The Roundup: April 9, 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

Girls on Film: Hollywood Should Stop Pretending It’s Hard to Make a Female Superhero Movie by Monika Bartyzel at The Week

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The first thing I said coming out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was “can Black Widow have her own movie now?” I enjoyed the whole film, but she was a standout to me, and definitely Cap’s equal in all but movie title. But really, whether it’s Black Widow or Wonder Woman or whoever, it’s time to give a female superhero her own film. Monika’s Girls on Film column is always worth reading, and this one is especially timely and 100% right. Lots of other stuff on this general topic this week, too. Brett White at Comic Book Resources goes through Widow’s contributions to Winter Soldier in depth, showing how strong her characterization is and how perfectly set she is for carrying her own story. Chrystian Harris over at Film School Rejects shows how all three women of Winter Solder are treated as equals, not damseled, and not even relegated to love interests. Also at FSR, The Bitter Script Reader directly addresses the question of why there isn’t a solo Widow movie, but kind of takes the tack that if there had been in Phase 2, she wouldn’t have been such a big and wonderful part of Winter Soldier, which is probably true, but doesn’t negate the fact that she should have a movie in Phase 3. A bit further afield but still related, Monika Bartyzel (again) looks at Five Franchises That Could Keep Wonder Woman from Getting Sucker-Punched, suggesting that plot details and backstories done in successful franchises led by both women and men prove that Wonder Woman is not that hard to do. And Five Thirty Eight even has The Dollar and Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women, which uses hard numbers to show that movies that pass the Bechdel test make more money than those that don’t (there are a number of issues I have with this methodology, because it doesn’t actually address the immediate problem on my mind, which is the lack of major release films with female LEADS, but it’s still a good piece of the puzzle).

“We’re waiting for the right story” is a pretty clever turn of phrase. It’s a statement that implies interest, but is basically a polite way to express disinterest in long-established female characters. Films like ­X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman Returns, Iron Man, and Captain America aren’t the result of execs sitting around hoping inspiration would strike; they are the result of active, concentrated work. Marvel’s Louis D’Esposito admitted as much himself: “A lot of R&D goes into it.” […] The fact is, the terrible movies that have been released have allowed studios to hide behind an all-too-convenient fear of superheroines. Sure, we can try and try again on Wolverine, Superman, and Incredible Hulk movies. But no one dares risk the studio’s precarious finances because Supergirl was bad, or because Catwoman was abysmal. Those films failed not because they starred women, but because they were bad.

For the Love of It: Notes on the Decline of Entertainment Weekly, the Firing of Owen Gleiberman and the Ongoing End of an Era by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com

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I included an item last week about Entertainment Weekly’s introduction of the non-paying Community of writers with a single-sentence mention that they’d just let Owen Glieberman go. Now we follow that up with a really great piece from Matt Zoller Seitz about Glieberman’s loss and the continuing decline of not just film criticism, but writing and journalism as a whole in an age when everyone expects to get such things for free. Ultimately, we’re part of the problem, because we want to read all this stuff without paying for a subscription. But once that cat is out of the bag, it’s nigh impossible to put it back, a perhaps more jaded but accepting viewpoint espoused by Matt Brown in his Destroy All Monsters column, where he’s relatively unperturbed about the idea of writers not being paid. Is it unrealistic to expect to make a living as a writer in the internet age? Maybe it is – but at the same time, do we really want to endorse the amateurization of all writing from all outlets? I’m not sure. Sort of related: A couple of Op Eds on the anniversary of Roger Ebert’s death, which seems especially symbolically important as criticism as a profession morphs into something new, one from Seitz, and one from Matt Singer at the Dissolve.

There are, I’m sure, many complex, overlapping and perhaps contradictory reasons why media companies have no interest in publishing properly compensated criticism by informed and seasoned writers. I don’t pretend to understand all of them, although I suspect the die was cast in the late ’90s, when newspapers and magazines bowed to tech gurus and prognosticators and started giving away their content. This made everyone—but particularly the younger generation—get used to thinking that writing was something they were entitled to have, like air or water; that it was not really valuable, indeed that it was not really work; that it was not really something that was “made”; that was not creative, and that for all these reasons it was not supposed to be compensated by anyone, not in any real sense—that it was, instead, a combination of entertainment and personal indulgence, something along the lines of an open mic night in print form, with people trying out “material,” basking in the applause (“exposure”), and maybe picking up a little walking-around money.

In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney by The Self-Styled Siren

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Mickey Rooney’s 8-decade-long career finally ended this week, with his death at age 93. He’d been working almost continuously in films, television, and on stage since the age of 2 until the very time of his death, and he’s a very real and dear piece of cinema history. If you only know of his through his unfortunate racial stereotype role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I urge you to check out some of his earlier musicals with Judy Garland, the Andy Hardy series (he was the top box office star for several years during this period), and his grittier noirs of the 1950s, many of which I need to catch up with myself. The Siren has, as always, a great tribute to him, and you can find more all over the internet. Here are a couple more good ones: The Dissolve and True Classics.

Good script or bad, Rooney simply did not know how to approach his work any way other than full-out. You can find him in roles that sank into self-parody, things he probably took because he needed the money (let’s hope that’s how he wound up narrating Hollywood Blue). But phoning it in? Never happened. Yes, Mickey Rooney was known for reminding people that he was once the biggest star in the world. That’s because he was once the biggest star in the world.

Americana 101: Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) by Carley Johnson at The Black Maria

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With Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman coming out on Criterion Blu-ray, there’s been a lot of great Lloyd-related stuff going around the internet, and of course one of the best ones is from Carley at The Black Maria. She nails exactly why Lloyd’s persona was so popular in the 1920s and why, perhaps, it has fallen from the spotlight a bit in subsequent decades. I personally am really enjoying discovering Lloyd, and he definitely deserves his place alongside Chaplin and Keaton. I’ve seen The Freshman long ago, but now my appetite is whet to pick up the Criterion and revisit it soon.

The reason Harold Lloyd’s films clicked so well with American audiences of the 1920s is due to the fact that his onscreen hero, the “glasses character,” was the quintessential all American regular fellow. Keaton and Chaplin weren’t “regular fellows”– they were outsiders; abstract. Harold Lloyd, however, felt like a fella you were likely to meet on any Main Street in America: someone you felt comfortable having your daughter go out with on Friday nights. Audiences identified with that image moreso than Chaplin’s Little Tramp (a subversive foreigner) and Keaton’s Stoneface (a rebellious anti-hero). The irony, of course, is that here in the 21st century, we tend to identify more closely with the metaphysical undertones in the work of Chaplin and Keaton–the wholesome appeal that was Lloyd’s strength is now his weakness to modern sensibilities. The Freshman is, therefore, a product entirely of time and place–a time capsule of 1920s Americana.

Keynote: The Multi-Level Stereotypes of The Cabin in the Woods by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve

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I know I share just about all of the Dissolve’s Movie of the Week posts (at least whenever I’ve seen the movie in question), but that’s because they’re always a really solid and in-depth series of articles, plus I love how the choices jump around in film history and style. This week it’s all about The Cabin in the Woods, with a very good Keynote on how the film both uses and subverts horror stereotypes – it’s definitely one of the best examples of a film that manages to have its cake and eat it too. The whole crew dives into some of the moral issues brought up by the film’s ending in particular, and Scott Tobias looks at the film in relation to Whedon’s TV shows to find connections in how they all “pit puppets against their masters.”

But when Goddard and Whedon first bring in the characters, they show their stereotype underpinnings just long enough to let the familiarity settle, then tug pointedly at the rug under viewers’ feet. Dana, the Virgin, has been screwing one of her professors. Jules, the Whore, is a supportive friend in a happy, committed relationship with the Athlete, Curt—a summa cum laude sociology major on an academic scholarship. Holden, the Scholar, wears glasses and can translate Latin, but is a heavily muscled jock who can catch a football idly hucked out a window and across a street. And the Fool, inveterate stoner Marty, is the group’s most observant, proactive, and capable member, and the one most resistant to the manipulations of the director’s puppetmaster employees.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Let’s Put Down the Guns in Virtual Reality and Learn to Pick Up Anything Else by Ben Kuchera at Polygon

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Ben Kuchera argues that violence is only the default in video games because we’ve gotten used to it being the default, and that the rise of Oculus Rift and other VR systems gives us the opportunity to explore other kinds of things in games as well. There’s understandably a lot of pushback in the comments, but there’s also a lot of support. I think indie gaming has shown that there’s definitely room for a lot of non-violence-driven stuff in gaming (think the success of Gone Home or Papers Please), and I’m excited to see what people can do with VR going in that direction. The argument in many of the comments that games need conflict (or even that narratives need conflict) is kind of a straw man; conflict doesn’t have to be violent or even physical. And there’s also the potential for non-narrative games that needs to be explored. Violence in games isn’t going away, nobody’s arguing that (including Ben), and I wouldn’t want it to – I like a good shoot ’em up as much as the next guy, but the AAA landscape especially is very narrowly focused and I’d love to see more different kinds of games available as both major and minor releases.

The problem is that, in most games, violence is boring. It’s filler. Few people play Uncharted for the gunfights, and there have been numerous articles about how the combat in Bioshock Infinite was the weakest part of the game. Violence is needed to pad the length of many games, without adding anything to the worlds we want to visit. It’s an easy way to add interaction to games, create danger for the hero, and give the player something to do. Go over there, but first you have to kill 20 people. Violence is also common because game designers have had decades to master its use in games. The vocabulary of gaming, especially larger-budget titles, is the vocabulary of inflicting pain on others.

How Pinball and Boardwalk Amusements Gave Rise to Video Games by Colin Campbell at Polygon

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I’m fascinated by history of all kinds, so of course this article that points to the ways that pinball and mechanical arcade games fed into the creation of video games caught my eye. Apparently it’s occasioned by an upcoming exhibition of pinball games at the Strong’s National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, which sounds like a fun place to visit if you’re in the area.

“The whole roots of games is back in pinball and the penny arcades, back to the late 1800s and the fortune telling games,” said Eugene Jarvis, creator of Defender and now head of a coin-op company Raw Thrills. “You just have to look at pinball and its influence on basic video game structures like having three lives and earning an extra life.” Jarvis worked as a programmer on pinball games before making his move into video games. He said that pinball deserves more credit for its influence on what came later.

The Night I Slept Outside Shakespeare & Co. by Aram Mrjoian at Book Riot

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For literature lovers, the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Co. has an extremely romantic reputation, especially thanks to its support of expatrioted writers in the 1920s, serving as a meeting place for the Lost Generation of American writers, as well as others like James Joyce, whose books were banned in his native Ireland but published by Shakespeare and Co. There’s still quite the aura around the place, and I really enjoyed reading this account of a young reader visiting Paris with no goals other than to basically live at the bookstore.

There was something magical about the bookstore when it was closed and unseen, and I already felt that my pilgrimage had been worth it, just to sit outside and know that James Baldwin and Chester Himes had probably stood near here, that maybe Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs had split a cigarette in this courtyard, and that Henry Miller had frequented here in the past.

What Superheroes Look Like in 14 Countries Around the World by Abdul R. Siddiqui at Policy Mic

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As summer approaches and the first superhero movie of 2014 is in theatres, it’s interesting to see what superheroes other countries look to – lots of variety here, and some surprising ones.

Captain America, Superman and the whole U.S.-based team of crime fighters are not the only superheroes the world knows. Many countries have their own superhero icons who just haven’t made a splash here in the U.S. We decided to take a peek at 14 other superheroes and comic heroes from around the world, so while America spends its weekend navel-gazing at the movies, at least now we’ll know who’s defending the rest of the planet.

Photo of the Week

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50 Super Ideas for Your Home Library. I want all of these. Okay, like 3/4 of these. Lots of these.