Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there’s anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at email@example.com.
In light of a recent retrospective on the career of Richard Pryor, Jason Bailey at Flavorwire wrote at length about a particular behind-the-scenes interview with the late, revered comedian on the set of the film “Stir Crazy.” What separates this video from Pryor’s stand-up and acting career is that, in Bailey’s estimation, this is as close to the “real” man that we’ll ever get. It’s a fascinating look at how the complexity of public personas increases when social taboos get thrown in the mix.
“At times, particularly early in his career (on albums like Insane, in the film Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin’), you can see and hear Richard testing his audience — pushing his boundaries, defining the line between entertainment and confession that he would later eradicate. But that’s not what he’s doing here; he isn’t testing his audience, he’s testing this one man, seeing how far he can push him before the poor schmuck just gives up, and for no real reason other than because he can. Richard pushes back at the reporter’s offhand comment about Steve Martin (‘Don’t knock Steve Martin to try to build me up’). When the guy tries to steer the conversation back after a particularly odd tangent, Richard calls him on it (‘You don’t wanna hear that’), and then belittles the question he poses (in a mock-serious voice, he intones, ‘This is the intellectual shit’). Most tellingly, when the reporter tries to flatter him by predicting that someday soon, Pryor would write, direct, and star in his own vehicle — which, incidentally, he did — Richard looks the man square in the eye and informs him, somewhat testily, ‘Richard Pryor would never do anything y’all want.'”
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, partially inspired by the resurgence of “Birth of a Nation” in the collective cinephile consciousness, offers an informative overview of the cultural impact of D.W. Griffith’s silent classic. The film’s appalling treatment of postwar race relations at the turn and beginning of the 20th century takes on a different context when viewed with the knowledge of the intervening century. But, as Brody explains, the lasting legacy of “Birth of a Nation” is how its artistry helped so many audience members and filmmakers take its subject matter as fact.
“What ‘Birth of a Nation’ offers, even more than a vision of history, is a template for the vast, world-embracing capabilities of the cinema. It provided extraordinarily powerful tools for its own refutation. The real crime was not Griffith’s, but the world’s: the fact that most viewers knew little about slavery and little about Reconstruction and little about Jim Crow and little about the Klan, and were all too ready to swallow the very worst of the movie without question. They saw only what Griffith wanted to say but not what the movie showed, and, upon seeing what Griffith showed, were ready to take up arms in anger. Ambient and accepted racism left viewers ignorant of the facts and prone to accept Griffith’s racist version as authentic—and denied other filmmakers the chance to appropriate and even to advance Griffith’s methods and make movies offering historically faithful accounts of the same periods and events.”
Ian Buckwalter’s review at The Atlantic of the recent documentary “The Gatekeepers” focuses not just on Dror Moreh’s film, but how its style represents a curious anomaly amidst a growing list of docs that play with the form. While some may decry the “default” method of intercut explanation from a finite number of interview subjects, Buckwalter argues that using said method is the main reason why “The Gatekeepers” succeeds so well.
“So in its own way, The Gatekeepers demonstrates just as fully as the recent spate of more experimental documentaries just how flexible and exciting documentary storytelling can be, no matter how you go about it. Getting good subject matter to work with is half the battle; knowing what approach that subject demands is the other half. And sometimes, as Moreh had the brilliance to realize, the right approach is to do not very much at all.”
Speaking of Talking Heads, Mike D’Angelo’s AV Club look at the “Psycho Killer” opening of Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” concert film is a riveting example of analytic specificity. David Byrne’s solo performance of the song (by itself a noteworthy performance) is made all the more poignant by D’Angelo’s explanation of how movie-making mechanics make this an even more surreal act than how it may appear on the surface. As an added layer, D’Angelo includes one particular revelation that unlocked a completely different perspective from a viewing during his high school days.
“Right from the beginning, Stop Making Sense works as a movie, not merely as the filmed record of a concert. The camera pulls Byrne’s white sneakers from the wings onto the stage, observes as he places a boombox on the ground and pushes play, then drifts up to find him doing that nervous chicken dance at the mic. As the midpoint of his walk, the audience (barely ever seen and rarely even heard thereafter) does the usual sudden whoop indicating that they’ve caught sight of him and now know the show is about to begin.”
After one of the best ledes of 2013, Hollywood.com’s Matt Patches delves into the strange disappearance of quality slapstick from modern studio films. The key to the classic slapstick that Patches argues is absent from wacky Kevin James-esque offerings comes not only from the need for complete commitment from its actors, but from various scripts’ attitude towards its characters. One other observation: audiences might be the true culprit.
“When did slapstick take a turn for the worse? In March of last year, Aardman Animation co-founder and director Peter Lord described to us why physical comedy has teetered out of today’s live-action features, but continues to function in animation (like in his 2012 film Pirates! A Band of Misfits): “Some people have the timing, but none of them have the physical bravery.” Cartoon characters can do anything, their puppeteers taking full advantage. There’s a precedent for outlandish animation; its appeal to younger generations is what Hollywood hopes to capture. Slapstick is essentially that animated spirit brought to life by actors. Like the meticulous timing and craftsmanship involved with even the goofiest toons, it’s an art form that cannot simply be executed, but needs to be mastered in order to work at all.”