The Work of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman


Though Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are two different writer-directors, they both are frequent collaborators and their work often intersects thematically and visually. Having directed music videos for Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Björk, and Weezer, Jonze has an exceptional artistic range, even though he’s only made four movies. He possesses a distinctive taste for showcasing profoundly personal stories about love, loneliness, and the human condition. Similarly, Kaufman can transform ordinary stories into extraordinary ones, especially through his distinctive writing style, imaginative settings, contemplative characters, and introspective themes. His many acclaimed screenplays include one from my favorite film, Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. Whether together or separate, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are incredible, perceptive filmmakers with great attention to detail. I’m a huge fan of the two, so I decided to watch all of their films (three of which I had already seen) and here are my thoughts:

Being John Malkovich (1999, written by Kaufman, directed by Jonze)


For Jonze’s directorial debut and Kaufman’s screenwriting debut, Being John Malkovich is an impressive feat. And considering that it was released in 1999 — “the year that changed filmmaking” — Being John Malkovich seemed like it came around the right time, even though its subject matter and trippy execution are light years ahead of modern filmmaking. Watching Being John Malkovich was a transfixing experience, one that I still have trouble wrapping my head around. The film works as both a psychological tragicomedy and celebrity satire, delving into many layers of the psyche literally and figuratively. It’s about Craig Schwartz, a lonely, washed-up guy (John Cusack), whose ambition to be the world’s greatest puppeteer becomes a reality once he discovers a portal leading into the mind of theater/movie actor John Malkovich (played by the Malkovich man himself). Craig can only see through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes, until he’s dumped from the sky onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Fascinated by this and what it could do for his puppeteering career, he shares this information both with his homely wife Lotte (an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz) and his office crush Maxine (a devilish Catherine Keener). The two women become obsessed with this idea of being in someone else’s skin, especially that of a notable celebrity. Once Lotte decides to partake in this experiment, she discovers a new side to her sexuality, especially after she has a sexual encounter with Maxine while inside Malkovich’s body. Hilarious and devastating hijinks ensue and a subplot regarding the origin/truth behind the Malkovich portal further shows how Jonze’s meticulous direction and Kaufman’s loopy script work so well together. There are certain parts of the story that are so mind-blowing that they’re almost terrifying in how they impact the characters. John Malkovich eventually goes into the portal himself and finds that he’s placed in a nightmarish world where everyone looks like him and the only word that can be uttered is “Malkovich.” Maxine, the film’s most indecisive yet engaging character, becomes fixated on Malkovich, leading Craig to hijack the portal in order to woo Maxine. Told through a fantastic mockumentary-style montage, we see Maxine and Craig (as Malkovich) become engaged, Maxine become pregnant, and Craig live out his fantasy of being a puppeteer by capitalizing on Malkovich’s notoriety. But as expected, Maxine threatens to go back to Lotte, as the two share a true romantic connection, leaving Craig helpless. He ultimately leaves the portal and Malkovich regains sole consciousness for a second until he loses control completely, once a group of elderly immortals enter in the portal at the same time. Doesn’t that sound horrifying yet fascinating? Being John Malkovich is a strange and great movie, not just because it touches on themes of identity, fantasy, virtual reality, and sexuality, but also because it was entertaining to watch a story unfold in the most unexpected ways. It reminded me a lot of 1998’s fantastic “The Truman Show” and last year’s “Anomalisa,” which Kaufman also wrote and directed. This was definitely an impressive first feature for both Jonze and Kaufman and I will most likely watch Being John Malkovich again.

Grade: A-

Adaptation. (2002, written by Kaufman, directed by Jonze)


I was fairly disappointed with Jonze and Kaufman’s second film, the zany meta-satire Adaptation. Like Being John MalkovichAdaptation made a lot of unexpected twists and turns in its plot. The film is about an exaggerated version of Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), who encounters writer’s block when writing a movie adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief. This was allegedly based on a real experience, in which Kaufman could not figure out how to make The Orchid Thief into a film without sensationalizing it into a big-budgeted Hollywood flick. Adaptation displays Kaufman’s frustration through Cage’s surprisingly excellent and honest portrayal of the writer/director. But watching the film is almost as much of a frustrating experience as Kaufman’s attempt to adapt The Orchid Thief, in that the film bounces around tonally and thematically. In addition to constantly feeling under pressure from a studio exec (a vanilla Tilda Swinton), the neurotic, socially inept Kaufman/Cage seethes with jealousy at his much more extroverted, easy-going twin Donald (made up by Kaufman), who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie can’t interact with anyone without feeling anxious and doubtful of his abilities, despite everyone praising his work. My main problem with this was not just that Charlie was overusing self-deprecating humor and material to poke fun at his real-life experience, but that the script digs such a deep, narrative hole that it often gets lost in itself. The other subplot in Adaptation deals with Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) experience writing her novel, interviewing her titular protagonist John LaRoshe (Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for this role) over the course of two years and eventually falling for him. Like Charlie, Susan constantly deals with self-doubt and anxiety over her writing abilities, yet she is much less socially awkward and more driven to succeed. The two main stories, Orlean’s writing of the novel and Charlie’s trouble adapting it, ignite a lot of friction when juxtaposed together and they eventually intersect into a bizarre, mesmerizing final sequence. Despite my issues with Adaptation, I did love Cage, Streep, and Cooper’s central performances, some of Kaufman’s funny quips, and Jonze’s crazy direction. The final shot of the whole film also was a great scene, a time-lapse of blooming flowers set to The Turtles’ “So Happy Together,” simply because it smartly references two scenes in the movie. The blooming flowers points to a part where Charlie talks about how to show the true beauty of flowers in a genuine and profound way in his adaptation, which the last scene does. Donald sings “So Happy Together” to Charlie during one conversation, much to Charlie’s dismay, but the song sounds like something of a triumphant anthem. Even with the film’s flaws, the final scene represents the culmination of Adaptation‘s disarming plot, merging fiction into reality with one perfect sequence. I’ll try to watch Adaptation again, but I was not as won over with it as much as Being John Malkovich.

Grade: B

Synecdoche, New York (2008, written and directed by Kaufman)


Like with many other films, I repeatedly watched the trailer for Kaufman’s hyper-realist directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, before I finally watched the film itself. During the time of its release, Synecdoche, NY received polarizing reviews, with some like Roger Ebert praising it for its originality and narrative scope, while others thinking it was depressing, pretentious, and incomprehensible. Luckily, I found myself siding more with Ebert. Even though parts of it are hard-to-watch visually and aurally, Synecdoche, NY is a haunting tragedy about a dying man’s journey to create something big only to discover that it was all meaningless. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the dying man, Caden Cotard, and gives an intense performance that would have been deserving of an Oscar. In addition to suffering from various physical and mental ailments (seizures, boils, restless leg syndrome, hair loss) Caden is a theater director who decides to build the world’s largest and longest play in an abandoned warehouse in Schenectady, in order to win back his bored artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener). Without warning, Adele moves to Berlin with their daughter Olive and Adele’s BFF Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to pursue her art career, which does she successfully. Meanwhile, Caden continues to struggle with achieving his vision for a play, leading him to create a play within a play, choosing actors to portray him and other people in his life while the real play itself is going on. The film touches on multiple themes and ideas, primarily ambition and death, and uses several overt and subliminal motifs. Fortunately, it still delivers by offering a poignant, mesmerizing story. For example, Cotard’s assistant/crush Hazel (Samantha Morton) buys a house that is constantly burning, knowing that she can be killed at any moment by fire or the heavily polluted air, but nevertheless decides to invest in it. It’s a weird but clever metaphor for how we all have the ability to make choices, even when we know the ultimate consequences of those choices. That’s what makes us human, which is a key thematic template in Kaufman’s movies. There are even split-second still scenes of clock drawings spread throughout the movie, reinforcing the film’s idea that our time on Earth is limited. Suffering also seems to be a large component in this film, as Cotard is chronically ill, yet everyone around him seems to die before him. He falls in love with almost every woman he encounters — Adele, Hazel, his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams), Hazel’s stand-in Tammy (Emily Watson) — but he can’t make enough of an effort to act on anything mostly due to his illness. The large cast of talented women is especially great, considering that they are very strong female characters instead of mere caricatures. And in addition to being very dramatic, it’s also very darkly funny. An interesting thing about Kaufman movies/scripts is when there’s miscommunication between characters, mostly through mishearing what one person said to another (this is evident in some Synecdoche scenes and in several Being John Malkovich scenes). Jon Brion (love this guy!) provides a stellar soundtrack/score to Synecdoche, NY. His lovely piano-assisted ballad “Little Person,” which plays in one scene and in the end credits, and the final scene’s string-oriented “Ok” are particular standouts. Despite the complicated narrative structure, Synecdoche, New York really does have a heart built into its core and what the story accomplishes — and the questions that are ultimately asked — make it a truly astounding piece of work.

Grade: A-

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, directed by Jonze)


Taking a break from Kaufman, Spike Jonze’s third film, Where the Wild Things Are, not only channels an adventurous, much darker take on the 1960s children’s picture book by Maurice Sendak, but also paves a road for Jonze’s own experimentation with screenwriting and storytelling. Co-writing the script with author/novelist Dave Eggers, Jonze pictures the world of Where the Wild Things Are as an unflinching, tender depiction of childhood angst and innocence. I figure many know what the story is, but for those who don’t: Max (Max Records) is the protagonist, a restless pre-adolescent with animalistic tendencies and a gooey heart. After he has a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener, ftw!), Max runs away crying and finds a boat that sails him to a mysterious island whose inhabitants include grotesque-looking quasi-animal creatures. I’d seen the film twice before, but I figured I would see it again, just to see if I noticed anything different, which I did. A huge underlying theme in the film is imagination, but there’s also a subtle father/son dynamic between Max and his creature friend Carol (James Gandolfini, also a great late actor). Forgive me if I’ve read too much into this, but perhaps Carol resembles Max’s father, who is not pictured in the film nor the book, but has some presence within Max’s subconscious. Considering that Where the Wild Things Are exhibits a child’s imagination, it can be argued that Carol is a representation of Max’s father: fun to play with, full of adventure, yet dealing with an impulsive, reckless behavior. This idea is further reinforced because of Carol’s relationship with another creature K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), who also resembles somewhat of Max’s mother. Carol and K.W. have a romantic connection, but the two constantly argue due to their differing worldviews. K.W. has a motherly appearance and mannerism, and she inhabits a type of motherly instinct for Max. The scene where Max runs away from a blindly angry Carol and hides inside K.W. for protection is especially evident of this family dynamic, primarily because Max can be figuratively seen as inside K.W.’s womb (forgive me if that’s also taking it too far in terms of interpretation, but I figure I’d give it a shot). The point here is the characters and their relationships in this story are not only potent and strong, but also impeccably told and crafted, especially for a kid’s movie. The rest of the voice cast is also incredible; it includes Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Chris Cooper. Hell, even Mark Ruffalo makes a cameo as Max’s mother’s new boyfriend (his only line: “He shouldn’t treat you like that!” Wonder how much he made off of just saying that). Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs compiles an aptly raucous soundtrack and composer Carter Burwell (frequent collaborator of Jonze and Kaufman) fills the score with warm percussive sounds and strings. By ending the film on a light, happy note, Where the Wild Things Are remains a beautifully shot and emotionally stirring tale of childhood.

Grade: B+

Her (2013, written and directed by Jonze)


There are so many great things to say about Jonze’s fourth film, Her, that it’s hard to jot down all in one blog post. But I’ll try to articulate it in the best way I can. Originally conceived in the early 2000s, Her is a wonderful film with a romantic story that possesses the emotional honesty and gravitas uncommon in many movies. It can be perceived as an anti-technology allegory, but I beg to differ; it’s way, way more about how love transcends everything, the giddy excitement of being in love, and coming to terms with the harsh reality when a relationship doesn’t work out the way you want it to. The film’s lonely protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is also the film’s flawed hero. He calls up a late-night sex hotline, looks at scandalous pictures of a nude celeb, and makes disarmingly personal comments. But at heart, Theodore has a sensitive, perceptive soul, even when he struggles to recognize the dissipation of his marriage with his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). That is, until he installs an artificially intelligent operating system that evolves in real time; his OS is named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I kind of hate how people say this movie is really just a guy falling in love with Siri. Yes, a human male falls in love with a disembodied voice, but honestly, who cares? Pretty much every element of Her works well: Jonze’s sensitive direction, his amazing, Kaufman-esque screenplay — which rightfully won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2014 — the incredible acting (Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson’s voice, yeet!), Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett’s numbingly beautiful score (probably the best of the last few years), and the exquisite cinematography (great close-ups and panoramic shots of Los Angeles and Shanghai). The production design also deserves recognition, from the costuming to the lovely, colorful visual palette (everything looks so bright and pretty in future L.A.! There’s even a light-rail system!). Her can also be an uncomfortable film to watch, and even after seeing three times, I still get slightly irked when Theodore essentially has extremely graphic verbal sex with Samantha. But once the storm quiets down, Her remains an artful, post-modern masterpiece that continuing to prove the underrated skill and originality of Spike Jonze’s work. Her also has a very balanced mix of comedy and drama, the best scenes being the funniest and saddest. Her is arguably Jonze’s best film and there’s no doubt he will continue to make great films.

Grade: A

Anomalisa (2015, written and directed by Kaufman)


Last year, Kaufman returned to directing with a much less polarized sophomore effort, the stop-motion adult drama Anomalisa. The movie was adapted from a stage play Kaufman wrote in 2005 and took almost 3 years to make as a film, but all the work seems to pay off. The animation looks gorgeous and works very well with the story and its themes. Like many of Kaufman’s works, Anomalisa has a lonely male protagonist, this being unhappily married customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who seeks an answer to all the nonsense in the world and something to calm his anxiety. In particular, Michael can’t seem to shake the feeling that every person he sees has the same blank expression and talks in a drab, monotonous voice (voiced by Tom Noonan). He is what psychologists would describe as having Fregoli syndrome, which funny enough is the name of the Cincinnati hotel he’s staying at for a conference (“The Fregoli”). Even with each scene being filled with mundane acts like ordering room service, taking a too hot/too cold shower, and smoking a cigarette, Anomalisa is nevertheless compelling to look at. Even though Michael is supposed to be the film’s protagonist/hero, he comes off a bit like an asshole; he’s angry, misanthropic, impatient, indecisive, and slightly oblivious (he mistakes a toy store for a sex shop). But who should blame him? After re-reading a 10-year letter from his ex-girlfriend, he decides to call her up and ask her for a drink. The conversation obviously doesn’t go well, his ex berating him for his selfishness and Michael wallowing in his doubt. Michael is hopeless and fearful, until he hears a voice from another room that isn’t monotonous. He rushes to find the voice and its owner, who happens to be the film’s protagonist Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an insecure customer service operator from Akron who’s attending the conference Michael’s speaking at. He’s immediately enamored by her and every one of her aspects, both physical and personal. They get a drink, with her friend tagging along, and eventually he asks her to come to his room for a nightcap, much to Lisa’s surprise. Some might pose this as creepy, but consider this: Lisa and Michael are two extremely lonely, self-conscious human beings, who both are attracted to one another and should allow themselves one moment of happiness, even if it’s just for a night. Lisa discusses her life and sings a devastating English and Italian cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” all the while Michael admires everything she says and does, hence he nicknames her “Anomalisa,” a portmanteau that even Lisa acknowledges as clever. Their much-talked-about sex scene is actually quite realistic and honest, even though it’s essentially two puppets that are being moved one frame at a time to fuck. Regardless, it’s still a stirring, eye-opening scene that takes cinematic intimacy to a whole other level. The rest of Anomalisa continues to be fascinating and strange, with Michael having a nightmarish dream where everyone wants to be with him and not with Lisa. In a moment of true artistry and peculiarity, the bottom half of Michael’s face falls off while he runs in desperation to escape the hellhole of his mind. He delves into frustrated angst and loses his faith in humanity once again, delivering a cynical speech at the conference. He returns home, seeing and hearing everything in monotone. But what amazed me about Anomalisa was how not Michael but Lisa became the true hero of the story. In the last scene, she writes a letter to Michael optimistically as she drives home with her friend, who we see as looking normal compared to Michael’s version of what perceived. Echoing some of Michael’s words from his speech, “Find what is unique about every individual. Everybody has a soul, everyone has aches.” As a writer and director, Kaufman knows that each person is innately similar yet distinctive in their own. This kind of philosophical paradox is one of the many reasons why, unlike many filmmakers, Kaufman has a deep sense and uncommonly perceptive outlook on life, which makes Anomalisa all the more rewarding in the end.

Grade: A



The Damn Daniel Dilemma: America’s obsession with instant celebrity culture


What exactly does it mean to be a celebrity in 2016? Or, better yet, what does it mean to be famous in 2016? Apparently nowadays, if you’re part of a viral video or some other Internet phenomenon, you’ve already reached celebrity status.

Time Magazine recently put out a list of “The 30 Most Influential People on the Internet,” yet some don’t seem very influential. One particular case is that of Josh Holz and Daniel Lara, the teenagers behind one of 2016’s most popular memes, “Damn Daniel.” The two garnered Internet fame after posting a collection of funny Snapchat clips on Twitter, in which Holz recorded Lara walking around while screaming “Damn Daniel!” and “Back at it again with the white Vans” in a strangely cartoonish voice. Thus, the “Damn Daniel” meme was born, and America ate it up. After the videos garnered extreme popularity (approximately 200+ retweets and 300+ likes), Holz and Lara made an appearance on “Ellen,” cameoed in Weezer’s “California Kids” music video, walked the red carpet at the “Allegiant” movie premiere and Lara earned a lifetime supply of white Vans. In addition to all that, Internet users have posted “Damn Daniel” trap remixes, created “Damn Daniel” tattoos and so forth.    

While the titular star of “Damn Daniel” did use his stardom wisely (he donated the lifetime supply of Vans to a children’s hospital), it’s kind of funny to think that someone can become famous simply by having a pair of shoes, a camera phone and a Twitter account. That being said, the past few years have shown that viral videos and social media have been the major catalysts for transforming ordinary people into online superstars. Last year, for instance, “Alex from Target” took the Internet by storm when a picture of an attractive Target cashier went viral. As I mentioned in one of my first articles for The Michigan Daily, the video-sharing app Vine is a perfect example of this. With its six-second limit, Vine allows users to capture hilarious, spontaneous moments and creative, improvisational clips. Though Vine can be beneficial in showcasing the talent of aspiring young actors and highlighting other realms of pop culture, it’s also a way in which companies can capitalize on the fame of popular Viners and make them into corporate sell-outs. Numerous “Vine famous” stars also take advantage of their online celebrity by coming together in highly populated areas for “Vine meet-ups” to sign autographs and take pictures with fans.

The reason why this troubles and intrigues me so much is that fame, especially Internet fame, is a tricky double-edged sword. While it can be a great platform for helping raise awareness on a social cause or giving back to the community, it can also lead to media scrutiny, TMZ paparazzi and second-rate imitators. The way in which people yearn to be as close to the limelight as possible is perhaps an even bigger reason as to why people on social media become “famous.”

I witnessed this type of obsession with instant celebrity in high school. In the spring of 2013, I watched a senior from my high school, Jake Davidson, become an overnight sensation when he starred in a viral video titled “Kate Upton, Will You Go to Prom with Me?” I can recall spending half of my first period biology class huddled around a computer with other students to intently watch a KTLA profile interview on Jake. He was also featured on CNN, Yahoo and Ryan Seacrest’s radio show. Other students at my high school would jokingly take pictures with Jake and share it on social media to show off to their friends that they “met” the “Kate Upton” guy.

During that time, I remember thinking how amazing and insane it was that someone from my high school could become that famous instantly. But like most Internet “celebrities,” fame comes and goes. Months from now, “Damn Daniel” will be a fading memory, relived only for nostalgic purposes. Yet, most of all, there seems to be one big change when it comes to achieving American fame: fame used to be perceived as this ideal way of living that was only within the reach of actors, musicians, athletes and entrepreneurs. Now, in an era of virality and expanding media outlets, it seems as though becoming a celebrity can be as simple as a click of a button or the tap of a touchscreen.


Donald Trump and Martin Shkreli: When Life Imitates Art

Donald Trump and Martin Shkreli are arguably two of the richest and most devious figures in modern American times. The former is a multi-millionaire entrepreneur/reality star, whose fear-mongering tactics and political incorrectness have made him the frontrunner for the Republican party in the 2016 Presidential election. The latter is a financial entrepreneur and pharmaceutical executive who raised the price of the anti-HIV drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. Both are wealthy white men who look and act like villains straight out of a Marvel comic book; they use their success and notoriety to cause controversy and deprive others of happiness just because they can. Trump is basking in the American media spotlight by reinvigorating the racist underbelly of middle America, while Shkreli is threatening to erase the only copy of the Wu-Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which he bought at an auction for $2 million. Both Trump and Shkreli have faced serious backlash from media sources — Trump has become the epicenter of scorn for many and Shkreli was indicted for securities fraud and after he was freed from bail, resigned from his CEO position at Turing Pharmaceuticals. Yet somehow, the controversy they incite makes them even more popular. It’s a mystifying and even terrifying thing to think about, but Trump and Shkreli possess a potentially destructive power over ordinary people, almost as if their actions imitate the actions of villains depicted in movies and TV shows. If this were the case, they essentially represent two different villain archetypes: Trump is the guy who is actually a threat to American society and Skhreli is the guy who wants to be a threat.

Donald Trump and Bobby Newport in Parks & Recreation

I’m not gonna go on a huge rant on Donald Trump, but what I will say is that his situation as a presidential candidate feels fairly reminiscent of a Parks & Recreation story arc in the show’s 4th season. This is not to say that Trump watched Parks & Rec and thought, “Huh, maybe I can do that” or that Parks & Rec in any way played a part in Trump’s candidacy. However, that story arc — the show’s protagonist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) faces against the wealthy but clumsy Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) in a city councilman race — boasts a thought-provoking reflection of the popularity of political incorrectness among American voters. Rudd’s character in Parks & Rec and Donald Trump are totally different people, obviously. Newport is depicted as a naïve simpleton and the son of the owner of the popular Sweetums franchise, who just wants everyone to get along and to do something important with his life. In contrast, Trump is maliciously fueling racism and sexism through his speeches and on Twitter (reminder: he has 5.89 million followers) for the sake of media attention. While Newport and Trump are complete polar opposites, both in intention and personality, their political rhetorics seem to have the same effect on the bottom of the barrel of American voters, in that their words are so grotesquely idiotic and unknowingly preachy, yet they attract an entire crowd of people, whether in the fictitious Pawnee, Indiana or the most overtly conservative towns in America. Unlike their opponents, Newport and Trump don’t have real plausible opinions about important American issues — abortion, gun control, women’s rights — and people still eat up whatever words spew from their mouths. Perhaps using Bobby Newport is not the greatest comparison to Donald Trump (after all, he’s just being used as a pawn to help his father’s conglomerate company). In fact, if you want some even deeper perspective on Trump’s influence, here’s a list of film and TV characters who were apparently inspired by Trump. Still, it’s important to recognize that Parks & Rec‘s satire on the mass appeal of a wealthy icon and political incorrectness makes for a thought-provoking commentary on American politics. It seems silly, but simultaneously scary, considering that something like this arc in Parks & Rec can actually happen in real life. If you want, here are two examples of Newport’s rhetoric juxtaposed with Trump’s:

Martin Skhreli and literally any movie/TV villain

Before I talk about Skhreli, watch this recent video he posted as a threat towards the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, specifically one of its members, Ghostface Killah.

Crazy, right?

In no way does this video pose a national threat, but it still has some very unsettling and ridiculous attributes. It depicts Martin Skhreli using every villain trope imaginable: he has a group of masked men standing around him to really “show” how threatening he can be; he addresses Ghostface Killah by his real name, Dennis, in order to undermine him; he speaks with a snarling, smug, sociopathic delivery; he’s even drinking from a wine glass! This whole diss video, of course, is in reference to some comments made by Ghostface Killah last week. The rapper called Skhreli a “shithead,” slammed him for raising the prices for Daraprim, and said he should release Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for free to the public. In response, Skhreli not only threatens to erase the album, but demands a “500 word” apology with “no grammatical errors” from Ghostface Killah in order to keep the album intact. I’m not kidding. He actually wrote that.

Skhreli finishes off the video by making a direct remark towards Killah: “Ghost, stop pretending, stop acting, stop lying. Be real, as your video once said, and uh, don’t ever fucking mention my name again, or there will be more of a price to pay than just this video.” Out of all the ridiculous things about this video, the strangest one is that even with all of Skhreli’s malicious intent, it feels rather dumb and cartoonish. Masked behind his conceit, Skhreli is scared. He knows that he’s fucked up in the past and he is simply responding out of fear of people perceiving him as the asshole that he is. The irony, however, is that he ends up becoming even more of an asshole when trying to act high and mighty. When watching the video, I was reminded of a brief scene in the trailer for the upcoming disaster flick, London Has Fallen, in which the generic villain makes a viral video announcement about how the American president will die and every major city in the world will be destroyed if the villain doesn’t get what he wants. Of course, Skhreli’s video is not as substantial as the villain’s in London Has Fallen‘s worldwide threat. But the messages in each video are still just as remarkably outrageous. The only difference that Skhreli’s video takes place in real life and it’s flat-out flabbergasting. It also just goes to show how ridiculous and mad a person can become solely because of wanting to maintain wealth and power. Skhreli wants to be taken seriously so badly, as if he wants to be the bad guy for some odd reason. Raising the prices for a drug that could dramatically improve the lives of millions is one way of doing that. Making this video is another. Trump is pretty cartoonish too, but at least it’s having a massive effect on people. (Ironically, Donald Trump has said that Martin Skhreli is a “spoiled brat.”)

(If you want to see the clip I mentioned from London Has Fallen, skip to 1:39.)

The lesson to learn here is this: The villains or antagonists of TV shows and movies may be crazy and maniacal. But when you have people like Trump and Skhreli making headlines, there’s definitely some correlation between how art depicts villains and how those villains become part of our reality.

On Millennial Slang

“That’s literally me af.” “The party is gonna be turnt!” “Sarah Jessica Parker is bae.” “I’m so hungry rn.” “Yaaasss queen!” “LMAO, I’m dying!” “The club is hella lit tonight.” “Netflix and chill?”

If you’ve heard any of these phrases, you have either encountered a millennial or are one.

In every generation, people are primarily defined by the period in which they live. And in each period, a variety of buzzwords define the culture of the moment. They can range from fashion to film, music to art and TV to literature. But perhaps the most significant of them all is language, specifically the slang used by the generation of the time. For millennials — people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — the current slang is notable for its hyper-condensed diction and common usage in social media. In addition to that, millennials have created their own language through texting, and in many cases embedded it into everyday talk. Even regularly used words, such as “literally,” “awkward” and “dying,” have completely new meanings within a millennial context. We don’t often realize it, but millennial slang and texting language play active roles in our daily lives, whether on our phones, on social media or in regular conversation.


Considering its mass appeal, slang has played an integral part of the culture in each generation. In the 1950s, an age swept up in conservative values, young people used “swell” as their very own colloquialism. “Cool” and “groovy” made their way into the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, eventually paving the way for words like “wicked” and “sweet” in the lively era of the ’80s and the grunge scene of the ’90s. The early ’00s contained a slew of slang like “redic,” “redonculous,” “whack,” “dope” and “sick” that spewed from the mouths of the youth. These words aimed to go against the traditional vernacular, as well as to give a collective personality to the people who uttered them. Nowadays, slang is just as creative and innovative as before, yet it’s changing at a breakneck speed.

While movies, TV shows and music have become crucial in influencing slang both in the past and in the present, the increasing omnipresence of social media and social networking have provided millennials with platforms onto which we can constantly send and receive written and spoken messages. Through popular sources like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and Vine, millennials have more access not only to new information, but also to the most up-to-date lingo. According to Julie Coleman, author of “The Life of Slang,” words are moving around the world within weeks and months because of social media. “It’s not necessarily that language is changing more quickly,” Coleman writes. “But technologies have developed and they allow the transmission of slang terms to pass from one group to another much more quickly.”

Indeed, several of these technologies have determined the way in which millennials communicate with one another, especially with the invention of Twitter and its distinctive 140-character limit (at least for now). Several news websites, such as and Buzzfeed, have adapted millennial slang into their headlines and articles (i.e. “21 Bold AF Hair Colors To Try In 2016”). Through the interconnected environment of the Internet, millennial slang has also been influenced by the reinvention of memes — humorous images, videos, GIFs or texts that are copied and spread online. Since the first well-known meme, the popular “Kilroy was here” graffiti in the 1940s, the “meme” has become a modern worldwide phenomenon on the Internet and other social media platforms. One of 2015’s most pervasive was a man screaming “What are those?!” at a police officer’s shoes. Memes may not necessarily be considered language, or even slang for that matter. However, through the technological advancement of the Internet, they do carry a cultural significance that has shaped the way millennials communicate and understand one another.

In addition to social media and Internet memes, celebrities seem to hold some influence over the way in which language pervades the psyche of the millennial generation. Around 2010, rappers Soulja Boy and Lil B helped popularize the word “swag” in their songs “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Wonton Soup,” respectively. Throwback to middle school. In 2011, hip-hop artist and pop culture icon Drake publicized the acronym “YOLO” (which stands for “you only live once,” for those still living under a rock) in his rap anthem, “The Motto.” This past year, DJ Khaled, the famed music producer behind the ubiquitous pump-up jam “All I Do Is Win” and other hits, became a prominent source of entertainment, when he shared his own catch phrases on his Snapchat story. Whether he was riding on a jet ski in the dark or watering his plants, almost every one of DJ Khaled’s Snapchats had the producer saying, “Bless up,” “The key to success” or “They don’t want you to … ” to whomever was watching. Given his larger-than-life personality, 2.8 million Instagram followers and major popularity on Snapchat, DJ Khaled is among many of today’s celebrities who exude the spirit and mood of the millennial generation.

Millennial slang may as well be a way in which we distinguish ourselves from other generations, but there does seem to be larger social implications within the language itself.

“Young people are interested in expressing themselves in a distinctive way that makes them feel like they’re part of something,” said Communications Prof. Scott Walker Campbell, who is also a mobile communications researcher. “The fact that millennials have a distinctive way of speaking and some distinctive lingo doesn’t make the generation distinctive, because my generation did the same thing.”

As Campbell also points out, slang is simply a cultural trend that every generation has, yet it manifests and looks different within different generations.

“It’s what generations do,” Campbell said. “They come together, have distinctive qualities, distinctive tastes in music, in fashion and also in language.”

Perhaps slang is more than just a reflection of the current culture. Perhaps it’s a subtle rebellious response to our parent’s generation. But more importantly, the slang that’s used today can stem from a desire to be recognized, a drive to become viral and leave a cultural legacy behind.

“There are new ways for individual people to have a voice and participate in a network and system of communication that is kind of unlimited,” Campbell said. “It’s not about money, but about being clever and entertaining and cool.”

This leads to the idea that people who use slang online and on social media are accruing commercial value. In this age of virality, hashtags and instant celebrity, millennials want to be recognized and slang is a way in which they can do that, not just within the realm of social networking, but with the rest of society.

Texting language

In addition to slang, texting has developed into a language of its own for millennials. With the revolution of the modern cell phone in the early 2000s, texting has dramatically affected the communication millennials use in their everyday lives.

“Millennials are certainly using their thumbs as much or more than we’ve seen in past generations,” Campbell said.

Because texting involves quick, rapid-fire responses, a methodical process has been cultivated as a result, where commonly used words and phrases have become abbreviated. Some examples include “to be honest” changing to “tbh,” “very” into “v” and “okay” into the universally abhorred “k.”

“There’s this idea that texting is chaos and that young people don’t know how to use grammar,” said English professor Anne Curzan. “But I think it’s very systematic.”

As an educator and historian in the field of the English language, Curzan understands that older and younger people have very different perceptions on the way language is used today, specifically with changes in punctuation. An example she uses to demonstrate this idea to students and adults is the word “okay.” She writes the word three times — one by itself, one with a period and one with a dot-dot-dot. When shown to younger people, all three words have very different meanings, with “okay.” invoking a sense of seriousness and “okay … ” invoking a feeling of skepticism. For the older individuals observing the three words, they have no idea what the difference is.

“If you actually ask prolific texters under the age of 30 how they are doing this, they can tell how to use the correct punctuation,” Curzan said.

Millennials also pay very close attention to every single detail in our texts, so much in fact that we tend to nitpick at our words out of fear that the person on the other end of the conversation will take the message in the wrong way.

“There’s this idea that younger people in this generation don’t care about language,” Curzan said. “I just don’t think there’s evidence for that. I talk with students, and they are very attentive with details. Spoken and written language is how we present ourselves to the world.”

Curzan also believes that texting is “rapid and very much like a dialogue, but you can’t see the person most of the time.” However, as she mentions, texting has adapted to try to create some form of tone and emotional expression through acronyms like “lol” and, more recently, emojis. By using these shortened forms of written speech, millennials are better able to express themselves in new and interesting ways. Emojis have particularly grown in popularity ever since their international inclusion on the iPhone. They have revolutionized and enhanced textual communication by literally emoting the thoughts and feelings of the person behind the phone. People can choose from a diverse palette of emojis to express emotion, whether it’s using “the heart eyes” emoji to flirt or the “face with tears of joy” emoji to show a hysterical reaction to something.

As CollegeHumor hilariously satirized in a 2014 video, titled “How We’ll All Talk in The Future,” emojis could potentially find their way into colloquial language. The clip depicts two young women having a conversation using emojis instead of words. In the context of the video, the emoji of the “face that looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ ” apparently translates to “no way!” This probably won’t be the way people will actually speak in the future, but the video makes a compelling point about how powerful and prevalent emojis, and texting language in general, have become for millennials.

Lingo as a linguistic merit

Like text messaging, it’s easy to dismiss slang as a simple form of primitive speech. But for a while now, slang has been recognized as having linguistic merit, according to Curzan.

“Slang is linguistic creativity at work,” she said. “Part of being human is being creative with language and slang is language at some of its most creative.”

This seems to be the opinion of not only Curzan, but the linguistic community at large. Each year, the people behind Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society, the latter of which Curzan is part of, decide which words are the oddest, most innovative and most popular of the year. For most publications, the word of the year is chosen based on how frequently the word is used or how new the word is. Most recently, Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year technically wasn’t even a word; it was the “face with tears of joy” emoji. For Merriam-Webster, the word of the year was “-ism.” The American Dialect Society chose “they” (referring to the singular gender-neutral pronoun) as their WOTY. Other recent winners for WOTY have included “#blacklivesmatter,” “hashtag,” “app” and “tweet.”

As informal as slang can be, it shapes culture both universally and exclusively. It gives a voice to generations and morphs constantly with the changing of technology and media. But most importantly, as linguist Stephen Pinker once said, language itself “is not so much a creator and shaper of human nature so much as a window onto human nature.”

That’s pretty lit.

Father John Misty Performs “Holy Shit” on “Stephen Colbert”

Last year, rock singer and pop culture troll Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) released I Love You, Honeybear, a rousing, enlightening record that became one of the best albums of 2015. More recently, Tillman performed “Holy Shit,” Honeybear‘s spellbinding penultimate track, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in all his cool-guy glory. While the song is great itself, it’s Tillman’s performance that really cements him as one of the most creative, thought-provoking artists of our time. During the first two minutes, he hums softly about a variety of seemingly disparate topics — original sin, genetic fate, dead religions, loveless sex — until the backing band’s “Day in the Life” breakdown at 2:13 transforms the song into operatic, spine-chilling poetry. While the sounds of a choir, guitar riffs, and drums play harmoniously in the background, Tillman cries out the song’s core message of how love is just an “institution based on human frailty.” He moves with the speed and swagger of a hipster preacher and even if his deadpan personality may be irksome, Tillman’s true emotional power lies within the awesomeness of his lyrics, ideas, and music.