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The Roundup: September 29

Cinema

A Visit to Turner Classic Movies by Steve Stanchfield at Cartoon Research

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Set your DVRs for TCM on October 6th! They don’t often play animation on the channel, but they’re pulling out some real rarities from the 1920s, from studios like Bray and Van Buren who were leaders at the time, as well as animation pioneer Windsor McKay. I’m super-stoked! This is Steve Stanchfield’s short behind-the-scenes take on working with TCM, and here’s Jerry Beck’s more newsy post about what’s going to be included in the segment.

This brings us to what I’ve been up to the last few weeks – working on finishing touches for a block of classic animation on Turner Classic Movies! I was invited to speak about Van Beuren animation and to show some of the films for my section of the animation day. Tom Stathes is presenting a program celebrating 100 years of the Bray Studios, and John Canemaker is presenting some of the great work of Winsor McCay.

Coming Soon, a Century Late: A Black Film Gem by Felicia R. Lee at the New York Times

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I love reading about rediscovered classic films, and this sounds like a doozy – possibly the first feature film with a black cast, though it apparently was never completed and released (speculation is that it was too soon after Birth of a Nation, which scared the producers away). If you live in New York, you can see the footage at a MOMA screening in the near future. The rest of us will have to wait.

For decades, the seven reels from 1913 lay unexamined in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Now, after years of research, a historic find has emerged: what MoMA curators say is the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast. It is a rare visual depiction of middle-class black characters from an era when lynchings and stereotyped black images were commonplace. What’s more, the material features Bert Williams, the first black superstar on Broadway. Williams appears in blackface in the untitled silent film along with a roster of actors from the sparsely documented community of black performers in Harlem on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance. Remarkably, the reels also capture behind-the-scenes interactions between these performers and the directors.

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The Roundup: September 22

Cinema

Oscar Obsession is Ruining Fall Film Festivals by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire AND
In Defense of Awards Season by Oliver Lyttleton at Indiewire

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In conversation this week: the value of Oscar season. I largely agree with Jason in that I find Oscar season and the way it’s treated in the press pretty obnoxious, but I do also see Oliver’s very reasonable point about why it’s the only thing holding off the total takeover of blockbuster season (which I also find obnoxious). I guess we’re between a rock and a hard place on this one.

JASON:

And what’s genuinely gross about that industry is its utter reductiveness. Year after year, it boils film culture down to a horse race, treating movies as competitors riding “momentum” or battling a “backlash” or overcoming a “snub,” rather than as what they (or at least the best of them) are: art. Yet what’s particularly odd about Oscar obsession is its built-in cognitive dissonance — every year we drool and fume and predict, as though it is all Very Important Work, while simultaneously acknowledging that nobody actually takes the judgments of Oscar voters very seriously, because they are so wrong, so very often.

OLIVER:

To put it simply: if the Oscars and the cottage industry surrounding it disappeared tomorrow, we’d likely see even fewer movies being made not aimed at teenagers, or teenagers-at-heart. We’re already at a point where many of these films are getting only brief theatrical releases, and simultaneous rollouts on VOD are going to happen more often, not less.

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American Movie Critics: Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson

Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.

After a few weeks of interruption (thanks, TIFF!), Ryan and I are back with another installment of our conversations about the American Movie Critics anthology. This time, we’re covering pieces by Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson from the mid-1920s. One of these days we’re going to get to talking pictures! Sherwood is best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but he spent 1920-1928 writing film reviews for Life. The pair of reviews show him as a prototypical weekly reviewer, neither an enthusiast about the movies nor dismissive of them, but a pretty solid guide for the average moviegoer, honest about what he likes and dislikes with a straightforward and casual tone. Wilson was one of America’s greatest literary critics who also found time to write about virtually every kind of art (film, theatre, dance, art, etc.) for the New Republic. We only have one piece by him, an analytical and appreciative look at Charlie Chaplin in general and The Gold Rush in particular, but the intro blurb in the anthology mentions that he was skeptical of typical Hollywood movies, so I’m not sure this piece is totally representative.

Edmund Wilson, literary critic

Edmund Wilson, literary critic

RYAN McNEIL:
So after two poets and a psychologist, we arrive at a playwright-as-critic. In a way, one would think that we’ve found the “most qualified” critic yet, since Robert Sherwood likely has the best grasp on narrative structure.

JANDY HARDESTY:
I’m not sure I’m willing to grant that a playwright should be better at being a film critic, merely because of a grasp of narrative structure – films may be a narrative medium at their base, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing to be judged, or even the most important one! Taken at stereotyped face value, a playwright might be good, for instance, at analyzing plot structure and dialogue without being skilled at all at analyzing visual motifs or editing, which are not part of plays (or not a major part). But I don’t mean at all to assign those deficiencies to Sherwood. He does focus on the storytelling, I think, but not to the exclusion of other elements of filmmaking, and in fact, calls attention to his dislike (in both reviews!) of the visual technique of tinting certain scenes/elements for greater emphasis.

RYAN:
That sort of begs a question that we might run into again later, but what sort of qualifications do you think make for a good critic?

JANDY:
I don’t think there are necessarily an incontrovertible set of qualifications. Critics have different strengths and weaknesses, some have particular affinity and aptitude for some critical approaches rather than others, and it’s this diversity that makes reading lots of different critics interesting and informative. That said, if I had to outline a few qualities (not qualifications) that make good critics, I would choose open-mindedness, curiosity, close observation of detail, and wide-ranging interests (not only in film, but outside it).

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The Roundup: September 16

An opening statement, for once: I actually started putting this post together almost two weeks ago. I’ve added a few things since then, but some of these articles are fairly old at this point (old in internet time). I thought about scrapping it and moving on, but these are still some solid articles, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it in case anyone happened to miss them. I do have some newer stuff bookmarked, but I’ll try to get those out next week.

Cinema

Guardians of the Galaxy and the Rise of Post-Plot Cinema by Steven Zeitchik

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A three-fer this time, with an initial article in the LA Times suggesting that Guardians of the Galaxy is “post-plot”. Even after reading the article, I’m not entirely sure what Zeitchik means – Guardians has a plot, and it doesn’t seem to me to treat its plot substantially differently than most of the older adventure films (like Star Wars), that he cites as, well, having a plot. Todd VanDerWerff at Vox has a similar complaint to Zeitchik, wondering why Guardians felt so empty despite being so fun. He also cites Star Wars. Guys. Star Wars is not the Holy Grail of cinematic storytelling. In all the films they mention (Star Wars as well as Maltese Falcon and Raiders of the Lost Ark), the whatsit of the plot is basically a McGuffin to have a ton of fun following fun characters around. It doesn’t matter what the Falcon or the Ark is, so long as some people want it and other people want those people not to get it, which is basically the same purpose the infinity stones serve in Guardians. Max O’Connell of CriticWire has my back on this.

ZEITCHIK

More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it. The way the film is structured, coherence of any kind — why people are literally doing what they’re doing, or what the plausible psychological explanations are for what they’re doing — seem beside the point. This all seems to be less a question of whether “Guardians” makes sense as it is that it doesn’t much matter in the first place. The movie was built to be consumed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why—without any sense that one should want a clear understanding of what’s happening or why. (There is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in the film making frequent reference to cinematic classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars,” all movies in which storytelling matters very much.)

VAN DER WERFF

The film does slightly better by Quill, who gets the cassette player and the pop songs on it, as well as a mysterious, still-wrapped present, as reminders of his mother and what she meant to him. But what the film hopes will be his emotional arc — the eternal boy who finally matures and accepts responsibility — gets shuffled so far to the back of the deck that the film mostly just suggests it and invites the audience to read the arc into the text. A little ambiguity is good in any film, of course, as it invites viewers to draw their own conclusions. But ambiguity isn’t really what Guardians is going for. It’s quite clear about what it wants viewers to think. It just never makes the leap to making us feel it, outside of on a purely intellectual level.

O’CONNELL

This isn’t exactly a new idea, either. Zeitchik compares “Guardians’” supposed lack of plot to “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Maltese Falcon,” all of which (the latter especially) operate around the same principle. “Star Wars”: bad guys want plans that could end their giant thing that can destroy planets, group of misfits gets ahold of it, join together and team up with the good guys to stop the bad guys. “Raiders”: rogue wants the same thing that the bad guys want, and with the help of different friends (and an act of God by way of the thing), he stops them. “Falcon”: guy gets killed over thing, his partner looks into it and gets involved with a woman who’s lying about her connection to both the dead guy and the bad guys who want the thing, partner goes after thing to bring bad guys to justice.

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Charlie Chaplin, the Lone Adventurer

“In the meantime, it may be that his present series of pictures – The Kid, The Pilgrim and The Gold Rush – with their gags and their overtones of tragedy, their adventures half-absurd, half-realistic, their mythical hero, now a figure of poetry, now a type out of the comic strips, represents the height of Chaplin’s achievement. He could scarcely, in any field, surpass the best moments of these pictures. The opening of The Gold Rush is such a moment. Charlie is a lone adventurer, straggling along after a party of prospectors among the frozen hills: he twirls his cane a little to keep his spirits up. On his way through a narrow mountain pass, a bear emerges and follows him. Any ordinary movie comedian, given the opportunity of using a bear, would, of course, have had it chasing him about for as long as he could work up gags for it. But Charlie does not know that the bear is there: he keeps on, twirling his cane. Presently the beast withdraws, and only then does Charlie think he hears something: he turns around, but there is nothing there. And he sets off again, still fearless, toward the dreadful ordeals that await him.”

- Edmund Wilson, 1924 (excerpted in American Movie Critics)