Category Archives: The Roundup

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The Roundup: February 19, 2015

Cinema

Why No One is Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Feature Film by Godfrey Cheshire at Vulture

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When I first saw this article’s headline, I tweeted something snarky about Birth of a Nation not being the first feature film. That’s still true and I still think this is a dumb headline for the article, but I have to apologize for assuming the article didn’t have merit based on the title, because the rest of the article is really great – a discussion of Birth of a Nation‘s origins and initial reception, a thoughtful treatment of both its offensive content and incredible technical achievements, and some good insight into whether and how it should be seen today.

My own thoughts on these questions involve a recollection of teaching Birth a few years ago to a class of bright undergraduates at a Southern university, as part of a survey course on the history of film. Aware that young viewers today are notoriously resistant to anything old, black-and-white, and (especially) silent, I was expecting yawns and annoyed fidgeting. Instead, the film — its hypnotic power intact after nearly a century — held the class riveted for three hours, few students even taking bathroom breaks. Afterward, I asked: Should this movie be shown today, in this class or anywhere? Some white students, shocked and embarrassed by the film, said it shouldn’t be shown, at all. African-American and Asian students, on the other hand, felt just the opposite, saying it must be seen — as widely as possible.

Bombast: Lizabeth Scott by Nick Pinkerton at Film Comment

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I admit to only having seen a couple of Lizabeth Scott films, but reading a few eulogies after her death last week has convinced me I ought to see more – particularly Pitfall.

Lizabeth Scott is an actress who always made an impression on me, through the fact of her existential presence if nothing else. Scott was a blonde. Not usually a platinum blonde, though she photographed that way, for her time in pictures was a great time—maybe the great time—for brunettes. She had a heavy sculptural brow, wide-set eyes, almost impossibly symmetrical features, a broad mouth that turned down ever so slightly at the corners, and, her calling card, a deep, damask-plush burr of a voice. Even when playing light comedy, Scott betrayed a close acquaintance with dolor. Commenting on the characters in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (46), one of them played by Scott, a young Manny Farber wrote that they “act as if there were no evil that hadn’t been imposed on them.”

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The Roundup: February 10

Cinema

Ten Films to Watch Before Inherent Vice by Robbie Collin at the Telegraph

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Literally every little thing I read about Inherent Vice makes me more eager to see it, no matter how many of my friends and acquaintances come away saying it incoherent (and thus terrible). This list of things that in some way influenced it (or at least, are helpful for understanding it) are mostly things I love. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek look, too, at how the film manages to become one of the most walked-out-of this year.

They’re worth looking up, because if you plan on seeing Inherent Vice, or even if you’ve already seen it, you’ll need all the help you can get. Watching Anderson’s film is a deeply confusing experience – and that’s exactly as it should be, because deep confusion is its subject. In the early Seventies, America was a country of riots, murderous cults, high-profile overdoses, backroom deals and the emerging horror of Vietnam. A tide of “bad craziness”, as Hunter S Thompson called it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was washing up the beach.

So when Joaquin Phoenix’s dope-puffing private investigator Doc Sportello can’t make sense of a byzantine case in which one conspiracy seems to bleed into the next, it’s not rank incompetence: it’s just a reflection of the national mood. But if you’re prepared to spend a little time with the rascals, outcasts, babes and bozos below, you might find it easier to find your way around the strange goings-on in Anderson’s film. Not because the solution to Doc’s case is contained within – but because its total lack of one starts to make a bleary kind of sense.

Masters of Screwball, Part 1: Sturges Before Sturges by David Kalat at Movie Morlocks

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I love David Kalat’s writing style, and hopefully he keeps going on this screwball comedy series for a long while. I’m not a huge fan of Easy Living, but after glancing through this I definitely want to give it another look.

Problem is, now she’s up a fur coat, a hat, and a ride to work but down a job. That’s because the harridan spinsters (I did mention them, right?) see her richy new wardrobe and assume the only way some strange man would buy her all that nice stuff was if he was getting something (or rather, getting some) in return. And since that kind of behavior isn’t compatible with the moral character of this upstanding Christian magazine, she’s out.

Of course it’s here that everything goes all wonky. Within 48 hours she will be living a life of unimaginable luxury, wealthy and famous, with a loving husband, a powerful benefactor, and everything she’s ever wanted–all because of the same assumptions that led the harridan spinsters to reject her. One by one, everyone she meets draws the same insulting conclusion about what she’s done to get that coat–and then, for their own selfish calculations, proceed to reward her in new ways.

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The Roundup: February 2, 2015

Cinema

The Palm Beach Story: Love in a Warm Climate by Stephanie Zacharek at Criterion

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Once in a while I come upon a piece of writing that I love so much that I get depressed because I know I’ll never be able to write like that. This is one of those. It’s not just the depths of meaning that Zacharek gets out of what seems like a fairly slight film, but the turns of phrase that I simply would never think of – like this description of Claudette Colbert.

But it’s Colbert, of course, who lights the movie from within, giving it so many of its colors. Through the thirties and forties, there were plenty of stars who equaled or perhaps even surpassed Colbert in physical beauty, but there were few who were so alight with life. Those apple cheekbones, so gorgeously prominent that they arrive on the scene a fraction of a second before the rest of her does, those quizzically arched eyebrows—if there’s such a thing as beauty that speaks of intelligence, Colbert has it. Her voice is the sound of laughter in waiting—you never know when it’s going to bubble up through the surface. And her physicality goes far beyond being a willowy hanger for gorgeous gowns: Gerry has to board that train without a suitcase, which means she has no sleepwear. A jovial Ale and Quail type lends her a pair of silk pajamas, five sizes too big and featuring jumbo circus stripes. Trekking from car to car, searching for a quiet place to sleep, she flops around in them, an haute couture Dopey. Her carriage is elegant even when she’s tripping over her pant legs.

Tumbling Into the Screen: How watching movies with my daughter changed the way I thought about film by Dana Stevens at Slate

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With my own toddler starting to grow into patterns of favorite movies, I’m endlessly curious about how older children relate to movies and to their movie-obsessed parents. This is a great piece by Dana Stevens about her daughter’s moviewatching modes and how they’ve affected Stevens’ own way of thinking about movies.

Watching P. grow into a very different kind of watcher than I am—less passive and analytic, more collaborative and engaged—has been a welcome stripping away of my own viewing habits and assumptions. I’d long presumed films should be watched from beginning to end; she’s happy to keep returning to one beloved scene, or watch a musical song by song, skipping all the dialogue in between, or watch the first half-hour of 101 Dalmatians 10 nights in a row. (In her defense, that is a killer half-hour.) I consider seeing a movie in the theater and then talking about it over dessert to be the ideal outing; she professes to find theatrical projection unbearably loud, so if I really want her to see something on the big screen (as with The Lego Movie), I have to drag her, using the dessert part as bait. I’ve always sought out cinematic novelty as a viewer, so my instinct as a parent is to continue expanding the list of movies we can watch together. But as a film-watcher the normally sensation-seeking P. is a homebody, preferring the cyclical repetition of a dozen or so favorites to the introduction of new titles. I collect movies, sort them, interrogate them for their meaning and artistic value. She ransacks them for pleasure, inspiration, and what a standup comic would call “material.”

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The Roundup: January 19

A bit late this week, but in case you missed it, I was busy writing my own posts this week! One about Five Graves to Cairo, and one returning to the American Movie Critics book with Ryan McNeil. So check those out and also, all of these. :)

Cinema

Lights, Camera, Taking Action by Manohla Dargis at the New York Times

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The state of women in Hollywood doesn’t seem to be improving very much, and may even be worsening if you compare stats on female filmmakers and characters in 2014 to stats from fifteen years ago. Manohla Dargis talked to a bunch of people who are trying to do something about it with a variety of approaches. She also collected some quotes from female filmmakers about working in the industry here as a supporting document. Meanwhile, Monika Bartyzel used her Girls on Film column last week to discuss the ways that female filmmakers still do need powerful allies.

American commercial cinema has long been dominated by men, but I don’t think there has ever been another time when women have been as underrepresented on screen as they are now. The biggest problem isn’t genuinely independent cinema, where lower budgets mean more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. The problem is the six major studios that dominate the box office, the entertainment chatter and the popular imagination. Their refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women. The barriers that female directors confront are numerous, substantial, structural and ideological, which is why activists are attacking biases on a number of fronts.

How Much Does a Hollywood Oscar Campaign Cost by Stephen Follows

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This is just…wow. I’ve already eschewed the Oscars as pretty irrelevant for years, but this is really just the nail in the coffin. The most brilliant and groundbreaking film in the world couldn’t win an Oscar if it didn’t have $10 million in the budget for an Oscar campaign. As a side note, if an Oscar win only nets a $3 million box office bump, I wonder if these economics will last much longer anyway? I suppose the prestige boost is worth something, but how much?

Estimates for the total amount Hollywood spends on Oscar campaigns each year range from $100m up to $500m. True figures are hard to come by so it’s tricky to know what’s true and what is carefully placed rumours by Hollywood friends, enemies and frenemies.

In 2002, the New York Times reported that “the most aggressive studios have mounted campaigns that by some estimates have already cost more than $10 million, easily double what a successful effort totaled only two years ago”. That’s twice the average cost of winning a seat in Congress.

Many non-studio films find themselves priced out of the running.

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The Roundup: January 12

Cinema

Film Fact-Checking is Here to Stay So Let’s Agree on Some New Rules by Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post

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The biggest controversy this week has been over the acclaimed film Selma and its possible distortion of history in its portrayal of LBJ’s role in the Selma protests led by Martin Luther King Jr and other black activists. This plays into the whole cottage industry of fact-checking that has sprung up, which hits everything from historical dramas like Selma to science fiction like Interstellar. Ann Hornaday has one of the best takes on the fact-checking trend as a whole, arguing for educated viewers who are capable of dealing with the fact that movies aren’t always 100% accurate and the reasons for those differences are the important thing, not the differences themselves. Many writers have come down fully on the side of artistic license (Bilge Ebiri at Vulture, Sam Adams at Indiewire, and Elaine Tang at the New Republic), but as a history buff myself, I personally like Andrew O’Hehir’s more moderate approach. I do think historical accuracy matters; it’s not just something that should be tossed aside lightly. But I also think films often gloss over or shift historical fact to get at larger truths in completely valid ways, and fact-checkers need to appreciate that.

But viewers have responsibilities, too. If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths.

The correct question isn’t what Selma “gets wrong” about Johnson or King or the civil rights movement, but whether we are sophisticated enough as viewers and thinkers to hold two ideas at once: that we’re not watching history, but a work of art that was inspired and animated by history. That we’re having an emotional and aesthetic experience, not a didactic one. That the literalistic critiques of historians and witnesses can co-exist — fractiously, but ultimately usefully — with the kind of inspiration, beauty and transformative power that the very best cinema such as “Selma” can provide.

Godard’s Best Picture Win: When a Critics Group Dares to Break With Critical Consensus by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire

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When I saw the headlines that Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language had won the National Society of Film Critics’ award, I was like, “huh, that’s weird” – followed by “kinda cool, though!” Turns out most people were as bewildered as I was, but not as pleased, as award-predicting sites quickly called out the NSFC as irrelevant and attention-seeking, suggesting that a critics’ award that doesn’t play into the Oscar race is pointless. Which is, let’s just call things what they are, horseshit. Jason Bailey lays out the arguments well. Meanwhile, Indiewire’s Sam Adams comes down strongly arguing that critics’ awards SHOULDN’T be relevant to the Oscar race, and Film School Rejects’ Scott Beggs points out that awards season itself is pretty irrelevant, since there are too many good movies in a year for awards to recognize all of them.

Twelve major critics groups have called Boyhood the year’s best film. Birdman took the big prize from seven other groups; The Grand Budapest Hotel, two. What would another Boyhood win have added to the conversation — about that movie, or about the year in movies? Little to nothing. What does a prize for Goodbye to Language add to those conversations? A great deal. It draws attention, at least among those paying attention, to a difficult, challenging, off-the-map film from a living legend (and one who, as Hitfix’s Kristopher Tapley notes, has never won that prize before). And, perhaps more importantly, it notes that this was not just a great year for movies, but a diverse one, where — contrary to the previous month of awards and prognostications — there were more than three to five films worth celebrating.

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