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Daily Reads: A New Generation of Feminist Westerns, ‘You’re The Worst’s’ Brilliant Depiction of Depression, and More

Daily Reads: A New Generation of Feminist Westerns, 'You're The Worst's' Brilliant Depiction of Depression, and More

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

1. A New Generation of Westerns Puts Women in the Saddle.
The Western film genre is wrapped up in a lot of classic American ideology and iconography. There’s the frontier, the classic narratives about retaining certain values, the gunfights, etc. But obviously many of these stories have white men at their center and minorities pushed to the edge, and women especially serving an ancillary role. However, some modern Westerns are bucking this trend. The A.V. Club’s Kiva Reardon explores the new generation of Westerns that put women at their center.

The first sign of change arrived in 2010, with Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” the film that best embodies an alternate, feminist history of the West. Based loosely on the 1845 ill-fated attempt to cross the Oregon Trail, “Meek’s Cutoff” isn’t shot from the real-life titular character’s perspective, but from the wives in the group: Emily (Michelle Williams), Glory (Shirley Henderson), and Millie (Zoe Kazan). The camera often stays with them as they observe, and critique, Meek’s inability to take them to safety. Reichardt’s camera placement is entrenched with the women, and the dialogue among the female characters foregrounds the action that happens at the back of the caravan. At times frustratingly slow, “Meek’s Cutoff” evokes a mode of storytelling that comes from those who aren’t the leaders, those who are trapped and led to a destiny they want to refuse. It isn’t a conventional narrative pace, but it highlights that while there is a man up at the front, the stories at the back of the caravan are rich in human emotion too. The critical success of “Meek’s Cutoff” might be a factor in the increasing number of female-centric Westerns that have been released since. Four years later, Tommy Lee Jones returned to directing with “The Homesman.” Based on Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name, the film is as deceptive as “Johnny Guitar” in its masculine title: the women are foregrounded from the outset, especially Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). She is a plough-driving, practical, and self-sufficient woman, with no husband or children. Free of ties that bind, she agrees to escort a group of women who’ve lost their minds across the country from her small town. (This alone makes it a radical narrative, as the film journeys — literally and metaphorically — with those suffering from mental illness instead of locking them away.) En route, Mary meets a grifter, George Briggs (Jones), who joins their group. Mary’s journey ends before the film’s conclusion, but she still haunts the film until the final moment. Briggs, drunk, accidentally knocks the tombstone he’s taking to her unmarked grave into a river. No one notices but the camera, which captures it disappearing into the dark waters. It’s a succinct and powerful image of how so many women’s stories go untold and forgotten.

2. “You’re The Worst” Aired the Best Depiction of Clinical Depression on TV.
FXX’s “You’re The Worst” focuses on the relationship between Jimmy and Gretchen, two fuck-ups who fight the world and its demands of maturity and responsibility at every turn. The series currently has a small, but passionate fanbase with quite a bit of critical support for its biting wit and sensitive drama. But the series’ last episode was the best of the series and one of the best episodes you’ll see this year, and much of that is for its depiction of clinical depression. The LA Times’ Libby Hill writes about the episode and why it succeeded with its portrayal of mental illness where so many other shows fail. (Ed. note: Vikram wrote a fine piece about it here.)

Gretchen can’t tell Jimmy about her illness because he won’t understand. Jimmy won’t understand Gretchen’s depression because Gretchen doesn’t understand. Depression doesn’t make sense, and “You’re the Worst” understands that. To reveal such pertinent information about one of your leads in the middle of the second season of your show displays a huge sense of confidence, counting on the audience to inherently trust the storytelling process. HBO’s “Girls” made a similar move in its second season, revealing that Hannah (Lena Dunham) suffered from OCD, a move that received mixed reviews from audiences. The reason “You’re the Worst’s” reveal works as well as it does is the seeds it’s been planting about the issue since day one. Gretchen and Jimmy have long opted for self-medication when it comes to alcohol and casual drug use, a choice that Gretchen could have easily used to mask her underlying illness. Audiences have always known Gretchen to be somewhat aimless, drifting through her life as though she had no say in where she ended up, and a diagnosis of clinical depression clarifies her previously inexplicable malaise perfectly. But this storyline doesn’t work without Cash’s incisive performance as Gretchen. The silent work she does in the background of scenes is mesmerizing, and you can see Gretchen’s happy mask slipping whenever she’s left alone. At its heart, what “You’re the Worst” understands that most shows, most individuals, don’t, is that clinical depression often functions as a sine wave. There are good times, times when you’re as close to normal as you ever manage, times where it feels like you’re finally free of the shadow of illness that stalks your every move, and you hope those days last forever. But nothing gold can stay and soon you’re suffused with darkness again.

3. “You’re The Worst” Creator Stephen Falk on Depression and Television.
Many critics really responded to the “You’re The Worst” episode in question, claiming its a high-water mark for the series. Much of the credit goes to creator Stephen Falk who has infused the series with his own singular voice since day one. Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet interviews Falk about his choice to reveal Gretchen’s depression and his thoughts on how it’s depicted on TV.

Q: In general, how do you feel about the way depression tends to be portrayed on television?

A: I think it’s pretty limited. In doing the research for writing it, we delved a lot into the effect depression has on relationships, and I think that’s a main focus for us. It’s a very hard thing to show, because it can be very inactive and very cerebral. It can be a feedback loop of negative thoughts and self-recrimination, and that’s not easy to dramatize. But when you focus it, as we have, on the effect it has on a relationship, I think that’s a little easier. I watch a fair amount of television; I can’t think of a lot of ways it has been shown. I think the general public is just starting, maybe, to understand it, and yet I think it’s very, very difficult, even for human beings who have lived with it, lived with someone who has it, to understand it. The fallacy you hear all the time is not treating it like an illness. A lot of people think, “Oh, are you feeling happier today? Are you over it now?” A lot of depression sufferers will tell you that’s narrow-minded and short-sighted and not helpful — and yet completely understandable if you don’t have it. It felt like rich ground for us, but certainly when we pitched it to FX at the beginning of the season, I told them, “We’re gonna do a season about depression.” I think they were a little skeptical and nervous, but at no point did they say, “Don’t do it.” They just said, “Make sure it stays active and interesting.” Never fun, just interesting. And that’s, I think, what our job is: to be interesting, to be watchable, to be engaging — while not very funny. I certainly think we’ve never been a show that’s afraid of, like Edgar’s PTSD, doing things that don’t sound like they remotely belong in a comedy.

4. Danny Boyle Directs “Steve Jobs” Like a Conductor.
Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s new film “Steve Jobs” about the titular character at three crucial moments in his life opens nationwide today. Though Sorkin’s dialogue takes center stage in the film, Boyle’s direction is also a crucial element that allows the dialogue to sing. At the Nashville Scene, Bilge Ebiri examines Danny Boyle’s direction in the film and how he “plays the orchestra.”

It’s easy to forget that Danny Boyle directed “Steve Jobs” — at least, until you see “Steve Jobs.” This highly contained biopic of the late Apple co-founder and alleged techno-cultural visionary (played by Michael Fassbender) isn’t an expansive, visual journey through Jobs’ many achievements. (And to be fair, we’ve got at least two other films about that part of the story, including the dire Ashton Kutcher-starring Great Man biopic “Jobs” from a couple of years ago.) Rather, it’s another of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s smart, chatty chamber pieces. Boyle, on the other hand, the director of “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” revels in montages and music and stylization; those less generous to his oeuvre might even call his films glorified music videos. What’s he doing here? Quite a lot, it turns out. Sorkin’s script is structured pretty much entirely around the backstage conversations before three of Jobs’ most notable product launches: The 1984 unveiling of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of the ill-fated educational computer company NeXT, and his triumphant 1998 introduction of the first iMacs after returning to Apple. Each section of the film brings out the same characters to track Jobs’ conflicts in business, technology and life: His resolute marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), affable Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), onetime Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and his neglected daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss), whose paternity he originally denies. Onstage, this kind of insular, highly structured approach would be fairly standard, even schematic. On film, it could come across as, well, stagy. But Boyle does something surprising with Sorkin’s endless cascades of dialogue: He turns them into music. There’s an internal rhythm to “Steve Jobs” — to the restless back-and-forth, to the free flow of accusations, protestations and duplicities — that’s toe-tappingly infectious. You could watch this movie over and over again just to revel in the musicality of these voices and words. (There’s a score, too, by Daniel Pemberton, but it undulates, muted, in the background — as if it’s just laying down a mood so the real notes, the words, can take the stage.)

5. The History of Horror-Comedy in 11 Crucial Films.
Last weekend, the “Goosebumps” film, adapted from the R.L. Stine book series of the same name, opened strong in theaters grossing $23.5 million. Though some of its success is due to the fact that a family-friendly film is coming out in late October, but it’s being released alongside films like “Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” and “The Final Girls,” that can be reasonably described as “horror comedy.” Vulture’s Charles Bramesco explores this subgenre through 11 crucial films.

“A Bucket of Blood” (1959): By 1959, the inhumanly prolific Roger Corman had already helmed 22 features in his four years of professional directing. (Accounts of the filmmaker eating or sleeping are understandably rare.) Cranking out five pictures a year can take a toll on an artist’s creative reserves, and so perhaps it was inevitable that Corman would mix things up and try his hand at comedy. At first he had his misgivings about dipping his toes into a new genre, but this experiment spawned one of the trash auteur’s true classics. A simple-minded busboy named Walter Paisley covers up an inadvertent cat-murder by coating the evidence in clay and passing it off as a sculpture. Naturally, a bougier-than-thou art crowd goes gaga for the “hideous and eloquent” masterpiece, and soon Walter has no choice but to kill again so that he may feed the beatniks’ unknowing demand for blood. Placing the lightest personal touch on his trademark cheapo scare tactics, Corman produced this enduring work of camp in five days flat, and then it was onto the next one. “A Bucket of Blood” represents the rare example of a horror-comedy finding its humor in the realm of satire rather than a bloody reinterpretation of slapstick comedy (stabstick?). Corman gets laughs by lampooning the pretensions of an art scene that had just begun to wrap its mouths around the word “hipster,” and then in killing them, he does precisely what we’ve all imagined doing to the café-line gasbags bloviating about what is or is not True Art. It’s cathartic, scathing, and altogether pretty heady for a movie made using pocket change by the guy who had just finished up “Hot Car Girl.” Which is exactly what it sounds like.

Shaun of the Dead” (2004): Edgar Wright’s never done the same thing twice, trying his hand in buddy-cop flicks, spaghetti Westerns, post-apocalyptic thrillers, and the glorious fusion of video-game, comic-book, and anime styles that is “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The through line connecting his disparate films has always been a deep, abiding love for the genres to which he’s paying homage, and nowhere is his affection for cinematic tradition more evident than in his zom-com “Shaun of the Dead.” As a pair of incompetent slackers fight their way through a British hamlet infested with the undead, Wright genuflects to the horror shows that captured his imagination as a kid and creates one of his own at the same time. Wright likely has a small shrine to “Night of the Living Dead” director George A. Romero tucked inside a closet in his house — an influence he wears on his sleeve through “Shaun of the Dead’s” savvy navigation of zombie tropes. The film is the rare horror-comedy that knows itself, but never gets lost in smirking irony. Wright’s horror-comedy comes from a place of sincerity, where the pristine waters of cinephilia lap up against the untouched shore of cannibalistic reanimated corpses.

6. Maybe “Selling Out” Isn’t So Bad After All.
The nebulous concept of “selling out” has hung over artists for generations because it represented a line in the metaphorical sand between those who were True Artists and those who were In It For The Cash. But of course, in today’s technology and social media-saturated culture, it’s becoming harder and harder not to “sell out,” and it’s becoming easier and easier to critique the foundations of such a flawed concept. At Wired, director John Magary writes about making his debut feature, “The Mend,” one of the very best films of the year, and how selling out ain’t so bad.

In what ways could popular artists sell out in the Time Before Social Media? Here are some hazily remembered examples for the Millennials to pore over, saucer-eyed: licensing your music or body or face for an advertisement; displaying unironic joy in your own music video; touring with the Smashing Pumpkins; publicly flaunting the material advantages of fame; charging more than a nominal fee for a performance; announcing an album release date at an awards show; acting in pretty much any television show; and — a more current example — creating a website in your own name. (This is why, to this day, I have refused to pay what I assume is a reasonable fee to register johnmagary.biz.) In a world that, to my hopeful, idiotic young eyes, favored the good and right to triumph over the cynical and bad, these were the boundaries for artists as I understood them. 
But anyway, yeah, so the movie’s on iTunes. It was shot over a period of twenty-five days in 4K digital in a 2.35 aspect ratio and has a 5.1 Dolby Surround mix, and now you can watch it on your fucking phone. I am somewhat ambivalent about your ease of access, dear consumer, but with a gun to my head I’ll admit: watching the movie imperfectly is preferable to not watching it at all. Many a key movie in my life — “Taxi Driver,” say, or Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up” — was first experienced on VHS on an unremarkable tube television with “tron” somewhere in its model name. I absorbed these movies just fine. Indeed, I suspect strongly that, had I first seen these films on pristine 35mm prints in a hushed cinematheque, their impact would have been no deeper. A good movie will connect through the poorest of delivery; the viewer just has to show up and, against all odds, pay attention.

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