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Daily Reads: Why ‘The Wire’ Can’t Explain Baltimore, the Myth of the Sacred Movie Theater, and More

Daily Reads: Why 'The Wire' Can't Explain Baltimore, the Myth of the Sacred Movie Theater, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. “The Wire,” the Burning of Baltimore, and the Limits of Art. In light of the riots in Baltimore, David Simon and other actors from “The Wire” have called for peace in the city. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explores the importance and limitations of an artistic achievement.

Pleas from Simon, Andre Royo and Wendell Pierce, among others, are an acknowledgement of the real-world authority we’ve granted to “The Wire,” one of the most venerated shows ever to air on American television. But while I believe passionately that culture alters the way we see the world and what we expect from it — that idea is literally the foundation of my writing — the conflagration in Baltimore is a reminder that art’s power can work both in service of change and against it. Watching a fictional story is not precisely the same thing as bearing witness. And when consuming that story becomes a substitute for action or an argument that action is futile, fiction can paralyze us just as surely as it can inspire us.

2. Outlander Breaks a TV Taboo. There are not too many taboos left to break on TV, but the Starz drama “Outlander” went ahead and broke one of the very few remaining (hint: it involves tumescence of the “package” variety). The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan examines how a little-watched premium cable show is breaking all the rules. 

Now, I don’t think “Outlander” is a great show — I think its radical simplicity in a number of areas works both for and against it — but I will defend it to the death as one of the most important shows on TV at the moment. In its first season, it has given pride of place to a sincere and joyful exploration of the female gaze, and it’s willing to take on ideas about dominance, submission, social and political power, sexuality, violence against children, sexual assault and fertility. Next week’s episode has a woman talking about sexuality as it intersects with her experience of pregnancy. One of the things I ask myself about a given show is, “What other show is asking these questions or delving into these areas?” When it comes to a number of fascinating topics and ideas, “Outlander” is often out ahead of the pack.

3. Revisiting Laura Mulvey’s Classic Essay on the “Female Gaze.” Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” hangs over feminist film discourse. Little White Lies’ Sophie Monks Kaufman asks if after 40 years, is there anything still left for the essay to teach us.

For a text that is best known for inspiring feminist action the first thing that grabbed me was the universal appeal of its language and thought. While the essay spirals out into many acutely perceptive observations about gender politics, there is, at root, an acknowledgement and autological celebration of the deep sensual pleasure found in watching fictional characters on a screen. Over to Mulvey’s essay: “The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure.” This is a timelessly useful reminder for someone in my role. Film critics tends to pull away from pleasure, self-consciously nullifying the stimulation offered by movies through intellectulization. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey glories in the baser reactions, dignifying them with her insight.

4. The Myth of the Consecrated Theater. Yesterday, our own Sam Adams wrote about why laughing at old movies signals a lack of imagination on the part of the viewer. But a couple years ago, veteran critic Glenn Kenny analyzes the myth of theater-as-cathedral and how the unfortunate practice of laughing during old movies has been around for a while.

And while we’re facing facts… well, I want to say “let’s admit,” but I hate that kind of writing, so instead I’ll say that the lost Golden Age of Cultural Communion was not always all that. Before there were talkers and texters to complain about there were the inappropriate laughers; well I remember a rep screening of Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” that was all but ruined for me and the other sensitive soul I saw it with when what seemed like at least eighty percent of an admitedly packed house roared with derisive laughter at what my sensitive companion and I took to be one of the film’s most touchingly lyrical moments, when the boat piloted by the two kids who are running from Robert Mitchum for their lives floats quietly past a lily pad and frog. Remember how we used to bitch about the insecure folks who signaled their “getting” every obscure cultural reference that showed up in a Godard film subtitle by ostentatiously chortling at it? Yeah, those guys were fun.

5. Why Michelle Pfeiffer Deserves a Comeback. In the last decade, there have been numerous career revivals, everyone from Michael Keaton to Matthew McConaughey. But why are there no actresses with late-career comebacks? Over at Movie Mezzanine, Max O’Connell argues for a Michelle Pfeiffer comeback to take over Hollywood.

The hidden treasure of Pfeiffer’s golden age is 1991’s “Frankie and Johnny,” an uncharacteristically mature film from “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall, based on the play “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” by Terrence Rafferty. Pfeiffer’s casting was criticized at the time for putting a beautiful movie star in a role originated by Kathy Bates, but Frankie is defined more by her emotional baggage than her looks. It’s one of Pfeiffer’s most charming yet reticent performances, her chilliness towards Pacino’s sweet and playful ex-con becoming clearer and more painful as she slowly warms to him and discloses her past. The film’s final scene, a quiet coming-to-terms moment set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” is among the most elegant in a modern romantic comedy, a sequence of tiny gestures and grasps for shared moments that demonstrates how expressive both stars can be with just the slightest shifts. Again, it’s a hard-won romantic ending, a love borne from understanding and healing.

6. How “Community” Got the Worst of Both Worlds. “Community” is halfway through its hard-fought sixth season and no one seems to be paying attention anymore, even the series’ die-hard fans. Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet unpacks why no one’s talking about “Community” anymore, even though it’s still great.

“Community,” unlike Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or even Yahoo Screen’s other comedies, is releasing its episodes in a decidedly more traditional style that replicates the way viewers consumed the show on TV: one a week, every Tuesday. It’s almost easy to forget that there is a new episode every week — the 3 a.m. release time doesn’t help, either — and because we’re all watching it in our own time, there’s no more of the collective Twitter love that we used to experience while live-tweeting episodes on NBC. We’re watching the episodes at a different pace, viewing jokes at different times, or maybe even waiting to binge on all of them at the end of the season.

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