The Roundup: January 2, 2015

This is the first Roundup since the beginning of December, so just count this as covering anything posted during December – and yeah, there are a couple older than that, because I worked extra hard this week to clean out my article backlog completely. And I was successful! Let’s see how long this particular New Year’s Resolution can last, but I’m starting my feedreader with a clean slate as of January 1st and hopefully can manage not to get behind on reading.

Cinema

The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s Toxic Addiction to Franchises Changed Movies Forever in 2014 by Mark Harris at Grantland

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This is a great piece, though it starts off covering a lot of ground that we’ve heard before (franchises are about building expectation for the next thing, etc.). Harris has a lot of insight into film history and it’s very helpful. I’ve seen a lot of people trot out the “but Hollywood has always had series, like Andy Hardy or Ma and Pa Kettle” counterargument, and he debunks that quite well. Not really an answer to this, but something to think about as a counterpoint is the surprising number of thoughtful blockbusters we had in 2014. Maybe if we’re stuck with franchises, we can at least get smarter ones?

That’s not where we are anymore. In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period. Twelve of the year’s 14 highest grossers are, or will spawn, sequels.2 (The sole exceptions — assuming they remain exceptions, which is iffy — are Big Hero 6 and Maleficent.) Almost everything else that comes out of Hollywood is either an accident, a penance (people who run the studios do like to have a reason to go to the Oscars), a modestly budgeted bone thrown to an audience perceived as niche (black people, women, adults), an appeasement (movie stars are still important and they must occasionally be placated with something interesting to do so they’ll be cooperative about doing the big stuff), or a necessity (sometimes, unfortunately, it is required that a studio take a chance on something new in order to initiate a franchise). A successful franchise is no longer used to finance the rest of a studio’s lineup; a studio’s lineup is brands and franchises, and that’s it.

How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire

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A byproduct of the kind of franchisization Mark Harris is talking about in the article above is the loss of the midbudget, not-quite-mainstream film and the auteurs known for them.

While we weren’t looking, the mid-budget adult-oriented motion picture has all but disappeared. And the gifted directors behind them are in danger of disappearing as well. Movie wonks and box-office watchers have written and talked about the death of mid-budget filmmaking, but mostly in business terms — as opposed to personal ones, contemplating the phenomenon’s effect on the individual artists it cripples. There’s an entire constellation of cult and indie stars, filmmakers who came of age in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, who have either vanished from the current scene or are struggling to maintain a place within it. How many of that generation’s auteurs have we lost? How many great movies — how many Blue Velvets and Hairsprays and Traffics and Do the Right Things and Godfathers — are they, thanks to the current myopic model, not making?

The Perils of an All-Digital Movie Future by Bilge Ebiri at Vulture

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This is not new news either, but it never hurts to be reminded that digital preservation is not a panacea, but is in fact far more time-consuming, costly and risky than storing a film print. This is becoming kind of a depressing Roundup, isn’t it? I’m sorry.

What about all those smaller, low-budget films that were lured by the promise of digital into shooting, storing, and projecting exclusively on video? What will happen to them over the course of what is sure to be multiple format changes? Is somebody making sure to turn their hard drives on every now and then to make sure that the files are still usable? Have they been distributed into multiple locations? Will their producers and distributors remain solvent enough over the years to make sure to update their files, or to splurge for a film print?

One hopes so, because the story of cinema is the story of discovery. Movies once considered afterthoughts — think of B-movie Westerns and noirs — or flops — think of It’s a Wonderful Life — can, over time, become beloved classics. A print of a film long forgotten might turn up in a Norwegian archive and get revived. That may not be possible in an all-digital future, where moving-image files will need regular maintenance and upgrades to keep them viable. A forgotten movie, in other words, will be an extinct movie.

Neither Lost Nor Found: On the Trail of an Elusive Icon’s Rarest Film by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club

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This is a fascinating piece about Vishnevetsky’s long search for a rare Jean-Luc Godard film, encompassing the type of obsessiveness that leads to undertaking such a search, the detailed research, what it means to be a fan of someone like Godard, etc. It’s a personal odyssey, but meaningful to anyone who’s ever made a list of films to see and checked them off one by one.

Advanced-level list-making involves a lot of disappointment and boredom, as well as a willingness to follow leads that will inevitably turn out to be dead ends, an ability to parse and mentally catalog large quantities of information, and, more often than not, a baseline knowledge of French, because French is to deep-digging movie culture what Latin was to the European medievals.

This is the point at which the distance between any given item and the future in which it can be crossed off the list has gotten very long, and that most-wanted thing, the holy grail, has shrunk into a pale dot on a very distant horizon. This is also the point at which list-making—or at least the kind of list-making that I know best, which is the movie kind—gets really absorbing and meaningful. The thing about these pale-dot holy grails is that, though searching for them is usually fruitless in the conventional sense, it can be edifying and educational, producing a whole lot of research and a whole lot more self-doubt. And, maybe even more importantly, it’s fun, in a 1,000-piece-jigsaw-puzzle sort of way.

Congratulations on Your Opinion by Stu Maschwitz at Prolost

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I’m not TOTALLY on board with Maschwitz here (he is a screenwriter and perhaps understandably privileges the creators over the critics to a degree I’m not willing to do), but I do think this piece is a very helpful corrective to the kind of entitlement that a lot of fans display over various properties. Where real criticism would take over would be, taking his example below, not to say “there are too many lens flares” but to say “the use of lens flares was excessive because it undermined or negated xyz story element.” Or something like that. In general, though, I was reminded of my view on adaptations, which is that I want to see THAT FILMMAKER’S vision of the story, not my own reflected back at me. A similar concept is in play here.

Above, I tried to trick you by saying “our reactions are our opinions,” but by my definition, that’s not true. You’re expressing your reaction when you say “I don’t like the lens flares.” You’re expressing your opinion when you say “there were too many lens flares.” See the difference?

There were exactly the right number of lens flares in Star Trek, because Abrams put in exactly as many as he wanted.

Sherlock Jr. and the Modern Action Film by Dan Heaton at Public Transportation Snob

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I’ll never get tired of watching or reading about Sherlock Jr., and Dan has a great handle on what makes the film so much fun, and so enduring for modern audiences.

Within all the hijinks, there’s a game of billiards that’s surprisingly tense. […] We know that the bad guys have hidden a bomb in a certain ball that will kill the projectionist when it’s struck. Keaton extends this scene for a long time while the balls come extremely close to the bomb. We forget that it’s a dream and there’s no real danger. Keaton uses a wide range of trick shots to hit every ball instead of the one with the bomb. It’s a wonderfully executed sequence that feels ahead of its time. The final gag provides a satisfying relief and doesn’t feel like a cheat. It takes real skills to manipulate the audience and not lose our trust. We’re having way too much fun to have concerns about deception. Keaton has us in the palm of his hand, and all we can do is enjoy the ride.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Playing With My Son: An Experiment in Forced Nostalgia and Questionable Parenting by Andy Baio at Medium

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Dang it, I’m already too late to do this with Karina on film – she’s already seen Technicolor talkies. Starting next week, only Méliès. I’m kidding, but this is the kind of historical perspective I’d like to inculcate in her, though I’d rather it be even more egalitarian than this (I had a massive anti-new bias growing up, and I don’t want that for her either).

What happens when a 21st-century kid plays through video game history in chronological order?

Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming.

Would that child better appreciate modern independent games that don’t have the budgets of AAA monstrosities like Destiny and Call of Duty? Would they appreciate the retro aesthetic, or just think it looks crappy?

Hatred, UNICEF and How Gaming’s Perception Makes It a Target for Censorship by Charlie Hall at Polygon

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This is a fascinating article about a game UNICEF made up that’s really about the real-life situation in South Sudan. I hadn’t realized that UNICEF didn’t think the game would actually be of interest, because that was my first reaction when I read about it in an earlier news piece – that a game like this could be extremely powerful in developing empathy. Charlie takes that idea and discusses why that kind of thinking doesn’t really occur to people outside gaming, because of gaming’s perception among non-gamers. Roger Ebert called movies “empathy machines.” There’s no reason games couldn’t be just as effective empathy machines (or more so!), but we need greater acceptance/knowledge of games like the ones Charlie lists in the excerpt below.

I imagine that the folks behind the Elika’s Escape troll are deeply confused why Polygon’s commenters actually want to play the game they proposed, that they want to play it not out of a prurient desire to make children suffer but because they want to feel that specific pain through gameplay. That’s because they’ve likely never heard of This War of Mine, of Darfur is Dying, of 1979 Revolution, of Valiant Hearts, of Escape from Woomera. They have no idea the kinds of experiences that are available in this space. Their idea was attractive to some gamers, and not for the wrong reasons. We want to learn more about our world through the games we play, and UNICEF’s game would have allowed for that.

Some people read books that are painful and sad and tragic and make them weep at the end. Other people play games for the same reasons. And no one outside of this hobby knows that. Gaming has a public relations problem, one so deep that parents fear the hobby will ensnare even their adult children. Games and gamers are regularly judged in ways that are totally unacceptable for any other modern artistic medium.

Why Pop Culture Makes Us Think Torture is Normal But Doesn’t Make Us Killers by Alyssa Rosenberg at Washington Post

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This is in response to the torture reports released recently, and it’s an interesting look at how our thoughts about torture specifically are shaped by pop culture, but I also think it’s a tremendous reminder of the difference between a piece of media subtly affecting our perceptions and biases and a piece of media turning us into a killer (or rapist, etc.). This is a debate I’ve seen so many times with GamerGate over the past several months, and it seems to be a particularly difficult distinction to grasp.

Looking at pop culture’s treatment of torture raises the prospect of a contradiction. “Liberals and mainstream media elites have mostly mocked the notion that TV, movies, or violent video games could impact mentally disturbed persons, while simultaneously celebrating the way shows like ‘Will & Grace’ or ‘Modern Family’ have made Americans more pro-gay in recent years,” the Daily Caller’s Matt K. Lewis wrote after the torture report was released. “Now, some are regretting the possibility that shows like ’24′ might have ‘normalized’ torture.”

While that’s a serious contradiction, it isn’t as glaring as it might seem. Pop culture may train us to believe that both torture and mass shootings are common. But only one of those two things is presented as normal and effective. And it is only the people who use torture who are framed as heroes sacrificing their own moral purity in exchange for our safety.

Icons and Empathy: Player Identification in Videogames by Richard Rosenbaum at Overthinkingit

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Interesting look at games that allow for extensive character customization and how that affects player identification, vs. games that have specific and hence more iconic main characters. The most intriguing part questions whether having characters we closely identify with is a good thing compared with having characters that expand our empathy outside ourselves. Thankfully, this is something of a false dichotomy – we need games that do BOTH, which is why we need more diversity in games, both in terms of race/gender and gameplay styles.

But what makes for a better gaming experience? Being able to identify closely with the character you control because that character is similar to the physical version of you in meatspace? Or expanding the sphere of your empathy by being compelled to identify with somebody who is different than you in some important ways?

Colonising History: The Culture and Politics of Assassin’s Creed by James Patton

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Still working my way through thinking about this, but it’s an interesting look at Assassin’s Creed and the way it normalizes modern Western values against ones that would’ve been historically accurate.

Well, it means the game’s liberal Western values – our values, really – are considered self-evident. It doesn’t matter that the monk grew up in a time and place where he couldn’t possibly have learned our values or been given the tools to think about his own time critically: since our values are apparently self-evident he is at fault for not thinking about them enough and not coming to this timeless conclusion himself. This also implies that anyone who disagrees with these values is wrong (self-evidently so) and that the fault will always lie with sceptics and critics who “just don’t get it”.

This means that the series’ moral values are static, unchanging, and derived from a moment in history, but nevertheless claim to be self-evident and therefore timeless. Hm.

The War Against Critics is as Old as the Printing Press; Gamergate is Just Another Example by Emily Gera at Polygon

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A lot of focus on GamerGate has been the ongoing harassment in its wake, and rightly so, but I’m personally just as interested in the way GamerGate tries to destroy criticism. This is a good look at that side of the issue, pointing out that it’s not a new thing, but that it’s getting dirtier.

The result is a power struggle, one that’s symptomatic of a long-running conflict between consumers and a cultural elite of critics and taste-makers.

Cultural hegemony, a term that describes the economy’s influence on culture, is the main culprit. This idea was established by Antonio Gramsci, a communist and intellectual, who proposed that cultural norms of a society are imposed by the ruling class. More importantly, it highlights the distrust between consumers and culture makers; After all, if culture can be influenced by those in charge of it, so can perception and values.

And perhaps it’s a sensible fear. Critics have historically played a crucial role in affecting the art they critique. Notably, critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell assisted in establishing the post-Impressionist art movement of the early 20th century through their critiques. Others, like the respective music and political writers Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson aided in defining the cultural identity of their particular eras.

A Few More…

For Your Listening Pleasure

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Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I joined Jonathan and his friends Bryan and Chewie on their podcast After the Hype recently to discuss possibly the greatest videogame series of our time. It was certainly fun to record – I hope it’s as fun to listen to!

Images of the Week

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Gingerbread Barad-dûr. Om nom nom.

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A Street Map of Famous Movie Titles. Click through for a larger sample.

Videos of the Week

I still haven’t gotten over this end of the year recap from David Ehrlich. I generally watch a bunch of end-of-the-year trailer mashups and stuff, but I’m finding they’re not as good if I haven’t seen the films. This one, I think I’ve seen one of the films on it, and I was mesmerized the entire time PLUS now I want to see all the films. Amazing work.