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Daily Reads: How TV Is Redefining “American,” Female Directors and ‘The Ishtar Effect,’ and More

Daily Reads: How TV Is Redefining "American," Female Directors and 'The Ishtar Effect,' and More

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

1. Fresh On The Screen: How TV Is Redefining Whom We Think of as “American.”
In the past few years, there has been a rise of inclusive, multicultural TV shows that focus on non-traditional American families. First there was “Modern Family,” then came shows like “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” and most recently “Master of None.” At NPR, Jeff Yang explores the history of multicultural influences on American television.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that prime time saw an immigrant family move to the center of its own show, with Margaret Cho as the daughter of Korean-born parents played by Clyde Kusatsu and Jodi Long in ABC’s short-lived “All-American Girl.” Yet the show’s humor still sprang from the gap between assimilated, U.S.-born Cho and her resolutely traditional parents. It still found itself forced to “translate” its cultural cues through an insider’s lens, in this case, a blond white neighbor, 11-year-old Ashley Johnson, who provides what Executive Producer Gary Jacobs called “a nonclunky way to do some of the cultural exposition. She is someone within the household who can say, ‘Why are they doing that?'” (Series costar B.D. Wong summed up the rationale for the addition of Johnson as follows: “We have to establish the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ nature of it.”) “All-American Girl” famously lasted just 19 episodes, and prime-time network TV would not see another Asian-American family for two decades — and just a handful of shows with prominent immigrant leads. The ’90s and early 2000s saw the concept of multiculturalism take root in public and popular culture. Diverse casting, though still seen as a responsibility rather than an opportunity, became more common on TV, usually in the form of a handful of actors of color embedded into large, predominantly white ensembles. As global entertainment markets grew, more and more actors from other countries became Hollywood mainstays, often playing characters that didn’t have to hide their origins behind a studied American accent. In 2009, television saw a turning point: the debut of “Modern Family,” a show conceived as a much-needed updating of the hidebound perception of the American family, centered on a patriarch with a young trophy wife and the households of his daughter and gay son. Colombian actress Sofia Vergara, as glamorous firebrand Gloria, became the breakout star of the show; Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, who plays adopted granddaughter Lily Tucker-Pritchett, has emerged as one of its most popular young stars. Though its humor frequently plays off sexual and ethnic stereotypes, the show has emerged as one of TV’s biggest hits by maintaining a sense of real and heartfelt warmth among its characters, while allowing characters like Gloria and Lily to occupy identities that are neither ethnically erased nor wholly alienated from the greater workings of American culture. The show’s breakout success established a template for a new way of depicting immigrants on TV: inclusive but not suppressive, with difference defined as a reason for celebration as well as a source of humor.

2. The “Ishtar” Effect: Female Directors and Their Career-Ending Flops.
In 1987, director Elaine May took the fall for her film “Ishtar” after it flopped at the box office. Much of its lack of success had to do with the negative buzz preceding its release on account of its troubled production. May hasn’t directed a film since “Ishtar.” It’s an all-too familiar story of female directors being held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, one that’s continually told to this day. The L.A. Times’ Rebecca Keegan examines why female directors are blamed for their flops more than men.

This month, four very different films directed by women arrive in theaters in wide release — Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s period romance “By the Sea,” Catherine Hardwicke’s female friendship drama “Miss You Already,” Jessie Nelson’s Christmas comedy “Love the Coopers” and Patricia Riggen’s survival tale “The 33.” In an industry where, according to research conducted by The Times, USC and others, only 4% of studio films are directed by women, this should be an indicator of a positive counter-trend, a fist-bump-worthy, feminist moment in cinema. So why instead do I feel so queasy? Because we’ve had such moments before, and the way previous generations of female directors have fared makes me wary of any premature celebrations. Women, from silent-film-era trailblazer Lois Weber to 1970s and ’80s comedy auteur Elaine May to Hardwicke herself after she directed the 2008 box office hit “Twilight,” have been subjected to higher standards and lower rewards than their male peers in Hollywood. Once female directors get the job, the potential roadblocks to career advancement are numerous and varied and include studio expectations, the critical establishment and peer networks. Consider that when Hardwicke, who made back more than 10 times her production budget on “Twilight,” asked for more time to work on the sequel, she was replaced, while the maker of another wildly profitable fantasy film, “Avatar’s” James Cameron, has been allowed to push back the timeline for his sequels repeatedly. May, who took the fall for the legendary 1987 Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy “Ishtar,” never directed again after the box office flop. The film’s two actor-producers, who shared final cut with her, emerged unscathed, with Beatty going on to make “Dick Tracy” and Hoffman “Rain Man.” “A male director can have a series of failures and still get hired,” Anne Hathaway said to me last summer when I interviewed her and Meyers for a story about their movie, “The Intern.” “Sometimes movies don’t work, and I feel like if it stars a woman or is directed by a woman, the wheels can’t fall off the train. If this movie directed by a woman does well and this movie directed by a woman does well and then one doesn’t, it’s ‘oh, people don’t like movies directed by women.'”

3. Poetic Logic: On David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”
The Criterion Collection recently just released David Lynch’s modern classic “Mulholland Dr.” on Blu-ray. Many critics and scholars have argued that the film operates under a dream logic, with images connecting to one another in an oneiric pattern, not necessarily by narrative convenience. At RogerEbert.com, poet Max Winter explores the poetic logic of “Mulholland Dr.” and how it’s entirely intuitive.

There’s a lot to chew on in the new Criterion release: personable interviews with stars Naomi Watts, Elena Harring, and Theroux, as well as Lynch himself, soundtrack composer Angelo Badalamenti, and others. But the material here that may be most pertinent is found in an interview with Lynch by Chris Rodley provided in the booklet. Lynch says of the film, “I think [audiences] really know for themselves what it’s about. I think that intuition — the detective in us — puts things together in a way that makes sense for us…[p]oets can catch an abstraction in words and give you a feeling that you can’t get any other way.” And that’s just it: grasping this film has to be intuitive; it has to be read the way a poem is read. There will be gaps in the information provided, and significant ones: it is the viewer’s large job to fill them in. Near the end of the interview, Lynch alludes to the Surrealist poets, and their seemingly randomized way of associating words and images; while it goes without saying that Lynch wears the Surrealists’ influence on his sleeve, the difference between them is crucial. The Surrealists savored the explosion that took place when disparate ideas met; Lynch savors it too, but only insofar as it serves a larger story he is trying to tell. And if the story told is that of a story falling apart, then so be it. When watching “Mulholland Dr.,” then, viewers’ enjoyment is decided not by the film itself but by the degree to which they can let it, as William Carlos Williams once said of the modern poem, “spray in your face.” And this is where Lynch has gotten into trouble with his critics. Rather than accepting that a film might build itself on poetic logic, they expect novelistic logic — and when that kind of logic is absent, the film gets responses like Stephen Holden’s claim that Lynch is “surrendering any semblance of rationality” or J. Hoberman’s naming of the film “thrilling and ludicrous … entirely instinctual.”

4. Scene and Heard: Directors of Photography Discuss Key TV Scenes.
In this Second Golden Age of Television, there’s a high demand for making shows look as visually compelling as possible. Naturally, this places a burden on directors of photography to bring the most out of every scene. At The Guardian, Eric Thurm interviews five directors of photography to discuss their favorite scenes of the year.

Andrij Parekh on the council meetings from “Show Me A Hero”: In “Show Me a Hero” there are a number of city council meetings. At this point in episode two, we’ve kind of been introduced to all of the players, all of the city council members who are voting on this issue. This moment, this shot, for me, was sort of emotionally building up to the moment where this measure is supposed to pass, where the mayor believes he has all of the votes, and then is betrayed by the Judas character, Oxman. We’d covered these voting scenarios in the city council in a number of ways, and I wanted to get away from traditional coverage, where you cover each person who speaks and each person who votes. There’s supposed to be a very strong buildup, and then we see Nick’s defeat. What I wanted to do was basically land on Nick as the final “no” moment happens. So having shot a number of these sequences, we know what the timing was from when the vote is called – it happened over, I think, 12 or 13 seconds. We’d rehearsed the shots to start when the roll is called and land on Nick when the “no” happens. It was fairly deliberate in terms of its timing. At certain moments we want to try to get as subjective as possible. The sound design changes slightly in the shot, which I think allows the viewer to get into Nick’s head. But the whole idea behind that shot was to make it as subjective an experience as possible. In the beginning, when we’re laying out the groundwork for how the council meetings work, it’s sort of more objective in the shooting style. Then, later, when we sort of know the rules and the logic of it, we’ve sort of allowed ourselves to get more subjective with it. That moment for me is one of the strongest of the show, because the camera works incredibly well in concert with what’s happening dramatically. We’re with Nick as a character through a lot of the show. He probably has half the screen time, I imagine, maybe 40-50% of the screen time of the entire show, which is a huge amount for a show with this many characters. So to be with him in this moment of defeat was very important, and I think it sort of allows you to understand what happens to him at the end. If you didn’t have these very subjective moments, the end would come out of left field.

5. Why We Love Watching Kids’ Reality Competition Shows.
This Thursday, the Lifetime network will premiere “Project Runway Junior,” the kid version of the popular reality competition show “Project Runway.” This is the latest expansion of kids’ reality shows, with the first being “Masterchef Junior,” a kids cooking show. Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet looks at why we love watching kids’ reality competition shows.

I never got into any cooking show before “MasterChef Junior,” but now I eagerly await each episode. The series has become something of an event within my group of friends; we not only watch together, but also started a “MCJ” betting pool last season. (I did not win.) The show returned for its fourth season Friday on Fox, introducing us to a new group of tiny but talented chefs who can barely see over their chef’s table but still competently wield mini blowtorches to make dessert. The contestants include Adam, an 11-year-old Brooklyn kid who sounds like a 60-year-old Brooklyn guy reminiscing about the good ol’ days, and Addison, a tomboy who dons a backwards baseball cap and wants to open up a softball-themed bakery. The season premiere offered all the normal charms: the children got excited over a giant piñata of Gordon Ramsay’s head that contained their prized aprons, and perhaps even more excited about the literal explosion of marshmallows that sets up their dessert challenge. And there were tears, of course, this time from a boy named Alexander who cried in front of the judges because he didn’t think his plating was good enough. The tears in “MasterChef Junior” can be uncomfortable. The children are certainly under a lot of pressure, likely facing even more stress behind the scenes than what viewers are witnessing (the children are also attending school during filming), and they have high standards for themselves. Kid-filled reality shows always raise the question of exploitation (think of the understandable uproar around “Kid Nation”; at least in “MasterChef Junior,” contestants don’t have to kill their dinner before they bake it) and spark worry over how being on TV will affect the children mentally and emotionally (such as when the tabloids pile on, like with Honey Boo Boo or the Duggars). But crying is quickly quelled in “MasterChef Junior,” not because the kids are scolded for emotional outbursts, but because the judges regularly and wonderfully calm down the children, reassuring them and even helping them out with their dishes when they get too upset. It’s this — the way the children are treated simultaneously as children and professionals, the feeling of community on the show (the children also comfort each other, and exchange a big group hug when someone is eliminated) — that makes the viewing experience so great, and why we keep returning to it.

6. Can You Hear Them at the Back: The Relationship Between Directors and Audiences.
 For a director, the scariest part about their movies isn’t necessarily the filming, or the casting, or the editing, but instead it’s the mythical audience that will later watch it in a darkened room. The relationship between audience and the screen has always been rooted in manipulation, and because film is a mass medium, artists naturally have a relationship with their audiences, even if the measure of a great audience isn’t to pander to them. At Intelligent Life Magazine, Tom Shone reports on the relationship between directors and audiences, from Woody Allen to Darren Aronofsky to Billy Wilder.

Great artists are not supposed to think of their audiences – that is one of the signs of their artistry. But film is a mass medium, which puts all film-makers in a relationship of some sort with the audience, be it grudging, respectful, delighted, neglectful. In 1965, the American developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, working off research by the British psychologist John Bowlby, devised something called the “Strange Situation” test, designed to gauge the varieties of attachment between infants and their mothers. Babies between 12 and 18 months old were placed with their mother in a small room, and observed through one-way glass, while a stranger joined the mother and child. The baby was then left alternately alone with the stranger and entirely alone, before the mother returned. Ainsworth found that the infants fell into three categories. The first, whom she characterized as having a “secure” attachment style, were distressed when the mother left, avoided the stranger when alone, but were friendly when the mother was present, using her as a “base” to explore their environment. This perfectly describes a hit-maker like Spielberg, whose films are an almost exact simulacrum of that mixture of safety and fear a child feels when it is scared, playfully, by a parent. When Spielberg makes a film that doesn’t go over well with the public, such as “1941,” he tends to internalize the public’s reaction: “I’ll spend the rest of my life disowning the movie,” he told the New York Times. But he also recovers quickly: “1941” was followed by “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” His confidence rebooted by its success, he was emboldened to tackle the “whisper from my childhood,” “E.T.” In other words, Spielberg uses his public the way the secure infant uses his mother, as a safe base to launch further explorations. Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s second category was “ambivalent” attachment. When the mother departs, this type of child is extremely distressed, avoids the stranger and shows fear; it shows ambivalence towards its mother’s return, remaining close but resentful, maybe even pushing her away. This is Woody Allen, whose antennae are acutely receptive to any conflicts between his own needs and those of his audience. “There’s no correlation between my taste and public taste,” he has said. Indeed, in a variant on the old Groucho Marx gag about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member, Allen often distrusts, or downgrades, any film of his that has gone over too well with the public – whether “Annie Hall” (“nothing special”), “Hannah and Her Sisters” (“a film I feel I screwed up very badly”) or “Manhattan” (“they’re wrong”). He is the infant who makes a show of turning its back on its mother as a statement of independence.

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