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Daily Reads: Why Yale’s Library Is Preserving VHS, Who Wins When a Brown Actor Plays a White Character, and More

Daily Reads: Why Yale's Library Is Preserving VHS, Who Wins When a Brown Actor Plays a White Character, and More

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

1. Saving the Scream Queens: Why Yale University Library Believes in VHS. 
The Yale University Library has had an interesting history dating back to the 18th Century, but in 2015, they’ve become known for their collection of rare VHS tapes. Yale University currently holds nearly 3,000 VHS tapes of shot-on-video horror and exploitation titles from the ’70s and ’80s. Though celluloid has always been considered superior to videotape, the history of film is inherently tied up in home video. The Atlantic’s David Gary explores Yale’s VHS collection and why videotape is worth preserving.

Yale University Library has long been familiar with controversy, even several centuries before it decided to make thousands of VHS tapes with titles like “Naughty Roommates,” “Sorority Babes in the Dance-a-Thon of Death,” and “What the Swedish Butler Saw” part of its collection. The library’s origins date back to 1718, when, after much cantankerous debate over the school’s prospective location, New Haven beat out two rival towns in its bid to host the institution. During the transfer of the school’s books to their new home by wagon train, the residents of Saybrook, Yale’s former home, expressed their frustrations by attacking the train and stealing nearly 250 volumes. Almost 300 years later, another shipment of material arrived in New Haven: 2,700 VHS tapes from the 1970s and ’80s, making Yale the only U.S. institution that deliberately collects these horror and exploitation movies in magnetic tape format. While these movies obviously aren’t equivalent to the work of Francis Bacon or Isaac Newton, they do carry their own cultural weight, and will hopefully allow researchers to explore the home-video revolution of the time, as well as the cultural mores and politics of the Reagan era they emerged in. VHS is a maligned medium. Libraries are rapidly culling it from their collections, a project in Ontario, Canada, wants to recycle the province’s 2.26 billion tapes, and the rise of digital streaming has made it mostly irrelevant to the general public. It’s often described as obsolete, even by those charged with preserving America’s cultural heritage. One reason Yale bought this video collection was to preserve rare titles—it’s been estimated that about 40 to 45 percent of content distributed on VHS never made its way into any subsequent digital format. But the primary focus of this collection effort was the physical nature of the medium and the cultures it changed and created. While not as convenient as a digital format, the physical qualities of VHS offer much more than the 0s and 1s carried on an electron stream directly to televisions. Much like a book’s physical features (paper, binding, dust jackets, the bite of the metal type into the page), and the seemingly secondary aspects of the text (the preface, acknowledgement page, table of contents, index), VHS tapes have tangible qualities that have defined the medium’s uniqueness and its legacy.

2. When a Brown Actor Plays a White Character, Who Really Wins? 
USA Network has a breakout hit this season: “Mr. Robot,” the story of a security technician at Allsafe Cybersecurity and a vigilante hacker who joins a team of “hacktivisits” in order to take down one of the largest corporations in the world. The series stars Rami Malek, an Egyptian-American actor, who plays a character named “Elliot Alderson.” Over at Buzzfeed, actor Amir Talai explains why it’s frustrating when a brown actor plays a white character and how, in essence, it’s a form of ethnic erasure.

To be clear, I am certainly not referring to how Rami portrays Elliot — he plays the role wonderfully. Rami is a brilliant actor who has been kind to me the handful of times I’ve seen him at auditions over the last decade or so. I’ve been acting in Los Angeles for about 13 years, working on everything from commercials to TV (“The Comeback,” “How I Met Your Mother”) and movies (“Harold and Kumar 2,” “What To Expect When You’re Expecting”). When I heard Rami was playing a lead, I was thrilled for him, and for all of us brown actors. When one of us wins, we all win. Still, and perhaps unwittingly, “Mr. Robot” missed an opportunity here. When we first start acting, brown actors tend to play “brown characters.” As casting directors and producers get to know us and trust our range, the roles we play tend to vary. And getting to play roles with white names feels like a victory. I know I felt that way when I first “graduated” from playing Khalids and Babirs to Patricks and Freds. Bollywood icon Priyanka Chopra, star of ABC’s upcoming “Quantico,” told ABC she wanted her character to be ethnically ambiguous, to help Indian actors be taken more seriously — implying, I guess, that the less you read as Indian, the more seriously you will be taken. Her “Quantico” character name? The unambiguously white “Alex Parrish.” But to me, after over 13 years in the industry, these do not seem like victories anymore. Playing more interesting and larger roles is, but squeezing us unrealistically into a white box is a subtle form of ethnic erasure, and it is not a win. It is saying to the audience and to brown actors that people with white names are more interesting and relatable, and people with brown names are one-dimensional and obsessed with and/or defined by our brownness. Not only does this contribute to the continued stereotyping of brown people, it is false.

3. In Conversation With Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film “The Hateful Eight” is set to be released this Christmas Day, and projected in 70mm no less. Tarantino is currently midway through post-production on “The Hateful Eight,” but Vulture’s Lane Brown caught up with him to discuss his new film, Obama’s second term, his new favorite films and TV shows, and why he doesn’t worry about the future of film.

Q: Speaking of genre, what is it about the Western for you? There aren’t many being made right now. 

A: There are a few coming out. Antoine Fuqua is doing “Magnificent Seven,” starring Denzel Washington, so that’s one. “Django” did so well I’m surprised that there’s not even more.One thing that’s always been true is that there’s no real film genre that better reflects the values and the problems of a given decade than the Westerns made during that specific decade. The Westerns of the ’50s reflected Eisenhower America better than any other films of the day. The Westerns of the ’30s reflected the ’30s ideal. And actually, the Westerns of the ’40s did, too, because there was a whole strain of almost noirish Westerns that, all of a sudden, had dark themes. The ’70s Westerns were pretty much anti-myth Westerns — Watergate Westerns. Everything was about the anti-heroes, everything had a hippie mentality or a nihilistic mentality. Movies came out about Jesse James and the Minnesota raid, where Jesse James is a homicidal maniac. In “Dirty Little Billy,” Billy the Kid is portrayed as a cute little punk killer. Wyatt Earp is shown for who he is in the movie “Doc,” by Frank Perry. In the ’70s, it was about ripping the scabs off and showing who these people really were. Consequently, the big Western that came out in the ’80s was “Silverado,” which was trying to be rah-rah again — that was very much a Reagan Western. 

Q: So what is “Hateful Eight” saying about the 2010s?

A: I’m not trying to make “Hateful Eight” contemporary in any way, shape, or form. I’m just trying to tell my story. It gets to be a little too much when you try to do that, when you try to make a hippie Western or try to make a counterculture Western.

4. An Interview with “BoJack Horseman” Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg.
In its second season, “BoJack Horseman” became one of TV’s very best shows. The series follows a washed-up anthropomorphic horse as he struggles to put his life together, and it’s one of the best depictions of depression, self-destructive behavior, and gut-level existential despair. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff interviews “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg about four of the series’ main characters, sad cartoon characters, and the “Bill Cosby episode.”

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: When I was pitching the show to Michael Eisner [whose Tornante Company produces the show], he said there were too many Hollywood shows, that people are sick of seeing them. So I came back with a pitch: “Okay, maybe he’s a washed-up racehorse.” I pitched out his whole thing is he’s tired of running in circles, which ended up being a part of season two. But then I also said, “What’s interesting to me about the Hollywood stuff is this and this and this.” I don’t remember what I said at the time, but his reaction was like, “You seem like a smart guy. You can do what you want.” I’ve always been interested in Hollywood stories. I guess I’m a little biased because I ended up becoming a television writer, but I’ve never felt alienated by that as someone who wasn’t in the industry. To me, it’s not really about the Hollywood stuff. It’s about this lonely character who feels very isolated. The big thing I wanted to talk about was here’s a guy who’s had every opportunity to be happy and still can’t find a way. The easiest way to translate that would be Hollywood, because that feels so glamorous and glitzy and wonderful. When I first moved to LA I lived in a house not unlike BoJack’s. I was kind of the Todd [BoJack’s 24-year-old housemate] at this very fancy house, and I remember them saying it’s the third-highest elevated house in all of Hollywood. Johnny Depp lived here once. I didn’t know anybody. I just remember feeling simultaneously on top of the world and so isolated and alone. So that kind of imagery was the beginning of the idea.

5. Everything Is Twisted Up and Strange: An Encounter With the Brothers Quay
Identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay are two of the most influential stop-motion animators in the world. Their avant-garde style and grotesque, exaggerated fairy tale-inspired imagery has influenced everyone from Terry Gilliam to Christopher Nolan, who recently bankrolled a 35mm retrospective of their major works at New York’s Film Forum. RogerEbert.com’s Scout Tafoya recently spent time with the two brothers and they discussed everything from “elusive forms” to what personally frightens them.

Let me tell you a fairy tale. Two brothers are raised in a house with big windows, under the care of a man. They can look at the world outside but never go outside and see it. The man says he’s keeping them safe, and he tells the boys everything there is to know about the world outside: the color of plants, the sound of the wind, the shapes and sizes of objects the way people behave, and the way emotions feel and what they mean. The brothers are intrigued by the man’s explanations, but they can’t help feeling there’s more to the world than what the man tells them. One night, while the man is asleep, the brothers look closely at him and discover that his skin is made of wool, like a sweater. They find a loose thread and pull, revealing a whole universe in miniature inside the man’s stomach. But it’s different than how the man described the world to them, and looks different than the one outside their window. Shapes are different, sounds are louder and quieter than the man described, and plants don’t look like they do out the window. In here, inside the man, everything is twisted up and strange; everything is beautifully ugly; every color is more vivid. Instead of people there are puppets. The brothers look into the eyes of the puppets and suddenly they knew everything about humans and more. The puppets taught them everything there was to know about people, things the man never bothered trying to explain. This is the story I’ve always told myself about filmmakers/animators/magicians Stephen & Timothy Quay. How else to explain their inhuman intelligence, their avant-garde rhythms, that they were able to conjure a universe so alike and yet so completely different from our own. So gorgeous, yet so horrific. So fantastic, yet so grounded in the tactile realities of human, plant and animal. Since their debut in 1979, they’ve slowly come to infect our reality with the influence of theirs. They reached into fairy tales for inspiration and, pulled out a secret aesthetic history of the world that only they could see. They’re lovingly, painstakingly crafted short films have influenced everyone from Tim Burton to Terry Gilliam to Christopher Nolan, who has bankrolled an awe-inspiring 35mm retrospective of some of their major works currently playing New York’s Film Forum. He’s also completed a short, sweet documentary on the brothers (simply called “Quay”), filming them with a 35mm camera in their home studio, the first time the director has shot one of his own movies since his 1998 debut “The Following.” That is the kind of affection and dedication the Quays inspire. Right now in film schools across the country there’s one kid in class whose favorite film is “Street of Crocodiles,” and though she may never have the success of the Kubrick or Leone fans, she’ll tug on the sweater that conceals reality until she really understands the way art can unearth the secrets of humanity.

6. Scenic Routes: Jo Van Fleet in Elia Kazan’s “Wild River”. 
Mike D’Angelo’s Scenic Routes column examines and analyzes key scenes in classic films, illustrating their function and their strategy and explaining why they’re worthwhile. Past entries have explored scenes from films such as “Captain Phillips,” “Mission to Mars,” and “Unforgiven.” This week, D’Angelo explores a scene from Elia Kazan’s “Wild River,” and how actress Jo Van Fleet steals the show by playing a character twice her age.

First things first: Jo Van Fleet was only 45 years old when she appeared in “
Wild River.” She was actually 16 years younger than Jay C. Flippen, who plays her character’s son, Hamilton Garth. Apparently, makeup was involved, but it’s not the garishly unconvincing old-age makeup that was standard during Hollywood’s golden age. They merely whitened Van Fleet’s hair, added some unobtrusive wrinkles and liver spots, and let her performance do all the heavy lifting. She was somehow capable of seeming — not just looking, but genuinely seeming — much older than her years, right from her big-screen debut as James Dean’s mom in “East Of Eden.” That role scored her an Oscar nomination; this one, surprisingly, didn’t, even in a year so weak for Best Supporting Actress that Shirley Jones managed to win (for “Elmer Gantry”). To be clear, what’s impressive isn’t that Van Fleet is playing a character almost twice as old as she is — it’s that she’s not letting the need to appear elderly distract her from the character’s emotional truth. There’s nothing even remotely stunt-like about her work here. It’s direct and unfussy and powerfully moving.

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