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Daily Reads: The Cowardice of ‘Stonewall’s Baby Steps, Why Digital Preseveration Doesn’t Work, and More

Daily Reads: The Cowardice of 'Stonewall's Baby Steps, Why Digital Preseveration Doesn't Work, and More

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

1. Another Brick: On Identity, Politics, and “Stonewall.” 
Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” has all been ripped apart and left for dead by critics who take issue with the film’s reductive white-washing and disinterest in the mechanics of queer history. Though the film might be turned over and over by those willing to roast it on a spit, some writers have made the valiant effort to try and analyze what went wrong with Emmerich’s film and what good may come from it anyway. Movie Mezzanine’s Kyle Turner unpacks “Stonewall’s” many flaws and remains hopeful about the film possibly helping someone come to terms with their queer identity.

The fundamental problem with “Stonewall,” then, is: It’s not really about Stonewall at all, or about the politics of queer rights. Danny is the focal point of everything. Even during the riots, the rest of the cast is barely discernible, but you can always make out Danny in the crowd. The instigating brick thrown in the film by black character Cong (Vladimir Alexis) comes only after he sees Trevor, and that shot/reverse shot implies that it was thrown out of revenge for Trevor cheating on him, rather than as a definitive statement about identity, politics, etc. And because it is Danny’s story, the emotional swell that one is arguably supposed to feel in this banding together of people for a common cause doesn’t exist. The civil unrest comes at the final 20 minutes of the 2-hour film, but there’s no uplifting sense of a communal empowering action because the film hasn’t been communal by its very nature. This isn’t an ensemble piece. Characters like Ray and Marsha, to a lesser degree, are side characters, barely existing to support Danny. And if there’s any effort put in to examine the political ramifications on Danny personally, that barely exists. It’s all about him, but in the shallowest way possible. In “The Celluloid Closet,” Harvey Fierstein intimated that he is in favor of the Baby Steps method to visibility. That documentary, based on the book by Vito Russo, was released 20 years ago. In the years since that doc was released, there’s been a drastic change in the cultural climate as far as queer visibility goes. Why? Because we have demanded it. We have grown tired of the Baby Steps method. So it feels especially regressive that in 2015, we still have to play nice as a way to educate audiences. Yes, I think it’s admirable that Emmerich wanted to bring the events at the Stonewall Inn into public consciousness. But that alone does not let him off the hook for his creative and thereby political decisions. The existence of genuinely progressive films like “Tangerine” and TV series like “Looking” puts a cowardly film like “Stonewall” to shame.

2. A Whole New “Homeland.” 
Remember back in 2012 when Showtime debuted a little show called “Homeland,” which stars Claire Danes as a bipolar CIA officer who becomes obsessed with and falls in love with a terrorist suspect? Well, along the way “Homeland,” like Danes’ character, had its ups and downs. The series hit the reset button a couple times and tried to reinvent itself away from its central premise. The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert explains why “Homeland,” whose fifth season premieres this Sunday, has reset again and how it’s back yet again with some compelling episode.

If a television show could develop mental illness, take anti-psychotics, stabilize, go off its meds, lose all sense of reason, take its meds again, return to normal life, and then repeat that cycle ad infinitum, that show would be “Homeland.” Ever since it debuted to emphatic critical acclaim in 2012, the Showtime drama has bounded back and forth between two extremes: being a smart, provocative, morally complex drama about a CIA agent fighting in the war on terror, and being a manic, pulsating, teeth-grinding, jazz-riffing, tequila-pounding, sexually impulsive swarm of hot messiness. Like its protagonist, Carrie Matheson, it seems determined to believe that it can’t be one without also being the other — that its brilliant instincts and acute observations wouldn’t be possible without its sloppy, paranoid, downright unprofessional addiction to turmoil. The ultimate question for the viewer, then, is whether the payoff is worth it. If you can overlook the nonsense — the omnipresent cryfaces, the world’s most pointless pregnancy subplot, the whole Caracas interlude, the time Brody murdered the vice president by hacking his pacemaker — more power to you. If you’re among the naysayers, the doubters, the cringing few who doff their fists at the screen every time Carrie starts constructing her Wall o’ Crazy™, then rest assured that season five won’t necessarily be easy for you. But it is, at least judging from the first three episodes, starting to realize that its star asset might also be its biggest weakness.

3. Line Dancing: Nick Pinkerton on Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk.” 
Director Robert Zemeckis’ new film “The Walk” dramatizes the real story of high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 daring performance of walking across the Twin Towers. On one hand, Zemeckis’ technical craftsmanship makes him the best director to pull of such a literal high-wire act, but on the other hand, his reliance on narrative shortcuts and telegraphing points to the audience constantly hold him back. Over at Reverse Shot, veteran critic Nick Pinkerton reviews “The Walk” and explains how Zemeckis-the-popular-entertainer is the right man for the job.

If you conclude, as I have, that “The Walk” is on balance a “good” movie, then there is a great deal that you will have to forgive, forget, or otherwise make peace with. For instance, the introduction of protagonist Petit whooshing through a sugary, “Amélie” version of Paris on his unicycle; the film’s whitewashing of Petit’s character, so that it feels nearer to the children’s book based on his exploits than to James Marsh’s 2008 documentary “Man on Wire”; the introduction of stoner comic relief characters so arbitrarily sketched that they might as well be placeholders reading “Comic Relief TK”; a tonally miscalculated encounter with an ominous red-eyed seagull; and the fact that Petit is played by the smug, dreadful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who narrates the movie from a perch on Lady Liberty’s torch, speaking in a French accent achieved, I assume, through drinking a quart of heavy cream between takes. On the other hand, if these demerits seem altogether too much burden for any movie to bear, there are a great many virtues that you must ignore in order to call “The Walk” a wholly failed film. Following high-wire walker Petit from France to New York City in his monomaniacal pursuit of his mad fantasy, the movie shares its subject’s single-minded dedication to the cause, and this lends it a propulsive momentum — coming in at a couple of minutes north of two hours, it moves like a dream, sped along on fluid sequence shots which keep up the pace from one scene to the next as though passing along a baton. It is an appropriately taut piece of work, and when dealing with matters of nuts-and-bolts process — the practical exigencies of stringing a heavy 131-foot length of steel cable across a vast gulf in midair, from smuggling the equipment into a well-guarded building to anchoring the securing guy lines — it is compulsively watchable, pulling the viewer into the conspiratorial huddle. If you happen to believe, as I do, that the scene in which Michael Caine supervises the dragging of jeeps up a cliff face with winch and cord in André de Toth’s “Play Dirty” (1968) is something like the quintessence of cinema, than all of this rigging is so much catnip. Finally, the movie keeps up such bounce and roll that for significant stretches of its runtime, I wholly forgot my distaste for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

4. “99 Homes” Director Ramin Bahrani On Difficult Questions, Politics, and Donald Trump vs. The Pope. 
Director Ramin Bahrani specializes in telling politically-engaging stories about working-class citizens trying to do right against a rigged, broken system. He’s gotten much support for this throughout his career, including from Roger Ebert, and now he’s back with his real estate drama “99 Homes,” which plays like this generation’s “Wall Street.” For The A.V. Club, Charles Bramesco interviews Bahrani and discusses everything from capitalism, partisanship, and Donald Trump.

AVC: Fraud on this scale is two-sided, though. It’s permitted to come about not just because of the greed of bankers and financial types, but also the willingness of the public to believe that they’re looking out for everyone’s best interests when they’re very clearly not.

RB: Michael Shannon’s character implicates greedy homeowners in the film, and that’s very important. We know the majority of this crisis was due to predatory lending. We also know that the president gets on television and says that it’s every American’s right and duty to own a home. The people who run the major banks have MBAs and wear suits. And when those people in suits come to the homes of people who don’t have a high school diploma, don’t even speak English, and offer them a home at zero percent down, that doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. It becomes very hard to blame people when this is the world we’re living in. But the film does also address greedy homeowners who should’ve known better.

AVC: In the film, Michael Shannon’s character says not to get emotional about real estate. He makes a good point, that purchasing a home is not the same thing as purchasing a stock. There’s an element of sentimentality, and so homeowners get more defensive about this investment than pure finance.

RB: The movie doesn’t really take sides on these issues, and I think that’s what works about it. Michael Shannon’s character says that homes are just boxes, they’re things you can make money on. I don’t disagree with that. I think he’s right. Andrew [Garfield] and Laura [Dern], their characters say that the home is a place of community, of safety, of memories, that it should reflect who you are. I think they’re right, too. The movie doesn’t take sides on these issues. It lets the ideas bang heads. All the economic policies I’ve been talking about, these were implemented by Democrats and Republicans alike. I really have no agenda here.

5. Why Films Should Be Preserved on Film, Not Digital. 
Any cinephile worth his salt knows that though film may ultimately be dying a very slow death, it still often shows its resilience through repertory screenings, artistic demands, or simply through good preservation. Art Forum’s Tacita Dean argues for a respect for film as a medium through preservation and presentation.

Pivotal to any discussion about reframing film’s future is a greater understanding of its importance as a medium in the past. Film is as much a medium to artists and filmmakers as it has been a technology to the industry. Progress renders all technologies obsolete, but no medium is anachronistic to an artist. The intentional mischaracterization of film as merely technology has been extremely damaging, as it belies the truth about a medium’s many artistic differences and puts those invested in film in the unsympathetic position of being on the wrong side of progress and castigated as Luddites. However, film, unlike other artistic mediums, relies on industrial rather than artisanal manufacture. This might be the first time that a technology and a medium have been industrially, and therefore economically, conflated in such a way that the one brings the other down. This has been the anguish: how to make film manufacture practical on a smaller scale. Alternatively, Kodak might resolve this problem by finding supplementary industrial uses for their film-manufacturing plants, but as yet these possibilities are still only in the development stage. Film is a different way of making and showing images, and it is crucial to keep the option available. Directors understand this. Artists understand this. The value of any medium is that it can act independently of the artist: Not every action is deliberate; not every gesture has intent, as any painter can attest. Film as a medium brings qualities to the work, some that the maker never intended — characteristics integral to its chemistry and to its internal disciplines and material resistance. As Nolan asked, Why are directors allowing line producers to decide something as fundamental as what medium they make their work in? That is, or should be, the first artistic decision of any project. It is commonly believed that digital is cheaper to use, but this isn’t necessarily the case. It might begin cheaper, but it tends to become increasingly expensive as the project progresses, especially in postproduction, whereas film’s initial costs start out high but then go down. There is no quantitative difference between the two within commercial filmmaking. If digital cinema is so economical to produce and distribute, Nolan argued, why has the price of cinema tickets not gone down? One of the greatest misunderstandings around film is that only the content matters and needs preserving. But the content happens as a result of the medium; they cannot be separated. The content without the medium is profoundly altered, and is not the work. A painting is not just a picture but a painting. A film is not just pictures but a film. This should be indisputable — especially within the context of the museum — but sadly this is not the case, and poor decisions are being made at institutions around the world: More and more frequently, the original medium is not being respected in the presentation of film.

6. The Best TV Lineup Ever. 
Though history is littered with famous debates from some of our most impassioned, necessary voices, arguably no debate has ever been more vital than the one about the best TV lineup in history. Though some are quick to claim NBC Thursdays in the ’90s and call it a day, real TV historians and scholars know that the answer isn’t as straight-forward. In his Episodes blog, Todd VanDerWerff runs down some of the most impressive TV lineups to date.

CBS Saturdays, 1973: It’s pictured above. “All in the Family” at the height of its powers. “M*A*S*H” in the Larry Gelbart years. “Mary Tyler Moore” just starting to hit its peak. “Bob Newhart” wasn’t a GREAT show yet, but it was still reliably entertaining. And then you close things out with “Carol Burnett,” never a favorite of mine but definitely a TV classic. That’s three solid hours of some of the best TV comedy ever made, and if you were to argue for any one of those first four shows as the best TV sitcom of all time, I wouldn’t push back too strenuously. (Well, I would on M*A*S*H, but mostly because I like being a contrarian dick.) This lineup (my forever pick for the best) lasted just one season.

NBC Thursdays, 1984: This lineup actually ran for a few years, but we want to catch “Hill Street Blues” when it was still sort of relevant, so we’ll go with the first year of its existence. “The Cosby Show’s” landmark first season leads off the night, leading into the third (and probably best) season of “Family Ties.” “Cheers” is up next in its own third season, followed by “Night Court” in its second. (Part of my mind wonders what would have happened if NBC had saved “Buffalo Bill” instead of “Night Court” and put it in that 9:30 spot. But I suspect that show was never going to be a hit.) The night ends with “Hill Street Blues,” which is sagging a bit in its fourth season but is still one of the shows you have to watch. Much has been written about how “The Cosby Show” “saved” the sitcom; comparatively little has been written about how NBC was smart to build a lineup full of low-rated pieces it already had laying around, hoping those shows could gain some momentum from a hoped-for new hit. It worked.

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