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Daily Reads: How Hollywood Rips Off Women, Do Characters Belong to Their Fans or Their Creators, and More

Daily Reads: How Hollywood Rips Off Women, Do Characters Belong to Their Fans or Their Creators, and More

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

1. American Hustle: How Hollywood Rips Off Women. 
Though many actresses are now speaking out against pay inequality in the film industry, there seems to be little to no progress on correcting the issue. In fact, progress has been as slow as ever. The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard explores how the debate on institutionalized sexism has stalled yet again.

“We all get used to what we get used to,” says [Emma] Thompson. “We’ve all internalized so much bullshit.” A century of mainstream conditioning that suggests women’s purpose is to cheerlead and prettify, to wait by the phone or weep into pillows, has left a lot of people unconsciously attaching less importance to their stories. What were once tropes become truisms. What might once have been authentic can become a stereotype unless questioned. “There are so many layers of sexism that are deeply embedded in the Hollywood narrative that it’s difficult for people to see [women] as leaders,” says [Melissa] Silverstein. Yes, there is a Wonder Woman movie in the works, and yes, it will be directed by a woman. “But what does it say not just about the movie business but people themselves that we’re happy for the mainstream narrative of the day to be white men saving people?” Doziness on our part may not be deliberate, but there is less excuse when it comes to those supplying the goods. Men dominate Hollywood studios – as pay differentials prove. The male co-president of Columbia Pictures earns almost $1m more than his female counterpart. Of the 17 Sony employees who earned more than $1m a year, leaks revealed, only one was a woman – presumably Amy Pascal, now departed in the wake of the email hacks. Such people, thinks Silverstein, have a vested interest in promoting their own kind, in both senses of the word. “America will not be a country dominated by white men for much longer. And so some people are holding on to that with every last breath by having dominance in storytelling which is exported around the world. Seventy-two cents of every dollar made from US movies is made internationally. So we’re reflecting a society that shows women don’t exist and neither do people of color.” Indeed, there’s a danger that the conversation will be hijacked by Caucasians, parallel battles left to languish. Viola Davis, for instance, has been vocal on both the marginalized movie parts she is offered and the pitiful remittance that often accompanies them. She has even advocated equal-share salaries on long-running TV shows (her go-to medium for meaty roles). But, with some inevitability, her voice has got drowned out.

2. Do Characters Belong to Their Fans or Their Creators? 
It’s a tired problem for every beloved pop culture property that takes on a new life within the world of fandom: When do characters stop belonging to creators and start belonging to fans? When do creators lose control of their creations? Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh looks at the recent dustup with Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s newly published novel as well as Han Solo’s secret canon wife for answers.

The notion of canon as an officially sanctioned body of work originated with perhaps the most high-stakes example of canon-building in human history: decisions by Roman Catholic church leaders, pre–500 A.D., as to which books of the Bible would be considered divinely inspired, or canonical, and which would be dismissed as apocrypha. Canon has, more recently, come to refer to materials that are, or aren’t, considered to be “officially” part of an expansive narrative that’s told across many media — the world of “
Star Wars,” or “The Avengers,” or “Game of Thrones.” Canon can pertain to everything from tiny factual details (where a character was born; the design of a coat of arms) to more intangible components, such as the nature of a character’s character. “Fandom is about joy, and canon is one of the elements of the pleasure fans derive from our favorite stories,” Heather Urbanski, an academic and self-described “overall SF geek,” told me. But, she says, there are those who believe that their fandom “endows them with authority to pass judgment over what is ‘allowed’ in canon and what is not.” In a recent, fairly typical blowup, Han Solo was revealed, in a comic-book story, to be married. (Or, at least, a woman showed up who claimed to be his wife.) Fans of “Star Wars” might here note that Han Solo has never mentioned, nor even alluded to, nor even seemed particularly inclined toward, being married — certainly not in any of the movies that you most closely associate with Han Solo. Yet the comic book in question is considered canon. So say hello to Mrs. Solo.

3. On “The End of the Tour,” David Foster Wallace, and Writers’ Envy. 
James Ponsoldt’s new film “The End of the Tour” follows Rolling Stone writer Dave Lipsky and acclaimed novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace on the last leg of the “Infinite Jest” book tour. The film captures the awkward friendship between Lipsky and Wallace, especially the not-so-hidden jealousy that Lipsky feels towards Wallace’s success. Movie Mezzanine’s Greg Cwik writes about Ponsoldt’s new film and how it captures the jealousy and envy a writer inevitably feels.

The competition between the two Davids transcends words and sentences, and taps into the notion of what, exactly, a writer is — what kind of life a writer leads, what kind of vices a writer has. “He wants something better than he has,” Lipsky says of Wallace. “I want precisely what he has already.” Wallace seeks solace in Snickers bars, while Lipsky eventually pops open a bottle of beer when put in an uncomfortable situation. Lipsky’s role here is to get inside Wallace and scoop out the good stuff skulking inside. Wallace knows this, and tries, more than once, to get Lipsky himself to open up. They bond in that way awkward people bond, though it soon becomes obvious that Wallace is not the kind of guy Lipsky expects. He’s a wallflower who can’t speak with women, who has an Alanis Morissette poster adorning his wall. He can’t get laid, he doesn’t have a TV, and he finds profundity in the inherently lonely act of masturbation. Lipsky has two girlfriends, on two different coasts, between which resides Wallace in his forlorn snowy tundra with his big, slobbery dogs. The micro-aggressions begin pretty quickly: Wallace offers Lipsky coffee in the morning, and Lipsky says, “I don’t need caffeine to wake up,” insinuating a substance dependency. Wallace simply smiles.

4. The Infectious Ridiculous of “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”. 
This Friday, Netflix will release the prequel series to David Wain’s 2001 “Wet Hot American Summer.” The prequel, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” features all of the original cast in all of their original roles fourteen years after the fact. RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico reviews the new series and praises its infectious ridiculousness.

In the end, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” gets a lot of mileage out of funny names, ridiculous pop culture references and wildly inconsistent accents (it’s almost worth it just to hear Wain say “Freddy Fuddy Duddy” in a ridiculous Israeli cadence). The Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm cameos are worth the entire production budget on their own. Even if the entire rhythm isn’t quite there, the moments pile up over the six episodes I’ve seen, including an amazing audition by Rudd, phony phone call by Ken Marino, and cameo by Weird Al Yankovic as the best hypnotist in the world. If most of Showalter’s schtick doesn’t work, every scene Paul Rudd is in does, and so the project has a surprisingly successful give and take. It’s from that classic Brooks or Zucker school of comedy — don’t like a joke, wait five seconds for another one.

5. Politics as Spectacle: The Films of Mani Ratnam
Widely credited with revolutionizing the Tamil film industry, director Mani Ratnam makes intelligent, provocative films that capture the complex social and political issues of his home region. This weekend, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will run a series on Mani Ratnam’s films with him in attendance. Over at Reverse Shot, Monty Majeed examines Ratnam’s filmography and analyzes his spectacular visual techniques.

Drawing inspiration from real-life incidents and people, Ratnam’s films, true to the title of the Museum’s series, are spectacles. They have a cinematic language of their own. Each is a marked by visual brilliance, measured writing, subtle performances, and breathtaking musical numbers. In terms of themes, his range is wide. Though he continually returns to the friction and uneasiness inherent in human relationships, Ratnam also takes care to place each of his films in a different milieu, and his diverse subjects include inter-faith marriages, social acceptance of people with disabilities, the Sri Lankan civil war, adoption, youth politics, and gangsters. But it was “Roja” (1992), the opening selection in the Museum’s series and Ratnam’s eleventh as a director, which turned out to be his breakout. The first entry in what has been referred to as Ratnam’s “terrorism trilogy,” “Roja,” with its story of a woman’s struggle to free her husband from the clutches of Kashmiri separatists, struck a chord throughout the country. The film won a national award from the Indian government for its promotion of national integration, but it couldn’t escape the wrath of many academics, including renowned social researcher Tejaswini Niranjana, who wrote a scalding essay accusing Ratnam of portraying Muslims in a bad light and for celebrating its Hindu leading man as a “secular nationalist.” This fueled a larger debate about the religious profiling of characters in Indian popular culture. In a country still struggling to bring in communal harmony among its many religious groups and whose citizens still grapple with multiple identities and affiliations, both “Roja” and the arguments against it remain relevant. Despite the outcry, “Roja” is still considered a landmark in the history of Indian cinema. The beginning of a new kind of technically robust class of cinema, the film is important for introducing a number of new technicians to the industry, most notably renowned cinematographer Santhosh Sivan and Oscar-winning musician A. R. Rahman, with whom Ratnam has collaborated on every title since. In most Indian films, songs function as brief breaks from the story, flowing like fantasy or dream sequences, mostly shot in extravagant, beautiful foreign locales. Even though in some cases these musical sequences can eat up more than half of the film’s entire budget, a viewer can skip them while watching the film and it would not change the experience much. But Ratnam is one of those rare directors to use songs to assist the storytelling process. In “Roja,” every crucial narrative moment is punctuated with a song, and these songs are illustrated with visual inventiveness. When we first meet the cheerful, carefree village girl Roja, Ratnam accompanies her introductory song with a montage of scenes that layer and build her character for the viewer. Songs also show her reluctance to accept her future husband, the cryptologist Rishi, for choosing her over her sister; her relationship blossoming with Rishi, against the giant backdrop of the Himalayas; and, perhaps most movingly, the sorrow and pain felt by Rishi when held captive by the separatists.

6. Notes on Gilliam Armstrong’s “Starstruck” and New Wave Musicals. 
In the 1980’s, a new musical trend was sweeping the globe: New Wave music. You know, the arty punk rockers who employed synthesizers and had nerdy affectations? Those are New Wave stars. Well, did you now there was a wave of New Wave musicals in Australia? Fandor’s Dennis Harvey considers the legacy of New Wave musicals, including Gilliam Armstrong’s “Starstruck.”

[“Starstruck” is] a cultural flashback for sure, as 1980s as they come, yet still funny and charming in a fresh way. So why weren’t there more movies like this one? MTV had in its way reintroduced the “production number,” and early on (before mainstream acts and labels rediscovered the commercial value of music videos) was mostly dominated by eccentric New Wave acts and their arty, often humorous clips. While the movie musical had practically died out in the 1970s (rare hits like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Grease” outnumbered by such catastrophes as “Lost Horizon,” “At Long Last Love,” “Mame” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), the inherently theatrical nature of so many New Wave acts suggested it was due for a new-school revival. But that did not come to pass, beyond a few sputtering attempts that were barely more successful than the handful of notorious “disco musical” flops (“Can’t Stop the Music,” “Xanadu”). For your edification (and perhaps mystification), here’s a brief survey of the other leading New Wave screen musicals of the era. All have cult followings of various sizes today; none were received with much gratitude at the time.

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