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Daily Reads: Courtship Culture and the Teen Cancer Romance, the Lost History of African-American Film, and More

Daily Reads: Courtship Culture and the Teen Cancer Romance, the Lost History of African-American Film, and More

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

1. First Love, Last Love: Courtship Culture and the Teen Cancer Romance.
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and while some spent it with their respective partner, plenty of others spent it alone with only the company of movies by their side. In honor of Valentine’s Day, Christianity Today’s Lauren Wilford explores courtship culture and the teen cancer romance, and explain how it’s become a large part of Christian culture.

“A Walk to Remember” swept through the nation’s youth groups in 2002, when Nicholas Sparks’ 1999 novel was adapted into a film starring Mandy Moore and Shane West. Despite being widely panned by critics, it went on to become a modest box-office success; “Christianity Today” ran a piece in 2002 identifying it as “a hit with American evangelical audiences.” Nearly every female student at my Christian college cherished fond memories of “A Walk to Remember.” It tells the story of pious high schooler Jamie Sullivan (Moore), the incarnation of everything Christian girls were told to be: kind, unassuming, unflappable in the face of ridicule, bold in asserting her faith — and a radiant beauty, of course. Jamie Sullivan sure knows how to work an ankle-length jumper, and her winsome Christianity looks so good on her that she is able to lure in a hot bad boy. What then unfolds is a kind of twisted best-case scenario for an infatuated Christian high schooler, because Jamie has a whopper of an extenuating circumstance: leukemia. With only a year or two left to live, she is allowed the luxury of her own emotions: “I think God wants me to be happy.” Her boyfriend, in his passion, converts to Christianity and asks her to marry him, since marriage is the only way for them to legitimize and consummate their relationship. Jamie is married at 18 and dies months later — and with her dies the chance that their relationship might ever soured, changed, or matured. Jamie is permitted to pursue her first love because it is, by necessity, also her last and only love. And so Christian teens were given permission to fantasize about a first love of their own— so long as marriage is part of the fantasy. The “Twilight” series was less overtly Christian and less publicly celebrated in Christian circles, but nevertheless exerted a tremendous pull on young Christian women from the first book’s release in 2005 to the last film’s premiere in 2012. “Twilight” is, above all, serious about sex and romance. In “Twilight,” dating is every bit as dangerous as Joshua Harris says it is. Edward Cullen is constantly reminding Bella that he’s a threat to her, that they must cool their passions, be deliberate and cautious. There’s an in-universe explanation for this (he’s a vampire), but the Christian teen audience looks at Edward and Bella’s tortured, lip-biting long-suffering and sees a mirror — only a slight exaggeration of the kinds of conversations that young Christians in relationships have all the time. The word “forever” is intoned over and over again in the “Twilight” franchise: whispered, growled, sighed. Bella is “unconditionally and irrevocably” in love with Edward. And as in courtship culture, marriage is part of the discussion from very early on. “Twilight” allows the adolescent audience to invest in a passionate, urgent relationship between teenage characters with extenuating circumstances that force them to marry. But that supernaturally immortal “marriage” merely crystallizes them at a moment of perfect youth and passion and sexual appetite. The average love-struck teenager might not know how to conceive of marriage as anything beyond permanent sexual and romantic gratification. And “Twilight” doesn’t ask her to. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever,” goes the final line of the novel “Breaking Dawn.” For young people who have been taught that marriage is the only paradigm for young love, “Twilight” mixes the intensity of teen desire and the solemnity of marriage into an addictive cocktail.

2. The Anti-Romance Film: Finding Love In The Worst “Date” Movies.
Maybe a serious teen romance isn’t your speed on Valentine’s Day. Maybe you would be more interested in seeing a “bad date movie,” one that doesn’t revel in fantasies of love but the ugly side of it. For Fandor, Kyle Turner explores the “anti-romance film” and the performance of love.

Is there anything more romantic than watching the face of your date as the image of Rosamund Pike slitting Neil Patrick Harris’ throat is projected up on the big screen — on your first outing, no less? Now that’s an ice breaker. My date was seated to my right as I scribbled down notes for the first fifteen minutes, unaware of the context of our meeting until a good fifteen minutes into the film. The ambiguity with which our outing was initially imbued may or may not speak to a larger idea of the cultural shifts in courting, but to watch “Gone Girl” on a first date is really, contrary to public perception, a romantic thing. The jittery ebullience of the evening doesn’t really change, since the context is the same, and though we didn’t go out again, not because of the film (our post screening discussion was lively and impassioned), there’s a hurdle one overcomes when watching “Gone Girl” — or even other works like “Antichrist,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” etc. — it’s a weird, inexplicable sense of intimacy and understanding one has when watching a film like this, let’s call them Anti-Romantic films. “Gone Girl’s” heralding as the worst date movie is beside the point, as writing off Anti-Romantic films ignores what’s most interesting about them. “Gone Girl’s” appeal, beyond its slickness, is watching a heightened marital drama play out, two parties using their wiles and wits to their advantage and, in the process, sketching out what relationships mean to them in the larger scheme of things. The crux of “Gone Girl” is, for Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Pike) to understand what kind of roles they play within their own relationship, and how they’ve been performing and narrativizing that relationship both to themselves and to the people around them. There’s a cognizance of how interpersonal sexual and romantic dynamics operate that’s uncompromising and refreshing in its cynicism. Why would one want to see a cynical film on a date? Because such Anti-Romances have no airs. “Gone Girl,” as well as other Anti-Romances like it, are less inclined to adhere to a particular romantic narrative that posit what relationships are supposed to be like and instead examine them for how they more often than not function. Though these events may be lensed in pulpy (no, your partner probably won’t frame you for your murder), melodramatic (no, your relationship will not take the form of a six-hour Swedish miniseries), or Gothic (your partner hopefully will not take a wooden lock to your groin), there are ineffable truths about what these films depict: Nick and Amy refuse to allow one another to transgress the archetypes they’ve agreed to construct for themselves and for each other; Johan and Marianne navigate what place language and communication operates within their relationship, often at the cost of their emotions; and the anxiety and depression of a past trauma deeply affects the relationship between She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe), heavily impacting how they are intimate with one another.

3. How “The Witch” Looked to the Past to Make a Disturbingly New Horror Film.
Robert Eggers’ debut film “The Witch” has garnered positive reviews for its “disturbing” and “despairing” mood instead of relying on cheap jump scares to mine horror. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore praises “The Witch” and how it looks to the past to make it feel disturbingly new.

Robert Eggers is ready to make witches the stuff of horror movies again. And it’s no easy task. “The witch today is a shitty plastic Halloween decoration,” the filmmaker explained over drinks in his Brooklyn neighborhood. “She isn’t scary.” But of course, it’s more complicated than that. Like many other creatures of the night, the image of the witch has been reclaimed and reworked for contemporary times. She’s grown into a symbol of feminine power, a figure unfairly maligned, misunderstood, and, at the worst, burned for her perceived failure to conform to harsh societal standards. Eggers’ directorial debut “The Witch,” in theaters Feb. 19, never sets aside the misogyny and paranoia that made something like the Salem Witch Trials possible. But it also tries to get inside that distant mindset, to understand what it was like to be a 17th-century Puritan who was certain that the devil and sin were lurking behind every action and that becoming a witch was as simple as letting your guard down. “The Witch” is a deeply unsettling attempt to channel some centuries-old fears. “When I went into this, I did not understand what the stakes were,” Eggers said. “I was trying to understand why people were killing women. People understood the real world and the fairy tale world to be the same thing. They believed these women were fairy tale ogresses doing horrible things. We needed to see that and understand it.” Which is why, not long into “The Witch,” in the midst of a game of peekaboo, a baby goes missing from the care of his teenage sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, a standout among an excellent cast). He’s there one moment, giggling in the grass, and then — boo! — he’s gone, snatched up by a wizened woman scurrying through the woods back to her hut. And to be clear, this is not a movie in which suspense hinges on whether or not the baby will be retrieved safely. We see it all. Though it has its share of gore and jumps and is simmeringly creepy as hell, “The Witch” is not a typical horror movie. It’s better described, as Eggers puts it, as an “inherited nightmare,” an excavation of old dread. It begins with a family of English immigrants — patriarch William and his wife Katherine (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both “Game of Thrones” alums), and their children Thomasin, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel — being banished from their New England colony for quarreling with the church leadership. In a clearing by a forest, they build a farm and carve out a semblance of intensely pious civilization there in the wilderness. But it doesn’t take long for those lives to fall apart, and for the starving, grief-stricken family members to start looking suspiciously at the looming wilderness, the oppressive darkness, the animals, and one another.

4. Revisiting “Boardwalk Empire,” the Most Underappreciated Drama of Its Time.
Terence Winter’s new show “Vinyl” premiered on HBO last night to somewhat mixed reviews, but it’s easy to forget that Winter had an earlier show on HBO that mostly slipped under the radar. Vulture’s Sean T. Collins examines “Boardwalk Empire” and how it was the most underappreciated drama of its time.

Creator Terence Winter, producer-director Martin Scorsese, and star Bobby Cannavale are all veterans of a single show: “Boardwalk Empire,” Winter’s five-season exploration of Prohibition-era Atlantic City and the gangsters — some factual, some fictional, some fictionalized — who fought for its control. But in terms of audience size, critical acclaim, and pop-culture cachet, the “Empire” was, to many, a crumbling one. “‘Boardwalk’ lasted for five seasons, but it never did more than yeoman’s work,” writes Slate’s Willa Paskin in her review of “Vinyl.” “As the prestige drama meant to replace ‘The Sopranos,'” she continues, “it only ever filled its time slot.” Former Grantlander Andy Greenwald, a “Boardwalk” skeptic of long standing, dismissed the start of its final season: “It’s a show built around a hero with nothing much to do living in a town in which nothing much happens.” But if you give “Boardwalk” another spin before pressing play on its successor, you may find these analyses don’t stand up to repeated listening. As a visual, aural, and, most important, moral experience, “Boardwalk Empire” is the Golden Age of TV Drama’s hidden treasure. It’s not hard to understand how “Boardwalk Empire” lost the war for control of the prestige-drama trade. As the successor to HBO’s revolutionary first mafia series, “The Sopranos” — on which Winter was a prominent writer — it was always doomed to comparisons with that incomparable show. It also faced an apples-to-apples matchup with fellow “Sopranos” alum Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men,” a contemporaneously running period prestige drama about bad men in beautiful suits. In its Zeitgeist-tapping revisionist fantasy “Game of Thrones,” HBO itself produced an even more sprawling, more violent, more expensive drama about the sins of people in power against which “Boardwalk” was forced to compete for attention. Memories of “Deadwood” and “The Wire” — two series about the intersection of community and crime, which with “The Sopranos” comprised HBO’s holy trinity — lingered. Throw in the smash success of “Breaking Bad,” the era’s other major crime drama beginning with a “B,” and it was all “Boardwalk” could do to hold its head above critical and commercial water. And certainly, the show’s initial appeal lied in its familiarity, perhaps to a fault. Both its creator, Terence Winter, and star, Steve Buscemi, worked on no less a mob masterpiece than “The Sopranos.” Scorsese directed the pilot, giving its gangster goings-on an even more unbeatable pedigree. Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein, all of whom appeared in the opening episode, were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of major historical gangland figures who took on major roles in the show, making it a mafia buff’s dream. If you liked this kind of stuff, boy howdy, appointment viewing. If you didn’t, the mind-set that “Boardwalk” was little more than the sum of its genre parts proved nearly impossible for the show to shake over the course of its five seasons (though the blockbuster climaxes of seasons three and four made some waves and earned the show a slow-burn/big-payoff reputation). Despite the show’s surface similarities to its peers, a focus on these programs’ shared thematic concerns or structural elements ignores the devilish quality of “Boardwalk Empire’s” details, so many of which were experiential, even sensual in nature. Tuning into “Boardwalk” every Sunday night was a positively decadent ritual, one best accompanied with a bottle of your favorite tipple to match the thousand that washed up on the Jersey Shore during the show’s striking opening sequence. (This dream imagery had already been transmitted through Winter into the mind and mouth of Tony Soprano.) The slowness of the show was eventually understood to be one of its strengths, as seemingly disconnected and digressive story lines coalesced with freight-train momentum for each season’s climax. But the slowness was a virtue in and of itself — a way to slip into the impeccably constructed sets, the immaculate costumes, the languid sex scenes, the crimson splatter of the violence, and the magnetic faces and voices of its ensemble cast.

5. Second Showing: Unearthing the Lost History of African American Cinema.
Many people aren’t aware that there was a wave of black American independent films in the early 20th century, mostly because nearly 500 of these “race films” produced between 1915 and 1952 are considered lost. But The Guardian’s Ashley Clark examines a new project designed to shine a light on this period in film history.

Stewart, a professor of film at the University of Chicago, says her biggest aim for the project is for the films to reach the widest possible audience, inspiring educators, students and aspiring young film-makers alike. “I’m hoping that people will be able to see the films on their own terms,” she adds. “That it won’t be [seen as] a nebulous footnote that African Americans were making films during this period. I want people to let these films wash over them, and to put them in dialogue with the mainstream Hollywood films we’re more familiar with from that period.” One clear point of comparison is DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), the civil war and reconstruction-era epic that continues to be lauded for its technological and narrative advancements, but is forever circumscribed by its racist, one-dimensional portraits of black people as layabouts and lecherous savages. “I want new viewers to be able to think about how the films were speaking to their intended audiences,” continues Stewart, “and to consider the amazing resonances they have with contemporary issues.” Few films in the collection resonate more startlingly with current matters than Illinois-born Oscar Micheaux’s incident-packed drama “Within Our Gates” (1920), which is the earliest surviving film directed by an African American. Micheaux’s first film, “The Homesteader,” also 1919, is considered lost. Like many Micheaux films (including 1939’s “Birthright,” which is also in the Pioneers collection), “Within Our Gates” broaches complex subjects including the importance of education, the bi-directional social impact of the Great Migration, religion and class. The film also addresses the realities of violent white supremacy. Its final act largely comprises an extended flashback during which we discover the terrible circumstances motivating its protagonist’s quest: the lynching of her parents by a white mob, an atrocity depicted with an unflinching brutality that’s shocking even by today’s standards. Indeed, “Within Our Gates,” made almost 100 years ago, is sadly still relevant in a time of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the disturbing maintenance of de facto segregation in education, and the influential presence of writers such as Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose work highlights the through-line of white supremacy from slavery and Jim Crow laws to racist housing policy and mass incarceration of black Americans.

6. Why “The Wild Bunch” Is One of the Greatest Westerns Ever (and How It Birthed the John Woo Shoot-‘Em-Up).
The A.V. Club’s new film column “A History of Violence” examines the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving up the present day. In his latest installment, Tom Breihan looks at Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” and how among other thing it birthed John Woo shoot-’em-up.

Peckinpah famously opens the movie with a scene of little kids giggling while they watch an army of ants slowly killing a couple of scorpions. That’s a stark piece of voyeur implication, but by the end of the movie, he’s turned whoever’s still watching into those kids. Maybe Peckinpah made the movie to condemn the sort of violence he was showing. But as with so much of what the guy did, it’s hard to tell. The action scenes, especially the Grand Guignol final shootout, are so beautifully, thrillingly staged that we end up exhilarated, not appalled. Peckinpah’s heroes aren’t chiseled paragons of virtue; they’re amoral, bloodthirsty bandits who never even discuss the sort of devastation they’re causing. A few minutes into the movie, they’re already using innocent people as human shields. When they aren’t robbing and killing, they’re getting drunk, taking wine-barrel baths with prostitutes, and demanding bigger shares of the hypothetical loot. The Mexican freedom fighter Angel is the gang’s one tragic, heroic figure, and even he guns down an unarmed ex in cold blood. The only thing that makes the gang seem even halfway admirable is that everyone else is just as bad as they are, if not worse. A railroad official tries to set a trap for them in a town full of bystanders, and he refuses to take responsibility for all the civilians killed. The bounty hunters chasing them are, with one big exception, giggling sociopathic bottom-feeders. The corrupt petty-dictator Mexican general who hires them makes a living by plundering his own people. Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch Engstrom character keeps justifying his gang’s behavior by pointing out that at least they don’t hang people, and the fucked up thing is that he’s sort of right. In any case, we end up liking the gang for a few reasons. Peckinpah knows how to use Western iconography — the surging music, the breathtaking vistas — to paint these guys as heroes, even when he’s making a point to show us how nasty they are. He uses the notion of the romantic old gunslinger — the fighter who knows he’s only got a few rides left in him — to build sympathy. All the actors are grizzled, ugly character-actor types, and they seem to know how to carry themselves. And most of all, they’re just so good at what they do. The movie’s single most exciting set piece probably isn’t one of the shoot-outs; it’s the silent and precise train robbery halfway through the movie. By moving like a machine, the gang swipes a whole railroad car’s worth of U.S. Army munitions right from under their noses, without even having to kill anyone. Right when he’s about to blow up a bridge full of bounty hunters, William Holden, as Bunch leader Pike Bishop, doffs his cowboy hat to the old partner who’s now chasing him — a timeless no-words-needed badass gesture. (There’s plenty of competition, but I’d say the movie’s best line is an exchange between Borgnine and Holden: “They’ll be waiting for us.” “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”) And when they finally make up their minds to go off to battle, to certain doom, they do so in near-wordless agreement. The sight of the four of them sauntering off to their deaths is one of the great bad-motherfuckers-walking scenes in movie history.

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