Category Archives: The Roundup

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The Roundup: June 30, 2014

Cinema

Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and the Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Happiest Couple by Matthew Dessem at The Dissolve

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This is a great piece of writing – well-researched, sourced, informative, interesting, and highly readable. I’ve long wondered if the increase in cynicism in Wilder’s work coincided closely with his switch in writing partners from Brackett to Diamond for a reason, and it looks like it did. I’m pretty interested to read Brackett’s journals when they’re published this fall.

Brackett emerges from his own pages as a sort of platonic ideal of WASPishness: observant, hyperliterate, reserved, snobbish, fiercely loyal. And on almost every page is Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, Brackett’s collaborator, rival, friend, and opponent. His day-by-day account of their work together gives a fascinating portrait of their partnership, at least from Brackett’s perspective, and one of the most detailed accounts of any artistic partnership ever. Wilder once told biographer Charlotte Chandler that “a good writing collaboration is more difficult to achieve than a good marriage. And it’s more intimate.” Brackett’s diaries reveal just how apt that comparison was. Over the years the two men worked together, they came to know each other better than anyone else ever would. And when the end came for Brackett and Wilder, it came with guilt and recrimination, jealousy and betrayal.

Can Indie Directors Avoid Disappearing Into the Studio System? by Landon Palmer at Film School Rejects

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Rian Johnson landing the gig as director of Star Wars Episode VIII is pretty awesome on two levels – it’s validation for his skill and great for his exposure (and bankability) as a director, and it means that Star Wars VIII will hopefully be solid – and less exciting on a third: it means he likely won’t have time to do more quirky, idiosyncratic films like Brick, The Brothers Bloom or Looper for a while at least. Or maybe ever. Landon’s observation here is that these days it seems that indie directors who hit it big and start making big studio films end up never returning to smaller films (the “one for them, one for me” mentality of Steven Soderbergh and others seems to be fading). Now, he’s ignoring the one-two punch of Whedon’s Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing, but he’s spot on about one thing, at least, and that’s the way filmmaking is splitting into two tracks – megabudgeted Hollywood blockbusters and microbudgeted indies. The mid-range non-franchised studio-supported film is dying out.

I am by no means saying that such directors are selling out, or that any of these filmmakers have some sort of prescribed duty to take on more personal and riskier projects. They aren’t and they don’t. But it is notable that directors who make a mark upon the independent scene rarely show evidence of “cashing out” after directing hugely successful studio projects. Instead, they dig their heels deeper into the studio machine, and not only stand to benefit greatly from it, but seek to become major players within it by seating themselves as a major source of direction for these franchises’ greater futures. [...] Perhaps this widespread practice more generally speaks to studios’ continued devotion towards franchising at the expense of all other different types of filmmaking. Where it seemed for years that indies and mainstream films were blending to the point of being indistinguishable, now it seems that two rigidly distinct tiers of filmmaking exists, separated by a canyon of monetary and institutional resources.

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The Roundup: June 24, 2014

Cinema

We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve

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After my disappointment with the usually-solid Girls on Film column last week and its undeserved takedown of Edge of Tomorrow, I was a bit apprehensive about reading this Trinity Syndrome piece, which is largely dealing with the same issue of kick-ass female characters being relegated to helpers or dismissed as the (male) hero takes over the story. But this one is actually really good, and even looks at Edge of Tomorrow as an exception. I think the one danger in this kind of thinking is that it suggests that we have to wait for a “good reason” to have a female character – really, we just need more female characters, period, and part of that is not waiting for there to be a reason to make a character female (we don’t ask why a character is male, because we see “male” as default). But Tasha is looking at a very specific instance where a female character is introduced seemingly especially to be a strong female character, like checking off a box, then not doing anything interesting with her. There’s a lot to unpack from this article, and obviously a lot more to be said on the issue as a whole.

So maybe all the questions can boil down to this: Looking at a so-called Strong Female Character, would you—the writer, the director, the actor, the viewer—want to be her? Not want to prove you’re better than her, or to have her praise you or acknowledge your superiority. Action movies are all about wish-fulfillment. Does she fulfill any wishes for herself, rather than for other characters? When female characters are routinely “strong” enough to manage that, maybe they’ll make the “Strong Female Characters” term meaningful enough that it isn’t so often said sarcastically.

Cinemadoosti: Film Folklore in Iran by Ehsan Khoshbakht at BFI

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I’m fascinated by the way other cultures relate to film, and Iran is an especially interesting case. Until the Cultural Revolution in 1979, Iran had one of the more progressive cultures in the Middle East, which means the parents and grandparents of current generations remember a lot of cultural artifacts that are now forbidden, which has created an oral tradition passing down knowledge of things that are no longer allowed. The article is largely about Iranian documentary filmmakers who focus on the way memory, cinema, and history interact. I’m not a bit documentary person, but many of these sound really interesting.

For the generation born after the revolution, myself included, parents became narrators of the films we couldn’t see. My first encounter with classics such as The Godfather, La Strada or Shree 420 was hearing their narratives as told by my father. Years later, when thanks to new technologies we could see the films themselves, the real sequences were sometimes less impressive than those we had created in our mind. The imagination could be more cinematic than cinema. If cinema was invented in France, and industrialised on a massive scale in the US, it was in Iran that it was turned into a folkloric art. Iranians have subverted received notions of cinephilia to create their own cinemadoosti, which deals with memory, text and images, and through which the memory of an image is often substituted for the image itself.

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The Roundup: June 17, 2014

Cinema

Girls on Film: Hollywood Keeps Stranding Women at the Edge of Tomorrow by Monika Bartyzel at The Week

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[spoilers for Edge of Tomorrow] I’m usually right on the same page with Bartyzel’s Girls on Film column, but I think she’s reaching here. This actually kind of is an example of how screenwriters can’t win – Bartyzel complains that Vrataski’s role is merely to move Cage along the hero’s journey. Okay, but if the gender roles were reversed, that’d be considered much worse and would be much more cliched. Would it be okay if both the burgeoning hero and the veteran were women? Is the the ONLY way it’d be okay? Because while that would be a fine story, certainly every story shouldn’t be like that. She does have a point with the “angel/bitch” dichotomy, which is really the only time Vrataski’s gender is brought up AT ALL, but the film doesn’t endorse those views of Vrataski, I don’t think – both are understandable epithets from a group of soldiers who don’t really know her.

The Female Yoda has become the new normal because it allows Hollywood to appeal to feminist concerns while continuing to feed male wish fulfillment. She looks so killer in action — and seems so good on paper — that she seems to shut down arguments about female marginalization. She’s better than the hero: Stronger, smarter, more mature. [...] As a supporting player rather than star, the Female Yoda gets saddled with more than just the male hero’s inadequacies. She’s also forced to shoulder masculine viewpoints and needs. Edge of Tomorrow‘s Vrataski is simultaneously the hero who leads the war effort and the target of sexism. There’s a note of jealous condescension that follows her elevated stature in a male-dominated war. She’s not just a warrior or soldier; she’s the “Angel” of Verdun, or the Full Metal “Bitch.” Her fearless success elevates her, but her gender qualifies her power.

There Goes the Neighborhood: Godzilla and the Gentrification of Pulp by Lee Weston Sabo in Bright Lights Film Journal

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I had an epiphany the other day when watching the Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer at the theatre. It just didn’t look like any fun at all, and a movie with sentient apes riding horses should be FUN. I thought, “I wish these kinds of movies were still B-movies, because then they were weird and fun and awesome.” I hadn’t read this article yet, and I haven’t seen Godzilla, but this is exactly what I meant. I’d rather have a deliciously low-brow genre film than the aggressively middle-brow blockbusters we seem to be stuck with lately. See also: A Call for an End to Serious Blockbusters by Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly.

Godzilla has no anarchy or eccentricity, much less any experimental spirit or Japanese weirdness. Edwards is too preoccupied with turning the movie into something new, serious, and, worst of all, respectable. It’s the gentrification of pulp filmmaking, the process by which properties originally intended to spin light-hearted ridiculous yarns are repurposed, repackaged, and resold as serious adult fare. [...] Now Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, has been stripped of personality and dressed up in a taciturn action blockbuster just like any other, perfectly acceptable for a middle-class audience to enjoy without feeling low-brow.

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The Roundup: June 9, 2014

Cinema

The Economics of Movie Reviews, or Why So Many Film Critics Continue to Lose Their Jobs by Dustin Rowles at Pajiba

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Responding to a tweet suggesting that film critics lose their jobs because of the corporate greed rather than lack of talent, Dustin Rowles gives some helpful perspective from the point of view of an independent publisher, pointing out how unprofitable reviewing in and of itself actually is and that Pajiba itself makes most of its revenue off listicles and news. It’s a bit different for a big publication, probably, but it’s something I hadn’t really thought of before, that on a post by post basis, reviews are likely among the lowest. Of course, I’m no big review reader myself, and in fact am starting to wonder how worthwhile weekly new release reviewing is at all, which adds yet another dimension to this discussion.

While the art of film criticism is still very much appreciated, and on some outlets such as The Dissolve, appreciated enough presumably to turn a profit, for many of us, film reviews are a money loser. Reviews of those smaller, independent and art films that no one watches are particularly money-losers, even though they need reviews the most because, in many cases, it’s the most promotion they will get. In fact, I can give you the exact figures for Pajiba: Of the 200+ reviews published during the past year, only 21 actually generated enough page views to pay for themselves.

In a Country Without a Culture of Film Criticism, Its Value Is Clear by Celluloid Liberation Front at Indiewire

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On the other hand, as I become more and more disillusioned by reviewing, here’s a place that doesn’t have a critical culture at all, whether reviewing or the more in-depth criticism that I prefer. Kenya barely has a film industry, and it seems they have even less of a way to talk about it. Interestingly, I’m starting to read (again) Phillip Lopate’s anthology American Movie Criticism, and he mentions in the introduction that almost all of the American critics surveyed agreed that trying to improve filmmaking through their reviews was not a primary purpose of the critic; here, nearly all of the Kenyan men and women in the criticism course believe part of their mission as critics is to improve Kenyan films. I suppose that’s the difference between a well-established and an emergent film industry, but I find the distinction fascinating.

Hair straighteners and bleaching creams, though, cannot wipe out the long-suppressed need for self-representation, the necessity to create and debate autonomous images — to give voice to the voiceless. There is a collateral effect to this legitimate enthusiasm for anything that finally turns locals from depicted objects into depicting subjects, namely the tendency to be overly generous and not critical enough when it comes to Kenyan films. The other, related problem is that the standards to which local filmmakers aspire, audiences are accustomed to and critics refer to are limited to mainstream American cinema. In Kenya, the idea of what constitutes a valid film is, in other words, gauged against Hollywood’s most commercial output.

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The Roundup: June 4, 2014

Cinema

Young Minds in Critical Condition by Michael S. Roth at the New York Times

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I actually came to this article via a rebuttal of it by Noah Berlatsky in the Atlantic. Technically it’s more about literature/philosophy than film, but Berlatsky takes it in a film critical way, and it’s certainly applicable. While reading Berlatsky’s article, which argues for always reading/watching with a critical eye, I was already thinking “you know, I have a feeling I’ll agree with the other guy instead.” So I went and read this article, and yep. While I do think pretty much nothing is above criticism in the final analysis, Roth’s point is not that we shouldn’t think about what we read (or watch, by extension). In fact, it’s that we SHOULD – that we should truly engage with it and wrestle with it rather than dismiss it or come to it LOOKING for things to be critical of, which is what Roth sees students doing (and what I see a lot of people online doing, too). In fact, you can’t be a good critical thinker if you don’t engage with the work first – it doesn’t mean, as Berlatsky seems to assume, that you have to agree with “the great writers” (his paragraph asking how you determine, and who determines, which writers are above criticism misses the point with great flair) but you do have to understand what they’re saying and where they’re coming from before you can mount a useful critique, and part of that is allowing that perhaps they have something of value after all.

Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work. It is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are, at least temporarily, overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand an experience from another’s point of view. We are not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities. Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.

According to Frank Capra Life is More Complicated Than Wonderful by Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve

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“Capracorn” remains a lasting evaluation of Capra’s filmmaking, probably in no small part because it’s a fun word, but it’s so reductive in the light of what Capra actually does – not just in the big social problem-type films that Nathan studies astutely here, but throughout all his other films. How do you reconcile Capracorn with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, for example? But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that even in the films that ARE often labeled Capracorn, Capra has a much darker worldview than is usually assumed. Nathan uses It’s a Wonderful Life in passing, but it’s probably the darkest of them all – just about the only happy joyful part is the last ten minutes, which is of course what most people remember (okay, jumping in the pool at the school party is pretty fun). Most of the rest is full of disappointment, despair, and frustration. The Movie of the Week this column is tied to is actually Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – see the Keynote essay here and the Roundtable discussion here.

Capra has a reputation for sentimentality and corniness because his films celebrate the innocence of his populist heroes. But while Jefferson Smith, Longfellow Deeds, and “Long” John Willoughby of Meet John Doe might all be guileless, the films they anchor are darker than their reputations suggest. Capra’s filmography includes a pair of films about good men pushed to the brink of suicide by powerful forces out to destroy them (Meet John Doe and It’s A Wonderful Life), a movie about a man whose fundamental decency is widely perceived as insanity (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), and an American classic about a common man who is nearly destroyed by the forces of political corruption conspiring against him (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington). In Capra’s films, the public needs heroes to look up to, to inspire them, to serve, in Meet John Doe’s indelible words, as “lighthouses in a foggy world.” Yet Frank Capra’s world often goes beyond foggy to become despairing.

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