The Roundup: September 22

Cinema

Oscar Obsession is Ruining Fall Film Festivals by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire AND
In Defense of Awards Season by Oliver Lyttleton at Indiewire

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In conversation this week: the value of Oscar season. I largely agree with Jason in that I find Oscar season and the way it’s treated in the press pretty obnoxious, but I do also see Oliver’s very reasonable point about why it’s the only thing holding off the total takeover of blockbuster season (which I also find obnoxious). I guess we’re between a rock and a hard place on this one.

JASON:

And what’s genuinely gross about that industry is its utter reductiveness. Year after year, it boils film culture down to a horse race, treating movies as competitors riding “momentum” or battling a “backlash” or overcoming a “snub,” rather than as what they (or at least the best of them) are: art. Yet what’s particularly odd about Oscar obsession is its built-in cognitive dissonance — every year we drool and fume and predict, as though it is all Very Important Work, while simultaneously acknowledging that nobody actually takes the judgments of Oscar voters very seriously, because they are so wrong, so very often.

OLIVER:

To put it simply: if the Oscars and the cottage industry surrounding it disappeared tomorrow, we’d likely see even fewer movies being made not aimed at teenagers, or teenagers-at-heart. We’re already at a point where many of these films are getting only brief theatrical releases, and simultaneous rollouts on VOD are going to happen more often, not less.

The Availability Gap: What We Lose When Netflix Wins by Sam Adams at Criticwire

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Sam is responding a post by KQED’s Jon Brooks about Brooks’ difficulty in finding a copy of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, thanks to the disappearance of rental stores and downsizing of Netflix’s disc service in the face of a far from complete digital world. I think Brooks’ original article tends to conflate the business models of subscription and digital rental services in an unhelpful way, but Sam’s larger point is about the way films of high historical but low popular value tend to get stuck when formats change, and that is absolutely true, and the opposite of what everyone somehow thinks happens.

The shift to streaming technologies is often viewed in terms of democratization: No longer do art house-deprived viewers have to wait months to see the movie their social-media friends in New York are raving about. But it’s hard to think of anything less democratic than a state of affairs where the price for a single viewing of “Sweet Sweetback,” or any of the untold numbers of movies waiting to strike a digital deal, has effectively jumped above $20.

Letterboxd and Closing the Loop on “Good” and “Bad” in Movies by Matthew Brown

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Matt Brown got me started on the odyssey that ended in this, and now he’s come full circle, using Letterboxd to get the “evaluation” out of the way so he can focus on the interesting stuff in his columns and blog. I’m currently not rating on Letterboxd either, but that’s kind of an experiment. I may start rating there again next year. (On the other hand, I’m kind of enjoying not rating, so…I may continue not to.)

I realized that these quantity measurements in film response, though foolish, can serve as the quickest and most effective shorthand for Question Number One with which we moviegoers are always confronted after having seen a film: “So, what did you think?” […] And with that part mercifully out of the way, I can move on to the sort of thing I’d prefer to be talking about, whether it’s the pop cultural ramifications (Destroy All Monsters), the collision of the intention with the audience reaction (Mamo!), or just what the experience of watching the thing made me think about, which has nothing to do with whether the film was good or bad anyway (my TIFF blogs, and just about everything else). You know, the interesting stuff.

The Methodical, Balanced and Explosive The Man from Laramie by Wade Sheeler at The Black Maria

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I found the Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns rather late in the scheme of my classic movie watching, which is a real shame, because they’re Great with a capital G, and The Man from Laramie is one of the best. Thanks to Wade for bringing it back to mind – I need to rewatch some of these soon.

The big tent pole scene, which is the reason to see the film, and has been show in clips for years, is the moment where Dave Waggoman, thinking Lockhart deserves eye-for-an-eye retribution after being shot in the hand after an altercation he, Dave, started, has his henchmen hold Lockhart’s hand aside and shoots him point blank in the palm. It’s gut-wrenching, powerful and the best example, not only of how powerful violence can be when perpetrated outside of the frame, but of Stewart’s incredible acting chops.

The entire violation is played out on his face. When I first saw it as a child, I was traumatized. Who would perpetrate such a monstrous act against my idol, Jimmy Stewart? His reaction, shock, pain, bewilderment and humiliation, all plays out in a powerfully extended shot.

“We Seemed to Live by Night”: Out of the Past by Brandie at True Classics

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I love noir, and Out of the Past is widely considered one of the greatest noirs, and I…never really got into it. With it coming out on Blu-ray recently, there have been several posts about it and I’m definitely ready to try it again and see if it grabs me this time. Brandie’s write-up certainly makes it sound like something I should love.

She’s gorgeous. She’s appealing. And she’s very, very bad.

By every definition, the quintessential femme fatale.

Kathie lives fully in the shadows; the light is her enemy, illuminating her true character for all to see. The night, however, obscures things, hiding the truth. Indeed, it hid the truth about Kathie, up until the very moment she stepped into the light and shot a man to death. True, Kathie is not the only one who exists in the shadows, for Out of the Past is filled with characters who dwell in the darkest places, driven by the darkest motivations of human nature. But she is, by far, the character who thrives the most in those grim arenas.

Mean Girls and Bad Boys: The Messy Gender Politics of Grease in 5 Songs by Kyle Turner at Movie Mezzanine

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Grease is a big bugaboo for me – I love the music, and I really enjoy watching it, but man, does it have some terrible role models, especially for girls. Kyle here actually manages to make that seem more nuanced than I ever thought of before, suggesting that perhaps gender politics are inherently messy in high school, and the film reflects that without necessarily endorsing it. I’m not sure I totally buy that, but I’m willing to let it mitigate the cognitive dissonance the film gives me.

It’s easy to forget how smutty Grease can be, and even easier to forget that it’s a cross examination of high school culture. The film never really takes a stand on what its gender dynamics actually say. They’re muddy and messy and inconsistent, but this might just be an accurate reflection of how they are in real life. It ends up being an intriguing, odd, vulgar, and aggressive observance, despite its heightened musical qualities. At the very least, watching the film is still electrifying.

Cinematic Cuts Exploit How Your Brain Edits What You See by Greg Miller at Wired

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I’ve read a bit about cognitive research in film studies, and it’s pretty fascinating stuff – how the brain actually processes watching movies. This is part of a series about such things, and I need to go seek out the rest.

It’s amazing that film editing works, because it’s so disruptive to the visual information coming into the brain, says Jeffrey Zacks, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis. On the other hand, Zacks says, our brains do quite a bit of editing of their own—and we’re every bit as oblivious to that as we are to the film editor’s cuts. […] And that’s not the only kind of cutting and editing are brains our doing, Zacks said at a recent event here sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His research suggests our brains are constantly dividing up the torrent of information streaming in through our senses into more manageable chunks in order to help us make sense of what’s happening around us and predict what’s likely to happen next.

The Trouble with Treating Female Characters Like Meat by Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed

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This sounds pretty similar to all the stuff I’ve been reading and sharing about videogames lately – here’s proof it’s not just games, it’s our culture at large. I’ve also seen some really good reviews of A Walk Among Tombstones, so I’ve no doubt it’s a solid movie – it’s just a shame that it achieves that at the expense of women. There really are other ways to write narratives. That said, this level of violence doesn’t happen in movies in quite the same high percentage as it does in games, so this is more a data point to note than the kind of pervasive trend that it is in gaming.

Your tipping point on depictions of violence against women may vary. Here’s mine: Women really do get attacked, beaten, mutilated, permanently injured, raped, and killed, and removing representations of those facts from on screen won’t change that. But when your story includes women only so much as their grisly deaths make the men in their lives mad or sad, well, then you’re just turning them into meat — literally, in this case, as Scudder is hired to track down a pair of sadistic killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who kidnap women, extract ransom money from their loved ones, then leave their victims’ dismembered bodies in plastic-wrapped piles.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

The Death of Adulthood in American Culture by A.O. Scott in the New York Times

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This article was the talk of the net last week, and I don’t know that I have anything to add, other than I kind of appreciate Scott’s somewhat exasperated acceptance of the “death of adulthood” even while I don’t always agree with all of his reasoning (his segments regarding women in particular caused me a bit of head-scratching). He brings together an impressive array of references – I hadn’t really thought of the centrality of childhood/coming-of-age in American fiction, but I think Scott’s definitely on to something there. There have been a lot of responses to Scott’s article – here are some of my favorites: Damien Walter in the Guardian pointed out some of the ways young adult fiction actually speaks to much broader audience than so-called adult fiction, while two articles, one by Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir (a solid film critic in his own right) and the other by Sady Doyle in In These Times (a publication I know nothing about, but it’s a good article), point out that economics have a big role to play in the lack of traditional adulthood these days.

What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

Geeks Have Become Their Own Worst Enemies by Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post

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This article is a bit disjointed, starting of talking about geek culture in general and then switching over to gaming and the extreme reactions to feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian, but Rosenberg’s point is well-taken. I consider myself a geek/nerd/whatever, but I won’t deny I’ve been distancing myself from the culture because it seems there are a lot of geeks who simply can’t deal with their niche interests becoming mainstream.

Explicitly feminist video game critics, like Anita Sarkeesian, and producers of alternative video games like Zoe Quinn, are not actually calling for video games that involve violent, exploitative or indifferent behavior towards woman to be yanked off the market. Instead, they are suggesting that the market still has room to expand, and that some of that expansion might come from a different sort of offering, be it more playable female characters in franchises like “Assassin’s Creed” or more choose-your-own adventure and casual gaming options with new perspectives.

The New Teachers’ Aides: Superman and Iron Man by David Cutler at The Atlantic

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This is cool. I wasn’t hugely into comics as a kid, but I did love Archie and Uncle Scrooge (and I learned a TON of things, especially about history, from Uncle Scrooge), and I remember having a graphic novel version of the Bible I enjoyed very much, and one about economics that helped me a lot. My point – if I fondly remember learning from comics twenty years ago, I’m sure kids today would be even more into it. See also this interesting article about a teacher who used Twitter for class discussions. I’m not sure too many schools would go for that, but I’d probably give something like that a go if I were a teacher.

When we cover World War II, my students analyze the inaugural March 1941 cover of Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which shows super-soldier Steve Rogers deflecting an attack while knocking out Adolf Hitler. When I teach writing, my students analyze Kingdom Come, in which an aging Superman is distraught over a conflict that wipes out much of the Midwest. The pages come alive with lifelike artwork by Alex Ross, while writer Mark Waid exemplifies clarity and concision by making optimal use of each speech bubble.

The Reactionaries are Just Plain Wrong About Games by Colin Campbell at Polygon

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This kind of thing pains me, because I still consider myself fairly conservative in a lot of ways (really more moderate, but still – in a lot of media circles, that’s conservative), but what Christine Sommers came up with as a response to GamerGate is just…no. I won’t link to it, but you can find her video if you look. This response to Sommers, though, is dead-on.

No one that I know of has argued that games should not be for men, or that masculine themes and images ought to be expunged from gaming. Feminists are asking that game makers recognize tropes and stereotypes that repeatedly portray women as inferior to men.

The destruction of male gaming culture looks like yet another bogeyman.

Is it possible that the men who are most vociferous about the undesirability of change are merely concerned that the products they consume will change? The answer to that is a definite maybe.

Feminist critics of games are not demanding some sort of dictate, stating that all male characters in games must have a woman equivalent, or that sexually attractive women in games must be balanced by women who do not fit traditional beauty standards.

Dear DC Comics, This is Why You Shouldn’t Leave Creative Little Girls Behind by Peter V. Brett at The Mary Sue

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How can you make a Justice League game and not have AT LEAST Wonder Woman in it? That’s ridiculous.

Maybe statistically it’s more likely to be four boys playing, and they want to cater to that. But if so, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you market only to boys, don’t be surprised boys are your only market. And don’t be surprised if the boys with sisters and female friends end up playing something else entirely.

When comics and game designers exclude or otherwise diminish the role of female characters, they are really telling girls they are not welcome. That sure, they can play, but they can’t have full immersion. Full immersion is for boys only.

What’s the Scariest Thing in the World? Ask Your Teenaged Daughter by Jason Stark at Polygon

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This is an older article (from July), but I finally got to it in my feedreader backlog and loved it, so I had to include it. A family-owned indie developer was working on a game based on their oldest daughter’s misadventures delivering pizza, but the father (Jason) was stuck in tropey game elements, like her fighting robot or zombie enemies – until he asked his younger daughter what she found scary. What developed sounds like one of the most intriguing games I’ve heard of all year, and I’m really looking forward to it now. Here’s a follow-up piece from a month later focused more on balancing work and life by bringing their whole family into game development, which is also worth reading. The game (Pizza Ninja Girl) isn’t out yet, but I did see they recently announced it would be coming to Xbox One, as well as PC and other platforms.

I realize that Gemma’s not trying to defeat her enemies. She doesn’t even view them as enemies. They’re other kids like her and she never stops trying to win their approval. They’re the cool kids working for pizza Corporations wearing officially sanctioned PizzaCorp merch. Gemma’s working for her Dad wearing clothes she stitched together herself. It doesn’t matter how fast she moves or how many other ninjas she knocks over, they don’t stop laughing at her. And the harder she tries to impress them, the more they laugh.

Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During WWII by Yoni Applebaum at The Atlantic

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What a fantastic story. I’d heard before about the proliferation of paperbacks after WWII transforming the publishing industry, but I didn’t know the part that soldiers had played in this.

Old-line publishers had good reason to be scared. They were in the business of selling a premium product to an affluent audience. The sudden flood of paperbacks threatened to swamp their refined trade and erode its prestige. The cheap, disposable format seemed best suited to works of little lasting value. That Penguin and Pocket Books included some distinguished titles on their lists threatened the stability of these categories, even as their sales still tilted heavily toward the lower end of the spectrum. Paperbacks were expanding the market for books, but that market remained divided.

Then, war intervened. The key actors in the book trade organized themselves into the Council on Books in Wartime, hoping to use books to advance the war effort. In February of 1943, they circulated an audacious proposal. They proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just six cents a volume.

A Few More…

Image of the Week

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All of Harry Potter, in one illustration. Spoilers, obviously. Click the image to see a HUGE version. via Electric Literature

Videos of the Week

Emma Watson on feminism at the UN. She’s fairly non-confrontational, which is a critique I’ve seen some women online making, but that’s actually okay with me. I liked what she had to say.

Supercuts are getting so ubiquitous these days that I’ve started developing genres I like and genres I don’t. This is the genre I like, where it’s focused on visual aspects of the film and creates an evocative piece through music and images. The genre I don’t like is focused more on dialogue or exhaustive cataloguing (i.e., “here’s a whole bunch of people saying ‘don’t you die on me'” or “here’s every time Dumbledore says ‘Harry Potter'”).