Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy. In the past few years, there has been a noticeable American “comedy boom,” on par with the one in the 1980s, in which the public has become intimately familiar with not just comedians but their process and their organizing structure. In light of this development, Vulture’s Jesse David Fox counts down the 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy as we know it.
Archie Bunker Meets Sammie Davis Jr. (1972): It’s difficult to describe, at this distance, the shock waves that “All in the Family” radiated out into the network-TV pond. Most late-’60s sitcoms were the palest of pap, in the “Munsters” and “Gilligan’s Island” vein; unless you count the young-and-single status of the Marlo Thomas character on “That Girl,” it was tough to find even a hint of the social dynamics riving the country. Suddenly, a family in Queens with a racist dad and a lefty son-in-law was arguing — really vigorously! — over the Vietnam War and the dynamics of race, dealing with crime and hypocrisy and, in one episode, a very close call with a rapist. The series almost never slid over into treacly Very Special Episode territory, either; the issue-oriented stuff was baked into its premise, and it usually stayed funny. The Sammy Davis Jr. episode upped the stakes with a celebrity cameo, and what an ideal celebrity for Archie to meet: black, Jewish, one-eyed, and wildly charismatic.
“Annie Hall’s” Intro: Allen’s masterpiece “Annie Hall” is jam-packed with jokes and moments that irrevocably changed comedy, but it’s the film’s famous fourth-wall-breaking intro that warrants mention, as it basically sums up Allen’s career in one joke. In it, the writer-director-star literally builds on the work of his comedic predecessors, taking jokey-jokes and making them more introspective, neurotic, existential, and cerebral. “Annie Hall” was the last true comedy to win the Best Picture Oscar, beating “Star Wars” in the process. That’s fitting: The history of sci-fi cinema can be divided into before and after “Star Wars”; the same can be said of “Annie Hall” and comedy.
Homer Jumps The Gorge: When “Bart the Daredevil” aired in 1990, “The Simpsons” wasn’t yet the greatest sitcom on television — but the episode helped the show take a giant leap in that direction. That a sweet scene of good parenting and father-son bonding between Homer and Bart would lead to this string of perfect stupidity is an example of the show at its finest — a first-rate comedy with heart. But once Homer takes off on the skateboard, the relentlessness of the gag — the endless brutality, the stupid repetition — opened the show up to new levels of absurdism that would become its trademark. It wasn’t long after that we saw the emergence of the early 1990s alternative comedy scene, one that relished in silly, ridiculous, and often pointless comedy. It was a rejection of the more traditional stand-up that dominated in the ’80s, and “The Simpsons'” offbeat influence could be seen in shows like “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” “The State,” “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Upright Citizens Brigade,” “Family Guy,” and “South Park,” to say nothing of an entire generation of comedians.
2. “No, It’s Iowa”: When TV Dramas Go to Caucus. Last night was the Iowa caucus, the first major electoral event of the Presidential primary season, as well as a media hype show. Though the Iowa caucus certainly has tangible democratic value, it also has dramaturgical value on television, which occasionally uses the Iowa caucus as a symbol of human politics. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber writes about the Iowa caucus’ place in TV dramas like “The Good Wife,” “House of Cards,” and “The West Wing.”
It’s no surprise, given all that, that Hollywood — which loves nothing more than juicy dramas that are at once high-stakes and deeply human — would do its part to celebrate the events that Iowans euphemize as “gatherings of neighbors.” Television in particular has tended to treat the caucuses not (just) as defining moments for its fictional politicos, but also as defining moments for its characters more broadly. TV shows, essentially, have echoed what political pundits have taken for granted: that political dramas are human dramas. That campaigns are battles, fundamentally, of character. That political campaigns are best understood not in terms of dueling policies, but in terms of dueling people. Take, most recently, “The Good Wife.” One of the few awkward elements of the show — an otherwise excellent drama enjoying an otherwise excellent seventh season on CBS — has been this: its tendency to relegate to a B-plot the fact that its protagonist’s husband is running for president. (Of the United States.) Audiences have gotten reminders of Peter Florrick’s presidential bid every once in awhile — an extremely reluctant Alicia Florrick was once forced to appear, with her mother, on the local talk show “Mama’s Homespun Cooking” — but for the most part, the show has insisted that its characters live in a world in which campaigning to be First Lady is a forgettable side gig. For Iowa, though, “The Good Wife” shed its illusions. The show dedicated a full episode to Peter’s attempt to come in second in the caucuses — an attempt that found the entire Florrick family, enthusiastically (Peter, Zack, Grace) and less so (Alicia), traveling together on a bus through the state’s counties and precincts. (On advice of the Florrick campaign manager, Ruth Eastman, the family attempts a “full Grassley” or a visit to every county in Iowa.) And yet the real contest of the episode is not the campaign (which rather awkwardly makes mention of “Hillary” to put things into a 2016 IRL context). It is instead the long-simmering uncertainties between Alicia and Peter about the future of their marriage. Alicia spends her time on the campaign bus immersed in her memories of the man she’d loved before marrying Peter. She spends her time in the episode doing the duties of a “full campaign wife,” but dreaming, all the while, of what might have happened had she married the other guy. The caucuses, in the episode, come and go — and yet their political outcomes (and here is the show reverting to its traditional posture) are secondary. The real stakes here are emotional. The real caucus here has an n of 1: The real decision, the episode suggests, is the one Alicia is making about Peter and her relationship to him. As per Iowa’s wont, Push is coming to Shove; it’s just that the collisions between expectation and reality aren’t, primarily, about politics.
3. Not-Guilty Pleasure: The Calculations of “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson.” Today, FX premieres the debut episode of “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” a true-crime anthology series based on the real-life trial of athlete O.J. Simpson. The show has garnered mostly positive reviews, but has come under fire for not taking a side in the verdict. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum examines the series and praises it for its nuance despite the jauntiness.
From the vantage point of 2016, it is far easier, for a person like me, to understand why Simpson was acquitted (and the case was about nothing if not such demographic calculations). The Rodney King acquittal and the L.A. riots were just three years before; Fuhrman reportedly collected Nazi medals, lied about using racial slurs, and bragged about torturing suspects. Why wouldn’t a black jury believe that he planted evidence? It didn’t matter that O.J. barely thought of himself as black, or that he’d palled around with cops, hosting them at Brentwood pool parties, or that he had a history of beating Nicole. Identity can function as a game of rock-paper-scissors. In Judge Ito’s court, two decades ago, race beat gender. Many of the sharpest scenes in “American Crime Story” explore the sticky interaction of race, fame, and class. When Clark’s boss tells her that they’re holding the trial downtown, she cracks, “Doesn’t Simpson deserve a jury of his peers? You know, rich, middle-aged white men?” Lawyers on both sides invoke, in sober tones, “the downtown dialect” and “optics,” code for skin tone. In one of Cochran’s most brilliant manipulations, he stages Simpson’s mansion for visiting jurors, removing nude portraits of white girlfriends, subbing in the Heisman trophy and Afrocentric art, along with the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With.” (“It’s on loan — from the Cochran Collection,” he jokes.) A trenchant sequence (directed by John Singleton) features a dinner party that the Vanity Fair journalist Dominick Dunne hosts for his white high-society friends, at which he regales them with seamy tidbits about the case. Midway through one of Dunne’s anecdotes, the table goes silent. The waiter has arrived, and he is black.
4. There’s a New Oscar Isaac Movie You Probably Didn’t Know Existed. Oscar Isaac has been the talk of the film industry for the past year or so with star-making turns in such acclaimed films as “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Ex Machina,” the David Simon mini-series “Show Me a Hero,” and most recently, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” But did you know there was a much-maligned movie starring home called “Mojave”? Probably not. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore explores the film, along with a host of other under-the-radar films you may have missed.
If there’s been little talk about the fact that there’s a new movie out starring The Internet’s Latest Boyfriend Oscar Isaac, well, that’s because “Mojave” is pretty obnoxious. But the film — which is written and directed by William Monahan, winner of an Oscar for his screenplay for “The Departed” — is the kind of obnoxious that sticks with you, lodges in your brain. It’s the sort of macho, heavily signified affair that people sometimes say is reminiscent of a ’70s movie — like, what did the ’70s ever do to them? This is the kind of movie in which Garrett Hedlund plays a handsome, suicidal movie star who gets out of the bed he’s been sharing with a beautiful woman, leaves a note saying, “I have to go to the desert,” and heads out to the middle of nowhere to have a high-end existential crisis stemming from being too successful. Well, joke’s on him, because out in the desert he runs into a drifter named Jack, who’s played by Isaac in a role that’s just too good to be held back by all the movie’s ideas about doppelgänger duels. Jack’s a sociopathic killer, but he’s so much fun, drawlingly calling everyone “brother,” sticking a hard “g” in “Los Angeles,” and selling the hard-boiled dialogue as gleeful rather than self-serious. He manages to make this battle of manly archetypes worth watching.
5. The Genius, Mystery, and Surprising Accessibility of Jacques Rivette. The film world is still mourning the loss of one of the French New Wave’s, and cinema’s, titans Jacques Rivette, a director who made his name by making long films about conspiracy and the thin line between art and reality. Though plenty of tributes have been penned, Criticwire would like to recognize one in particular. For Flavorwire, veteran critic Glenn Kenny pays tribute to the late director and argues in favor of his accessibility over his esotericism.
Over the past 30 years or so, in US critical practice, good, hard shells of conventional wisdom have been applied to the works of French New Wave directors: Godard is the difficult, acerbic intellectual turned pretentious crank, who hasn’t made a “fun” film since after “Week-End” or after “Nouvelle Vague,” depending on whose cocktail party you’re at; Truffaut is the warm, emotional, cozy one, the romantic; Rohmer is non-visual and “talky.” All of that’s a crock, of course, but the pertinent point is that the work of Rivette, who died last week at the age of 87 after suffering some years from Alzheimer’s disease, never accrued any conventional wisdom, aside from the observation that his movies were long. And that’s actually true: most of his features spool out at well over two hours, and of course his most mythologized work, “Out 1: Noli me tangere,” which had a theatrical run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall and is newly available on Blu-ray, is a spectacular 13 hours long. For all of the idiosyncrasies of his work, though, I don’t subscribe to the idea that Rivette was an obscure or particularly hermetic director. His shooting and editing style is straightforwardly elegant. In that sense, his films frequently resemble Otto Preminger’s 1940s and ’50s studio pictures, using lots of long takes with fluid and coherent camera movements, which some critics have called an “objective” style. The eccentricity comes in with the stories he chose to tell, and the way he told them. Turned on to the work of monumental French author Honore de Balzac by Rohmer, his buddy and onetime cohort at the influential French film mag “Cahiers du cinema,” he selectively magpied from Balzac motifs, themes, and plotlines. Much of “Out: 1,” whose characters include the members of two theatrical troupes and a couple of post-counterculture grifters who penetrate their circles, is concerned with the possible 20th-century existence of “The Thirteen,” a conspiratorial group that figures heavily in Balzac’s magnum opus “La comedie humaine.” 1991’s “La belle noiseuse” draws inspiration, then significantly veers away from, Balzac’s novella “The Lost Masterpiece,” while Rivette’s penultimate feature, 2007’s “The Duchess of Langeais” is a very straightforward period adaptation of a Balzac tale. The melodrama enacted by the white-faced phantoms in 1974’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” which was Rivette’s most prominent international arthouse hit, a quasi-feminist hallucinatory romp that skirted the psychedelic, was derived from a stage adaptation of an obscure Henry James novel, “The Other House.” These citations testify to Rivette’s erudition and the vitality of his intellectual range, but again, they tend to create the impression of a mad professor making too-clever cinematic puzzles. The best way to remedy this impression is to watch Rivette’s films (given how spotty their availability is in the US on home video, the question of which film to start with might be moot: go with whatever you can get your hands on until further notice), and notice right off the bat just how much he trusts to his actors, particularly the women. It will not do to call the group of idiosyncratic, inspired female performers in Rivette’s films his “muses.” Aside from the inescapable sexist connotations thereof, it’s inaccurate. Certainly Rivette drew substantial inspiration from Bulle Ogier (seven films), the late Juliet Berto (four films), Sandrine Bonnaire (three films), Jane Birkin (three films), Geraldine Chaplin, Emmanuelle Beart, Jeanne Balibar (two films each), and more, but it’s more important that he encouraged them to imprint his films with their own personalities, their particular numinosity. As the critic Richard Brody has pointed out, Rivette seems to be magically free of the “male gaze”; when he shoots Berto showering in “Celine and Julie” or Beart posing nude for demanding painter Michel Piccoli in “Noiseuse,” the view is matter-of-fact and encompasses the full humanity of the performer.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
I’ll go straight, I’ll behave, I’ll devote my life to God and the Church, just please stop ranking Coen brothers movies
— Adam Nayman (@brofromanother) February 1, 2016
Which candidate will allow us to move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom?
— Jake Bart (@FilmBart) February 2, 2016