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Daily Reads: Have Heroine-Driven Box Office Hits Changed Hollywood? ‘Halt and Catch Fire’s Second-Season Turnaround, and More

Daily Reads: Have Heroine-Driven Box Office Hits Changed Hollywood? 'Halt and Catch Fire's Second-Season Turnaround, and More

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

1. Heroines Triumph at Box Office, but Has Anything Changed in Hollywood? Some recent female-driven box office hits coupled with increased discussions of industry sexism suggests that Hollywood is listening to the cries of fans and critics who argue that stories by and for women are crucial. But it’s not easy to tell if the Hollywood status quo has really changed or if Hollywood has just listened, nodded, and gone back to doing the same old thing. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis asks, “Has feminism conquered Hollywood or has Hollywood co-opted feminism?”

Dargis: Years ago, I attended a lecture by the gay film activist and historian Vito Russo, in which he challenged the audience to vote for better gay representations with its movie ticket money. In the lecture, he covered much of the same terrain of his landmark book, “The Celluloid Closet; Homosexuality in the Movies,” using clips and commentary to chart that often disgraceful history. If you want better images, he argued, you need to support gay and lesbian filmmakers working outside the establishment. Indie movies may not be as slickly “entertaining” as those in the mainstream, but you’ll be supporting the aesthetics of liberation. It’s more complex than that, and surely Russo knew that, just as he understood that the fight for human rights takes place on many fronts, including that of representation. And an openly gay, independent filmmaker like Todd Haynes, who emerged in the late 1980s amid the AIDS crisis, exists on a continuum with a prime time hit like “Will & Grace” (which started in the 1990s) and the fight for marriage equality. Women aren’t a minority, of course, which can make our struggle for equality very different and difficult to grasp. Yet maybe the success of “Pitch Perfect 2” and some of the other female-driven movies this year means that women have (finally!) grown tired of watching little ladies relegated to the sidelines while some dude runs off on a quest.

Scott: And maybe some men have grown tired of watching that, too. While I don’t want to discount the importance of the politics of representation — of the ways that the images we see on screens reflect and influence the distribution of social power in the real world — I think audience boredom and the desire for novelty also play a role. Just to put my own cards on the table: Some of my best friends are self-absorbed heterosexual white men (not naming any names here). Some of my favorite works of narrative, including “Spider-Man” comic books, John Updike novels, murder ballads and episodes of “Louie,” are chronicles of male angst, desire and heroism. But those can’t be the only stories, and our culture has often, especially since the middle of the 20th century, been governed by the assumption that the big stories, the universal stories, the stories with a claim on cultural centrality and serious attention, have to be stories about men.

2. A Deeper Look Into “True Detective” Creator Nic Pizzolatto’s Books. The second season of “True Detective” is still chugging along with numerous critics and fans scoffing and rolling their eyes at writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto’s self-serious writing. Though many have accused him of being a phony, bad writer, it’s difficult to say how many have actually done the legwork to look at all of his writing. Over at his blog, Bill Ryan explores Pizzolatto’s published writing to illustrate a consistent perspective, and that he “means what he writes.”

I’m enjoying season two of “True Detective” as much as I enjoyed season one (in other words, a reasonable amount). As usual, the backlash can only be observed from a distance and wondered at. You can’t assume anything about those engaging in the backlash — or, rather, you can, and it’s possible that I have, but you can’t say, publicly, that there’s any sort of dishonesty at work here because you just can’t know. (And to be extra clear, I don’t know, but I am baffled; also, if you never liked the show then obviously you’re off the hook.) This is a relief because as it happens, while this post is about Nic Pizzolatto, it isn’t about “True Detective.” In 2006, Pizzolatto published a book of short stories called “Between Here and the Yellow Sea.” It received praise from such writers as Adam Johnson, Ellen Gilchrist, Tom Franklin, and William Gay. (This, in and of itself, shouldn’t necessarily mean anything to you, though I would argue that it’s not something that should mean nothing to you, either.) In 2010 he published a novel, called “Galveston.” The reaction to that, which included a rave by celebrated crime writer Dennis Lehane in The New York Times Book Review, probably greased the wheels that led to “True Detective” happening at all. None of this, of course, means that “True Detective” is any good — if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But in the wake of that show’s season two premiere, which might have to be regarded as disastrous, Pizzolatto has been accused of being phony, and a bad writer. And I’ll admit that if a certain thing that many predict will happen in episode three of season two does in fact happen (we’ll all find out in about six and a half hours), then I will have no choice but to call out Pizzolatto on some pretty egregious bullshit, storytelling-wise. Nevertheless, I’ve read selections from “Between Here and the Yellow Sea” as well as all of “Galveston,” and I’m telling you, Pizzolatto means what he writes. You can scoff at it and think his work “takes itself too seriously” (whatever in the world that means), but just because he takes the crime genre more seriously than you do, that doesn’t somehow mean he’s lying.

3. Corruption, Murder, and Inspiration: “True Detective’s” Vinci and the Real-Life Vernon. The second season of “True Detective” is set in the fictional town of Vinci, and one of the major stories is the murder of Vinci’s city manager. Three years earlier, Eric T. Fresch, a top administrator in the city of Vernon, was found dead after an audit had been released criticizing his investment decisions while he was in charge. Was Vernon the inspiration for Vinci or was it just a coincidence? The L.A. Times’ Hector Becerra examines the comparisons between the two cities.

Enter the second season of HBO’s “True Detective,” in which the murder of the city manager of the fictional town of Vinci is a major story thread. Even if Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of the series, didn’t already say so, it would be hard not to see that Vernon was the inspiration for Vinci. The water tank that looms over the industrial faux town with the word Vinci is perhaps Vernon’s most distinctive landmark, along with the mural-tattooed Farmer John plant. The real-life Vernon City Hall is used in several shots, and you can see a few of the quaint wood-frame cottages that are among just a couple of handful of homes in a city that like Vinci numbers only about 100 residents. Vernon’s city seal features two workers, a globe and a few factories belching smoke in the background. The city’s motto is “Exclusively industrial.” Vinci’s seal, with the motto “Towards tomorrow” is all belching smokestacks, like factories in Mordor in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. There are no humans. Then there are the dead city managers. With Vinci’s, there is no doubt that someone killed him with extreme prejudice. Basically, Vinci out-Vernons Vernon by several factors.

4. Why “Halt and Catch Fire” Isn’t Another “Mad Men” Rip-Off. “Halt and Catch Fire’s” second season has garnered acclaim after a mediocre first season that drew comparisons to “Mad Men.” On her blog, Amy Woolsey compares the two series and argues that “Halt and Catch Fire” has gotten something unique and different to say.

It points to a fundamental difference between Don and Joe: they are both salesmen, but whereas the former is selling an idea, the latter is selling a product. In fact, Joe would most likely scoff at Don’s penchant for nostalgic sentimentality and existential angst. The age of digital technology has no room for doubt or idealism; you live like there are only tomorrows, like your very survival depends on moving forward at all times, because one look back means you’re left in the contrail. The past has become not only unpleasant but irrelevant, a jumble of mistakes, failures and disappointments, best forgotten as soon as possible. It’s little wonder people so quickly lost interest in space exploration: after the initial thrill of Neil Armstrong’s historic feat, you realize nothing’s actually changed. We’re still stuck on the same boring, messed-up planet. “Mad Men” asked, “What if we go to the moon?” “Halt and Catch Fire” asks, “What if we go to the moon and all we find is a giant rock?”

5. Matt Zoller Seitz on The Sensual Pleasure of “The Third Man”. Carol Reed’s classic film “The Third Man” has been restored at 4K resolution and is enjoying a nice release in theaters across the country. Matt Zoller Seitz reviews the look and sound of “The Third Man,” and the experience of watching it on the big screen.

“The Third Man” has been restored at 4K resolution by Rialto Pictures, for digital projection. The result is mostly agreeable, and certainly a step up from watching a badly battered old print of a type that grows increasingly scratchy and inaudible in the run-up to reel changes. As is often the case with high-resolution digital projection, there’s a trade-off. I thought there were the places where the movie looked too pristine, too crisp, and other places where the evident film grain (a part of the movie, which was shot on 35mm after all) looked too much like digital noise. The 4K “print” I saw lacked the beguiling mix of sharpness and softness that makes the best-quality celluloid projection so pleasurable. But there are compensations. You can see all relevant details in well-lit areas, but not in the deepest, darkest shadows, which honors Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s high-contrast visual scheme. This is a movie that respects the impenetrability of darkness, and communicates that respect though composition and lighting. It would have been a sin to try to “correct” all that, and the restoration team hasn’t. And the sound mix is perfect — gentle and dreamy during silent sequences, and joltingly loud but not overbearing during sequences that involve police whistles, gunshots, footfalls on cobblestones, and underground waterfalls. It is a suitably overwhelming aesthetic experience, a fugue state with jokes. Joseph Cotten, still one of the most under-appreciated leading men, gives one of his career-best performances as Holly, communicating the character’s peevishness and disappointment and intransigence but also his idealism and guile. There is not one second where you catch him acting.

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