My top flips into my Flipboard magazines this week, whether the articles are new or old. Read more of my magazines at my Flipboard profile. This one’s been several weeks coming, so I apologize, as usual, that some of the articles are a few weeks old. Hopefully there are some that have slipped your radar.
Whenever a celebrity dies, people take to social media to express shock, sadness, indifference, etc. – but it affects us, even though we don’t actually know the person at all. Matt Brown examines this phenomenon and the phenomenon of stardom itself. See also: Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny takes on the tendency to snark at celebrity death.
A movie star is a person in name only, because their entire role in our culture is to be something else: a brand, an archetype, a projection (literally). An incarnation of Us Up There, where “Up There” is the silver screen and the myriad worlds beyond it. A million iterations of, again, the universe where we won and everything’s great.
And this, of course, is why the absolute worst thing a movie star can do to us is die.
An unexpected celebrity death is the greatest single betrayal of the entire system upon which movie stardom is based. This isn’t the movie star’s fault. The flaw is in various parts of the system; in the glittering fantasy that movie stardom rests upon in the first place, and in the essential fact that as a culture, we’re just really, really, really bad at dealing with the fact that every single one of us really is going to really die. (Really.)
Kristin Thompson looks at Gravity as an experimental film with an effective bare-bones story, just enough narrative to make audiences comfortable with it. She situates her analysis within the approach she and David Bordwell have made about classical narrative structures in most of their books (both together and individually), which is an analytic approach I like a lot and I think works well for this film. See also Part 2.
David [Bordwell] and I have often claimed that Hollywood cinema has a certain tolerance for novelty, innovation, and even experiment, but that such departures from convention are usually accompanied by a strong classical story to motivate the strangeness for popular audiences. Gravity has such a story, though Cuarón is remarkably successful at minimizing its prominence. The film’s construction privileges excitement, suspense, rapid action, and the universally remarked-upon sense of immersion alongside the character in a situation of disorienting weightlessness and constant change.
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This is the story of the end of an era. For 100 years, movies had been shot on this – celluloid. Paper-thin, shiny, perforated. A medium so sensitive it could capture the subtle colors in snow. But in the ’90s, the digital image and Terminator 2 came and reality got less real. In these last days before that happened, as if to stave off the moment when the link between reality and movies would finally be broken, filmmakers around the world made passionate movies about emotions not spaceships or other worlds.
In this first of two episodes devoted to the 1990s, Cousins highlights the humanist dramas and insistence on realism that characterize a lot of non-American film in the 1990s. According to Cousins’ interview with Robert Osborne, the ’20s and the ’90s are his two favorite eras, because of the great diversity and innovation found there. Of course, he’s talking about anything but mainstream Hollywood cinema in the ’90s, which were, as Robert pointed out, full of remakes and formula films. Instead, this episode will take us to Iran, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, and France, while Episode 14 will focus on the American independents like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.
Chapter 13 is more polemical than most of the episodes in its fierce defense of filmmakers using film (the actual medium) to capture human themes, which Cousins continually contrasts to the digital revolution on the horizon. He is so tied to this theme that it makes for some really weird comparisons, including a repeated offhanded vitriol toward The Lord of the Rings movies. Even though I appreciate the films he’s talking about here and am really interested in seeing many of them, his apparent hatred of hobbits and the fantasy cinema they stand in for makes this episode a little repellant to those of us who rather like some fantasy films mixed in with our human dramas.
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[Showcasing the best and highlighting the newest additions to the various streaming services, including but not limited to Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, and Amazon Prime.]
Growing up, I saw many of the classic Disney films – Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, etc. – but as a child my favorite one was without a doubt the 1973 version of Robin Hood, with a foxy Robin Hood and Maid Marian, a petulant shorn lion as Prince John, and various other characters given appropriate animal form. I didn’t know it at the time, but Disney was in recycle mode here, not even bothering to disguise the re-use of Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book as Little John, or the King of the Animals from Bedknobs and Broomsticks as the ineffective Prince John. Sometimes there’s something to be said for ignorance, and my childhood glee at watching and rewatching this film is something that will never escape me. I’ve heard others who saw this film first as adults say that they didn’t like it much at all, but I’ll never be able to watch it without nostalgia glasses, I guess. Thankfully, Jonathan feels the same way about it, so at least I have one very important person on my side. If you do have kids who are into adventure but may not quite be ready for the 1938 Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood quite yet, give the Disney version a try. It’s a good stepping stone, and they won’t know that it falls into Disney’s “lazy” period.
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In the 1980s, greed is good. Conservative idealogues tell false stories about life and love. Innovative filmmakers spoke back to them – speaking truth to power.
This is one of the most politically-charged episodes in The Story of Film, as Cousins positions the innovative filmmaking in the 1980s as political protests against the establishment, specifically against conservative regimes. I’m a moderate conservative myself, so I took this episode with a grain of salt ideologically, but I won’t argue that the side of the ’80s he’s chosen to portray certainly support his theme. On the other hand, after three episodes in the ’70s, he only spends one in the ’80s, and avoids many facets of that decade that would run counter to his thesis. I suppose he wouldn’t consider those films to be innovative enough to figure in the Story of Film.
Anyway, Cousins surveys world cinema in the ’80s, looking for patterns of protest and the different forms that protest took, and for what he’s going for, it works pretty well. He starts with China and the rise of the Fifth Generation, a of filmmakers who started making films in the mid to late 1980s protesting against the state-approved dramas of the Cultural Revolution. This sounds like I know something about Chinese cinema, but I don’t – I just looked that up on Wikipedia. Cousins assumed “Fifth Generation” was self-explanatory, I guess. Filmmakers like Tian Zhuagzhuang, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou were interested in Chinese history, in the lives of ordinary, rural people, and in the power of the image itself. Cousins makes a few comments about how some particular thing in their films is very “un-Maoist” or explains how it would’ve been in Maoist cinema. I realize I’m woefully ignorant of Chinese cinema beyond enjoying Zhang’s costume dramas, but seeing some of this Maoist cinema to be able to understand exactly what these filmmakers were doing differently would’ve helped me a lot in this section.
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Categories: Featured, Film
[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for this week's episode.]
“I have my finger on the pulse of America.” – William Friedkin.
“These nine words killed the complexity of New Hollywood.” – Cousins.
After an episode on New Hollywood and one on the national identity-themed films from around the world, you’d think the 1970s would be tapped out, but not so – this is an incredibly diverse and interesting decade in film history, and this episode covers popular cinema of the ’70s with Hong Kong kung fu, Bollywood epics, and the beginnings of the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a fun episode, filled with action and films most people already know, but with commentary that helps fit them into the overall story of film. Of course, some will accuse Cousins of again being anti-Hollywood in this episode, but I’m not really bothered. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, he gives mainstream cinema of the ’70s a lot of props for being remarkably innovative, though in the episode he does point out how these innovative films set the stage for several decades of derivative mainstream films.
First, we go to Hong Kong and flashback to the 1950s, when the Shaw brothers became the first big name in Hong Kong cinema. Under the direction of King Hu, the kung fu film was really born – even if Cousins hadn’t made the connection, it’s pretty hard to miss the influence of A Touch of Zen on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the combination of a historical, romantic story, ethereal mysticism, and beautiful, choreographed floating fight scenes. Then comes Enter the Dragon, with the explosive physicality of Bruce Lee. Cousins points out that Lee’s films are shot with wide angles and long takes, so you can see the fights play out in real time, and then jumps to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which cuts often and uses various focal lengths, showing action and reaction in brief snapshots. So apparently we can blame John Woo for the frenetic editing that plagues action cinema today. I kid. But not really. I’d much prefer the Lee style of shooting for fight scenes.
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