The Roundup: March 13, 2015

Cinema

TCM Film Festival Fanatics Cry Foul by Wade Sheeler at The Black Maria

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This year’s TCM Fest includes such classics as Apollo 13, Out of Sight and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which has some purists among classic film fans up in arms. Wade addresses this concern with some well-needed perspective. Personally, I myself had some words when Raiders was announced purely because it plays three times a year in LA, but a friend helpfully reminded me that most people coming to the fest aren’t blessed with the kind of rep culture we have here. The final lineup announced this week is extremely diverse and well-rounded, with films from 1900 to 1998 represented, and with 81 films playing over 3 1/2 days, there’s absolutely no reason anyone will have to see anything they don’t want to. My own festival preview is coming soon; in the meantime, here are some guides from other sites: Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, Hollywood Revue, and Pre-Code.com.

So, when the 2015 TCM Film Fest schedule was released this week, it was tantamount to Martin Luther’s 95 theses being nailed to the church door. Fanatics took to Twitter, to Facebook and to all manner of social media to decry that TCM has “lost their minds.” They were “super disappointed”, the programming “uninspired” “dull,” one going so far as to say “their programming sucks. I’ve been telling them that since Year 1.” Another says the TCM programmer “got drunk and chose a film at random without much thought behind the selection.” While yet still another lamented: “if I am told it is a TCM CLASSIC Film Festival, I have every right to the expectation that the overwhelming majority of the fare be what I fully believe Mr. Robert Osborne himself would define as a classic movie.” Another is secure that “empty theatres will tell TCM all they need to know.” There are even factions that plan on having their “voices heard” at the Meet TCM Panel at the beginning of the festival, to complain about this loose definition of classic, while others fear that they won’t follow through with their resolve, and pull a “Caine Mutiny.” (These are all real quotes, btw).

People. Chill.

There’s No Universal Right Age for Aliens or Any Other Movie by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve

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Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com showed Aliens to a bunch of kids at his son’s birthday party, and then wrote about the experience, attracting a whole bunch of concerned parents worried that 11 is too young to see Aliens. Tasha Robinson pens this great, spot-on response to the maelstrom.

In turning this into a large-scale fight about parental control, age appropriateness, exposure to violence, and the long-term earnings potential of early Aliens-watchers, the debaters are, predictably enough, skipping over what actually happened at the slumber party. Seitz made a number of eminently responsible choices. He picked a movie he’d already seen multiple times, so he knew what to expect. He talked to the children about what films they’d already seen—in this case, virtually all of them had already seen Alien or an Aliens franchise movie. (Frankly, any kid who’s seen the suspenseful, graphically bloody, mildly risqué Alien should be automatically vetted for the much more action-oriented Aliens.) He stayed with them while they watched the film, and guided them through it. He monitored their reactions individually to see how they were responding, and was clearly aware of the behavior of the meekest one of the crew. Here’s the MPAA’s explanation of what constitutes an R-rated movie: “Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.” Seitz followed every aspect of that description fully and responsibly: He accompanied the kids in watching a film he knew well, and he helped contextualize it for them.

Bombast: Subterranean Hot Take Blues by Nick Pinkerton at Film Comment

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The internet is all about getting your opinions out there quickly (and having controversial opinions, but that’s a different topic), and Nick Pinkerton is getting tired of it. He also riffs helpfully on the way film criticism is being co-opted for stating political and cultural perspectives rather than talking about the film itself.

The conversation being referred to is The Conversation, a national-if-not-global water cooler get-together to which the endlessly renewable resource of serial television is perfectly suited, but to which movies can be accommodated once must-see seasons have ended and trade deadlines have passed. The search for those who can perform the thaumaturgy of distilling films into their social meaning brings to the fray movie illiterates, dilettantes with no skin in the game and no stake in cinema as an art form, as such, who think that “realism” in movies has something to do with fact-checking—at The Atlantic, the prolific Kilkenny proposes a new Oscar for “Dramatic Research”—rather than the sort of moment singled out by Manny Farber in Raoul Walsh’s Roaring Twenties, the tonal precision of “Cagney tak[ing] a show-biz beginner home on the last train to New Rochelle.” When paired with the visual literacy that allows for the reading of a film, the ability to place a movie within a larger social/ historical/ political context is something greatly to be valued in a critic, though very often what we see instead are writers who strew the ground with a pocketful of commonplaces (“good performances,” “beautifully shot”) while rushing on their way to the more pressing issue of assigning a utilitarian sociopolitical function to the work in question. Commentary which distills movies into their significance and funnels them into ideological decanters becomes a means through which writers point like-minded viewers towards works that will, purportedly, provide reinforcement to an already-established worldview. This, along with Recommended for You curation, takes us ever further from the credo espoused by that excellent critic, C.S. Lewis: “To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin.” (Jean Renoir put it another way: “Man is a creature of habit, and the task of the artist is to try to break these habits.”)

Conflict of Interest in the Digital Age by Lauren Wissot at Hammer to Nail

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With lines between filmmaking and criticism becoming blurrier, especially on the internet when anyone can talk to (and become friends with!) anyone else, what happens to conflict of interest? I still find it hilarious that I had long discussions with GamerGaters about objectivity in games criticism and many of them cited a statement from Ebert in favor of objectivity – when Ebert was all about the individual experience. As Lauren points out, he had no problem reviewing films from filmmakers he was friends with, but this is crucial – he did disclose that he was doing that, and I think that’s the key. Here’s a response from Criticwire that suggests we should still TRY for objectivity, which is fine as long as we understand our biases are always in play.

Watching Life Itself – shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature though it ultimately didn’t get a nom–I was reminded of how Roger Ebert was the ballsy pioneer of what might be called “conflict of interest criticism,” an unapologetic leader of a COI new wave. Unlike the old guard, represented by Richard Corliss in Steve James’s lovely cinematic tribute, Ebert had no qualms dispensing with the critic’s illusion of objectivity, going so far as to even review Encounters at the End of the World, a doc dedicated to him by his good friend Werner Herzog. (“I will review it because I love great films and must share my enthusiasm,” Ebert wrote in an open letter to Herzog.)

Other Things: My Week Away from Film by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee

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Technically this is NOT about cinema, except in so far as it’s about stepping away from cinema for a week and…not really missing it. Ryan and I are still going through the American Movie Critics book, and there’s a section in the introduction of that book that talks about how important it is for critics to not just be extremely knowledgeable about film, but interested in and knowledgeable about other areas of culture and life as well. Taking a break like Ryan inadvertently did and focusing on reading, photography, socializing, and just LIVING is essential not just for our mental well-being, but actually to be a good critic, too.

If you follow me on social media in any way, you probably saw updates coming from a long weekend spent in NYC. Now at first glance, it seems academic that a bit of travel would lend itself to some cinematic distraction. Between waiting for planes, sitting on planes, and chilling at the beginning or end of a day, there are lots of gaps to watch something short. The movies were right there on the hotel TV, on the display in the plane, on the laptop in my backpack, and on the phone in my pocket. However, even in these moments with these outlets., I found myself more consumed with my book, my camera, and my company. All of these activities seemed like a better use of my time than just “one more movie”, and looking back they absolutely were.

Film Criticism: Where My Ride Began by Dan Heaton at Public Transportation Snob

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I always enjoy finding out how others got interested in film to the extent of wanting to run websites about it, and here’s a great “origin story” from Dan Heaton. He’s currently pulling away to retool and rebalance as well, but whatever he decides to do, I’ll be there.

Beyond just seeing these great movies, this experience caused me to see them differently. I spent classes scribbling countless pages of mostly illegible notes, which made me look a little crazy to other students. I couldn’t help myself! An invaluable resource like IMDB did not exist. I tried to capture everything and ensure that I could explain my thinking. I also loved doing it. When our teacher assigned us papers on modern films, I wrote long essays about Goodfellas and Aliens. The writing was terrible, but the important part was considering the movies beyond their basic text. The idea that an action thriller like Aliens was really about corporate greed was mind-blowing to a 17-year-old. Scorsese’s use of music and editing in Goodfellas was like nothing I’d seen. I wanted to decipher more than the plots, and I haven’t been able to turn off that side of my brain for more than 21 years.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Life is Strange is Secretly Super Important to the Gaming Industry by Matt Whittaker at Hardcore Gamer

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I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by Life is Strange, especially when I fully admit there are issues with the writing (which is a big deal in a game as story-focused as this one). I randomly found this article while Googling to find out when Chapter 2 would launch and found it pretty interesting, as a look both at its release strategy (each episode about six weeks apart), and its approach to branching narrative. If they pull this off, it could be amazing – I’ve already found myself playing it more as a story and less as a game, which seems to fit with what they’re trying to accomplish.

Dontnod is attempting to take each player’s choices into account in order to give him or her an ending that is satisfying for them. If this works out the way it was explained, it essentially means that players will have complete control over how their personal journey concludes rather than presenting them with a series of pre-defined options. My ending would be completely different from yours, yet both would feel completely correct. In short, there is no set number of endings at this time because players aren’t going to be pigeon-holed like that. Accomplishing this would potentially change the way that open-ended storytelling functions in games, leaving the lane-based choice “systems” of yesteryear to saddle up next to the dodo and eight-track players.

How Role Playing Games Can Teach Kids Decision Making by Steve Lubitz at Pixelkin

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I’ve really enjoyed hearing Steve talk about playing games with his kids on the Isometric podcast, and here’s his thoughts on playing Child of Light with his oldest daughter and learning to let her make her own decisions (and mistakes!). I think this is something we’re going to struggle with when Karina starts playing games, so I’m going to remind myself of this article then. Related: Here’s a rundown of the Parenting and Gaming panel Steve was on at PaxEast this year.

What video games like Child of Light have provided both of us is a venue where she can fail, and I can let her, and we both know nothing bad will happen. A lot of it involves my daughter making choices and then determining why they were right or wrong. Even more of it, though, has been an exercise in restraint for me; I have to let her play the game how she decides to play it. It’s really, really hard to hold my tongue and not say anything when she’s making a bad decision that I know is not going to turn out the way she expects, but she needs to experience the outcome for what it is. It’s a lot easier to accept when you can say to yourself that it’s just a game and that the worst possible outcome is that she restarts, which she can do whenever she wants.

Writing Women Characters as Human Beings by Kate Elliott at Tor

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I had such trouble figuring out what quote to pull from this article, because it’s all so good. The short version: write women as people, with personalities and desires and goals, even if the thing you’re writing (this is focused on high fantasy narratives set in a Middle Ages-like culture) is set in an era when women wouldn’t have had a lot of public power. I think this is so helpful, because we tend to think of “strong woman with agency” as someone who has control over her own destiny and that of others, and it’s hard to square that with being historically accurate to most of history.

This is where it gets complicated.

It’s not enough to say “let your female characters do everything your male characters do” because that can feed back into the idea that the lives of so many women across time and cultures are important only insofar as they are congruent with or participating in “men’s lives” or “men’s activities” (however those are defined, and those definitions differ cross-culturally).

Dig deeper to find meaning and importance and a place in the narrative for all lives.

For example, let’s say a female character’s place in the plot mostly revolves around a male character or is confined to a small domicile. She can still have her own dreams, her own desires, her own goals and quirks and thoughts and emotions. She can make choices, however small they may seem to be, for herself. This is how I define the nebulous term “agency.” (Others may have different definitions of the word. That’s cool.)

People with little access to external agency can still have internal agency. Furthermore, people with fewer direct avenues to power and influence have always had ways of digging around obstacles, cobbling together leverage, or acting privately through the public agency of others.

Reading Diversely FAQ, Part 3 at Bookriot

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There’s been a lot of talk about reading and watching diversely this year. I have a friend who’s only watching films directed or written by women this year. Several people have written articles recently about only reading books by people of color. Here’s a good article about that that succinctly highlights both sides in the debate that’s raged about such things. It’s not an easy thing for me, either – I think we should support quality no matter where it comes from, and I’m not against the idea of “the canon,” no matter how white and male it is, but I also think we have to consciously try to get out of our comfort zone on this or it doesn’t happen. There’s nothing wrong with taking a year and focusing your reading on some area you haven’t experienced enough yet. Would the “white male” apologists have a problem if I said “I haven’t read enough Shakespeare, so I’m going to do that all year?” Probably not. This is not appreciably different in terms of filling gaps in your reading, and could actually help balance out the publishing industry eventually. Okay, but the highlighted item here is actually from a series that Book Riot has been running about how and why to read diversely, and I think this point is particularly salient – whiteness is not default, and those of us who are white and have grown up in a white-dominated culture have a tendency to think that it is.

First, think about how people of color have been not asked but forced to relate to stories about white characters and from white authors for centuries. The overwhelming majority of the Western canon, which makes up most of what is then taught in schools to all students in the U.S., is white. Most best-seller lists and awards lists are white authors. Most people cast in movies and television in the U.S. are white- even if the characters in the stories originally were not. Everyone else who is not white is expected to accept these stories and viewpoints as universal. Charles Dickens is telling the story of what it means to be human- Junot Díaz is telling the story of what it means to be Dominican. Jonathan Franzen is telling the universal American story- Toni Morrison is telling the story of black people. John Green’s books are about the teenage experience- Meg Medina’s books are about the experience of Latino teens. Authors of color get pigeon-holed, while it is accepted that white authors speak for everyone.

10 Fun Facts About Winnie the Pooh by Kristy Puchko at Mental Floss

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Time for a fun one! I didn’t know most of these facts about Winnie the Pooh, despite having watched the 1977 and 2011 movies a gazillion times each. :) I was gratified to discover that, as I suspected based on the animation in those movies, Rabbit and Owl are not based on stuffed animals, but on real wildlife.

In the 1920s, A.A. Milne began writing collections of stories and poems that became the books When We Were Very Young (which introduced a bear named Edward and a swan named Pooh), The House at Pooh Corner, Now We Are Six, and Winnie-The-Pooh. It was these stories where Christopher Robin’s adored toy animals Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo made their literary debuts. Most of the original toys can be seen on display at the New York Public Library—except for Roo, who went missing in an apple orchard in the 1930s. The likes of Owl and Rabbit were included to loop in some of the fauna that frolicked outside the Milne family home.

A Few More…

Image of the Week

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Every timeline in Edge of Tomorrow, by George Hatzia, via io9. Click here for a larger version.

Video of the Week

This little exercise in perspective is pretty fun.