Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Hipster Misogyny in “The Hateful Eight.” Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “The Hateful Eight” is arguably the most divisive film of his career. Though the film has many champions, it has garnered harsh criticism for its one-note storytelling, gruesome violence, nihilism, and finally, its misogyny. At RogerEbert.com, Laura Bogart writes about the “hipster misogyny” in “The Hateful Eight” and how it feels like a betrayal of the previous films in his filmography.
If I’d had to make a list of impossible things that could never happen, Tarantino indulging in full-tilt, “Grand Theft Auto”-levels of misogyny would have been right at the top of the list. Even working within traditionally masculine genres — the war movie, the spaghetti Western, the gangster pic, the kung-fu flick — he has crafted women characters who feel as cunning and nuanced, as fiercely intelligent and unabashedly unlikeable, and truly as iconic, as the male standard-bearers of those movies. Uma Thurman’s inscrutably cool and charismatic Mia Wallace appears on the posters for “Pulp Fiction”. Mia’s black bob, air-drawn square (as in “C’mon, daddio, don’t be a square”) and Fox Force Five joke are as integral to the film as Vincent Vega’s black suits and Jules Winfield’s Ezekiel 25:17. And there is a good reason why Tarantino’s adaptation of the pulpy crime novel “Rum Punch” became “Jackie Brown”: When all too many filmmakers believe that any actress over forty can only be the mother of the bride or the sad yet knowing older friend, he gave Pam Grier the chance to play earthy and sexy and smart, to be daring and ruthless and, in the end, triumphant. (Ironically, the casting of 53-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight” was part of what initially excited me about that film). Tarantino’s loving pastiche approach to cinema functions (at its best) as something more than mere tribute. It invites those of us who may have felt left out by particular genres or tropes to wade back in — the water’s fine, since now, finally, we can see our own reflections on the surface. Powerful, self-contained women who are still raw and flawed and bracingly, achingly human now share the silver and small screens — but I can still remember a time before Katniss Everdeen, Imperator Furiosa, and Jessica Jones (and I hope to live in a time when most of the major female protagonists aren’t white). As a teenager, I was an avid Buffy-watcher, but none of the other women action heroes I could recall truly inhabited their own narratives: Sarah Connor may have been fierce, but she was also a vessel for and player in her son, the great Chosen One’s, story. Ellen Ripley blessed us with “get away from her, you bitch!,” but her story is often about raw-knuckled survival, nothing more, nothing less. So, when I was a 21-year-old, sitting in the theater and looking up at Beatrix Kiddo as she cut through hordes of enemies with her Hanzo sword (while wearing Bruce Lee’s legendary yellow and black-striped track suit) I felt something truly transcendent: “Kill Bill” was one of the first movies I’d seen where a woman underwent the traditional hero’s journey. Beatrix’s journey isn’t entirely about dropping bodies, it is also about contemplating the nature and purpose of her own power; hers is a story equally of redemption and revenge. In obliterating the Deadly Vipers, she goes beyond being Bill’s woman, a woman who would jump motorcycle onto speeding train for him, and becomes her own woman.
2. Stakes Is High: On Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq.” Speaking of divisive films, Spike Lee’s latest film “Chi-Raq” also polarized critics and audiences. Some found the film to be too patchy and awkward with Lee’s standard tonal shifts to be too wild to work with the material, but many others found it to be necessary and powerful, an angry provocation worthy of its director’s unique talents. For the L.A. Review of Books, K. Austin Collins unpacks Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” focusing on how Lee troubles representation, satire, and the ugly realities of urban violence.
The film I experienced is not quite the film advertised. It is only partially true that “Chi-Raq” is a colorful, outlandish satire. In fact, tonally, the film is practically split in two, and with the help of his actors and his outstanding cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan,” “Straight Outta Compton”), Lee manages to carve out two distinct visual and moral worlds, weaving them together. One half concerns the sex strike of Lysistrata and the lives and lifestyles of Englewood’s rival gangs. It’s filmed and performed with an abundance of visual and theatrical artifice befitting, among other things, rap and R&B videos, black folklore, and Kubrick. It’s the stuff recognizable from the trailer. Dark and flush with color, it is captured with a camera wedded to the beat of that world’s spirited musicality. But the film’s other mode is something else. Emotionally raw and brightly lit, this other half, which concerns Irene, the mother whose young child is killed in the film’s enraging opening act, replaces artifice with the solemnity of high tragedy — tragedy, it should be said, that is lent an intense air of nonfiction by the presence of Hudson, whose mother, brother, and seven-year-old nephew were all gunned down in Chicago, Hudson’s hometown, in 2008. The pain that reaches into the film from off-camera when Hudson is onscreen — pain given the essence of documentary, thanks to her presence — is indescribable. And it’s not only her. Among the Spartans and Trojans are a few men in wheelchairs and on dialysis whose injuries are not fictions. At one point, Dolmedes marches one injured man from each gang into the frame to point out their exasperating similarities — namely, their wounds. These men are true alumni of South Side gang violence, whose wounds become as much a signature of their belonging as their gangs’ colors. Still elsewhere among the film’s large nonfictional public, which grows and grows as the film wears on, are members of Purpose Over Pain (POP), a local organization run by parents who’ve lost their children to gun violence. (POP is tied to Saint Sabina Church, which briefly serves as a location in the film and whose Father Michael L. Pfleger inspired the character played by John Cusack.) These parents stage a real protest in the film that, intercut with the satirical grotesque of Lysistrata’s sex strike, has an uncanny way of making what otherwise seem like distinct moral and aesthetic universes — one of outrage, one simply outrageous — sing in unison. The more that Lee hops back and forth between these universes, striking a buoyant inconsistency of tone throughout his film, the more these modes begin to feel both as inseparable and as divorced as night and day. To put a finer point on it, most scenes involving Lysistrata, her fellow sex strikers and their boyfriends occur either at night or in darkened interiors — clubs and bedrooms — whereas Irene’s scenes are largely filmed outside, in stark daylight, or with that light streaming in, as during her daughter’s funeral in Saint Sabina. I’ll spare you a clever line about daylight and being “woke,” but Lee is clearly not above the idea. What lends the film its pathos, sets its anger ablaze, and animates its most radical ideas are the moments in which Lysistrata and Irene, distinguished in the film by their separate aesthetic worlds, are collapsed into one scene and one frame. Urged on by the joyous bounce of an R&B song, Lysistrata careens into the crime scene of Irene’s daughter’s shooting and, within an instant, the film’s mood shifts. As this moment and others reconcile differing styles and moods, they also, jointly, build toward the moral and political reconciliation that closes the film. These shared scenes — Irene’s daughter’s crime scene, Cusack’s stirring jeremiad at her funeral, and the film’s astonishingly strange, vibrant climax — structure the emotional and intellectual logic of the film with as much rigor as Hester Prynne’s three trips to the scaffold.
3. The Best Cinematic Nonfiction in 2015. Though many people still hold a narrow conception of what a documentary can look and sound like (something resembling “Bowling for Columbine” or “Super Size Me”), there are plenty of directors actively trying to push the genre forward, especially in an era where people are surrounded by nonfiction images, from dashboard cams to live tape of reporters being murdered. At BFI, Robert Greene examines his favorite documentaries of 2015 to honor the year in nonfiction.
“Democrats”: Nielsson’s Tribeca Film Festival-winning look at Zimbabwean politics is a miraculous feat. Even setting aside the dangerous lengths the filmmaker and her team went to over three years to capture their slowly unfolding, immensely complex story, “Democrats” would be a praiseworthy achievement just on the strength of its handling of character and specificity. No recent documentary has given me a better, more urgently cinematic frame in which to understand another country’s political ups and downs – and the social performances and power structures that help forge them.
“Arabian Nights”: A voluminous burst of something close to unmitigated cinematic freedom, Gomes’s politically charged, three-part, 381-minute epic describes itself with text onscreen as having “acquired a fictional form from facts” and that’s good enough for me. Long stretches of this monster are documentary (while even longer stretches are gleefully opaque, dense, absurd, boring, stupid or electrifying). But ultimately “Arabian Nights” might be the clearest expression of Jean-Luc Godard’s “every film is a documentary” adage since the French master’s own work in the late 1970s and 80s. I find it most satisfying to view Gomes’ film-thing as an almost ridiculously thorough nonfiction self-portrait of cinematic structures and ideas, laid bare in a specific place at a particularly sensitive moment in that place’s political history.
“In Jackson Heights”: This portrait of one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world is Frederick Wiseman at his most compassionate. Not unlike his earlier Belfast, Maine, Wiseman’s latest finds the Big American Idea in the details of a very particular place, creating a mini city symphony of generational change, socio-political struggle and everyday life. Wiseman commits his images and sometimes-lengthy scenes to portraying the folks who populate Jackson Heights, New York with a deep sense of human dignity. His lifelong project to help us understand ourselves by taking a hard look at the institutions we build and operate feels opened here, creating a surprisingly sweeping and emotional experience.
4. “Velvet Goldmine” Captures the Spirit, If Not the Biography, of David Bowie. Those who have a beating heart and worthwhile taste are still mourning the loss of musician David Bowie, celebrating his legacy by playing his music and watching his movie. But there’s one film that captures the spirit of Bowie so thoroughly even though it doesn’t feature him or his music. The A.V. Club’s Caroline Siede explores Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” and how it captures both being a fan of Bowie and Bowie himself.
Glitter-filled, chaotic, and often bizarre (one key emotional scene is acted out by two young girls playing with Barbie dolls, a nod to Haynes’ earlier “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story”), “Velvet Goldmine” nevertheless possesses a wonderfully observed humanity to go with its aggressive experimentalism. If the story of the rise and fall of an ambitious rock star is a little overfamiliar, there’s a lot of nuance in the way Haynes explores the Mandy/Slade/Curt dynamic. The characters may think they sound brilliant when they crib from Oscar Wilde with lines like, “What is true about music is true about life: that beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing,” or “A real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into them. But ;”Velvet Goldmine” distances itself just enough to reveal the hollowness of such a flippant worldview. If the film occasionally feels gaudy, pretentious, and scattered, that’s as much a commentary on glam rock as anything else. Though “Velvet Goldmine” was met with mixed reviews and a dim box office, it found a second life as a cult classic — one particularly beloved by young audiences. Helped along by Sandy Powell’s impeccable costume design, Haynes makes the energetic glam rock era feel impossibly appealing, especially for those too young to have lived through it. As Haynes put it in a 2007 interview with “The A.V. Club,” “It’s the film that seems to mean the most to a lot of teenagers and young people, who are just obsessed with that movie. They’re exactly who I was thinking about when I made ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ but it just didn’t get to them the first time around.” But it’s no surprise that Bowie disapproved of the film. “Velvet Goldmine” isn’t interested in sanctifying Slade, instead arguing that much of his originality was stolen, borrowed, or built with the help of others. There’s a decidedly cynical edge to Slade’s story, one that potentially casts Bowie’s ever-changing artistic persona as more of a commercial choice than an artistic one. But that’s only a failing for those who want “Velvet Goldmine” to be a faithful recreation of history, which it isn’t trying to be. Instead the film saves its optimism for its true hero, Arthur. While his idols drive themselves mad trying to stay on the cutting edge, teenaged Arthur is just thrilled to be invited to the party. By the time he finally gets up the courage to run away from home and start living his life as a groupie, the glam-rock era is basically over. Long after Slade’s fake assassination has tarnished his reputation, Arthur is still unironically dressing up as Maxwell Demon. In one of the film’s most endearing scenes, Arthur dances with childlike enthusiasm at a “Death Of Glitter” tribute concert. Rather than mock his inability to recognize the end of an era, “Velvet Goldmine” revels in his naïve enthusiasm.
5. You Are What You Do: Howard Hawks and “His Girl Friday.” The monthly film publication Bright Wall/Dark Room focuses on publishing creative, personal response to a diverse selection of films. In honor of Cary Grant’s birthday, BW/DR posted Sheila O’Malley’s essay about Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.” (Also, please subscribe to the publication here.)
“His Girl Friday” is known for its faster-than-fast overlapping dialogue, every line rat-a-tat-tatting like automatic weapon fire. There are times — in the crowded press room, for example — when no less than five or six people are all talking at the same time, and yet clarity is never sacrificed. The overlapping required specific timing on the part of the ensemble. Director Howard Hawks said in an interview with critic Richard Schickel, decades later, “Naturally, we used [overlapping dialogue] because that’s the way we all talk…Our little trick of adding a few words in front and adding a few at the end of a line makes it come out as clear as it can be. To me it sounds more like reality.” Reality hyped up on caffeine and cigarettes and sleep deprivation. The end result is something almost symphonic or orchestral, and is still the high watermark for fast-talking ensemble pictures. But the thing about the fast dialogue that is so extraordinary here — and why imitators often fall short — is that the dialogue is not an empty gimmick. Every line is supported by characterization, motivation, action and re-action. Hawks immerses us in the cynical, hard-bitten world of crime reporters and the newspaper business, where everyone races to get the scoop regardless of who may be trampled along the way. One just assumes (because it is set up so powerfully) that this is how they all talk, this is the world they inhabit. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, heading up the cast, speak as quickly as the rest of them, lobbing linguistic explosives at one another like grenades, laughing when they detonate. Hawks (and cinematographer Joseph Walker) filmed the action with an unfussy straightforwardness that not only eradicates distraction from the fastest dialogue ever captured onscreen but highlights the irresistible chemistry between Grant and Russell. Except for one or two scenes, the entire action takes place in the cramped unglamorous press room at City Hall. A lot of “His Girl Friday” is filmed in medium shot, with all of the actors crowded into one frame. What we are seeing plays out in real time. Hawks doesn’t “zoom in” for you; you have to decide where to put your focus in any given scene. “His Girl Friday” is one of those rare films that gets more dazzling with repeat viewings.
Tweet of the Day:
Friend said he saw ME &EARL & DYING GIRL in the discount bin at Costco. Sundance folks, if you’re lucky this is what happens a year from now
— Gabe Klinger (@GabeKlinger) January 18, 2016