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Daily Reads: Why ‘Mad Men’ Needed Betty, My Life as a Canceled TV Show, and More

Daily Reads: Why 'Mad Men' Needed Betty, My Life as a Canceled TV Show, and More

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

1. What It’s Like When a TV Show Based on Your Life Gets Canceled. It’s never easy for anyone when a network cancels a T.V. series prematurely, but especially not for its creator, who not only shepherded the idea, but put all the blood, sweat, and tears into the project. It’s even worse when that creator starred in, wrote, and executive produced the series as well. Well, ABC recently cancelled Cristela Alonzo’s multi-camera sitcom “Cristela” about a Mexican-American law school graduate who must balance living the American Dream with the demands of her family. Alonzo recently took to her blog to describe the painful experience of having her show with her namesake cancelled.

I used to dream about what it would feel like to have your own show. As a little kid, I imagined my face on a billboard; a big sign that had my face on it. I always wondered what it would feel like to drive down the street and see your name on a billboard. Something that kinda said, “HEY WORLD! I’m here! Check out this show with me in it!” After having a show named after me on network TV for a year, I can tell you that I still don’t know what it’s like to have a billboard with my face on it. I never got one. But I can tell you what it feels like to have your face on some bus benches and the backs of buses.

2. Why “Mad Men” Needed Betty. Last Sunday’s penultimate episode of “Mad Men” featured [spoiler] Betty Draper learning she has terminal lung cancer. Over the past few years, many fans of the series have groused at Betty’s characterization and perceived lack of relevance within the show. Time’s James Poniewozik argues otherwise: the series not only needed Betty, but was that much better for it.

It’s not controversial to say that, title aside, “Mad Men” is largely a women’s story. And it’s not surprising that, especially for a modern audience, it’s easier to identify with that story through Joan (who goes from accepting the boy’s club to actively fighting it) or Peggy (whose attitudes are closer to those of our own time). With few exceptions (hoisting her gun in the first season), Betty gives us few you-go-girl moments to cheer for. (And so what? We don’t need “Mad Men’s” male characters to be “likable” or “relatable” to justify their existence.) But that’s exactly why we need her: the suburban Republican housewife may not have been a feminist but she was a case study for feminism all the same. Watch the scene where she gets her diagnosis: Weiner’s camera pushes in on Betty, in focus, but it’s men doing the talking, the doctor discussing treatment options with her husband. The world treats her as a secondary character even in her own death.

3. The Cinematic Poetry of Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy.” The neew 4K restoration of Satyajit Ray’s famed “Apu Trilogy” has recently enjoyed a nice month-long run in New York City. In honor of its theatrical run, RogerEbert’s Steven Boone and Brian Tallerico explore the cinematic poetry inherent in Ray’s trilogy.

To say that Ray’s cinematic poetry has “held up” would be a ridiculous understatement. Like Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” there’s a timeless quality to “Pather Panchali” that’s mesmerizing. Without forced melodrama, Apu’s family very quickly becomes ours. The primary forces that shape Apu’s life are essential to humanity whether they be as primal as hunger or as coveted as the love of family. This is humanity. It will always matter. And Ray’s ability to turn that human essence into art shouldn’t be underrated. It’s not just the themes of “The Apu Trilogy” but how they’re conveyed. Just look at the choice of camera position in “Pather”. Children like Apu and Durga are often shot from above, eyes upward at adults and the brave new world that fascinates them. Adults, especially those outside of the family, are shot from below, visually giving people like Sarbajaya the towering power of a matriarch.

4. Character Actor Patrick Fischler on His Storied Career. Whenever Patrick Fischler pops up in film and television, whether it’s “Mulholland Dr.,” “Ghost World,” “Mad Men,” or “Lost,” he’s always a delight to see and his presence generally makes even the weakest material more lively. The A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston interviews Fischler about the continued highs of his illustrious career.

PF: Actually I’m not sure. It’s been so long I don’t quite remember, but I don’t think I’d just make that up. [“Mulholland Dr.”] was going to be about Hollywood and the business, and I knew my character didn’t die, so in my mind, it was going to be this show and I’d come back to it. But no one knew what it was, including Naomi Watts, who wasn’t well-known at the time. We had no idea it would turn into this incredible film. We got letters asking us to come back and do re-shoots because when it didn’t get picked up, StudioCanal gave him some money to finish it as a movie. I think that up until the lesbian love scene is pretty much the pilot we shot. I went back and shot that moment where she sees me at the cash register. I re-shot that for the movie version, and honestly, I have no idea about any of it. People always asks me what it means, and I say, “Whatever you want it to mean.”

5. Southern Gothic, For Good and For Ill
 Writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’ Connor have provided much inspiration for those working within the cinematic medium, including but not limited to, “an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience,” or so says Tennessee Williams. Critic Nick Pinkerton surveys the genre of Southern Gothic Cinema for Sight & Sound magazine that will accompany BFI’s season of Southern Gothic films.

Of the change-averse South, it is often said that its history is a persistent presence in the current day – as Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This must apply doubly to the defining event of the South’s history, the Civil War – and though the marks of the war are found all over the American western, the ‘curious institution’ that necessitated that war, slavery, is curiously absent from Hollywood product. At midcentury, when the cinema was in its high sword-and-sandals stage, one could find significantly more references to Roman and Egyptian bondsmen than to the men and women who had served King Cotton. (See, for example, Howard Hawks’s 1955 “Land of the Pharaohs,” co-scripted by Faulkner, who wrote dialogue for Jack Hawkins’ Pharaoh Khufu in the orotund voice of “a Kentucky colonel”.) The Pre-Code period was not much better – offhand, the most harrowing exception I can think of is the solemn depiction of slave boats trafficking Africans to America that opens D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” (1930). This was a glaring absence that would not be redressed until the 1970s, the decade of TV miniseries “Roots” (1977) and, love it or hate it, Richard Fleischer’s “Mandingo” (1975).

6. Why Glenn Kenny’s Not Taking Superhero Movies Seriously. I
n the weeks since “Avengers: Age of Ultron’s” release, we’ve unpacked numerous critics’ opinions on the film. However, there’s one left: Veteran film critic Glenn Kenny recently saw “Ultron,” in IMAX 3D no less, and wrote a brief piece about the film, and the conversation around it, in the vein of Lester Bangs’ famous essay, “I Saw God and/or Tangerine Dream.”

Nabokov famously said that the first “shiver of inspiration” for “Lolita” was “prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” I revere an ostensibly highbrow film like Alexei German’s “Hard to Be A God” in part because it is the work of an artist in pursuit of genuine freedom. This observation will not make me a lot of friends, but I think if you spend a great deal of time in earnest rumination over, say, the ostensibly anti- feminist compromises applied to Black Widow’s “character arc,” ultimately you’re just grousing about the interior decoration of your cage. But hey, that’s your prerogative. But that is not a prerogative I feel I’m obliged to take seriously any longer, is all.

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