Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The State of the Movie Fan Union. Last week, Grantland’s Alex Pappademas published a feature on Umberto “El Mayimbe” Gonzalez, a self-proclaimed “fanboy journalist” who specializes in uncovering superhero movie scoops and trumpeting that information on the Internet. Though Pappademas’ piece is fantastic, that a person like Gonzalez can make a living “scooping” corporate marketing for the masses while other writers are searching for scraps writing genuine journalism or criticism depressed many, many people. Film School Rejects’ Scott Beggs writes about the State of the Movie Fan Union in today’s anticipatory culture.
Over the past few years, movie fandom has broadened enough to support a dozen major film websites and a dozen more dinky sites like ours who only pull in a few million readers a month, and it has also become deeply fascinated by the siren-sweet ululations of The Possible. The Possible is unblemished by production realities. The Possible is shiny and chrome. The Possible is a blank slate for us on which to write our fantasies. What might happen in cinema is now more broadly important than what happened on screens over the weekend, let alone two weekends ago or (gasp) a year or fifty ago. I understand why. There are a lot of reasons. Loving something involves curiosity and the explosion of mainstream movie sites has allowed even hobbyist curiosity to flourish, which has proven itself to mean gigantic traffic for sites that depend on gigantic traffic, which has led to even more movie news, which has led to even greater consolidation of what gets to be news. At the end of that rope, there’s no surprise that the movies that rate highest on the anticipation scale and ultimately bring in the most box office tend to bring in the most web traffic, too.
2. “Ant-Man” Leaves Many Unanswered Questions, Large and Small. Though we tend to speak of superhero movies only in terms of marketing, anticipation, and “scoops,” there are those out there writing legitimate criticism about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over at The A.V. Club, Tasha Robinson unpacks the many narrative problems in “Ant-Man,” and how it’s the first Marvel film to have consistency issues affect the viewing experience.
For that matter, the MCU movies have been perfectly willing to shrug off plausible human behavior in favor of emotional moments and striking images. Why would S.H.I.E.L.D. house its top-secret medical storage facility, where Captain America is meant to be protected from the modern world after his hibernation, in the middle of Times Square, instead of in some remote country hideaway? The answer — for maximum visual punch when he escapes into a modernist nightmare — doesn’t make any sense in terms of narrative conviction, but it still hits hard in the moment. The logic doesn’t necessarily have to be clear in any moment that evokes strong feelings. And MCU movies, like big action blockbusters in general, are all about the moment of impact. They’re meant to overwhelm viewers’ senses and overload their cortexes with sheer wish-fulfillment excitement, whether it’s the thrill of seeing a few lone heroes take on an alien army, or of trying to keep up with lightning-speed, sexually charged one-upmanship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts as they fence for advantage with each other. Scientists and civilian fans have a blast after the fact dissecting the reality and plausibility of Iron Man’s chest arc reactor, or trying to explain the specific rules that govern Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. But in the moment, all that matters is a sense that the story is playing fair and the characters themselves are real enough to matter — or fun enough that it doesn’t matter. But in “Ant-Man,” the latest blockbuster in the MCU lineup, the narrative problems actually get in the way of the story’s progress. That’s probably an artifact of the mid-production writing/directing switch-up, which left the script feeling incomplete and not entirely thought through: The action relies on the usual outsize motivating emotions, like fear, anger, and love, but they’re so awkwardly expressed, or so blatantly unexpressed, that they confuse the action instead of driving it. The science isn’t just hand-waved away as the price of admission, or with an airy, “It’s a mystical artifact, roll with it” — the script bases actual structural story events on blatantly contradictory information.
3. Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” Is a Weird, Haunting Tale About Surviving the Holocaust. Last week, Criticwire highlighted German director Christian Petzold’s new post-war film noir “Phoenix” as our Sleeper of the Week. It’s garnered nearly unanimous critical acclaim for everything from it’s direction to its performances to its powerful ending. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explains why “Phoenix” captures the trauma of surviving the Holocaust and how it differs from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in key ways.
What makes “Phoenix” so remarkable, then, is director and writer Christian Petzold’s marvelous command of tone. His premise is ridiculous, sure, but he tells the whole story in tight focus. Nelly, the Holocaust survivor who is his heroine (who is marvelously played by Nina Hoss), starts out as a collection of bandages holding together what once was a face. As the film wears on, his camera holds on that face as it shifts and adjusts to the world it finds itself in. The backgrounds bleed out. All that’s left is what this woman is experiencing. Petzold’s other terrific choice is to set his story in a world today’s audiences don’t know much about — immediately post-World War II Germany. Part of a recent mini-wave of German films that grapple with the legacy of the war as seen by directors who weren’t alive for it, “Phoenix” reimagines bombed out, rubble-strewn cities as almost dreamy places where the regular rules of logic go out the window. Early in the film, Nelly visits her old home, now a pile of bricks, and awkwardly picks her way through the mess. Looking at the chaos, she comes to one conclusion: “I don’t exist.” Though she was not an observant Jew before the war, Nelly was sent to Auschwitz anyway, because of her heritage. Her survival is a total accident — she was shot in the face and left for dead. And her new face serves as a visual metaphor for what’s happened to her. Sometimes, events happen to people that are so horrific that they effectively become entirely new people, unrecognizable even to those who loved them most.
4. Monsters of Mock: David Cross on the Music of “Mr. Show”. Twenty years ago, two “alternative comedians” named Bob Odenkirk and David Cross created a sketch show for HBO that featured their unique brand of absurdist humor along with all their friends, such as Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Jack Black, and Scott Aukerman. The show was called “Mr. Show” and it was the closest American equivalent to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” influencing nearly every sketch show and comedian that followed. On the eve of the show’s 20th anniversary, Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman sits down with David Cross to discuss the music on the show and how it reflected their sensibilities.
But while their cultural targets were always shifting, Cross and Odenkirk’s obvious music fandom — and their indie rock-schooled contempt for pop-star posturing — served as the program’s most reliable source of comedic fodder. As Cross explains to me, his interests in underground music and stand-up blossomed in tandem, and his ascent from open-mic amateur to cable-TV comedy kingpin ran parallel to American indie rock’s mainstream incursion over the course of the ’80s and ’90s. “I was really lucky in that, when I started doing stand-up in Atlanta in the early ’80s, the whole Athens scene was happening,” he says over the phone from L.A. during his morning commute to work. (At the time, he was not able to divulge the exact nature of that work, though I can now safely assume it had to do with Cross and Odenkirk’s since-announced upcoming reunion series for Netflix, “With Bob and David.”) “Then, when I moved to Boston a few years later, that scene started to really break as well. So I had all this great, new, interesting music around me wherever I went. A lot of comedians worked with bands, because they were your friends — comedy shows would have bands, bands would have comedy. That was constant.” After moving to L.A. to work on “The Ben Stiller Show” in the early ’90s, he fell in with a new set of musicians — including Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, Grant Lee Buffalo, Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels, Aimee Mann, and Michael Penn — as all of their careers started to rise. “Mr. Show”‘s connections to the alt-rock world went beyond the odd Maynard cameo, though. Cross and Odenkirk’s regular gig-going also lead to friendships with acts like Pavement, Cat Power, and Yo La Tengo, and the “Mr. Show” crew even starred in YLT’s eternally awesome “Sugarcube” video. That sort of cross-pollination prefigured an indie-rock/comedy conversation that’s only become more pronounced over the past two decades, through Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s music-nerd satire on “The Best Show,” Sub Pop’s now-regular signings of comedians (Cross included), and punks-turned-pranksters Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hipster-baiting “Portlandia.”
5. The 10 Greatest Animated Films For Adults. With “Inside Out’s” adult appeal and the recent critical success of “BoJack Horseman,” there’s plenty of current animation that’s actually for adults or adult sensibilities. However, to suggest that “adult” animation is a recent phenomenon would be false. There’s been plenty of animation going back to the 1940’s that traded on adult themes. BBC’s Owen Gleiberman and Nicholas Barber list the ten greatest animated films for adults.
“Waking Life”: Richard Linklater is best known for his celebrated 12-year project, “Boyhood,” but even before he began it, he had proven just how daring and original he was with his psychedelic symposium “Waking Life.” Drifting between documentary and drama, the film is a loosely connected series of musings on quantum mechanics, neurobiology, reincarnation and the nature of reality. And if that weren’t offbeat enough, a team of artists has rotoscoped a layer of pulsating imagery over the top of the video footage. Some cynics might say that the acid-trip visuals are there to hold the viewer’s attention when the far-out theorizing gets a bit too pretentious. But the hall-of-mirrors wooziness also illustrates the film’s central thesis: that the world around us may all be a dream.
6. Nick Pinkerton on “The Decline of Western Civilization” and Hardcore Documentaries. If you’re a regular at Criticwire’s Daily Reads, you’re aware of how much we’re fans of Nick Pinkerton’s Bombast column for Film Comment. Every week, Pinkerton publishes a sprawling long-form piece on any number of film-related topics. The result is always a well-written, highly intelligent piece that captures Pinkerton’s unique critical perspective. Last week, Pinkerton explores Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” and other hardcore documentaries.
Elder statesman Albini’s music may have fared better in posterity — “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” has even redacted the one-star Big Black reviews from the 1992 edition — but the vigorous cross-examination of politically suspect art now rules the day, and it will be interesting to see how a new generation of viewers negotiate a work as “problematic” (a currently popular synonym for “alive”) as “Decline.” All of this might be lost on someone approaching this material lacking a historical context in which to place it or the curiosity to seek out that context for themselves — witness an article called “The Comedic Gold of ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’” which ran after a BAMcinématek screening of the film, in Pitchfork’s “The Pitch” section, which insofar as I can tell is the home for provocative thinkpieces untouched by editorial meddling, the idea being that imposed fact-checking might slow the self-assured rhetorical velocity. For the article’s author — who I will not identify by name because she is 21 years old and really ought to have faced the scrutiny of a conscientious editor, and also because she has four times as many Twitter followers than me and really doesn’t need the publicity — the scene documented by “Decline” is “bloody, sexist, and racist…a gritty blueprint of young, white, male aggression” over which hangs the threat of “assault, violent racism, homophobia, or anti-Semitism.” While the author does make note of the fact that one no-name interviewee is seen wearing a swastika T-shirt, she either doesn’t know or believes it irrelevant to her condescending argument that “Slash” writer and Catholic Discipline member Phranc, and Germs front man Darby Crash (who cries out his lover’s name during a ramshackle rendition of “Manimal”), are both iconic queer performers; that a great many of the street rats going to the shows were almost certainly selling their asses to survive; and that Alice Bag is a Mexican-American born Alicia Armendariz, and Black Flag drummer Robo is a Columbian-American named Julio Valencia. To offhandedly dismiss the scene documented in “Decline” as “white and male” is to disregard the enormous contributions made to it by artists who were neither, as well as those who were both. “In the sold-out audience at BAM last week,” the Pitchfork article’s author writes, “it became clear that there was really nothing tough about “Decline’s” cast” — a flip, flabbergasting assertion that a college-educated audience from prosperous Neo-Brooklyn could see right through the fraudulence of South Bay squatters c. 1979. (To quote Circle Jerks’ “Defamation Innuendo”: “Four years college, you’ve got knowledge / A bachelor degree, you read and write / You think it’s right but don’t come down on me / You’re an educated jerk, write about us / I could squeeze you like a pimple / but I don’t need the pus.”) As the din demanding that art define itself beyond risk of misconception becomes ever more deafening, asking viewers to decipher a tribal system of signifiers whose very purpose was to thwart, baffle, and intimidate outsiders becomes a tall order, and so instead we turn to the pseudo-sophistication of condescending to a past that we’re unequipped to reckon with on its own terms. Still, it’s heartening to see that even a museum piece like hardcore still has the power to disquiet — and enough to make you wish for a howitzer-force disruption to come along and shatter the heavy air of apathetic liberal smugness.
Tweet of the Day:
Nobody can say “evil” like Alec Guinness in STAR WARS. Nobody. He somehow manages to turn it into like a four syllable word. EE-ee-vi-oul.
— Bilge Ebiri (@BilgeEbiri) July 26, 2015