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Daily Reads: In Defense of the Film Snob, The Strange Must-See Return of ‘Project Greenlight,’ and More

Daily Reads: In Defense of the Film Snob, The Strange Must-See Return of 'Project Greenlight,' and More

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

1. Is It So Wrong to Be a Film Snob? 
Snobbery has always been a pejorative insult that has in turn been a point of pride for some folks. Of course, snobbery isn’t inherently a bad thing. Snobs have standards and tastes that drive their cultural choices, choosing to be discerning with their time rather than spend it on some mainstream, middlebrow event. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott explores film snobbery, cinephilia, and how it’s time to reclaim the label.

There is a rich tradition, for instance, of film snobbery, or rather of passionate cinephiles being derided as snobs because of their willingness to read subtitles. The film industry does what it can in the autumn months to beckon them back into theaters with promises of “seriousness,” but a true snob will disdain obvious Oscar bait. If, that is, there are any true film snobs left. As subtitled movies grow scarcer on American screens, the traditional signifiers of snobbery grow scarce. Is a film snob someone who name-checks Pedro Costa, Michael Haneke or other international auteurs? Someone who drops the word “auteur” into a discussion of “Mad Max: Fury Road”? A person who admires Kristen Wiig, but only in her serious roles? You see the problem. “Snob” is a category in which nobody would willingly, or at least unironically, claim membership. Like the related (and similarly complicated) term “hipster,” it’s what you call someone else. What some of my nearest and dearest, I might as well admit, call me. When I wrinkle my nose at a restaurant or roll my eyes at a movie that everyone else seems to be enjoying, the word comes accusatorily tripping off my children’s tongues, and I find myself at pains to explain that they are quite mistaken. A snob is a person who brandishes borrowed notions of distinction, whereas I — by temperament as well as by profession a critic — have devoted much of my life to the disinterested application of true standards of excellence. It’s the very opposite of snobbery. The difference should be self-evident. Oddly enough, this argument is rarely convincing. And I find myself lately feeling less like a caricature — a prig in an ascot, a fuddy-duddy with a pipe or any of the other amusing types a Google image search will yield — than like a fossil, the last devotee of an obscure and obsolescent creed, or the only participant in an argument that has long since been settled. It seems to be an article of modern democratic faith that disputing taste is taboo: at best a lapse in manners, at worst an offense against feelings or social order (which sometimes seem to amount to the same thing). Our nation is at present riven by social inequality and polarized by ideology, but the last thing anyone wants to be called is an elitist.

2. The Strange, Must-See Return of “Project Greenlight.” 
In December of 2001, a little documentary series called “Project Greenlight” premiered on HBO. Produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the series sought to give an untested director the opportunity to make their first film. In its original run, the show ran for three seasons (two on HBO an one on Bravo) and produced three mediocre films unworthy of notice. But now, Damon and Affleck have revitalized “Project Greenlight” and it has strangely become must-watch TV. Over at GQ, Scott Tobias writes about the new season and how it’s mined drama from pushing against the rigged nature of the series.

And so with Season Four, we have a spectacular collision of forces: A show rigged to make it virtually impossible to produce a good movie and an insolent director who insists on trying. The terms and conditions remain as bad as ever, too. After the first season, the showrunners have thrown out the idea that the director can work from his own script — and the pronoun “his” applies, since all the winners have been men — and so now it’s an awkward arranged marriage between a filmmaker desperate to get his foot in the door and a screenplay that may be some distance from his sensibility. This year, lucky auteur Jason Mann was bequeathed a truly awful-sounding rom-com called “Not Another Pretty Woman,” about a guy who gets left at the altar and winds up marrying a prostitute instead. And the show stipulates he has to do the rewrite with Pete Jones, whose affability has apparently earned him a legacy spot on the “Project Greenlight” roster. So with a dubious talent in Jones, a $3 million budget, and a total absence of confidence from everyone involved in the production, this complete novice has six weeks of preproduction to whip this turd into shape…And yet Mann, a beakish film-school upstart, has been quixotically determined to act like an artist, rather than grateful contest-winner. When the powers-that-be this season — Damon and Affleck, HBO chief Len Amato, “mentor”/troublemaker Peter Farrelly and his brother Bobby, and producers Effie Brown and Mark Joubert, and Pearl Street Films’ president Jennifer Todd — gather around to interview the finalists, Mann seems to be interviewing them for the privilege of hiring him to salvage their awful script. He won’t make this dumb Farrelly-esque movie unless it can be overhauled to suit his more darkly comic sensibility. (Farrelly is not pleased, though he comes around on the kid, with disastrous consequences.) And the moment after Mann wins the job anyway, he buttonholes Matt and Ben backstage with two dictums: He wants to shoot on film instead of digital video and he wants to fire Pete Jones and replace him with another director. Who does this guy think he is?

3. Why “The Martian” Is A Better Companion Piece to “Alien” Than “Prometheus.” 
Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” starring Matt Damon has opened to positive reviews and is set to be a box office hit. The film follows an astronaut stranded on Mars as he tries to signal to Earth that he’s alive and the subsequent rescue mission to bring him back. Uproxx Editor Keith Phipps explains why “The Martian” is a better companion piece to Scott’s second film “Alien” than the actual companion piece “Prometheus.”

“The Martian” opens with a storm sequence, that could almost pass as a red-tinted version of the conditions the “Nostromo” crew experiences, when landing on the planet housing the derelict spaceship sending out a distress signal. Traversing it requires considerable preparation; surviving it is anything but a given. Space exploration requires creating an environment in which humans can live and breathe and, just as importantly, shutting out everything that might wreck that environment. When crew members return with an unconscious, and implanted, Kane (John Hurt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to let them in, citing the need to follow quarantine protocols. She’s undermined by Ash (Ian Holm). It’s bad scientific practice, and it seals their fate. Yet part of the beauty of “Alien” comes from the way science plays no favorites. The Xenomorph is a pitiless beast hardwired to reproduce at the expense of every living creature around, “a perfect organism,” in Ash’s words. But it’s also a true monster from the id, the product of the imagination of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who combined images from nightmares and erotic daydreams with reckless abandon. It looks like an oozing phallus and has claws seemingly made to pluck out eyeballs. It looks, in other words, like it crawled out of hell. Yet, in the film’s final scene, it’s physics that does in what looks like a monster from realms beyond human comprehension. Ripley pushes a button and blows it out of the airlock. It dies, screaming, in the silence of space, just as any other living thing else would. Without giving too much away, there’s a neat, if purely coincidental parallel to that airlock scene in “The Martian,” one that drives home how much the two films have in common — and how little they share with “Prometheus,” a sort-of prequel to “Alien” released in 2012. Where “Alien” and “The Martian” both have their roots in hard sci-fi (a phrase now impossible to write without hearing it in the voice of Martin Starr’s “Party Down” character), “Prometheus” is a different sort of beast, a mythic, image-driven fantasy of space and fear. Where “Alien” has its roots in back issues of “Omni,” “Prometheus” plays like it was taken from half-remembered stories published in “Heavy Metal” and imagery found on ’70s custom vans.

4. “The Walk” and the Role of the Critic. 
The separation between critic and artist has always been an interesting one, sometimes distinct and obvious and other times blurred and obscured. But as much as artists and critics are intertwined, the goals of one ultimately diverge from the other. Movie Mezzanine’s Noah Gittell explores the role of the critic through a question he asked at the New York Film Festival press screening of Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk.”

I don’t usually ask questions at press conferences. I’m too often crippled with self-doubt and assume that my question is not worth asking. But following the New York Film Festival press screening of “The Walk,” I couldn’t resist. I raised my hand and spoke into the mic, “Mr. Zemeckis, you’ve made two films involving plane crashes [“Cast Away” and “Flight”]. You made a movie that featured flying cars [“Back to the Future Part II”]. Now you’ve made “The Walk.” Have you given any thought to what interests you about the sky and our potential to fall from it?” Zemeckis answered quickly, “Uh, no.” There was a bit of an awkward pause, and he seemed to realize he needed to say more. He talked about how he is a pilot, and that he is afraid of crashing, so maybe he’s working out his fears on film. But it felt shrugged off, and it was very clear that Zemeckis has not done much self-analysis as to why he keeps returning to the same themes. Of course, it’s not uncommon for critics to pick themes out of an artist’s work that they themselves are unaware of. In fact, it’s the norm. On a recent podcast, Paul Thomas Anderson claimed to have a perfectly fine relationship with his father — a surprise to anyone who has watched his ongoing series of dysfunctional father-son relationships on film. The same goes with Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg, who both possess consistent motifs in film that must be informed by some experiential knowledge, but have said little of substance about their own upbringings. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s exactly right. An artist who spends too much time thinking about their themes or subconscious inclinations is unlikely to produce anything of value. But, more importantly, Zemeckis’ non-answer illuminates the difference in the roles of critic and artist. The artist’s job is to create — to inspire wonder or terror, to provoke thought, or to help an audience transcend reality. The critic’s job is to look at that product, and ask not only if it was successful or not, but also to wonder out loud what it means and what its impact might be. In other words, I asked the right question, and Zemeckis gave the right answer.

5. What Disaster Films Miss About Death. 
The new disaster film “Everest” dramatizes the 1996 Mount Everest disaster focusing on the survival attempts of two expedition groups. It’s garnered mostly mixed-to-positive reviews, with some critics claiming that the film is mostly anonymous and imitative, indulging in action film cliches despite being based on a painfully tragic real-life story. The New Yorker’s James Douglas examines what disaster films like “Everest” miss about death.

The journalist Jon Krakauer, who was a member of Hall’s expedition and made it to the summit, has criticized the film for inaccuracies about his actions that weekend. But apart from this and some other inventions — the filmmakers script plausible scenarios for the deaths of Hansen and Harris, about which little is known for sure — “Everest” is largely faithful to the circumstances behind the disaster. There are no unlikely feats of strength, or fantastic rescues, or deus ex machinas. Even so, when characters start dying — dropping off the mountain, or laying down in the snow to freeze — the film has trouble investing their deaths with much emotional weight, and seems unable to shake the values of a Hollywood disaster movie. Why does “Everest” feel so shallow? Part of the problem may be that it spreads its focus too thin across the cast (in his review, Anthony Lane suggests that the film suffers from overcrowding). There are also considerations of accuracy that limit the kind of dramatic license the film can take. At such high altitudes, mountaineers are physically constrained by heavy clothing, and conversation is difficult and halting. Jon Krakauer recounted the specific restrictions of climbing Everest in his 1997 book on the disaster, “Into Thin Air” (“Everest” is not a direct adaptation of that book, but it follows its arc fairly closely). Krakauer describes an agonizingly slow pace of movement, having to stop and “draw three or four lungfuls of air after each ponderous step.” His book emphasizes the mental debilitation that affected the climbers. Stepping at last on the summit of the mountain, he recalls struggling to care: “So little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child.” Such conditions possibly inhibited the filmmakers from developing substantive scenes to play. But there’s also a question of whether it’s possible to make the events on Everest dramatically intelligible at all. Despite existing in the popular imagination as an adventurous pursuit, the ascent in Krakauer’s account involved a great deal of inaction and passivity: the route was pre-determined, key logistical decisions had (or should have) been solved in advance, coöperation between climbers was minimal. When things went wrong — faulty radios, unstrung ropes, delays on the path, confusion about oxygen supply — they did so in a variety of small ways that resist undue dramatic emphasis.

6. YouTube’s Young Viewers Are Becoming Its Creators. 
When YouTube was launched in 2005, there was no way to predict how successful it would be, let alone a platform for some of the youngest, most creative minds of the next generation. Over at the New York Times, Noel Murray writes about how the platform’s young viewers, like his son, are slowly becoming its creators.

Like a lot of American adolescents, 14-year-old Archer Murray and his 11-year-old sister, Cady, spend their free time reading, playing games, talking with friends and watching videos on the Internet. With their laptops, cellphones and tablets, they click on YouTube, searching for a range of content like episodes of Japanese cartoons and tips on what to do in Minecraft. They almost never turn on a television set or watch anything produced by a broadcast or cable network. Their father — me — consumes a typical adult TV diet of sitcoms, prestige dramas and reality shows, but the Murray children are embracing the new kind of broadcasting, which circumvents the old media gatekeepers and delivers content better tailored to their interests. The traditional television industry keeps trying to find ways to draw those young eyes, by littering their programs with social media hashtags and giving development deals to Twitter and YouTube users who have hundreds of thousands of followers. But viewers under 18 are not seeing the Internet as a farm system for Hollywood, the way the major studios hope. Malik Ducard, the global head of family and learning at YouTube, sees this dynamic every day — both at work and at home, where his children are 13, 10 and 7. “My personal belief is that kids travel from medium to medium and vehicle to vehicle seamlessly,” he said. “It’s become something innate and natural to this generation.”

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