Category Archives: The Roundup

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The Roundup: September 29

Cinema

A Visit to Turner Classic Movies by Steve Stanchfield at Cartoon Research

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Set your DVRs for TCM on October 6th! They don’t often play animation on the channel, but they’re pulling out some real rarities from the 1920s, from studios like Bray and Van Buren who were leaders at the time, as well as animation pioneer Windsor McKay. I’m super-stoked! This is Steve Stanchfield’s short behind-the-scenes take on working with TCM, and here’s Jerry Beck’s more newsy post about what’s going to be included in the segment.

This brings us to what I’ve been up to the last few weeks – working on finishing touches for a block of classic animation on Turner Classic Movies! I was invited to speak about Van Beuren animation and to show some of the films for my section of the animation day. Tom Stathes is presenting a program celebrating 100 years of the Bray Studios, and John Canemaker is presenting some of the great work of Winsor McCay.

Coming Soon, a Century Late: A Black Film Gem by Felicia R. Lee at the New York Times

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I love reading about rediscovered classic films, and this sounds like a doozy – possibly the first feature film with a black cast, though it apparently was never completed and released (speculation is that it was too soon after Birth of a Nation, which scared the producers away). If you live in New York, you can see the footage at a MOMA screening in the near future. The rest of us will have to wait.

For decades, the seven reels from 1913 lay unexamined in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Now, after years of research, a historic find has emerged: what MoMA curators say is the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast. It is a rare visual depiction of middle-class black characters from an era when lynchings and stereotyped black images were commonplace. What’s more, the material features Bert Williams, the first black superstar on Broadway. Williams appears in blackface in the untitled silent film along with a roster of actors from the sparsely documented community of black performers in Harlem on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance. Remarkably, the reels also capture behind-the-scenes interactions between these performers and the directors.

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The Roundup: September 22

Cinema

Oscar Obsession is Ruining Fall Film Festivals by Jason Bailey at Flavorwire AND
In Defense of Awards Season by Oliver Lyttleton at Indiewire

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In conversation this week: the value of Oscar season. I largely agree with Jason in that I find Oscar season and the way it’s treated in the press pretty obnoxious, but I do also see Oliver’s very reasonable point about why it’s the only thing holding off the total takeover of blockbuster season (which I also find obnoxious). I guess we’re between a rock and a hard place on this one.

JASON:

And what’s genuinely gross about that industry is its utter reductiveness. Year after year, it boils film culture down to a horse race, treating movies as competitors riding “momentum” or battling a “backlash” or overcoming a “snub,” rather than as what they (or at least the best of them) are: art. Yet what’s particularly odd about Oscar obsession is its built-in cognitive dissonance — every year we drool and fume and predict, as though it is all Very Important Work, while simultaneously acknowledging that nobody actually takes the judgments of Oscar voters very seriously, because they are so wrong, so very often.

OLIVER:

To put it simply: if the Oscars and the cottage industry surrounding it disappeared tomorrow, we’d likely see even fewer movies being made not aimed at teenagers, or teenagers-at-heart. We’re already at a point where many of these films are getting only brief theatrical releases, and simultaneous rollouts on VOD are going to happen more often, not less.

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The Roundup: September 16

An opening statement, for once: I actually started putting this post together almost two weeks ago. I’ve added a few things since then, but some of these articles are fairly old at this point (old in internet time). I thought about scrapping it and moving on, but these are still some solid articles, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it in case anyone happened to miss them. I do have some newer stuff bookmarked, but I’ll try to get those out next week.

Cinema

Guardians of the Galaxy and the Rise of Post-Plot Cinema by Steven Zeitchik

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A three-fer this time, with an initial article in the LA Times suggesting that Guardians of the Galaxy is “post-plot”. Even after reading the article, I’m not entirely sure what Zeitchik means – Guardians has a plot, and it doesn’t seem to me to treat its plot substantially differently than most of the older adventure films (like Star Wars), that he cites as, well, having a plot. Todd VanDerWerff at Vox has a similar complaint to Zeitchik, wondering why Guardians felt so empty despite being so fun. He also cites Star Wars. Guys. Star Wars is not the Holy Grail of cinematic storytelling. In all the films they mention (Star Wars as well as Maltese Falcon and Raiders of the Lost Ark), the whatsit of the plot is basically a McGuffin to have a ton of fun following fun characters around. It doesn’t matter what the Falcon or the Ark is, so long as some people want it and other people want those people not to get it, which is basically the same purpose the infinity stones serve in Guardians. Max O’Connell of CriticWire has my back on this.

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More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it. The way the film is structured, coherence of any kind — why people are literally doing what they’re doing, or what the plausible psychological explanations are for what they’re doing — seem beside the point. This all seems to be less a question of whether “Guardians” makes sense as it is that it doesn’t much matter in the first place. The movie was built to be consumed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why—without any sense that one should want a clear understanding of what’s happening or why. (There is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in the film making frequent reference to cinematic classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars,” all movies in which storytelling matters very much.)

VAN DER WERFF

The film does slightly better by Quill, who gets the cassette player and the pop songs on it, as well as a mysterious, still-wrapped present, as reminders of his mother and what she meant to him. But what the film hopes will be his emotional arc — the eternal boy who finally matures and accepts responsibility — gets shuffled so far to the back of the deck that the film mostly just suggests it and invites the audience to read the arc into the text. A little ambiguity is good in any film, of course, as it invites viewers to draw their own conclusions. But ambiguity isn’t really what Guardians is going for. It’s quite clear about what it wants viewers to think. It just never makes the leap to making us feel it, outside of on a purely intellectual level.

O’CONNELL

This isn’t exactly a new idea, either. Zeitchik compares “Guardians’” supposed lack of plot to “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Maltese Falcon,” all of which (the latter especially) operate around the same principle. “Star Wars”: bad guys want plans that could end their giant thing that can destroy planets, group of misfits gets ahold of it, join together and team up with the good guys to stop the bad guys. “Raiders”: rogue wants the same thing that the bad guys want, and with the help of different friends (and an act of God by way of the thing), he stops them. “Falcon”: guy gets killed over thing, his partner looks into it and gets involved with a woman who’s lying about her connection to both the dead guy and the bad guys who want the thing, partner goes after thing to bring bad guys to justice.

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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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