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Daily Reads: Stop Writing Think Pieces About Things You Haven’t Seen, Why L.A. Is an Arthouse Desert, and More

Daily Reads: Stop Writing Think Pieces About Things You Haven't Seen, Why L.A. Is an Arthouse Desert, and More

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

1. Stop Writing Think Pieces About Things You Haven’t Seen. Since the Internet is a mostly democratic platform, anybody can pretty much write about whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean they should. For example, there has recently been a proliferation of articles and think pieces about films that the writer hasn’t seen. Pajiba’s Rebecca Pahle explains why people should stop writing about things they haven’t seen, even though that should be intuitive.

Being a card-carrying Social Justice Warrior, I’m not usually on this side of the “waaah, outrage culture” line, but deciding “Warcraft” has a “woman problem” a year before it comes out — and the piece’s title, “Does the Warcraft movie have a problem with women?,” is as undecided on that front as Fox News trumpeting “Barack Hussein Obama: Socialist Muslim Illuminati Lizard King?!?!?” is fair and balanced — is irresponsible at best. You can write a considered, thorough assessment of “WoW’s” problems with sexism and what the movie adaptation could do to combat them without going for the clickbait hook that asserts a movie no one’s even had a chance to see yet — a movie that’s not even finished — is The Worst Ever. The piece came so close to being good. So close. And then there’s the still-roiling debate over Amy Schumer and racism. Within the context of this post, it’s worth pointing out that Stacey Patton, the co-author of “Don’t believe her defenders. Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist” for “The Washington Post,” never actually watched Schumer’s show or any of her stand-up in preparation for writing the piece.This issue isn’t about Schumer. Or “American Sniper,” or “Inside Out,” or “Warcraft.” It’s about writers not doing their jobs (if “doing their jobs”=contributing to pop culture discourse by engaging in solid, thoughtful journalism instead of hopping on the sensationalism bandwagon for clicks, about which YMMV). Part of writing a piece is doing your damn research before you write it, and that includes watching what you’re writing about. To do otherwise is irresponsible and lazy. You are professionals. You are getting paid.

2. Finding Emo: The New Generation of Kids’ Films. 
Pixar’s newest film “Inside Out” embraces darker, more emotionally complex themes about childhood, like the benefits of embracing sadness, and that growing up naturally means leaving somethings you love behind. The Guardian’s Xan Brooks explores the new trend of kids’ films with mature psychological cores and wonders if older kids’ films with simpler psychologies were better.

And so on we go, through the rabbit warren of Riley’s long-term memory where brief recollections play like Vines on a loop, and finally out on to the vast slagheap of the subconscious where faded imaginary friends sit alongside half-forgotten terrors. The film is ingenious. I loved it to bits. And yet if “Inside Out” is brave enough to embrace nuance and doubt, it naturally follows that we need to question it, too. Specifically, I’m wondering just how radical its approach is. What, for instance, are the characters in “Toy Story” if not an outward projection of Andy’s childhood fantasies? Or for that matter, the spirit world as shown in films such as “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Spirited Away.” Come to think of it, what is Dorothy’s Oz if not a fairground-mirror image of her monochrome prairie home? Doesn’t every great kids’ movie depend on creating satisfying manifestations of internal emotions, hopes and horrors? “Inside Out” simply takes what used to be the subtext and makes it the text. [Professor of psychology Dacher] Keltner agrees – but only up to a point. “Yes, emotions form the fundamental arc of all narrative life,” he says. “Sadness is a recognition of a bad situation. Anger is about figuring out how to change it. So they’re the subtext of a lot of movies. But ‘Inside Out’ is still quite radical in its insights into the role of emotions in structuring the world.” In Docter’s film, Riley’s emotions are not so much reactions or byproducts. Instead, they are cast as active agents; they have the power to decide where the drama is going. “And I don’t know any movie that has done that before. I don’t know who has. Virginia Woolf maybe?”…All of which leaves me slightly scratching my head. It’s almost enough to make you pine for the olden days, when cartoon kids knew their place; when their heads were full of sawdust and their adventures (at least ostensibly) were all external. Snow White and her ilk were largely defined by a sweet, vapid innocence that emerged barely ruffled by the various hags and handsome princes they encountered on the road. Or consider Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, who was presented as wide-eyed and simple, unformed and untamed. Pinocchio needed to be civilised, like Huck Finn before him. He required invisible strings to keep him straight and upstanding. The notion that these characters might possess a complex inner life (hopes and fears, kinks and quirks) was laughable. Cognitive psychology has come a long way since then.

3. Judd Apatow on the Genius of Amy Schumer. 
Judd Apatow’s fifth feature “Trainwreck,” written by Amy Schumer, entered theaters on Friday to critical acclaim and opened to a $30 million gross. Needless to say, people are on board with Amy Schumer and her own sense of humor and artistic vision. For Vox, Rachel Handler interviews Judd Apatow on his new film and what he saw in Amy Schumer.

RH: When talking to Amy about “Trainwreck,” particularly its ending, and how traditional it is for a rom-com, she said you encouraged her to make that happen, rather than subvert the genre or surprise the audience. Why? 

JA: I think that all movies have one of the same few endings. They can have a really dark, David Lynch ending. They can have a really sad ending that we learn from, or an absurd ending, or a hopeful ending. I always think these movies are about hope — especially movies about love and romance. You’re either going to try to figure it out or you’re going to run away crying. The run-away-crying end is usually not appropriate in this situation. [laughs] … It happens [that movies end sadly but still work]. I love “Terms of Endearment,” and “Terms of Endearment” — in a weird way — is a happy ending, but it also ends with the death of these kids’ mother. And now Shirley MacLaine is going to raise them, and that seems like the worst possible outcome, yet you’re very happy about it so it’s a magical, truthful story. But, you know, in life you do have great moments, and you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day. It doesn’t mean the road isn’t bumpy afterward, but you have moments of great elation where everything seems like it might work out. You deal with the good and the bad as it comes. It’s just as easy to do the dark ending as a happy ending. That’s the secret no one realizes. [laughs] You shoot someone in the head at the end of a movie, and everyone says you’re daring, but it’s not that innovative.

4. Richard Brody on “Trainwreck”. 
Apatow’s new film “Trainwreck” has more than a few detractors. Some argue that it suffers from standard Apatowian problems, like lack of editing, or a reliance on digressions and celebrity cameos. Others dislike his traditional “conservative” outlook that involves protagonists putting away their toys (like booze and pot) in order to grow up. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that there are no conventional couplings in “Trainwreck,” or in any Apatow film, and that he shares an affinity with John Cassavetes.

Astonishingly, “Trainwreck” runs a bit more than two hours. It seems shorter, but, as ever in Apatow’s films, it’s missing an hour of footage — the one that I call the “Cassavetes hour,” the time in which a couple seeking to build their relationship on a more solid foundation knock heads in self-revelations and accusations, give voice to fears and suspicions, anger and dreams. These would be the scenes in which the melodramatic elements of the stories, as well as the intimate particularities of the characters, would come furiously, tenderly, vulnerably, terrifyingly to the fore — in which the psychic loam of a lifetime would become the lovers’ common ground. Apatow’s films don’t include this hour, but they all imply it. Yet “Trainwreck” comes closer to it than his other films do and, audaciously, approaches it from the other side, of parody and disaster rather than confession and redemption. There’s actually a scene here that invokes it — a striking moment when the couple is on the verge of a breakdown and Aaron tells Amy that it’s not the moment to separate but to have a fight and talk out their differences. What results is something like a Cassavetes hour that takes place before its time. That scene masks its horror in humor; almost all the dialogue (or, rather, monologue) is left off the soundtrack, but its upshot shows it to have been cruel, insensitive, one-sided.

5. The Extraordinary Artistry of “The Look of Silence”. 
Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film “The Look of Silence,” his follow up to “The Act of Killing,” recently entered select theaters and is already wracking up critical acclaim for its powerful sensitivity to survivors of mass trauma. Reverse Shot’s Eric Hynes reviews the film and highlights the astonishing level of craft on display.

You can talk about “The Look of Silence” — as many have and will and should, including the dauntingly articulate Oppenheimer himself — in terms of what the film means to present-day Indonesia, where, along with “The Act of Killing,” it’s starting a long-suppressed dialogue about the past, and of how that horrific past continues to rule the present. And you can discuss the film in terms of its importance, its bravery, its vitality — applicable and deserved words every one. But as with Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” another masterpiece dedicated to present-day witnessing, to chasing the ghosts of atrocity across the living landscape of our ruined humanity, it’s important not to overlook the extraordinary artistry that allows for such extra-cinematic effects. There’s a level of craft in “The Look of Silence” that arguably exceeds that of the equally but differently devastating “The Act of Killing,” trading formal and visual daring for deliberation, exactitude, and classically calibrated suspense. Privileging one film over the other is a fool’s game. They serve different, complementary purposes. “The Act of Killing” explores the impunity of the perpetrators from the point of view of the perpetrators, “The Look of Silence” from the vantage of their victims. They’re both achievements of the highest order. But the strategy of “The Look of Silence” is so elemental that it can be too easily taken for granted. With all of its stillness, its tripod shots of seated people, its language of shot/reverse shot, it can come off as quite restrained, especially when compared to the feverish, careening, activated “Act of Killing.” But in truth, every moment of “The Look of Silence” is fully directed. The shots, the performances, the frame, the soundscape: it all supports an idea, it’s all marshaled towards an effect, it all freights meaning. There are simple cuts in this film that can buckle your knees.

6. Why Is L.A. an Arthouse Film Desert? 
New York City offers a cornucopia of repertory screenings, arthouse theaters, and freshly released films for the hordes of cinephiles who lives there, but that can be frustrating to people in smaller cities (Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.) that feel like they’re living in a different world. But L.A., the land of Hollywood, seems like a city that would support arthouse theaters and films. Apparently this is not the case. The L.A. Times’ Michael Nordine examines the L.A. film scene and tries to uncover why it’s such an arthouse film desert.

It’s long been known that the art house scene in Los Angeles lags behind that of New York, but must we be outdone by Iowa City and Bloomington as well? Far from outliers, “Goodbye to Language” and “Li’l Quinquin” are emblematic of a larger problem in Los Angeles film culture. Other casualties from just last year include “Maidan,” “Actress” and “What Now? Remind Me.” All arrived in New York theaters with festival pedigrees and near-unanimous critical praise, but that wasn’t enough to ferry them this far west. Autumnal Oscar hopefuls reliably test the waters in both New York and Los Angeles before expanding elsewhere; capital-A art movies, however, start in the Big Apple and may never make it here at all. Why? Demand is certainly part of the problem. Christian Meoli, whose Arena Cinema practically specializes in under-the-radar offerings, tells me that cultural cachet hardly guarantees financial success. Meoli brings up the example of “Policeman,” an Israeli drama that was voted the year’s best undistributed film in the 2011 Village Voice film poll. When it finally opened at Arena last summer, audiences didn’t exactly come out in droves. Everyone I’ve spoken to — exhibitors, distributors, filmmakers and fellow critics — agrees on one very mundane stumbling block: traffic. Angelenos who want to see foreign and independent films are spread thin across the city — such is our geography — and even the most passionate moviegoer in Pasadena will hesitate before trekking to Santa Monica for, say, Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden” at the Nuart. It’s disheartening that something so simple (and stereotypical) would have such an impact, but there’s no underestimating 405 fatigue.

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