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The Roundup: April 2, 2014

The best things I’ve read over the past week; usually they were also posted during the past week, but I make no promises. Sometimes I read old stuff and think it’s still worth sharing, so hopefully I’ll highlight some good reads you hadn’t come across yet.

Cinema

Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com

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I shared this article on its own earlier this week, but it has since become the talk of the film blogosphere. The discussion really started with an article from jazz critic Ted Gioia lamenting that music critics don’t talk about musicianship. Criticwire took it from there, polling a variety of film writers with the question Should Film Critics Be Filmmakers?. Matt Zoller Seitz’s article is an expansion of his answer, pleading with film critics to talk about film form and not just writing/acting/ideology. That set off a bunch of responses, including Sam Adams saying that Critics Should Definitely Write About Form, Except When They Don’t Want To, and several other responses, mostly saying that yes, film form is important, but not everybody has to write about it all the time. Personally, I can say that when I don’t include a discussion of form, it’s because I’m being lazy, and I should definitely do better than that. I love reading articles that discuss form, and I’m capable of writing it when I hunker down to it. That said, different critics are good at different things, and also just because they’re cognizant of form doesn’t mean that talking about it fits in with the article they’re trying to write. I don’t think you have to shoehorn it in just because you can. It’s a good discussion to have, though, because I think it’s easy to get lazy like me and just not take the time to really closely read filmmaking techniques.

We have several successive generations of film watchers—some of whom consume TV and movies voraciously and have surprisingly wide-ranging tastes—who don’t know how to interpret a shot, or how to think about what the size or position of characters in a frame might tell us about the story’s attitude toward those characters. That’s a problem. We have critics and viewers who can agree that a particular episode of a particular show ended in a “shocking” or “unsettling” way, but they don’t think about the role that, say, a jaggedly timed cut to black or atonal music cue might have played in provoking that reaction. That’s a problem.

In the Films of Joel and Ethan Coen It’s a Hard World for Little Things (And Everyone Else) by Mike D’Angelo at The Dissolve

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The Coens are probably my favorite working filmmakers, so a full-career analysis is bound to catch my eye, and this one did. Mike D’Angelo ties all of their films together via themes quite nicely, while highlighting the different modes they tend to work in (farce, noir, etc.). I disagree with him on several points with regards to several films, but disagreement makes for more interesting reading. I am glad to see him give a lot more credit to Burn After Reading than most people do – that film is highly underrated in my opinion – and his paragraph on The Ladykillers (the only Coen film I haven’t seen) actually makes me more interested in finally getting around to it. He didn’t seem to care for Inside Llewyn Davis too much, but we can fill in that gap with John Carvill’s excellent piece on the film, also published this week: The Hour is Getting Late: The Outsider Status of Inside Llewyn Davis.

Because the Coens have tried their hand at numerous genres, from noir to screwball to outright surrealism, it wasn’t immediately apparent that they were making the same basic movie over and over. After 30 years and 16 features, however, it’s now hard not to notice that prototypical Coen protagonists are hapless, well-meaning schlemiels upon whom life exacts a toll that’s much worse than they deserve. There are exceptions, but even these generally involve loss in some form or another. The Dude’s rug really tied the whole room together.

Entertainment Weekly Wants You to Write for It for Free – Don’t Do It by Scott Meslow at The Week

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Entertainment Weekly’s new initiative “The Community” is not the first time a major publication has called for writers to write for free, promising exposure and “prestige” in return – Huffington Post went to this model a while back, and I think Forbes and some others are doing it as well. That said, it’s a terrible trend, even though I know people like me who write for free on our own sites are part of what caused it. But if a real outlet like EW wants you to write for them, you should want them to pay you. End of story. Good on The Week’s Scott Meslow for stepping up to bat and soliciting story pitches – if he takes you up on yours, he’ll pay you. Addendum: Found out while writing this that EW has now laid off their longtime main film critic Owen Gleiberman. He was one of the first critics I read regularly. I guess the “logic” is that if they don’t want to pay “The Community” they shouldn’t pay any of their writers. I wonder if they expect him to keep writing for them for, you know, the prestige.

So what are those writers getting in exchange? They’ll be “compensated in the form of prestige,” says Digiday, without any apparent irony. (If you can find a landlord that accepts prestige in lieu of a monthly rent payment, let me know.) But the already negligible value of that “prestige” is already dropping. Entertainment Weekly is kicking off the beta version of The Community with “20 or 30 bloggers,” but wants as many as 1,000 to begin writing for it in the months to come. How much is all that “prestige” going to be worth when there are 999 other writers vying for space on the landing page?

Sweet Smell of Success Forum: New York Noir and Arsenic Cookies by Scott Tobias, Noel Murray, Nathan Rabin, and Matt Singer at The Dissolve

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Every time Sweet Smell of Success comes up in any capacity, I’m reminded of how badly I need to rewatch it, and share it with my husband, who loves him some cinematic cynicism. This totally fits the bill. I usually share the Keynote feature for The Dissolve’s Movies of the Week (it’s here), but this time it was the group Forum post that really got my attention with a lot of great insights.

In terms of storytelling, I deeply admire how the film captures the petty insularity of this world, where gossip columnists lord over their little fiefdoms, writing columns that either reflect favors granted or revenge exacted. It’s a bitterly cynical point of view, but Odets and Lehman carry it across convincingly by focusing on a desperate, vicious breed of person who’s disconnected from the rest of humankind. Keep in mind: Column items are written or not written (and fates determined) by the fact that the city’s most powerful gossip columnist doesn’t want an earnest jazz musician to marry his sister. It’s the ultimate tempest in a teapot.

On Family, Community Legacy, and the TCM Film Festival by Kristen Sales at Sales on Film

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A lot of us classic movie bloggers are looking forward to the TCM Film Fest (it’s next week, aaaaaahhhh!), and Kristen has her finger right on the reason that the Fest is such a bright spot for us. It’s not just the chance to see great films on the big screen, as if that weren’t enough, but the people at TCM Fest are like instant family.

From the TCMFF website: “TCM is summoning its family of movie lovers from around the globe to come to Hollywood for a cinematic celebration of the ties that bind us together.” [...] For those of us who have been attending TCMFF for a while, the decision to focus on the attendees as much as the films itself (and the intersection between the two), comes as no surprise. The first time you come to TCMFF, you’re home. It’s a cliche, but the people you meet at TCMFF really are like family. The great thing about this festival, and what makes it different than most film festivals, is that everyone is here to have fun. Since none of the films are new, there’s no sense of competition, no nervousness over their reception. Everyone is a fan, even the “celebrity guests” and panelists. It’s no exaggeration to say that TCMFF is closer to a fan convention like Comic-Con than your typical film festival.

The Persistence of Persona by Thomas Elsaesser at Criterion

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This article by world-renowned film historian Thomas Elsaesser can get a bit dense at times, but it has a lot of intriguing insights into Persona. This is close reading to the nth degree, and of course assumes a basic knowledge of the film.

Something like a craving of the face for the charge and discharge of the touch is thus in Persona associated with Alma’s personality and her inner demons. It is contrasted with the mask (as makeup) that Elisabet wears when she is onstage and suddenly falls silent, but also with her often supercilious, ironic expression toward Alma, which she puts on like a mask. The very title Persona, of course, refers to this mask, so that one might think the film would proceed to a mutual unmasking, where fragile, unworthy, inauthentic selves are peeled away. And in a sense, this is the case, as both women are in turn stripped emotionally bare and have moments where they lose their composure, i.e., lose “face.”

A Few More…

  • Are You Hating Movies Properly? – Scott Beggs lays down the law: If you haven’t seen it, you can’t hate it. Amen, brother.
  • Hold the Door Open – Screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe explains why his next script will have a woman of color as the lead (short answer: because you shouldn’t have to explain why).
  • Good News for Silent Film Fans – The Self-Styled Siren rejoices that a treasure trove of long-lost American films has been found in Amsterdam, including Mickey’s Circus, the first starring vehicle for a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney.
  • Why Movie Streaming Services So Fail to Satisfy – I don’t think the selection on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon is this doom-and-gloom, but the article does examine the difficulties of subscription streaming due to entrenched industry practices.
  • Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal – Greg Ferrara takes a look at Anthony Mann’s noir Raw Deal, and makes me like it even more than I did before.

Not Cinema

74 Years of Captain America: A History of Marvel’s America-iest Superhero by Adam Bellotto at Film School Rejects

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I’m a newcomer to comics, but I did love Captain America: The First Avenger and I’m greatly anticipating Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so I was pretty grateful to get the quick and dirty rundown on Cap’s history. Note that if you’re extremely spoiler-phobic (and also haven’t read the comics), there are some little spoilers in here about the overall storyline and characters included in The Winter Soldier.

Captain America is everywhere right now. He’s in TV ads and action figures, comics and video games (also something else I seem to be forgetting). But how many of those who’ve seen Steve Rogers battle evil across diverse forms of media actually know the ifs, ands and buts of where he came from? Well, now you too can be a Cap expert, without having to read the 7000+ comic books (seriously) Captain America has appeared in. Just consult the history below; a history portioned out by the eras of comic bookery. Traditionally, the Golden Age lasts from the late 30s – late 40s, Silver Age is mid 50s – 70, Bronze Age is 70 – 85, and Modern Age is 85 – today.

Why Facebook’s $2 Billion Purchase of Oculus VR is a Good Thing by Lucas Sullivan at GamesRadar

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The founder of Oculus has been getting death threats following the Facebook deal. DEATH THREATS. That’s uncalled for no matter what’s going on, but GamesRadar actually makes a good case for why this isn’t a bad thing. I’m already getting Metaverse chills. Shorter: SIMMA DOWN NOW.

None can deny the usages for VR beyond fully immersive gaming. Zuckerberg cites the possibility of “enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face–just by putting on goggles in your home.” When you think about the long-term potential for VR and the Rift, should it take off, cool video games seem like a baby step towards an adulthood in a virtually interconnected world.

Murdered: Soul Suspect Offers a Ghost in the AAA Machine by Colin Campbell at Polygon

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I haven’t totally made up my mind about this game – I’m loving the idea of it, a sort of supernatural L.A. Noire with a focus on detective work and a more point-and-click aesthetic instead of GTA-in-the-’40s. I miss point-and-click adventure games. I’m just not sure that the concept will play out as well in real life as it is in my mind, or that it’ll be worth a full $60. Might wait for a price drop.

It all, ultimately, comes back to walking around rooms, bending over stuff and having a closer look. Anyone who played L.A. Noire will be familiar with this crime-scene investigation stuff. Matthew Brunner, chief creative officer at developer Airtight Games said he had played L.A. Noire and enjoyed it, but wanted to avoid the frustration many players felt, wandering endlessly around, seeking out some new clue. “We made it much easier for the player to uncover the elements around them,” he said. “For the most part you can find and uncover the clues relatively easily, it’s more about figuring out what they mean and paying attention to their relevance.”

Dissent Unheard Of by Ashe Dryden at Model View Culture

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Dryden is specifically talking about the difficulty of speaking up against entrenched sexism in the coding/programming industry, but this kind of thing spreads throughout “geek” culture. It reminds me a LOT of stories coming out of various comics and games conventions over the past year or two, where women who complained about being harassed were shouted down in very similar ways to the ones Dryden outlines here.

Silencing is an extremely effective tool for creating fear through subtle controlling behavior. With such a dramatic imbalance between the marginalized and those with power, it’s also a pervasive one. These techniques often encourage others of all power levels to engage in policing, to help maintain the dominant class. It’s analogous to the popular kids in high school protecting each other to preserve the social order, the kids who hope they’ll one day be popular joining in, and those that don’t want to be singled out sacrificing each other to avoid being targeted.

Protect Your Kids from Failure by Alfie Cohn at The Atlantic

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There have been a number of articles in the Atlantic lately (and probably always) about parenting and how everything we’re doing is wrong. I always find them interesting, and usually end up thinking “but really, it’s balance, right?” Like obviously you don’t want your child to fail ALL the time or even most of the time – helping them achieve success and believe they can succeed is important. At the same time, we don’t want them to succeed all the time without putting forth any effort, nor leave them without the tools to deal with failure when it does come. It’s not the failing that should ever be the focus even when they do fail – it’s how you deal with that failure, and how to set expectations that are both realistic and challenging. See also: Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework and The Overprotected Kid.

Here’s what we learn from psychology: What’s most reliably associated with success are prior experiences with success, not with failure. Although there are exceptions, the most likely consequence of having failed at something is that a child will come to see himself as lacking competence. And the result of that belief is apt to be more failure. All else being equal, a student who gets a zero is far more likely to give up (and perhaps act up) than to try harder.

A Few More…

Images of the Week

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Because who doesn’t need a little Keaton once in a while. via Sales on Film

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Landmarks seen from new perspectives – interesting both for pointing out how much of our image of landmarks is due to how photographs are usually composed, and also to see the modern cities expanding right next to so many ancient buildings.

Videos of the Week

The Game of Thrones intro with Skyrim locations? Be still, my little geeky heart.

HECK YEAH. I want this yesterday. Except I want them to finish making it awesome. So I want it May 27th. My only fear is that there will be TOO many things to do in the game, and I’ll be overwhelmed with all the possibilities.

  • http://ptsnob.com/ Dan Heaton

    So many interesting stories this week. It’s really sad about Owen Gleiberman. When the Internet was just getting rolling when I was in college, I read text-only versions of his reviews because my dial-up was too slow on an old Mac. Ah, the good times.

    I also really need to read up on form once again and do a refresher course. After reading Seitz’s piece and some others, I purchased a book by David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson to do just that. The challenge is finding the time to actually read it.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      EW was one of the first magazines I had a subscription to; that and Premiere, which is now defunct. I didn’t always agree with Glieberman or Schwartzbaum, but they were definitely formative to my interest in writing about film.

      Bordwell and Thompson are ACE at writing about form. Did you get Film Art, or another one by them? They also write regularly at davidbordwell.com, and they post some really great in-depth but easy-to-read articles. In fact, Bordwell is one of my favorite academic writers, because he does such a great job writing readable academic prose, which believe me, is not a gift that all academics have.

      • http://ptsnob.com/ Dan Heaton

        I got Film Art, though it was from 2003 since it was a lot cheaper. I took classes in college on the form, but that was quite a while ago.

        • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

          Yeah, I have an earlier edition as well. Textbooks don’t really change that much, they just put out new editions all the time so they can price-gouge the next year of students.