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Daily Reads: How ‘Star Wars’ Changed a Critic’s Life, Transgender Embraced on the Red Carpet, and More

Daily Reads: How 'Star Wars' Changed a Critic's Life, Transgender Embraced on the Red Carpet, and More

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

1. Transgender, and Embraced, on the Red Carpet.
In the past few years, transgender visibility in pop culture has grown tremendously. Though films like “The Danish Girl” still employ cisgender actors to play trans roles, other films like “Tangerine” actually cast transgender actors and are advocating for them to be considered come awards season. The New York Times’ Cara Buckley explores how transgender stories and actors have been embraced on the red carpet.

“As remarkable and inspiring as some portrayals of us by cis people have been, they will always be on the outside of our experience,” Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender writer and activist, said in an email. (Cis is shorthand for cisgender, a term for someone who is not transgender.) “People have fawned over the so-called bravery of cis actors representing what to us is the reality of our daily lives.” In a culture increasingly obsessed with self-obsession, rarely if ever seeing anyone like you on screen, Ms. Boylan said, fosters a dispiriting sense of invisibility. “There is a big difference between thinking, ‘There is someone trying to imitate someone like me,’ and ‘There is someone like me, on screen, visible, and real,'” she said. There has been a tidal change for transgender visibility in just the short time since Mr. Leto’s Academy win. Laverne Cox graced Time’s cover and was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in “Orange Is the New Black”; the Amazon series “Transparent” has won two Golden Globes and five Emmys; Caitlyn Jenner very publicly transitioned; President Obama included the word “transgender” in a State of the Union address. It was in this newly receptive cultural landscape that Mr. Baker found himself with his movie, as did Tom Hooper, the Academy Award-winning director whose latest film, “The Danish Girl,” may be an Oscar candidate (and, truth be told, a more viable one). It tells the true story of Lili Elbe, a turn-of-the-20th-century Danish painter — played by an Oscar winner, Eddie Redmayne — who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. (Mr. Redmayne picked up a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination on Wednesday.)

2. How “Star Wars” Changed One Critic’s Life.
It’s easy to be cynical or dismissive of “Star Wars” seeing how it aggressively takes over the cultural discourse, but it’s also easy to forget how the original trilogy affected an entire generation of filmgoers and cinephiles, and how it’s been passed on from one generation to the next. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes about how she grew up without pop culture and how “Star Wars” changed her life.

So it’s in this context that my first encounter with “Star Wars,” which happened when I was 11, elicits such a visceral sense memory: the den on the second floor of my parents’ house on a summer day shortly after we moved to Massachusetts, the hot light filtering in through the windows, dust motes hanging in the sunbeams. My cousin, two years older, wanted to show me a movie on our little-used VHS player, and I was eager to be a good sport. The New England summer disappeared around me as I fell into the screen and onto the sands of a much hotter desert planet. I raced through the movies quickly after that and started to frequent the now sadly-shuttered science fiction and fantasy bookstore in my home town, bringing home novels from the “Star Wars” Expanded Universe. I met a fellow “Star Wars” devotee at a summer camp and felt like I’d found the only other speaker of a soon-to-be-deceased language; this was before the ubiquity of the Internet, and I was too young for conventions. We traded “Star Wars” fan fiction by post. At 15, seeing “The Phantom Menace” on the big screen left me both enthralled and befuddled; the world I loved was back, giving me new spaces to live in and dream about, though it felt somehow altered and diminished. None of these experiences make me unique as a “Star Wars” fan; in fact, part of what’s powerful about loving the franchise is how many other people it has connected me to, beyond that long-ago pen pal. But with the advantage of 20 years, I can look back on my younger self, the 11-year-old who knew a socially painful pittance about mass culture and never could have dreamed of working as a critic, and see how my experience with “Star Wars” taught me so many of the lessons that still guide my writing today. From “Star Wars,” I learned that even if it sometimes felt like I wanted to escape into a fictional world of smugglers, Force-sensitive witches and practical princesses, I could take the feeling of being in that universe back into real life with me. At a moment when pop culture preferences have become markers of identity, loving “Star Wars” and learning to recognize the franchise’s flaws and weaknesses were a useful exercise in how much I wanted to be defined by what I loved, as well as other people’s opinions about it. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) taught me just how powerful it is to have someone who looks like you to identify with on screen. And Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) taught me that a character didn’t have to share my gender, race or galaxy to make me feel as though I was seeing my own journey mirrored in theirs. This insight has proved useful as I’ve negotiated diversity debates that sometimes make reductive declarations about what women or people of color need from their entertainment.

3. The Professor of Hollywood.
 In the vast world of Hollywood, there are plenty of iconic figures that never receive the recognition they deserve. One of them is Jeanine Basinger, a film history professor at Wesleyan University who has taught a number of famous people, including Michael Bay and Joss Whedon. The Hollywood Reporter’s Sam Wasson profiles Basinger and illustrates her effect on so many influential figures in the film industry.

She may not be a household name anywhere other than Hollywood, but Jeanine Basinger, 79, is an iconic figure in American cinema, one of the most beloved and respected film history professors in the history of film studies. In fact, she pretty much invented the discipline, starting Wesleyan University’s Film Studies program back in 1969, a time when the notion of studying movies as a serious art form was still considered radical thinking. The list of her former pupils could fill the Dolby Theatre — and quite often they do. Among them, Michael Bay (’86), Joss Whedon (’87), Laurence Mark (’71), Akiva Goldsman, (’83), Paul Weitz (’88), Marc Shmuger (’80) and Alex Kurtzman (’95). Other Wesleyans, like Stephen Schiff (’72) and Bradley Whitford (’81)), never took her courses but became campus acolytes anyway. Then there’s the list of Hollywood luminaries who simply consider her a close friend, like Clint Eastwood (“Truly one of my favorite people,” he says) and Isabella Rossellini, who donated her mother’s letters and diaries to Basinger’s famous Wesleyan Cinema Archive (“She always shows an exquisite sensitivity,” she says, “never forgetting that Ingrid Bergman is for me my mother, not just a great actress”). “My earliest memories,” says Basinger, explaining how and why she came to devote her working life to the study of flickering images on a screen, “are of walking into a very dark movie theater and looking up at the sparking silver nitrate Technicolor movies that were being shown when I was a little girl during World War II. I loved everything I saw. It was literally like going to heaven, entering a magical world that was all my own.” Those early memories began accumulating at age 3, when Basinger’s parents began taking their daughter to the movies near their home in Arkansas. By age 11, after her family moved to South Dakota, Basinger became an usher at a local theater, watching the same films countless times, laying the foundation for a career as a cinema scholar. “When you stand on your feet at the back of a movie house and watch the same movie over and over, you begin to understand process,” she says. “You see the way films tell stories, you see the effect they have on the audience, you see where they work and where they don’t. It’s the best way to learn — on the firing line — but in my day, it was literally the only way to learn. There were no film schools.”

4. Why Stephen Falk Tackled Mental Illness in “You’re the Worst’s” Second Season.
If you haven’t check out FXX’s little-watched but highly-acclaimed comedy “You’re The Worst,” you’re missing out on one of the very best shows on television. This season, creator Stephen Falk tackled clinical depression in his series by illustrating its effect on those who live with and around it. In Vulture, Falk writes about why he did this and what it meant for the show.

It is a very good time to work in television, but also very confusing. Shows that used to be on NBC or Fox are suddenly on Yahoo or Hulu. My PlayStation now has original programming on it somewhere. FX Networks Grand Pooh-bah John Landgraf recently, infamously, gave a speech at the Television Critics Association tour in which he said there was too much television, and that consolidation is inevitable. I’m not nearly as smart as he is (he told me once that he reads about international health policy for fun), so I don’t know if consolidation is indeed coming or not, but I do know that my “to watch” list is fast becoming unmanageable, and I’ve basically given up on ever starting “Friday Night Lights” or “Game of Thrones.” With so many new networks and technologies and services and apps scrambling to define themselves with original scripted content, the pressure on we who create television to make our shows stand out is increasing. Which is why my writers and I decided to “tackle” mental illness in this season of our half-hour romantic comedy. Yes, it was a creative decision — it made sense for the character, we thought it would be a worthwhile writing challenge, our lead actress (Aya Cash, who plays music PR rep Gretchen Cutler) is so insanely talented we wanted to give her something more meaty than most comedies could, etc. But in the back of my mind was the shameless and scary knowledge that even I often forget about shows I genuinely love and enjoy watching by the time they come back for their second season (hello, “Last Man on Earth”). A first-season show is like a puppy. It’s new and cute, and sure, maybe it pees on the rug, but wow, does it smell fresh, and look at its wet lil’ nose! But when a show comes back for its second season, it’s suddenly an awkward teen. The peeing indoors isn’t so lovable anymore, and that bark is more shrill than adorable and … oh my god, there are more puppies over there! The effort to remain a puppy in your second season feels sweaty, and the whole enterprise ends up carrying a whiff of desperation. In this landscape of new shows debuting with alarming and increasing regularity, the challenge, then, is to embrace series’ adulthood and attempt to find a way to mature into something unexpected — something the viewer or critic never could have predicted, but that still makes sense given the show’s initial DNA. It should feel wholly surprising, but somehow inevitable.

5. A TV Character Whose Depression Is Recognizable.
Speaking of “You’re the Worst,” critics and audiences have flocked to praise Aya Cash’s phenomenal performance as Gretchen, one of the two protagonists of the series, as she struggles with depression this season. At Buzzfeed, TV critic Pilot Viruet discusses how she finally found a TV character whose depression was recognizable, and how she found reassurance that she wasn’t alone.

You’re the Worst isn’t a program I expected to praise for its poignant storyline about clinical depression. It’s an FXX sitcom about two generally unlikable and self-destructive characters, who reluctantly end up in a relationship after a spontaneous hookup, and who often shrug as they ruin the lives of those around them. The second season started with the usual hijinks of a couple newly living together, as Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) tried to prove to each other that settling down doesn’t mean becoming boring. Then it switched gears, with Gretchen suddenly sneaking out in the middle of the night, driving away from the house she shares with Jimmy. She’s seen spending her nights crying alone in her car, drunkenly lashing out at her friends, and then straight-up telling Jimmy that she suffers from clinical depression. Gretchen stops caring about anything, because her brain won’t allow her to care. She can’t bring herself to get dressed, to enjoy socializing, to work, or do much of anything besides drink, snort Adderall, and plunge face-first into a pile of cocaine in desperate, failed attempts to feel something, anything. Gretchen becomes an unwilling participant in her mind’s continual downward spiral, and it almost hurts to watch, especially when it’s a feeling I know all too well. Gretchen’s storyline is more than an accurate take on depression — it’s a mirror. Back in September, the month this second season began, I was coming down from my own major depressive episode. I’d just closed out the summer of aforementioned crying jags; I’d sneak away to cry in private, often while playing mindless games on my phone. (Have you ever seen a young woman sobbing hysterically as she plays Restaurant Story 2 on the sidewalk outside of her Astoria apartment? If so, nice to meet you!) It landed me back at my parents’ house in Westchester, where I spent a long weekend crying on and off all day. Their two dogs would stare at me curiously, cocking their heads to the side at the sound of my hiccups. I’d return a blank stare. They didn’t know how to help, but, to be fair, neither did I. When I’m depressed, I spend a lot of time inside my head, giving in to the brain that seems to be doing all it can to destroy me. My mind insists something is broken within me, and that it won’t ever be fixed. I try to bargain with it: Maybe I’ll be happier if I were in a relationship, or if I moved out of New York City, or if I adopted some sad-looking mutt from the animal shelter who needs me to survive, whose mangy and matted fur looked as disgusting and worthless as the way that I feel on a daily basis. I call these “broken brain” moods, and when I’m stuck in them I can’t help but watch everyone around me who is smiling. I try to figure out what they have that I don’t, or what they’ve done that I haven’t. I never find any answers, only more frustration with myself for not just being happy. In “You’re the Worst” — specifically “LCD Soundsystem,” a brilliant, beautiful, and heartbreaking half-hour of television — Gretchen goes through all of these motions. She sees a seemingly perfect couple and their child. They look happy, so clearly they must be. She follows them, becomes fixated with them. She holds their baby. She takes their dog. She drinks the same wine as them, with them, and mirrors their movements. It doesn’t make her feel any better — ultimately, it makes her feel worse.

6. The Raging Bull of Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance.”
In 1980, Martin Scorsese’s landmark “Raging Bull” was released into theaters. The next year, Albert Brooks’ dark comedy “Modern Romance” was released. These films may not have much in common superficially, but they both examine the psychology of a male obsession. At Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings blog, Scott Tobias compares the two films and illustrates how the two have more in common than one would expect.

Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance” came out a year after “Raging Bull,” and at no point does Brooks’ Robert Cole resort to fisticuffs over Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold), his on-again/off-again girlfriend. “Raging Bull” is a black-and-white period drama and “Modern Romance” is a contemporary romantic comedy, but the two films play like companion pieces, each a disturbing and unrelenting profile of male jealousy and obsession. Jake exerts power through brute force, every bit the ferocious animal the title implies; Robert resorts to relentless passive-aggression, masking his emotional violence with the assurance that passion dictates his possessiveness. Jake thrashes his opponents in the ring, and turns on his wife, his brother (Joe Pesci), and finally himself. For Robert, the words “I love you” act like a soft punch that sting in the same way, because they keep him in a relationship that brings joy to neither party, but staves off the possibility that Mary can be with anyone else but him. For Brooks to smuggle these insights into a comedy — and an exceptionally funny one at that — is an achievement that should be respected as much as Martin Scorsese’s perennial best-of-all-time favorite, but rarely gets the same acknowledgement, if it gets acknowledged at all. (One exception: Stanley Kubrick, who loved “Modern Romance” so much that he reportedly contacted Brooks out of the blue to ask him how he pulled it off. It sounds absurd until you consider how much Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” taps into the same phenomenon.) Much like Brooks’ debut feature, “Real Life,” “Modern Romance” is a bold act of comic deconstruction, starting with the deliberately blunt title, which isn’t about “romance” any more than the earlier film was about “life.” Before making movies, Brooks’ stand-up, short films, and talk-show appearances made delicious sport out of breaking down tired gags, like ventriloquism, celebrity impersonations, and the spit-take. “Modern Romance” promises — and, in its perverse way, delivers — a love story for our time, but it relentlessly exposes the impulses that keep bad relationships going, bonded in perpetual dysfunction. Brooks wastes no time. In the very first scene, Robert breaks up with Mary, likening their “no-win situation” to the Vietnam War. Mary rolls her eyes. This has happened before. We don’t know how many times they’ve broken up and gotten back together before, but “Modern Romance” opens somewhere in the middle of their relationship, not the beginning of it. And as the film unfolds, we can see plainly why they don’t work as a couple. They have nothing in common. She works at a bank and he works as a film editor, and both have trouble even feigning interest in the other’s job. They fight constantly, which at least leads to great make-up sex. There’s no evidence they even like each other. Robert uses the word “love” to express a burbling cauldron of ugly emotions; Mary seems so worn down by his relentless entreaties that she keeps coming back.

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