The Roundup: July 10, 2015

Cinema

The Dissolve: The End by Keith Phipps at The Dissolve

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Sad news for fans of online criticism – The Dissolve’s two-year run of thoughtful, varied, and accessible criticism have ended. The quote below is from Matt Zoller Seitz’s heartfelt eulogy, and you can find more good thoughts at former Dissolver Todd VanDerWerff’s Tumblr and from Alyssa Rosenberg. Here’s a day-after interview with editors Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias. But let’s not give up – in the Dissolve’s absence, support thoughtful criticism on Movie Mezzanine, Little White Lies, and others, and look for Phipps, Tobias, Genevieve Koski, Tasha Robinson, and other Dissolve contributers whereever they end up.

Mostly it was an example of the kind of big-tent criticism that some of the most enduring American movie critics, including Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and James Agee, practiced. Its editorial bread-and-butter was a mix of straight-up reviews, profiles, conversations and thinkpieces (which used to be called “essays” or “features”). The site wrote about new big movies, and nostalgic touchstones of a sort that thirty and forty-somethings can’t stop obsessing over. But it also found ways to draw readers’ attention to small American and international films they might not have heard of. It offered veteran writers a new platform and gave new writers their first professional bylines, and threw in attractive layout, proofreading and according-to-Hoyle editorial guidance to boot. The writing was mostly analytical and paid a lot of attention to form, which is still unusual at a time when too much pop culture writing relies on versions of “What X gets wrong about Y” and “Why A owes B an apology” and “What so-and-so doesn’t get about such-and-such.” Day after day, The Dissolve writers were not content merely to talk about what films said; they took the trouble to discuss how they said it. They talked about framing. They talked about editing. They talked about sound and color. They talked about what movies actually are.

A Weekend at the World’s Most Dangerous Film Festival by John Lingan at The Verge

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This sounds amazing.

Back in the theater, the lush yellow curtain raised and Ben Tucker’s co-workers trained their beam on the screen. The scratches and pops crackled like a campfire, then a blaring fanfare announced the Warner Brothers logo and a map of Africa. I stared intently, eager to see something life-changing. But it only looked like an old movie. Maybe a little sharper than usual, but also blemished and scuffed.

Then, right after Peter Lorre’s corrupt operator is gunned down and Humphrey Bogart goes upstairs to his office safe, there’s a shot of Claude Raines’ scheming Vichy officer, standing fully lit, talking to Bogart’s shadow. When that shadow darkened the screen, I sat up. Here it was: the famous depth of nitrate’s blacks. It looked and felt like real negative space, like an infinite void. From that point forward, I began to notice all sorts of little details: the clarity of individual fibers in Bogie’s low-lit hair or the texture of Ingrid Bergman’s dress.

The Decline of the American Actor by Terrence Rafferty in The Atlantic

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Interesting call and response on the state of American acting.

Is it time for American actors to take a hard look in the mirror? Earlier this year Michael Douglas mused darkly to a magazine interviewer, “I think we have a little crisis going on amongst our young actors at this point,” and Spike Lee, commenting on the “invasion” of black British actors, had some pithy observations on the subject, too: “You want talented people,” he said, and British actors’ “training is very proper, whereas some of these other brothers and sisters, you know, they come in here, and they don’t got that training.” Douglas and Lee, just like the rest of us who go to the movies, are a tad puzzled about why so many good American roles have been going to English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Australian, and Canadian actors. The phenomenon may have reached its unignorable peak in last year’s docudrama Selma: the parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Governor George Wallace, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were all played by Brits.

Response: Free Yourself from the Cult of Marlon Brando by Richard Brody at the New Yorker

The best American actors have been overlooked, by critics and peers alike, and Rafferty, in repeating that error today, replicates the misjudgments of years past. As he laments the decline of training—along with what he considers a concomitant decline in “American culture,” which, he says, “isn’t providing a high level of sustenance right now”—Rafferty invokes another spectre that haunts the current cinema, the cult of Marlon Brando. Imbued with serious theatrical training, Brando is cherished for his theatrical impersonations, as in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront,” and “The Godfather,” when, in fact, his greatness is in his person, and shines through most clearly and forcefully in roles that depend least on impersonation—“Guys and Dolls,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Meet Marlon Brando.” Brando was great not because of his theatrical training but despite it. He was trapped in artifice through most of his career, when his mere presence was itself one of the most charismatic and original ever filmed. Brando himself was a living work of art, and most of his famed performances aren’t gilded lilies but gilded paintings. He was pushed to be overpainted, overvarnished, overdecorated, and only a few films of his get close to the true depths of his character—because the technical and theatrical side of his talent was, for the most part, the one that got praised and rewarded, the one for which he was hired.

See also: How Back to the Future Explains the Crisis in American Acting by Sam Wood at Criticwire

Park Effects: The Dark Impact of the $500 Million Jurassic World Weekend by Mark Harris at Grantland

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I’ve started really looking forward to Mark Harris’s pronouncements of doom in the general direction of blockbuster cinema, and he doesn’t disappoint.

For those of us who like the idea of talented indie directors incrementally altering the definition of the mainstream by bringing their perspective, skill, and sensibility to it, this has been a good model — and it’s one that is imperiled by a movie universe in which studios are increasingly defined by their ability to maximize three or four major properties per year with almost everything else being a nonfactor. If Universal can mint money with Furious 7 and Jurassic World in just three months, I would love to imagine that the studio’s internal reaction would be a sense of financial security coupled with confidence that would allow it to take some modest gambles on passion projects and compelling mid-budget movies. But it is just as easy, and more familiar, to imagine a studio saying, “We’re not in that business anymore” — something that I hear publicly almost never, but privately with regularity and bitter resignation.

Before 1915: An Appreciation by Chris Edwards at Silent Volume

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It’s easy to think of pre-1915 cinema as pretty primitive, but Chris Edwards shows it has a lot to offer.

The pre-1915 era of silent filmmaking offered unique opportunities to the artists and craftspeople who worked in it. It was a time of flux, in which the traditions of the stage coexisted, or did battle with, the emerging grammar of filmmaking. In these early silents you can still see a push and pull between the old art form and the new—of which histrionic acting and immobile camerawork are but the most obvious examples. Just as important, and perhaps more interesting, is their mixture of realism and obvious stage fakery. This is something later directors—even later silent-film directors—did away with.

But it can be intriguing.

The Virgin Suicides is a Window into Sofia Coppola’s Fixations by Genevieve Koski at The Dissolve

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One of the last Movies of the Week at the Dissolve was Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. See also the Forum post and this look at Coppola’s use of music in her films. This weekly tri-part feature was essential reading. It’ll be missed.

The use of reflected and refracted images is nothing new in filmmaking, particularly from creators with a visual sensibility as strong as Coppola’s. But the use of window imagery moves beyond an aesthetic choice in Coppola’s films, where it functions on several metaphorical levels as well. Glass windows separate the internal from the external, while allowing those on both sides to see each other, speaking directly to Coppola’s themes of alienation and observation. (Both of which often combine into a related sub-fixation: celebrity.) But perhaps most importantly, they also reflect back on the person who’s doing the observing, creating a ghost image where the internal and external sublimate into a semi-opaque daydream of wishful reality.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) by Danny at Pre-Code.com

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Danny gives a characteristically deep look at one of the best films of Warner’s early 1930s socially conscious period.

The movie itself was released in the heights of the Depression and only a few months after the infamous Bonus Army march that characterized the cluelessness of Herbert Hoover and remains one of the saddest episodes of American cruelty towards its own. Tens of thousands of unemployed veterans marched into Washington to ask for an early redemption of their bonuses promised to them after the First World War, and Hoover responded by sending in the military to disperse them. It resulted in several deaths. There was a palpable sense in the country that the government had abandoned its connection to its citizen and was turning into an unchecked monster.

That paranoia and sadness feeds into I am a Fugitive, and creates one of the hallmark films of the pre-Code era. It’s a plea to be heard, a cry for help in the darkened theaters across the country. It’s a lightning bolt that isn’t just about reforming the corrupt system of punishment for one state, but reminding people to take a had look at the entire apparatus of government and remeber that the government is there to help them, not the other way around. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang created a firestorm in 1932, and has lost none of its fierce power since.

A Few More…

Not Cinema

A World Without Work by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic

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I found this pretty fascinating, both scary and kind of intriguing. I think I’d be mostly artisan/leisure, given the options suggested here.

To paraphrase the science-fiction novelist William Gibson, there are, perhaps, fragments of the post-work future distributed throughout the present. I see three overlapping possibilities as formal employment opportunities decline. Some people displaced from the formal workforce will devote their freedom to simple leisure; some will seek to build productive communities outside the workplace; and others will fight, passionately and in many cases fruitlessly, to reclaim their productivity by piecing together jobs in an informal economy. These are futures of consumption, communal creativity, and contingency. In any combination, it is almost certain that the country would have to embrace a radical new role for government.

Marvel Comics Officially Reveals 45 Titles That Will Start After Secret Wars by Susana Polo

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I’ve never been a dedicated Marvel reader, but I’m thinking of picking up a few when they start this reboot this fall. That said, I did this with DC when they started the New 52 and now we’re down to only reading one DC comic (Batman). We’ll see how this goes.

What we do know is that the post-Secret Wars titles will pick up eight months after the end of the events of the crossover, and they’ll be coming out sometime this fall. Marvel’s been slowly announcing their new lineup (for example, the Ultimate Marvel universe’s Miles Morales will headline Spider-man this fall), but this preview has given us a tantalizing look at the young X-Men on a road trip, a mystery Hulk, Scarlet Witch in her first ongoing series, Squirrel Girl on an Avengers team, and a heavily pregnant Spider-Woman.

The Ottoman Empire and the History of Greek Debt by David A. Graham at The Atlantic

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I don’t know enough about economics or Europe to really know what all’s going on with Greece right now, but as a history buff, I found this interesting and something I hadn’t really thought about before.

If you look at old maps of Europe, the Balkan Peninsula is included, but it’s labeled as Turkey. That’s because there was no independent Greece from the time of the Roman conquest of the country until the 1820s; some parts of modern-day Greece were under Ottoman control into the 20th century. Greek-speaking Ottoman subjects anchored their identity to religion and the Orthodox church, rather than to national identity, and thought of themselves more as Roman than as Hellenic, Molly Greene, a professor of history and Hellenic studies at Princeton, told me. Their cultural center would have been not now-dusty Athens but cosmopolitan Constantinople.

How to Fix What’s Wrong With Game of Thrones by Charlie Jane Anders at io9

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This hits pretty close to the issues I’ve had with Game of Thrones this year. As an adjunct, see this article on why rape scenes are usually lazy writing.

But this year, some major characters felt like they were twisting in the wind, somewhat. Sansa Stark comes to mind — the first half of the season, she’s built up as on the track to become Littlefinger Jr., another master manipulator and brilliant schemer. And then (Oops!) she marries Ramsay Bolton, and gets rolled back to Sansa 1.0, the victim we saw back in seasons two and three.

Is the point here that Sansa overestimated her own resourcefulness? Or that trying to be Littlefinger is just a terrible idea? In any case, part of the reason why Sansa’s suffering in the latter episodes was so hard to watch was simply because it felt like a bait-and-switch, in terms of character development. […]

I guess the unifying thing about all of these situations is that they’re about servicing plot development, rather than character development. The show needs Daenerys, Tyrion, Jaime and Sansa to get from A to B, in order to set up plot developments, and so they’re being pushed around the board. Some of this comes from Martin’s books, but a lot of it comes from the show’s own exigencies.

The 10 Coolest Things from E3 That Weren’t Video Game Sequels by Laura Hudson at Offworld

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Definitely some stuff to look forward to here outside of the usual sequel cycle. Polygon also calls it the best E3 in years.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Dystopian futures are a dime a dozen these days, but what about a dystopian future where you fight robot dinosaurs? In this post-apocalyptic world, humans have lost all of the technology we take for granted, and are hunting once again with bows and arrows. The people of yesteryear (read: us) are known as “the Old Ones,” an advanced civilization lost to a mysterious darkness… and then overtaken by robot dinosaurs. Listen, it’s not important why. It’s important that robot dinosaurs. Watch the trailer, and see if you don’t want to keep playing when it finishes. Bonus points to Sony for going the extra mile and using a female protagonist, even though it seemed risky to them.

A Few More…

Image of the Week

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With TCM doubling down on film noir this summer (which I’m enjoying on every level), their Movie Morlocks blog took the opportunity to have a little Fun with Film Noir Posters. This is one of my favorites. Aurora got in on the fun, too.

Video of the Week

So I actually haven’t seen the real Inside Out trailer because I don’t watch trailers for movies I’m planning to see (and I haven’t seen the movie yet because I have a toddler – and she’s not old enough for the movies yet), but now I don’t know if I could, because this is Nelson Carvajal-edited mashup with the Inception music is too perfect.

Also, RIP Omar Sharif. One of the best entrances in cinema history.