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Daily Reads: Eli Roth: Film’s Biggest Troll, Nathan Fielder vs. a Critic’s Mom, and More

Daily Reads: Eli Roth: Film's Biggest Troll, Nathan Fielder vs. a Critic's Mom, and More

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

1. Eli Roth Has Become Filmmaking’s Biggest Troll. 
This year, director Eli Roth has two films out this year, “The Green Inferno” and “Knock Knock.” Both films have garnered a mixed-to-negative reception for their shock tactics and lurid material, but there’s also the issue of the nastiness of Roth’s overall approach. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore writes about how Eli Roth has become film’s biggest troll by smirking at his audience.

“Torture porn” exists because of Eli Roth. It was Roth’s 2005 “Hostel” that inspired critic David Edelstein to coin the term when writing about how the Americans-being-dismembered-abroad feature and contemporaries like “Wolf Creek” and “The Devil’s Rejects” upped their gore factor to unprecedented levels for multiplex movies. The phrase has more tsk-tsk to it than the article itself, in which Edelstein, a self-described “horror maven,” doesn’t moralize so much as confess to just feeling confounded by this wave of nihilism. He’s befuddled not only by the intensity of the bloodshed, but by the way these movies ignore rules so codified that “Scream” listed them. Their characters never seemed to earn their hideous fates — they were fleshed out and given backstories and then slaughtered anyway, and the films muddled sympathies between the victims and the inflicters of horrendous violence. Roth made an even more sadistic sequel centered on a set of female travelers in 2007. It flopped. Once you’ve made people into meat, what else is there to say? Later releases like “The Human Centipede” trilogy and “A Serbian Film” staked out reputations as being even more extreme with mutilation, coprophagia, and an honest-to-god death by skullfucking. But by now, the torture porn genre has either faded out or we’ve just up the ante on what’s shocking — the elegantly photographed, nightmarishly creative carnage on “Hannibal,” after all, ran on network television. Roth turned his attention to producing (“The Last Exorcism,” “Aftershock”) and occasional acting (“Inglourious Basterds”) for a while, but now he’s back in theaters with two new movies he directed, “Knock Knock” and “The Green Inferno,” an unintentional double feature caused by a delay in the latter’s release. “The Green Inferno,” which is about college activists who have a run-in with cannibals, aims to be horrifying. “Knock Knock,” which is about two women wreaking havoc on a married man, aspires to be titillating. But more than anything, both persistently, persuasively angle to make you angry. They’re bad faith arguments expanded to feature length and served up with a you mad, bro? smirk. Roth, having reached the limits of splatter as a way to provoke, seems to have settled on something new: trolling.

2. “Nathan For You” star Nathan Fielder vs. an A.V. Club Writer’s Mom. 
The A.V. Club’s new editor-in-chief John Teti runs a podcast called “Mom On Pop” in which he discusses pop culture with his mother, Bonney. Last year, they ran an episode about the Comedy Central show “Nathan For You,” which had its third season premiere yesterday, and Teti’s mother was not a fan of it at all. Well now, John Teti moderates a conversation between “Nathan For You” star Nathan Fielder and Bonney Teti about their differences of opinion and the latter’s issues with the show.

Bonney Teti: I’m always here for you, Nathan. Can I ask you a question? If you came to my house and we sat down together and watched “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” would you laugh out loud?

Nathan Fielder: Yes, I think so! I mean, if the videos are funny. I wouldn’t laugh at ones that weren’t. Why?

BT: Because this is my problem — and this is my problem. Who I see on your show, I’m very uncomfortable with that person.

NF: You’re uncomfortable with that person.

BT: Right. With Nathan the actor.

NF: I see. Because I don’t really smile and laugh that much on the show, right? So it’s a little weird.

BT: Right.

NF: Yeah. You know, it’s drawing from a lot of me in real life because throughout my life, I think I just have a natural straight face. Even sometimes people come up to me when I’m just sitting there and not thinking about anything, and they’ll say, “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” And I’ll just be like, “Nothing, I’m just sitting here.” I started to realize, oh, that’s just how my face looks. I learned to use that natural part of me and exaggerate stuff like that in the show. Another thing I always had trouble with when I was younger was a lot of social situations — it would be hard to just have small talk with strangers or, you know, talk to girls. Now that I’m a little bit older, I can look back on that and draw from that part of me to make these moments in the show that I find really interesting. But I also think the situations and the uncomfortable moments in the show also, I feel like, are designed to bring out a side of the other person that I find very charming and endearing about them. It’s an interesting litmus test to see — to get a sense of a person. A lot of people come into a situation, especially when they’re being filmed, where they have a certain idea of how they want to present themselves. And that part is usually the least interesting part of them because it’s very controlled, and I’m trying to show who they really are in some little way — with very low stakes.

3. Twilight of the Movie Brats: Steven Spielberg and the Old “New” Hollywood. Steven Spielberg’s new film “Bridge of Spies” opens in theaters today making it the director’s 29th film over forty-four years (give or take a “Twilight Zone” segment). Spielberg is a Hollywood institution, but back in the day, he was a movie brat who spoke like an outsider. Grantland’s Steven Hyden explores how Spielberg has transformed in the twilight of his career.

To understand Spielberg’s “I’m just a weird kid’ self-mythology, it helps to know about the Movie Brats, the group of upstart filmmakers that invaded Hollywood in the late ’60s, fostered an unprecedented era of auteurism in the ’70s, and then ushered in the age of blockbusters that began with “Jaws” and has grown only more massive over the next 40 years. Along with countless other budding cinephiles, an obsession with the Movie Brats coincided with my first flash of serious interest in movies. It didn’t matter that most of these directors were well past their peaks by the time I discovered them in the ’90s. I dug everything that the Movie Brats stood for: self-conscious artiness, difficult genius, downer endings, rock and roll soundtracks, salt-and-pepper beards, fabulous scarves and/or ascots, and, like, bucking the system, man! The Movie Brats were like the cinematic version of classic rock — the art they created was infused with the faded idealism and decadent glamour of a bygone era. When I read Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods as a teenager, the book did the opposite of humanizing Led Zeppelin — it made Jimmy Page seem like a fictional demon with discomforting interests in heroin. It made these banana-stuffing Vikings seem larger than life. The coke- and sex-fueled antics depicted in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” — a defining account of the “New Hollywood” that I reread even more times than “Hammer of the Gods” — planted similar illusions in my head about my favorite directors. This even applied to Spielberg, who initially didn’t want to make “Jaws.” (“I wanted to be Antonioni, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Marty Scorsese. I wanted to be everybody but myself,” Spielberg told Biskind.) With his rebel heart and populist instincts, Spielberg infused his early hits with antiauthoritarian overtones: You couldn’t trust Amity’s mayor in “Jaws,” the federal government in “Close Encounters,” or the evil scientists in “E.T.” Spielberg even questioned movie authority: Why stage an elaborate fight sequence when Indiana Jones could just take out that swordsman with one bullet?

4. Prequels Suck (Or Old Habits Die Hard in Hollywood). 
With the announcement of an upcoming “Die Hard” prequel that somehow won’t be a film about a failing marriage, we’re thrown into the same old conversation about why Hollywood makes prequels. Prequels are essentially the story before the good story. So why does Hollywood keep making them? ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer explains (again) why exactly prequels suck.

Let’s call this prequel — and basically every prequel ever made — exactly what it is: An act of financial desperation. With almost no exceptions (beyond “The Godfather Part II,” which is really a sequel with extensive flashbacks), prequels only exist as workarounds in situations where a more traditional sequel is otherwise impossible. Cast too old (or too dead) to make more movies? Make a prequel! Killed off key characters in the last sequel? Make a prequel! Your lead actors don’t want to return for another film? Make a prequel! Your movie is based on a historical event that ended in the last movie? Make a prequel! Any movie with such craven motives is probably doomed to fail. No wonder prequels usually suck; it’s a miracle any of them are watchable. In 99 out of 100 cases, they’re not stories, they’re backstories; long form exposition done up in slick style. Does it really matter how Harry met Lloyd? Does anyone care about the family that used to live in the house from “The Amityville Horror”? Do you really want to know how John McClane and Holly’s marriage first fell on the rocks? (Actually, that sounds kind of interesting, but “Die Hard 6” won’t be a domestic melodrama, it’s going to be a glossy action movie.)

5. “Homeland,” Graffiti, and the Problem of Only Seeing Squibbly. 
Last Sunday’s episode of “Homeland” featured Arabic graffiti that included messages such as “‘Homeland’ is racist” and “There is no ‘Homeland.'” Apparently the show’s producers had hired a group of graffiti artists to paint a Berlin set meant to depict a camp of Syrian refugees and the artists punked them. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik examines the problem with “only seeing squibbly” when running a show ostensibly about the Arab world.

The track record of Showtime’s drama, now in its fifth season, is, like its geopolitical subject, complicated. But this incident is pretty straightforward and embarrassing. The artists wrote a critique of “Homeland”‘s treatment of Arab and Muslim characters into the show itself, in a language used by many of its characters. Yet all anybody in charge of bringing the episode to air was able to see was squibbly. I don’t want to paint the series with too broad a brush (or in this case, spray it with too big a can). It’s an entertainment, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes smart, sometimes both at once. It has — like other terrorism thrillers, including “24” — spun outlandish stories about fearsome, villainous, largely Islamic terrorists. At the same time, it has tried to complicate its story beyond us-vs.-them, focusing on the politics and paranoia within the national security state; a major theme in Season 4, set in Pakistan, was the potential of American drone strikes to radicalize the civilian population. But as the graffiti stunt proves, the little details, the way a culture is presented on screen, can be as important, and damaging, as the big political picture. “Homeland” often uses scenes in which crowded streets in the Middle East and the Islamic world (in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the show has also ventured to Iraq, Lebanon and Iran) stand for a kind of alien, unintelligible chaos, a teeming welter of noise and dust and veils in which danger can lurk anywhere. This problem was crystallized by the promotional poster for Season 4, in which protagonist Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) was depicted as a white face in a sea of dark burqas.

6. Tear You Apart: On “American Horror Story” and Rape.
This season, “American Horror Story: Hotel” has garnered the standard negative reception that now comes with many Ryan Murphy shows. There are the claims of uneven storytelling, overuse of camp irony, and yes, there’s the issue of sexual assault. At his blog, Kyle Turner examines the series’ depiction of rape and tries to suss out the motivations and various power dynamics at play.

Intriguingly, the sex on the show is almost never pleasurable, and the few times that it is, it’s only ironically, with the Sword of Damocles hanging above the characters’ heads. The show proclaims itself as sexy and edgy, but the presentation of sexuality in any form doesn’t make the show’s sex inherently pleasurable. Instead, sex is mired in misery, such as Zoe’s (Taissa Farmiga) killer libido in “Coven,” Jimmy’s (Peters) deformed hands in “Freak Show,” and Patrick’s interest in BDSM in “Murder House.” They’re all strangely sex negative, and it’s hard to think of an instance where a character on the show embraces their sex or sexuality and uses it as a form of agency or autonomy. It’s used as power, certainly. But as the show continually suggests, power corrupts. The “Hotel” scene stands out in terms of how rape functions as a statement about human relationships precisely because it is, in comparison to the rest of the series, an isolated incident. Gabriel check into the hotel alone, his mind only on the heroin he plans to use. Hypodermic Sally (Paulson) and the Demon are rather bluntly illustrated manifestations of addiction, and therefore the isolatory nature of this scene seems to be most emblematic of the series’ cynicism. The last couple of seasons were built upon communal efforts, where structural hierarchy existed. Familial hierarchies and ideological ones permeated the first two seasons. And “AHS’s” intent is to say that these things will collapse. Everything will collapse. That the show decides to articulate these ideas through assault and sexual violence, though, is indicative of where Murphy and Falchuk fall within intersectional circles. The intent behind these scenes, watching power being shifted, exchanged, or outright taken, is obfuscated by the exploitative nature of the execution. The found footage of Penny’s filmed rape is grainy, mired in the artifice of old timey movie footage; Madison’s rape is edited in a way that follows the hallucinatory beat of the club music; and Shelley’s assault is fragmented to create a bunch of puzzle pieces to be put back together. This over indulgence undermines what the show wants to say about the institutional aspects of rape both as an act in and of itself and as a metaphor for larger ideas.

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