Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Modern Noir Has Atrophied (and It’s Not All “True Detective’s” Fault). Last Sunday, HBO’s “True Detective” ended its middling second season to mostly negative critical reviews. Though “True Detective” works within the noir tradition, it often embodies the most superficial or artistically bankrupt aspects of the genre, but the series is not entirely to blame. Over at Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién argues that the modern noir has atrophied and how it can still progress.
Noir quickly solidified itself as a genre with a series of consistent stylistic (voice-over, high-contrast lighting, poetic and rhythmic dialogue), thematic (existentialism, free will, gender politics, fear of the “other,” white men losing or gaining power, obsession with the past, dread of the future), narrative (non-linear storytelling), and character archetypes (detectives, femmes fatales, criminals, people on the fringes of society), all typically within urban settings. Noir’s elasticity is its greatest strength, but it also makes it hard to define. You know it when you see it. Save for the theme, these attributes can be laid on thick or nearly nonexistent, which is why films as vastly different as “In a Lonely Place,” “L.A. Confidential,” and “The Letter” can all be called noir. It can twist from pulpy vulgarity to gritty realism. But at its core, noir has always been a political genre. The fear of the “other” is crucial to noir, and it was born out of new tensions in post–World War II America. The Red Scare and Hollywood blacklist instilled a sense of paranoia and ambiguity that translated into one of the genre’s most ubiquitous (and important) motifs: No one can be trusted, not even yourself. This is consistent in a wide variety of noirs, whether it be Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce,” scraping herself up from the poverty line but never pleasing her malevolent daughter; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall dancing around each other’s affections in Martinique while aiding the French Resistance in “To Have and Have Not;” Sidney Poitier playing a doctor caring for people who hate him for his blackness in “No Way Out;” or Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as doomed lovers bound by a murder plot and fatalistic lust, trying to reach their own version of the American Dream in “Double Indemnity.” But the fight for civil rights, second-wave feminism, and the fall of the studio system created a far more black-and-white political landscape in the 1960s, shaping an era nearly devoid of noir. Come the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s presidency had created an atmosphere where the villains and heroes were clearly outlined. Noir became increasingly self-reflexive and metatextual. It lost its ambiguity and became content to comment on the genre itself rather than the cultural landscape, with “Pulp Fiction” (while an enjoyable film in its own right) as the most well-known example.
2. Guy Ritchie: From Geezer to Crowd-Pleaser. Coming off of two very successful “Sherlock” movies, Guy Ritchie’s new action comedy is “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Based on the 1964 MGM TV show of the same name, the film follows two spies (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer) as they try to stop a secret international criminal organization from developing nuclear weapons (if this sounds familiar to a certain other British spy franchise, you should know Ian Fleming contributed ideas to the original premise). Telegraph’s Robbie Collin explores Ritchie’s career and how he added a British sensibility to the American blockbuster.
For years, Britpop bands like Oasis and Ocean Color Scene had been lucratively casting back to the sounds and styles of the Sixties. What Ritchie did was fit the same rose-tinted lens on our national cinema. At the time he was often likened to Quentin Tarantino, the upstart Yank whose “Pulp Fiction” had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1994, pulling the trigger on a revolution in American cinema. But beyond a shared love of motor-mouthing gangsters, the two directors had almost nothing in common…Tarantino’s work was a stew of obscure trash cinema, French New Wave cool and Hong Kong action, but the films that appeared to have shaped “Lock, Stock…” were ones you’d see if you turned on the television on a bank holiday weekend. It’s 100 percent British beef, culled from a range of venerable herds. It brought the buoyant mood of ensemble capers like “The Italian Job” and “The Lavender Hill Mob” to the shifting London landscape of noirish thrillers like “Night and the City” and “The Long Good Friday.” Its bravura and backbone came from swaggering dramas of alpha-malehood like “Alfie” and “Performance,” but it was softened with the same kind of infectious energy of Richard Lester’s Beatles films – and perhaps even brushed by the manic comedy of the BBC radio series, “The Goon Show,” with its thickly accented cast of half-recognizable grotesques. It’s his irony-free affection for popular mid-century movie culture that makes Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” makes perfect sense. He might be the only director working today who’s capable of warming up the source material without sending it up in the process.
3. Holding Out for a Hero: “Mad Max Fury Road’s” New Action Hero[ine]. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is now available to buy on iTunes, but won’t be available on Blu-Ray or DVD until the end of the month. While everyone anxiously awaits to see how or if television can capture the manic energy of “Fury Road,” cléo‘s Kiva Reardon writes about how “Fury Road” posits a new kind of hero in the action film genre.
Furiosa and her women then represent an alternative model to the Hero and to the enshrined ideal of the Individual — two literary and philosophical concepts that are gendered “male” as much as the genre of action film. It’s not just Furiosa’s gender that represents a challenge to this, but more importantly her collective mindset — in this story there will be no lone figure riding victorious into the sunset. Crucially, Furiosa’s character doesn’t just represent this challenge to the patriarchal order of The One to the idea of a collective, but her character causes others to change as well. Furiosa’s collaborative survival tactics do change Max, and even a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who finds himself on the side of the women when he’s abandoned in their war rig after a battle. When both these uber-masculine men experience Furiosa’s “new” way, they fall into line as her allies. (When she finds the remaining Many Mothers, they express suspicion of the men; Furiosa assuages the Mothers by saying of Max and Nux: “They’re reliable.” She doesn’t need them, but she can work with them.) Neither man attempts to take the wheel from her as one might expect — in fact, they only ever get behind the wheel of the war rig with her permission — and offer what they can to her cause. In this way, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is never about altering one’s being in totality but is about a process of morphing. It’s never about Furiosa becoming “more male” or Max “softening” (other common action genre tropes) but a process of transformation and fusion. It’s not about a world that denies men or denies difference, but instead is a picture of a universe where collaboration, not individual rule, opens up new conceptions of what a hero looks like.
4. “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”: Peckinpah’s Unfinished Masterpiece. This week, Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” will screen at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, MA. Arguably best known for its behind-the-scenes troubles, “Pat Garrett” was taken away from Peckinpah and cut up by the studio, but nowadays Peckinpah’s preview version exists alongside it. Over at WBUR’s The Artery, Sean Burns examines Peckinpah’s last western and its troubled production history.
On paper, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” looked like a slam-dunk proposition. The director of “The Wild Bunch” headed back out west for this oft-filmed tale of two old friends finding themselves on opposite sides of the law when capitalist robber-barons and government stooges started putting fences up all around the high country. Working from an acerbic script by cult novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, this bitterly revisionist take starred James Coburn as outlaw-turned-Sheriff Pat Garrett, assisted here by a posse of veteran old-timey Western character actors such as Jack Elam, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills and Slim Pickens. For maximum counter-culture kick, Billy the Kid was played by hunky, hugely popular singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, with his gang of rebels filled out by Kristofferson’s touring band, Kris’ wife Rita Coolidge, plus other early 1970s music scene denizens including Harry Dean Stanton and some twitchy little cat named Bob Dylan. (Obsessed with Billy the Kid, Dylan reportedly begged Wurlitzer to write him a small role in the movie and composed the film’s haunting, dirge-like score.) What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters there was too much booze and too many drugs, even by this particular director’s notoriously hedonistic standards. It all escalated rather quickly into a (pretty much literal) pissing contest between Peckinpah and cheapskate MGM executive James Aubrey — who was in charge of transitioning the studio into the hotel industry and thus used their waning movie business as quickie cash infusions for the then-under-construction Grand in Las Vegas. Known as “The Smiling Cobra” around Hollywood (except to Coburn, who simply called him “That Motherf—er”), Aubrey slashed the film’s budget at the 11th hour, shortened the shooting schedule and even refused to allow a Panavision camera mechanic to join the crew on location in Durango, Mexico. Bob Dylan had never before worked on a major motion picture, and thus didn’t quite know what to make of things when they sat down to watch dailies and everyone discovered the first week or so worth of footage was out of focus due an easily fixable lens malfunction. Then his director stood up on a chair and urinated all over the screen.
5. My Ridiculous Quest to Drag Home the 100-Pound Trunk from “John Wick”. The Keanu Reeves thriller “John Wick” garnered critical acclaim last year and has quickly become somewhat of a cult object. In “John Wick,” the title character keeps a trunk full of guns and ammo underneath the floor just in case he needs them (spoiler alert: he does). Over at The Week, Scott Meslow tells the story of how he dragged home this very heavy trunk from “John Wick” back to his house.
In Hollywood parlance, the “John Wick” trunk is what’s called a “hero prop”: an on-screen item that’s convincing and detailed enough to hold up under an audience’s scrutiny. Though the trunk’s actual time on screen in “John Wick” is extremely brief, it is seen in extreme close-up, so it was custom built expressly for the film. “John Wick” implies that John has owned this trunk for years — long enough, at least, that it goes back to his days as a professional assassin, before the movie begins. In practical terms, that means that the props team commissioned a beautiful, customized wooden trunk, then battered and tarnished it until it looked like it had been through a war zone. How does a prop from “John Wick” end up in the home of a random Brooklynite? As it turned out, Kathryn wasn’t a fan of “John Wick.” She was just a fan of trunks. After “John Wick” wrapped, the production was left with a bunch of props no one wanted, including the trunk. Kathryn bought it from the set, intending to use it for storage, but an impending move — as well as her husband’s total disinterest in owning it — led her to dump it on Craigslist for anyone who could dispose of it as quickly and cleanly as possible. After I called, Kathryn fielded a number of inquiries from “John Wick’s” surprisingly passionate cult fan base. One couple, who claimed to have worked on the film, said they wanted the trunk as a souvenir; another guy, identifying himself as a hardcore fan of the film, wanted it as a conversation piece. But Kathryn held strong; I contacted her first, and it would be mine until I realized it made no sense for me to take it off her hands. That realization never came. Saturday morning arrived. Per Kathryn’s instructions, I had enlisted the aid of a couple friends, who I plied with the customary rewards for helping someone move: coffee and bagels in the morning, beer and pizza at night. When we arrived at Kathryn’s apartment, it was immediately clear that her extremely detailed post had not exaggerated at all. The trunk was enormous — “John Wick could probably hide a couple of bodies in here” enormous. Pictures did not begin to do it justice. It was a totally impractical thing to cram into a one-bedroom apartment. It weighs at least 100 pounds.
Tweet of the Day:
Boy, you guys are in for it now: Just imagine how “You TV Critics Tried To Kill Me, And You FAILED” season 3 of “True Detective” is gonna be
— Glenn Kenny (@Glenn__Kenny) August 11, 2015