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Daily Reads: Gallows Humor in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter, Why Movies About Musicians Need to Be More About Music, and More

Daily Reads: Gallows Humor in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter, Why Movies About Musicians Need to Be More About Music, and More

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

1. Why Movies About Musicians Are Rarely About Music. Surveying a recent clutch of musical biopic and documentaries, including “Amy,” “Love & Mercy,” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” NPR’s Ann Powers laments how movies about musicians tend to focus on their personal struggles rather than the art that made them great.

Music-focused cinema could provide something radical: a close view of the processes of composing and performing that reveals the work behind what seems, to listeners, like magic. Instead, like almost any other kind of cinema, it tends to focus on human relationships: on the interpersonal, not the inner personal. This understandable tendency has resulted in many great explorations of how musicians get along with each other, cope in the world, affect social change and build legacies. Yet it means that most music films (with a few exceptions) still sidestep what’s unique about music-making: the mix of obsessive practice and spontaneous experimentation; the balance between listening and self-expression; the sensual experience of living through the ears. Making music a character allows us as viewers to relate to these narratives, but it also simplifies something worth keeping complicated.

2. Crying Out Loud: The Transgender Reception of “The Crying Game”. 
Yesterday, Daily Reads highlighted Andreas Stoehr’s piece about “Tangerine” and transgender actors published at The Dissolve. In an addendum to that piece on her blog, Stoehr looks at the transgender reception of “The Crying Game,” a film with a checkered reputation concerning transgender politics.

Since its release, “The Crying Game” has born something of a checkered reputation; two decades later, I suspect that what’s most remembered about it are (1) the indie phenomenon it became thanks to a Miramax release and (2) Fergus throwing up when he sees Dil’s penis. When untethered from the film itself and spread via years of pop-cultural osmosis, that scene becomes terrifying shorthand for the way trans women are seen by a hateful world. But here in this clipping, with the film fresh in the air, are two trans women explicitly claiming “The Crying Game” as their own, saying that Neil Jordan probably has “first hand” experience with its subject matter, all while using language that looks totally alien only a generation later. This polemic/review provides so much to unpack, but right now I’m primarily fascinated by it as an example of how cultural history works. Nothing, it says to me, is static. How you look at or talk about something right now may not be consistent with how it’s approached only a few years into the past or future. All you can do is try your damnedest to situate yourself in space and time. For me, that means tracking down the words of trans and queer artists who have come before me. Now to pick up my shovel and keep digging.

3. Gallows Humor in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter. 
Last night, the acclaimed sketch show “Key & Peele” returned for its fifth season along with the series premiere of comedian Hannibal Buress’ new show “Why? with Hannibal Buress.” The two shows feature comedians of color engaging with dark humor that subtly or explicitly addresses societal issues. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya reviews Comedy Central’s new block of comedy and how gallows humor thrives in the age we live in.

“Key & Peele” and “Why?” will directly precede Trevor Noah’s ascendancy to the host’s chair of “The Daily Show” (September 28). An hour of programming hosted by black men every Wednesday will make way for an hour of programming hosted by black men every night, as “The Daily Show” will be followed by “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.” Either way, it’s bold, in a landscape where black men are too often treated as disposable, due to disease, incarceration, or homicide. It’s possible — and heartening — to see these different men spin humor, the most sophisticated defense mechanism, out of such awful facts. It’s a reminder that our individual senses of humor are an inalienable right that are not easily taken from us, even in confinement or under duress. The term “gallows humor” confirms it: Laughter is the last privilege left to the condemned. Privilege, and perhaps, a weapon; perhaps a tool, in the form of a half-hour program. Four half-hour segments of gallows humor, to make the executioner laugh, pause, stay their hand.

4. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Imperfect Path to Modern Stardom. 
Jake Gyllenhaal has had an odd career by Hollywood standards. He has taken on a bunch of varied projects on the stage and big screen, regardless of size or mass appeal, and his work is starting to pay off. Grantland’s Mark Harris explores Gyllenhaal’s fascinating career and how he’s forged his own path to modern stardom.

Actors are fond of transforming. They dye their hair. They get fat or muscly or scrawny or sloppy. They enact the ravages of horrible diseases, they are battered by tragedy, they change their voices, they have makeup artists glue crap onto their faces. Gyllenhaal doesn’t have a persona that overrides and unites all of his roles 
 which, by some definitions, means he isn’t quite a movie star. He doesn’t have a “thing” — the way, for instance, when Matthew McConaughey showed up in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it was understood that his function was to provide five or 10 minutes of “Matthew McConaughey.” He’s not a personality; he’s a shape-shifter. But what distinguishes him is that he is the least showboaty of chameleons; even when he’s punishing (or at least exploiting) his body by stretching or shrinking it into new shapes, he doesn’t come off as a solo act, a steamroller whose primary onscreen relationship is with the camera rather than with his costars. Think of his most resonant screen work — in “Brokeback Mountain,” in “Nightcrawler,” in “Zodiac,” in “Prisoners” — and you’re as likely to flash over to memories of Heath Ledger or Rene Russo or Riz Ahmed or Robert Downey Jr. or Mark Ruffalo or Hugh Jackman. Gyllenhaal connects beautifully with other performers, in part because — onstage and in the movies — he’s generous enough to make room for them, and secure enough to know when it’s not his turn.

4. The Mechanics of “The Overnight’s” Fake Dicks. 
In the new film “The Overnight,” actors Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott were required to wear prosthetic penises for the film. The penises were crucial to “The Overnight’s” thematic resonance, and it was important that they conveyed the characters’ respective personalities. The A.V. Club’s Marah Eakin interviews Matthew Mungle, the artist behind the prosthetics and one of Hollywood’s most respected makeup and special effects artists, to discuss the two penises.

The A.V. Club: How do prosthetic penises work? Where does everything go?

Matthew Mungle: We started out first by asking, “Okay, how big or small do you want them?” And then they’d say, “One is 3 inches, and the other one is 7 inches.” So we would do a sculpt, and we’d get it approved from them—the penis and the testicles—and then we mold it, and then make it out of silicone. Then what happens is the back of the prosthetic has kind of a void in it where the real anatomy can go. And then lace — hair lace — is glued to the top of the appliance, because you can’t really glue silicone to that particular area, you know. So we do it with a lace piece that has hair in it. Half the lace piece is on the top part of the penis, and then the other half is just exposed. And we asked the actors to shave themselves so we could glue the lace on. The other piece where the testicles are, we glue with silicone a piece of material, and that goes in between the cheeks and that is glued at the very top of the buttocks. And that holds it down. So that’s basically a rundown. We make them out of silicone, which adds a translucency to them so we can make them more realistic. And silicone has a little weight to it, so it moves like a real penis.

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