed. Her dogged fight to show an erect penis as both a symbol of clumsy youth and a victory for gender equality confuses and frustrates the producers in equal measure.
If there’s no other lesson in The Chair, it at least reminds that it’s rarely pretty watching the sausage get made. Watching any production under a microscope would reveal plenty of ugly, passionate moments. Neither contestant comes out looking like $250,000, the prize money at the end of the rainbow.
It’s a wonder Shane and his manager, Lauren, get along at all. Their every exchange sounds like a conversation in an RPG where the player intentionally picks the most combative dialogue choice just for the hell of it. When she warns him not to say “Facebook” too many times in his movie, he asks why. She says it’s just smarter not to poke that bear. He asks if they’re allowed at all. She says yes, but not too much. He asks why he can’t say it as often as possible, then. She says it’s not illegal, per se- and so on. Lauren, like Anna’s conglomerate, directs the actors later on, asking for further takes and setting Shane off like clockwork.
Anna comes off as indecisive and paranoid, at times. She tries to hide potentially damaging conversations from The Chair‘s camera crew (unsuccessfully). Her poor costume designer has to start from scratch after she approved his designs, but reconsidered closer to production when she realized she didn’t mean that first approval. She takes her rewritten romantic comedy seriously enough to the point of arrogance, name-dropping Sofia Coppola and Alexander Payne as influences on the project.
But it’s no secret that Shane is the one you’re supposed to be booing. Hell, there’s a solid chance you’d know that without even watching The Chair.
In one of The Chair‘s biggest dramatic beats, Zachary Quinto visits Shane’s set to watch some dailies. He exchanges pleasantries with the crew, sits down at the rear of the pack and watches takes of another Shane Dawson stock character, a boorishly broad stereotype of an oversex Jewish woman, driving a limo against green-screen. The cast, crew die laughing. Quinto, surrounded and outnumbered, just dies.
A wave of ugly recognition crashes against his soul, as if his friends invited him over to watch funny videos and instead cued up hardcore porn. Behind his death mask of attempted bemusement, he grapples with the baffling, grotesque display before him. He can’t break, can’t freak out like he so badly needs to, so he just locks up.
Not long after, he pulled his name off of Shane’s movie. Very, very, VERY publicly. One of the tensest scenes in The Chair is the producer’s meeting when he announces his decision. The two other producers from Quinto’s production company are split – one stands up for Shane’s movie (which he had a significant hand in) and the other pulls his name off, too. This is to say nothing of the fact that Quinto and his associates had a prior working relationship with Anna (which they admit in the first episode) and continue to support her movie.
Shane wins, as I mentioned before. The show attempts to circumvent the unfair advantage of its more popular contestant’s staggering fan base with a multiple-choice test ensuring that voters watched both movies. But even with that safeguard, there were more than enough Shane Dawson diehards who watched both movies and voted to ensure a handy victory.
While both contestants took it in stride, a little more honesty has trickled out in the years since. Call it the reality TV hangover. Shane still has no love for Zachary Quinto and believes there was a conspiracy against him on The Chair. Anna, meanwhile, has explicitly called it rigged, decried Shane’s offensive persona and “quit Hollywood.”
There hasn’t been a second season of The Chair. Some of it probably has to do with the series-long b-plot of the producers struggling to fund two independent films and a TV show at the same time. I’m sure the uneasy-at-best epilogue – one filmmaker quit filmmaking and the other is starring in YouTube Red shows as themselves – and the Quinto quotient haven’t done the would-be Season 2 any favors.
Perhaps the biggest blows to The Chair are its disappointing byproducts – Season 1 didn’t produce a financially successful movie or, from where I’m sitting, one worth watching.
In the last episode, the budding filmmakers quote select reviews of their directorial debuts and react to them. Shane’s harshest critics suggested it was a film “only date-rapists, racists and sociopaths could love“and requested that everyone involved not be allowed to approach a camera ever again. Anna’s harshest critics called her movie pretty, but pointless. Some of the jump-ship producers came out in glowing support of Anna’s Hollidaysburg and the general consensus outside Shane’s fandom is that her movie is an impressively done little indie while his is a war crime.
But watching Hollidaysburg, it’s just pandering in a different direction. If Shane’s movie (which we’ll get to in much greater, gorier detail soon) plays exclusively to his devoted, Anna’s movie pulls out all the Quirky-Relatable stops. Her characters swear too much because angsty college kids swear a lot, but it’s, like, honest, man. The goofy best friend is obsessed with perfecting the pumpkin pie when he isn’t comparing oh-so-clever goofy yearbook photos with his brother. One of the funniest production hiccups on Hollidaysburg was pointed out early on, but ignored, until the test screenings cited it as a major problem – the two female leads of the movie look incredibly similar. Anna and her team laugh it off entirely; the audience is just dim. But lo – they look remarkably similar and until they’re finally brought together in the same scene, it’s not hard to believe Hollidaysburg just plays fast and loose with conventional editing. Point is, they all kind of looks the same shade of pouty. Everyone talks about sex with a forceful frankness that no actual, polite human beings, even best friends, truly do. Melancholy acoustic songs whine endlessly until one longs for John Belushi to descend the heavenly staircase and smash every Gibson in the city of Pittsburgh.
If you could make a movie entirely out of flannel, you’d get Hollidaysburg. It’s junkfood for the college crowd that looks down on everyone else for watching junkfood. They’d probably say this movie just sounds “warmer.”
So what about Not Cool? I’ve put it off this long, 2500 words deep (God bless you, dear readers). Part of me didn’t even want to write about it because it destroyed what I considered a personal truth.
I always believed I could enjoy any movie. I could find some good in the bad, something worth recommending or remembering.
Not Cool broke my faith.
What makes The Chair so riveting for anyone with even a passing interest in filmmaking is its naked depiction of the alternately mundane and heated decisions. Everything is a decision in filmmaking, in art as a whole. Do we cover this scene in one long take? Does this conversation play out over silence or a pop song? How many rape jokes can we shoehorn into Not Cool?
Normally, any wonder about the decisions made on a movie is left at the question mark. With The Chair and its progeny, we get to see which decisions the filmmakers botched, which ones they fought for and which ones they never saw coming.
Considering the artistic decisions he makes in The Chair, Shane Dawson is painted as an insecure hypocrite at best and a tone-deaf infant with an instinct for the lowest common denominator. His ambition lapses in record-time. On what he claims will be his ticket beyond the YouTube bubble, he spends the first few days of preproduction testing vomit effects.
He indignantly refuses to tone down so much as a single line of his rewritten script to humor the Pittsburgh actors scared off by the content. The producers calmly remind him that most of the local talent only acts part-time and can’t afford anyone at their law firms or tenure hearings to know they ate shit on camera for Shane Dawson. That only gets him hotter, shouting that they should be so lucky to earn a paid gig eating shit on camera. When original writer Dan suggests Shane’s character could also make YouTube videos, just in a different style, Shane stares at him like he’s waiting for the English translation. It’s too close, Shane tells him; this will be a chance to stretch his acting wings, too. Then he wedges in two of the worst personas from his YouTube channel, both equal-but-opposite insults to women, to the on-record dismay of his manager and team. When the owner of a tattoo parlor location finds out she let the allegedly racist Shane Dawson shoot in her establishment, she tells every producer she can find about his less–than–stellar reputation. When Shane finds out about her valid complaints, he brushes it off and wonders why she gave them permission if he’s such a monster.
Perhaps most damningly, he trots out what’s fast becoming the most popular filmmaker cop-out – Shane Dawson didn’t make his movie for those raised-pinky critics; he made it for the fans.
If that’s the case, and it really is just for the fans, then Not Cool concerns me on a societal level.
The movie opens with a party. If you watch The Chair, you’ll find out that Shane doesn’t drink and doesn’t party. If you just watch Not Cool, you’ll find out the same thing. The opening shot, a needless one-take through the party, begins with a close-up of a woman’s hind-end. The artistry stops there. Another woman is giddily picked up and carried into a bedroom by two dudes. A confused-looking guy on a couch receives a lap dance from a woman he calls “dark meat” in the tweet he’s composing at the same time. A boyfriend tweets about missing his girlfriend while making out with a boy who is not his girlfriend. A full-figured partygoer dancing by herself is mocked as thoroughly as that set-up would suggest. Marijuana is enjoyed freely and unconvincingly. Then the female lead, perhaps the only bright spot in this black hole, gets blasted with vomit.
In just the first shot, Not Cool manages to include shameless male gaze, sexism, racism, homophobia, fat-shaming and what somehow isn’t the movie’s laziest gross-out gag. That honor, by the way, belongs to an unnecessary cutaway where kooky parents stretch for a workout until the mom farts so hard she messes herself and has to scoot along the floor toward the bathroom, complete with the added sound effect of someone fondling a lasagna.
It’s not even that I disdain cheap-and-easy comedy. In fact, a Tim & Eric sketch about apples coated in sleep-inducing laxatives did the poop-scoot bit about as well as something I just called a “poop-scoot” bit can be done. But there’s no art to the ick in Not Cool. It never feels like anything more than a ploy to make sure the audience didn’t fall asleep or get too invested in the characters. The female lead is dreading a reunion with her parents? Better have a homeless man eat his own shit (if you were wondering how important that ended up being) to keep the audience doubled over. The weird-but-kind-hearted friend is introduced pining after the woman of his dreams. So let’s have him sloppily pantomime the oral sex he’d like to provide her, for what feels like a full five minutes.
When Not Cool isn’t saying naughty words, it’s hurling bodily fluids. When it isn’t hurling bodily fluids, it’s being appallingly offensive. When it isn’t being appallingly offensive, there’s a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy in there somewhere.
The plot goes that Shane, the high school hotshot, is anything but when he comes back from his freshman year of college for Thanksgiving. The female lead, played by prolific voice-actor Cherami Leigh, is facing the opposite effect; she’s been thriving in college, but in high school, she was a loser (“Tori the Whorie,” a nickname provided by our “hero”). The two bump into each other, have sex and spend the rest of break thinking about it. Meanwhile, Shane’s younger sister is, in fact, the woman of the weird-but-kind-hearted friend’s dreams. So you’ve got not one, but two cliched romances to predict a half hour in.
Ordinarily, that would be the good in the bad. At least the decent in the awful. It’s a bog-standard romantic comedy about pretty teenagers making mistakes. It’s a different kind of junkfood than Hollidaysburg, but it’s still junkfood.
But the sexual politics at play in Not Cool poison any chance at entertainment. They start out insulting and end downright irresponsible.
The Chair offered only a fleeting hint at the misogyny to come.
While filming that scene where the weird-but-kind-hearted friend admits his feelings to the woman of his dreams, Shane found himself in a conundrum. The scene’s working well (he says). Too well. When he brought on Drew Monson, a young talent he personally found on YouTube, to play the friend, Shane knew he could handle it. But Drew was downright magnetic (arguable, but not his fault).
At first, I thought Shane was going to express fear that his protege would make off with his movie. It’s hinted at a bit earlier, after all.
But no. That’s not Shane’s concern.
He’s concerned that Drew is so likable, so charismatic, so good, that now the object of his affections – his sister, played well enough by Michelle Veintimilla – will look like a bitch for not sleeping with him.
See, that plot is supposed to end with Drew’s character accepting their friendship as just that and Michelle’s character trying to help him move on.
But Shane thought Drew was selling his character so well that audiences would hate Michelle’s character for not rewarding him with a roll in the hay.
That, my friends, is a big, gross can of worms. I don’t want to count all the ways the Friend Zone is disturbing and sexist, but this here’s one of ’em. He’s such a nice guy she has to sleep with him. If she doesn’t, she’s a real bitch.
And this wasn’t in the script – this was Shane’s own fear.