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Daily Reads: ‘The Babadook,’ ‘It Follows,’ and the New No-Win Horror, Scorsese on Film Preservation, and More

Daily Reads: 'The Babadook,' 'It Follows,' and the New No-Win Horror, Scorsese on Film Preservation, and More

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

1. On “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” and the New Age of Unbeatable Horror.
In the past couple years, two of the most acclaimed horror films in years have been released: “The Babadook” and “It Follows.” Both films are about a “supernatural evil that can’t be stopped” and feature a similar eerie tone. The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray explores the possible trend that could arise from these two films and how they may reflect 2010’s apocalyptic anxiety.

Let’s make one thing clear up top: Ascribing any larger meaning to a particular pop culture uprising can be a fool’s game, because it presumes artistic intent within an enterprise that’s fundamentally profit-driven. If all of a sudden there are a bunch of movies and books and TV shows about zombies, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our artists have developed some deep-seated psychological or sociological need to tell stories about the undead. Individual& zombie films and shows may be trying to explore serious ideas, but the trend proliferates because producers smell money. One big success begets another — and continues to do so until consumers revolt. Still, it was no accident that during the era of the Cold War and atomic angst, movie theaters were full of outer space invaders and irradiated monsters. Sometimes the connection between what’s happening on the big screen and what’s going on in the world outside is too blatant to ignore. Other times, it’s more tenuous. The “animals attack” eco-horror of the 1970s was clearly tied to a heightened awareness of environmental issues; and when the hyper-ironic Generation X was ascendant in the 1990s, mega-hits like “Scream” put slasher pictures in quotation marks. But a shelf’s worth of books have been written about what the post-“Halloween” wave of masked murderer movies had to say about the resurgent social conservatism that culminated in the election of President Ronald Reagan — and not all critics agree as to whether the popularity of those films was radical, reactionary, or just coincidental. Really, that’s what makes the likes of “Friday The 13th” so rewarding to unpack: They’re open to interpretation. Why did Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers start getting beefier and more supervillain-like in the late 1980s? Why did American filmgoers become so enamored of Japanese-style ghost stories in the early 2000s? What’s the deal with “torture porn,” or the modern boomlet in exorcism tales, or the recent proliferation of remakes? Are “found footage” horror movies a crime against cinema or a relevant statement on modern technology and the surveillance state? These are fun questions to grapple with, and some of them can be answered pragmatically, by referring back to the first paragraph of this essay. To put it bluntly: There’s more often a lack of creativity at work in the rise of a subgenre than some organized social commentary. Yet something within fluke hits and cash-ins has to resonate with audiences — and possibly for reasons beyond the base desire for cheap thrills.

2. Martin Scorsese on Film Preservation.
At the 53rd New York Film Festival, legendary director and founder and chair of The Film Foundation Martin Scorsese sat down with Kent Jones after a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait” to discuss the early challenges in persuading studios to preserve their film collections. Film Comment published the transcript from their discussion.

Martin Scorsese: So what I did was while I was editing “Goodfellas,” I went through these books they call “The MGM Story” and “The Warner Brothers Story,” and they had every film that the studios made. And I tried to put them in order of, not importance, but a kind of necessity, whether it was a film I liked, I thought was overlooked and/or whether it’s a film that was Warner Brothers’ first two-strip Technicolor film. So I tried to put them in A, B, and C categories, and then I would get meetings with the heads of the studios with these books. They would let me in because I’d just done “Goodfellas.” I think it was one of those things where, you know: “He did ‘Goodfellas’ and people like it but just…he has this thing. Just let him do his thing. Let him come in. Don’t make any kind of any fast moves.” You know what I’m saying? That kind of stuff. I remember it was Mickey Schulhof at Sony, because George Lucas went to the head of Sony at the time, Mr. Morita, and Mr. Morita said: “Michael Schulhof is the man, see him.” So we got a meeting with him and when I gave him the book, he looked through it and he said: “You did this?” And I think what was very sweet about it is that he realized: “Yeah, they love these things. They love it.” He said, “You really went through all that?” It was every one of them. And then there was Bob Daly and Terry Semel, and Bob turning around to Warner Brothers and saying: “The problem is 20 years from now. What’s going to happen when we start doing the same thing?” That was the key to it. How is this going? Once you start with your photochemical restorations — digital was not around that clear at the time — but once you start that way, how is it going to change and how is it going to be? How is it going to be cared for and preserved?

3. The 50 Best Foreign-Language Movie-Musicals Ever.
Last week, two foreign-language musicals hit American shores: Sion Sono’s “Tokyo Tribe” and the Bollywood wedding comedy “Shandaar.” It’s rare that this happens because the musical is notoriously difficult to translate across language and culture. Nevertheless, some of the best musicals come from beyond our shores. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri did the impossible and compiled the 50 best foreign-language movie-musicals ever.

“8 Women” (2002): In François Ozon’s tongue-in-cheek homage to drawing-room mysteries and classic movie-musicals, a wealthy (unseen) family patriarch is found dead while the eight women closest to him — his mother-in-law (Danielle Darrieux), his wife (Catherine Deneuve), his two daughters (Ludivine Sagnier and Virginie Ledoyen), his sister (Fanny Ardant), his sister-in-law (Isabelle Huppert), and his two maids (Emmanuelle Béart and Firmine Richard) — try to deduce which of them is responsible. Hyper-self-aware and ironic to a fault, the film comes down to earth and grows painfully earnest whenever someone sings; the effect is like alternating spoonfuls of sugar and arsenic. As you might have noticed, this also happens to feature one of the most incredible casts ever assembled for any movie.

“Pyaasa” (1957): In Guru Dutt’s romance, an aspiring poet (played by Dutt himself) — shunned and mocked by co-workers and family — finds an unlikely ally for himself and his art in a vivacious prostitute (Waheeda Rehman), who gives voice to his lyrics. The film’s subsequent tale of fame, mistaken identity, and class exploitation is one worthy of Dickens, but what really comes through is a portrait of a rapidly modernizing society obsessed with money, status, and power — and the lonely romantics who foolishly, heroically refuse to give in to it.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964): Could this be the saddest musical of all time? One of the greatest films ever made in any genre, Jacques Demy’s masterpiece tells of a great love that turns out not be a great love at all. Despite its early dismissal as a sickly-sweet trifle, this is a film that grows up before your eyes — from its swooning, gauzy first half, in which young lovers Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo seem inseparable, to its climax, in which the characters find a muted kind of happiness in the arms of others. Watch it in your youth, and you’ll see a tragedy of thwarted passion; watch it as a grown-up, and you’ll see a bittersweet reflection on life’s accumulation of joys and regrets. “Umbrellas” not only invites this kind of complexity, it embodies it. Michel Legrand’s occasionally lilting, occasionally thundering music works in tandem with Demy’s alternately intimate, alternately sweeping cinematic style to create a film that is often elusive and unexpectedly complex — and never not breathtaking.

4. R.I.P. Penelope Houston 1927-2015.
Yesterday, veteran British film critic Philip French passed away at 82. But on the same day, the long-standing editor of Sight and Sound for three-and-a-half decades Penelope Houston died as well. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw pens a tribute to the late critic, one of the most valuable voices in criticism.

There is space here to note that Houston was the author of a classic theoretical text, “The Critical Question,” which was published in Sight & Sound in 1960. It engaged in a key debate precipitated by the excitement of the New Wave. If modern film writing remembers a “debate” around cinema, it also remembers the debate between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris on the subject of who was authorially responsible for “Citizen Kane,” with Kael robustly challenging Sarris’s auteurist line. Houston was at the centre of a British debate, perhaps comparable to the “structuralism” row over Colin MacCabe’s tenure at King’s College, Cambridge, 20 years later, and the question of whether the British intellectual establishment was hidebound and narrow. Houston is remembered for her snappy question “Ray or Ray?” That is, Satyajit Ray or Nicholas Ray? It’s not irrelevant, even now. Should the critic espouse the cinema of the acclaimed practitioner of high art such as Satyajit Ray, or find merit – and even narcotically exciting authenticity – in the ubiquitous popular cinema of directors like Nicholas Ray, who was famously praised by Jean-Luc Godard. Some critics perhaps suspected that Nicholas Ray was the centre of a mischievous and tongue-in-cheek cult, a studio director whose own simplicity would offset the showy sophistication and intellectual brilliance of the flashy, continental critic. Houston’s Ray/Ray question is arguably a forerunner of the postmodernism of the 1990s, which suggested that analyzing “The Simpsons” was as valuable as brooding over the latest novel by John Updike. Well, most would answer that the critic can – and should – study both high art and popular art in the cinema. Taking sides is pointless.

5. Song of the Lark: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Junun.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” may have only come out a year ago, but he has kept busy ever since, mainly directing “Junun,” a music documentary about the making of an album in Rajasthan, India between composer Shye Ben Tzur and Radiohead member (and frequent PTA collaborator) Johnny Greenwood. “Junun” is now streaming on Mubi until November 7th. At Mubi, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the film and how it fits in the director’s oeuvre.

You see, the interesting and maybe even remarkable thing about “Junun” s that it’s about the invisible of music — i.e. the composing, rehearsing, recording — but is constructed like a stage-bound concert film, free of the frustration and catharsis that defines insider-y behind-the-scenes documentaries. (Anderson claims it was inspired Bert Stern’s Newport Jazz Festival documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” which, oddly enough, looks more like a latter-day Paul Thomas Anderson movie than “Junun” does.) The musicians and recording engineers here are always doing something — chasing away pigeons, cleaning mustaches and teeth, picking noses, tuning instruments, gesturing to each other silently — but the music itself almost never stops. In lieu of the usual build-up of people working and working until a song comes out in a moment of genius, “Junun” presents what could be called a holistic vision of music-making. There is no cut-off point that separates the music from all the fusses and last-minute changes that happen behind it. This ethos extends to the filmmaking, too, because “Junun” is a documentary where the camera is always being re-positioned or adjusted on-the-fly — a movie about the work that goes into making music that is also, in a sly way, about the work that goes into framing shots. Sure, the much-discussed 700-or-so degree pan that opens the movie effectively underscores the communal vibe of the recording sessions, but it also stops about two-thirds of the way through so that Anderson can fine-tune the focus. (It takes him an agonizingly long time.) In another revealing moment, camera and tripod are picked up and carried to frame a closer shot; a cut to another angle reveals the presence of a second operator, meaning that the re-framing could’ve easily been edited out, but wasn’t, because the re-framing is sort of the point. There are God’s-eye-view aerial drone shots, mostly focused on the fortress’ pigeons and on the geometries of its architecture — but even in these, the drone’s remote operator is often visible, like an squiggly signature in the corner of the frame.

6. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Is The Funniest Show You’re Not Watching. Though the phrase “funniest show you’re not watching” could be attributed to half a dozen TV shows currently airing, especially FXX’s “You’re The Worst,” since the CW’s musical dramedy is new on the scene and has been slowly racking up critical acclaim for its unique tone, we at Criticwire thought it would be good to highlight a piece singing its praises. Vice’s Drew Millard discusses why “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is so good.

The premise of the show is this: Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, the sort of sleep-hating, high-functioning TV New Yorker whose stresses and miseries have compounded to the point that it’s only a matter of time before she blows a gasket, or at least makes a monumental life decision without really thinking it through. That rash decision comes in the form of a chance meeting with Josh, a dude she dated at camp when she was 16, who offhandedly mentions he’s moving to West Covina, California. At the end of her rope and looking for a change, Rebecca says “fuck it” and goes there too. All of this stuff happens within the first few minutes of the pilot, and ultimately serves as setup to showcase Bloom’s considerable talents as the sort of musical comedian you don’t see too much of these days. Bloom was a staff writer on the generally funny, always incredibly bizarre Adult Swim show “Robot Chicken,” and has also garnered acclaim for making elaborate, extremely funny music videos with titles like “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” (which is about wanting to fuck the famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury) and “Pictures of Your Dick” (which is about getting revenge on an ex through posting pictures of his dick online). Her taste in collaborators is impeccable as well — Bloom penned the first two episodes with Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote “The Devil Wears Prada,” and the show’s songs are in part co-written by Bloom and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. So clearly, the people behind “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” know what they’re doing. Tonally, the show can be looked at as a parody of “Glee” — often, the songs function to address the subtext of a scene, as characters hash out their underlying issues with the same full throats and unrelenting positivity that the plucky kids at William McKinley High might have covered “Don’t Stop Believing.” Consider a scene in the second episode, in which Rebecca’s out at a club with Josh, Josh’s friend, and Josh’s girlfriend Valencia. Still crushing on Josh, Rebecca has decided to befriend Valencia in the hopes of undermining her relationship, only she’s in too deep and has turned her hatred into that terrible sort of frenemyship, where your hatred turns to an unhealthy obsession. If you’ve never experienced that specific emotion, well, the show lays it out in a number called “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty,” which features the lyric “I wanna kill you and wear your skin like a dress / But also have you see me in the dress and be like ‘OMG, you look so cute in my skin!’,” sung with the fervor of one of the numbers from Wicked. It’s jarring, just like it’s jarring when Crenshaw Crip Nipsey Hussle shows up to refer to curling irons and Spanx as “nasty-ass patriarchal bullshit” on “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” from the first episode.

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