The Roundup: May 4, 2015

It has been like two months since I managed to publish one of these, and so these articles cover a great deal of time. I apologize for the age of some of them, but I also hope that they’ll hit upon some new and appreciative readers who hadn’t seen them before.

Cinema

The Gospel According to Cinema, Part 1: The Rise of Christian Film and Part 2 by Corey Atad at Movie Mezzanine

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As a Christian, the topic of Christian films interests me a lot, even though I basically never watch any (because they’re usually bad). For some reason, the topic of Christian films has come up a lot in secular blogs lately. This pair of posts on Movie Mezzanine is quite good, basically looking at the history of Christian movies, and taking a deep dive into one of the most prolific producers of them today. See also Vox.com trying to figure out why Christian movies tend to be bad (coming to the very sound conclusion that they’re so focused on message that they don’t pay enough to attention to how that message is conveyed), and The Atlantic (though it’s written by Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson, one of the finest explicitly Christian film critics I know) wondering if certain indie films don’t carry a more thoughtful approach to spirituality.

Stories of Evangelical congregations in the Bible Belt being bused en masse to screenings of The Passion of the Christ caused quite a stir in the movie industry. Several studios stood up and took notice. They saw the potential for a niche genre: films made by Christians, featuring overt religious content and messages, and marketed directly to conservative Evangelical Christians. 20th Century Fox created its own faith-based label, Fox Faith, with the intent to make and distribute several Christian films theatrically each year. They saw mild success, but the experiment had died out by 2008. Walt Disney and Walden Media had great success mobilizing Evangelical Christians to go see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005, but were unable to maintain that audience for the film’s two sequels. Hollywood had gone too big too soon.

Already a successful producer of Christian television programming, Michael Scott and his business partners David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe saw a different, more independent path. […] For almost a decade, Pure Flix has specialized in releasing films through direct-to-video, television, and other home-media channels. In 2010, after steady growth year over year, the company dipped its toe in the theatrical market with a film called What If…, an inspirational drama starring Kevin Sorbo about a godless, greedy businessman who wakes up in an alternate reality in which he’s the pastor of his hometown church, and married to his old college sweetheart. What If… played in about 80 theaters and pulled in over $800 thousand in box-office receipts. Building on that film’s success, Pure Flix released God’s Not Dead in 2014 in over 1,800 theatres. Produced on a budget of $2 million, the film grossed over $60 million.

Destroy All Monsters: The Ghettoization of Miles Morales as Spider-Man by Matt Brown at TwitchFilm

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tl;dr – There’s no reason Peter Parker has to be white. But you should read it. This is not a new idea if you listen to Mamo, but it’s nice to see Matt lay it all out like this. For more Matt Brown-on-superhero-adaptations, check out his column on Netflix’s Daredevil.

The problem with Miles Morales is that inasmuch as he’s a necessary response to representation in comics specifically, everywhere else, he’s an excuse. He’s a reason we don’t have to redress the wider context of representation in these stories; he’s the reason an enormous number of people don’t even have to think about whether there’s a problem with Peter Parker being cast white again.

Actually, scratch that too: let’s not even call it a problem. It’s not a problem.

What Peter Parker represents at this moment in the Marvel mega-franchise is an opportunity. There was an opportunity here to crush stereotyping and expectations for the gargantuan audience of the MCU, just as Marvel did seven years ago when they (again, taking a page from the Ultimate universe’s book) cast Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

How Karina Longworth is Reimagining Classic Hollywood and the Podcast in You Must Remember This by Scott Porch at Longreads

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I’m loving the heck out of the You Must Remember This podcast (I’ve linked it several times already and most likely will again), and I also really loved this interview with Karina Longworth. The section I quote below resonated strongly, particularly “there had to be different ways to talk about movies.” That’s what I want as well, and it gives me a great deal of hope that she’s doing so well at finding her way.

I would say that in general I was really burned out. I had not a clinical breakdown but sort of a stress meltdown. In the middle of 2012, sort of right after the Cannes Film Festival, there was a new editor in chief at LA Weekly, and I basically went to her. I wrote down everything work-related that I did for a week, and it ended up that I had worked 65 hours that week. And I was just like, I can’t do this anymore.

[…] I don’t think I’m cut out to be the type of film critic—and, really, I don’t know how you’d be any other type of film critic—who sees every movie and has an opinion about them. I was seeing on average seven movies a week. As a person who is very interested in contemporary film, there are probably 25 to 30 movies in a year that I am legitimately, personally interested in. And so I was obviously seeing quite a few more films than that.

I found it very overwhelming. And I just wasn’t satisfied. I felt like there had to be different ways to talk about movies—there had to be different ways to get audiences engaged.

Wondering Woman: Why Warner Bros. Axed Michelle MacLaren, and What That Tells Us About the State of Female Directors in Hollywood by Mark Harris at Grantland

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It’s died down a little now, but for a while the reactions to Michelle MacLaren leaving Wonder Woman were flying hot and heavy. This one from Mark Harris is one of the best (as usual). And here’s one from Monika Bartyzel, author of the long-running, multi-venued Girls on Film column, now writing in Forbes. And a quick note from The Mary Sue discussing the possible direction of the film, and finding it a little concerning.

Since studio development executives are now asked to be property managers rather than movie developers, not many of them are capable of sitting down and talking about what a story should be. And none of them wants to risk his neck by committing early to the wrong choice. So, like many modern-day blockbusters, Wonder Woman will be developed via the monkeys-at-typewriters approach: Let’s have a bunch of different people write different Wonder Woman scripts, pick the parts that we sort of like better than the others, proceed to humiliate the “winning” writers by asking them to interpolate the stuff from the “losing” scripts that we also kind of liked, let the WGA work out the credits and mop up the blood and tears, sew everything together, and sell the resulting Frankenmovie to an audience we will have programmed (via an incessant drumbeat of teasers, trailers, and post-credit sequences) to show up for whatever this thing turns out to be.

That certainly sounds like every writer and director’s dream.

Reel Rumbles: Call Northside 777 vs 12 Angry Men by David Conrad at Flickchart

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Full disclosure: I also write for the Flickchart blog, but I’ve been quite impressed with the stuff David Conrad’s been putting out over there. It was tough to choose what to feature! But this highly entertaining battle between two crime/courtroom dramas won out. He sticks with the legal gimmick all the way through, and it works splendidly.

In the court of Flickchart there are a lot of easy choices. This is not one of them. Just as there is no simple right or wrong in the case before us, there are seldom clear answers in a court of criminal law. While Call Northside 777 clearly believes that Frank Wiecek is innocent of the murder of a Chicago policeman, 12 Angry Men is agnostic about whether its defendant murdered his father. The position it takes is more subtle: that reasonable doubt of guilt, not certainty of innocence, is the appropriate standard by which to decide a murder case.

“True Story,” “The Jinx” and Serving Up Truth with the Imagination by A.O. Scott in the New York Times

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Back when Selma and The Imitation Game and whatever else were coming under fire from the accuracy police in December, I heard various people something to the effect of “if you want the truth, watch a documentary” and I was like, hold up, documentaries shape their narratives in certain ways, too. I was not the only one to think of that, of course, and A.O. Scott attacks it much better han I could’ve. In a related follow-up, Alissa Wilkinson of Christianity Today takes off from Scott’s article to point out that Biblical epics can alo take some liberties and it’s OK.

The rules and techniques of nonfiction storytelling, in print as well as in sound and image, are subject to perpetual revision. Clarity can be hard to come by, and in response to this confusion the obvious question — at once skeptical and idealistic — tends to be “Is this true?” A perfectly fair point for a journalist to raise, but perhaps because I’m a critic, I find that it obstructs an equally important and at least equally vexing line of inquiry: Is it art?

Bombast: Pop Pop Pop Popular by Nick Pinkerton at Film Comment

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Nick Pinkerton takes on the whole mass entertainment complex in this one, contrasting populist vs. elitist critics in both film and music, bemoaning the preference for Furious 7 over The Clouds of Sil Maria, and much more. It covers a lot of ground and brings up more questions than it answers, but that’s okay.

There is, it seems to me, an unresolved contradiction implicit in the poptimist line. On one hand it advocates letting go of the guilty pleasure, to indulge without shame our sweet tooth for invigorating pop. On the other, we’re also asked to suppress the gag reflex when something sufficiently popular doesn’t hit the spot, as in Wilson’s journey with Celine Dion, to reserve judgment and see if it isn’t some kind of acquired taste after all, because 50,000,000 Dom Toretto Fans Can’t Be Wrong. In effect, it’s a matter of self-explanatory work demanding the same prerogative which in the past had been reserved for the obtuse and obscure—the right of repeated viewings. “This is the stuff that we should be talking about as critics,” Pappademas says on the Grantland podcast, “the stuff that most people are excited about.” What troubles me about this statement is that it ignores the fact that a vast machinery exists for the purposes of generating excitement, a machinery which some entities have access to, and others do not. (This is not to speak of the problematic idea that participation in a phenomenon is equivalent to excitement about it—my Furious 7 screening was full, but the atmosphere was one of palpable boredom.)

I Killed the Movies by Tom Shone at Intelligent Life

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TOM SHONE YOU MONSTER. Kidding aside, the idea that kids of the ’80s and ’90s are leading a lot of mainstream content based on their childhood favorites isn’t new, and probably has merit. Difficult to know what to do about it, though. Here’s a response article from Film School Rejects.

Today I look at the abundance of merchandise and movies aimed at kids like me with wonder and confusion, like Hiep Thi Le registering the vastness of an American supermarket in Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth”. A form tilted towards underdogs has become the plaything of bullies—soft-power workouts for the couch-potato dauphins of the world’s last remaining military colossus. Today’s comic-book movies are dreams of power with their roots in weakling wish fulfilment all but eliminated: the civilian alter-egos of the Avengers and the X-Men barely get a look-in, while the mortals with whom they once enjoyed romantic dalliances are similarly banished from the summer’s high-impact smasheroos and demolition derbies. The form has entered its decadent phase of superhero-on-superhero violence and synergistic mash-up. These guys mix only with other super­heroes, like a-list celebrities, or royals.

Birds of a Feather: Disney’s Latin America and the Three Caballeros by Brandie Ashe at The Black Maria

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I knew that The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos existed, and I’ve seen the former long ago, but I didn’t know much about their history or why exactly Disney made not just one but TWO movies promoting the Good Neighbor Policy. This is a great rundown, and here’s another one. It’s a really interesting story. For more great animation posts by Brandie, check out her entry on UPA’s The Tell-Tale Heart and Warner’s I Love to Singa.

It may have seemed like an unusual marriage – Walt Disney and the United States government – but it was hardly a new arrangement. Practically since the dawn of moving pictures, film and propaganda have gone hand-in-hand, and indeed, Hollywood studios had been in the steady business of promoting patriotic American doctrine since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Disney’s mission here was simply to use his beloved cartoons to try to counteract the potentially dangerous influence of Nazism (but, you know, no pressure, guys). The end result of the trip was a pair of films, 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros, both crafted as deliberate propagandistic statements intended to connect with Latin American culture via some of the United States’ most well-known cinematic exports. But Disney’s most famous character, Mickey Mouse, was ultimately not a part of these two films; instead, the lead role of Official United States-Latin American Cartoon Liaison was handed off to Donald Duck, who was actually more popular than Mickey at the time

How Ousmane Sembene Invented African Cinema by Bilge Ebiri at Vulture

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Here’s a filmmaker and a national cinema I definitely need more familiarity with – I’ve heard about Sembene a lot since I started taking an interest in world cinema, but I’ve never seen any of his films.

The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often called the father of African cinema, had a seismic career. He effectively created an African film industry out of nothing: In 1963, with a used 16mm camera and leftover film stock sent by friends from Europe, he made a short called Borom Sarret (The Wagon Driver), considered the first African movie made by a black African. Until the independence of French West Africa in 1960, French colonial authorities had made it illegal for Africans to make films of their own, so countries like Senegal had no film equipment, no professional actors, and no funding; Sembene used friends and family to put the film together.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

The Mad Men Effect: The Economics of TV’s Golden Age by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic

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I’m a few seasons behind on Mad Men, so I can’t read most of the stuff people are writing about it, but I did enjoy this brief tidbit into one reason why cable shows are so much better than network shows on average.

AMC, like other cable networks, doesn’t make most of its money from advertising. Instead, it makes most of its money from simply being on cable. The channel gets a few dimes from every household’s monthly bill, whether or not they watch AMC. These dimes add up to several hundred million dollars a year in so-called “affiliate fees.” Since only a tiny share of all cable households watch Mad Men, but all cable household pay for AMC, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Mad Men only exists thanks to the millions of people who don’t watch it.

How to Find Time to Read by Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian

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This really resonated with me. I find myself slotting everything into a to-do list lately, and it’s not necessarily a bad idea, but thinking of reading as something to do efficiently definitely is. I never really thought of it this way before.

In fact, “becoming more efficient” is part of the problem. Thinking of time as a resource to be maximised means you approach it instrumentally, judging any given moment as well spent only in so far as it advances progress toward some goal. Immersive reading, by contrast, depends on being willing to risk inefficiency, goallessness, even time-wasting. Try to slot it in as a to-do list item and you’ll manage only goal-focused reading – useful, sometimes, but not the most fulfilling kind.

No ‘Cool Girls’ Allowed: Female Friendship at Marvel by Jon Erik Christianson at Panels

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Makes me wish I were reading more Marvel books. I always seem to hear they’re awesome well after they start, and I hate jumping into things in the middle. I did read the first Ms. Marvel trade and loved it; I’ll have to seek out some of these others in trade.

Female-led properties in any kind of action genre (adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) often sport the nasty habit of leaving all other women that aren’t the protagonist to the wayside.

Sometimes it’s a function of the narrative (Agent Carter) and sometimes there’s no discernible reason (Salt). Maybe, for fear of contaminating its audience with cooties from a female lead, they overcompensate by having a primarily male supporting cast. Or the oft-cited gender perception gap (if a group comprises 17% women, men perceive it as being half, at 33%, a majority) is to blame. Hell, it even happens to otherwise feminist shows (Veronica Mars, iZombie).

Fortunately, there are no “cool girls” at Marvel Comics, just awesome ladies: women who are elevated, not hamstrung, by their relationships with other women. Virtually every female-led title at Marvel in the last few years has featured varied female friendships and relationships.

In Fantasy Worlds, Historical Accuracy is a Lie by Tanya D at Offworld

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tl;dr If you’re writing fantasy (in books, movies, or games), you don’t have to stick to any sort of historical accuracy when it comes to race or gender politics. You can have shapeshifting dragons, but not POC? Huh?

Elves, magic, dragons, shapeshifting and ancient powers of world destruction are somehow totally believable, but the idea that brown people might exist is somehow not. My colleague MedievalPOC’s blog uses art, history and other resources to regularly debunk the broad but rarely-questioned misconception that only white people were around in medieval times. So if we know brown folks definitely existed in actual Medieval Europe, why are they absent from a made-up fantasy world only loosely inspired by Medieval Europe? Where are the brown folks in Dragon Age’s Thedas?

A Few More…

Images of the Week

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via Electric literature

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I’ve only read one or two Terry Pratchett books, but I’d definitely like to try more. via Electric Literature

Video of the Week

If you haven’t been watching the new Mickey shorts, you’re missing out. They do one a month, air them first on the Disney Channel, and then put them up on YouTube. They’re awesome – stylish and fast-paced, hilarious and gorgeous. This is the most recent one.