The Roundup: June 30, 2014

Cinema

Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and the Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Happiest Couple by Matthew Dessem at The Dissolve

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This is a great piece of writing – well-researched, sourced, informative, interesting, and highly readable. I’ve long wondered if the increase in cynicism in Wilder’s work coincided closely with his switch in writing partners from Brackett to Diamond for a reason, and it looks like it did. I’m pretty interested to read Brackett’s journals when they’re published this fall.

Brackett emerges from his own pages as a sort of platonic ideal of WASPishness: observant, hyperliterate, reserved, snobbish, fiercely loyal. And on almost every page is Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, Brackett’s collaborator, rival, friend, and opponent. His day-by-day account of their work together gives a fascinating portrait of their partnership, at least from Brackett’s perspective, and one of the most detailed accounts of any artistic partnership ever. Wilder once told biographer Charlotte Chandler that “a good writing collaboration is more difficult to achieve than a good marriage. And it’s more intimate.” Brackett’s diaries reveal just how apt that comparison was. Over the years the two men worked together, they came to know each other better than anyone else ever would. And when the end came for Brackett and Wilder, it came with guilt and recrimination, jealousy and betrayal.

Can Indie Directors Avoid Disappearing Into the Studio System? by Landon Palmer at Film School Rejects

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Rian Johnson landing the gig as director of Star Wars Episode VIII is pretty awesome on two levels – it’s validation for his skill and great for his exposure (and bankability) as a director, and it means that Star Wars VIII will hopefully be solid – and less exciting on a third: it means he likely won’t have time to do more quirky, idiosyncratic films like Brick, The Brothers Bloom or Looper for a while at least. Or maybe ever. Landon’s observation here is that these days it seems that indie directors who hit it big and start making big studio films end up never returning to smaller films (the “one for them, one for me” mentality of Steven Soderbergh and others seems to be fading). Now, he’s ignoring the one-two punch of Whedon’s Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing, but he’s spot on about one thing, at least, and that’s the way filmmaking is splitting into two tracks – megabudgeted Hollywood blockbusters and microbudgeted indies. The mid-range non-franchised studio-supported film is dying out.

I am by no means saying that such directors are selling out, or that any of these filmmakers have some sort of prescribed duty to take on more personal and riskier projects. They aren’t and they don’t. But it is notable that directors who make a mark upon the independent scene rarely show evidence of “cashing out” after directing hugely successful studio projects. Instead, they dig their heels deeper into the studio machine, and not only stand to benefit greatly from it, but seek to become major players within it by seating themselves as a major source of direction for these franchises’ greater futures. […] Perhaps this widespread practice more generally speaks to studios’ continued devotion towards franchising at the expense of all other different types of filmmaking. Where it seemed for years that indies and mainstream films were blending to the point of being indistinguishable, now it seems that two rigidly distinct tiers of filmmaking exists, separated by a canyon of monetary and institutional resources.

Artistic Differences: John Huston’s The Misfits and the End of an Era by Carley Johnson at The Black Maria

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John Huston’s 1961 film The Misfits was the final completed film for both Marilyn Monroe (she died while filming her subsequent film Something’s Gotta Give and it was never completed) and Clark Gable, and one of the last for Montgomery Clift. Because of that, it carries a lot of baggage, but it’s a fascinating film in and of itself – a western about despair. Carley does a great job of discussing the film, its production, and especially its place at the end of a Hollywood era.

There in the midst of Monroe’s endless delays, Miller’s frantic rewrites, Huston’s laissez-faire directorial approach (he seemed more interested in the gambling casinos than anything else), and Clift’s acute dependence on pills and alcohol (he kept a vodka laced thermos of grapefruit juice with him at all times on the set), Clark Gable labored to remain a true professional. In the film, Gable’s character is a Cowboy forced to face the fact that (to steal from Margaret Mitchell) his civilization is one that has gone with the wind. The same was true of Gable himself, on the Misfits set. […] Gable was also unnerved by the acting approach of his costars: Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach were all Method actors. Monroe’s close friend and acting coach happened to be Paula Strasberg who was a constant presence on the set. Gable came from a more… square shooting school of acting, perhaps best summed up by Jimmy Cagney: know your mark and know your lines. And still Gable tried his best not to complain, and more importantly, remain sympathetic to everyone, especially Monroe and Clift.

What Mise-en-Scene is and Why It Matters by A.D. Jameson at Press Play

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Mise-en-scene is a scary French word that, to me, basically means composition, or what visual elements are on screen and how they’re arranged within the frame. Jameson complicates it a lot more than I think it really needs to be, positing an ideological conflict between mise-en-scene and montage (editing) that has resulted in fetishizing long takes. He’s not wrong or anything, and it seems like he’s probably responding to a lot of stuff that I just haven’t managed to read. To me, mise-en-scene creates meaning through space, and montage creates meaning through time, and when both are done well, they work in concert. Which is basically what Jameson is saying, he just takes a while to get there. When he does, though, his analysis of a quickly edited but carefully composed scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is fantastic, and we definitely need more analysis like this of how composition and editing work together to create meaning.

In order to demonstrate the importance of mise-en-scène in short-take cinema, I’d like to devote the remainder of this article to analyzing a scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), looking at how mise-en-scène and editing work in concert to produce several complicated larger effects. A few notes first. I chose this scene because the editing in it is very fast. (The editing in Wright’s films tends to be very fast in general.) Here, we have 24 shots in 57 seconds, yielding an ASL of only 2.1. That of course doesn’t tell us how long each shot is, but it’s worth noting that this ASL is lower than in most contemporary Hollywood films, which tend to hover in the 3–6 second range. And yet, despite the brisk pace, a great amount of information is communicated in this minute of film. Let’s see how that is done.

55 Essential Movies Your Child Must See Before They Turn 13 at Entertainment Weekly

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I was fairly dubious of this list when I saw it was from Entertainment Weekly, but I was pleasantly surprised – this is a pretty solid set of films and arranged well from younger to older. I think my major change would be to hold off on Titanic until after age 13, and throw in Sherlock Jr. to get some Keaton in there. I am, of course, working on my own syllabus for my daughter (although right now it’s more like, what will she look at for longer than five seconds at a time), but I will take this one into definite consideration.

The 55 Essential Movies Kids Must Experience (Before They Turn 13) is a starting point. This isn’t a list of the 55 “best” kids movies, nor a compendium of hidden gems. Rather, it’s a survival-guide syllabus of films that we all need to know to be able to speak the same pop-cultural language, listed in order by when they might be best introduced. It starts with a film that is a perfect introduction to the cinematic universe and ends with one that is an ideal capper before graduating into the world of PG-13 and R movies—and the age when kids begin to make their own theater decisions. These are the cinematic building blocks for future film connoisseurs, movie-literate enthusiasts who can gracefully segue from a George Bailey impression into a spirited debate over whether Han Solo shot first. The important stuff.

The Summer Movie Season is Dead by David Erlich at The Dissolve

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Or, the Summer Movie Season is so alive it’s taking over spring, fall, and winter. Remember when blockbusters came out in summer, nothing came out in August, Oscar bait and adult-oriented films came out in September-December, and shovelware came out in January-April? Yeah, now blockbusters come out all the time and adult-oriented films barely exist. In one way, it doesn’t really matter – it’s nice that films make money year-round, and it’s nice that there’s actually stuff to go to in March and April now (the blockbusters haven’t quite spread to January and February yet), but I have to admit that blockbuster season tires me out, simply because the hype machine goes into such overdrive. It used to be that if I could make it through to September, I’d be rewarded with smaller, quieter, and less hype-driven films. Now just about the whole year is exhausting. (Before you chime in, of course there are indies I could watch all through the year; I’m talking about the hype cycle that’s inescapable if you’re online and in the film blogosphere – it’s actually less about the films themselves and more about the obscene amount of coverage that blockbusters get in the news cycle.)

Summer movies weren’t just movies that came out during the summer, they were an entirely different breed of cinema, a genre unto themselves. The films released in April weren’t the same kind of films released in May. In 1996, for example, the year’s four highest-grossing films were Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible, and Jerry Maguire. Take a guess which of those movies didn’t hit theaters between May and September? Here’s a hint: It’s not the one about aliens destroying the White House, or the one about flying CGI cows, or the one about the NOC list, whatever the hell that is. It’s the one about a sports agent struggling to reconcile his actions with his values. […] In 2012, the eight highest-grossing films of the year were The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Pixar’s Surprise, It’s Actually About Bears. They all kind of sound like summer movies, but those eight films opened on different months between March and December, and only half of them in the traditional May-through-September window.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

A Field Experiment on Gender Stereotypes and Video Game Interactions by Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue

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This is interesting for two reasons – one, the study itself is interesting (and kind of depressing), but I also found Becky’s observations of her own gaming tendencies to be really intriguing, and very relatable. I’m also a female gamer, but I avoid multiplayer not only because of the high potential for abuse, but because I don’t enjoy the hyper-competitive environment of a lot of online games. In many ways, I am a stereotypical female, similar to how Becky describes herself. The thing is, and a lot of the commenters pointed this out, that really, that’s how we probably SHOULD be in our interactions with other people. With that in mind, perhaps the most surprising and disappointing thing about the study is not that people tended to respond better to women who exhibited positivity, but that people tended to respond better to men who exhibited negativity. Shouldn’t we respond better to EVERYONE who exhibits positivity?

This is somewhat uncomfortable to admit, but this study has me thinking more about myself than my in-game experiences. The female behavior the authors describe as stereotypical — “aligned and supportive,” “oriented toward communal goals” — is my standard operating procedure. I don’t enjoy trash talk, nor do I like bad sportsmanship. I give my friends a world of grief, but I don’t do the same to strangers. If another player is bothering me, I prefer to mute rather than fight. I try to act positively, be it by helping out newbies or smiling through defeat. “Oriented toward communal goals”? Yeah, that’s me. When I first started playing multiplayer games, I did my best to act like “one of the boys.” Again, I wasn’t on mic much with strangers, but I threw my weight around in party chat, and I gave as much as I got. I hated it. It felt ugly and ill-fitting. I was much more at ease once I started acting in a way that was more in keeping with how I am offline — quiet but friendly around strangers, averse to conflict, and more concerned with having a good time than winning.

Let’s Stop Pretending Dickens Was the Platonic Ideal of Serious Literature by Amanda Nelson at BookRiot

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This. See also, Shakespeare. Both of them are great, no one’s disputing that, but what they’re great AT is writing popular fiction that has stood the test of time. They’re not great at writing Serious Intellectual Novels, yet the way they’re treated, especially in school, I think is a turnoff to people who would actually enjoy their work. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if these guys were writing today, they wouldn’t be writing critically acclaimed literary fiction. They’d be writing critically acclaimed television shows.

So perhaps critics who bemoan the death of the novel (as if it’s a new moan) should pick a new patron saint. One who didn’t write melodramatic stories designed to draw attention to the “common” poor instead of to ivory towers of the social or literary variety. One who didn’t publish his work in titillating ways, designed to drive sales. One who wasn’t just so damn good at what he did. Because what they mean when they say “the novel is dead” is that the Very Serious Intellectual Novel That Not Very Many People Read is dead…but those aren’t the kind of novels Dickens ever really wrote.

Feeling More Antsy and Irritable Lately? Blame Your Smartphone by Michael Mechanic and Nicholas Carr at Mother Jones

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I believe it. I’m starting to notice things like this in myself and trying to take a step back and organize my time differently. I don’t know if it’ll make a difference, and I certainly think trying to go cold turkey on this stuff is overkill, but I think being aware of how I’m interacting with time and managing it is already helping. It’s at least helping me to be more content, which is really what I’m after.

The phenomenon is amplified by the constant buzz of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and social networking in general. Society’s “activity rhythm” has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget. All of this has obvious importance to anyone involved in online media or in running data centers. But it also has implications for how all of us think, socialize, and in general live. If we assume that networks will continue to get faster—a pretty safe bet—then we can also conclude that we’ll become more and more impatient, more and more intolerant of even microseconds of delay between action and response. As a result, we’ll be less likely to experience anything that requires us to wait, that doesn’t provide us with instant gratification. That has cultural as well as personal consequences. The greatest of human works—in art, science, politics—tend to take time and patience both to create and to appreciate. The deepest experiences can’t be measured in fractions of seconds.

Why Olenna Tyrell Wins The Game of Thrones by Shoshanna Kessock at The Mary Sue

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I do love me some Olenna Tyrell. And some Diana Rigg, which is a slightly different but definitely related thing.

Diana Rigg’s Lady Olenna Tyrell is a fashionable breath of fresh air in every scene she’s in. Rigg’s portrayal wipes away the idea of the unpleasant old woman of the books and focuses instead on Lady Olenna as a playful and loving matriarch, a woman whose iron nerve and political brilliance are a genuine match for Tywin Lannister’s every step of the way. This has brought us some of the best scenes of the past seasons as Tywin and Olenna get into cranky fights over everything from the cost of the Joffery/Margaery wedding to how broke Westeros is and everything else under the sun. […] We’re given an elderly woman character written to reflect the power that years of experience and wisdom can bring, a woman ready to toss out sage wisdom in the same breath as a joke about her sex life. This portrayal presents Lady Olenna as a vibrant, well-rounded representation of women in their elder years, rather than the cackling crone archetype of so many fantasy stories.

How Did This Ancient Civilization Avoid War for 2000 Years? by Annalee Newitz at io9

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Archaeology is fascinating. It’s like detective research.

Archaeologists have long wondered whether the Harappan civilization could actually have thrived for roughly 2,000 years without any major wars or leadership cults. Obviously people had conflicts, sometimes with deadly results — graves reveal ample skull injuries caused by blows to the head. But there is no evidence that any Harappan city was ever burned, besieged by an army, or taken over by force from within. Sifting through the archaeological layers of these cities, scientists find no layers of ash that would suggest the city had been burned down, and no signs of mass destruction. There are no enormous caches of weapons, and not even any art representing warfare. That would make the Harappan civilization an historical outlier in any era. But it’s especially noteworthy at a time when neighboring civilizations in Mesopotamia were erecting massive war monuments, and using cuneiform writing on clay tablets to chronicle how their leaders slaughtered and enslaved thousands.

A Few More…

For Your Listening Pleasure

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I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned MAMO yet in this new section, but it’s one of the first podcasts I listen to every time one drops. Matthew Price and Matt Brown primarily cover the movie business in terms of box office expectations, returns, and the implications of those things for filmmaking – I don’t have a lot of interest in box office itself, but the way MAMO treats it is fascinating, because it’s always a jumping off point for what it means for what Hollywood is likely to keep making or not, and larger discussions about movie culture and in general. And yet they keep it really short, which is nice for my limited listening time. This particular episode is last week’s, about the rising costs of TIFF and whether it continues to be worth it as a people’s festival. Going to TIFF has been a dream of mine for a while, but it looks like it may be a dream that will remain unfulfilled.

Image of the Week

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An infographic from Nielsen charting how long it would take you to binge watch various shows, aka, how much of my life have I devoted to various shows. This one struck my fancy because of all the genre shows on it. :) There’s also a more general one and an animated series one.

Video of the Week

This episode of Anita Sarkeesian’s ongoing Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series covers women as background decoration, often in the form of prostitutes, strip club dancers, eye candy, etc. It comes with a trigger warning because in the second half especially she talks a lot about these women are portrayed as disposable and suggests that the player is basically encouraged to abuse them. There are a lot of good points in this one (I don’t like strip clubs in games, but even I hadn’t noticed just HOW MANY of them there are, and I’ve played a lot of the games featured), but I do think that a lot of the games she calls out are basically sandbox games, and the player is allowed or encouraged to kill NPC male characters as much as female ones; she is right, though, that male NPCs are not sexualized in the same way very often.