In Lindy West’s new book, “Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema” (Hachette, $27), many important cinematic questions are asked. Such as, why is Laura Linney wearing a woolly hat to a church wedding in “Love, Actually”? Does the Hogwarts Express in the “Harry Potter” movies run year-round, or is it just twice a year to take the Hogwarts kids to and from school, and if so how does the witch who runs the snack trolley pay her bills? What exactly does being king of whatever the lion is the king of (in, duh, “The Lion King”) entail, and why should zebras and antelopes trust a lion to look out for their best interests? And how could a marriage possibly survive a husband saying, “Honey, I shrunk the kids?”
Yes, this is a very silly book — in the best of ways — and West, the Seattle-based author of the bestselling nonfiction books “Shrill” and “The Witches Are Coming,” knows it. In the introduction, she describes the book as “this silly, inconsequential, ornery, joyful, obsessive, rude, and extremely stupid book.” But silliness is exactly what we need these days, particularly when we can’t gather our friends to giggle and throw popcorn at a TV screen.
“Shit, Actually,” whose title is a play on “Love, Actually” (a movie West loves to hate, as do I; why does Linney wear that hat anyway??), is a collection of about two dozen movie reviews/essays; some of them revised from West’s days writing about movies for Jezebel and GQ, some of them newly written. Most of the movies are blockbusters from a couple of decades ago: “Jurassic Park,” “Top Gun,” “Titanic,” “Face/Off,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and more.
West was halfway through the project when the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year — and suddenly, it seemed all the more urgent. “It forced me to think about what this book is for, in a really serious way,” West said, in a telephone interview from her Seattle home this month. “It was really cathartic for me to write it, to have this escape from gloom and doom and being terrified … Thinking about sending something into the world that would make people laugh, that was really nice.”
Researching the book involved a lot of time on her couch, with her patient husband Ahamefule J. Uluo (“I roped him into watching every single one with me!”), streaming movies she sometimes only faintly recalled. “Some of the stuff is so much worse than you remember,” West said, “and some of it is genuinely very good.” She especially enjoyed “The Rock,” “Speed,” “Face/Off” (“They take their faces off and they switch them! It’s incredible!”) and “Rush Hour.” And, of course, “The Fugitive,” which West calls in her book “the only good movie.”
All of the movies in the book are rated on a scale of 10 DVDs of “The Fugitive.” (“Love, Actually” scores 0 DVDs.) Reading the essays — which are long, sprinkled with ALL CAPS and filled with delicious asides — feels like being on West’s couch with her, having giggly conversations. Why, for example, doesn’t somebody rewrite the Harry Potter saga from the point of view of Hermione? (Think of the eye-rolling!) Was the notebook in “The Notebook” really Tom Riddle’s diary? Can we please have a fan edit of “Titanic” solely featuring Leonardo “I Am Definitely Wearing Lipstick” DiCaprio’s pal Fabrizio?
Writing the book took West back to her earliest days in journalism, as a staffer at The Stranger in the aughts. For a time she was the alt-weekly’s film editor, reviewing movies regularly. “I was young and I was kind of winging it, but I had a really good time and I learned a lot about writing and criticism and about what kind of writer I wanted to be, through trial and error,” she said.
After seven years at The Stranger, she moved on to general freelancing for national outlets and began writing more about politics. “I became kind of a full-time news digester rather than a culture digester, which was kind of sad,” West said. “It was really great to do this book and kind of go back to where I started as a writer.”
Lately, West’s writing has been more for the screen than the page. She co-wrote the screening to Oluo’s made-in-Seattle film “Thin Skin,” and is a producer and writer for the Hulu TV adaptation of “Shrill,” which just began shooting its third season in Portland.
“We wrote the whole season remotely over Zoom,” West said of the show, which stars Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live!” After some pandemic-related delays, production has begun — “a big complicated operation with really a bare-bones crew,” West said. She’s not on the set — only one producer can be present — but is following the process closely. “Everyone’s super cautious, so far it’s working.” The season will premiere, she thinks, in the spring.
On the books front, she doesn’t have a specific project lined up yet, but is toying with something that might be “a memoir or maybe a one-woman show that is also a memoir.” And she’d love to write another movie-review collection eventually, if people like this one.
“It’s honestly kind of relaxing,” West said, of writing about movies. “It just makes me feel like myself.”
Lindy West will speak about “Shit, Actually” at a virtual event hosted by Elliott Bay Book Co. at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20. Tickets are $35 and include a copy of the book. Information: elliottbaybook.com