The Roundup: May 26, 2015

Cinema

The Annotated Godfather: 10 Times Art Imitates Life in Coppola’s Classic by David Conrad at Flickchart

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This is a fascinating post connecting things in The Godfather to the real-life events that inspired them, or that they’re referencing. As a huge history buff, I eat this kind of stuff up, and I will likely appreciate The Godfather that much more next time I see it thanks to this kind of trivia.

Rumors of mob connections shadowed Frank Sinatra throughout his career. In the early 1940s the crooner wanted out of his contract with band leader Tommy Dorsey, who was skimming a third of all Sinatra’s earnings. As the story goes, Sinatra’s literal godfather was Willie Moretti, a member of the Genovese family — one of the real-life “Five Families” of New York City crime — and Moretti bought Sinatra’s contract from Dorsey for a fraction of what Dorsey knew it was worth. The incident was widely publicized, which itself is an indication that it might be at least partly a media fabrication. In any case, the story is the inspiration for the “offer he couldn’t refuse” story that Michael tells Kay at the beginning of The Godfather. At the time Sinatra was a teen idol, hence the young ages of the screaming girls who watch Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) perform at Connie Corleone (Talia Shire)’s wedding.

The Marvel-Industrial Complex by James Rocchi at Movie Mezzanine

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Lots of stuff to chew on in this wide-ranging piece about Marvel movies and their implication for our larger culture and film industry.

This, then, is not a critique of the Marvel films, although it will discuss some of the intrinsic structural problems that plague all superhero films, and the Marvel movies specifically. Nor is it a discussion of whether or not “superhero fatigue” exists or not, although it will look at how, and where, money is spent on these films as they are bought and sold both domestically and internationally. The simple question which we have to ask—which we I think we’re obligated to ask—is: If these movies are the biggest thing in American pop culture, what does that say — openly, obliquely, or accidentally — about American culture itself?

But Spider-Man Can’t Be Black by Scott Beggs at Film School Rejects

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Read James Rocchi’s piece above before reading this one; Scott quotes a good bit from it, but takes off on his own to discuss why comic book movies are so reluctant to change anything, like the race of a major character. Along the same lines, here’s Matt Brown on Death and Superheroes.

Even the heartiest of fans recognize deep down that they’re buying into an illusion of shifts in the narrative. Tony Stark will drive off in his convertible, Hulk will fly away to parts unknown, and Thor will head back home to investigate the plot of his next movie, but they’ll all come back for the next team-up movie where a bad guy wants to destroy the world. They don’t want him to destroy it, so they fight, they win, no one with a multi-movie contract dies, rinse, repeat.

However, the same illusion of change that plays out in the narrative also plays out in real life as Marvel and DC both retread characters who are 40 and 60 and 80 years old. Characters like Superman, Captain America and Hulk are inevitably imbued with the sensibilities of the time they premiered (1938, 1941 and 1962), which would be fine if change were possible. Since it’s not, they drag hefty suitcases full of outdated social norms that we’ve rightfully, mentally left in a mass grave. They are antiques made shiny again, and by bringing them back into the cultural spotlight, they bring along the kernels of retrograde thinking.

The Back of Joan Crawford’s Head by David Kalat at Movie Morlocks

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Now, that’s a clickbait title I can get behind! Why is David Kalat writing about the back of Joan Crawford’s head? Turns out it’s a really interesting post about one of David’s favorite topics – the way slapstick comedy got left behind in the sound era, and he locates the reason not in the shift to sound itself (as most people do), but in the rise of the comedienne.

In other words, the real problem was that the strength—and weakness—of the film depended wholly on Langdon. This was the hidden fault line in all classic slapstick. Get a great comedian working at the height of his powers and relatively unfettered creative freedom and you could get a masterpiece. But the added value of great collaborators was always going to be limited. There was a wellspring of talent in Hollywood—they were pouring into the city by the bus load, and some of them were geniuses. The working method and style of the great slapstick auteurs had little use for these talents, whose skills were being wasted.

Or, put another way, Slapstick 2.0 didn’t have much room for women. Go back and take a look at my list above—Langdon, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Stooges. It’s not that Hollywood didn’t have any funny women—they just didn’t have much of a place at the slapstick table.

Owning a Video Store in the Age of Netflix by Steve Macfarlane at Hopes and Fears

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A bit of a downer article, especially for those who love local video stores, but there are some good reminders in here of what those video stores bring us that streaming doesn’t. At least at this point, streaming is no panacea. Though, I have to be honest, for most the country that didn’t have access to video stores like Kim’s or Scarecrow, video stores were no great shakes, either (just try to find a copy of Godard’s Contempt to rent in Waco, Texas – don’t bother, I already did, and it’s impossible).

Citing a 40% drop off in business, Lynch describes the insatiable appetite for streaming as a “convenience trap”: “There’s a general misconception among people that media is easy to come by, all of it is at your fingertips, and it’s easy to get a handle on what’s available – and it isn’t. What’s available is what a bunch of giant corporations have made available.”

Porky in Wackyland / Dough for the Do-Do by Kristina Dijan at Speakeasy

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I’m a big fan of Porky in Wackyland, and I know I’ve seen the color version as well, but it was cool to read Kristina’s overview and comparison of the two.

Little did I know, when I was a wee cartoon viewer glued to the fantastic weirdness of Looney Tunes’ DOUGH FOR THE DO-DO (1949), that it was a near-identical remake of a work the Library of Congress calls “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” namely, PORKY IN WACKYLAND (1938). I just thought it was delightfully strange and so different from other Warner Bros. cartoons I loved. I also thought it was the height of comedy to go around repeating the Do-Do’s nutty little ditty: “doh, dee O do, diddle ee de o do!” Like so many of those cartoons, they appealed to kid brains, and yet hold so much for adult tastes to revisit and appreciate.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

Why We Need More Subjective Games Criticism by Stephanie at Ludogabble

This is a good, readable, literary theory-supported look at the importance of subjectivity in criticism, especially in games criticism, where the fact that you’re playing it rather than just watching it necessarily foregrounds individual experience even more. (I should say that the implication I just made, that experiencing film or literature is passive, is too simplistic; I’m merely pointing out the central tenet of this piece, which is the subjectivity of play.)

A playthrough may never be stable from one play session to the next, let alone from one player to the next. But even with that in mind, what is at the core of subjectivity is experience and interpretation. Even if two players could have the exact same playthrough of a game and play a game in exactly the same way, they may still have radically different experiences with and interpretations of it. Once again, play is experiential and subjective—as is interpretation. Play isn’t merely a series of decisions of how to engage a game. It is action and affect and experience.

Why Are Stories in Video Games So Bad by Leigh Alexander at Offworld

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Too big a topic to cover in a short piece like this, but as always Leigh Alexander gets the mental gears rolling. I think a major thing is that when you give the player the kind of control and choice that players expect now in games, it’s much harder to craft a meaningful narrative.

There’s also the idea that a game is an experience for the player to have — that the player discovers his or her own narrative through the unique decisions and movements they make in its world, and that a writer’s just going to impose some kind of artificial constraint, cramping the player’s movement in the name of forcing them to plod through some dull linear tale.

In my experience of game developers, they often just think other things are more important: the fun, the mechanics, the performance of the software, and sometimes those are fair priorities in an industry where there’s never enough time and money to be certain the game will turn out well and everyone just tries to focus on their own discipline.

Free Ebooks Don’t Help Poor Kids by Kelly Jensen at Bookriot

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Good reminder that technology and access to it are not as ubiquitous as we sometimes think, and aid programs that rely on it can be misguided.

Poor kids don’t have access to internet or devices. It’s a fact, and it’s backed up time and time again.

So why is it that, despite these numbers, the publishing industry takes on initiatives meant to reach poor kids and improve their literacy in ways that show a clear lack of understanding about the real problems these kids face? How come publishers and politicians choose to ignore those who work with children and teenagers struggling with access — to books, to reading, to technology, to a host of literacies, including digital?

Blondie Albums from Worst to Best by Nate Patrin at Stereogum

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No surprise what comes out on top, but I found the whole countdown pretty interesting – usually I don’t get much out of this series, not having much experience with the bands in question, but I’ve heard most of Blondie’s stuff.

Best of all, Parallel Lines ducks the singles-plus-filler rep most bands who sell a ton of Greatest Hits compilations wind up with. A guest appearance on guitar by Robert Fripp pairs up with Harry’s voice to haunting, wistful effect on “Fade Away And Radiate.” The torn-up panic of “11:59” and its doomsday romance boast Jimmy Destri’s needling keyboards and Clem Burke’s avalanche drums as some of the most breathtaking work either musician had laid down to that point. And “Will Anything Happen” is as frantic and insistent and indelibly catchy as anything the Ramones were doing in ’78, from its feedback intro to to Burke’s punching-bag beat to a chorus that proves the only thing more breathtaking than a full-bore Debbie Harry is a multitracked Debbie Harry. By the time “Heart Of Glass” even comes up on the album, you’ve already heard nine songs before it which proved disco was just one of the things Blondie could turn into dizzying pop art.

A New Study from Facebook Reveals Just How Much it Filters What You See by Eli Pariser at Gizmodo

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I’m fascinated and often concerned about the place recommendation algorithms are taking in our lives, but what’s particularly interesting about this is that it’s not just or even mostly the algorithms that keep us in our bubbles – it’s who we have for friends, and that’s always been the case. Obviously, that’s true, but it makes me wonder what algorithms could do on the flip side, recommending us stuff that we WOULDN’T ordinarily see based on our friend groups? That seems a tough nut to crack, but maybe a worthwhile pursuit.

Here’s the upshot: Yes, using Facebook means you’ll tend to see significantly more news that’s popular among people who share your political beliefs. And there is a real and scientifically significant “filter bubble effect” — the Facebook news feed algorithm in particular will tend to amplify news that your political compadres favor.

This effect is smaller than you might think (and smaller than I’d have guessed.) On average, you’re about 6% less likely to see content that the other political side favors. Who you’re friends with matters a good deal more than the algorithm. But it’s also not insignificant.

A Few More…

Image of the Week

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Royal Canadian Mint Releases Looney Tunes Collector Coins. That’s it, I’m moving to Canada. (Sadly, the contest associated with this post is already over.)

Video of the Week

It’s no secret I love Swedish band First Aid Kit, and when I happened upon this cover they recently did of Simon & Garfunkel’s America (another favorite of mine), I was in love. Somehow hearing non-Americans sing this song has an especially wistful quality.