Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Why Our Conversations About Art and Politics Are So Unproductive. The relationship between art and politics has always been a little fraught. Aesthetics and ideology hardly ever line up perfectly with the politics of art often being “problematic.” However, cultural criticism has recently become more and more political, and oftentimes art criticism has been rendered a litmus test for progressive politics. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explores why conversations about art and politics have become so unproductive lately.
In treating political systems, are we interested in fine-grained explorations of institutions and individuals within them, or broad judgement? Do we trust audiences to pick up on subtlety, or do we operate on the idea that many people who consume pop culture are either stupid or uninterested in nuance? Do we think political art should serve to deepen the commitment of the already-converted, or do we hope that it can reach new people in part by breaking out of the hardened arteries that circumscribe so many of our political debates? How do we reckon with artists whose technical abilities compel us even as their ideas rattle us? These are important questions, and they’re not settled, even though much political criticism presumes an agreement that does not, in fact, exist.
2. “Dr. Who,” Beer, and Other “Rick & Morty” Influences. Adult Swim’s “Rick & Morty” is easily one of the best shows on television at the moment, combining madcap sci-fi adventures with trenchant explorations of human folly. The show’s creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon (“Community”) have created a world that has its debts to the pop culture of the past, but also entirely embodies their own unique personalities. Vulture’s Simon Abrams interviews the two creators about their influences on the series.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
Dan Harmon: “Hitchhiker’s Guide” is the most blatant influence when it comes to my contribution to the show. It was, more so than “Dungeons & Dragons,” a safe place for me [at Morty’s age]. Douglas Adams’s books go into this universe that is bigger, louder, more scary than junior high. But at the same time, it was for me. And the humor of it all was a wink and a joke between me and the author. It was a lot like a dad kicking you out into the woods and saying, “Look, here are the keys to the kingdom.” It’s like, when you’re going through puberty, having an old nerd draw you a map of the cosmos and say, “Everyone’s full of shit, life means nothing, therefore, anywhere you go, you’re at the center of the universe. It’s fucked up and then you die. But it’s funny, and booze tastes good, and just have at it. The best thing you can do with your brain is have a good time.” The map of “Rick and Morty’s” cosmos is just lifted from Douglas Adams. With all apologies.
3. Movie-Media Relations Hit a New Low at Toronto International Film Festival. The Toronto Film Festival is still underway until the end of the week, and there have been quite a few well-received premieres and positive critical notices for many of the films at the festival. However, certain things haven’t gone so smoothly at the festival, including the relationship between artists and the media. The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz writes about how movie-media relations at the fest have reached a new low this year.
Press outlets from across the world use the festival to gather interviews, features and all that fun content necessary to feed the insatiable news hole over the next few months, or whenever festival films finally make it to a theater near you. It’s part of the genius of TIFF: gathering thousands of stars and journalists in one convenient place to squeeze hundreds of press junkets into three or four snappy days. But if studios, PR gatekeepers and overzealous flacks keep up the current trend of shutting out all but the top tier of U.S. press (“Vanity Fair,” “The New York Times” and “Hollywood Reporter,” say), then foreign audiences, including Canadians, will have nothing to rely on but regurgitated wire copy and “hot take” write-arounds. Readers are left with one big echo chamber. For example, witness New York Magazine’s recent interview with Quentin Tarantino, the only sit-down the director has so far offered ahead of the release of “The Hateful Eight.” Lane Brown’s story was excellent, but because it was the only one out there, other outlets could only tear the piece apart for scraps, posting useless ancillary stories that added nothing to the conversation – except, of course, a high level of “Hateful Eight” awareness, which is all the studio cares about. The same operating procedure is being executed at this year’s TIFF, in a way. Canadian press, including “The Globe and Mail,” are still offered opportunities to talk with visiting talent, but we must also watch our top requests get rejected and our time curtailed, often accompanied by half-baked excuses (“We ran out of time!”) or transparent lies (“We’re not doing any press for this movie.”).
4. Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” Is Kickstarter Wish Fulfillment Done Right. Speaking of TIFF, legendary screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman’s second film “Anomalisa” premiered at the festival a few days ago. The stop-motion animated exploration into existential loneliness features Kaufman’s unique brand of humor and pathos, and has garnered plenty of rave reviews. Over at GQ, Scott Tobias writes about “Anomalisa” and how it embodies the absolute best of crowdfunding films.
Here’s what the films of Charlie Kaufman teach us about life: 1. It is a conformist wasteland full of petty annoyances and soul-crushing banality; 2. It is an ash-gray blanket of loneliness, longing, and depression; 3. The best we can hope for is some sliver of transcendence, like spending a few minutes inside John Malkovich’s head before getting deposited off the New Jersey Turnpike; 4. Love is all that matters, but it almost never lasts. This is the philosophy of a man who might be found under his desk, curled up in a fetal ball. And it’s possible that just one more person talking to him about the weather would do it. Instead, however, Kaufman remains perhaps the most brilliant comic mind in American film, with a special gift for turning existential anguish into conceptually inspired and unmistakably personal films like “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Synecdoche, New York.” His latest effort as writer and director — and his first in the seven years since “Synecdoche” — is the stop-motion marvel “Anomalisa,” a caustic and beautiful comedy that distills his point of view as well as anything he’s done before. His torments are once again our pleasure. “Anomalisa” was originally a play Kaufman had written in 2005, and it began its arduous journey to the screen in July 2012, when he teamed up with “Community’s” Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos to raise money for the project via Kickstarter. They asked for $200,000 to make a 40-minute movie. They got double that and made a 90-minute movie. This won’t surprise anyone who’s seen “Synecdoche, New York,” which is about a filmmaker who keeps adding layers upon layers to a project until it completely gets away from him. But the stop-motion process — along with Kaufman’s small-scale conceit about “a man crippled by the mundanity of his life” — enforces a discipline on the film that serves it nicely. Animation is too much of a pain in the ass to accommodate one of Kaufman’s typically delirious third acts.
5. In Defense of Completely Predictable Movie Plot Twists. The new Austrian horror film “Goodnight Mommy,” about the relationship between two twins and their mother who has returned from reconstructive surgery with a bandaged face, features a plot twist that many critics believe was quite obvious. However, contrary to what we’ve all been taught about predictable narratives, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff argues that that predictable movie plot twists ain’t so bad if they’re in service of something better.
Because twists exist solely to turn everything on its ear — rather than to reveal something deeper about the characters — guessing one rarely leads to the kind of detective work that “Goodnight Mommy” or “Mr. Robot” reward. When twists are handled well, they can feel like glorious “aha” moments that arrive out of the blue, like the writers and directors pulled off a kind of magic trick. At their worst, twists feel sort of nonsensical and mostly there to throw the audience for a loop. I will freely admit that this taxonomy of “reveals” and “twists” is highly biased by my own feelings. You might have watched any of these examples and had the opposite experience: either been disappointed because you guessed what was happening early on, or blindsided by a reveal I’ve suggested was designed to be easy to guess. And sometimes, merely knowing a movie has a twist will send viewers into a film watching intently, trying to spot the twist before the movie springs it. In those cases, attentive viewers will almost always guess the twist or reveal before the film unveils it. All I would suggest is that sometimes, when we complain about something making a twist too easy to guess, its creators may just be trying to lead you by the nose to a reveal because that makes everything around it psychologically richer.
6. How MTV’s “The Challenge” Become One of TV’s Most Riveting Workplace Dramas. The A.V. Club has a feature called “100 Episodes” that explores television shows that have reached that magic number that all but guarantees syndication. Some of these shows were huge hits, others were cult favorites that hung around long enough. In the most recent entry, Joshua Alston covers MTV’s “The Challenge” which began in 1998 and just completed its 26th season.
“The Challenge” technically premiered in June 1998, but its earliest incarnation couldn’t be more different than what the show is now. The debut season didn’t even have the word “challenge” in its title. “Road Rules: All Stars” was Bunim-Murray’s first formal cross-pollination of its successful reality brands, and it grew out of a playful franchise rivalry in which each season’s “Road Rules” gang would try to prank the “Real World” cast currently in production. “All Stars” followed “Road Rules'” standard format except that instead of a group of collegiate unknowns, an assorted quintet of former “Real World” housemates teamed up for an action-packed road trip with the promise of a “handsome reward” awaiting them at the final destination. “All Stars” had no eliminations, duels, or cash prizes, and the primary draw was watching “Real World’s” spoiled homebodies in more taxing, goal-focused scenarios. The show didn’t feature bone-crushing physical challenges, and was instead fueled by “Amazing Race”-style travel excursions such as sheep shearing and spending the night in a purportedly haunted mental hospital. The “Road Rules” facsimile format remained intact until the fifth season, 2002’s “Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Battle Of The Seasons,” in which the producers eliminated the Winnebago trips and began housing the cast in swanky, isolated villas. The new format inverted the show’s original concept; rather than expose the coddled “Real World” housemates to a relatively harsh life on the road, the “Road Rules” cast members were granted a taste of the tony “Real World” lifestyle. The change was all the more significant because of when it took place — as Bunim-Murray was in production on “Real World: Las Vegas,” the season in which that show completed its transformation from an earnest examination of difference to a boozy bacchanal. The massive success of the Las Vegas season, which embodied the city’s den-of-iniquity image, affirmed “The Real World’s” tonal shift. And as “The Challenge” started to resemble “The Real World,” it naturally developed its forebear’s appetite for hook-ups, blow-ups, and drunken debauchery.
Tweet of the Day:
If “feminist film criticism” is just two sets of checklists headed “good” and “problematic” I don’t know why the hell Laura Mulvey bothered
— Glenn Kenny (@Glenn__Kenny) September 14, 2015