Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. In Defense of “Tomorrowland’s” Optimism. Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” has divided critics and opened to less-than-stellar box office numbers. Though it’s hard to provide a definitive reason for this, it seems like many are choking on Bird’s unchecked idealism and utopian view of the future. Collider’s Haleigh Foutch argues in defense of the film’s optimism.
Bird appears to believe in earnest that by making this movie, he’s doing his part to make the world a better place. Take the exchange between young Frank and Hugh Laurie’s Nix in the beginning of the film, a none-to-subtle metaphor for the film itself. When asked the purpose of his jet pack invention, young Frank replies, “If I was walking down the street and I saw some kid with a jet pack fly over me, I’d believe anything was possible. I’d be inspired. Doesn’t that make the world a better place?” To which Laurie’s snobbish judge replies, “I suppose it would, if it worked. Unfortunately it does not. If it doesn’t work, it has no purpose at all.” Like Frank’s jet pack, the film is not fully functional. It doesn’t fly, but it thrusts undeniably forward with purpose and benevolent intent. There’s something beautiful about that. Bird is not a great engineer, he’s not a diplomat or doctor, but he is a gifted filmmaker and in turn, has tried to use those talents to improve the world and inspire his audience to do the same.
2. The Future Has Always Looked Bleak on Film, “Tomorrowland”. Of course, the flip side to that optimism is simple naiveté. Maybe there’s a reason why everyone stopped “loving” the future. Maybe they never loved the future at all. The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson claims that film has always channeled its anxieties into its visions of the future, and how that’s a good thing.
At best, the earliest, crudest science-fiction films were neutral on the future. Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasia “A Trip To The Moon,” widely regarded as the first science-fiction film, is creepy and nightmarish, with its iconic image of the Man In The Moon with a rocket embedded painfully in its eye, its hostile hopping aliens, and its freezing, surrealistic lunar landscape. There are great scientific discoveries and medals for everyone at the end, not to mention Méliès’ favorite trope, lovely ladies at every stop along the way. But “Trip To The Moon” doesn’t find much to admire in the future except the way it can be exploited for weird visions. It’s unknown territory, where strange things can happen and the imagination can run wild. Beyond Méliès, the earliest science-fiction films often adapted literary classics, and inherited their sense of dread and drama: The 1910s saw prominent adaptations of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde,” stories about dangerous men meddling with science to selfish and blinkered ends, and bringing misery to other people as a result. Even the more positive 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” — like “A Trip To The Moon,” as much about technological innovation and novelty value in the setting — is tinged with worry about what men do with power. Even in its infancy, science-fiction in cinema was about processing anxieties about the present by projecting them into a future where one person with questionable morals might be able to use new technologies to enact his will on the rest of the world.
3. Richard Brody on Cinema as an Idea, Not a Place. In light of The New York Times’ recent policy change regarding film reviews (they’ve stopped reviewing every film that receives a theatrical release in New York to curb “four-walling” and focus their resources more on shining a spotlight on low-budget indie films), The New Yorker’s Richard Brody unpacks the cinematic medium, explains why it exists anywhere, and why criticism is necessary now more than ever.
But there’s an extra phenomenon that arises from major releases — the phenomenon of popularity. The very fact that a movie captures the interest of millions of viewers is a mark of its makers’ creativity. Popular success is no random flick of the finger of fate, but the result of a combination of ability and acumen — which, however, isn’t the same thing as aesthetic merit. Popularity is inseparable from the consideration of movies as politics — as phenomena that transcend their aesthetics to become news in themselves. The very formality of the notion of a movie’s theatrical release has a grand political connotation, like a candidate for office throwing a hat in the ring. Just as candidates; appeal is different from their stated platform, it’s worthwhile to consider the source of a movie’s power over a wide range of individual imaginations (often called, oxymoronically, the public imagination). Reviewing a popular movie in this way involves a double-edged discernment — a virtual look behind the curtain at the kinds of decisions that brought the movie into being, and a look into the virtual soul of the abstract viewer whose enthusiasm the movie sparks. At its best, the result is a Nietzschean artistic psychology that acknowledges and understands the ways of power. At its worst, the commentary is a blend of armchair sociology and political ruefulness. We’re often treated to the unintentionally comical spectacle of critics reviewing not movies but the audience, reviewing the world. Presuming that a discussion of a movie’s politics has an earnest nobility that the consideration of mere aesthetics doesn’t, they turn their criticism into aspirational punditry, and they turn their dissatisfaction with popular movies into a display of hand-wringing at the state of things at large.
4. How Comedians Became Public Intellectuals. In recent years, The Culture has elevated many comedians to the level of public intellectual, people whom people look to make sense of their world. But how did this happen? The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explores how comedians have gotten more respect than they could have ever bargained for.
Comedy ceased to be the province of angsty and possibly drug-addled white guys making jokes about their needy girlfriends and airplane food. It became (slightly) less exclusionary to women and minorities. It began to ask, and answer, the questions that newfound diversity will tend to bring up — questions about power dynamics and privilege and cultural authority. As comedy began to do a better job of reflecting the world, it began, as well, to take on the responsibilities associated with that reflection. It began to recognize the fact that the long debate about the things comedy owes to its audiences and itself — the old “hey, I’m just making a joke” line of logic — can be partially resolved in the idea that nothing, ultimately, is “just a joke.” Humor has moral purpose. Humor has intellectual heft. Humor can change the world. We may well deserve, as Schumer said this week, to “watch like no one’s raping.” What she didn’t say, but what is clear from her comedy, is that jokes themselves have a way of getting us what we deserve.
5. A Brief History of Cameron Crowe Describing His Movies as “Love Letters.” Cameron Crowe’s new film “Aloha” opens today, and I’m sure another round of eye-rolling and finger-pointing and groaning at Crowe’s incessant earnest sensibilities is in order. But before then, Screencrush’s Mike Sampson has a brief history of Crowe leaning on that tired old cliche of describing his films as “love letters” to “insert setting, person, idea, etc.”
Crowe seemed to pick up on the “love letter” bad habit during the promotional tour for “Almost Famous” where he became quite fond of the phrase. He even noted at one point that it was “trite” to say it, but that didn’t seem to slow him down; he even began retroactively using the term to describe some of his past films. Interestingly, he never referred to either “Vanilla Sky” or “We Bought a Zoo” as “love letters” to anything, likely because they were based on previously existing material (they were also two of his more disappointing movies). “Say Anything” is also missing, but more likely because finding Crowe’s interviews from 1989 are hard to come by online. In fairness to Crowe, the majority of his movies really are love letters of some sort. The problem isn’t necessarily that he keeps referring to his movies as “love letters,” it’s that he keeps making movies that can be referred to as “love letters.” With “Aloha” set to be another in a string of creative and commercial disappointments, Crowe might be wise to start thinking of a new way to describe (and a different way to make) his next film, so he doesn’t add anything else to this already enormous list.
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