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Daily Reads: When Queer Films Are Still About Straight People, the EDM Ennio Morricone, and More

Daily Reads: When Queer Films Are Still About Straight People, the EDM Ennio Morricone, and More

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

1. When Queer Films Are Still About Straight People. 
The Toronto Film Festival has screened a film films about queer and trans people that will be released in the next few months. However, these films (“Freeheld,” “The Danish Girl,” and “About Ray”) weren’t exactly received with the most rapturous response. Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan argues that these films are still fundamentally about straight people, and the queer and trans characters at their center exist solely as an axis for everyone else to orbit.

That film has a knockout central character to mine in Lili Elbe, so why does “The Danish Girl” feel like it’s really Gerda’s story? Some credit must be given to Vikander’s unexpectedly forceful performance: The “Ex Machina” star is terrific in this movie, dominating every single scene she shares with the Oscar-winning Redmayne. “Alicia Vikander May Be the Real Winner From ‘The Danish Girl,'” one headline posited after the film’s debut, and it’s hard to argue, given the Vikander-mania that seems to have swept Toronto. This is perhaps the most significant performance in the Swedish star’s terrific, prolific year, and she deserves all the laurels she’s about to get for it. But the film’s character imbalance can’t be laid at Vikander’s feet alone, because “The Danish Girl” is scripted from the start to both begin and end with Gerda; in fact, I’d wager that Vikander is granted more screen time than even the first-billed Redmayne. And while both Gerda and Lili have their own solo scenes and story lines, nearly all the screen time that they share together clearly favors Gerda’s perspective: Tellingly, there are several scenes that follow Gerda home as she is expecting to see Einar and finds Lili there instead, treating the film’s ostensible protagonist as a surprise to us and clearly grounding Gerda as the audience surrogate. (Another character even refers to Gerda, not Lili, as the film’s titular “Danish girl.”) In real life, Gerda eventually split from Lili and moved with her new husband to Morocco, where she was living when she learned of Lili’s death; the movie, however, keeps Gerda near Lili’s side until the very end. I’d like to think that was a historical revision meant to give “The Danish Girl’s” central coupling an emotional payoff in the third act; my cynical side, though, wonders if the filmmakers simply couldn’t bear losing the straight cisgender character.

2. The EDM Ennio Morricone
Junkie XL (or JXL) is a Dutch multi-instrumentalist and electronic musician has been releasing electronica albums since the late-90’s, but he’s also been making inroad as a film composer since the early 00’s. Recently, he’s responsible for the scores to “Divergent,” “Run All Night,” and most notably, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the upcoming “Black Mass.” Grantland’s Eric Ducker profiles Junkie XL and describes his journey from making electronica to film scores.

A few years ago, Holkenborg kept a studio at Remote Control, a massive complex in Santa Monica owned by Hans Zimmer, the prolific composer and Holkenborg’s sometime collaborator. But having his own workspace just footsteps away from his home better suits his restless tendencies. “Last night, I went to bed at 1 and I couldn’t sleep, I had a lot of stuff on my mind,” says Holkenborg. “Then it was like 3:45, 4, and in my pajamas I just made a coffee and walked in here and noodled with some knobs and next thing you know it’s 6:30.” About four hours later, Holkenborg sits on the studio’s green couch, charging through a pack of cigarettes and yet another cup of coffee. With his black-framed glasses perched on the top of his head, closely cropped hair blending into his stubble, and raw denim jeans paired with scuffed white sneakers, he looks like one of the many well-paid “creatives” that populate Los Angeles’s open-floor-plan ad agencies. With his measured enthusiasm, he seems like the type of guy you’d trust to sell you an expensive stereo system or perform your ligament surgery.

3. Neil Patrick Harris’ “Best Time Ever” Hammers a Final Nail Into the Variety TV Coffin. 
On Tuesday, NBC premiered yet another stab at the variety TV genre with “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris,” a sort of ADD grab bag of weird flashy gimmicks and creepy, borderline-sociopathic pranks. Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet reviews the new series and explains how it could mark the end of the variety show.

“Best Time Ever” boasts about its emphasis on audience participation, but that audience seems less like run-of-the-mill fans having the Best Time Ever and than stiff pawns forced to nod and smile while Harris does his thing. They try to seem surprised and enthusiastic, but there is almost a hint of Stockholm Syndrome there; I’ve been to multiple show tapings before, I know how quickly insanity sets in when you’re sitting in a seat for hours, clapping and cheering at the instruction of a light-up sign or an underpaid production assistant. I’m sure the majority of them are having a grand time, but as a viewer watching this all unfold, it’s hard to imagine they’re feeling anything but uncomfortable terror. See, the pranks aren’t of the “look under your seat and find something silly!” variety — they’re deeper, go on for longer, and are perhaps evidence of some sort of dark, pathological comedy condition. Harris tells weird secrets about specific audience members (how funny!), but then singles out one couple and reveals that he was the bellhop at their hotel, standing creepily as they took selfies. He was the mascot at the sports event they attended, stepping on their overpriced nachos. He was the creepy voyeur photobombing their wedding photos back in August, dancing behind them, hamming it up in the background, sticking his finger in the wedding cake, going to their honeymoon suite to roll around on their bed before they get there. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of old “Criminal Minds” episodes recently, but by this point in the episode, I was becoming increasingly worried that Neil Patrick Harris might actually be an overzealous sociopath distracting us from his true intentions with stellar dancing skills.

4. What Do David Lynch’s Movies Say About Sex? 
Production has just started on another season of “Twin Peaks,” almost 25 years after David Lynch’s landmark TV show aired its “final” episode. In the upcoming year, you’re guaranteed to see a lot of “David Lynch” thinkpieces and commentary, and though it’s a little early, here at Daily Reads, we thought we’d highlight one Lynch-related piece that’s especially good. The Toast’s Lauren Carroll Harris explores what David Lynch’s films say about sex.

Sex is never simple, nor are the messages of Lynch’s films. He has always been disinterested in the traditions of linear narrative and more inclined to follow mood, imagery and rhythm in music and editing. Indeed, his move into filmmaking was predicated by a frustration with the still images he was creating at art school in Philadelphia. Where his debut film seemed to spring fully formed and without precedent from some other planet, Lynch’s short films give us the biggest clues as to what the man is really all about: they are moving images in the purest sense – paintings brought from stillness to life. The mood sustained across his films has much in common with that of the 20th century’s titan painters Luc Tuymans and Gerard Richter: that same everyday violence thing, that same disturbed energy. Where Tuymans and Richter’s violence is soft, latent and located in historical interrogation (Tuymans’ deceptively anodyne and monochromatic work “Gaskammer” [1986] is all the more shocking for the revelation of the subject matter in its title, in Lynch’s work the eeriness always manifests directly in evil, with an accompanying sexual encounter, in the home and in dreams. The title of Lynch’s 1966 short art film, “Absurd Encounter With Fear,” says more than anybody has ever said about Lynch’s work – is there any richer, pithier summation of the feel of his films, of his typical depiction of sex and the strange muddy feelings that surround our experiences of it? The message we get from his films is that sex is scary and there’s no such thing as ‘just sex.’

5. “Almost Famous” and Gifting Musical Memory. 
WIth the release of the disastrous “Aloha,” it’s often easy to forget Cameron Crowe used to make good, sometimes great films. Case in point, “Almost Famous,” arguably his best film, celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this week. The story of a young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he goes on tour with fictional band Stillwater and grows up a little too quickly along the way perfectly captures the way music gets in our brain and never leaves, truly “finding us” rather than the other way around. Pitchfork’s Sinead Stubbins explores the notion of musical memory in “Almost Famous.”

“Almost Famous” filled our brains with the romance of girls who named themselves after Beatles songs, mustachioed critics who’d would stay up all night on speed just to fucking write about the experience of an album, and people sitting around and discussing music with all the divine weight reserved for God or death. It should, by all means, have been a 90-minute parade of saccharine garbage, but it wasn’t. The film hinges itself on the scene in which Anita passes on her record collection to her lonely little brother. When 11-year-old William discovers the stash of LPs that Anita has left him in the wake of her leaving home, he flips through them carefully, pausing to gasp at “Pet Sounds” and trace the faces of a Jimi Hendrix Vishnu with his fingertips as Simon and Garfunkel hum softly in the background. This scene is longer than it needs to be, which is exactly why it is perfect. It should be indulgent because receiving this kind of gift has emotional weight, particularly for a sheltered kid who obediently stares into a candle flame while listening to “Tommy,” as he was instructed to do. Self indulgence isn’t always a bad thing; it’s about devouring the things you like without shame or discipline, which is what being a fan is all about. Anita promises William that “one day, you’ll be cool” and encourages his interest. Four years later, as he listens to Lester Bangs wax lyrical about the “vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs” music creates in your brain, he smiles because he knows he has found his people. Anita’s gesture changes William’s life. His obsession with rock music gives him access to a cadre of fellow weirdos bonding through the currency of “being uncool.” In the Miller house, rock ‘n’ roll is a distraction from true art, a trivial trend about “drugs and promiscuous sex.” To Anita, these songs are expressing what she can’t, which young people will never stop advocating at times when it’s true, and times when it’s not (it’s romantic to say, “I can’t quite explain it; maybe this song can,” as if your emotions are so profound and complex that words just won’t cut it). Anita gives William her record collection because she wants to offer him escape from their restrictive home life and introduce him to the language of her rebellion, because she knows these songs and albums are transportational.

6. 10 Episodes that Highlight “Moonlighting’s” Eclectic, Boundary-Busting Brilliance. 
Over at The A.V. Club, they run a feature entitled “TV Club 10,” which points people toward ten episodes of a TV series that best represents its specific brilliance that will help convince you, the reader, to watch the whole thing. This week, Greg Cwik writes about “Moonlighting” and how it broke all the rules and rewrote some of its own along the way.

Glenn Gordon Caron’s metafictional “Moonlighting” didn’t just break the fourth wall; it flipped the camera around and showed viewers the stage hands and boom mics behind the wall. Musing on its own existence as if it were the René Descartes of the Reagan era, “Moonlighting” winks at the audience, letting us know it’s in on the joke, jabbing itself in the side as it knowingly adheres to television’s trappings with irreverence (and irrelevance)….The characters don’t sound so complex or deep on paper: Maddie is beautiful and decent, her icy exterior belying her romantic heart; David is crude and crass and has, as Maddie puts it, “The morals of a rabbit, the character of a slug, and the brain of a platypus.” But in execution, they’re two of the most colorful characters network television has ever produced. They don’t have particularly good chemistry (Willis and Shepherd fought vehemently on and off set) as much as they each fuel the other’s mania. Maddie spends more time slamming doors and yelling at David than she does detecting, while David throws office parties, sets up dating hotlines, and expounds on his profound life observations (Do bees be? Do flies fly?). He’s frequently chauvinistic, his salacious, juvenile mind able to turn anything into an innuendo or come-on, yet he’s inexplicably lovable. Chalk that up to Willis’ ability to go from tactless to tactful on a dime, and then pocket the dime.

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