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Daily Reads: Putting the “-ism” in Film Criticism, Why Documentaries Need More Artistry, and More

Daily Reads: Putting the "-ism" in Film Criticism, Why Documentaries Need More Artistry, and More

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

1. Entertaining the -Isms, Or Why We Should Embrace Issues of Marginalization in Film Criticism. Jurassic World” entered theaters last Friday, and by the end of the weekend, earned over half a billion dollars worldwide. Though obviously audiences have endorsed dinosaurs with their pocketbook, it’s interesting to see what they have also overlooked with that endorsement as well. Many critics have criticized “Jurassic World” for its casual sexism, which include but are not limited to, having a character run around in high heels. RogerEbert.com’s Nick Allen argues why it’s important for film critics to listen and learn from others with these issues, and to embrace “-isms” in general.

Disregarding ideas like sexism & feminism in a film is a bastardization of the biological truth that human beings watch the same thing differently — a concept that makes movies worth watching, and talking about. (If we all started seeing the same movies in the exact same way, that would be a nightmare, and I would personally bomb the polar ice caps so that global warming could just finish us off already.) However, some viewers are able to see films differently by looking past elements within them (such as sexism & feminism), and can more readily accept the images of these that may or may not be in “Jurassic World” as the sum of entertainment. Anyone can dive into a film as deep as they may like, but it is very counterproductive to reject the -isms, or the different ideas within them. To do so is a privilege. Some viewers go into a movie with the same standards of simple entertainment, but their experience is compromised by the very -isms within the film. They do not always have the same luxury to be detached from the images within their entertainment.

2. The “Golden Age of Documentaries” Needs More Artistry. 
It’s been said that we are currently living in a Golden Age of Documentaries, with filmmakers like Sarah Polley, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Robert Greene redefining or expanding nonfiction cinema with every film they make. But those three aren’t the only documentarians, and with exceptions few and far between, most contemporary documentaries don’t really contain any artistry or personal style. Oftentimes, they’re just bland talking head info-dumps rather than a filmic exploration. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday examines why the medium isn’t improving in this “golden age.”

Even from the privileged vantage point of a Golden Age, it’s possible to see a medium in need of freshening up, as nonfiction filmmakers fall into the trap of relying on their charismatic, timely subjects to engage viewers, rather than bold, daring or artful filmmaking itself. The dilemma became clear to me in March, when I attended True/False, an intimate, shrewdly curated festival in Columbia, Mo. Not surprisingly, I left just about every screening feeling entertained and enlightened. But by the end of an admittedly delightful weekend, I sensed a creeping feeling of inertia, as I sat through yet one more movie toggling dutifully between archival footage and talking heads, or an intimate unnarrated portrait of a marginalized eccentric. In many cases, the most conventional way to tell the story happened to be the best. But in others, a deadening feeling of familiarity set in, as people, stories and — God forbid — “issues” seemed to slip effortlessly into easily digestible templates camera-ready for PBS, premium cable or an Oscar clip reel.

3. The Long and Winding “Fury Road”: A Long-in-the-Making Masterpiece. 
Mad Max: Fury Road” has been in theaters for a month now. It’s a financial and critical success, and it’s still sparking great writing from critics. Fandor’s Adrian Martin explains why the film’s many production obstacles helped it become the right film at the right time.

In the mid 1970s, Cahiers du cinéma’s Pascal Kané proposed a model of classical narrative cinema which, when I first read it, struck me as rather odd. Kané asserted that Hollywood films tend to offer an interplay of three central characters: a hero who is “passive, impotent, castrated,” positioned between an all-powerful villain (who is also the director’s alter ego), and another, positive figure who represents the “law or super-ego.” The source of his model was, primarily, Fritz Lang’s German and American movies. This model is definitely applicable to one thing today: the cinema of George Miller. Max Rockatansky, like Babe the “pig in the city” or Mumble in “Happy Feet,” is not a conventional hero. Borrowing the words of Jean-Loup Bourget (speaking of another Australian-born icon, Errol Flynn), he can be seen as “a rebel in spite of himself. Driven into apparent rebellion by his deeper loyalty to the order of things, his aim is ‘revolutionary’ in the etymological sense — to restore the natural, and hence just, order of things.”

4. “This Is Our Furiosa”: “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the Moments in Between. 
By design, “Mad Max” is a non-stop thrill ride, a car chase in the desert that feels like it’s never going to end (in the best way possible). However, the moments when “Mad Max” breathes and just linger are the moments that define the film. On his blog, Bilge Ebiri analyzes one of these moments and explains why it’s so powerful.

“Fury Road” is, yes, a fantastic piece of action filmmaking – breathless, beautiful, and bold — but it’s also something else. Through its sheer, spectacular drive, it puts me in the same kind of reverie that slow cinema does. One of the great pleasures of watching the static long-take aesthetic — in a film like, say, Tsai Ming-Liang’s “What Time Is It There?” or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Distant” is the way it focuses our attention on small details that gain monumental importance: a pair of wet socks on a radiator, or an otherwise irrelevant small fish swimming around in an aquarium. I would argue that for all the sublime beauty of the non-stop action in “Fury Road,” it possesses a similar kind of refinement. In movies like these, the absence of conventional dramatic development makes us lock in on the smallest of gestures and incidents – not out of poverty, mind you, but because great filmmakers teach us to see all over again. Their work transforms us, changes our inner rhythms and points us in all sorts of directions we may never have noticed. And yes, a film by George Miller at his best does that same thing. Even if, instead of long takes of people staring off into space, he’s giving us fast cuts of trucks and motorcycles flying through the air.

5. Busby Berkeley and the Art of Order. 
Busby Berkeley is a legendary Broadway and Hollywood musical choreographer and film director who has designed some of film history’s most iconic musical production numbers involving numerous props and complex geometric patterns. The Outtake’s Kristen Bialik explores how Berkeley used mathematics to construct his greatest artistic works.

Busby Berkeley’s musical routines were precise to the point of mathematical exactness. Many of his formations took on patterns seen in the natural world and in mathematical biology. Again, Berkeley often favored aerial shots of dancers in floral patterns  —  the same kind of patterns studied for their adherence to Fibonacci numbers. For example, in “Spin a Little Web of Dreams” from “Fashions of 1934” (1934), the blonde bombshells filmed from above stand in rings and cover themselves up with feather fans, which then unfold from the center to create the illusion of a blooming flower. In many other dance routines, Berkeley shaped his dancers into individual petals on a collective, whirling blossom. In fact, there is an entire line of study  — Fibonacci phyllotaxis — devoted to studying the appearance of Fibonacci sequences in the structural formations of certain plants. But Fibonacci numbers aren’t just seen in flowers. Shapes like Pascal’s triangle and certain spirals also follow the sequence, shapes that Berkeley frequently uses in his arrangements.

6. “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”: 
A Show About Outsiders, for Outsiders. It’s been almost twenty years since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” first premiered, but the series hasn’t lost any of its potency and power in the years since. In fact, the cult around “Buffy” has only grown larger with younger and younger people seeing it for the first time. Pacific Standard Magazine’s Jason Diamond looks into his own love of “Buffy” and why it’s an outsider show for outsiders.

Books, movies, and music can provide our own private oasis, but also a way to find communion with others. It’s hard to feel like an outsider, but there’s something special in discovering a fictional universe in which outsiders come together. Such a universe can provide a map and a language for someone to use in the real world. Emily, raised on the Whedonverse and its unique view of morality and female agency, speaks a language hugely inflected with the ideals of bravery, loyalty, and of standing up to fight, even when the simple act of standing is enough to knock you back down. She shares that language with other fans. I could have learned this about her over time, but I couldn’t have learned to share that language just by looking at her record collection or scanning her bookshelves. Watching “Buffy” with Emily brought me closer to her, closer to what helped teach her to be a strong, fearless woman. It helped show me not just what she liked, but what she valued. Sometimes we hold certain books, shows, or songs so dearly that they become the thing by which our moral and emotional compasses are calibrated. Sometimes we have to see ourselves “out there” before we can find ourselves “in here.”

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