Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. What “The Apprentice” Taught Donald Trump About Campaigning. In case your head has been in the sand for the past couple months, Donald Trump is currently campaigning for the President of the United States. Before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, he hosted the reality show “The Apprentice,” in which a group of people compete to win a one-year, $250,000 starting contract to run one of Trump’s companies. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik explains how the constructs of reality television has taught Donald Trump how to become a shrewd political candidate.
It would be reductive — and dismissive of the conservative and populist forces behind Mr. Trump’s rise — to say that his campaign simply means that politics has become reality TV. But Mr. Trump’s style does suggest that he learned at least as much about campaigning in the boardroom of “The Apprentice” as in any actual boardroom. Traditional presidential politics is like television in Ed Sullivan’s day, when the big three networks developed the idea of “least objectionable programming” — broad, inoffensive, something-for-everyone shows intended to keep anyone from changing the channel. Reality TV, like Mr. Trump’s campaign, is a product of a fractious time of niche audiences. When there are hundreds of entertainment outlets, “least objectionable” is death: You need to stand out. And he does. Like reality TV itself, Mr. Trump is a love-or-hate proposition. In a general election, true, you need much more than 23 percent of the vote (which is Mr. Trump’s number in a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll of the Republican field). But in today’s television, a 23 share is a landslide — and in a crowded primary in an ideologically fragmented party, it is large enough for first place. Understanding these dynamics has let Mr. Trump reverse the polarity of primary campaigning. Where traditional candidates have gaffes, he has publicity opportunities. Even his ugliest remarks — saying, after a rough debate on Fox News, that the moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” — seemed, among his followers, to burnish his reputation as a straight shooter. It’s “The Real World” approach to politics: Let me show you, America, what happens when candidates stop being polite and start getting real!
2. How the West Was Won: The Making of John Wayne. Legendary western actor John Wayne has always stood for a rugged masculine symbol of the American West. John Wayne has endured as an American icon because he effortlessly embodied classic American values. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen writes about how John Wayne came to be embody said values and how that points to darkness in the American Myth.
The image of John Wayne on offer at the museum is a tapestry of half-truths and tall tales, a myth meant to assuage a nation’s anxieties and assure its citizens that a certain type of man, with a sort of principle, was still central to American identity. It’s also a contradiction: an evocation of an idyllic past that never was, a man who only played at, but never actually lived, the wars and skirmishes and shoot-outs that served as a testament to his character and the foundation of his image. He’s a conservative whose gravitas and charm can sway even the archest of liberals, a man who disliked horses but, more than any other figure, came to represent the entirety of Western ideals. Who avoided military service during World War II but became a hawkish supporter of Vietnam, and whose code of integrity was shadowed with racism, sexism, and thinly veiled bigotry, publicly stating his belief “in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to the point of responsibility” and calling the Native Americans “selfish” for refusing to hand their land over to white settlers. And yet: He’s so difficult to resist. He’s charismatic and charming, with a hypnotic onscreen presence and a drawl that sounds like a gruff lullaby. He was a top box office draw for nearly 20 years; in 1995, 16 years after his death, a national poll voted him America’s favorite movie star. There’s a sense that he’s always been, always will be. He’s like the racist grandpa that millions of Americans nevertheless acknowledge as their own; he’s the embarrassing tear in your eye when you root for America in the Olympics or watch a good Chevy commercial. He’s a mansplainer; he’s a xenophobe; he’d probably have horrible things to say about Islam. And Obama. And trans rights. And so many of the issues that are shaping the future of our collective identity…Wayne’s image has long been yoked with ideals of Americanism, patriotism, and liberty. On the surface, those ideologies are hard to decry — they’re the building blocks of our nation! — but the Wayne-inflected versions are undergirded by a dark and unspeakable fear: of change, of difference, of anything that threatens the primacy of a white, masculine, heterosexual world. Over the last 50 years, that fear has been explored, interrogated, and decried: Playing “cowboys and Indians” isn’t just un-PC, but flatly racist; anti-miscegenation laws feel like a relic of another time; cowboys can be gay, and feminist, and women. And yet a desire to return to Wayne’s America nevertheless remains strong: Just because a thing never existed doesn’t mean people don’t yearn for it anyway. But how did Marion Morrison became John Wayne, and, in turn, the ultimate embodiment of those values? He went west.
3. The 50 Best Music Documentaries of All Time. In the past few years, there have been quite a few stellar music documentaries, including “Amy,” “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film “Junun.” In short, it’s been a great time for the intersection of music and film buffs. At Vulture, Noel Murray lists the 50 best music documentaries of all time, featuring old classics, new favorites, and everything in between.
“Say Amen, Somebody” (1982): Gospel music has a subculture all its own, with a performing and recording circuit that largely exists outside the mainstream. George Nierenberg’s “Say Amen, Somebody” treats these lesser-known histories and personalities with the same seriousness with which other filmmakers have treated the stories of big-time bands or iconic music scenes. More important, Nierenberg revels in the rapturous performances of veteran singers, making it clear why this chapter in American musical history matters. Roger Ebert nailed the spirit of “Say Amen, Somebody” when he called it “one of the most joyful movies I’ve ever seen.”
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005): The problem with championing broken, unstable artists as more “authentic” is that fans may be encouraging them to be more destructive than creative. Or at least that’s one of the points made by Jeff Feuerzeig’s complicated film about Daniel Johnston, a mentally ill singer-songwriter who’s created some strange and beautiful music, while also being a burden to his family and a danger to his friends. Without discounting the wondrous songs that Johnston has created — catchy, childlike home recordings, with a crude charm — “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” considers the real toll that being “a mad genius” takes on those in the immediate vicinity.
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“Stop Making Sense” (1984): Jonathan Demme’s concert film is devoid of interviews, and lacks any overt attempts to contextualize the music of Talking Heads, but it’s still a documentary in its way, because it has a narrative, and it frames a reality. Bandleader David Byrne came up with a highly conceptual stage show for the Heads’ 1983 tour, starting with just himself on the stage and then adding one additional member for each song in the first set, and one prop or striking visual element per song for the second set. It was Demme’s job to make those changes noticeable, framing them up nicely to show how modern and innovative Byrne’s ideas and designs were, and keeping track of the effects the performance was having on the musicians. He treats the players like characters in one of his own fiction movies, noticing every time they smile or interject or give the gig a little extra oomph. Through music and movement alone, “Stop Making Sense” documents what it was like to be a member of Talking Heads — and a patron of cool — in the early 1980s. Stylistically, his techniques forever elevated the concert film genre.
4. What’s Missing From “The Martian.” Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” the story of one astronaut’s struggles to return home to Earth after being stranded on Mars, has become a box office and critical success. Many critics have praised the film for celebrating humanity’s technical achievements and problem-solving capabilities. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that what’s missing from “The Martian” is that it celebrates humanity’s technical skills at the expense of humanity itself.
Scott’s rationalism filters out all personal characteristics — and all traces of identity. In one key moment, Mark needs to make a small fire — and the only combustible material on hand is a small wooden crucifix that one of his cohorts, Martinez (Michael Peña) left behind, and he burns it. It’s only when the science of the rescue mission is all done and what remains depends purely on human execution, beyond the reach of mission control, that one scientist turns to an engineer named Vincent Kapoor (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), and asks whether he believes in God. Vincent answers, “My father was Hindu, my mother was Baptist, so I believe in something.” Here, faith is the equivalent of crossing one’s fingers and hoping for the best — only after one has done everything that one can do. The cast of “The Martian” is a model of cinematic diversity, yet Scott’s idea of diversity is visual, not substantial. Scott gets around the matter of character by way of characters. He collects an engaging array of actors whose external traits — gender, skin color, accent, body type, attire, posture, tone of voice — seem to suggest a great deal more about them than the movie itself, than Scott himself, has any interest in. (Yesterday, Scott was criticized by the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, for changing the ethnicity of Kapoor, called Venkat in Weir’s novel and self-identifying solely as Hindu, and of Park, described by Weir as Korean-American, to white.) Scott is interested solely in the characters’ function in relation to the success of the mission to rescue Mark. His characters are free of history and devoid of intimate crises; their identity isn’t celebrated or even acknowledged in any substantial way, it’s filtered out. Scott delivers a vision of a pure and impersonal scientific meritocracy, and he envisions science and its locked-in binary implacability (leading to the ultimate binary opposition — life or death) as a model for societal integration. His characters just do it; the movie’s key scientific lightbulb moment is delivered by a young, brilliant mathematician (Donald Glover) with cool slacker-hipster manners and distracted people skills. The chief engineer, Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), is messy and somewhat uncommunicative, but he can meet the schedule. And, of course, from the perspective of the success or failure of the mission to rescue Mark, nothing matters except the technical skills to conceive it and to execute it. But those skills belong to people, with ideas and habits of mind, passions and emotional burdens, inclinations and aversions, fears and desires, which don’t vanish when the subject turns to science.
5. “BoJack Horseman” Brings a Cartoon Spin to the Recovering Man-Child. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated sad-com “BoJack Horseman” follows the trials and tribulations of a washed-up, depressed anthropomorphic horse. BoJack constantly tries to improve his life, but unfortunately falls back on old behaviors because it’s easier. The American Conservative’s Eve Tushnet explores how “BoJack” updates the tired man-child genre of television by focusing on how BoJack’s “insufficient self-awareness.”
“BoJack” is a pretty scathing portrayal of the insufficiency of self-awareness. BoJack knows what his problems are and states them frequently and with often-hilarious bluntness, and it doesn’t help. As a different family entertainment once taught us, knowing is half the battle — but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won. There’s a surprisingly low amount of pure shock humor — for example, we’re carefully not encouraged to consider just how humans and horse-people mate, or horsemen and owlwomen, etc. The glaring exception is one episode centering on autoerotic asphyxiation, so just know going in that that happens. I can see why the show went there, though. Seeking release from the self in degrading solitary activity, which transforms something that should connect you to other people into just another empty mansion, something shaped like pleasure but creating greater need instead of satisfaction: that’s basically the show’s archvillain. (Unless BoJack is the villain, which is also a strong possibility.) That episode is also the only one in which Christianity comes up. A dude who used to be into autoerotic etc. is now heavily into Jesus. Jesus is his replacement drug, another thing that promises escape from the self but never actually brings you into contact with other people; you stay trapped inside your religion, wherever you go there you are, gasping, waiting to lose consciousness. Which is sort of heartbreaking since it means the only thing anybody can tell BoJack, in his despair, is, Try harder! Just do the right thing, day after day, jog up that hill again, and eventually you’ll die.
6. Catharsis at the Movies: The “Final Girls” and Me. Grief takes many forms. The way people respond to death is varied and complex, with many turning to pop culture as a form of catharsis. The Pacific Standard’s Jenni Miller writes about the death of her father and the film “The Final Girls.”
In the “Final Girls,” the protagonist Max (Taissa Farmiga) is still a teenager when her mother, a former scream-queen horror movie star named Amanda (Malin Akerman), dies in a car crash. Yet, through the magic of the movies, Max gets the opportunity to see her once more: When a fire in a theater forces Max and her pals to cut a hole through a movie screen to escape, they end up in the slasher movie that made Amanda famous. The appearance of Max and her friends in the world of “Camp Bloodbath” tears the horror film’s entire storyline asunder — primarily because Max stops her mom’s character Nancy from having sex with a stereotypically scummy dude, an act that saves her but spells doom for the “Final Girl” (the smart, bookish, virginal girl that always manages to outwit, outrun, or outlive the monsters at the center of 1980s slasher films). As the resident horror nerd (Thomas Middleditch) in the film explains, someone has to be the Final Girl and kill Billy, the movie’s undead lumbering monster, for the credits to roll. Max is the only virgin left—except for Nancy, thanks to Max’s machinations. Would it be possible for Max to save her friends and Nancy? Can there be two Final Girls? You can see the gears in Max’s head turning: Would saving Nancy in the movie have a ripple effect in the real world? Of course, that’s impossible: You can’t mess with the rules of the universe you’re in — not in horror movies, and not in the real world. I’d learned that long ago. I was sad that Max had to learn it too. Most of all, the movie made me sad for myself — for losing my dad when I was technically an adult, but not nearly adult enough.
Tweet of the Day:
I think I’m just going to say “BUFFERING!” when I’m confused or stuck in real life.
— emily nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) October 9, 2015