Director: Zara Meerza
Running time: 10mins
Film theory in the UK is a funny thing. In the stale enclave of British academia, people want to study and write about the impacts and meanings of culture that is important to them – but sufferers of higher education have also been taught throughout the centuries that research should be about sacrifice, about suffering, and is always to be done at an emotional distance.
As a result, much British film theory has served to make the content mass society relates to into an unrelatable, alienating experience. The dominant academic culture means it is simply not permissible to use analytic terms that students develop to talk about what films mean to us, or priming other viewers to think about culture in a new light, and make other worlds of political, philosophical theory in the process. After all, because you can never say for sure what filmmakers meant when making a film, it is academically frowned upon to try and interpret any meaning at all. It is largely instead the job of academics to talk about what other people have already said about something.
What has evolved in place of that, for academics who want to discuss things they enjoy, is an impenetrable language of jargon, as they try and universalise their experiences in as tenuous a way as possible. This most prominently manifests itself in the form of fan studies. It is a space which allows academics who happen to be fans of something to talk about their own feelings and interpretations of culture, through the framing device of what people who enjoy the same thing think and feel about it. It does, at least, enable film theorists to actually enjoy their work – which is more than I can say for the bulk of people I met in my own time in higher education – but it is, as my grandfather used to put it, going round the pisspot to get to the handle. In order to talk about the thing that’s apparently universal, you have to filter it through a layer of opaque word-salad that renders it alien to anyone outside the ivory tower.
In the age of the internet, where YouTube film-essays regularly bring in mass-audiences, this is something that is rapidly being bypassed by a form of theory that is unconcerned with academic rigour, or being personal. Unfortunately, video essay The Twins seems to have missed the memo that this kind of thing is possible.
On the one hand, Zara Meerza’s short documentary seems desperate to talk about what the trials and tribulations of the Olsen Twins mean to her – but on the other hand, she seems terrified to just make that film. After all, the traditional gatekeepers of film theory so often drum it into anyone attempting such a project that something is only relevant if someone else said or did it first. So, while Meerza wants to talk about how the on-screen sisterhood of Mary-Kate and Ashley impacted her, as she tried to find her way as the child of Indian immigrants growing up in a predominantly white part of Britain, she feels the need to shoehorn in some grander narrative. This isn’t just relevant to her on that basis, she asserts, but also as a Millennial Woman.
Now, universalising an experience for any demographic is tricky; whether class, race, religion and so on, there are always some exceptions. But there will be some themes which are at least common among them, due to the material conditions social and economic factors place them in. To do this with something as amorphous and arbitrary as Named Generations is far more treacherous, however – especially as they apply to literally everyone born between years picked out at seemingly random intervals. Asserting that a Millennial Woman born in 1981, or 1995, will have the same affinity with the Olsens as someone who came of age when their fame was at its height is a stretch – even before you consider that the Olsens were not nearly as big a deal in the UK as they were in the US.
Somewhat underqualified to pontificate on what a Millennial Woman would or would not care about, I carried out a quick straw-poll on Facebook as to what people thought. One friend noted that other figures were much more prominent among their peers when growing up, “the Spice Girls, Britney Spears etc, even someone like Lindsey Lohan would rank higher…”, while several others noted that, while they had watched Olsen shows, it was really because “it was just something to watch,” and filled a gap in the TV schedule as “after school entertainment.” The one individual who did watch their films religiously was obsessed when she was about eight, “But now? Meh.”
Of course, my bare-minimum of research is not at all extensive, or scientific – but it is more evidence to the contrary of Meerza’s assertion than she supplies in support of it. Do we encounter talking heads with unrepentant Olsenites, who are keen to explain the formative impact their films, shows and products had on their young lives? No. Nobody, other than Meerza herself.
And of course, Meerza’s experience would be enough to make an essay about the impacts of the Olsens on her life. But because she is fighting to tie their cultural footprint into some grander theme, it simply isn’t enough. At the same time, while the assertion that the Olsens impacted her more than these figures as an individual is still valid, this rush to try and prove the subject is bigger than her leaves Meerza with less space in this short to explain the personal side of the story.
Like 20LEGEND – another gushing essay in which we are treated to similarly low-res imagery, while a super-fan of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s footballing career tells us about his incredible impact on the whole club – the most interesting part of the film’s story is what impact it had on the director herself. But also like that film, there is far too little of that here – either as a warm memory, or more introspectively in retrospect.
Meerza recalls that as her parents didn’t grow up in England, she was flying blind – going through some of the most difficult years of her life in a context nobody around her fully understood. In that context, she notes that the sisterhood of Mary-Kate and Ashley showed her a world of belonging she yearned to be part of. What she saw on-screen meant vicariously she could feel part of a bond she longed for, while being able to buy their copious number of products – her father would bring Olsens artefacts back from business trips to the US – she could feel part of an international community. But just as this story seems to be going in an interesting direction, it quickly tails off when it either becomes inconvenient to the narrative, or too complicated to wrap-up in the short time given to the film’s argument.
Meerza notes she is “very uncomfortable with capitalism” but is also aware she was complicit in buying a feeling of belonging. She never elaborates on why she is uncomfortable with capitalism, though, nor how it relates on multiple levels to the story she is telling. For example, she argues that the Olsens could help young Millennials of different ethnicities to feel part of something and “it didn’t matter they didn’t look like us,” but if she now has a different understanding of the economics at the core of this relationship, isn’t this some grounds for introspection? How does she feel now, looking back on the idea that investing financially in a brand represented by two white, middle-class Americans was the main route she was presented with to feel a sense of belonging? Is she at least bothered by the lack of diversity in the culture she was being asked to invest in to experience ‘community’? And how does she feel about the intensely creepy exploitation of the young Olsens by producers who recurringly have their later films centre around chasing boys, first kisses, and becoming objects of desire?
These are questions which will occur to the audience – and really can’t be brushed by without seeming conspicuous. While there is an attempt by Meerza to address this last matter – she has an affinity with the Olsens now because they have escaped the unnerving circle of studio-creeps pushing them as objects of desire, to become fashionistas – this is a little rushed over, while the other matters are broadly ignored. In the end, Meerza is keen to point out that her love of the Olsens and their products, old and new, is unwavering – but why? If capitalism makes her uncomfortable, and she understands it is linked to this topic, there needs to be an explanation to the viewers of why you can move beyond that discomfort. Otherwise, it just seems like you are making content you feel attached to exempt from legitimate criticism. You can’t give something a free pass just because you like it – otherwise you also get into 20LEGEND territory.
The thing is, I suspect Meerza knows all this. According to IMDb and the Radio Times, The Twins is actually a feature video essay – which came as news to me. Exactly why Meerza decided to chop the film down to its meagre run-time for a re-release is anybody’s guess, though I would hazard a guess it originally had more room for the introspection this latter version badly needs. That edit was apparently completed in 2018 though, and without being able to see it, I cannot confirm whether that is the case, and whether a longer run-time gives Meerza more space to tackle the subject. All I can say is that this particular cut, completed in 2021, does not convince. Not as a fan study. Not as a personal essay film.