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Daily Reads: ‘Carol’ and the Oscars History of Excluding Queer Cinema, Stephen Colbert’s Radical Vulnerability, and More

Daily Reads: 'Carol' and the Oscars History of Excluding Queer Cinema, Stephen Colbert's Radical Vulnerability, and More

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

1. The Oscars Continue to Exclude Queer Cinema by Mostly Snubbing “Carol.”
It may not come as a surprise to you, but if you’re keeping track, a queer-themed film has never won Best Picture at the Oscars. Beyond that, only two actors have won Oscars for playing queer characters that live through the whole movie. The Oscars have a troubled history with queer cinema as they fetishize suffering and not just being a person with interiority. At The A.V. Club, Nico Lang examines how the Oscars continue to exclude queer cinema by mostly snubbing “Carol” in the Best Picture and Director categories.

From “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to “Boys Don’t Cry,” the Academy Awards have a fetishistic relationship with queer misery and struggle. The Oscars like seeing queer bodies broken and begging for humanity, rather than fully human and already deserving of our respect. In an essay for BuzzFeed, Allison Wilmore argues that the issue is that most “Oscar movies” aren’t made with queer audiences in mind: They use “characters as symbols rather than as people unto themselves, and mediating stories through the more ‘relatable’ perspectives of outsiders and allies.” In other words, if queer audiences are already aware that we are people, “Philadelphia” was made for those who have yet to be convinced. But that ubiquity of violence against queer characters can erase the exact communities filmmakers hope to advocate for. In “Dallas Buyers Club,” the death of Rayon (Jared Leto) — a trans sex worker with HIV — is treated as a footnote to the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a straight man who learns tolerance. During his controversial acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Leto didn’t even say the word “transgender.” Instead, he credited the “Rayons of the world” for the inspiration to make the movie, as if the only reason trans people die is so that Jared Leto can get an award for playing them. (He went onto win the Oscar for that performance.) The stories of LGBT people can be important teachable moments in our nation’s ongoing struggle for equality, but the issue is that awards groups like the Oscars only tend to recognize a single story — in which queer people are being sacrificed for our sins. That non-narrative often has the opposite intended effect: According to Decider’s James Worsdale, it illustrates that all queer characters are “deranged, dead, or doomed.” Instead of proving that we are human, too, it creates a nonstop pattern of punishment. As Wilmore suggests, it’s as if Oscar movies implicitly are apologizing for the exact people they purport to find “brave” and “inspiring.”

2. Stephen Colbert’s Radical Vulnerability: DeRay McKesson and Race on Late Night.
On Monday, Stephen Colbert had Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson on his Late Night show. The results were an interesting exploration into white defensiveness for Colbert’s moderate white audience. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya writes about DeRay’s appearance and how it showcased Colbert’s radical vulnerability.

In the months since Colbert has taken what was once David Letterman’s seat — and has evolved out of his put-on hyper-conservative agenda towards a more authentic persona — he has struggled, I think, to strike the right note of political engagement. It’s an understandable struggle. Politics clearly matters a great deal to Colbert, but there’s a certain amount of flexibility — and plausible deniability — as a comic performer that isn’t quite available as a late-night host. Much like a politician, Colbert is very aware of the average American’s response to politics; unlike a politician, though, Colbert doesn’t pander. Much like the ethos of his friend and former coworker Jon Stewart, Colbert’s angle is always to make the average person see reason. This sometimes puts him in sticky situations — especially from his liberal base, who has been busy seeing reason for some time now, thank you — but his interview with McKesson is a nice reminder of why Colbert resonates as the “Late Show” host. And it’s precisely because Colbert is the establishment, but wants to do better. There is no magical hand-waving that gets around the fact that despite being a wacky sketch comedian mostly famous for being a (fake) reactionary politician who ran a (real) campaign for president, Stephen Colbert is a straight white guy from South Carolina. He might be politically liberal, but he’s not a liberal choice for a talk-show host, in a landscape that is dominated by — as that Vanity Fair cover reminded us — comedians who look just like him. I surmise that for Colbert’s interview with McKesson, the comedian was playing even more establishment than usual, in an attempt to bring in the members of the audience who might be alienated by a black activist on their safe late-night entertainment. There was something a bit maddening about Colbert asking McKesson to define “white privilege” — is there anything more inherently “white privilege” than that question, especially when asked to an overqualified activist whose whole life is dedicated to combating white privilege? — and Colbert revived the question about “All Lives Matter,” the counter-movement, of sorts, to “Black Lives Matter.” To the hip and savvy liberal viewer, it felt a bit like rehashing much-discussed, already shelved topics. But I think Colbert was deliberately trying to draw in the moderate, defensive, and possibly confused listener; it’s hard to say, the morning after, if this kind of handholding through the issues worked for his audience, but it certainly is more good-faith bipartisan work than occurs most days in Washington.

3. Rachel Bloom’s Twisted Comedy.
The Golden Globes featured plenty of surprises, such as “Mozart in the Jungle” winning the Best TV Comedy award, but none more welcoming than Rachel Bloom winning Best Actress in a TV Series (Comedy or Musical) for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The New York Times’ Susan Dominus profiles Bloom and her series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was a show decades in the making, at least subconsciously for Bloom, who grew up “thinking either about musical theater or murder and death,” she told me. That the show would be overtly irreverent about taboos, including sex, was a given. “Rachel is the dirtiest person I know,” her friend Danny Jolles, a comedian in Los Angeles, said with evident pride. “She has asked me more about my sexual preferences than any other person I know. She has me mapped to a T.” In person, Bloom comes across as someone who takes honesty to its natural conclusion. “I like deconstructing things,” she told me when we met in December for dinner near her bungalow home in Los Angeles. “I like cutting the legs out from under something that feels secret. Something that’s like — ‘Oh, breasts are sexy.’ They’re floppy, Jell-O-filled sacks! In high school, I was once watching the surgery channel and ended up watching a breast reduction. The inside of a breast is disgusting. It looks like the inside of a couch.” There’s something almost earnest about Bloom’s desire to discuss the realities of biology — sexual, anatomical or otherwise — that the rest of humanity tries so hard to gloss over. Potty-mouthed in her work, off-camera she has a vulnerable quality; several women on the set said they felt maternal toward Bloom, who looks even younger than her age and is decidedly polite. Lipstick and a form-fitting dress can easily transform her into an old-fashioned bombshell, but she showed up for dinner (as she often does for meetings) in a shapeless, forgettable sweatshirt and jeans, makeup-free. She shows equally little vanity on the show. During a scene in which Rebecca runs into Josh at a grocery store, Bloom wears an oversize T-shirt without a bra, her breasts loose and low, no longer packaged for maximum appeal. (“Bras are in Aisle 1,” one of Josh’s male friends tells her.) The show regularly sends up expectations of female beauty but also takes on, for example, the complicated rivalries in certain kinds of relationships between women. “I want to kill you and wear your skin like a dress, but then also have you see me in the dress and be like, ‘OMG, you look so cute in my skin!'” Rebecca sings about Josh’s current girlfriend, whom she has momentarily befriended, in a number called “Feeling Kinda Naughty.” “My standards are based on shows I like, like ‘Girls’ or ‘Arrested Development,'” Bloom said. “And they’re all shows that are groundbreaking. I guess in the back of my head, I think, If you’re not being groundbreaking, then what are you doing? If you’re not being ballsy and honest and vulgar” — to her, the last two are impossible to separate — “then what are you doing?”

4. Fresh Starts: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Younger.”
In this age of Peak TV, it’s easy for many good shows to slip under the radar, such as the previously mentioned “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and TV Land’s “Younger.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum writes about both shows and how they’re both bold, confident shows about women.

The premise of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” might make Sheryl Sandberg cringe: The day that Rebecca Bunch makes partner at a corporate law firm, she bumps into her old boyfriend Josh Chan. He’s an aimless So-Cal bro, while she’s a Manhattan workaholic, and the two dated for about two minutes at summer camp, but so what. The minute that Josh mentions West Covina — an unremarkable California suburb that people keep faint-praising as “only two hours from the beach” — she’s hooked. She quits, moves west, becomes the only Harvard-educated lawyer at a strip-mall law firm, and schemes to get her man. But first she bursts into song. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” on the CW, has at least two original songs per episode, complete with dance numbers. It stars its little-known co-creator, Rachel Bloom. And it’s a romantic comedy whose heroine is pretty much a delusional stalker, in the tradition of “Felicity,” another good-girl-gone-creepy, who switched coasts in the opposite direction (although, as Rebecca insists in the opening credits, it’s “more nuanced than that”). This is a ridiculously high level of difficulty for any new show, which makes it all the more miraculous that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” like its heroine, has such eccentric, slow-build charisma. Like the low-key telenovela “Jane the Virgin,” which also airs on the CW, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” looks wacky but feels grounded, with the compassion for dumb behavior that you’d hope for from your best friend. In particular, “Crazy Ex-­Girlfriend” has a boundlessly chill acceptance of its heroine’s seeming mood disorder. Sure, Rebecca has rotten boundaries. She binge-eats pork tacos and chugs vodka before a big meeting. She has daddy issues and narcissist-mom ones, too. She scavenges uppers off the bathroom floor. Her neighbor Heather initially pegs Rebecca as a case study for her psych class. Then she decides that she likes her too much to diagnose her condition.

5. The Pervasive, Long-Term Effects of Online Piracy.
Anyone who has spent anytime on the Internet is aware that there is a massive piracy ring that helps everyday citizens steal movies, music, TV show episodes, and any and all pop culture. Depending on whom you talk to, this is either a great thing or a thoroughly terrible thing that will rob artists of any sort of profit forever. At Movie Mezzanine, writer Corey Atad examines online piracy, and interviews filmmakers, critics, and publishers about its effects.

The leak of “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” and several other Oscar contenders made headlines last month, when pirated awards-consideration screeners were traced back to a top Hollywood executive. Tarantino’s Western, “filmed in glorious Ultra Panavision 70,” was being viewed and discussed by people across the globe, including cinephiles, based on sub-DVD-quality screener rips. The urge to see the film mere days before its theatrical release was apparently overpowering for many. Seitz points to all manner of justifications for piracy, which he graciously calls “elaborate,” but hold no water at all, “including this idea that people in New York or LA or Chicago, or critics generally are ‘really’ the entitled ones, which is a pretty playground way of defending yourself.” Perhaps more upsetting were the justifications coming from other film critics. “I also heard some of my peers saying, ‘Well, I have to torrent new releases, including ones that haven’t screened in my area, otherwise I can’t be part of the conversation!’ “Piracy has become normalized,” Seitz admits. “I am not precisely sure how or when it happened, but we’ve gotten to the point where large sectors of the public have decided that art and entertainment are things that they are entitled to have for free.” One moderately compelling argument for downloading pirated material lies in fair use, the area of copyright law allowing for the limited transformation of a work for parody or criticism. “Some of my video essays were made by ripping DVDs that I had paid for or rented through Netflix, or torrenting things that were not available through normal channels,” Seitz explained. But he points out that many people claim fair use when it doesn’t apply at all. “Just because fair use exemptions to intellectual property law cover criticism and commentary, doesn’t mean you can illegally download a movie and morally justify it by tweeting about it.” It’s an oft-unacknowledged fact within online media circles that the use of pirated content has become a crucial part of the click factory. Most of the GIFs from TV and film you see populating Tumblr blogs and finding their way into Buzzfeed lists and Vanity Fair articles are sourced from illegal downloads. The argument isn’t so much fair use, as pure practicality. It’s much easier, cheaper, and faster for a writer to download a TV episode illegally to screencap and make GIFs out of it, than it is to wait for it to show up on iTunes the next day, pay for it, and possibly have to strip away any copy protection (an illegal act in itself). Advanced screeners aren’t much use, either. “I use pirated TV out of necessity,” says the publisher of a successful pop-culture site, who preferred not to be named. “I suspect it’s pretty common, as critics can’t use most of our screeners for screengrabs because they’re watermarked.” This sort of under-the-radar use of pirated content isn’t usually apparent to readers, though occasionally it’s obvious, he says. “If a logo from a Canadian network is on the screengrab, it’s definitely been pirated.”

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