Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. “Star Wars” and the Quest For the Forever Franchise. As you may have heard, there’s a new “Star Wars” movie coming out. It will be the seventh film in the “Star Wars” franchise, the first in a sequel trilogy to the original set of films. But there aren’t just two more “Star Wars” movies in the pipeline, there’s many, many more. In fact, the Walt Disney Company wants to make sure that there will always be a new “Star Wars” in the pipeline. Wired’s Adam Rogers explores “Star Wars” as the “forever franchise,” one that lives by the new Shared Universe By-Laws that Hollywood has unofficially adopted.
The picture that the Lucasfilm faithful relentlessly call “A New Hope” but everyone else calls “Star Wars” came out in 1977. It and its sequels (and TV movies and cartoons and toys and bedsheets) burrowed deep into popular culture. And if the people at the Walt Disney Company, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, have anything to say about it, the past four decades of “Star Wars” were merely prologue. They are making more. A lot more. The company intends to put out a new “Star Wars” movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first “Star Wars” film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise. These new movies won’t just be sequels. That’s not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it’s about infinite series. Disney also owns Marvel Comics, and over the next decade you can expect 17 more interrelated movies about Iron Man and his amazing friends, including “Captain America: Civil War,” two more “Avengers” movies, another “Ant-Man,” and a “Black Panther” (not to mention five new TV shows). Thanks to licensing agreements, Disney doesn’t own the rights to every Marvel property — Fox makes movies about the X-Men and related mutants like Gambit and Deadpool. So you’ll get interrelated comic-book movies there too. Warner Bros. Entertainment, which owns DC Comics, is prepping a dozen or so movies based on DC characters, with “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” in 2016, “Wonder Woman,” and eventually the two-part team-up “Justice League.” Warner is also trying to introduce Godzilla to King Kong (again). Paramount is working on a shared universe for its alien robot Transformers. Universal continues, with limited success, to try to knit together its famous bestiary (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc.). Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters. Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea. It evolved from the narrative techniques not of auteur or blockbuster films but of comic books and TV, and porting that model over isn’t easy. It needs different kinds of writers and directors and a different way of looking at the structure of storytelling itself. Marvel prototyped the process; Lucasfilm is trying to industrialize it.
2. Why Shia LaBeouf’s #AllMyMovies Was So Successful. Shia LaBeouf’s latest performance art installation #AllMyMovies featured LaBeouf watching every film of his in reverse chronological order in one sitting at the Angelika Film Center in New York. Our own Sam Adams has written about how the installation has garnered the best reviews of LaBeouf’s career, but it’s a different question entirely as to why the piece was more successful than his previous stabs at performance art. The Verge’s newest film critic Tasha Robinson examines why #AllMyMovies was so successful.
With #AllMyMovies, Shia was celebrating something (in this case, cinema) instead of wallowing in self-abnegation. Sure, LaBeouf himself was often up on the screen, but in the narrow space created by the live stream, the image of him at the movies was decontextualized. The piece was unquestionably performative, but the artifice wasn’t nearly as heavy — there were no outsized antics, just a man in a chair in a theater. No matter how abnormal the installation itself was, the normalcy of his presence, largely unchanging from hour to hour, was lulling. Plenty of commentators assumed LaBeouf’s reactions to the films were feigned — he is, after all, a professional actor — but even if they were, he was acting in a much more intimate scale. In addition to being emotionally accessible, #AllMyMovies was publicly accessible in a way LaBeouf’s other stunts weren’t. Over the marathon’s three-day stretch, the live feed let the project speak for itself, directly to viewers. Those curious about #IAMSORRY had to rely on written reports (and one extremely awkward, confrontational video) to know what was going on; news of his Berlin Film Festival appearance were filtered through outlets like “TMZ” and “Gawker.” But with #AllMyMovies, viewers could tune in and judge LaBeouf’s sincerity for themselves at any given moment. LaBeouf might have invited strangers to use a whip on him in #IAMSORRY, but he’s far more vulnerable this time around. Anyone who’s seen a movie can feel a kinship with other people sitting in the dark, staring at a screen as a story unfolds. That became one of the common threads of the response to the movie marathon: “Hey, this Hollywood superstar is doing the same thing we like to do — and doing it with us.” #AllMyMovies was presented without sound, presumably to prevent the copyright complaints that might arise if LaBeouf and his artistic partners, Luke Turner and Nastja Sade Ronkkö, broadcast the films’ full soundtracks. Viewers could only experience the movies vicariously, through that intimate close-up of LaBeouf’s reactions. In that close-up they saw the appealing nakedness of a man appreciating art, a dropped guard and open emotions. In this case, LaBeouf’s silence helped rather than harmed him: again, in the absence of an elaborate explanation of what was really going on in his head, viewers were invited to see whatever they wanted to see.
3. When TV Turns Itself Off. After the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris, CBS pulled episodes of “Supergirl” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” that both had terrorism-related plotlines, and TNT pulled an episode of “Legends” for the same reason. It’s a predictable, understandable move for television networks to self-censor episodes with unfortunate allusions to current tragedy, but of course, self-censoring neither alleviates pain nor rights the wrongs of real life. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik writes about the times when TV turns itself off and what pop culture’s role in times of tragedy should be.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, I remember the numerous cancellations, postponements and think pieces — I wrote some of them — about whether and how “everything would change,” about where the new cultural boundaries were. I had watched the World Trade Center burn from the roof of my apartment building. In those days, yes, a violent TV show could bring up painful emotions. But so could a rerun of “Sex and the City” set in pre-9/11 Manhattan. My worst trigger was my baby son’s board book about airplanes. After a trauma, there’s no clean line distinguishing what pop-culture content is unsettling and what isn’t, when or to whom. Maybe a better rule would be: Tell good, substantive stories about things that matter to people, regardless of the timing. But even lightweight, mindless popcorn entertainment, with special-effects fireballs and papier-mâché villains, does a service. It helps us confront our persistent fears, as it has from the allegorical sci-fi of the Cold War to the terrorism thrillers of today. “24” was one of the most-anticipated shows of the fall 2001 season. The Sept. 11 attacks raised doubt about whether it could ever run. Its pilot had its premiere two months later, scarcely edited, and the show ran for years, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of terrorist butts kicked and names taken, one day at a time. We got skeptical takes like “Sleeper Cell” and “Rubicon.” We got terror-fighting as family drama in “Alias.” We got the deep-space, religious-war allegory of “Battlestar Galactica.” We got dozens of stories, serious and escapist, brilliant and dumb, because we had things we needed to work through, and we responded to them. Pop culture is how we dream collectively. And it’s how we share nightmares — communal, cathartic nightmares that allow us to conceive awful things at a safe remove. It matters. Even the silly stuff. We should not be surprised that extremists excoriate pop entertainment and its liberties, that they attack cartoonists and concertgoers at a rock show. Even the frothiest expressions of art have something to say. We should know that; the murderers plainly do.
4. Why Making Princess Leia a General Isn’t Inherently a Feminist Move. J.J. Abrams, the director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” announced that in the new film Leia would no longer be called “Princess Leia,” but rather “General Leia.” While this sounds like a move away from the sexist trappings of the “princess” labels, it’s not that much progress if Leia is excluded from “Star Wars” merchandising. Over at The Washington Post, author of “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through The Princess-Obsessed Years” Rebecca Hains argues why it’s not inherently feminist to make Princess Leia a general.
Even with the title change, though, “Star Wars” licensees aren’t featuring Leia very prominently in their new merchandise. Unfortunately, children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia, especially when such characters stem from brands whose merchandise typically targets boys. In franchises such as “Star Wars” and the films and comic books by Marvel and DC Comics, toy licensees typically exclude important female characters from the toys and T-shirts that play pivotal roles in children’s play and identities. For example, as the blog Heroic Girls described last week, Target’s new six-character action figure play sets deliberately exclude women. In their “Marvel Avengers Titan Heroes” set, the only team member missing is its lone woman, the Black Widow. In her place: Ultron, a villain — not an Avenger. Likewise, in Target’s new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” set, neither Leia nor Rey, the series’s new major female protagonist, appears. In their place are a generic Stormtrooper and Fighter Pilot. There is nothing accidental about the decision to substitute minor or generic male characters for significant female ones. That kind of marketing decision, made time and time again, contributes to boys seeing girls as insignificant. When toy aisles ignore women and girls, it influences children’s views of the world and their places within it. Play is the work of the child, as Maria Montessori famously argued. When we exclude girls from certain types of play and on-screen roles, children of both sexes internalize the idea that boys and their interests are more important than girls — that it’s still a man’s world. “I’m disgusted that in 2015, such blatant sexism exists,” Magowan says. “We’re teaching a new generation of children that stories about girls don’t matter, and that narratives about boys are for everyone, while those about girls — half of the kid population — are just ‘special interest.’ Until we stop promoting the sexist idea that stories about girls only matter to girls, nothing will change.” Excluding Leia from “Star Wars” products undercuts the character’s progressive possibilities. Children learn the lesson that because she is a woman, she’s less important than her male counterparts, so she’s not even available as a choice in the toy and clothing sections.
5. Hollywood’s Top Editors Discuss Film’s Gender Imbalance Extends Beyond Directing. When the ACLU launched a civil rights investigation into Hollywood’s entrenched inequality, and it pointed out what everyone with eyes, ears, and a brain already knew: There is a severe gender imbalance in the film industry. But this goes beyond the talent on screen and directly behind the camera and into the editing room as well. MTV News’ Kase Wickman interviews two female editors on Hollywood’s gender imbalance.
Laura Jennings, who edited the effects-heavy and critically acclaimed “Edge of Tomorrow,” told MTV News that Jennifer Lawrence’s recent essay about getting paid less than her male co-stars rang true, and that she especially feels the effects of gender bias as an editor of mostly action films. “Jennifer Lawrence talked about it specifically, and I think it’s applicable, that you have to [make] yourself appealing — and that one obvious place to do that is by making yourself a little more value for money,” Jennings said. “I’ve been much more of a technical editor and visual effects editor for a long time and the amount of times it’s just an immediate assumption that you’re never going to be as technical as your male kind of counterparts, even if you’re far senior to them, it’s rife.” Shelly Westerman, who co-edited “About Last Night,” pointed out that editing before the digital era was seen as more of a woman’s job, because it involved literally cutting and physically pasting film into sequence. However, as filmmaking technology advanced, men, who were seen as more tech-savvy, were relied upon to do the work. Westerman cited strong mentors and networking as reasons for her success. “I think it’s about making a connections and its about luck and timing and it’s about finding the right people who are going to support you,” she said. “I’ve certainly worked with some women who weren’t supportive, and I’ve worked with others who were, same thing with men…I think a lot of it is you know really taking the time to build the network and establish contacts, you keep in touch and it really has to do with finding your tribe, or finding the people who you click with and the people you can be the most creative with, and who let you be your strongest self, and really nurturing them.”
6. Reverse Shot Symposium: Natto Wada’s “Punishment Room.” The publication Reverse Shot’s current symposium focus on repositioning a film’s authorship away from the director. The series has published previous essays about Paul Westerberg’s “Adventureland,” Emmanuel Lubezki’s “Birdman,” and Callie Khouri’s “Thelma & Louise.” This week, Jordan Cronk explores Kon Ichikawa’s “Punishment Room” and how its true author was Ichikawa’s wife Natto Wada.
One of the great ironies of the auteur theory is that in its elevation of the director to the level of cinematic architect, it correspondingly neglects the efforts of its namesake initiate: that of the author herself. And in a primarily visual medium, the work of the screenwriter is of particularly precarious prominence. It’s much easier to appreciate the achievements of, say, a cinematographer or a visual effects team than it is to parse the contributions of what is ostensibly the emanating agent for all narrative cinema. Indeed, it can be difficult to quantify such influence on even a single film – –for every “Casablanca” or “Network,” where the script is of equal, if not greater, notoriety than the more appreciable aesthetic aspects of the work, there’s a John Ford or Stanley Kubrick film of which little is noted with respect to its expositional elements. Attempting to trace a screenwriter’s sensibility over multiple films — to say nothing of a career — is, then, what we might call a potentially futile exercise in creative and critical categorization. Nonetheless, there is something to be gleaned from such an inquiry. One of the more curious authorial elisions with regard to the work of a major filmmaker — and one that has fascinated this writer for many years — is that of Natto Wada, wife and collaborator of celebrated Japanese director Kon Ichikawa. Both employed at Toho Studios in the early 1940s, Ichikawa and Wada (birth name Yumiko Mogi) married in the spring of 1948. They immediately began working together — he as director; she as screenwriter — and the following year would release “Passion Without End” (1949), the first of what would amount to over thirty collaborations. Wada’s case is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the scarcity of similar husband-wife pairings over such an extended period of time in the history of cinema. But from a completely creative standpoint, her presence and perspective appear to be the single greatest influence on Ichikawa’s artistry. In retrospect, it’s almost remarkably convenient how one can correlate Wada’s contributions with that of her husband’s achievements. Despite not nominally accounting for Wada’s individual efforts, the cinematic-historical record generally situates Ichikawa’s most fertile period as stretching from the early 1950s to 1965’s “Tokyo Olympiad,” the last Ichikawa film Wada would contribute to in any significant way (with but a few exceptions, she would write or cowrite all of Ichikawa’s films over this same period). So why the lapse in recognition for an artist who was not simply an inspiration for her personal and professional partner but the literal author of some of the best films ever produced in the East? The answer may be as routine as auteurist indifference or Western deference to established hierarchies, but on evidence of Ichikawa’s standing in the mid fifties/early sixties, a time typically considered the golden age of Japanese cinema, it’s clear a cause cannot be ascribed to any one film. Film scholar James Quandt, in his forward to the 2001 Cinematheque Ontario monograph “Kon Ichikawa,” describes the director as an “impediment to auteurist analysis” for two primary reasons. First, the diversity of his interests and breadth of his occasionally compromised filmography (he’s credited with directing over 80 films, many of them studio assignments); and second, “the formidable influence of his wife and scenarist, Natto Wada, whose withdrawal from writing his scripts in the mid-sixties marked a turning point in his career.” In the same introduction Quandt summarizes both the acerbic demeanor (the “black wit”) of many of their best films together, as well as Wada’s penchant for literary adaptations. “There is no question,” he writes, “that Ichikawa’s post-Wada films are markedly less sardonic,” noting that the process of “extricating Wada’s influence is one of many factors that makes ‘the case of Kon Ichikawa’ so confounding.”
Tweet(s) of the Day:
A student came to my office hours telling me I’ve inspired her to transfer from Business School to Cinema Studies so I’ve ruined her life.
— Peter Labuza (@labuzamovies) November 17, 2015
Breaking: in an effort to preserve the mysteries of the new Star Wars film, J.J. Abrams won’t be screening THE FORCE AWAKENS for the public.
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) November 17, 2015