The Roundup: January 12

Cinema

Film Fact-Checking is Here to Stay So Let’s Agree on Some New Rules by Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post

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The biggest controversy this week has been over the acclaimed film Selma and its possible distortion of history in its portrayal of LBJ’s role in the Selma protests led by Martin Luther King Jr and other black activists. This plays into the whole cottage industry of fact-checking that has sprung up, which hits everything from historical dramas like Selma to science fiction like Interstellar. Ann Hornaday has one of the best takes on the fact-checking trend as a whole, arguing for educated viewers who are capable of dealing with the fact that movies aren’t always 100% accurate and the reasons for those differences are the important thing, not the differences themselves. Many writers have come down fully on the side of artistic license (Bilge Ebiri at Vulture, Sam Adams at Indiewire, and Elaine Tang at the New Republic), but as a history buff myself, I personally like Andrew O’Hehir’s more moderate approach. I do think historical accuracy matters; it’s not just something that should be tossed aside lightly. But I also think films often gloss over or shift historical fact to get at larger truths in completely valid ways, and fact-checkers need to appreciate that.

But viewers have responsibilities, too. If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths.

The correct question isn’t what Selma “gets wrong” about Johnson or King or the civil rights movement, but whether we are sophisticated enough as viewers and thinkers to hold two ideas at once: that we’re not watching history, but a work of art that was inspired and animated by history. That we’re having an emotional and aesthetic experience, not a didactic one. That the literalistic critiques of historians and witnesses can co-exist — fractiously, but ultimately usefully — with the kind of inspiration, beauty and transformative power that the very best cinema such as “Selma” can provide.

Godard’s Best Picture Win: When a Critics Group Dares to Break With Critical Consensus by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire

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When I saw the headlines that Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language had won the National Society of Film Critics’ award, I was like, “huh, that’s weird” – followed by “kinda cool, though!” Turns out most people were as bewildered as I was, but not as pleased, as award-predicting sites quickly called out the NSFC as irrelevant and attention-seeking, suggesting that a critics’ award that doesn’t play into the Oscar race is pointless. Which is, let’s just call things what they are, horseshit. Jason Bailey lays out the arguments well. Meanwhile, Indiewire’s Sam Adams comes down strongly arguing that critics’ awards SHOULDN’T be relevant to the Oscar race, and Film School Rejects’ Scott Beggs points out that awards season itself is pretty irrelevant, since there are too many good movies in a year for awards to recognize all of them.

Twelve major critics groups have called Boyhood the year’s best film. Birdman took the big prize from seven other groups; The Grand Budapest Hotel, two. What would another Boyhood win have added to the conversation — about that movie, or about the year in movies? Little to nothing. What does a prize for Goodbye to Language add to those conversations? A great deal. It draws attention, at least among those paying attention, to a difficult, challenging, off-the-map film from a living legend (and one who, as Hitfix’s Kristopher Tapley notes, has never won that prize before). And, perhaps more importantly, it notes that this was not just a great year for movies, but a diverse one, where — contrary to the previous month of awards and prognostications — there were more than three to five films worth celebrating.

Girls on Film: How Hollywood Changed for the Better in 2014 by Monika Bartyzel at The Week

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It has actually been a solid year for female and PoC characters and directors (including female PoC directors), which is an encouraging note to end the year with, especially when race and gender issues have been at the forefront of many conversations in 2014. Of course, Monika can’t let us get too excited; in her column the following week, she pointed out that the 2015 slate looks pretty bleak at this point. Hopefully that’ll change as more independent and late-year releases get announced. Pretty sure Selma wasn’t on anyone’s radar last January; it certainly wasn’t on mine.

As 2014 ends, Ava DuVernay has leapt even further with the season’s most highly regarded film (100% fresh after the first 33 reviews), Selma. The film has already won her numerous accolades (including four Golden Globes nominations), and if she isn’t snubbed by the Academy next year, she’s a clear front-runner to win the Best Director Oscar, which would make her the second woman to do so and the first African-American to win.

These films speak to a rising trend. After Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave showed the power that can come when black directors helm their own historical narratives, 2014 sees two such films — one of which is receiving as much praise as the man who started the trend.

The Fan, The Critic, The Scholar by Lauren at Man I Love Films

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I’ve felt this tension between the Fan, Critic, and Scholar parts of myself for quite a while, and I enjoyed seeing Lauren’s take on it. She tends to be a little harder on the Fan than I would, at least these days when I’m spending more time being passionate about film and less time critiquing it, but she’s definitely on to something with the way she’s split these up. I think ultimately the best is to understand that all three of these approaches are valid, none are mutually exclusive, and none preclude the others from being useful. Also, I think the ultimate goal, for myself anyway, is to integrate the three to the point that I can love something passionately, critique it fairly, and study it open-mindedly, without any of the three overpowering the other two.

Everyone who does any kind of work on media takes on the Fan, the Scholar, and the Critic in one – and we must all balance them, carefully at times. Though blogs, Twitter accounts, and even books will tell us otherwise, all opinions are not created equal. You might like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and no one can unsay your experience of it. But that does not mean that your feelings trump analysis. The Critic is not wrong for pointing out plot holes, and the Scholar is not wrong for applying feminist theory.

The Virtues of Know-Nothing Criticism by Noah Berlatsky at LA Review of Books

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This is actually two sets of issues that happened to dovetail in my feeds this week; or at least they dovetailed for me. First, Indiewire reported comments by David Cronenberg and others about the way social media is “killing” the role of the critic, and many other things about criticism that frankly betray how little many creatives actually know about critics, based on the way they discuss Rotten Tomatoes and the rise of amateur critics. Here’s another good post on the Cronenberg thing. Then, I read this call and response by Berlatsky and the Washington Post’s Sonny Burch, about the value of amateur critics, though Berlatsky draws most of his examples from comic books, since that what he largely covers. Thinking about the two things in tandem was just really interesting and thought-provoking to me.

Art isn’t just for fans, which means that it’s not just for the knowledgeable, but for passersby as well. Expertise, then, seems an excuse to make everyone talk about the same things in the same way. But there’s no one true way to view a piece of art; no one privileged perspective that will give you the right experience of Shakespeare, or Wonder Woman, or video games, or romance novels. A partial view may be as meaningful as a whole one, and being alienated by a work of art, or feeling you don’t want to finish it, or look at it for a second more, is as valid as obsessive interest and passionate fandom.

Tonight’s Movie: Late Spring (1949) by Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings

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I usually see Laura posting about lesser-known Hollywood films (especially film noir and westerns!), so it’s kind of fun to see her thoughts about something completely different, like a mid-career Yasujiro Ozu film. I haven’t seen this one myself (Ozu is a major blind spot of mind), but I’m definitely intrigued.

That’s pretty much the entire plot of this 108-minute film, but as with other Ozu films, that bare bones description doesn’t come close to doing the film justice. What matters is how the story is told, and it’s by turns lyrical, elegant, and moving, particularly the father’s extended talk to the reluctant Noriko about choosing to be happy and building a new life with her husband.

The Ministry of Fear by David Kalat at Movie Morlocks

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The way this piece is written is just brilliant, and fits the movie perfectly. Really makes me want to go back and watch it again, as well (it was a new-to-me 2014 watch, but I already feel like I’ve missed/forgotten some stuff in it).

So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?

OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.

Masculin Feminin (1966) by David Blakeslee at Criterion Reflections

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This is another one I need to revisit; I’ve only seen it once, and Godard films always take me a couple of times to really latch on to. I didn’t realize Goya wasn’t a professional actress, and that a lot of her role was basically her real reactions to things Godard was feeding the other actors to say. Very intriguing.

Godard caught a glimpse of [Chantal Goya] on TV, then set up a meeting in a cafe where he watched her sitting there waiting for him for about a half-hour or so, just observing her mannerisms as she spoke with those who had accompanied her on this important visit with the legendary director and cult figure. Without any kind of screen test or other audition, he promised her the job, only requesting that she not try to act, but just be herself in relaying the lines he provided, or in some cases, responding spontaneously to questions that he would put before her in order to get her unrehearsed reaction. In this clip (which I’m unable to embed here), Goya’s character Madeleine is meeting up with Leaud’s Paul early on in their friendship. During the filming, Godard is actually feeding lines to Leaud through a hidden earpiece and Goya is offering her natural reply, so the emotions are all quite authentic, despite the contrived circumstance.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Not Prestige, Not Trash: The Rise of Mid-Reputable TV by Noel Murray at The AV Club

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Fascinating discussion of those TV shows that tend to be good and get good reviews, but aren’t really prestigious and don’t win awards. These used to be mostly the genre shows, but that’s shifting as more and more prestige shows are technically genre shows. Noel Murray uses the term “mid-reputable,” which is kind of clunky, but gets at the concept well.

As the upper echelon of scripted television improves, we’re seeing more and more of these second-tier shows that qualify as quality television, but aren’t quite considered “prestige.” It’s a fine distinction, but a relevant one, because perception often governs expectation—and ultimately opinion. Connoisseurs of trash TV are easily satisfied by dumb jokes and hammy performances. Prestige television is often subject to intense scrutiny, with fans and critics evaluating every plot-twist, stylistic choice, and coded message (in terms of both literary symbolism and the show’s attitudes about gender, race, and politics)—and not always to the show’s benefit. But reactions to this growing body of “mid-reputable” TV are all over the map. Devotees of the mid-reputable seem to be enjoying television more, but are quick to turn on a show when it stops being “fun.”

Women Like Marvel’s Agent Carter Were a Very Real Part of History by Lesley Coffin at The Mary Sue

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Maybe most women in WWII weren’t Hydra/Leviathan-kicking spies, but many of them were the non-fantasy equivalent – WACs and WAVEs. This a great close look into WACs in particular and their relation to characters like Agent Carter.

The character of Peggy Carter (portrayed by Hayley Atwell, soon to star in ABC’s Agent Carter) will always hold a special place in my heart, especially after seeing Winter Soldier’s version of the character – old, sick, and riddled with Alzheimer memory loss. It hit very close to home. My grandmother is the same age, suffers some of the rapid memory loss, and in the 1940s marched with pride in a uniform very similar to the one Peggy wore on screen.

Entertainment Fan’s Resolutions for 2015 by Richard Rushfield at Hitfix

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I don’t get hatewatching, either.

If visitors from 1975 suddenly disembarked from a time machine in the middle of 2015, one of the things they’d find hardest to wrap their brains around is why TV viewers today spend most of their time on shows they can’t stand.

“They’ve even given it a name” they’d report back to their people. “They call it: Hatewatching.”

When faced with their confusion, explanations that we need “to be part of the conversation” or that it’s more fun to Tweet about the bad would fall away.

On the road to happiness, before we can get to the things that bring us joy, surely we need to cast out the things that bring us despair – even if they are Tweetable and sharable.

4 Ways to Become a Happier Gamer (and Person) in 2015 by Ben Kuchera at Polygon

These things are not specifically related to games, but they are solid advice for anyone struggling to get it all done in a limited amount of time. His point about goal-setting I excerpted below is spot-on, and even though I’m not always great at doing it, when I manage to, I’m much happier.

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So I started making specific goals in the morning, before I had the free time itself later in the evening. I didn’t deviate from these goals; if the kids were all in bed I just got to work. I woke up, made a cup of coffee, and said to myself “Today I would love to finish 15 percent more of Far Cry 4, and read three more comics in the House of M event.”

And then at 10 p.m. or so when I had 90 minutes before I fell asleep to unwind? I put in Far Cry 4, I got that 15 percent done, I read my three comics, and then I went to bed. I didn’t worry about what I wasn’t doing, I focused on the fun things I had already decided to do. Suddenly I was finishing game after game, catching up on my reading and feeling like my free time was spent in a productive, enjoyable manner.

I Wish Dragon Age: Inquisition Respected My Time by Patrick Klepek at Kotaku

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I’ve heard a number of people make this argument, and I guess I understand it, but I kind of really don’t. I have very little time to play, and yet I don’t feel like I’m wasting it in Dragon Age: Inquisition; yeah, some quests are pretty dumb (anyone wanna herd druffalo?), but I like being in the world, and so I like doing whatever. Also, the game seems to be made to accommodate you if you don’t want to do all the side quests. I’ve been doing them all, and I’m less than halfway through the story and already level 16 (with 20 being the nominal “top”). If you want to keep from being overpowered, you’ll want to focus on the story more than I have anyway, so just…skip anything you don’t find interesting. Not sure why this is a big deal. Here’s also another interesting article on the open space of the Hissing Wastes.

Despite all my time in Thedas, it seems like I barely got to know my companions. Their quests were over in the blink of an eye, and few were as revealing as, say, the truth of Dorian’s past. It seems so odd to have invested so much and come away knowing so little, but it accurately reflects the game’s prioritization of content as king. Not all content is made equal, however.

In the first 20 hours, I read every codex entry, and soaked in the world around me. In the next 40 hours or so, I was skipping through dialogue after reading the subtitles, closing codex entries as soon as they appeared on the screen, and pulling up walkthroughs to see how much of the game was left. The world of Dragon Age is fantastic, a politically-charged land of endless class and historical warfare. Unfortunately, its desire to pad out the experience dulls its premise.

The Bard and the Lambs by Liz Cottrill at StoryWarren

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I always recommend that people start kids on the Lamb Shakespeare stories, then go to plays performed on stage (movie versions are second best, but live is better), before reading Shakespeare plays directly. Here’s more anecdotal evidence for that suggestion.

Then one day it happened that a mother who visited our library asked me for some suggestions for a new series for her nine-year-old daughter to read. My son piped up, “Have you ever heard of Shakespeare?” My recommendations of Hollisters or Bobsey Twins evaporated. Respectfully, she simply asked what he liked about Shakespeare. “It’s great! He’s funny and there’s lots of surprises.” Notably there was no mention of odd language, and for a boy who could barely struggle through books, this was an amazement to me.

A Few More…

Images of the Week

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Cool Maps: Fictional Literary Places. I love old-looking/fantasy maps, and these are some pretty lovely ones.

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Classic Paintings with Humans Replaced by Playmobil Figures. Self-explanatory, and cool.

Video of the Week

The Best Films of the Decade So Far by Kevin B. Lee. This is a fascinating list that Lee compiled by asking his Twitter followers for their Top 10 of 2000-2014. I answered that when he asked it, but I figured with asking an open question like that, he’d end up with a watered down list of popular/mainstream favorites. Instead, he got the critics list to end all critics lists. He had some similar thoughts on the ultimate demographics of his survey (i.e., it never got out of the cinephile echo chamber) and posted them here.

Saturday Morning Cartoons: The Dot and the Line (1965). Brandie’s Saturday Morning Cartoon series is always worth reading, and this late Chuck Jones cartoon is a personal favorite of mine.