Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. When Amazon Dies: What Happens to Digital Collections When Tech Giants Fall? It’s a strange and curious question. No one ever believes that giants like Amazon or iTunes will suddenly collapse, but as much as we want to put that thought out of our heads, things like that happen all the time. But in an age of not owning an artistic medium, i.e. CD or DVD, and instead licensing copyright content, this can be troubling. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance writes about what happens to us when companies like Amazon fall.
2. The New York Film Festival Grapples With the Death of an Icon. Everyone in the film community is still reeling from the death of legendary director Chantal Akerman whose revolutionary work moved the medium forward and inspired countless directors to start making their own films. Her last film “No Home Movie” is screening at the New York Film Festival currently running right now. Grantland’s Mark Harris examines how the festival grapples with the death of an icon and his experience watching “No Home Movie” at a press screening two weeks earlier.
I saw “No Home Movie” at its New York Film Festival press screening on September 24, and although I would like to be able to tell you that I fully appreciated it in real time, the truth is that my first thought while watching it was Oh NO. Akerman’s movie begins with a shot of a bare-branched tree being buffeted by a loud and persistent wind. She holds the shot for a long time — what started to feel to me, as it went on, like an uncompromisingly, defiantly, belligerently long time. Long enough so that I thought, OK, this is the first shot, and I wonder what it will mean in the context of the movie, and then thought, OK, maybe this represents something or someone resisting an implacable force, or being slowly eroded by that implacable force, and maybe I ought to be grappling with the question of whether the shot is about the tree or about the wind. And then I thought, maybe my own irritation is what I’m supposed to be engaging with, and then I thought, fuck it, I don’t care, the contextless point being made here isn’t worth the time being spent on it, just get on with it, and then I thought, it doesn’t really matter what I think because this shot isn’t going to go away until it goes away. And then I thought, there are worse things than a movie that forces you into and through and past your impatience, and I am a professional and one shot isn’t going to break me, and maybe I’ll just spend some time thinking about the truly excellent Peter Sarsgaard movie “Experimenter” that I saw just before this, and what a shame that I’m only realizing how hungry for lunch I am now, when it’s too late. And then the shot changed, and I suddenly felt like I had entered a mild trance and was somehow ready for whatever came next. I am by no means a Chantal Akerman expert, but many years ago I saw her most famous and acclaimed work, the 1975 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” made when she was just 25, and it is the rare kind of triumph for which a filmmaker earns a lifetime pass; you don’t have to like all or even most of her other work, but after seeing “Jeanne Dielman,” you will never forget that what you are looking at is the searching work of a great artist. For me as for so many others, “Jeanne Dielman” changed how I watched and related to movies. It is a drama, and a comedy, and a suspense film, and a polemic, and a horror story — about a woman, her home, her work, the ways in which she prostitutes herself, and what it costs. In the 1970s it was seen as a feminist masterpiece; now it is seen as a masterpiece that does not require an explanatory adjective. “Jeanne Dielman” is three hours and 21 minutes long, and not plotless, although the plot announces itself very gradually and very slyly. The film is composed largely of extended takes of mundane, repetitive activity (famously, Jeanne makes a meatloaf), and if you can sit through it and say that you were never once bored, then congratulations, but I think you missed something, which is the opportunity to learn that boredom has its uses and its meanings. When we’re bored — when something that feels utterly pointless feels like it is going to go on, without respite, forever — we can feel threatened, desperate, self-alienated, almost endangered. We feel like we might go mad. To experience that is to begin to understand the movie.
3. The Ten Commandments of Talking About Oscar Season. Oscar season is unfortunately right around the corner. I say “unfortunately” not because the Oscars are an inherently bad event (they aren’t, although they sometimes try very hard to be), but because the Oscar discussion absolutely sucks up any and all critical discourse for months and months and months. It takes an art form and make it into a competition. Luckily, over at Random Nerds, Charles Bramesco states the Ten Commandments of talking about Oscar season to remind us how to behave when the golden statues come out.
VI. Thou Shalt Accept That We Knoweth Nothing. Until that big moment when the presenter takes the envelope and then fumbles to open it and then makes a brutally unfunny joke about the difficulty with the envelope-opening, nobody knows who’s winning. Regardless of how many questionably real sources anyone might like to claim he or she might have, which usually amount to bupkus, nobody has any authoritative idea about who’s gonna take home the gold. There are analysts with a good brain for pattern recognition, people who study this sort of thing and see crucial details regular joes don’t, but in the end, they’re just better guessers. It’s all just guessing, and while some guesses certainly have a higher likelihood than others, nobody really ever knows what the hell is going on.
VII. Thou Shalt Recognize Thy Codewords. Read enough Oscar coverage (or, alternatively, do literally anything else with the precious hours you have left on Earth) and certain words start to repeatedly pop up. Actresses described as giving a “fearless” or “brave” performance have usually uglied themselves up or gotten nude for a role. “Vulnerable” generally means someone’s boobs were out. If a man’s performance is described as “brave,” he’s probably a straight guy who had to kiss a man, or maybe even played a woman. (If the outrage over Eddie Redmayne’s turn as a trans woman Lili Elbe in “The Danish Girl” fades away, it is sure to be replaced with a relentless blizzard of adoration.) If a Best Picture nominee attracts the “important” label, it made audiences feel bad about something they did not sufficiently care about walking into the movie theater. If one of the nominees in the Foreign Film category is called “challenging,” that means whoever’s speaking did not get it and feels only slightly resentful.
4. What You Think About “Project Greenlight” Says Everything About You. The documentary series “Project Greenlight” is chugging along on HBO racking up praise and dismissals left and right. However, your reaction to the series and whom you align yourself with often speaks to your own biases and personal affections more than you think. EW’s Darren Franich explores this concept of one’s thoughts about “Project Greenlight” speaking to their personality.
On some of my favorite reality TV shows, the narrative is less interesting than the metanarrative. What the show is telling you is never as interesting as why the show is telling you that, and what it isn’t telling you. This is something that we as a culture all accept, even though most of us aren’t pointy-headed enough to use a word like “metanarrative.” “The Bachelor” can work as a fairytale — who will fall in love? — but it works better as an interrogative thriller (who, I ask you, who is actually here for the right reasons? (This is the core realization of “UnREAL,” which uncovers the devastating nigh-existential psychodrama lurking under “The Bachelor’s” neo-Victorian melodrama.) And the best thing about “Project Greenlight” is how — halfway through this eight-episode season — it has become a Rorschachian window into viewers’ own thoughts and biases. You can pick your own metanarrative, your own embedded story. The show is savvy about providing just enough context to prove or disprove any theory. Director Jason Mann demands to shoot on film, even though it’s more expensive. “Shooting on Film,” and the raw authenticity that concept suggests, has lately crossed over from cinephile obsession to the mainstream: This December, JJ Abrams’ 35mm “Star Wars VII” will open just one week before Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” teaches people under 50 what “70 mm” means. Film, we are told over and over again, isn’t financially feasible; it would eat up a tenth of the movie’s budget. This news gets delivered (frequently and with increasing blunt force) by self-designated bad cop Effie. Effie could be the symbol for the harsh realities of business versus Jason-as-symbol for big dreams of artistry. This dichotomy gets hazy upon closer inspection, at least partially because Effie is a charming professional and Jason is a self-righteous ass. Jason throws tantrums and end-runs around Effie, enlisting Affleck-Damon and Peter Farrelly into his pro-film cause.
5. “American Horror Story: Hotel” Is Tedious, Insufferable, and Occasionally Exhilarating. The new season of Ryan Murphy’s crazy anthology horror series “American Horror Story” premiered last night to confounding critical reception as to why it exists, what it’s about, and what’s really going on. Luckily, there are the precious few that are here to explain what it’s all about. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz reviews the new season and explains why he wrote the words “I give up” in his notes.
If nothing else, “American Horror Story: Hotel” represents a brazen doubling-down. The premiere plays as if the anthology’s creators listed every element that detractors have bitched about under the heading “Stuff We’ll Do More Of.” “The Shining,” “Village of the Damned,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Barton Fink” (partly a horror film, especially the last act), “Se7en,” “Suspiria,” “Saw”: You name it, it’s in here, plus dollops of Edgar Allan Poe and Clive Barker. But don’t bother keeping a running list of everything “AHS: Hotel” is referencing, or all of the commercial-TV taboos it’s busting, because your hand will cramp in minutes. It’s an explosion in a pastiche factory so immense that people will be finding bits of homage in adjacent counties for years. About 40 minutes into the premiere, I wrote on my notepad: “I give up.” Unlikely as it sounds, that’s a compliment, in its way. It doesn’t translate as I will never watch this show again, but, rather, I surrender to this show’s vision and will keep watching it with an open mind, without expecting it to be something it clearly has very little interest in being. Series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are doing things here that are mostly not to my liking — not because I’m averse to them on principle, but because only a handful of modern filmmakers, including David Cronenberg and David Lynch, can pull off this kind of thing consistently well, and Lynch/Cronenberg they ain’t — but they’re doing them with such commitment that the result deserves to be respected, for its audacity and its indifference to what you think of it. I found the first episode (the only one sent out to critics; gosh, I wonder why) confusing, tedious, annoyingly precious, and often ostentatiously brutal, with even clunkier-than-usual dialogue (more so than previous seasons; consider yourself warned), but also darkly beautiful, deeply weird, and (sometimes) exhilarating. To watch even a few minutes of this thing, you must resign yourself to the fact that consistency of tone or quality — never values that have greatly interested the show’s creators — mean almost nothing this time. But it would be foolish to assume this is due to inattention rather than design. The premiere is filled with clues as to how we should watch it, from the glimpse of the German Expressionist dream-film touchstone “Nosferatu” playing on a wall at an outdoor screening to the entirely unironic presence of the Eagles’ purgatorial lament “Hotel California” on the soundtrack to the paperback of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” being casually read by the hotel’s concierge, a cross-dresser who for some godforsaken reason is named Liz Taylor (Murphy-Falchuk veteran Denis O’Hare).
6. I Want It That Way: “Magic Mike XXL” Scene Analysis. Gregory Jacobs’ crowd-pleasing stripper-palooza sequel “Magic Mike XXL” came out on Blu-ray and DVD last week. The film features numerous scenes that turn the male gaze on itself with the interest in female pleasure constantly in its heart. Over at her blog, Willow Maclay looks at four scenes from “Magic Mike XXL” and how they tie into the concept of satisfaction.
“Magic Mike XXL” is a film overflowing with life and positive energy. At it’s core it is a road trip of friends getting together for one last hurrah, and those pockets of love that spread throughout a group of friends in doing a job. That work is specifically the business of male stripping or as the characters in this movie refer to themselves “male entertainment.” Unlike the previous the film there isn’t much cynicism to be found here and the camera shifts from the performers to the audience. When I saw “Magic Mike” with my girlfriends back in 2012 it was a bit of a letdown to everyone in my core group of friends except me, and it was because they were given a movie that didn’t satisfy their needs as viewers. They came to watch a stripper movie, but what was delivered was a story about economy. “Magic Mike XXL” still features some of those same ideas, but they are appropriately slight and only mentioned offhand. The satisfaction of the viewer — specifically the heterosexual women in attendance — is paramount and a few scenes in the movie act as a fulcrum for the type of audience reaction “Magic Mike XXL” is trying to elicit.
Tweet of the Day:
Your taste in film is a quest. You have a palate and you must refine it to match your essence. Never settle and never follow blindly.
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) October 7, 2015