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Daily Reads: The Year We Obsessed Over Identity, A Personal Chantal Akerman Tribute, and More

Daily Reads: The Year We Obsessed Over Identity, A Personal Chantal Akerman Tribute, and More

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

1. The Year We Obsessed Over Identity. 
2015 has been a culturally rich year both for the culture itself and how we as a society approach the culture. There was a genuinely palpable interest in understanding the ways in which culture intersected with identity and plenty of arguments about how the two are inherently intertwined. The new critic at large for the New York Times, Wesley Morris explores culture, identity, film, television, literature, and everything in between to examine the notion that America is a “vertical nation attempting to move horizontally.”

And where are we?…[In] the midst of a great cultural identity migration. Gender roles are merging. Races are being shed. In the last six years or so, but especially in 2015, we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are. If [writer/director Nancy] Meyers is clued into this confusion, then you know it really has gone far, wide and middlebrow. We can see it in the instantly beloved hit “Transparent,” about a family whose patriarch becomes a trans woman whose kids call her Moppa, or in the time we’ve spent this year in televised proximity to Caitlyn Jenner, or in the browning of America’s white founding fathers in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” or in the proliferating clones that Tatiana Maslany plays on “Orphan Black,” which mock the idea of a true or even original self, or in Amy Schumer’s comedic feminism, which reconsiders gender confusion: Do uncouthness, detachment and promiscuity make her a slut, or a man? We can see it in the recently departed half-hour sketch comedy “Key & Peele,” which took race as a construct that could be reshuffled and remixed until it seemed to lose its meaning. The sitcom “Black-ish” likewise makes weekly farcical discourse out of how much black identity has warped — and how much it hasn’t — over 50 years and across three generations. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” turns selfhood into a circus, introducing us to a lower-middle-class Native American teenager who eventually succeeds at becoming a rich white lady, and to other characters who try out new selves every 10 minutes, as if they’re auditioning for “Snapchat: The Musical.” Last month, Ryan Adams released a remake of Taylor Swift’s album “1989,” song for song, as a rock record that combines a male voice with a perspective that still sounds like a woman’s, like Lindsey Buckingham trying on Stevie Nicks’s clothes. Dancing on the fringes of mainstream pop are androgynous black men like Le1f, Stromae and Shamir. What started this flux? For more than a decade, we’ve lived with personal technologies — video games and social-media platforms — that have helped us create alternate or auxiliary personae. We’ve also spent a dozen years in the daily grip of makeover shows, in which a team of experts transforms your personal style, your home, your body, your spouse. There are TV competitions for the best fashion design, body painting, drag queen. Some forms of cosmetic alteration have become perfectly normal, and there are shows for that, too. Our reinventions feel gleeful and liberating — and tied to an essentially American optimism. After centuries of women living alongside men, and of the races living adjacent to one another, even if only notionally, our rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down. There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries. We’re all becoming one another. Well, we are. And we’re not.

2. Chantal Akerman 1950-2015. 
We’re all still mourning the tragic loss of legendary director Chantal Akerman whose work like “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” “News From Home,” and “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” will live on forever in our hearts, minds, and of course, our screens. At RogerEbert.com, Scout Tafoya writes a personal tribute to Akerman and her films describing how she inspired him to direct.

When I first discovered Akerman, I was living in a cramped Boston apartment whose ceiling slanted ominously inward where the roof came to a point. I was in film school and just wanted to direct, but all I had proved able to do was drink coffee and watch movies, and none of my instructors seemed in a hurry to let me make features on their time. And then I watched a grimy pirated copy of “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” in my frigid little room and it was like someone took off a blindfold I’d been wearing all my life. It was the first film she made after “Jeanne Dielman” and a refinement of that film’s ideas. Akerman is the film’s star, and she plays a woman who sits in her tiny room, goes out for a dalliance with a trucker and returns to make love to an old girlfriend. It’s shot in high-contrast black and white. Akerman films herself like the subject of a Gustave Courbet painting, resplendent curves and pale flesh intersecting the harsh dark interiors in which she’s trapped. The film treats female bodies like vessels that cannot hold all of the radiant female mind and its innumerable intricacies. Akerman’s cinema was essentially humane, but filled with a potent and necessary rage. She was creating a space for femininity, something still tenuous in art house cinema, to express itself—or at the very least realize that the space it in which it had been confined was not an inescapable one. “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” showed me that a camera and a body could produce truths that eluded artists with ten times Akerman’s resources. I started directing weeks after seeing this movie, and I dedicated my second movie (which has 8 shots and lasts almost an hour and a half) to her. She gave me the gift of cinema, led me to my voice. When you want nothing more than to be a better version of yourself, and someone suddenly hands you the ability to do that, you feel an exuberant debt of gratitude, one you can’t wait to repay.

3. She’s Not There: A Review of Akerman’s Last Film “No Home Movie.” 
Adding tragedy on top of tragedy, Akerman’s latest film, ultimately her last, is currently screening at the New York Film Festival. “No Home Movie” features long conversations between Akerman and her mother, an Auschwitz survivor who died last year. Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky reviews Akerman’s film, providing her last film with the dignified analysis it deserves.

Like so many of her films, “No Home Movie” is also about the passage of time, and our experience of that passage, and therefore is constructed from a series of long takes, some of them exhaustingly extended. Most of these contain Akerman’s mother as their subject, puttering around the apartment or eating or even at times sleeping. The unpolished quality of the low-grade video images at times give the film the sense of being a work of surveillance, especially when the fixed camera patiently watches her slowly eating breakfast with some apparent difficulty, or when we see her having a meal at the kitchen table with Chantal, her back facing the camera, blocking the director’s face from our view. And one wonders at times whether the woman is aware the camera is on and recording her at all, such as when she shuffles in and out of the frame, her sweatered torso the only part of her we see on screen. In such moments we grasp her as a presence, as a physical being who now inhabits — and simultaneously once inhabited — these spaces. Because of this patient approach, which makes every moment hum with meaning, shots of chairs and plants and tables take on nearly as much significance. Of course the film’s final image is of an empty room. Space is abstracted by the specter of death in “No Home Movie,” though there’s much more here, an undeniable vitality. The filmmaker’s mother is allowed to have her say, most extendedly in a kitchen chat that takes on the feeling of an interview between mother and daughter and which functions as a video testimonial. Here, she talks about the family’s World War II–era history, she and her husband fleeing from Poland to Belgium in 1938 because of the pogroms; memory is hazy (was her father a communist?), the loss of tradition is touched upon (she stopped observing Shabbat after her husband died). Other filmmakers might have put this conversation earlier in the film, to ease viewers into a more contextualized world; instead Akerman chooses not to prioritize history or personal narratives, allowing them to become part of an overall idea of how to represent a life. Akerman’s Jewishness has always been central to her art, and has said that her religious upbringing is part of the reason she is drawn to a finely ritualized form of cinema. Yet it’s also just one layer, and, as represented onscreen, it has always been as much a source of alienation as identification.

4. Movies Need to Stop Explaining Everything. 
One of the biggest problems with mainstream Hollywood fare is its populist tendency to appeal to every demographic, including the people who need to be spoonfed every little detail of a narrative so they won’t be lost. This impetus ultimately comes at the expense of visual storytelling or intelligent narratives that implicitly trust its audience to follow along. Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan argues why movies should stop over-explaining and start trusting itself and the audience.

There’s one shot from “Mad Max: Fury Road” that has stuck with me longer than most of the two-hour movies I’ve seen this year, and if you blink, you’re liable to miss it. The moment comes deep into the movie, as “Fury Road’s” dazzling all-day car chase has given way to blue-hued night, and our heroes have driven to a new, different wasteland. The shot that establishes this new location puts their familiar convoy deep into the background, while the foreground is dominated by dead trees, misty muck, and a handful of unearthly, silhouetted feathered beasts. The first time I saw this shot, I sat up in my seat. “Fury Road” had already presented more than its fair share of eye-popping visuals, but I found my imagination most captured by these freaky, feathered things. It was impossible to glimpse their faces in the dark, but the way these bird-beasts moved slowly through the sludge on stilt-like legs was arresting, and rare: They never appeared again in any other scene, nor were they acknowledged by our characters. It wasn’t even until my second viewing that I realized these were not mutant birds but hunched men in ragged feather coats, likely post-apocalyptic scavengers forced to travel through the swamp on spidery stilt legs. That was my read, anyway. Anything I wanted to know about these figures, I had to figure out myself. I thought about those bird-men while watching “The Walk,” the new Robert Zemeckis film about French daredevil Philippe Petit, who performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It isn’t just that Petit’s grace and balance reminded me of those stilt-walking swamp-dwellers, though I have no doubt that if the eager Petit were swept off to Fury Road, he’d scamper over to the bird-men, swipe their stilts, and say, “Let me try!” Rather, the reason I thought of “Mad Max” while watching “The Walk” is that the former film presented its evocative images and then encouraged me to use my imagination, while the latter papered over its visual poetry with unrelenting, unnecessary voice-over.

5. Men in Power Need to Help Bring Diversity To TV. 
It’s an unfortunate reality that the people who are most responsible for shepherding diversity into the entertainment industry are white men in positions of power. Though these people obviously have no implicit burden to bring minorities into the fold (if for no other reason than to maintain their unchallenged power), there are some out there that are interested in bringing new voices and fresh faces to our screens. In her first column for Variety, Maureen Ryan argues that men in power need to be at the forefront of the diversity revolution because of the cards they hold.

I can’t forget an illuminating story from a female writer for a one-hour show, which I will keep confidential at her request. Every year, male writers pitch a storyline that involves a female character being sexually assaulted. “I have to stomp my foot in the writers’ room and say no, which I probably shouldn’t do, for the sake of my career, but dammit, no,” she told me. “If rape were so illuminating, such a great story, then they’d be pitching to rape the men. But that never happens and never will.” “One thing I’m so grateful for is all the women on our writing staff,” the writer continued. “Yes, I inevitably disagree with the men and say we shouldn’t victimize our women like that, but I still thank the gods that I have other women backing me up. And that they know they can without the threat of getting fired. I suspect that a lot of those rape storylines out there come from shows where women aren’t empowered to stand up to their bosses like that…if there’s even more than one female writer at all.” Of course, rape can be portrayed responsibly on screen (I can name a half-dozen shows that have explored the idea with sensitivity). But in general, TV goes to that well with female characters far too often, usually with cliched, superficial or frustrating results. There’s no doubt many women TV writers share the opinion of the writer I spoke to. The question is whether they feel empowered to say it at work. In that writers’ room, at any rate, the writer who repeatedly questions that pitch doesn’t feel isolated. And that’s the difference between simply hiring a token woman or two and allowing women on staff to feel valued and heard. I truly don’t think any medium is more influential than television, which has vastly increased its scripted output in recent years and which now follows us everywhere, thanks to the mobility of our phones, tablets and laptops. That’s why representation matters more than ever; TV’s storytellers don’t just shape reality, they help create it.

6. Witty, Warm, Weird Genre Fun: The Second Seasons of “The Flash” and “iZombie.” 
Last night on the CW, both “The Flash” and “iZombie,” two genre shows about the titular super fast superhero and an undead medical examiner respectively. The two shows have been acclaimed by critics and are popular with audiences because they exemplify the best of genre entertainment without condescending to the structure or by hiding its fun tights with a grim suit. Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen reviews the premieres of “The Flash” and “iZombie.”

The marvelous fun in “The Flash” lies in an evolving hero (Grant Gustin) who delights well in his sudden-onset superness, and a story that gives us wish-fulfillment escapism tempered with wisdom. Some characters wear the whole “with greater power comes great responsibility” theme like a burden, usually because the lesson is taught via catastrophe. Barry – his mom, killed by a time-traveling murderer; his dad, framed for the crime – knows tragedy, too, and he’s had to work through anger and bitterness and the want for revenge, but he’s not defined that damage and darkness, either. His gift, and the opportunity to be worthy of it, is a blessing he relishes. “The Flash” skews more Spider-Man than Batman. I like the character better than Spider-Man, actually, because he runs away from the alienated loner/lone-nut archetype that so much superhero fiction tends to romanticize. The Flash isn’t one man – he’s a team, a community, a group project in building a better kind of hero for their gone-haywire society. He’s nothing without the tech support squad of Cisco (Carlos Valdes), Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker), and Martin Stein, played by the delightfully arch Victor Garber, and he’d be less of man without his adopted family, most notably father figure Joe West, played by Jesse L. Martin. And none of them would be anywhere without Gustin, who plays the role with great grace, heart, smarts and humor. He makes everything tired about the superhero thing feel fresh again.

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