Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. How the Internet Led to the Decline of Female Film Critics. As you may have heard, there’s a serious gender imbalance in the film industry, with very films directed by or starring women despite being 50% of the population. However, there is also a serious gender imbalance in film criticism as well, a field that was often saturated with women. The Atlantic’s Katie Kilkenny writes about how the Internet led to the decline of female film critics.
Film criticism wasn’t always such a boy’s club. In the 1920s and through World War II, women weren’t welcome covering hard-news topics like politics and international news, but they did find a rare place writing about the moving pictures. At the time, film was considered less prestigious (books and theater being the more highbrow arts), and writing jobs were ideal for homemakers, who could attend press screenings during the day and accept short-term or contract work. As a result, women like Dilys Powell and C.A. Lejeune enjoyed decades-long gigs at prestigious publications (“The Sunday Times” and “The Observer,” respectively). Editors liked female reviewers, as several made the assumption that women were softer on films than men, thus endearing their publications to studio ad men. Film criticism, Jerry Roberts writes in “The Complete History of Film Criticism,” was considered a “suitable domain for women — something for them to do along with ‘sob-sister’ columns and society pages.” But the joke was on the editors. Film rapidly grew in prestige, and, thus, women critics and writers grew in influence. Some of these writers were even overtly feminist, reviewing movies in ways that challenged Hollywood’s macho culture. In the 1940s and 1950s, Cecelia Ager wrote incisive takes on films like “Camille” and “King Kong,” focusing on their female characters. E. Arnot Robertson fixated on films marketed to women, gently mocking sentimental romances while also acknowledging their pleasures. (MGM, so threatened by her review of “The Green Years,” banned her from future screenings; later, Robertson brought suit. The whole affair cost her a gig at the BBC.) By the ’60s, two of the biggest voices in film criticism were women. At the “New York Herald-Tribune,” Judith Crist was banned from 20th Century Fox screenings after panning “Cleopatra,” a move that made it the fashion for newspapers to “import or create their own hard-to-please reviewers,” according to Roberts. Writing for “The New Yorker” and others, Pauline Kael became the most famous reviewer in America. Her first book of criticism, “I Lost It at the Movies,” sold 150,000 copies — unthinkable at the time — and helped make writing books an important source of both revenue and prestige for the critic contingent. Kael’s fight with Andrew Sarris over the “auteur” theory of cinema became ilm myth. Controversy and public spars were important for the development of film criticism: Without them, critics wouldn’t have become so well-read, or appeared on television and radio to endear themselves to new generations. And the ’80s and ’90s were peak times for the female critic, in terms of the sheer number of them installed in full-time gigs at newspapers, according to Roberts.
2. Why Adam McKay Is America’s Most Powerful Political Filmmaker. Director of films like “Anchorman” and “The Other Guys,” Adam McKay has staked ground as a successful comedy filmmaker, but in his own way, he’s also cemented himself as a distinctly political filmmaker as well. With his new financial crisis-based comedy “The Big Short,” McKay has made the most overtly political film of his career, but the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg argues that “The Big Short” is in many ways a continuation of his previous films.
Liberal political rhetoric often scorns the sort of embattled white men McKay and Ferrell explore with such love and humor. It’s this kind of contempt that leads liberals to mock conservatives for voting against what liberals perceive to be their self-interest, or to vilify them for trying to hold on to privileges that are rapidly losing their value. This kind of self-satisfaction is precisely what McKay rejects. Movies such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” persuade everyone to empathize with Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby, and to get outraged at the distorting, winner-takes-all systems that surround them instead, pitting Ron against his eventual wife and co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) and Ricky Bobby against his best friend and racing partner (John C. Reilly). “The Big Short” shares many preoccupations and villains with McKay’s comedies, among them financial wrongdoing and people who have marinated in superiority so long, they’re begging to be slapped on a grill. But if McKay’s comedies are about persuading audiences to care about individuals who find themselves at a loss in crazed environments and moments of social upheaval, the great genius of “The Big Short” is to recognize that those individuals are sitting in theater seats, rather than playing out the drama on-screen. Lots of political movies want to speak to audiences, but “The Big Short” does so explicitly and constantly; the fourth wall might as well not exist in the movie. Sometimes that means a character like Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), an independent investor who bet against not just bonds made up of obviously shoddy mortgages but also supposedly more reliable ones, pauses to let you know you’re watching a prettied-up piece of movie magic. At other moments, investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is narrating bits of financial history, like the invention of securities made up of large bundles of mortgages. But most powerfully, “The Big Short” enlists the audience in the characters’ outrage. In these moments, McKay makes viewers’ ignorance of and confusion about the causes of the Great Recession not a source of shame, but a badge of moral purity. “I’m guessing most of you still don’t really know what happened,” Jared tells viewers at the beginning of the movie. “Yeah, you got a sound bite you repeat so you don’t sound dumb, but come on.” The result is complicity rather than condescension, especially when Jared asks us “It’s pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to just leave them the f— alone.”
3. It’s Real: A Few Words With Haskell Wexler. Legendary cinematographer and director of the landmark film “Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler died recently at the age of 93, and so the film community has celebrated his life for the past few days. There have been plenty of obituaries and tributes, but sometimes it’s nice to hear some words from the man himself. RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz published an edited transcript of his conversation with Wexler at the 2013 EbertFest, focusing especially on his work with Terrence Malick in “Days of Heaven.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Terrence Malick’s working methods? I’ve heard stories that he goes into production with a detailed script, and the actors read it and say, “Oh my, this is completely, fully fleshed out and I can’t wait to do it,” and then they get out there and it’s something else entirely. I wonder if A that’s true, and B what “something else entirely” would mean?
A: For this film I didn’t have any talks with Terry, although I knew him. We both had the same agent when he was a writer and I wrote a big long treatment, and my agent Mike Medavoy said, “I’ve got this young writer who should work on your script.” So I hired Terry to write this script that took place in Brazil and he came back with a script that was absolutely not my script! But it was really good. No one ever made it.
Q: What was the name of it?
A: It was called “Bernardo,” it was about a Brazilian piano player involved in a pseudo-kidnapping.
Q: How did you communicate with Malick on the set?
A: Terry does not talk much. I mean, Terry is the opposite of Hollywood. Mostly they’re always pointing, they’re talking. Nowadays they’re on the thing like this [mimes speaking into a walkie-talkie], but with Terry, the actors would come out, and there weren’t like regular scenes in regular dramatic films. The only thing is, I know Terry discussed, when he knew I was going to come out here, to talk about “Days of Heaven” and I knew he gave it a thumbs up. So anything he doesn’t like about me, or residue over the stuff with Nestor, I think is pretty well gone.
Q: When was the last time you saw the movie all the way through?
A: I looked at—after all, we made it  years ago, so I looked at it the night before last, and I recommend — I saw the Criterion thing and in the Criterion thing there’s long stuff with Nestor talking, with me, with [Almendros’ lead cameraman] John Bailey. It’s a really good analysis of the film, and fits in very much with what Roger wrote in his very good review.
4. Talking Christmas With Shane Black. Screenwriter and director Shane Black has a new film coming out next called “The Nice Guys,” a mystery thriller set in 1970’s Los Angeles starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and like most of the films he’s been a part of, it is set during Christmas. On her blog, writer Kim Morgan shares an excerpt of an interview with Black in which he discusses his interest in Christmas as a setting.
Kim Morgan: I am going to ask you a question that everyone asks you because all of your movies take place during Christmas. What happened? Are you obsessed with Christmas?
Shane Black: I’m not obsessed with Christmas, I’m only obsessed with Christmas in movies. It grounds me, it makes me comfortable and happy to escape wherever I am into a movie that’s set at Christmas because you recognize that the hush that comes and the sort of rarified arena that it provides at that time of year [is good] for drama to take place. And also I think, the isolation people feel at Christmas is important (and also being in a blizzard is wonderful). The homecoming feel of people striving to come back to something at Christmas is important and also, just in Los Angeles, the way you have to dig for it. How, just tiny bits of Christmas exist here but they are things you have to unearth. Like, I remember walking at Christmas and seeing a little Mexican lunch truck with a broken Madonna and a candle in it. And I thought, that is as much, that is as powerful, as talismanic a bit of Christmas as the 40-foot tree at the White House. It’s like little guiding beacons to something we all recognize as a time to put things aside and focus momentarily on the retrospective of our lives; a spiritual kind of reckoning where we’ve been and where we’re all going to. All these things, I just love it in movies.
5. What Is Allowed: Some Thoughts on “The Force Awakens.” Now that the new “Star Wars” film has been released and people have had time to mull it over a little bit, it’s time for the personal reactions to start trickling in. Though some of these are certainly maudlin and overwrought, others are direct, heartfelt, and profoundly necessary. On her blog, Jessica Ritchey writes about her experience watching “The Force Awakens” as “a girl who loves movies.”
If you are a girl who loves movies you learn a few things. You learn that you are there to help, not be the hero. Your place is clearly marked, and the consequences for stepping outside it severe. You learn that you do not speak up first. You do not rush for the captain’s chair. You do not use your wits to survive. You wait to be saved. You do not ask for anything more. You learn what happens to women who ask for too much, who demand to be first. They are the villains, and they end the story dead or humiliated. There are exceptions, but they are piteously few. And as you grow and your tastes include a fondness for sci-fi you learn how much you have to imagine yourself into the story. Because often there isn’t anyone there who looks like you. You aren’t even there to help most of the time. You are there to be saved. You are not the chosen one. You do not have special powers. And if you do you are refiled from character to objective. You are the prize the hero will collect after completing enough plot trials. You certainly will never revel in your abilities.There will be no space given to your trepidation discovering the hidden depths inside yourself. You matter only so much as you can help the hero look good. And there are exceptions to this too, but again they are piteously few. This is why I had to see “The Force Awakens” for a second time. I had to be sure I had seen what was really on screen. I had to confirm Daisy Ridley’s Rey was real. Because Rey speaks up. She speaks up for herself and for the little drioid BB-8 she meets when he’s in the process of being stolen. She rushes for the captain’s chair of the Millennium Falcon when she and Finn (John Boyega) flee the desert planet Jakku. And it’s her very wits that have enabled her to survive for so long alone on a harsh world. Using her smarts to scavenge crashed ships for parts and building up a considerable mechanical acumen in process. She aches for a family that is not coming back for her. We see her struggle to finally let go of the dream of being found and move forward to claim the future in front of her. Rey does help Finn and later Poe (Oscar Isaac) but that is not the only reason she is in this story. Not by a long shot. She is guided by voices, some she can hear clearly, some she can only sense as suggestions in the back of her mind. She is destined for important things. And her clear terror at recognizing that is what saves her from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is the traditional male hero who hasn’t had things go his way and is broken by that and can only respond in turns by tantrums and lashing out in violence. He senses Rey’s importance and wants to possess it for himself. It’s Rey’s willingness to trust her instincts, to listen to the small still voice that lets her escape his clutches.
6. A Lesbian “Carol” for Christmas. December marks the beginning of Oscar season, which inevitably means that films will be marketed and sold in terms that will appeal to the broadest audience as well as Oscar voters, no matter how much said marketing neuters or softens the intent of the film. This is especially true with Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” a film about a surreptitious lesbian relationship that has already been touted as a “universal love story.” For Public Books, Professor of Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore College Patricia White writes about “Carol’s” relationship with lesbian representation in film as well as how claims of its universality shortchanges “the queerness of its makers.”
“Carol,” set in a gray-green postwar Manhattan and in nondescript Midwestern motels and stretches of highway, is beautifully shot, often through rain-streaked windows, inspired by midcentury photos by Saul Leiter, Ruth Orkin, and Esther Bubley. Haynes conjures all his considerable creative powers to capture the fugue state of lovers as they come together, part, and come together again. But the queer perspective washed out by the glare of Oscar eligibility illuminates “Carol’s” take on lesbian film history. The film’s emphasis on desiring looks exchanged between women draws upon yet revises tropes of lesbian representation from Hollywood film produced under the Production Code (enforced between 1934 and 1968) — which forbade “sex perversion or any inference to it” — and the art films that reacted to such prohibitions. For a start, “Carol” does not offer lesbianism as a pretext for sexual display for a male gaze, as did the recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013). Rather, its drama of calculating and longing gazes is all about a lesbian point of view. Therese aspires to a career in photography, and Carol stirs her talent. Their sex scene, when it comes, two-thirds of the way through the movie, starts with a complex camera set-up before a mirror and continues with camera placements that offer intimacy while demanding attention to viewing perspective itself. “Carol’s” screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, told me her confidence in Haynes’s sympathetic sensibility was clinched by the dinginess of the hotel room in which the sex scene was set. She didn’t want it to be glamorized. The deliberateness of the film’s final shots give the internal drama of the novel’s last lines — Therese’s confident stride into a crowded restaurant, Carol’s familiar gesture across the room, Therese’s smile when Carol meets her gaze — the impact of a money shot. Yet “Carol” also refuses to offer a realistic picture of lesbianism. Viewers familiar with Haynes’s films, from the Barbie dolls of “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987) to the faux 1950s melodrama “Far From Heaven” (2002), would hardly expect that. Nor is its depiction of lesbians ahistorical or asexual. Some of its specificity and texture come from the much-loved source novel. The pseudonymously published, semi-autobiographical “The Price of Salt” lacked the suicides and tragic renunciations of the lesbian pulp novels with which it shared bus depot paperback racks. The film adaptation preserves the lesbian looks and lust at the heart of the novel. Highsmith cruised the dyke bars of Greenwich Village and hooked up serially in artistic and society circles in New York and postwar Europe during and long after the “lavender scare” of McCarthy-era America. The paranoia that pervades her crime fiction also informs “Carol’s” plot of pursuit, wiretapping, and custody disputes, and the Waspy class fantasy that elevates Carol as love object gives Blanchett’s performance a creepy edge.
Tweet of the Day:
Kid Phipps, who’s seen the original trilogy and THE FORCE AWAKENS, at dinner tonight: “Are there any other Star Wars Movies?” Umm…
— Keith Phipps (@kphipps3000) December 29, 2015