Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Critics Shouldn’t Be Forced to Review “Game of Thrones.” Last week, The Mary Sue decided that they weren’t going to market “Game of Thrones” in any way, including recaps, trailers or other promotional news items. Though some would argue that “criticism” and “advertising” are two different actions, The Mary Sue as well as The New Republic argues that the two are intertwined. TNR’s Noah Berlatsky argues that no critic should bow to “Game of Thrones” or marketing pressure.
Commercial art and commercial criticism form a perfect circle of niche attention and promotion. The fact that that niche is considered “mainstream” just serves to neatly erase the choices being made. People are used to thinking of sci-fi fandom, or romance fandom, as a particular audience and market, focused on a particular genre. But mainstream obsessions like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” are seen as the important thing that needs to be covered, not for the particular group interested in “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” but for the general interest of the general reader. The mainstream sees itself as covering the news that matters rather than functioning as part of a particular market. Which is perhaps why The Mary Sue, avowedly a fan site, is able to break out of the cycle and make a critical decision to dump a show they don’t want to support, while Rosenberg, at the mainstream “Washington Post,” is less able to see the way that marketing and criticism are, in our current moment, inseparable.
2. A Brief History of “Four-Walling,” or Why No One Should Review Every Film. The New York Times recently announced that it would be scaling back its film coverage of “small New York-only releases.” (Critic A.O. Scott explains the reasons here.) Though this seems like NYT caving to market pressure, it’s really about removing the burden of reviewing “four-walled” films. “What are those?” you ask. The Guardian’s Calum Marsh explains the concept of “four-walling” and why it makes sense for the NYT not to review every movie that runs through New York.
Despite the prevalence of the business model, many people regard four-walling as something to be ashamed of – a sort of shortcut to theatrical distribution lacking the prestige of the real thing. Many of the film-makers contacted for this piece agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, expressing concern that the association would have consequences for their reputations down the line. “There’s a perception that if a movie was four-walled,” one director told me, “it’s because it wasn’t good enough to get programmed at an ordinary movie theater. If a movie is four-walled, it’s just a vanity project.” In the eyes of the ordinary moviegoer or industry representative, some feel, paying to have a film screened is tantamount to cheating. So why does anybody feel compelled to do it? “It’s all about the reviews,” one film-maker told me. “You’re basically paying for a review in the New York Times and a few other places.” That may sound like a lot of money and effort for a bit of ink, but “if you do the cost-benefit analysis” the whole thing “really makes sense.” “When you’re trying to get a movie made,” a director tells me, “especially if you’re trying to get a bigger name actor, you want to be able to have positive reviews that you can show to that actor to say, look, I have some skill at this, I know what I’m doing and here is some evidence to prove it. So those reviews are very important.” And nobody needs to know that the review in question was only produced because a few thousand dollars went into getting it a week-long run on a solitary screen.
3. Kristin Thompson on the Waning Thrills of CGI. Since the release of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” critics and audiences alike have joined in unison to disparage CGI effects and praise practical ones. Over at David Bordwell’s personal blog, Kristin Thompson explores the waning thrills of CGI after the recent glut of superhero and sci-fi films, but also how CGI can be a great tool when used properly.
In “Fury Road,” CGI is used for effects that would be difficult, impossible, or prohibitively expensive otherwise. Furiosa’s missing left wrist and hand are an obvious example, as is the massive sandstorm that hits the fugitives and pursuers. The blue night scene was shot day for night and then enhanced digitally, presumably with tinting and the addition of stars. The city which is the Citadel’s source of gasoline and is supposedly Furiosa’s goal as her truck sets out early in the film, is shown on the distant horizon but clearly was not built, since none of the action takes place there. The Citadel scenes were done in Australia, while most of the desert material was shot in Namibia. Some parts of the Citadel were built full-scale (e.g., the winch room), while green-screen replaced by digital set extensions supplied the rest. I think I spotted some digital matte paintings in some of the landscapes. But on the whole, Miller stuck to real locations, and most of the scenes of the chases were done with real vehicles and actors, chasing each other around the Namibian desert. Miller commented, “We don’t defy the laws of physics – there are no flying human beings, no spacecraft – so it doesn’t make sense to do it as CGI. We’ve got real vehicles and real humans in a real desert, and you hope that all that texture will be up there on the screen.” Miller had in fact assumed that he would have to create the “pole cat” sequence, which has men perched on long, swaying poles atop speeding vehicles. Action unit director Guy Norris, however, shot a test scene on video, with no CGI. Miller was thrilled: “There were 10 pole cats swaying, coming down the road at speed, all of them on cars, and Guy was on one of the poles filming them. I choked up. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s real. It’s absolutely real.'”
4. The Clash of Action Styles in “Avengers” and “Mad Max”. Speaking of CGI vs. practical effects, or larger-than-life superheroes vs. grounded action stars, it’s important to compare the different styles of modern blockbuster films to see what insights we can gleam from different modes of production. Grantland’s Mark Harris unpacks the two different action styles of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
The liberation of CGI, which has come to dominate visual effects in the last 10 or 12 years, is that it can allow flesh-and-blood characters to do anything. The limitation of CGI is that if those characters can do anything, there is very little suspense about whether they can pull off any particular maneuver. If a supervillain can rip-and-raise a chunk of urban terrain into the air, that chunk can probably be pressed back into place with the same set of keystrokes that lofted it skyward. The vibe of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is “No sweat, we’ve got this” — a tone that was set with Robert Downey Jr.’s first appearance as Iron Man seven years ago and has been largely adhered to since. But the cool-temperatured atmosphere that creates is not without consequences. In great action or suspense sequences from any era, people sweat. Think of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint hanging off the face of Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest” (1959), or Bruce Willis swinging through a window in “Die Hard (1988), or even Tom Cruise on the face of a Dubai skyscraper in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (2011). You can feel the strain and exhaustion; you can imagine the agony in the knuckles and the terror of slippery fingertips. The stakes are personal (and thus relatable), not planetary (and thus consumable in a way that invites you to lean back in your movie-theater seat, not forward). No wonder, then, that the arrival of George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” feels like water in the desert. Financially, it’s no contest — “Fury Road’s” first-weekend gross of $110 million worldwide amounts to little more than a hill of beans when measured against the combined $2.6 billion that “Ultron” and its cousin-in-cartoonship “Furious 7” (now, respectively, the eighth- and fourth-highest-grossing movies in history) have reaped in the last several weeks. But “Fury Road” never, ever says “No sweat.” It sweats. And the film’s doing-it-the-hard-way ethos feels like both a defiant blast from the past (it is, after all, the work of a 70-year-old director reviving a 36-year-old franchise) and a thrown gauntlet that signifies an exciting new rift in how we define quality in this genre.
5. How Hollywood Taught Rebel Wilson To Lie About Her Age. Star image, and the efforts celebrities will go to maintain it, has had a long history in Hollywood. It recently came out that Rebel Wilson had fabricated certain parts of her personal life, including her age. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Peterson traces the history of image fabrication and why Hollywood’s structural problems are to blame.
Star images have always been tinkered with to better match the ideologies that please audiences and reflect what we collectively consider desirable. The seams of that construction, which dates back to the ’30s and ’40s, were just a bit more visible. Which is all to say that Wilson’s creative history isn’t unprecedented, but a longtime Hollywood practice. Our expectation for total transparency when it comes to celebrities’ histories is a relatively new phenomenon, borne of the ease with which anyone can play amateur archaeologist with another’s past. “Authenticity” is no longer judged by a star’s commitment to her art, or an ability to portray the truth of an experience through that art, but the absolute fidelity with which she has represented every aspect of herself. For Rebel to always have been Rebel, even from birth, makes her image seem more authentic than, as the real story seems to have been, that she made a nickname into a legal one. Same for the amplified tales of her upbringing: Her “bogan” parents make her role in “Bogan Pride,” the series that helped launch her to Australian fame, part of a cohesive and coherent image.
6. Pauline Kael’s First Film Review for The New Republic. And now, for something completely different. A blast from the past with Pauline Kael’s first-ever film review of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” for The New Republic. Though she eventually left for The New Yorker after only a year, her first review exhibits her impassioned personal voice that would define her work for decades.
This nostalgia that permeates “Band of Outsiders” may also derive from Godard’s sense of the lost possibilities in movies. He has said, “As soon as you can make films, you can no longer make films like the ones that made you want to make them.” This we may guess is not merely because the possibilities of making big expensive movies on the American model are almost non-existent for the French but also because as the youthful film enthusiast grows up, if he grows in intelligence, he can see that the big expensive movies now being made are not worth making. And perhaps they never were: the luxury and wastefulness that, when you are young, seem as magical as peeping into the world of the Arabian Nights, become ugly and suffocating when you’re older and see what a cheat they really were. The tawdry American Nights of gangster movies that were the magic of Godard’s childhood formed his style—the urban poetry of speed and no afterthoughts, fast living and quick death, no padding, no explanations—but the meaning had to change. An artist may regret that he can no longer experience the artistic pleasures of his childhood and youth, the very pleasures that formed him as an artist. Godard is not, like Hollywood’s product producers, naive (or cynical) enough to remake the movies he grew up on. But, loving the movies that formed his tastes, he uses this nostalgia for old movies as an active element in his own movies. He doesn’t, like many artists, deny the past he has outgrown; perhaps he is assured enough not to deny it, perhaps he hasn’t quite outgrown it. He reintroduces it, giving it a different quality, using it as shared experience, shared joke. He plays with his belief and disbelief, and this playfulness may make his work seem inconsequential and slighter than it is: It is as if the artist himself were deprecating any large intentions and just playing around in the medium. Reviewers often complain that they can’t take him seriously; when you consider what they do manage to take seriously, this is not a serious objection.
Tweet of the Day:
Hey, guys, remember when Quentin Tarantino presided over the jury that gave the Palme d’Or to FAHRENHEIT 9/11?
— Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (@vishnevetsky) May 24, 2015