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The Roundup: August 27

Cinema

Zip Zero Zeitgeist by David Bordwell at Observations on Film Art and Of Apes and Men by Max O’Connell at Criticwire

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This is a point-counter-point set of articles. I rarely disagree with David Bordwell, as he’s one of my academic heroes and most of the time I’m just sitting at the feet of his blog essays in awe, but this one struck even me as a bit overextended, and it didn’t take long for me to find Max’s response, which articulates many of the same things I was thinking but hadn’t quite put into words. Bordwell is right to point out that a lot of zeitgeist claims are lazy and poorly supported, but saying that certain movies don’t speak particularly well to certain cultural moments (a thing we can see even more clearly in retrospect) is rather strange.

BORDWELL:

Critics seem to assume that if a film is successful at the box office, it must reflect the audience’s inner life. Yet the sheer fact of a movie’s popularity doesn’t prove that these attitudes are out there. Just because Spider-Man (2002) was a huge success doesn’t mean that it offers us access to America’s national mood or hidden anxieties. People spend time with a piece of mass art for many reasons: to kill an idle hour, to meet with friends, to find out what all the fuss is about. After the encounter, consumers often dislike the art work to some degree, or they remain indifferent to it. Since people must buy the movie ticket before they experience the movie, there can’t be a simple correlation between mass sales and mass mood.

MCCONNELL:

That said, some of Bordwell’s arguments against using films as a lens into the cultural zeitgeist are, frankly, bizarre. Bordwell is correct when he writes that there’s no way that even a film striving to capture a nation’s attitude about a subject can capture all of the attitudes about it, but the best reply to that would be, “…and?” Of course Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t reflect everyone’s thoughts about consumerist culture, but Bordwell’s argument that a film trying to tap into the zeitgeist is “really the Zeitgeist as [a filmmaker] understands it” reduces that Romero is tapping into one widely-held attitude about consumerism. The same goes for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies in the 80s: the jingoistic attitude might not fall in line with the dissenters to Reagan’s foreign policy, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that they didn’t capture something that a great deal of Americans thoughts about the treatment of veterans, the idea that Vietnam could have been won, and that the Middle East was the territory of freedom fighters against the hard oppression of the Soviets (an attitude that would shift in the next decade). Multiple perspectives don’t negate the possibility that art can capture a widespread attitude, and “national psyche” doesn’t mean “homogenous psyche.”

Kirk Douglas Remembers Lauren Bacall by Kirk Douglas in the Hollywood Reporter

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This is simply a lovely tribute from Kirk Douglas to Lauren Bacall.

It’s hard to lose a friend, especially one with whom you have shared your dreams and your journey. In the case of Betty Bacall, I also lost my lucky charm — the girl who believed in me enough to talk Hal Wallis into giving me a Hollywood career. That was my first lesson in helping others without looking for thanks. I will continue to think about her whenever I put it into practice.

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Watch This: Women vs. Tropes in Video Games

If you’re into gaming and on social media at all, you’ve probably heard of Anita Sarkeesian’s Women vs. Tropes in Video Games series, if only for the huge swath of angry gamers it leaves in its wake. See, Sarkeesian dares to suggest that a vast majority of video games, beloved and otherwise, are quite, shall we say, problematic in the way they treat women, and she uses example after example from game after game – Mario to Watch Dogs and everything in between. While for many people this seems pretty obvious, and even more so once she’s drawn our eyes to it, it enrages a certain segment of gamers who like their games as they are. I won’t go into the entire controversy, because it’s been raging since Sarkeesian’s kickstarter several years ago. This is a great rundown of it and why it’s so toxic (language warning).

Anyway, the latest iteration of the Women vs. Tropes in Video Games series came out yesterday, and it’s one of the best (and most difficult to watch) of the series. It’s part 2 of a miniseries on Women as Background Decoration, which basically looks at the way women are often treated as disposable in action games – there merely to be attacked, beaten, raped, and killed, and often depicted in a sexualized manner. It’s important to note, as always, that Sarkeesian enjoys gaming herself, often including the games she uses as negative examples in her videos. I personally am a huge fan of Red Dead Redemption, which gets called out numerous times in the segment. The point is not that these negative elements necessarily mean it’s a bad game, but just how pervasive these storytelling elements are in gaming, to the point that they pop up when there’s literally no reason for them to be there. This is a difficult episode to watch, and it carries a serious trigger warning for violence against women.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, this is the first one, which focuses on the storytelling trope of the Damsel in Distress. They’re all worth watching.

Note: I don’t moderate comments for disagreement or discussion, but I will be deleting comments with hate speech or slurs.

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The Roundup: August 18

Cinema

Let’s Be Real: Let’s Be Cops, Cop Movies, and the Shooting in Ferguson by Wesley Morris at Grantland

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There’s been little on Twitter for the past week besides the turmoil in Ferguson, and we’re not the end of it yet. Meanwhile, pop culture continues anyway, though the producers of Let’s Be Cops might wish they could reconsider their release date. Wesley Morris’s essay (it’s not a review, in the strictest sense, though there is criticism here) combines cinema and history in the making in a way that’s not often seen, and it excellent on both fronts. There’s been more ink spilled on Ferguson already than I could possibly round up, but I also found this article from RogerEbert.com’s Far-Flung Correspondent Omer M. Mozaffar to be very compelling reading.

All movies choose their moment. It’s called a release date. Some moments, however, choose their movies. And it looks as if the moment has chosen Let’s Be Cops. But let’s be clear: No one should choose this movie. It’s a title in search of a plot. It could also have been called Let’s Be Funnier, Let’s Be Directed, Let’s Be 15 to 30 Minutes Shorter, Let’s Be 22 Jump Street. Right now, though, this is our only movie starring law enforcement run amok, at a moment when much of the nation is outraged that actual law enforcement is doing the same.

Lauren Bacall: 1924-2014 by Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com

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When the news of Lauren Bacall’s death hit last week just one day after Robin Williams’ death, I mentioned on Twitter that as tragic as Williams’ death was, Bacall’s hit me in a deeper place, not because dying at 89 of a stroke is even comparably tragic compared to dying at 62 of suicide, but merely because Bacall and her movies meant more to me personally. I grew up on classic film, and the films of Bogart and Bacall in particular were central to me in much the same way I assume Williams’ films were central to people of my generation who grew up watching contemporary film. In any case, because of that personal bias, I admit that I have read very few of the articles eulogizing Williams, and very many of the articles eulogizing Bacall, and that is why I have one and not the other on this Roundup. This particular one from Dan Callahan is lovely, evocative, and acknowledges Bacall’s insecurities. This one by Karen of Shadows and Satin focuses on Bacall’s early career with just as much warmth, love and insight. And this one by NPR’s Linda Holmes discusses Bacall’s inimical ability to convey sex without sex. I also enjoyed reading tributes from Jennifer Garlan, Noel Murray, Glenn Kenny, and photo and quote galleries from Carly Johnson and Kimberly Lindbergs.

Bacall walks with feline grace in “To Have and Have Not,” and part of what makes her so distinctive and touching in that movie is the just noticeable strain she is under to perform and act more than her age. She manages all of that with style, with aplomb, and the picture was a triumph for her, as was “The Big Sleep.” And then some! Her Slim in “To Have and Have Not” and particularly her Vivian Rutledge in “The Big Sleep” are flawless fantasy creations, all lush hair and pouting lip and smart, poking attitude. Bacall and Bogart in those movies make the lead-up to sex, the jabs and put-ons and badinage, seem just as much fun as the no-doubt satisfying sex itself.

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The Roundup: August 12

Seems like every time I think I won’t have enough good articles for the Roundup, I end up having WAY TOO MANY. Ah, well. Enjoy this supersized edition.

Cinema

The Death of Film/Decay of Cinema at 15: A Conversation with Godfrey Cheshire by Matt Zoller Seitz and Geoffrey Cheshire at Roger Ebert.com

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This is a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation between two thoughtful film critics about the present and future of cinema – it’s based to some degree on Cheshire’s influential prophetic articles from 1999 about digital cinema, but they follow the conversation where it goes, and its a pretty great read. It was difficult to choose which section to quote, and I’m still not sure I picked the best part.

And once you had cinema, of course, it became very much that way, where it was like going to the temple or something. It was very ritualized in a way, whereas I said that in my article in saying what I was predicting was that it would reverse again, and people would often stay at home to watch the serious things that demanded concentration, that they used to go to the movie theatre for, and people in theatres would be acting more like they used to watch TV, talking and joking and paying attention to other things, being distracted. That’s exactly what’s happened. And it really is interesting, the extent to which it has. Movies, when you and I were younger and really got into them—and especially the movies that were visually so impressive: The Godfathers and 2001s were really immersive experiences—those were things where you went into the theater and were totally absorbed by that experience. You weren’t thinking about anything else, or the person next to you. You were completely unaware of anything else except being completely absorbed in that image.

Girls on Film: Why Audiences Are Responsible for the Future of Cinema by Monika Bartyzel at The Week

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This is one of those pieces that feels obvious and revelatory at the same time, with a great call to action to support smaller and less tentpole-y films. I’m not particularly optimistic about it, since the kind of people who will read an article like this, much less act on it, make up a pretty small percentage of the overall audience, but I definitely appreciate Monika’s sentiment, and I hope to follow through on it to some degree once we’re actually going to films regularly again.

Today, Hollywood studios focus almost solely on the blockbuster, and everything else is deemed an “indie film” — a gelatinous designation that holds none of the power of huge advertising budgets and tentpole culture. To break through, an indie can’t just be good; it has to be amazing. A crappy action film can generally make its money back, but a diverse piece of indie cinema must be so good that it inspires critics and audiences to band together and praise it to the top.

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