The Roundup: June 4, 2014

Cinema

Young Minds in Critical Condition by Michael S. Roth at the New York Times

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I actually came to this article via a rebuttal of it by Noah Berlatsky in the Atlantic. Technically it’s more about literature/philosophy than film, but Berlatsky takes it in a film critical way, and it’s certainly applicable. While reading Berlatsky’s article, which argues for always reading/watching with a critical eye, I was already thinking “you know, I have a feeling I’ll agree with the other guy instead.” So I went and read this article, and yep. While I do think pretty much nothing is above criticism in the final analysis, Roth’s point is not that we shouldn’t think about what we read (or watch, by extension). In fact, it’s that we SHOULD – that we should truly engage with it and wrestle with it rather than dismiss it or come to it LOOKING for things to be critical of, which is what Roth sees students doing (and what I see a lot of people online doing, too). In fact, you can’t be a good critical thinker if you don’t engage with the work first – it doesn’t mean, as Berlatsky seems to assume, that you have to agree with “the great writers” (his paragraph asking how you determine, and who determines, which writers are above criticism misses the point with great flair) but you do have to understand what they’re saying and where they’re coming from before you can mount a useful critique, and part of that is allowing that perhaps they have something of value after all.

Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work. It is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are, at least temporarily, overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand an experience from another’s point of view. We are not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities. Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.

According to Frank Capra Life is More Complicated Than Wonderful by Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve

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“Capracorn” remains a lasting evaluation of Capra’s filmmaking, probably in no small part because it’s a fun word, but it’s so reductive in the light of what Capra actually does – not just in the big social problem-type films that Nathan studies astutely here, but throughout all his other films. How do you reconcile Capracorn with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, for example? But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that even in the films that ARE often labeled Capracorn, Capra has a much darker worldview than is usually assumed. Nathan uses It’s a Wonderful Life in passing, but it’s probably the darkest of them all – just about the only happy joyful part is the last ten minutes, which is of course what most people remember (okay, jumping in the pool at the school party is pretty fun). Most of the rest is full of disappointment, despair, and frustration. The Movie of the Week this column is tied to is actually Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – see the Keynote essay here and the Roundtable discussion here.

Capra has a reputation for sentimentality and corniness because his films celebrate the innocence of his populist heroes. But while Jefferson Smith, Longfellow Deeds, and “Long” John Willoughby of Meet John Doe might all be guileless, the films they anchor are darker than their reputations suggest. Capra’s filmography includes a pair of films about good men pushed to the brink of suicide by powerful forces out to destroy them (Meet John Doe and It’s A Wonderful Life), a movie about a man whose fundamental decency is widely perceived as insanity (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), and an American classic about a common man who is nearly destroyed by the forces of political corruption conspiring against him (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington). In Capra’s films, the public needs heroes to look up to, to inspire them, to serve, in Meet John Doe’s indelible words, as “lighthouses in a foggy world.” Yet Frank Capra’s world often goes beyond foggy to become despairing.

History of Film: The Best Movies of the 1960s at Movie Mezzanine

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The Movie Mezzanine has been going backwards in time with these History of Film posts, first polling a group of contributors and outside critics for lists of their top ten movies of each decade, then creating a series of essays based on the top ten calculated from those lists. This time they’re soliciting lists from the readers as well, and the reader lists will be factored into the ultimate top ten that gets essays. There are a lot of the usual suspects here, but also some surprises, both lowbrow (Batman: The Movie) and highbrow (lots of artsy-sounding films I haven’t heard of). The latter group led Ryan McNeil to , which is a fair point, especially since the original prompt was apparently “favorite” rather than “best.” Although if someone wants to use this platform for giving their top ten most historically important films of the ’60s, that’s okay by me. I’ll be submitting my own list in the comments soon, probably a mix of favorite, best, and most important – the comments are open for submissions throughout June if you want to add your own.

History of Film is designed to examine each decade of cinema, ten films at a time (see our results from the 00s, 90s, 80s and 70s). In an attempt to present a multiplicity of voices, we’ve reached out to a plethora of people in the film industry. Thankfully, a whole host of gifted and esteemed individuals responded rather enthusiastically, happy to contemplate the cineamatic greatness that was the 1960s for a moment. So what follows is a collection of ballots from Movie Mezzanine staff and friends — from filmmakers to film critics to festival programmers to a publicist (yes, even a publicist).

Are We at Peak Superhero? by Mark Harris at Grantland

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This is a question that’s on many people’s minds, as the superhero genre seems to be in something of a bubble right now – when will the bubble burst? Or will it just keep growing, or will it peter out slowly over time as something else takes its place? Nobody knows, but I enjoy the speculation. I enjoy superhero movies, but I have no particular investment in them – I read a few comics, but only for the last year or two, and I’m not especially loyal to any superhero or book. The interconnectedness that Harris points to is a sticking point for me – I like when the comics and movies clearly inhabit the same world and cameo once in a while when appropriate, but giant crossover events that are intended to make me read books that I ordinarily don’t to get the full story are more likely to make me stop reading ANY of the books rather than add more to my list. I don’t mind the constant serializiation and I’m fascinated to see Marvel try it in film form, but Harris is right that it caters to the small but vocal audience of comic fans that are used to it, and to keep it going Marvel really needs to make sure each entry is worth it on its own, not just as a part of a bigger whole (something they struggled with, as Harris explains at length, in Agents of SHIELD).

This isn’t really related in theme, but since it’s about superheroes, you should also check out Bitter Script Reader’s column in Film School Rejects about female superhero movies of the past – hint, they didn’t fail because they’re female-led, they failed because they’re craptacular.

The M.O. of its movies and TV shows is always to suggest that you are entering a world that will reward your commitment to consume more Marvel products — one of which is teased in a post-credits sequence at the end of every film. The idea is that interconnectedness enhances the content, but in practice, interconnectedness often becomes the content; the stories themselves can play as flat, by-the-numbers action enriched mainly by the way they link to the larger whole. It’s not a particularly big deal that in 2012, the Avengers defeated a bunch of otherworldly bad guys while they laid waste to the streets and buildings of New York City; we get three summer movies like that every year. The point is that it took five earlier films to build to that humdrum grandiosity and you had to see them all! In Marvel movies, the anticipation is the orgasm.

How Blockbusters Survived the Internet Age by Jennifer Rankin at The Guardian

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Blockbusters keep getting bigger, which is in direct opposition to what was SUPPOSED to happen in the internet age. I remember reading The Long Tail when it came out and being really excited about the possibilities – not so much about the fractured audiences (there is something of value to there being cultural milestones that everyone knows), but about the greater availability and exposure for niche content. That doesn’t seem to have happened at all. Mass marketing and popularity have trumped individual curation. Where does that leave a company like Netflix, which The Long Tail highlighted as being able to leverage the long tail? Netflix’s Neil Hunt recently stated that they’re looking at eliminating the sea of titles currently shown to Instant viewers, saying that showing users two or three options would be really powerful. On the one hand, this could be the curation that highlights lesser-known content, but in reality, it’s much more likely to create more blockbusters. And personally, I’m horrified by the idea that Netflix has thousands of titles they ALREADY don’t show me; I don’t want it to be lessened even more.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. A bestselling 2008 book by Chris Anderson convinced many for a time that the reign of the blockbuster was drawing to a close. The Long Tail argued that the mainstream was going to be “shattered into a zillion different cultural shards,” as fickle consumers “scattered to the winds” using the internet to find the books, films and songs that met their unique taste. […] But Anderson was wrong. […] Paul Ormerod, an economist who has studied social networks, argues that people change their behaviour when faced with a stupendous number of choices. “They are more likely to copy and emulate people whose judgments they trust. In this model something starts to become popular not because of its objective qualities, but because it is already popular.”

A Few More…

  • Tell MGM to Save The Alamo…NOW – The original negative of The Alamo (1960) is deteriorating quickly, and MGM has explicitly decided to let it go, which just hurts my heart
  • 25 Emerging Filmmakers to Watch – The Movie Mezzanine staff highlights 25 directors, many of whom I heartily endorse, and some of whom I hadn’t heard of yet myself
  • The “Up” Series at 50 – I really enjoyed watching through the entire Up series a few years ago, and this is a good rundown of the series and its place in culture
  • Freeze Frame: Sweet Smell of Success – Most of Ryan McNeil’s Freeze Frame entries make me want to immediately rush out and rewatch the film, and this was no exception; it’s been too long!
  • Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office – So Pacific Rim failed because it’s…better? And mass audiences are too dumb to appreciate it? I find that condescending but there may be something to it – tropes work for a reason.

Not Cinema

Your Princess is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement and Nerds by Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast

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A ton of ink has been spilled on Eliott Rodgers, and I admittedly haven’t read it all (I got to a saturation point pretty early and deleted most of them off my to-read list), but I think this one is really good on the inherent misogyny in geek pop culture. I don’t think it’s the whole story (he writes off mental illness too quickly – after all, as he clearly states, not all geeks who don’t get women turn into homicidal rage machines), nor do I think we can blame any particular piece of media for things like this – that gets too close to the video games create violent shooters trope – but it does point out that a certain type of person who is perhaps already leaning this way can find plenty of fodder in our culture. See also A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture, which isn’t specifically about pop culture, but fairly astute in general.

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well. So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses?

The Game That Conquered the World by James Parker at The Atlantic

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I’m obviously a pretty big fan of Minecraft, and it’s interesting to see the perspective of someone outside gaming/tech peeking into the world through his son. And totally nailing the basic appeal of it – I sometimes characterize it as the grinding in an RPG without the quests (which is not totally untrue), but it’s really more like LEGO, except in some modes you have to find the LEGOs and fight off monsters to build things. But it’s that sense that “I can do anything!” that’s really powerful. If you can think of it, you can make it in Minecraft.

This is obviously Minecraft’s secret. The construction of private places in the wilderness — whether a blanket over two chairs or a tree house with a boom box — is one of the ruling atavisms of childhood. And in Minecraft we have a virtual mirroring of the “geography of children” posited by the researcher Roger Hart (whose work was cited by Hanna Rosin in her April 2014 cover story, “Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone”). What are the Minecraft millions doing but, in Hart’s terminology, “modifying the landscape” — only now with limitless capability?

Erasing Your Audience Isn’t “Fun”: The False Choice Between Diversity and Enjoyment by Todd Harper at Polygon

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This article is specifically about including LGBT characters and relationships, but the basic thrust is just as applicable to women or minorities in gaming as well. The execs are basically saying “we want to focus on fun rather than making political statements,” but first off, that’s a false dichotomy, and second, by refusing to be inclusive, they ARE making a political statement, whether they like it or not.

Blizzard’s Dustin Browder, much like Nintendo in its statement regarding Tomodachi Life, positions “gameplay” and “fun” in direct opposition to producing socially-conscious content. When pressed on the sexualization of women characters in MOBA games, Browder argued “We’re not sending a message. Nobody should look to our game for that.” The message just below the surface here is: why can’t we just have fun? Why do we have to be responsible for being respectful?

What “Agents of SHIELD” Got Right and What It Got Wrong by Susana Polo at The Mary Sue

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This kind of follows from the superhero article above, but Polo does a good job highlighting the things that Agents of SHIELD DID do right. I actually quite enjoyed the second half of the series; the comment below is exactly what I think went wrong with the first half. They started too early and had to tread water to keep from stepping on The Winter Soldier‘s toes – if they had to leave the reveal for the film (which confirms that SHIELD is the lesser-thought-of stepchild of the Marvel family), then why not start the show at that point instead of having sixteen episodes of filler?

Continuity was supposed to be one of Agents of SHIELD‘s biggest strengths, and it’s clear that it actually became one of its biggest problems. Marvel Entertainment looked at two production teams, both of which wanted to talk about SHIELD as an organization, and decided that one of them would have to bend over backwards for the other, rather than, say, allowing SHIELD to drop hints about Hydra or pushing its premiere closer to Winter Soldier‘s release. […] Sixteen episodes of a twenty-two episode series is too long to wait for a show to get around to being what it clearly wanted to be from the beginning. I’ll even say that an entire first season is too long to wait for a show to get around to being what it should have been in the first place: a show about Director Phil Coulson picking up the pieces of SHIELD: SHIELD as an underdog, premiering one month after the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

A Few More…

For Your Listening Pleasure

The Cinephiliacs podcast, hosted by Peter Labuza

I think I first heard this podcast described as “too academic” for whoever was telling me about it, which is fair enough. I was like, sign me up for that! And it’s actually just the right amount of academic for me, and an excellent counterpoint to some of the more popular film reviewing podcasts. Peter has an opening section where he analyzes a specific film alone in an essayistic manner, but the majority of the podcast is a conversation with his guest, and Peter conducts in-depth interviews with his guests, their relationship to film, specific interests of theirs in terms of film, and then finishes with a discussion of a film of their choosing. I really like the variety of guests he gets – I just started listening, so I’ve been going back and listening to back episodes based on whether I know the guest’s work and whether I’ve seen the film before, so I’ve heard film programmers, critics, enthusiast authors, avantgarde filmmakers, and more. They all have their own perspectives and reasons that draw them to films and their particular mode of expression, and I love hearing about that.

Images of the Week

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Classic movie posters prove that everything is better in Sweden – I don’t entirely agree with the author’s assumption that all these movies are cheesy; some of these are among the greatest sci-fi and/or horror films ever made! However, I do agree that these posters are awesome, so there you go. Lots more at the link; this one for The Black Cat is one of my favorites.

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Das Boot Mondo poster by Ken Taylor. I almost always love Mondo prints, and this is no exception. I’ve never seen the film though – this is a good reminder that I should get on that at some point.

Video of the Week

This video on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy by Tony Zhou has been making the rounds this week, and boy is it worth it. I’m a big Edgar Wright fan, and now I know even better why – this kind of visual storytelling is wonderful.

And on the silly side of the fence – what if Archer‘s Jon Benjamin voiced HAL-9000?