The Roundup: August 18

Cinema

Let’s Be Real: Let’s Be Cops, Cop Movies, and the Shooting in Ferguson by Wesley Morris at Grantland

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There’s been little on Twitter for the past week besides the turmoil in Ferguson, and we’re not the end of it yet. Meanwhile, pop culture continues anyway, though the producers of Let’s Be Cops might wish they could reconsider their release date. Wesley Morris’s essay (it’s not a review, in the strictest sense, though there is criticism here) combines cinema and history in the making in a way that’s not often seen, and it excellent on both fronts. There’s been more ink spilled on Ferguson already than I could possibly round up, but I also found this article from RogerEbert.com’s Far-Flung Correspondent Omer M. Mozaffar to be very compelling reading.

All movies choose their moment. It’s called a release date. Some moments, however, choose their movies. And it looks as if the moment has chosen Let’s Be Cops. But let’s be clear: No one should choose this movie. It’s a title in search of a plot. It could also have been called Let’s Be Funnier, Let’s Be Directed, Let’s Be 15 to 30 Minutes Shorter, Let’s Be 22 Jump Street. Right now, though, this is our only movie starring law enforcement run amok, at a moment when much of the nation is outraged that actual law enforcement is doing the same.

Lauren Bacall: 1924-2014 by Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com

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When the news of Lauren Bacall’s death hit last week just one day after Robin Williams’ death, I mentioned on Twitter that as tragic as Williams’ death was, Bacall’s hit me in a deeper place, not because dying at 89 of a stroke is even comparably tragic compared to dying at 62 of suicide, but merely because Bacall and her movies meant more to me personally. I grew up on classic film, and the films of Bogart and Bacall in particular were central to me in much the same way I assume Williams’ films were central to people of my generation who grew up watching contemporary film. In any case, because of that personal bias, I admit that I have read very few of the articles eulogizing Williams, and very many of the articles eulogizing Bacall, and that is why I have one and not the other on this Roundup. This particular one from Dan Callahan is lovely, evocative, and acknowledges Bacall’s insecurities. This one by Karen of Shadows and Satin focuses on Bacall’s early career with just as much warmth, love and insight. And this one by NPR’s Linda Holmes discusses Bacall’s inimical ability to convey sex without sex. I also enjoyed reading tributes from Jennifer Garlan, Noel Murray, Glenn Kenny, and photo and quote galleries from Carly Johnson and Kimberly Lindbergs.

Bacall walks with feline grace in “To Have and Have Not,” and part of what makes her so distinctive and touching in that movie is the just noticeable strain she is under to perform and act more than her age. She manages all of that with style, with aplomb, and the picture was a triumph for her, as was “The Big Sleep.” And then some! Her Slim in “To Have and Have Not” and particularly her Vivian Rutledge in “The Big Sleep” are flawless fantasy creations, all lush hair and pouting lip and smart, poking attitude. Bacall and Bogart in those movies make the lead-up to sex, the jabs and put-ons and badinage, seem just as much fun as the no-doubt satisfying sex itself.

The Big Sleep by Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films

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I often skip over Roderick Heath’s articles when they pop up in my feedreader, just because they tend to be long reads; but whenever I do take the time to read them, I’m reminded of how great a writer he really is. I could’ve folded this into the entry above, but really, it’s not just about Bacall, and it’s worth highlighting on its own, as a very in-depth and insightful look at The Big Sleep. There are spoilers, though, so best to read it after you’ve seen the film.

Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is romance rather than riddle, with narrative velocity provided by how Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence.

What They “Don’t Make ‘Em Like” Anymore by Noel Murray at The Dissolve

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This is another variation on something I’ve been saying for years – bring back more midrange studio films that can be modest successes and indulge some of my love for action/adventure/thriller films that get in, do their business, and get out. Murray cites Premium Rush, and that’s also one of my go-to examples of this. Also on the summer movie/blockbuster topic, Joshua Coonrod over at Film School Rejects wonders if the age of the tentpole is sustainable, pointing out that blockbusters this summer, even the big hits, are earning less than ever, while Scott Tobais back at The Dissolve suggests that this is the wrong year to fight against blockbusters, since most of them are actually pretty good. The juxtaposition of the last two is something very interesting to me. By and large, I think the critical consensus on this year’s summer movies is far more positive than it usually is – and yet, box office is disappointing on EVERYTHING this year. What does that mean?

What falls through the cracks in modern Hollywood are the Breakheart Passes: the thrillers, Westerns, cop movies, adventures, and fantasy pictures that don’t cost $100 million, don’t star A-listers, and don’t concern themselves with complicated world-building or thinly veiled social commentary. Again, it’s not that no one is making low-to-the-ground genre movies any more. It’s just that they more often come from overseas, or from the low-budget/straight-to-video wing of the business. What I’d love to see more of are not-too-expensive, studio-made action/adventure/suspense films that open widely.

History of Film: Lawrence of Arabia by Omer M. Mozaffar at Movie Mezzanine

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This is the second article by Omer M. Mozaffar mentioned in this week – I don’t think I’ve ever shared anything by him before, but he’s definitely on my radar now. I’ve been enjoying all of the entries in Movie Mezzanine’s “History of Film” series, but this is easily one of the best ones yet. Mozaffar covers all the reasons why Lawrence of Arabia is such an astounding movie, and yet also points out many of the negative ways of looking at the Arab world that the film perpetuates, and in some ways even created. It’s a very nuanced look at the most nuanced of epics.

All of them. Forget all the other movies ever made. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the reason we go to the cinema. All the great works of art take us somewhere; this movie is one of the greatest objects in the greatest of crafts. Every time we face a screen, to watch television, to watch a picture, we hope to recapture what this film gives us. Choose blasphemy by screening the movie on a small cell phone and we will see a fantastic story about a transforming man. Watch the film on the largest screen we can find — with a corresponding sound system — and we will transport to a world of excitement, mystery, humor and drama. Every frame, every movement, every note in this film is a thing of ambition and beauty.

The Coen Brothers: American Independents, Part 1 by Teo Bugbee at RogerEbert.com

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Teo Bugbee starts a series on the Coen Brothers (possibly my favorite living filmmakers), and if the rest of the series is as good and thought-provoking as this one, we’re in for a good time. The second entry has been posted, but I haven’t had time to read it yet.

The Coens’ debut film, “Blood Simple,” was called a neo-noir at the time of its release, a label that placed the film in the context of the noir fad that was passing through Hollywood in the early 1980s, but “Blood Simple” was unusual among its contemporaries, even the good ones like “Body Heat.” Much as “Blood Simple” is a riff on the noir genre, it doesn’t settle for imitating its predecessors. It’s as suspenseful as a Hitchcock, as emotionally engaging as a Wilder. It’s deconstruction from the inside, a film that comments on genre by embodying the genre completely.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Different Rules Apply by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com

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I could’ve thrown this in as an addition link under my top entry, as it’s somewhat related to the Ferguson situation, but it’s really worth its own featured spot. Seitz is a film critic, and RogerEbert.com is a film site, but this piece has nothing to do with film. It’s a personal story that Seitz has never told publicly before, but this was the right time. It’s a powerful look at white privilege from someone who has benefited from it, and knows very pointedly how he does.

Sometimes police brutality happens without anyone outside the community knowing about it […] Sometimes, as in the case of Ferguson, it snowballs into something bigger. And when that happens, somehow the nation riles itself up in a paroxysm of outrage for a week or maybe a month, deepening already fathomless left wing/right wing divide, until finally everybody just collectively shrugs and shakes their heads and says, “Terrible thing, terrible thing, nothing can be done, way of the world” and gets on with the mundane daily business of life. And then it happens again, and the process repeats. The liberal outrage. The lock-’em-up-or-run-’em-over backlash. The macho racist blustering. The transparent bureaucratic face-saving tricks. The commissions and panels and trials. The forgetting.

We have to stop the cycle long enough to realize that what we are really shrugging off is racial inequality. This is not: “Well, if ya factor out race, it’s a class thing.” We all know in our hearts that that is, at best, only partly true. The full truth must include the acknowledgement that if you’re white, different rules apply.

Adult Fiction? by Teresa Michals at Inside Higher Ed

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In the wake of the hubbub a few months ago about YA novels and whether adults should be ashamed to read them, Teresa Michals points out that the distinction between novels for youth and novels for adults is relatively new, a product of early 20th-century literary modernism. Before that, everyone read everything, and it was expected that they would. This is a big part of why I dislike the entire label of YA – it’s a marketing thing that’s not really indicative of anything substantial.

Whatever you think of YA’s mixed-age readership, there is one thing you should know: there is no 3,000-year history of fiction written for adults. There is barely a 100-year history of such fiction. The adult novel is a relatively new invention, one that is not much older than YA itself. So all the adults now skulking or striding proudly down the ever-expanding YA aisle are not in fact breaking with a long tradition of adult reading. If we look back a couple of centuries, we find that in many ways YA’s mixed-age readership is perfectly normal for the Anglo-American novel. Fiction about young people triumphing over adversity in morally satisfying ways has long been default reading for people of any age who read fiction at all.

The Pleasure of Reading to Impress Yourself by Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker

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If it’s okay for adults to read YA, then it’s also okay for young people to read classics for pleasure. It’s pretty common these days to see people arguing that people should read whatever they want in an attempt to do away with the stigma of the “guilty pleasure”, but Mead’s article is a good corrective as that mindset makes it very easy to assume that anyone reading Joyce or Tolstoy is doing it out of some perceived obligation rather than because they find it enjoyable. People get joy out of all kinds of things, and Mead’s argument against the idea of the “guilty pleasure” from the challenging side of literature is welcome.

It’s a common and easy enough distinction, this separation of books into those we read because we want to and those we read because we have to, and it serves as a useful marketing trope for publishers, especially when they are trying to get readers to take this book rather than that one to the beach. But it’s a flawed and pernicious division. This linking of pleasure and guilt is intended as an enticement, not as an admonition: reading for guilty pleasure is like letting one’s diet slide for a day—naughty but relatively harmless. The distinction partakes of a debased cultural Puritanism, which insists that the only fun to be had with a book is the frivolous kind, or that it’s necessarily a pleasure to read something accessible and easy. Associating pleasure and guilt in this way presumes an anterior, scolding authority—one which insists that reading must be work.

A Brief Guide to Defending Your Favorite Politically Offensive Pop Culture by Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post

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Also worth reading is the article Rosenberg links in her opening paragraph, where she begins to discuss her thinking about politics and culture and how the two interact in ways that she didn’t initially expect when she started writing about them. In this piece, she discusses how we can like something aesthetically (or even think it’s GOOD aesthetically) while disagreeing wholeheartedly with its message or themes. I think this is a necessary perspective to have, and one that often gets lost in many of today’s ideologically-charged debates.

In high school I kept getting stuck on the fact that even though I was revolted by a lot of the things that Eminem was saying in character as his alter ego, Slim Shady, I found his music utterly irresistible. The baby feminist in me found his fantasies of violence against women abhorrent. The language nerd in me could not deny the virtuosity with which Eminem packed hard consonant sounds into a single line, like his famous threat that “I’m still loco enough to choke you to death with a Charleston Chew.”

Gaming is Not the Most Important Thing in My Life by Ben Kuchera at Polygon

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A quote in the introduction of American Movie Critics points out the best film critics are the ones who also have a lot of other interests, because those other interests and the life they live outside of film informs the way they look at cinema in interesting ways. That’s essentially what Kuchera is saying here, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s good to be passionate about something, but it’s also important to have a life outside that thing – otherwise, it’s too easy to become myopic and obsessive. Kuchera routinely writes most of the best editorials and opinion pieces on Polygon, so whatever he’s doing is working swimmingly.

I don’t talk about learning how to scuba dive, or my hobby of taking things that fly for little Groupon-enabled adventures. I don’t bring up learning how to fence with my son, or my strong feelings on rollercoaster design. There’s no place on Polygon for the books I’m reading, and only limited space to discuss things like movies. But every one of these things impacts how I feel about games and, consequently, how I write about them.

My life outside of my job is filled with many things; being married and having five kids means free time is at a premium. Spending that limited time on games may make me a more hardcore gamer, but it certainly would make me a less interesting writer.

A Few More…

For Your Listening Pleasure

Two music things this week. On top, First Aid Kit covers Jack White’s “Love Interruption,” off his 2012 album Blunderbuss. My two favorite albums of 2012 were Blunderbuss and First Aid Kit’s The Lion’s Roar, so this little piece had me in love instantly. On the bottom, the music video for “God Help the Girl,” the title track of the movie and soundtrack that’s been keeping Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch busy for the past few years. I’m a big Belle & Sebastian fan, and this song/video definitely scratch that twee itch. The movie, which played Sundance earlier this year, comes out September 5 in the US.

Image of the Week

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Now THIS is a solid way to use Legos. via io9.

Video of the Week

It kind of confuses things when I use videos for the “listening” section, but whatever. Here’s a guy recreating the soundtracks of games from Pac-Man to Uncharted with nothing but his voice.

  • Karen

    Thank you so much for the lovely mention, Jandy! I agree with you on the personal impact of Lauren Bacall’s passing.

    • I struggled with how to phrase that – I knew my classic film fan readers would know exactly what I meant, though!

  • Elise is five, and The Monster at the End of This Book is still one of her favorites. She gets the joke now, and that makes it fun to read.

    That Seitz piece is something else and has really stuck with me. That’s quite brave for him to put himself out there like that. What a mess we have here in town.

    • I’m sure Karina will love it, too, when she gets a bit bigger. It’s definitely one to pass on down the generations!

      I’m thinking and praying for St. Louis a lot lately, for sure. The racial segregation there was bad when I was growing up, too, but Seitz is right, it’s not something you have to think about when you’re white, and that’s a problem. I grew up in Glendale and St. Charles County, and it wasn’t until I starting driving around on my own and noting the incredibly obvious lines of demarcation in U-City that I began to take note.

      • My first apartment after college was in the Central West End on a side street in the Debalivere area between Lindell and Delmar. It was maybe 50 feet South of Delmar, and they’d blocked off that street with a giant fence. I think that says a lot about the strange split that’s in a bunch of places in this town.