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Daily Reads: ‘Mistress America’ and the Art of Making a Living as an Artist, How Summer TV Surprised Us, and More

Daily Reads: 'Mistress America' and the Art of Making a Living as an Artist, How Summer TV Surprised Us, and More

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

1. “Mistress America” and the Art of Making a Living As an Artist. 
Noah Baumbach’s new film “Mistress America” follows 18-year-old college freshman Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and her relationship with her new eccentric step-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Tracy is a young fiction writer and has been using Brooke’s life as inspiration for a short story, but their relationship becomes strained when Brooke finds out her own experiences have been used. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody explores “Mistress America,” how it’s one in a long line of amanuensis-inspired films, and what it means to make a living as an artist.

“Mistress America” is also a masterwork of literary cinema. The film’s other protagonist, Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), is an eighteen-year-old freshman at Barnard who wants to be a fiction writer. Tracy is having trouble fitting in at school. Nearly friendless, at odds with her roommate’s sophisticated anomie, and uninspired by her classes, Tracy calls a stranger for company: the thirty-year-old Brooke, her future stepsister. (Tracy’s mother will soon be marrying Brooke’s father.) Soon thereafter, Tracy writes a story à clef about Brooke and her effort to start a restaurant, but then, wanting to maintain and strengthen their her new sisterly relationship, conceals the story from her. Yet “Mistress America” is a masterwork of literary cinema in the other, qualitative sense: it isn’t merely about literature; it’s a work of brilliant writing, one of the most exquisite of recent screenplays. While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward (and I hope that the screenplay, which Gerwig and Baumbach co-wrote, will be published as a book). 

2. Late-Summer Weirdness: Wesley Morris on “Mistress America” and “American Ultra”. 
For Hollywood, the month of August is when to dump the major releases that the studio predicts won’t do well, or don’t have a marketable hook, or are just plain strange additions to the yearly release slate. But every now and then, there will be some late-summer weirdness, some films that are just odd “summer movies,” regardless of quality. Grantland’s Wesley Morris reviews “Mistress America” and “American Ultra,” one film that surprised and the other that disappointed.

“Mistress America” feels like something from 1986 or ’87, something that abuts Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, John Hughes and Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours.” The film starts out as a satire of effete college life — Tracy and Tony write for and join the literary society, which admits new members with a predawn pie in the face. You’re worried they’re going to push too hard to mock the youth of today. I was nervous that a shot of Tracy’s cracked iPhone screen was going to become some kind of Generational Statement, but it’s possible Baumbach got all of that out of his system with “While We’re Young,” which was a hit for him in the spring. He’s still preoccupied with the ebb of youthfulness and the ache and fear of failure — but Gerwig reduces his bitterness without losing sight of the narcissism that, both as solo artists and a tandem, is really their target. Authenticity and artistic truth are equally important to Baumbach in both of his 2015 movies. It just feels better explored from the point of view of an 18-year-old finding her way — never mind that Kirke has the carriage and diction of a woman 10 years older (her sister is Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa on “Girls”).

3. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on “Show Me a Hero”. 
David Simon’s new miniseries “Show Me a Hero” aired its third and fourth episode on Sunday night. The series has garnered critical acclaim for its incisive portrayal of housing desegregation in Yonkers in the late-80’s, and especially how it depicts polite racial prejudices. The New Yorker’s resident TV critic Emily Nussbaum reviews “Show Me a Hero” (along with “Orange Is the New Black”) and how it makes wonky policy debates exciting.

The six-episode miniseries, set in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, is a dramatization of the battle to desegregate Yonkers, punctuated by swigs of Maalox. As anyone who followed the real-life story knows — don’t Google it if you don’t want spoilers — it has one happy ending and one very sad one. (The title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”) It’s the latest effort by Simon, the creator of “The Wire” and “Treme,” to forge an effective model for the message drama, with plots torn not from the headlines but from the op-ed page. Well cast, solidly structured, and emotionally stirring, the show is as sincere as the Bruce Springsteen songs that make up its score, a ballad of pragmatism with a passionate heart. And, no, that’s not code for “boring.” The series builds and deepens, stanza by stanza, and then it soars… The show’s wonkiest policy debates are also its liveliest scenes, as the white men who run the city wheedle to get that mysterious force worshipped by Donald Trump: leverage.

4. A Look Back at This Summer of TV. 
Historically speaking, summer TV tends to be pretty bad, a season when people are supposedly out and about and not at home in front of the Idiot Box, so as a result, summer shows are the “dregs” of the yearly TV schedule. But nowadays, the lines between Fall/Midseason/Summer TV seasons are blurring because of streaming services and cable TV strategy, so summer TV can be filled with some of the year’s best shows. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson and Richard Lawson discuss this summer’s TV and how it feels like all of the shows “went off their medication.”

Joanna Robinson: I knew going into this summer that TV would look a lot different. In years past, there have been some old reliable prestige shows like “Breaking Bad” or “True Blood” to mix in with the usual summer reality-TV stuff. But with those heavy-hitters gone, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Hopes were high on “True Detective” Season 2. Hopes were dashed. And increasingly audiences seemed to take interest in shows that were a little off the beaten path. My favorite shows of the summer were two intriguing freshman efforts — Lifetime’s “UnREAL” and USA’s “Mr. Robot” — which sent me off in pursuit of channels I never watch. And more than the weird delight of finding something unexpectedly dark on these less-than-edgy channels, was discovering just how dark Lifetime and USA were willing to go. The lead characters of both of those shows are people with diagnosed mental disorders who decided to stop taking their prescriptions. Add to that the very real depiction of depression in Netflix’s animated series “BoJack Horseman,” and I have to wonder if this is the year summer TV went off its medication. 

5. You Must Remember This: An Interview With Ingrid Bergman’s Three Daughters. 
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth, the Museum of Moving Image and the Brooklyn Academy of Music have programmed a retrospective on Ingrid Bergman, playing most of her important films through most of September. Some of these films will be introduced by Bergman’s three daughters — Pia Lindstrom, Ingrid Rossellini, and Isabella Rossellini. RogerEbert.com’s Dan Callahan interviews the three daughters to discuss Bergman as a person, mother, and actress.

“She was so original and independent, but in a gentle, natural way,” says Ingrid. “She would always say, ‘People have to make sense.’ She would immediately detect if a person she was talking to was in any way artificial, and she didn’t like that. She was honest and authentic. And so people watch her on the screen and they are touched by her, because she doesn’t seem aware of her beauty.” “My mother was not theatrical in her home life,” Lindstrom says. “She was strong-willed, which is maybe partly theatrical. I found her fun, she was fun to be around, and playful, and demanding. Maybe that was the Scandinavian in her. There were rules that she followed, and you needed to follow them if you were with her. For instance, I would always let her walk ahead of me through a door. You know, you wouldn’t cry or yell, ‘I want some ice cream!’ with her, you just wouldn’t do that. That was not her role in life, maternity. That was not her forte.” But Isabella has a different perspective, perhaps because she saw her mother through the eyes of her father Roberto. “Father always said she was so loud that she didn’t need a telephone!” says Isabella. “And yes, she was like that at home. It wasn’t so much that she spoke loudly, but her voice had a certain pitch, so that she could be heard in the back of the theater, and yes, she was like that at home, too.”

6. The Little-Seen “Low and Behold” Is the Best Film About Hurricane Katrina. 
A week ago today marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it left behind in the city of New Orleans. There have been plenty of films and television shows that tackle the storm, some with more success than others. But The Atlantic’s Mike Miley argues that the little-seen “Low and Behold” is the best Hurricane Katrina film because it achieves artfulness without exploiting tragedy.

It’s a given that any commercial film claiming to be “based on a true story” is in some way exploiting a real-life event, perhaps to inspire, inform, or infuriate, but almost always to profit. Still, things get dicier when it comes to a for-profit film representing a massive disaster like 9/11 or Katrina. These films must negotiate the slippery intersection of tragedy, art, and exploitation in the struggle to pay the proper respect to the event while also managing to express something true about it in an artful way. It’s an aesthetic tightrope walk, and often the pressure is too much for the film to bear, generally resulting in an overly cautious, toothless film filled with platitudes. For every “United 93,” there are three “World Trade Centers.” “Low and Behold” belongs to the small group of films that gets it right. And “getting it right” goes far beyond the film’s treatment of New Orleans residents and Katrina’s victims, something that Louisiana natives are notoriously persnickety about. More simply, the film guides the audience from an outside position of voyeuristic exploitation to an inside position of empathetic understanding. In short, “Low and Behold” doesn’t try to dodge the intersection of tragedy, art, and exploitation — it addresses those problems head-on through its choice of characters, the storylines, and the filmmaking style itself.

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