Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Binge Director: On Set With Steven Soderbergh. Steven Soderbergh is one of those jack-of-all-trades modern directors. He directs, he photographs, he edits, and on top of all that, he watches a lot of movies in his spare time as well. After “quitting” feature films, Soderbergh has spent his time directing every episode of Cinemax’s “The Knick,” a show about the professional and personal lives of Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) at the staff at a fictionalized version of Knickerbocker Hospital in the early 20th Century. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz profiles Soderbergh on set and watches him direct a whole season of TV almost as fast as you can watch it.
Soderbergh shoots with a handheld camera, sometimes while being pushed by grips on a small, wheeled platform that he calls a “dolly du derrière.” This allows him to participate in scenes as an equal with his actors, rather than being “50 feet away, behind the monitor,” he says. “I like the intimacy of that, and I think the actors like knowing how close I am.” Watching him direct is akin to witnessing an athletic performance. Soderbergh walks, jogs, runs, sits, lies on the floor, and hangs half off dollies while PAs grip his ankles. “When I tell other cameramen what goes on with Steven, they’re flabbergasted,” says Soderbergh’s longtime second cameraman, Patrick O’Brien, who works on only about 30 percent of “The Knick” — usually when Soderbergh needs him to gather extra close-ups in a scene with a lot of characters, operate a crane that he’s sitting on, or shoot the other side of a two-person conversation. “He’s like a dancer,” says Holland. “One time, on the first season, it was bitter winter and we were shooting outside, and he was in this awkward, crouched-down position, holding the camera and moving at the same time, and midway through the take, his knee gave out and he jumped up and winced in pain. You could hear a pin drop, because you know that his physicality is such a huge part of the show.” Everything and everyone on set is enabling Soderbergh’s endurance test. An assistant cameraperson shifts focus via remote control from another room, freeing Soderbergh to concentrate on movement and framing. “The Knick’s” standing sets are lit with visible (or “practical”) lights — desk lamps, chandeliers, and so forth — to let Soderbergh and his actors move anywhere they want and still get a lovely image. Everyone knows that they have to be as politely relentless and focused as their boss. There are no stand-ins on the set of “The Knick,” no Gulfstream trailers for producers and cast, and no canvas chairs, because no one sits still long enough to require them. A workday here is a nine-to-six sprint, with an hour off for lunch. “Actors love working with this guy,” O’Brien says, “because they’re not sitting around all day waiting for the set to be lit.” Soderbergh tells me: “It keeps the actors on the boil, nobody leaves, and — like we just did — you can power through the whole scene and it’s done.”
2. The Long, Strange History of ABC Family. Recently, the TV network ABC Family has announced that it will change its name to Freeform in order to rebrand as a young, social media active, “cool” network and not “wholesome” or “family friendly.” In a way, they’re finally shedding their religious conservative roots. The New Republic’s Jacqui Shine explores the long, strange history of ABC Family and how it still has trouble getting rid of their roots, even after all these years.
[Pat] Robertson founded the network, then called CBN Satellite Service, in 1977. CBN’s flagship program was “The 700 Club,” a five-day-a-week program already in production for 11 years; it began as a nightly religious variety show — it’s where Jim and Tammy Faye Baker got their start — but has gradually evolved into a newsmagazine style talk show. Over the next two decades, under Robertson’s ownership and his son’s direction, the network dropped most of the explicitly religious content and evolved into The Family Channel. Even then, the network struggled with its core identity. Like a weird mash-up of competitors Nick at Nite and the Game Show Network, The Family Channel broadcast wholesome syndicated series like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Barney Miller” and tepid originals like “Big Brother Jake” and parenting game show (not joking) “Wait ’til You Have Kids!!” In 1998, Fox bought the network and renamed it the Fox Family Channel, moving operations from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles. Here, too, executives struggled with the network’s brand identity. Something like a low-rent Nickelodeon, Fox Family aired “Big Wolf on Campus,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series,” and syndicated tot favorite “Shining Time Station.” (For one weird, glorious season, the network showed reruns of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and revived SNL character Mr. Bill on “Ohh Nooo! Mr. Bill Presents.”) One thing the relaunched network could not do was cut all ties with Pat Robertson. A condition of the sale required Fox to continue airing “The 700 Club.” In 2001, when the Walt Disney Company acquired the floundering network for $5.3 billion, the company either could not or would not — it’s not clear which — drop “The 700 Club” from its schedule. Today, though the network distances itself from the show with title cards that suggest it “does not represent [the channel’s] views,” ABC Family airs “The 700 Club” three times a day, at 3:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and 11:00 p.m. An ABC Family publicist confirmed to me that the network has no plans to take the show off the air. With or without “The 700 Club,” the network has had a hard time shaking off its patina of wholesomeness. Initially, executives considered renaming the network XYZ to advertise its hipness. (ABC to XYZ. Get it?) That they ultimately didn’t has fueled rampant speculation that Disney’s hands were tied by yet another contractual obligation: a clause requiring the network to keep “Family” somewhere in the name. This apocryphal mandate has never been confirmed — in 2005, writer James B. Stewart quoted a Disney exec saying that there never such an obligation — and even now ABC executives don’t have a straight answer. An ABC Family rep confirmed to Deadline on Tuesday that there is no legal obstacle to the name-change, while Ascheim told the “Los Angeles Times,” “I don’t doubt that was once the case, but I know it’s no longer true.”
3. The Gonzo Vision of Quentin Tarantino. Legendary modern director Quentin Tarantino is finishing up his latest film “The Hateful Eight,” a western that will be released into select theaters in 70mm in December before being released digitally in January. Until then, he’s taking care of the New Beverly Cinema, a revival theater he bought back in 2007 and talking to people like Bret Easton Ellis. For the New York Times Style Magazine, Ellis writes about “the gonzo vision of Tarantino” and they talk about everything from film, television, race, critics, and film.
“I read, in a book about Bette Davis, that anybody who does an interview while drinking alcohol is a damned fool. When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s right! What have I been doing my whole career?'” Quentin Tarantino offers me a glass of red wine from a recently opened bottle that’s about half-full when I arrive at his house way up in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the green-ridged canyons on a hot August evening. “I hope you’re a damned fool, too!” Seated at a table by the pool behind the large and rambling home he bought in 1996 when he was making “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino is in baggy jeans and a brown hoodie, and because he is the ultimate auteur movie geek — I’ve never met anyone with such an encyclopedic knowledge of film — we are soon talking about our mutual affection for the critic Pauline Kael. A huge influence on Tarantino, Kael championed a kind of high-low trash-art aesthetic that was inclusive of both old-school foreign auteurs (Max Ophüls and Satyajit Ray) and new mavericks (Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma), while disdaining the polite, better-behaved American cinema of that era; we agree that she was so much more vital and interesting in the 1970s than in the 1980s. “The movies just weren’t up to snuff — she was better than the movies,” says Tarantino, a believer that the latter decade was among the worst for American film. But, he adds, “one of the weird things looking back at the ’70s reviews is that you can’t believe how mean she was to magnificent movies. She’s so rough on Don Siegel for making ‘Charley Varrick.'” Now, you might not think “Charley Varrick” is “magnificent” (if you think about it at all) but Tarantino’s adolescent passion moves you closer to wondering: Did I miss something? Tarantino has been too busy working on his new opus, “The Hateful Eight,” to watch many new movies in the last year, but he offers, along with more wine, snapshot opinions about a few of his filmmaker contemporaries. David Fincher? “Even when I don’t like his movies I walk around thinking about them for a week or so.” Wes Anderson? “ ’The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is not really my thing, but I kind of loved it. The fact that I wasn’t a die-hard fan before made me even more happy that I could finally embrace him.” Judd Apatow? “His audience is getting smaller and smaller but I think he’s getting better and better.” “The Hateful Eight” will screen on Christmas Day in a few select cities — in 70 millimeter as a roadshow presentation complete with an intermission — before opening wide in digital theaters in January. Tarantino is obsessed with the creamy grain of 70-millimeter film, so much so that he has arranged for 100 theaters worldwide to be retrofitted with Ultra Panavision lenses so the movie can be displayed as he intended. “I’ve been very on-edge the last three weeks,” he says, looking relaxed as the canyons around us recede into blackness.
4. Love in the Age of Reality Television. Picture this: You wake up, you go to work, you have an alright day, you maybe think about your time in college on your way back home at the end of the day like people do, and then you turn on the TV and see someone is playing you on a Chinese reality dating show. Okay, it wouldn’t work like that exactly, but in the age of reality television, the line between reality and “reality” blurs more and more. The Atlantic’s Rachel Wilkinson examines her own reactions to the time when she saw her relationship reenacted on a Chinese dating show.
For more than a decade now, reality dating shows like “The Bachelor” have run with the idea that few things are more performative than love and courtship. Even before watching myself on “If You Are the One,” I was no stranger to TV-produced romance and the tropes of looking for your One True Love (an avid “Bachelor” viewer, at that time I was plowing through the show’s 19th season). “The Bachelor” franchise, which refers to its fans as “Bachelor Nation,” encompasses some of the longest-running U.S. dating shows and has consistently produced some of the most-watched television across female viewers of all ages. Compared to “The Bachelor,” “If You Are the One’s” format is more carnivalesque, modeled after an Australian show called “Taken Out.” The show isn’t serialized, but instead features multiple bachelors per 90-minute episode. Male contestants take the stage encircled by a panel of 24 female candidates — standing at individual podiums in a configuration known as “the avenue of love” — who use lights to indicate their interest. As the women listen to a suitor banter with the show’s host, reveal information about his life in video clips, and watch him perform in what amounts to a “talent” portion, they can elect to turn off their podium lights and clock out of the competition (similar to “The Voice”). The last women with their lights left on become finalists, and one of them — hopefully — becomes a match. As the first contestant on the show’s season-six premiere, David sang and danced, solved a Rubik’s cube on stage, and responded to wisecracks about his resemblance to Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” He also participated in the show’s “love resume” segment, where our relationship rehash came in. I was one of two ex-girlfriends portrayed by the same actress — who also portrayed David’s future ideal partner — all of us wearing different hats and subject to the same nauseatingly saccharine piano music. (I tried to imagine the conversation between David and the show’s producers about how to construct the story of our two-year relationship for a 30-second spot.) As the reality TV version of me gazes toward the sky in the style of a MySpace picture, David explains in voiceover that I was a student when we met, a bookworm, and an aspiring professor. But I was also the prototypical American woman: strong, independent, and not reliant on a man — the implied reason for our break-up. To my great vindication, seven women clock out after hearing this. As a break-up made for Chinese TV, the story made sense. The cultural messaging in “If You Are the One” has been a source of controversy since its inception in 2010. The show’s creator, the veteran TV producer Wang Peijie, told “The New York Times” in 2011 that his original intention was to shed light on young professionals in contemporary China, where values are changing. Contestants were portrayed as urbane and glamorous and often more concerned with money and mobility than marriage and tradition. The show made international headlines in its first six months when a 20-year-old female contestant, Ma Nuo, famously declared that, when it came to dating, she would rather “cry in a BMW” than smile on a bicycle. Following the media firestorm, which for some in China pointed to the encroachment of Western materialism and “the degradation of Chinese social values,” the state-controlled TV network began censoring the show. Since then, Wang told the “Times,” “If You Are the One” has sought more marriage-minded participants — similar to the relentlessly traditional heteronormativity on “The Bachelor.”
5. When Good Shows Go Bad: Terrible Episodes of Great TV Dramas. Yesterday was Columbus Day, and amidst all of the languishing over the cultural insensitivity and America’s historically terrible treatment of Native Americans, one thing TV fans couldn’t forget is that the holiday also produced far and away the worst episode of “The Sopranos” ever. It’s an episode so bad that it’s a wonder it was made by the same people who were responsible for the phenomenal episodes before it. In honor of Columbus Day, and in honor of that terrible episode of “The Sopranos,” veteran TV critic Alan Sepinwall lists terrible episodes of great TV dramas.
“24,” Season 2 Episode 11, AKA “The One With The Cougar”: The very design of “24,” and the unplanned way in which it was made, guaranteed it was going to be an uneven series, one where there are characters, lengthy story arcs and even seasons that are better off being ignored. The second season, however, was one of the show’s strongest from top to bottom — yet also one featuring arguably the silliest idea to ever come out of the writers’ room: Kim Bauer, still on the show even though she outlived her usefulness after the first season, is at the moment a fugitive from the law, running through the hills outside Los Angeles, when she spots a nearby cougar showing interest in her, and in her haste to get away from the big cat, she gets her foot caught in a hunter’s snare that only makes her very obvious cougar-bait. It somehow comes across as even sillier than the time in season 1 when Kim’s mom got temporary amnesia — in both those cases, as with many of the dumber “24” stories over the years, the motivator was to keep a character in the same location for multiple episodes — and years later, “24” co-creator Joel Surnow couldn’t even remember what animal it was, telling me, “Listen, we had her chased by a raccoon or something. You can’t be proud of everything.”
“Friday Night Lights,” Season 2 Episode 1, AKA “The One Where Landry Kills a Guy”: It’s reductive to say that “Friday Night Lights” season 2 is bad because Landry — formerly the wisecracking everyman sidekick of quarterback Matt Saracen — kills the man who had tried to rape Tyra in season 1, and that Tyra then talks Landry into trying to hide the body. There are an awful lot of creative missteps in that second season, many of which are on display in this premiere, including half-developed new romantic entanglements (here with Julie Taylor dumping Matt to chase an older lifeguard) and a diffuse focus that often forgot that this was a show about a football team. There would be many bad ideas over the course of the abbreviated season (plus a couple of very strong episodes at the very end, right before the Writers Strike shut down production). All that being said…Landry kills a guy. And hides the body. It’s a storyline that this show, and this character, had no business getting involved in, and it was such a bad idea that once it ended, Tyra, Landry and the writers all understandably treated it like it had never happened.
6. On “Magic Mike XXL”: Entertainment, Art, Fulfillment, and Big Dicks. Though “Magic Mike XXL” came out three months ago and was just released on Blu-ray, we’re still unpacking its various intricacies and complexities. The sequel to the Steven Soderbergh film “Magic Mike,” the Gregory Jacobs-directed sequel has different things on its mind, including and especially “cinema.” At his blog, Isaac Butler argues that “Magic Mike XXL” is “an allegory for making cinema in a world that only cares about movies.”
In “Magic Mike,” stripping is the process by which Mike is objectified. It is tempting, delightful even, but it is also explicitly framed as a trap, a pit of quicksand that will keep him from realizing his dreams, and betray him at every turn. Every one of his stripping cohort are dreamers; Mike is the only one who gets to realize his dreams, and he can only do so by stopping stripping, even though it is way more lucrative and immediate in its pleasures than running a furniture business. “Magic Mike XXL” changes up all of this. Gone, for the most part, is the Marxism. After all, if it retained that undercurrent in a film about entertainment and art, it would wash up on the disapproving shores of the Frankfurt School. “Magic Mike XXL” does not believe, like many Marxist critics, that art and entertainment are mutually exclusive, or that the latter is intrinsically a problem. It just also does not believe that art and entertainment are the same thing, and it believes that art has more intrinsic value. In this film we again have an allegory, and in this film it is again Dallas who is the villain, even though he does not appear in it. Dallas now represents received notions of what the audience wants. He represents pandering and, within that pandering, a clichéd idea of what satisfies. Dallas isn’t wrong. Pandering to an audience will satisfy them (a thing “XXL” shows and mocks with a strip-tease staging of the central love triangle from “Twilight” performed by a crew that appears to have never seen the films or read the books), the question is just at what cost. The cost in “Magic Mike XXL” is two-fold. First, it’s not actually as satisfying to be given exactly what you already know you want. When tropes become clichés, they bleach out, much as how when jokes becomes just references they may tickle us, but they aren’t ever capable of more. You can turn to an audience of nerds and say “the final five, amirite?” and get laughter and applause, but it’s just empty calories. The second cost is borne by the artist, who, through addiction to the easy fix of audience applause, loses their soul along the way. “Magic Mike XXL” holds out the promise that making a work of art that is authentic and made with a personal (both individual and collective) vision can be more deeply pleasurable and fulfilling for the audience. The entire film is structured around showing you this again and again, and as a result, it has to take stripping seriously as an art capable of personal expression. Stripping here is entertainment. It is movies. The major dilemma for Mike and his crew is whether or not they can make it cinema.
Tweet of the Day:
Just once, I want to hear a showrunner say, “The character is really a city.” Just to switch things up a bit.
— Ryan McGee (@TVMcGee) October 12, 2015