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Daily Reads: Reality TV’s Long History of Exploiting Poor People, the Lost Legacy of ‘Batman Forever,’ and More

Daily Reads: Reality TV's Long History of Exploiting Poor People, the Lost Legacy of 'Batman Forever,' and More

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

1. Breakdancing, Chuck Norris, and Italian Ninjas: The Story of Cannon Films. If you were a child of the 1980s, you were hard-pressed to avoid a Cannon Films production, whether it was the latest Chuck Norris beat-em-up or a Sylvester Stallone’s arm wrestling movie or “Bloodsport.” The new documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films” explores the years of Cannon’s reign over public taste, but before that, Telegraph’s Tim Robey profiles the two Israeli cousins in charge of the production company.

“Electric Boogaloo” is the famously silly subtitle for “Breakin’ 2” (1984), one of the first sequels Cannon commissioned from a franchise they could take credit for spawning. They weren’t messing around – it opened only six months after the release of “Breakin’,” easily their biggest theatrical hit. The rush and desperation to surf this particular pop-cultural wave was entirely apparent to audiences, though, who came out in droves for the first movie, then smelled a rat when the second one cranked things up a notch with breakdancing on the ceiling. Much as “jumping the shark” has become a term for something popular that gets stupid, Electric Boogaloo, which might be the most rapidly turned-around shark-jump in film history, is now everyone’s favorite stupid sequel name. It fits any bad sequel to which one wishes to apply it, whether said film actually exists or not – try “Selma 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

2. Misery TV: Television’s Long History of Humiliating the Poor. 
Though we’d all like to believe that the horrors of reality TV are just limited to humiliating attention-seekers and the delusional, it unfortunately has a long history of capturing the hearts and minds of the less-fortunate, and making them believe they can get rich by being on TV. Two recent shows, “The Briefcase” and “Britain’s Hardest Grafter,” are the latest examples of this. The New Republic’s Esther Breger reports on this cultural trend.

There is a long history in American game shows of exploiting the economically precarious for crass entertainment. Among the earliest and most popular was “Queen for a Day,” which ran for 19 years after its 1945 debut, first on radio and then national television; in each episode, four working-class women would explain their misfortunes to an audience, and tell the patronizing emcee what gift would relieve their misery. The mother of baby triplets wants diaper service; the mother of a son with cerebral palsy wants medical equipment; the widowed mother of two dead sons wants a vacation. The winner was decided by audience applause and wrapped in a velvet robe. The losers were sent home with a toaster or a package of nylons. After “Queen For a Day” went off the air in 1964, its own producer called it the “the worst program in TV history.” It was also the most popular thing on daytime TV for about a decade. (“Sure, ‘Queen’ was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste. That’s why it was so successful: it was exactly what the public wanted,” that same producer, Howard Blake, wrote.)

3. The Action Figures and Lost Legacy of “Batman Forever”. 
Twenty years ago today, “Batman Forever,” the third in the original Batman film franchise, entered theaters to mixed reception but a high box office return after losing both director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton. Overstuffed and tonally confused, “Batman Forever” is nowhere near as interesting or as good as Burton’s “Batman” films, but beyond that, it’s simply not a good film. However, The Dissolve’s Noel Murray explores the lost, unsung legacy of 1995’s most crass commercial release, hit Seal song and all.

Carrey is both the reason “Batman Forever” was as successful as it was, and the reason it’s so insufferable today. In 1994, Carrey starred in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Mask,” and “Dumb & Dumber,” finishing the year as the biggest comedy star the movies had seen in a good long while. He’d established an anarchic screen presence, like vintage Jerry Lewis or like Robin Williams at his most unfettered—which is why Carrey was the logical choice to step in when the “Batman Forever” producers couldn’t make a deal with Williams to play The Riddler. This movie was Carrey’s big payday, and his chance to secure a place on the A-list. Carrey overdid it, because that was his shtick at the time. Even the Riddler action figures look overly manic—which is saying something, given that the character is a lunatic. Carrey’s Riddler has some of the story arc of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in “Batman Returns” (as the nebbish who becomes scarily empowered), coupled with the unrestrained mugging of his “Ace Ventura” and “Mask” performances. Schumacher, not afraid of giving the people what they want, effectively turns the movie over to Carrey for several excruciatingly long scenes of mayhem. The Riddler uses his brainwave-sucking invention on his former boss, and does a wacky little dance. The Riddler trashes Wayne Manor and the Bat-Cave, while pretending to be a spitting, scratching Major League Baseball pitcher. The Riddler struts and preens, while everyone else in the frame scrambles to keep up, lest they look like nothing more than schmucks in funny suits.

4. A Wave of Transgender Characters Hits TV. 
Caitlyn Jenner’s recently made her big debut on the cover of Vanity Fair and is prepping for her new E! documentary series “I Am Cait,” making her one of many trans people who are creating big splashes on television. Philly.com’s Molly Eichel unpacks this recent development and explores some of the trans characters on TV.

The proliferation of transgender characters can, in part, be attributed to a wider array of distribution platforms. Amazon Studios, which puts out “Transparent,” and Netflix, with “Orange is the New Black” and “Sense8,” don’t have to adhere to traditional advertising models. For different reasons, cable, too, can push the boundaries further than broadcast. There are simply more channels, each with a need to differentiate itself from the next. TLC has stood out from reality-focused peers by looking at people with nontraditional lives, as in the controversial show “19 Kids and Counting.” Jazz Jennings’ views on gender and sexuality may be very different from those of the Duggars, but she fits the brand. Jennings, like Jenner, has lived much of her life on TV. She started appearing on news programs about gender identity disorder when she was as young as 6, was the subject of an OWN documentary, and has become a YouTube star on her own terms. There’s no downplaying how important these media representations are.

5. Glenn Kenny on Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” and Robert Wyatt’s “Rock Bottom”. 
Nicolas Roeg’s emotionally disturbing film “Don’t Look Now” treats Venice as “a sinister presence,” or at least says Robert Wyatt who was composing his classic 1974 album “Rock Bottom” in the midst of Roeg’s film shoot. Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reveals the connection between these two masterpieces over at the Criterion Collection.

Late in 1972, Wyatt’s then girlfriend and future wife, the artist Alfreda Benge, was hired as second assistant editor for the just-beginning Roeg production. Benge had met Roeg while he was shooting the concert doc “Glastonbury Fayre,” and was close friends with the film’s female lead, Julie Christie. The picture began filming around Christmas in England, and in January of 1973 moved to Venice for location shooting. Although, according to O’Dair, the workaholic Wyatt was puzzled by the idea of “going on holiday,” the musician, who had recently dissolved his band, joined Benge, Christie, and a couple of other crew members at a house on the Venetian island of Giudecca. Working on an inexpensive electronic keyboard Benge had purchased in a Venice music store (“She’s like that; an astute and thoughtful scout,” the musician notes), Wyatt soaked in the atmosphere and began writing. “What I do remember is how seeing Venice out of season was like coming across a famous beauty when she’s out shopping, without makeup, in scruffily humble clothes, not dressed to be looked at,” Wyatt recollected in an e-mail to me. “I felt we were in the real place, populated by the locals. A modest, rather run-down village, but all the more likeable for that. But it would be easy to imagine it as sinister: the narrower canals so dark and damp, the thick moss—or is that some kind of seaweed?—above the waterline, crabs scrambling along the edges. And the sheer age of the place. A large, ancient door set in a canal wall could be, I was told, a thousand years old. Is that possible? Whether or not it is, there was a weird feeling of being in a live museum, a place in which it would be easy to evoke ghosts.”

6. 51 TV Writers Reveal Their Favorite Things They’ve Ever Written. 
Though television has visually evolved over the past decade, it is still very much a writer’s medium. Over at Buzzfeed, Jarret Wieselman compiles a list of 51 TV writers who share their favorite scenes, moments, or episodes they’ve had the chance to write.

Rob Thomas, “Veronica Mars”: When I wrote the cold open for the “Veronica Mars” pilot script, I had two missions. First, make it scream noir. I wanted to get as many genre-defining elements into the opening as possible: a night scene, neon reflecting off wet pavement, a seedy location, a world-weary misanthropic Raymond Chandler–esque voiceover, disjointed time, a private detective at the center of the show. My second mission was to define Veronica. I wanted people to realize that this 17-year-old had seen some real shit. We wouldn’t know she’d been raped or that her best friend had been murdered until later in the episode, but it was important to me that she sounded like someone you don’t mess with. I wanted to get as far away from Nancy Drew as possible. The director of the pilot, Mark Piznarski, shot the hell out of this opening sequence. It was everything I wanted it to be, but well into the editing process of the pilot, the word came down from the network that “a high school show should open on the high school,” so instead of this opening, we ended up with a shot of Veronica driving up to a high school and getting out of her car. I had about 10 seconds of footage to distill the concept of the show, so instead of the Raymond Chandler–esque voiceover I’d originally written, Veronica said something like, “This is where I go to school. Other kids work at the Gap and Taco Bell. Not me. I’m a private eye.” Lopping off that opening hurt me badly. If there’s any comfort, I did get to use my original opening on the DVDs and digital downloads.

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