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Daily Reads: 3-D Cinema From the Stereoblind Perspective, Guillermo del Toro’s Main Theme, and More

Daily Reads: 3-D Cinema From the Stereoblind Perspective, Guillermo del Toro's Main Theme, and More

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

1. Seeing 3-D Cinema From The Stereoblind Perspective.
With the rise of 3-D technology in the past decade, 3-D movies have gained a foothold in the mainstream, with many films being shown in 3-D this blockbuster season, like Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” and Gaspar Noé’s provocative, explicit “Love.” However, there is one critic in particular who is unable to see films in 3-D. At The New York Times, Michael Atkinson writes about his stereopsis that prevents him from experience a 3-D film the way it was meant to be seen.

Probably the nation’s only stereoblind film critic (for The Village Voice and Sight & Sound, among others), I was born 100 percent cross-eyed and have now, thanks to eye-muscle operations first at 18 months old and then at 6 years old, perfect vision in one eye and negligible vision in the other. The two eyes do not synch up to produce a single three-dimensional image — stereopsis — and never have, a condition called strabismus. My impression is that I see some version of three-dimensionality in day-to-day life, but I’ve been told by experts that I actually don’t. Binoculars, View-Masters and “magic eye” posters have never worked for me, and I’ve always had trouble playing sports that require keen depth perception and hand-eye coordination, like tennis. If I were to, say, lose my left eye in a bar fight, I wouldn’t miss it terribly, and might prefer the rakish Raoul Walsh eye patch. I have never successfully seen a 3-D film in the mode it was intended, and I’m not alone. Depending on the source, it’s estimated that somewhere between 292 million and 730 million people have limited or no stereo-acuity and cannot process three-dimensional cinema. A great many more can do so only with effort and strain. We’re an overlooked minority, many times greater than the percentage of viewers who need wheelchair ramps to access a movie theater, which all theaters are legally required to have. “You don’t have stereopsis because you never developed it,” Sara Shippman, director of orthoptics for the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Hospital, told me. “In order to develop stereopsis, the eyes need to be aligned at an early age, generally before age 2, and have roughly equal vision. Unless the connections in the brain develop at this age, there is no way to force them to develop at a later age. Fusion, the ability to use the image from both eyes together in an integrated image, is a brain function, not an eye function.” It’s not, however, a simple either-or dynamic. Ms. Shippman said patients who are not stereoptic, even to the extent of being one-eyed, have reported seeing in three dimensions, while some individuals who have proper congenital fusion still cannot. Some people who cannot process 3-D imagery with the traditional red-blue glasses have better luck with the new polarized shades and the “active 3-D” shutter glasses. None have worked for me.

2. The Theme That Ties Guillermo del Toro’s Movies Together.
Crimson Peak,” the new Guillermo del Toro film, has garnered a mixed-to-positive critical reception but a disappointing box office return, possibly on account of misleading marketing claiming it’s a horror film and not a gothic romance. Undoubtedly an auteur, del Toro has established a style and design that distinguishes him from his peers, but connections between his work go deeper than the visual. At io9, Tasha Robinson explores del Toro’s body of work and susses out the ghost-as-metaphor as the connective tissue.

Guillermo del Toro seems to love ghost stories. He loves monsters of all types, from the historical rubber-suit Japanese kaiju that inspired “Pacific Rim” to original creations like the Pale Man from “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which has stalked many a modern nightmare. But he returns over and over to what Edith calls stories-with-ghosts-in-them, from “Crimson Peak” to his early writer-director project “The Devil’s Backbone” to films he’s produced, like Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s cheerful 2014 animated adventure “The Book Of Life,” Andrés Muschietti’s chilling 2013 ghost-adopts-kids tale “Mama,” and J.A. Bayona’s breathtakingly spooky 2007 haunted-house story “The Orphanage.” And that may be because of all the fantasy tropes and archetypes he’s played with, ghost stories tie most directly and easily into that one theme running through his work, about the necessity of coming to terms with the past, then escaping it. In fact, ghost stories are almost always about the unfinished business of the past. They’re by nature about people stuck outside of time and waiting for resolution, as “The Devil’s Backbone” puts it, “Like an insect trapped in amber.” “Crimson Peak” and “The Devil’s Backbone” both deal with the theme openly — in both cases, with ghosts haunting the living because they want vengeance, while their murderers are stuck living alongside them, unable to escape the locale or the consequences of their actions. But del Toro doesn’t need actual ghosts to make the point. He reaches the same conclusion through other monsters, or just through people. In “Pacific Rim,” protagonist Raleigh Becket and his partner Mako are both traumatized by their histories with the kaiju. He lost his brother in combat; she lost her family to an attack in Tokyo. But Raleigh learns to shuck off the emotions of his loss, and becomes a more stable and successful pilot as a result. When Mako gets lost in her memories while in the Drift — a state of psychic connection necessary to pilot the giant mecha called Jaegers — she nearly kills Raleigh and everyone else around her. “Vengeance is like an open wound,” her mentor and adoptive father tells her. “You cannot take that level of emotion into the Drift.” Hanging onto the past is a liability for Jaeger pilots, and successful warriors like Mako’s mentor, Stacker Pentecost, have learned to set their memories aside. “I carry nothing into the Drift,” he says late in the film. “No memories, no fear.”

3. The Rise of White Guilt in Pop Culture.
The pop-culture breakouts of the past few years on television — “Empire,” “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off The Boat” — have not only all featured diverse casts but tackle questions of race head on. But in an attempt to circle back to white folks’ feelings about racism, other shows and movies have mined the concept of white guilt for both laughs and drama. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg argues that depiction of white guilt doesn’t equal a depiction of black equality.

“Truth Be Told” clearly wants to ride the wave of shows such as “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” that have mined frank insights about race for comedy, but it feels like a throwback in ways that go far beyond its laugh track. Mitch’s defining characteristic is that people will think that he’s a racist, but he doesn’t do much about it except overcompensate by suggesting that other people might be biased. “I don’t think we’re allowed to talk about these things. I know I’m not,” Mitch frets at a Chinese restaurant when Russell begins to speculate about whether the waitress might be putting on a heavy accent to conform to customers’ expectations. Shortly thereafter, he begins to lecture their white valet about assuming that Russell’s car actually belongs to Mitch because Mitch is white. But that understanding apparently doesn’t extend to recognizing that there is no circumstance or form in which he’s allowed to use certain language. “I get I can’t say that word. But I can’t sing it?” he asks Russell in the car when Russell stops him from rapping along to “Empire State of Mind,” setting a debate that would have felt dated in 2005 or 1995. “You should hear me do it because I don’t pronounce the r!” When he and his wife, Tracy, contemplate hiring their neighbors’ babysitter, Mitch frets that “I’m a white guy who’s married to a woman who’s ethnically ambiguous. If we hire a babysitter who’s also ethnically ambiguous, it’s going to look like I have a thing.” Russell points out that, of course, Mitch does have a history of being attracted to women of mixed race. Mitch’s guilt doesn’t actually benefit anyone. When he stands up for Russell with the valet, he turns out to be wrong: The man thought the car was Mitch’s because of the CD that was playing in it. His anxieties about the babysitter get resolved when the young woman catches them watching her in an adult film and quits in a fit of pique. In fact, his anxieties about race tend to turn out to be baseless in a way that actually minimizes the idea that racism is a significant problem. Series creator D.J. Nash may have wanted to create a show about “four friends who are what I call true friends, friends who don’t pull punches…These are friends who are willing to say anything to each other. They love and respect each other so much that no topic is off limits,” as he said at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer. But the pilot episode, if it’s meant to be a thesis statement for “Truth Be Told,” is set up to assure viewers that any ensuing conversation about race won’t be particularly challenging or hurtful.

4. A Reluctant Suffragette: What “Suffragette” Leaves Out.
Though good-intentioned and written and directed by women, the new film “Suffragette” has garnered an early mixed-to-negative reception for its ultimately lacking portrayal of the early era of the women’s rights movement. By telling the story through the lens of two fictional characters, it renders a collective struggle into an individual one, ultimately diminishing the power of the source material. At least that’s what “reluctant suffragette” Sophie Mayer writes at The F Word about the film, claiming the film deserves kudos but its omissions are glaring.

Maud’s involvement with suffragism happens by contrivance, coincidence and coercion. As an innocent co-opted, she never uses nor hears words such as “socialism” or “anarchism,” never attends a worker’s education seminar, never connects with non-white communities of women who were organizing in Bethnal Green where she lives: a considerable dumbing down and narrowing of the movement. We do see her working at the Union of Women’s Suffrage Association in a romanticized montage that also includes a soft-focus self-defense class. Maud is a problematic model for the question of how to grow grassroots movements by engaging hard-to-reach communities, particularly given that her story was partially based on the biography of Hannah Mitchell, a seamstress who became actively involved in the suffragette movement of her own volition, inspired by the suffragettes’ local organizing. Part of the film’s problem is that in grafting a conventional hero narrative – full of epiphanies, setbacks and personal growth – onto a collective story, it is never quite sure which of the two is its focus. This is amplified through the consistent use of eccentric close-up framing and shallow focus, which is supposed to convey modernity and immediacy but instead creates a narrow frame in which Mulligan’s pout is often the sole medium for the feminist message. It is also implied throughout that Maud’s actions are in fact reactions: not so much to the facts of women’s oppression as to the behavior and opinion of men. Her early involvement in marches is as much about her relationship with Sonny as with the cause; later, it’s about her antagonistic relationship with Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). In her longest speech in the film – a voiceover reading of a letter turning down his insistence that she become an informer – Maud agrees with his assessment that they are parallel characters, both foot soldiers, struggling in direct relation to one another. Even at her most impassioned, Maud is passive. When she discovers that Sonny is giving up George for adoption by a middle class couple, she gives the inverse of Hawkeye’s famous speech to Cora from “The Last of the Mohicans” (Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation) – but rather than telling George: “I will find you,” as Hawkeye tells Cora, she tells him, less thrillingly: “I’ll be waiting for you to find me.” A desire to provoke male emotions seems to be Maud’s strongest motivation: when the film’s final crisis occurs, as Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) is struck by the King’s horse, the editing of reaction shots implies that her death is bad because it upsets, in order of importance: the King (Simon Gifford), the Inspector, Maud. When the film allows its female characters to interact with each other, it is absorbing – not least in the energy of talented female performers such as Duff and Helena Bonham Carter (as Edith Ellyn) reveling in the opportunity to play scenes in conversation, debate and action with other women. That’s uncommon, if hardly unprecedented, in mainstream cinema, but not exactly distinctive in heritage drama, which often takes place in all-female worlds. Scenes in the laundry, the union and the prison suggest, but don’t specify, the horizontal network formed by the suffragettes (and historically by women before suffrage). However, when those interactions become too close – as when Violet finds Maud a room after Sonny kicks her out – any suggestion of lesbian desire has to be quashed through comedy.

5. Too Many Classic Films Remain Buried In Studio’s Vaults.
In the hands of big studios like Paramount and Universal lies hoards of classic films from Hollywood’s Golden Age and even earlier. Many cinephiles, early cinema nuts, and passionate historians are desperate to see these titles, but the studios have yet to find a way to adequately release these titles that would publicly and financially benefit them. The L.A. Times’ Michael Hiltzik examines this issue in length as studios try to release these titles out into the world.

Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of “Alias Nick Beal,” a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be “The Wild Party” (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner. Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of “Hotel Haywire,” a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles. Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets. No studio recognizes these values better than Warner Bros., whose Warner Archives division is the industry gold standard in the care and marketing of the past. The studio sells some 2,300 titles, including TV series, as made-to-order DVDs and offers its own archival video streaming service for a subscription fee of up to $9.99 a month. The manufacturing-on-demand service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed,” says George Feltenstein, a veteran home video executive who heads the division. “I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.”

6. The Laughs, Pathos, and Overwhelming Talent of Jan Hooks.
On October 17th of last year, former “SNL” star Jan Hooks was laid to rest next to her mother in Cedartown’s Northview Cemetery. Jan Hooks was a phenomenal talent, a perpetually underrated performer and comedian who shined whenever she was on screen, whether it was “SNL,” “Designing Women,” or her wonderful guest turns on “30 Rock.” Last week, Grantland’s Mike Thomas wrote a touching posthumous profile of Hooks and we at Criticwire want to share it with you now.

Almost from the moment she appeared on “SNL” in October 1986, after the then-decade-old program had nearly been canceled, Jan stood out as one to watch. Having already honed and showcased her comedic skills on many stages and screens — as part of Atlanta sketch group the New Wit’s End Players, the short-lived cable program “Tush,” HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News,” and as Tina the chipper Alamo tour guide in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” — she quickly established herself as one of the most talented and versatile cast members in “SNL” history. Over five increasingly celebrated seasons, Jan became well known if never breakout big for her comic timing and crackling impersonations of Tammy Faye Bakker, Nancy Reagan, and Kathie Lee Gifford, to name just a few. Revered “SNL” writer Jack Handey, the creator of “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” and the segment “Deep Thoughts,” says he ranks Jan “with the top two or three cast members, ever.” A two-year stint as wide-eyed and dim-witted divorcée Carlene Frazier Dobber on CBS’s “Designing Women” came next, as did minor movie parts (in “Batman Returns” and “Coneheads,” among others). In a recurring guest role that lasted from 1996 to 2000 and earned her an Emmy nomination, Jan played Harry Solomon’s (French Stewart) floozy girlfriend Vicki Dubcek on “3rd Rock From the Sun.” She also voiced Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu’s wife, Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon, in a half-dozen episodes of “The Simpsons.” But Jan had an uneasy relationship with fame and show business that may have been most evident during her time at “SNL,” when her onstage confidence masked deep and nagging anxiety. “Sometimes if I see an old show, I think, ‘Boy, I was good!'” she said a couple of years ago when we spoke for my 2014 biography of her late friend and “SNL” colleague Phil Hartman. A stabilizing presence, Hartman was the “rock” who more than anyone else quelled her stage fright. “I mean, you can’t tell how shit-scared I was,” Jan went on. “And you know how they say, ‘Oh, everybody’s got the jitters,’ and then you get out there and you’re fine? No! I wasn’t! I didn’t like it! I don’t like roller coasters, and I don’t like circus performing. It’s just not my thing. The music was too loud. The people, the energy of it just made me very nervous.” It was, she added, “an awful, awful time. And I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be [famous]. I didn’t want to be on TV!” Her friend Ann Hornaday, now movie critic for the “Washington Post,” says Jan felt ambivalent toward “SNL” and fame in general. “I feel like she spent half her time wishing her stuff would be cut, just because she was so anxious,” Hornaday says. “And yet, this is what she did the best. And when she did go out there, she killed it every time.” While Jan’s success on “SNL” led to other high-profile ventures, mostly in television, she never achieved the career heights she might have — that others thought she could have. Instead, she was a reluctant celebrity who worked only when she felt like it, allowed fate to plot her professional course, and in the end led an intensely private life away from showbiz. Her death took many by surprise.

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