The Roundup: December 1

Cinema

Is the Word Overrated Ruining Film Criticism? by Clarisse Loughrey

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The Guardian’s new series “My Most Overrated Film” where guest columnists write about a film they think is overrated has gotten a lot of response from the critical community, and most of it’s not positive. Here’s a good essay on the issues surrounding a series like this; she also explores some reasons why people feel the need to declare highly-regarded films as overrated. Sam Adams at Criticwire goes even further, declaring that “overrated is a garbage word, and I can’t disagree. As is probably clear from my stance on evaluative criticism and positivity, I have little use for the concept of something being overrated, much less building a whole post series around it. Stuff like this is basically clickbait in this format; don’t give the Guardian your clicks.

And yet the problem with this overuse of ‘overrated’ is that such arguments tend to exist in a vacuum. It’s great to shake up the establishment, but if we challenge Hitchcock and Kubrick, are we then automatically burdened with offering up the alternative? The real issue is perhaps less to do with the attacks themselves, but with the perceived arrogance and cynicism of its author. Do critics always have the best intentions when they go after the “classics”? It’s hard to say, but we can safely assume there will always be those who deliberately set out to incite scorn and unhealthy debate, just as there will always be the attention-seekers, the click-bait sensationalists.

Nathan Rabin vs. the IMDb Top 250: The Best Years of Our Lives by Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve

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Nathan Rabin has started going through the IMDb Top 250 in random order, which I think is a pretty fun series to do in general. He puts post-WWII classic The Best Years of Our Lives on top of the several he’s seen so far for the series, and it is a fantastic film, for all the reasons he talks about and more (Myrna Loy!).

Wyler’s film tells the story of an entire generation of lost men who came home from the greatest triumph of their lives only to discover that they had to fight a new war, for recognition, direction, self-respect, and for the wives, lovers, and jobs they assumed would always be there for them no matter what. It manages the singular quality of being at once intimate and epic. The Best Years Of Our Lives represents the studio age at its best. It’s adult, mature filmmaking that didn’t just feel important and socially significant, it was and remains important and socially significant, preserving the weary, uneasy mood of the moment that created it.

Op-Ed: The Disney Vault Needs to Be Reopened for the HD Era by Keith Phipps at The Dissolve

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I was actually complaining on Twitter recently about how difficult it is to find classic Disney shorts on DVD – I know the Treasures series was limited edition, but they’re not even available at most libraries now, and they’re definitely due for reissue. The upside is, as Keith mentions, Disney’s tendency to let people upload them to YouTube, but I still find that less than ideal for reasons of quality and organization. There’s no easy way to watch them chronologically to get a sense of the evolution of the characters and styles.

The same can’t be said, however, for Disney’s animated shorts, the cornerstone on which Walt Disney built what would become the empire we know today. Noel Murray has a column today about the old, weird Disney, all of which would be hard to see if it weren’t for Disney’s relatively relaxed policy toward YouTube uploads. But the hard-to-seeness also extends to the many delightful shorts featuring Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and all the other characters still plastered on pieces of Disney merchandise. It’s not that Disney hasn’t continued to use these characters, which live on in everything from the pre-school-targeted Club Mickey Mouse to a series of clever new Mickey Mouse cartoons. But it still seems odd, even wrong to keep so many entertaining cartoons away from the current generation of kids. (And, hey, I’ve road-tested them with my own toddler. They still play beautifully.)

Freeze Frame: The Last Picture Show by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee

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I love Ryan’s Freeze Frame series – he always manages to choose a still I NEVER would’ve thought of as representative and give a well-considered yet succinct rationale for why it really encapsulates the entire theme of the film. It’s amazing, really.

For the quickest of moments, the broken window and Billy overlap. Not only do they overlap, but Billy stands in the centre of the crack…like a sniper rifle that has found its target. We have no idea what it is alluding to, of course – how could we? What’s more is that even once we come back and rewatch the film, it’s not as if this becomes a grand moment of foreshadowing. Again, that’s because if we blink, we miss it. But it’s there, it’s always been there, and it’s the sort of subtle detail that rewards rewatch and reminds us why it can be so wonderful to revisit familiar ground.

A Solution to Gender Inequality in Film: Just Add 5 Female Characters Onscreen by Stacy L. Smith at IndieWire

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We talk a lot about needing more and better female leads in films, and we do, but that’s only half the story. We also need more balance in the little random roles where gender truly doesn’t matter and casting ends up being male by default rather than for any good reason. This article is about that inequality, and points out how if you just add five speaking roles for women, gender representation in films would be equal by 2017. This isn’t rocket science (though, you know, casting a woman as a rocket scientist is a good option). Related: Mary Ann Johansson talks about gender representation in films as part of a comprehensive study she’s launching.

Perhaps your next question is where to add female characters? The five you add do not need to be female leads, co leads, or even supporting characters–though, if that is your intent, we will hardly stand in your way. Most characters in a film are inconsequential to the storyline. My research has shown routinely that the typical feature film depicts roughly 45 characters on screen. The lion’s share of those characters only say a few words. For example, a person serving food at a local restaurant (e.g., “here by yourself again?”), a research analyst working on a computer (e.g., “we traced her cell phone”) or a police officer addressing citizens (e.g., “The 405 is closed due to an alien invasion”) are speaking characters not usually relevant to the plot. But, given entrenched social stereotypes, these occupational roles are often implicitly or explicitly cast along traditional gender lines. This process, repeated time and time again, undoubtedly contributes to the gender imbalance we continue to see on screen. Your efforts can change this, and with just a few keystrokes.

Maybe Not Today: The Underrated Michael Curtiz by Landon Palmer at Film School Rejects

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Palmer makes the case for Michael Curtiz as an auteur, which I’ve never seen made before. I quite like Curtiz’s films myself, though I hadn’t considered him in an auteur context. Definitely some food for thought as I see more of his films.

According to Sidney Rosenzweig, who wrote the closest thing I could find to an auteurist reading of Curtiz’s filmography, the director’s confident and pronounced visual style serves the purpose of displaying the relationship his characters share to their environment. Specifically, it creates a sense of entrapment for a moral choice Curtiz’s characters are forced to make during the film.

Indeed, Curtiz’s characters are often faced with trenchant moral dilemmas, but they are rarely your conventionally heroic Hollywood protagonists. In fact, most of Curtiz’s characters are passive figures placed in a situation in which their formidable character is tested. They do not decisively mobilize their own fates or those of others, but are instead placed in scenarios in which they can no longer reside in their planned life of neutrality and passivity.

Not Cinema

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos: Assassin’s Creed and the Power of Representation by Justin Clark at Paste

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It’s weird to me that the Assassin’s Creed series does such a good job of diversity in its DLC and secondary properties (Assassin’s Creed: Liberation has a black female lead) and such a bad job of it in its flagship games. Why can’t Adewale or Aveline be the leads in the main series? I’d love to play that game. I will probably eventually get the Freedom Cry DLC, but I’m not attracted to the play style of Liberation.

The trailer in question was for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s only major campaign DLC, Freedom Cry. The trailer tells the story of Adewale, Edward Kenway’s Trinidadian quartermaster, in Zack Snyder-y slow motion. We see him, as a boy, taken from his mother, sold into slavery, escaping by brutally killing his new master, running for his life, and then flash forward to see him fully grown, destroying pirates with pistols and a machete, before pulling up his assassin’s hood and walking towards the camera like it’s no big deal. This was a black man, of coal black skin and a commanding baritone, blatantly fighting against injustice, in one of the deep, dark spots in humanity’s history. For the first time, blackness had been flaunted with the utmost dignity. Adewale was not a stereotype. He was not an antihero with questionable motives. He was just a hero.

Why a Shirt with Scantily Clad Women Caused an Internet Fight by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic

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Regardless of the inciting incident of this post, it’s an interesting look at arguments on the internet and why they seem to always go south in a hurry. I like the fictional argument he posits as how discussions about divisive topics COULD be carried out with respect and well-thought-out arguments. Instead we get mud-slinging, personal insults and unnecessary escalation. If there was one thing I could change about internet culture, it would be this.

If being shamed online by private actors and feeling a need to issue an apology is comparable to Stalin’s gulag, the Nazis, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Islamist radicals, what’s left to condemn persecution more serious than, um, Twitter criticism? As a result of her mild tweet, my colleague, Rose, has now been doxxed, pilloried with nasty insults, faced rape threats, and watched her family be threatened. Having established that shirt-criticism is shades of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, what metaphor is left for people who, disliking a person’s tweet, threaten to rape them?

Whatever one thinks of the larger controversy, the pile-on about the scientist’s shirt, to which I’ve already objected, should not have been characterized so hyperbolically.

We Will Force Gaming to Be Free by Katherine Cross at First Person Scholar

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Katherine Cross is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful voices in the gaming sphere right now, so whenever she writes an article, it’s worth it to sit up and notice. This one is several weeks old, but I was on GamerGate overload and put off reading related articles for a while. It’s also a good idea to follow Katherine on Twitter, if you’re interested in this area – she’s @Quinnae_Moon.

Consider their goal and their methods. Ethical and “agenda-free” journalism and criticism, achieved by scouring games journalism of any and all dissent from GamerGate’s views—i.e. the hated “SJWs.” This purge was driven by a harmonious idea: the idea of games journalism without corruption, graft, those mysterious “agendas,” or influence-peddling, and a journalistic enterprise that had a sympathetic and symbiotic relationship with its core audience. But above all there need never be a conflict between a journalist’s or critic’s duty to inform and a reader’s desire to be told only what they wanted to hear—a contradiction that would surely make [political philosopher Isaiah] Berlin cringe.

Recalculating: The Mind and the Map by Elizabeth Preston at The Atlantic

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Maps are so interesting to me. Every time I move to a new city, I spend a week or so just driving around and learning where everything is. I’ve mainly done this with a map book rather than GPS, but I continue to seek out new ways to get places with the map on my phone (NOT using turn-by-turn directions for the most part). I think I could draw fairly accurate maps of several areas of Los Angeles and St. Louis, though I think I’ve forgotten much of my knowledge of Waco at this point. I may give it a try.

Negin Minaei researches sustainable urbanism at the United Kingdom’s Royal Agriculture University. She studied the question of how GPS affects mental mapping by asking Londoners to sketch a map of their city. Self-reported GPS users drew maps that were no worse than other people’s. But they drew their maps on a smaller scale, maybe showing only the subject’s neighborhood. People who said they didn’t use GPS were more likely to draw a map of the whole city—in other words, a more allocentric map.

The subjects in Minaei’s study had all lived in London for at least two years, but to her surprise some of them couldn’t draw the city at all. “When I asked them to draw a map they panicked,” she told me. “Some said they did not have anything in their minds to draw.” Minaei is particularly interested in these mysterious mapless people. How can they live in a place for years and not even start to understand how that place is laid out?

Image of the Week

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From The Flash #106 by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. The “No Context Given” series at Panels is quite entertaining.

Video of the Week

Playtime: Anatomy of a Gag. A runthrough a single gag in Playtime – except the single gag becomes a running joke with many different layers.

If you’re a Back to the Future fan, this is pretty much amazing. Talk about a massive undertaking.

  • Awww, thanks for that! For such a show of support, can I offer you a chance to make a request? Any film before 1984 that I haven’t done in the series yet

    • I’ll look through what you’ve posted (the Godfather post has all the stills up to that point in it right?) and get back to you! Do you usually do something from a film you’ve seen before, or a new one to you?

    • How about To Be or Not to Be (1942)? If you haven’t seen it, you need to. :)