Category Archives: The Roundup

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The Roundup: August 27

Cinema

Zip Zero Zeitgeist by David Bordwell at Observations on Film Art and Of Apes and Men by Max O’Connell at Criticwire

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This is a point-counter-point set of articles. I rarely disagree with David Bordwell, as he’s one of my academic heroes and most of the time I’m just sitting at the feet of his blog essays in awe, but this one struck even me as a bit overextended, and it didn’t take long for me to find Max’s response, which articulates many of the same things I was thinking but hadn’t quite put into words. Bordwell is right to point out that a lot of zeitgeist claims are lazy and poorly supported, but saying that certain movies don’t speak particularly well to certain cultural moments (a thing we can see even more clearly in retrospect) is rather strange.

BORDWELL:

Critics seem to assume that if a film is successful at the box office, it must reflect the audience’s inner life. Yet the sheer fact of a movie’s popularity doesn’t prove that these attitudes are out there. Just because Spider-Man (2002) was a huge success doesn’t mean that it offers us access to America’s national mood or hidden anxieties. People spend time with a piece of mass art for many reasons: to kill an idle hour, to meet with friends, to find out what all the fuss is about. After the encounter, consumers often dislike the art work to some degree, or they remain indifferent to it. Since people must buy the movie ticket before they experience the movie, there can’t be a simple correlation between mass sales and mass mood.

MCCONNELL:

That said, some of Bordwell’s arguments against using films as a lens into the cultural zeitgeist are, frankly, bizarre. Bordwell is correct when he writes that there’s no way that even a film striving to capture a nation’s attitude about a subject can capture all of the attitudes about it, but the best reply to that would be, “…and?” Of course Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t reflect everyone’s thoughts about consumerist culture, but Bordwell’s argument that a film trying to tap into the zeitgeist is “really the Zeitgeist as [a filmmaker] understands it” reduces that Romero is tapping into one widely-held attitude about consumerism. The same goes for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies in the 80s: the jingoistic attitude might not fall in line with the dissenters to Reagan’s foreign policy, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that they didn’t capture something that a great deal of Americans thoughts about the treatment of veterans, the idea that Vietnam could have been won, and that the Middle East was the territory of freedom fighters against the hard oppression of the Soviets (an attitude that would shift in the next decade). Multiple perspectives don’t negate the possibility that art can capture a widespread attitude, and “national psyche” doesn’t mean “homogenous psyche.”

Kirk Douglas Remembers Lauren Bacall by Kirk Douglas in the Hollywood Reporter

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This is simply a lovely tribute from Kirk Douglas to Lauren Bacall.

It’s hard to lose a friend, especially one with whom you have shared your dreams and your journey. In the case of Betty Bacall, I also lost my lucky charm — the girl who believed in me enough to talk Hal Wallis into giving me a Hollywood career. That was my first lesson in helping others without looking for thanks. I will continue to think about her whenever I put it into practice.

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The Roundup: August 18

Cinema

Let’s Be Real: Let’s Be Cops, Cop Movies, and the Shooting in Ferguson by Wesley Morris at Grantland

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There’s been little on Twitter for the past week besides the turmoil in Ferguson, and we’re not the end of it yet. Meanwhile, pop culture continues anyway, though the producers of Let’s Be Cops might wish they could reconsider their release date. Wesley Morris’s essay (it’s not a review, in the strictest sense, though there is criticism here) combines cinema and history in the making in a way that’s not often seen, and it excellent on both fronts. There’s been more ink spilled on Ferguson already than I could possibly round up, but I also found this article from RogerEbert.com’s Far-Flung Correspondent Omer M. Mozaffar to be very compelling reading.

All movies choose their moment. It’s called a release date. Some moments, however, choose their movies. And it looks as if the moment has chosen Let’s Be Cops. But let’s be clear: No one should choose this movie. It’s a title in search of a plot. It could also have been called Let’s Be Funnier, Let’s Be Directed, Let’s Be 15 to 30 Minutes Shorter, Let’s Be 22 Jump Street. Right now, though, this is our only movie starring law enforcement run amok, at a moment when much of the nation is outraged that actual law enforcement is doing the same.

Lauren Bacall: 1924-2014 by Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com

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When the news of Lauren Bacall’s death hit last week just one day after Robin Williams’ death, I mentioned on Twitter that as tragic as Williams’ death was, Bacall’s hit me in a deeper place, not because dying at 89 of a stroke is even comparably tragic compared to dying at 62 of suicide, but merely because Bacall and her movies meant more to me personally. I grew up on classic film, and the films of Bogart and Bacall in particular were central to me in much the same way I assume Williams’ films were central to people of my generation who grew up watching contemporary film. In any case, because of that personal bias, I admit that I have read very few of the articles eulogizing Williams, and very many of the articles eulogizing Bacall, and that is why I have one and not the other on this Roundup. This particular one from Dan Callahan is lovely, evocative, and acknowledges Bacall’s insecurities. This one by Karen of Shadows and Satin focuses on Bacall’s early career with just as much warmth, love and insight. And this one by NPR’s Linda Holmes discusses Bacall’s inimical ability to convey sex without sex. I also enjoyed reading tributes from Jennifer Garlan, Noel Murray, Glenn Kenny, and photo and quote galleries from Carly Johnson and Kimberly Lindbergs.

Bacall walks with feline grace in “To Have and Have Not,” and part of what makes her so distinctive and touching in that movie is the just noticeable strain she is under to perform and act more than her age. She manages all of that with style, with aplomb, and the picture was a triumph for her, as was “The Big Sleep.” And then some! Her Slim in “To Have and Have Not” and particularly her Vivian Rutledge in “The Big Sleep” are flawless fantasy creations, all lush hair and pouting lip and smart, poking attitude. Bacall and Bogart in those movies make the lead-up to sex, the jabs and put-ons and badinage, seem just as much fun as the no-doubt satisfying sex itself.

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The Roundup: August 12

Seems like every time I think I won’t have enough good articles for the Roundup, I end up having WAY TOO MANY. Ah, well. Enjoy this supersized edition.

Cinema

The Death of Film/Decay of Cinema at 15: A Conversation with Godfrey Cheshire by Matt Zoller Seitz and Geoffrey Cheshire at Roger Ebert.com

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This is a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation between two thoughtful film critics about the present and future of cinema – it’s based to some degree on Cheshire’s influential prophetic articles from 1999 about digital cinema, but they follow the conversation where it goes, and its a pretty great read. It was difficult to choose which section to quote, and I’m still not sure I picked the best part.

And once you had cinema, of course, it became very much that way, where it was like going to the temple or something. It was very ritualized in a way, whereas I said that in my article in saying what I was predicting was that it would reverse again, and people would often stay at home to watch the serious things that demanded concentration, that they used to go to the movie theatre for, and people in theatres would be acting more like they used to watch TV, talking and joking and paying attention to other things, being distracted. That’s exactly what’s happened. And it really is interesting, the extent to which it has. Movies, when you and I were younger and really got into them—and especially the movies that were visually so impressive: The Godfathers and 2001s were really immersive experiences—those were things where you went into the theater and were totally absorbed by that experience. You weren’t thinking about anything else, or the person next to you. You were completely unaware of anything else except being completely absorbed in that image.

Girls on Film: Why Audiences Are Responsible for the Future of Cinema by Monika Bartyzel at The Week

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This is one of those pieces that feels obvious and revelatory at the same time, with a great call to action to support smaller and less tentpole-y films. I’m not particularly optimistic about it, since the kind of people who will read an article like this, much less act on it, make up a pretty small percentage of the overall audience, but I definitely appreciate Monika’s sentiment, and I hope to follow through on it to some degree once we’re actually going to films regularly again.

Today, Hollywood studios focus almost solely on the blockbuster, and everything else is deemed an “indie film” — a gelatinous designation that holds none of the power of huge advertising budgets and tentpole culture. To break through, an indie can’t just be good; it has to be amazing. A crappy action film can generally make its money back, but a diverse piece of indie cinema must be so good that it inspires critics and audiences to band together and praise it to the top.

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The Roundup: July 29

Cinema

I Killed At the Movies by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club

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I confess that I’ve never watched At the Movies in any of its incarnations, even when Siskel (or Roeper) and Ebert were on it, yet I was fascinated by Vishnevetsky’s account not only of his brief tenure on the show, but of the entire history of the show and why it was set up the way it was, right down to set design and camera angles. It’s about more than just At the Movies, it’s about the business of television. And, of course, it’s a remarkably candid look at Vishnevetsky’s apparent failure in that business without bitterness or even regret, at least not in a negative way.

I never master these skills, because I am the wrong man for the job. When Ebert Presents: At The Movies goes on the air in January of 2011, I am 24, far and away the youngest host in the format’s history. I have improbably beaten out smarter, more qualified candidates (one of whom will win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) after several rounds of auditions. I’d like to believe that I’m a strong critic and writer and a capable speaker, but I can’t seem to figure out a way to get ideas into broadcast without coming off as a shill or a dick. Frustrated, I fall back on cliches I’d never use in conversation or writing. Christy Lemire, who has extensive TV experience and a more easygoing writing style, is a natural, and I’m the kid who keeps interrupting her.

The Essential Fritz Lang by Greg Ferrera at Movie Morlocks

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Sort of following on Greg’s article I shared last week, about what film should be your SECOND film from major directors – this one ponders the idea that maybe a director’s best-known film isn’t actually the one that’s most representative of his/her overall body of work. He takes Fritz Lang as an example, arguing that M, Fury, and others are more quintessentially “Lang” than Metropolis. I fully agree with this, and it applies to other directors as well. It doesn’t mean Metropolis is less essential in the abstract, just that it doesn’t display Lang’s particular preoccupations quite as clearly as several of his other films.

On an upcoming installment of The Essentials, hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore, TCM presents Metropolis, the 1926 Fritz Lang classic about a dystopian future that was very much about 1926 instead of the future in the same way M*A*S*H was about Vietnam much more than it was about Korea. The movie is easily Fritz Lang’s most well known. It is also quite the essential if “essential” in this case is defined as a movie one must see to further complete an education on cinema, to be able to say, “Yes, I’m a classic movies fan.” But is it essential to understanding Fritz Lang?

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The Roundup: July 16, 2014

Cinema

The 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters of All Time Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 at The Dissolve

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I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read through the Dissolve’s Blockbuster series yet, but I did read a couple of the articles that it inspired, as contributors mused on why they voted the way they did and what exactly makes a blockbuster – is it box office take? Budget? Perception? NPR’s Chris Klimek discusses his choices and how he has trouble considering comedies to be blockbusters, then Matt Singer back at the Dissolve riffs off Chris’s piece, suggesting that the blockbuster is really a state of mind (sort of). I definitely think of blockbuster as more a KIND of film rather than a description of box-office take, which is where Singer basically ends up. On a slightly tangential note, this article from Grantland’s Alex Pappademas about self-loathing summer movies is a good read.

Blockbusters have become such an integral part of the way we talk about films that it’s hard to believe they haven’t always been with us. But while there have always been big movies—lavish productions designed to draw crowds and command repeat business—the blockbuster as we know it has a definite start date: June 20, 1975. That’s when Jaws first hit screens in the middle of what was once, in the words of The Financial Times, a “low season” when the “only steady summer dollars came, in the U.S., from drive-in theaters.” It’s summer, after all; why go to the movies when you could be outside? Jaws changed that. Star Wars cemented that change. And now, the summer-movie season is dominated by the biggest films Hollywood has to offer.

PG Should Not Equal Inferior by Rich at Wide Screen World

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I was literally JUST saying this on Twitter last week. There have been a few articles recently about PG-13 and how it’s kind of taken over the marketplace, and they’re generally accompanied by a call for more films to go ahead and go for the R rating, with the undercurrent that R-rated films are for adults and adults should go to R-rated films. Rich points out exactly what I think, which is that it’s really PG that needs more love. PG was supposed to be for films that were appropriate for children, but really meant for adults. Why does a film meant for adults HAVE to have language, sex, and/or violence to be adult-centric? I mean, sure, if those things are important to the story or genre, I’m not averse to them, but the “R is for adults” mindset pushes for those things to be included merely to get that rating, which is so backwards to me.

I do think it’s unfortunate that market demands have prevented adult PG films from being economically viable. Sure, nudity and profanity may make a movie look more like real life, but in creative terms, it’s easy, and after using it time and again, it loses its impact. Not every movie needs it that badly. So if we must have ratings in American films, I say that instead of eliminating the PG-13, let’s strengthen the PG instead, by investing in adult films that don’t rely on sex and violence. It would open up an under-served audience that’s fed up with modern movies, and it would do away with the stigma associated with PG films, a stigma it didn’t earn and doesn’t deserve.

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