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Daily Reads: ‘Carol’ and the Invisibility of Lesbian Culture, How to Watch a Martin Scorsese Movie, and More

Daily Reads: 'Carol' and the Invisibility of Lesbian Culture, How to Watch a Martin Scorsese Movie, and More

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

1. Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and the Invisibility of Lesbian Culture.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” Todd Haynes’ “Carol” tells the story of a surreptitious lesbian relationship between a young shopgirl and a married woman. The film has garnered universal praise for its sensitive depiction of forbidden love and redirecting the male gaze. At Vulture, Frank Rich writes about Patricia Highsmith, “Carol,” and the general invisibility of lesbian culture.

Even now, let alone in the past, lesbians rarely receive the same measure of attention as gay men in our culture, pop culture included. There are some obvious reasons for this beyond a misogynistic strain in America so durable that it’s still front and center in presidential campaigns. In the entertainment industry, men, straight and gay, hold many more positions of power than straight and gay women do, and those men, whatever their sexual orientation, are going to favor their own stories. Another factor is the overwhelming tragedy of the AIDS epidemic. It inevitably and properly pushed gay men to the fore once mainstream Hollywood (in 1993, with Tom Hanks taking the plunge in “Philadelphia”) at last mustered the will to address AIDS and its shunned victims head-on. Yet gay women often had to settle for the crumbs of mainstream culture both before and after the AIDS crisis. Ellen DeGeneres broke a barrier when she came out in the fourth of her original sitcom’s five seasons, and there have been recurring lesbian characters in other network series, but there was no prime-time broadcast phenomenon for gay women as sustained as, say, “Will & Grace.” Once major Hollywood studios, for better and (often) worse, started to regularly turn out glossy entertainments with gay-male protagonists like “In & Out” an “The Birdcage” in the mid-’90s, most films with three-dimensional lesbian characters, from “Desert Hearts” and “Go Fish” to “Heavenly Creatures,” remained relatively ghettoized as low-­budget indies, imports, or box-office also-rans. Big-budget Hollywood was more likely to exploit a lesbian or bisexual female character — e.g., Sharon Stone’s star turn in “Basic Instinct” — as a soft-porn sex toy for straight men. “Carol” is an Anglo-American indie collaboration that took a decade to get made. Haynes signed on late in the process, after a previous director, John Crowley, dropped out. It was a natural assignment for Haynes, who had previously collaborated with Blanchett on her gender-bending turn in “I’m Not There,” his 2007 cinematic meditation on Bob Dylan. Haynes has often put women in crisis at the center of his films, starting with the legendary 1987 short he made while studying for his M.F.A. at Bard, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” in which the anorexic pop singer and other characters were played by Barbie dolls. (It exists now only as a bootleg because of a successful copyright-infringement action brought by Carpenter’s brother, Richard.) The obvious direct antecedent of “Carol” in Haynes’s filmography is “Far From Heaven” (2002), set later in the 1950s than Highsmith’s story. An homage to both the texts and subtexts of the director Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas of that decade, “Heaven” tells of a Connecticut wife and mother (Julianne Moore) coming to terms with both her husband’s closeted homosexuality and her own runaway passion for the African-American gardener performing day labor in her white, upper-middle-class enclave. Haynes is a gay man, but his greatest empathy was reserved for Moore’s trapped wife. As he has said, the closeted husband, “a white man in hiding,” still had more freedom to maneuver and get what he wanted than either a black man or a white woman in America before the dawn of the modern civil-rights and feminist movements.

2. How To Watch a Martin Scorsese Movie.
A couple days ago was legendary director Martin Scorsese’s 73rd birthday. Though many of his films like “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Goodfellas” are widely celebrated as American classics, he is still a lightening rod for controversy for people who believe he glorifies and sympathizes with violent criminals. At Decider, veteran critic Glenn Kenny details how to watch a Martin Scorsese movie, for the first time or for the hundredth time.

Beware of Heroes: There’s a double-edged sword at work in the Scorsese ethic. He wants the viewers to see as he sees, but quite frequently his eyes are aligned with protagonists one wouldn’t normally “want” to spend time with. You hear this a lot about “Raging Bull,” which famously compelled legendary critic Pauline Kael to muse out loud, re the brothers Jake and Joey La Motta, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, “What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?” Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it. The fact that Scorsese’s protagonists were frequently played by one-time King of Cool De Niro makes the problem knottier. As Edward Norton said to me in a conversation about “Taxi Driver,” “It’s not the movie people think it is,” e.g., a picture about a troubled guy who winds up some kind of urban vigilante. It’s also too simplistic to say that Scorsese trucks in antiheroes rather than heroes; his characters don’t seek to provide models the way, say, James Dean’s Jim in “Rebel Without A Cause” might have. Scorsese protagonists are by and large troubled human beings who are NOT here to provide teachable moments in doing the right thing, or lessons in dating etiquette for that matter. (See also: “After Hours.”) The closest thing to a conventional hero offered in a Scorsese picture is “Fast” Eddie Felson in “The Color Of Money,” which is a sequel to the classic “The Hustler” and also star forever King of Cool Paul Newman, so go figure.

3. Rick Alverson’s Films Only Drive You Away Because They Want You Close.
Rick Alverson’s two most recent films “The Comedy” and “Entertainment,” released this year, have divided critics. Many praise their comedy of discomfort and how they dive deep into the psychologies of people who push people away because they so desperately want them close. At The A.V. Club, Charles Bramesco explores how Rick Alverson’s films are the same way.

If all of cinema was one great big party, with the Baz Luhrmann canon wantonly topping off beverages and Noah Baumbach’s filmography tossing off tipsy bon mots like fistfuls of breadcrumbs, the films of Rick Alverson would be that one guy hugging the wall. Everyone at the soirée finds this guy supremely off-putting, and all past attempts to extend the kindness of interpersonal interaction to him have been met with either outright hostility or sarcasm that sure sounds like mockery. Nobody’s really sure of who he showed up with, or who he came here to meet. Most everybody writes him off as an asshole entirely too pleased with his own cleverness, but his extremely small circle of friends swear to God that he’s really a genius. This theoretical guy might be Alverson himself, but the description definitely fits the profoundly difficult-to-like protagonists of his last two films, 2012’s “The Comedy” and the newly released “Entertainment.” Both Alverson’s films and the guarded, fragile men who lead them actively drive away their intended audience through transgressive, ironic performances. Even as these films affect an outward appearance of deliberate alienation — dickishness for the sheer thrill of life as a dick — the true intention lies buried under several layers of scare quotes. Alverson’s films couldn’t be further from mere trolling; the confrontational exterior masks an undercurrent of profound hurt, and the fear of further pain. The aggressive put-ons function like litmus tests, separating those who get it (and, by proxy, connect to the people making the jokes) from those who don’t. Bust through the outermost layer of so-called “anti-humor,” and Alverson’s leading men are just in search of a kindred spirit. But to properly understand Alverson’s seemingly antithetical methods, curious parties must first realize the rare intensity of ire that his films arouse in their opponents. Both “Entertainment” and “The Comedy” have drawn polarizing reactions, inciting mass festival walkouts from unamused critics while others prick up their ears at the dogwhistle of his provocative brand of humor. But those who disengage from the films do so with an uncommonly personal sense of outrage, as if they’ve been wronged rather than subjected to a film they didn’t much care for. Back during his days with “The Boston Globe,” Pulitzer winner Wesley Morris wrote of “The Comedy,” “…none of this is necessarily funny. That’s the extent of the irony here.” “The New York Times'” resident luminary A.O. Scott railed even harder: “If you can discern any critical distance or interesting perspective here, or even a good reason to spend 90 minutes in such company, I’m afraid the joke is on you.” This very website’s review skewed positive, but the article’s subhead led with a caveat from “A.V. Club” alum Scott Tobias: “99.5 percent of the moviegoing public will be put off by this bleak dissection of hipster entitlement. (Psst, other .5 percent: It’s really good.)”

4. Veteran Editor Walter Murch on Editing, Cinematography, and the Shift to Digital.
Walter Murch is one of the best working film editors alive today, and one only has to look at his 40-year career to realize why. He’s worked on “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The English Patient,” as well as the essential editing book “In The Blink of an Eye.” While attending the Camerimage film festival to receive the Special Award to an Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity, Variety’s Damon Wise sits down with Murch to discuss receiving the award, his career, and shifting away from film.

Variety: Is anything else different in the digital age?

Murch:
The thing that has changed profoundly over the last 15 years, and I haven’t seen much writing about this, is that the experience of going to dailies has almost completely disappeared, because of shooting with video tape and now shooting digital. The impression is that…You’ve seen it! [Laughs] There are 20 plasma screens around the set as the scene is being shot. Every department has its own screen, so as the material gets shot, there is a direct feed from the camera to all of these screens. Everyone’s tired at the end of the day, everyone works very long hours, so why do they have to go and see it all again? From a practical point of view, that’s absolutely true, but in the days when we had to look at dailies, there was what I’ll call a religious component to this: you assembled at lunch on the following day, or the evening of the following day, and as tired as you were, all the heads of department came together. The only agenda was to look at what was shot the day before and to pick up the mood of the director — in the same way that the director wants to pick up the mood of everyone else. So there’s a kind of cross-fertilization that happens on overt and many times covert levels that I think accelerated a certain kind of creativity that is under threat now.

Variety: What do you think makes a great cinematographer?

Murch:
Three things. First, a vision, and that vision has to co-fertilize and exist with the vision of the director — but that’s a decision the cinematographer makes when he or she decides to work with that director. Then, during shooting there is simply the ability to deal with the tactical and strategic problems of getting through the day, through the week, through the whole shoot, managing a vast, complex machine and solving very practical, persistent problems. Lastly, they must be someone who has pledged to generate, to create, the materials out of which the final film can be made: “Did we get the shot?” So the cinematographer also has to think editorially, about how all this is going to cut together.

5. The Strange Case of “The Other Side of Midnight.”
In the spring of 1977, 20th Century Fox had films in the tank: One, a surefire smash called “The Other Side of Midnight,” the other, a sci-fi B-movie called “Star Wars.” You know the rest of the story: “Star Wars” bloomed into the behemoth it is today and everyone forgot about “The Other Side of Midnight.” In honor of the new “Star Wars” film’s impending release, RogerEbert.com’s Jessica Ritchey discusses the failure and strengths of “The Other Side of Midnight.”

The failure of “The Other Side of Midnight” is more interesting than it may initially seem. It also goes against the oft-told tale that “Star Wars” destroyed New Hollywood, as “Star Wars” was from one of its founding members, George Lucas. And, “Star Wars” audiences weren’t rejecting complex adult stories for escapism. Rather, they were rejecting an exhausted, tacky adaptation of a potboiler for a strangely personal space opera, one that incongruously mixed elements of “Flash Gordon” Serials, WWII dog fight movies, and samurai films — and made them all work. First, the strange case of “The Other Side of Midnight,” which was based on a novel by Sidney Sheldon. Director Charles Jarrott’s adaptation told of a tragic love story set during and immediately after WWII. An American pilot stationed in France named Larry (John Beck) loves and then leaves the young Noelle (Marie-France Pisier), who soon becomes a great actress. Later on, he marries an American woman named Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Noelle pulls some strings for the pilot to fly her personal plane. The actress’s jealous, incredibly wealthy lover, the Greek tycoon Constantin Demeris (Raf Vallone), doesn’t take kindly to this. The story falls together in that classic heavy-breathing Sheldon style, of desperate couplings by fireplaces and ill-advised, self administered abortions. It would be churlish indeed to take “The Other Side of Midnight” to task for its dialogue and trashiness, but it’s instructive to look at the saving graces it didn’t have compared to “Star Wars.” Like many big studio movies of the era, for “The Other Side of Midnight,” a sprawling international cast means nobody is really acting in the same movie with anybody else. It’s a mix of soon-to-be big Hollywood starlets, arthouse imports, and old hams. Nobody is in tempo. In comparison, the “Star Wars” core trio of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have terrific chemistry. Their in-tune sparring back and forth ably patches over the dodgier bits of dialogue. “The Other Side of Midnight” also looks cheap in that way only expensive studio flops can, suggesting with every frame that nobody had any idea how to spend the money. It’s over-lit so the makeup looks chalky, and the gilt of Old Europe looks like the gold foil from a variety show set. Meanwhile, Lucas pulled together some of the best production people in their fields. He started a special effects firm, Industrial Light and Magic, because it would be cheaper to do all the effects work in-house than farm it out. The result was a sci-fi film with incredibly cohesive world building. Nor does “Star Wars” forget to be full of lived-in details either, right down to little touches like Luke’s hover-car being an absolute beater.

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