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Daily Reads: America’s Mythic Past in ‘The Revenant’ and ‘The Hateful Eight,’ Why ‘The Force Awakens’ Won’t Change Hollywood, and More

Daily Reads: America's Mythic Past in 'The Revenant' and 'The Hateful Eight,' Why 'The Force Awakens' Won't Change Hollywood, and More

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

1. “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” Go to Hell, But Only One Comes Back.
Both “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” are similar in many superficial ways: They’re both long revenge films set on the frontier featuring uninhibited masculine aggression and gory violence. But though their similarities make them nice prestige companion pieces, The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky argues that they employ the mythic American past to radically different ends, i.e. both go to Hell, but only one looks up at the Earth.

But what’s genuinely interesting about this twosome is how they’re really nothing alike. They are going into the same mythic American past, and passing by a lot of the same markers, but for very different reasons. And that’s the way it is with Westerns, which tend to be more similar than not, the side effect being that whatever makes a given movie special or unique gets highlighted. Westerns deal in individualism and community, lone figures and landscapes. They stage acts of principle against backdrops of rock and desert. Movies don’t have to be about anything, but it’s better when they are, and in a best-case scenario, Westerns are about how the people making them feel about the fundamentals of justice, moral sense, and the whole business of how people relate to and tolerate each other. What’s frustrating about “The Revenant” — a mind-bogglingly expensive art film greenlit on the success of director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Best Picture winner “Birdman” — is that it doesn’t seem to be about much of anything, aside from an anti-humanist vision of the frontier landscape. Its Herzog-by-way-of-Tarkovsky viewpoint and transcendentalist overtones paint nature as equal parts cruel and metaphorically charged. This is a place where no man — and Iñárritu is working in that tradition where men stand in for humanity and women for everything else — is meant to survive, but which also serves as a gateway into the mystical unknown. The title posits trapper Hugh Glass — who crawls hundreds of miles to kill the man who murdered his son — as an avenger returned from the afterlife. And what is Minnie’s, the tavern where most of “The Hateful Eight” is set, if not writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s version of hell, where badmen are trapped by snow, with only their worst urges, past misdeeds, and itchy trigger fingers to keep them company? Being a genre of myths, the Western is also a genre of demystification, and both The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” look to the vaunted frontier past and find nothing but torment. Theirs is a cold and inhospitable West of racism, sadism, and sexual violence, where sin roams. This is the hell of the American past. It’s possible to chart the development of film as an art form through visions of hell — which is to say, its evolution from a medium that showed audiences what they wanted to see to one that could confront them with what they didn’t. And the only reason someone would go to hell would be to find something there, except in the case of “The Revenant.” Despite its superb action set pieces and its metaphors of transformation (e.g., a bizarre re-birthing scene in which Glass crawls naked in and out of a dead horse), it reaches its end goal somewhere around what used to be called the opening reel. It takes viewers to a place, and keeps them there. Which brings up one of those ironic inversions that critics can’t resist: “The Revenant” is a movie about a journey of hundreds of miles that is basically one sustained mood, and “The Hateful Eight” is a movie about people literally going nowhere where just about everything constitutes a step toward the final scene.

2. “The Force Awakens” Set Records, But That Doesn’t Mean It Will Change Hollywood.
You may have heard that the most recent “Star Wars” film surpassed “Avatar” for the highest grossing film in the U.S. This is good news for people who think “Avatar” was tripe (me), but also theoretically points to a future where more films have diverse casts. However, The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes that the records “Star Wars” breaks doesn’t mean it will change Hollywood.

For all that Hollywood tends to be motivated by money, part of what’s interesting about the industry is the times when it diverges from cold economic logic. The movie “The Force Awakens” is unseating at the top of the box-office charts is “Avatar,” a film that broke records and was supposed to spawn sequels but faded quickly from public memory. I’m cynical enough about Hollywood to find it entirely possible that the entertainment industry will credit anything other than Rey for the financial success of “The Force Awakens,” or at least to treat Rey as a non-entity, rather than a character to emulate. Even if Hollywood decides that it wants more Reys in the mix, the past month is a great illustration of the many ways in which the entertainment and retail industries will have to break free of old assumptions and shake up long-established habits to respond to the enthusiasm for these new characters. Hasbro neglected to make Rey playing pieces for the “Force Awakens” edition of Monopoly, then tried to pass the choice off as an attempt to avoid spoiling the movie for fans. The character was left out of other figurine sets as well, just as companies have neglected to make toys of female characters from some of Disney’s other other franchises. And it’s not just action movies where big companies have underestimated the demand for products tied to beloved female characters. “Frozen,” Disney’s animated musical, was much more explicitly aimed at girls and young women than “The Force Awakens” ever was, but even so, merchandise for the film sold out rapidly, leaving parents to take dramatic steps to try to track down Elsa costumes. Perhaps it’s better to be sold out than to find yourself with a lot of leftover figurines or blonde wigs. But these sorts of omissions and shortages suggest just how strongly entertainment-industry thinking is aligned toward men and boys. Changing what sorts of movies get green-lit, and what sorts of actors get to lead projects, is an important start.

3. Can Americans Be Trusted With “The Revenant’s” Geocaching Promotion?
In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film “The Revenant,” the band of white trappers bury their pelts in the snow because they can’t carry them on their long trek, so the folks at 20th Century Fox and Geocaching.com decided it would be a good promotional idea to hide 20 prop packages across the U.S., Mexico, Europe, and Australia, encourage people to find them, log them on the site, and then move them for “another trapper” to find. The Verge’s Tasha Robinson writes about if Americans can be trusted with such a crazy promotional gimmick.

Momentarily leaving aside the commercial co-opting of yet another stubbornly personal, profit-free hobby, Fox’s press emphasis on sending people out to “discover lost treasures” seems likely to provoke the wrong kind of interest. Judging from participants’ selfies on Geocaching, the “Revenant” props are mostly pretty mundane objects — battered leather bags, tattered climbing ropes. But they’re still film props, objects with a thriving eBay marketplace. Even studios themselves have been peddling props online since they figured out it was a good way to recoup production money. By referring to caches as “treasure,” Fox seems to be trying to court fans of the film instead of fans of the sport. And unlike geocachers, people who dig up “treasure” usually don’t put it back for the next person to find. The uninitiated might just read this as an open invite to walk off with their own personal souvenirs of Leo DiCaprio’s would-be Oscar journey. More than anything, the Hitchbot experiment comes to mind: in mid-2015, the hitchhiking robot that had already successfully toured Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands was sent out in the States in a similar bid for a nationwide collaborative art project. Less than two weeks later, it was vandalized and dumped in a Philadelphia alley. This is why we can’t have nice things, or at least nice, unsupervised, wandering robots. It remains to be seen whether America can do any better when tempted by objects once touched by Leonardo DiCaprio.

4. The Sophomore Lunge: “The Leftovers” and “BoJack Horseman” Come Alive in Their Second Seasons.
TV shows are fickle beasts that almost always need to time grow and develop into something worthwhile. In fact, sometimes it takes an entire season for good shows to become great. At Playboy, Greg Cwik examines “The Leftovers” and “BoJack Horseman,” and how they came alive in their second seasons.

The first seasons of “The Leftovers” and “BoJack” weren’t exactly feel-good romps, what with the suicides and alcoholism. Delving even deeper into darkness and depression could have gone horribly awry. “The Leftovers'” sprawling narrative wigwagged between a huge assortment of characters in season one, often allotting one episode for each character, and it occasionally stumbled as it tried to tie everything and everyone together. The second season is something else entirely. The showrunners assembled a host of ace directors, including Mimi Leder and Craig Zobel. Based on original teleplays and free from the shackles of its best-selling source material, season two expounds on the mysteries of season one and inflates them to an almost cosmic scale (the opening credits insinuate as much, with people-shaped ciphers replacing the first season’s Michelangelo-inspired art) while delving even more intimately into the lives of not only the Garveys but a new family, the Murphys. The second season opener makes a number of ballsy moves, eschewing, for the most part, the Garveys, our emotional liaisons to this world, with no initial explanation. It opens with a 10-minute pre-historic allegory devoid of dialog. It demands that you pay attention from the first frame. It subsequently moves to a new town, leaving behind most of the inhabitants of Mapleton. The season works in mysterious ways, not meandering as much as coming to us in a carefully shuffled order. Kevin Garvey is losing his mind. The degradation of his mental health now manifests in spectral appearances of a woman (Ann Dowd) whose suicide he unwittingly abetted. Its willingness to explore mysteries without answering questions sets it apart from the year’s other prestige shows. It doesn’t pretend to peddle in certainty or closure; like the characters, we’re trapped in vagueness and anxiety. The season reaches peak audacity with its eighth episode, channeling “The Sopranos'” seminal “The Test Dream,” in which Tony Soprano lingers in a hallucinatory purgatory. “The Leftovers” doesn’t explain anything (and doesn’t have a title as helpful as “The Test Dream”) and doesn’t let us come up for air. We’re trapped with Kevin in his suffocating death dream, sharing his final fleeting moments of life. We don’t get to see the real world again until Kevin, defying death, claws his way through the soil in the episode’s closing seconds. As the lone witness to Kevin’s resurrection so eloquently says, “Holy shit.” “BoJack” doesn’t ask unanswerable questions as much as it ponders one prevalent question: Will BoJack ever be happy? The show often unveils information in a nonlinear fashion (again, like “The Leftovers”), taking advantage of streaming’s infinite replay abilities. The show teases recovery before giving us relapse, again and again, like an equine Tantalus. He’s has been slowly committing suicide for years, and in season two he finally becomes aware of the corrosive effects his self-loathing has on the people who care about him, a coterie of quickly diminishing numbers.

5. A Critic and Documentary Filmmaker’s Struggle to Live With Grief.
After a loved one or a close friend dies, it’s difficult to live with the pain of their loss. Many will claim that it’s important to move forward and leave grief behind, but sometimes it’s necessary and important to live with grief, not to leave it behind but incorporate it into your self. At Elle, critic and documentary filmmaker Farihah Zaman writes about her father’s murder and how she learned in the process that grief wasn’t a weakness.

On a recent trip with friends, a goofy all-in-good-fun game of Truth or Dare turned sour for me when someone was asked to recall the first time they experienced the loss of a loved one (I suggest never playing Truth or Dare with documentary filmmakers, because they go there). As he talked about the death of his grandfather, I went to the bathroom to quietly hyperventilate. I wanted to run away but forced myself to return and asked the group to move on from the subject. However, I felt so embarrassed that I squeezed the words out in a nonsensical jumble, prolonging the agony as I was then forced to elaborate. While everyone looked at me with sympathy that I read as pity, two of my friends locked me in a tight hug. I should have felt nothing but love and support, but my gratitude for their understanding was tinged with the humiliation of having even more attention drawn to me and my lack of control. As a filmmaker and a critic, I’ve found to my dismay that there are certain movies I can’t watch anymore. I used to pride myself on my iron stomach, and I was one of the few women with a dedicated genre column, often tackling bloody cult films. But now I react poorly, and visibly, to gun violence or even sustained action sequences. I spent most of “Mad Max: Fury Road” with my eyes closed, lightly shaking with agitation. However, even worse are situations with no clear correlation to my father’s death. Milestones — other people’s weddings, birthdays, anniversaries — might cause me to suddenly burst into tears. There is a melancholy brewing so close to the surface of my skin that any event, any strong feeling, might suddenly release it like a cold sweat. As a result, I wonder if I’m being pathetic, melodramatic, a narcissist for whom everything is now about me, my father’s death, my pain. My mother, who lived through the bloody Bangladeshi Liberation War, immigrated to the U.S. and raised three willful (to put it mildly) daughters while married to someone who was away as much as he was home, taught me that a stiff upper lip is the best strategy in hard times. In Bengali culture, pain, grief and depression are personal matters to be indulged in privately. As I grew up, I came to idealize not indulging at all, even during traumatic events, like the sudden deaths of others in our family of diplomats. This veneer of unflappable fortitude became integral to how I saw myself and how I managed the great weight of my fears. I enjoy being thought of as a badass. I love a challenge. I love adventure. I sometimes love straight-up crazy recklessness. One of the reasons I make documentaries is that I like to push myself. For my film “This Time Next Year,” about a New Jersey community in the year after Hurricane Sandy, I trudged through flooded marshes in full-body waders, went 60 feet up in a fireman’s crane, climbed out onto slippery moss-covered jetties and through crumbling construction sites in a dress. I’ve embedded with U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti, learned to shoot an AK-47, gone on night raids and into riots wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet. In the face of chaos, I grow only more calm and practical. In times of vulnerability and need, however, the strategies I’ve adapted to protect myself instead fill me with doubt. I panic at the idea that if I’m not constantly that tough girl, then I’ll be too weak to go on.

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