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The Roundup: January 19

A bit late this week, but in case you missed it, I was busy writing my own posts this week! One about Five Graves to Cairo, and one returning to the American Movie Critics book with Ryan McNeil. So check those out and also, all of these. :)

Cinema

Lights, Camera, Taking Action by Manohla Dargis at the New York Times

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The state of women in Hollywood doesn’t seem to be improving very much, and may even be worsening if you compare stats on female filmmakers and characters in 2014 to stats from fifteen years ago. Manohla Dargis talked to a bunch of people who are trying to do something about it with a variety of approaches. She also collected some quotes from female filmmakers about working in the industry here as a supporting document. Meanwhile, Monika Bartyzel used her Girls on Film column last week to discuss the ways that female filmmakers still do need powerful allies.

American commercial cinema has long been dominated by men, but I don’t think there has ever been another time when women have been as underrepresented on screen as they are now. The biggest problem isn’t genuinely independent cinema, where lower budgets mean more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. The problem is the six major studios that dominate the box office, the entertainment chatter and the popular imagination. Their refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women. The barriers that female directors confront are numerous, substantial, structural and ideological, which is why activists are attacking biases on a number of fronts.

How Much Does a Hollywood Oscar Campaign Cost by Stephen Follows

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This is just…wow. I’ve already eschewed the Oscars as pretty irrelevant for years, but this is really just the nail in the coffin. The most brilliant and groundbreaking film in the world couldn’t win an Oscar if it didn’t have $10 million in the budget for an Oscar campaign. As a side note, if an Oscar win only nets a $3 million box office bump, I wonder if these economics will last much longer anyway? I suppose the prestige boost is worth something, but how much?

Estimates for the total amount Hollywood spends on Oscar campaigns each year range from $100m up to $500m. True figures are hard to come by so it’s tricky to know what’s true and what is carefully placed rumours by Hollywood friends, enemies and frenemies.

In 2002, the New York Times reported that “the most aggressive studios have mounted campaigns that by some estimates have already cost more than $10 million, easily double what a successful effort totaled only two years ago”. That’s twice the average cost of winning a seat in Congress.

Many non-studio films find themselves priced out of the running.

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Watch This: Three Reasons for The Palm Beach Story

Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story just came out on Criterion, and I desire it muchly. It tends not to be as well-loved as some of Sturges’ other films (and sure, I rank it below Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve), but I still have great love for it, and Criterion’s short Three Reasons video gets at its endearing zaniness – I’m curious if anyone who hasn’t seen the film can even figure out what’s going on from these clips!

EDIT: And then read this fantastic essay on the film by Stephanie Zacharek.

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American Movie Critics: Harry Alan Potamkin

After something of a long hiatus over the holidays, Ryan McNeil and I are getting back into the swing of our historical criticism series. And truth be told, we very nearly skipped Harry Alan Potamkin, unsure how to respond to his take on American cinema, which is informed by an appreciation for a Soviet cinema neither Ryan nor I are particularly familiar with. But we decided to give it the old college try, and ended up having a pretty good conversation around the edges of Potamkin, discussing regional cinemas and doing thought experiments about directors if they’d had different national backgrounds. Ryan’s version of the post is here.

Featured image: Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, which Potamkin quite admires

JANDY HARDESTY
I don’t know that I have much to say in response to these two excerpts from Harry Alan Potamkin – he’s a bit esoteric and obsessed with Russian directors that I frankly don’t know enough about to even respond to his points.

RYAN McNEIL
Potamkin’s writing is really heady. It’s more a meditation than a reaction, which is good since I don’t think we’ve come across that yet in the writing we’ve seen so far (poetic views, philosophic views, yes – meditative, not so much). Once again, it stands apart from what we see as film criticism in our mind’s eye: “This is good…this is bad…here’s why.”

JANDY
In the first excerpt we have from him, Potamkin calls out for more visionary artists to make good on the promise of cinema – he suggests that Hollywood is “uninspired competence” at best (the idea that Hollywood is artistically bankrupt has been around for a long time!) and looks to New York for help.

Hollywood is uninspired competence – at its best. Hollywood is empty facility. A critical mind is needed. New York is the concentration center of the critical mind. Even in the use of the instruments (putting aside for the moment philosophy), I look to the director who has not imbibed Hollywood. [48]

This isn’t the first or last time that New York has been seen as an “antidote” to Hollywood – indie pioneers like John Cassavetes from the ’60s have a New York sensibility as well. Why do you think this is? The bulk of Potamkin’s piece looks at Rouben Mamoulian, a stage director at the time though he’d soon make his mark on film; is looking to New York a call for an influx of stage talent, or something else? Can we square this with the other critics we’ve read pointing out the inherent disconnect between stage and screen?

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Completing the Filmography: Five Graves to Cairo

This year instead of doing Blind Spots or other list-based viewing, I’m focusing in on completing filmographies of certain directors – some of which I’m only a few films away from completing and will probably do so pretty quickly, while others may be in progress for quite a while. I plan to do some major comprehensive posts about each one when I get finished with all their films (I’m also doing some background reading), but in the meantime I figured I’d do some posts with more informal thoughts as I work my way through these films. Since I’m eventually planning to include actors in this little completionist goal, I’ll keep track of how I’m doing on various actors’ filmographies as well. Stats! I love stats. In case you didn’t know that about me, now you do. I love stats.

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Five Graves to Cairo is Billy Wilder’s third film as writer/director (his second in Hollywood), and it’s a WWII-set film that’s more of a spy thriller than an actual war film – despite being set in North Africa in the midst of Rommel’s campaign, and having Rommel as a character, there are no battle scenes in the film. (Correction: There is a montage of a battle at the very end for like twenty seconds.)

The opening shot is one of the most visually arresting in all of Wilder’s filmography – a tank rolls across the desert, up and down dunes aimlessly. Not all is right here. A soldier’s arm drapes lifelessly out of the cockpit, where several other men lie dead, one flopped forward on the steering mechanism, keeping the tank moving forward. One man stirs; this is John Bramble (Franchot Tone), who is the only survivor and is now caught behind enemy lines.

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The Roundup: January 12

Cinema

Film Fact-Checking is Here to Stay So Let’s Agree on Some New Rules by Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post

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The biggest controversy this week has been over the acclaimed film Selma and its possible distortion of history in its portrayal of LBJ’s role in the Selma protests led by Martin Luther King Jr and other black activists. This plays into the whole cottage industry of fact-checking that has sprung up, which hits everything from historical dramas like Selma to science fiction like Interstellar. Ann Hornaday has one of the best takes on the fact-checking trend as a whole, arguing for educated viewers who are capable of dealing with the fact that movies aren’t always 100% accurate and the reasons for those differences are the important thing, not the differences themselves. Many writers have come down fully on the side of artistic license (Bilge Ebiri at Vulture, Sam Adams at Indiewire, and Elaine Tang at the New Republic), but as a history buff myself, I personally like Andrew O’Hehir’s more moderate approach. I do think historical accuracy matters; it’s not just something that should be tossed aside lightly. But I also think films often gloss over or shift historical fact to get at larger truths in completely valid ways, and fact-checkers need to appreciate that.

But viewers have responsibilities, too. If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths.

The correct question isn’t what Selma “gets wrong” about Johnson or King or the civil rights movement, but whether we are sophisticated enough as viewers and thinkers to hold two ideas at once: that we’re not watching history, but a work of art that was inspired and animated by history. That we’re having an emotional and aesthetic experience, not a didactic one. That the literalistic critiques of historians and witnesses can co-exist — fractiously, but ultimately usefully — with the kind of inspiration, beauty and transformative power that the very best cinema such as “Selma” can provide.

Godard’s Best Picture Win: When a Critics Group Dares to Break With Critical Consensus by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire

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When I saw the headlines that Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language had won the National Society of Film Critics’ award, I was like, “huh, that’s weird” – followed by “kinda cool, though!” Turns out most people were as bewildered as I was, but not as pleased, as award-predicting sites quickly called out the NSFC as irrelevant and attention-seeking, suggesting that a critics’ award that doesn’t play into the Oscar race is pointless. Which is, let’s just call things what they are, horseshit. Jason Bailey lays out the arguments well. Meanwhile, Indiewire’s Sam Adams comes down strongly arguing that critics’ awards SHOULDN’T be relevant to the Oscar race, and Film School Rejects’ Scott Beggs points out that awards season itself is pretty irrelevant, since there are too many good movies in a year for awards to recognize all of them.

Twelve major critics groups have called Boyhood the year’s best film. Birdman took the big prize from seven other groups; The Grand Budapest Hotel, two. What would another Boyhood win have added to the conversation — about that movie, or about the year in movies? Little to nothing. What does a prize for Goodbye to Language add to those conversations? A great deal. It draws attention, at least among those paying attention, to a difficult, challenging, off-the-map film from a living legend (and one who, as Hitfix’s Kristopher Tapley notes, has never won that prize before). And, perhaps more importantly, it notes that this was not just a great year for movies, but a diverse one, where — contrary to the previous month of awards and prognostications — there were more than three to five films worth celebrating.

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