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Daily Reads: Streaming TV as a New Genre, The Secrecy Around ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ and More

Daily Reads: Streaming TV as a New Genre, The Secrecy Around 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens,' and More

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

1. Streaming TV as a New Genre.
Living in the age of streaming television and binge-watching, audiences not only have come to expect full-season drops of television shows but also have become use to consuming them that way. Since television has mostly been consumed on a weekly basis for the majority of its existence, in reality, it’s a remarkably new way to watch TV. The New York TimesJames Poniewozik argues that it’s not just a new way, but it’s actually a new genre.

In TV, narrative has always been an outgrowth of the delivery mechanism. Why are there cliffhangers? So you’ll tune in next week. Why are shows a half-hour or an hour long? Because real-time viewing required predictable schedules. Why do episodes have a multiple-act structure? To leave room for the commercials. HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock. With those new mechanics comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call “linear TV” — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments. So they program shows exactly when TV networks don’t. They debut series on Fridays (considered “the death slot” in network TV) and over holidays. This November and December, TV’s long winter’s nap of reruns, the streaming services are unloading season after full season of original TV: “Jessica Jones,” “Transparent,” “Making a Murderer,” “The Art of More” — and more, and more. Amazon is releasing Season 2 of “Mozart in the Jungle” on Dec. 30, just in time for the ball to drop. In other words, they schedule their shows like Hollywood movies. Streaming is like a vast multiplex where every screen is playing “The Mahabharata.” It expects commitment — and gets it. Before Netflix and DVDs, there was an old-TV equivalent of the binge-watch: event network mini-series, like “Roots,” “Shogun” and “The Thorn Birds.” Where most TV of the time assumed you’d dip in and out of a series casually, these mammoth serials assumed they had your attention, all of it, until the story was done. Just so, binge-watching assumes a different kind of transaction with the viewer. Weekly TV thrives by creating a constant state of tension, teasing you to come back next week. Streaming relies on The Suck. Of course, no one’s stopping you from watching a series more slowly, but that changes the experience. Declaring whether it’s better or worse to binge fast or slow is like arguing whether it’s better to see the Grand Canyon from a helicopter or by foot. It’s beautiful either way, but it’s different. You see the fine grain, or you see the vast sweep.

2. The Secrecy Around “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
” If you haven’t been paying attention to the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” frenzy, Disney has basically done a great job of keeping details about anything related to the movie under wraps. In fact, there hasn’t been even a leak to speak of. The L.A. Times’ Steven Zeitchik writes about the pre-release secrecy and what it means for the public once the film is in theaters.

The typical big-budget sequel these days follows a well-choreographed set of moves. The trade press ferrets out much of the key log-line information. Numerous trailers begin spelling out the action. Screenings for junket press and critics begin to leak out more info. By the time a premiere happens, there isn’t a lot of material information that remains undisclosed, the event less a grand unveiling than an inevitable confirmation. Sure, the quality of a film may not be widely known, but the shape of it largely is, at least to those motivated enough to seek it out. Not so for “The Force Awakens.” There was, for all the marketing bombast, a rare absence of actual information. Shooting leaks on this film were almost nonexistent. Not a single member of the media had seen the film (or confessed to it, anyway). By one unofficial count, about six minutes of trailer time were released, about half the usual amount. The key facts about most main characters were unknown. On screen, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is filled with nostalgia for the first trilogy, whether with its individual scenes or larger themes. The studio’s marketing department, it turns out, was jumping into its own wayback machine — taking a 2015 movie and employing the reticence of 1977, when most people knew little more than what they saw in the odd poster or trailer. Part of the motivation for this comes from Abrams himself. The director and his collaborators are known for embracing the idea of the mystery box and often veer toward the secretive, even releasing pages to cast on a need-to-know basis. But the strategy has also been part of a larger studio plan. Disney has danced a delicate two-step on “The Force Awakens” — to seed as much interest as possible while telling as little as possible, on the assumption that the name alone is enough to fill seats. And so the information could come at 1977 levels. Without the safety valve of Internet discussion, interest, which was already as high as for any franchise in recent memory, began to surge even more. On Monday, it all burst forth. Except that it all burst forth not into 1977 but 2015, when the “Star Wars” universe is a) already extremely well known and devoutly studied and b) the fruits of that study can zap around the world, entering the vortex of online reactions and counter-reactions that it had avoided for long. And so information that would have been doled out, reacted to, made peace with, then debated anew over months all came out and went through that process within hours, like some kind of movie-marketing particle accelerator.

3. In Conversation With Charlie Kaufman.
Charlie Kaufman is one of a handful of working screenwriters one can reasonably describe as a genius. His inventive, innovative scripts for films like “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and most recently “Anomalisa,” have sealed his glowing reputation. Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh sits down with Kaufman to discuss everything from his perspective on politics, his failed TV shows, and how the world perceives him.

It seems that you would be an ideal person for an Amazon or a Netflix to throw a lot of money at and say, “Hey, make us a distinctive, Charlie Kaufman–esque show.”

I had a pilot at HBO that Catherine Keener was going to be in. The whole series takes place on one day. The premise of the show is that there are so many different accidents in your life that lead you in different directions, and as you look at someone’s life from birth to, let’s say, 50, there are so many different versions of that life that could have happened. My idea was that you take this woman, she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route. Maybe it broke off here and the difference is very small; maybe it broke off when she was a baby, in which case it’s a completely different life. In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is. What I thought was really cool about the show, in addition to the premise, which I really liked, is that there’s no one right version of it. You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show. The example that I like to use is that in one episode, she’s married to this man and you see their life together. In the next episode, she’s divorced from this man and you see her life having been divorced from this man. In a third episode, she and this man walk by each other on the street, clearly have never met. And depending on which order you watch the series in, there are different a-ha moments.

So what happened with it?

I wrote a first episode, and then they wanted to see a second episode because they weren’t sure what it was going to be. So I wrote a second episode. And I decided to make the second episode very, very different, so that they could see how it could be very, very different. The response I got from them was, “Well, I don’t see how this could be the second episode. It’s so different.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’m not saying it’s the second episode. I’m saying it’s another episode. This isn’t like the order that the show has to go in if we want to establish the premise.” It may not be the real reason they didn’t want to do it, but they could not remove that idea from their head. Ultimately, they didn’t go ahead with the series.

That sounds frustrating.

I think that’s a really good idea for a show. I thought it was a really interesting, novel version of a TV series. It would be fascinating, and I think it would get an audience, and I think people would be challenged by it. But it was an unusual show, and they wouldn’t do it, and I was really frustrated with that. When I pitched the idea, there was a bidding war between FX, Showtime, and HBO. We went with HBO. After HBO said no, they put [it] into turnaround and allowed us to take it to other places. Nobody bought it, and that includes Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, AMC, and Sundance.

4. Blood Simplistic: A Review of “The Revenant.”
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “The Revenant” has garnered mixed-to-positive reviews for its brutal tale of Hugh Glass as he returns from imminent peril to revenge his murdered son. Some have claimed it contains some of Innaritu’s best moments, others claim it’s more strained, pretentious tripe. Reverse Shot’s Adam Nayman argues that “The Revenant” illustrates how little Innaritu has to say, and demonstrates the myriad uninteresting ways he uses to say it.

The Revenant peaks early in this interlude before the intrusion of human forms, who bring with them chaos, corruption, and the sort of pummeling melodrama and significance-mongering that is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stock-in-trade. Emboldened by the critical and popular success of “Birdman” — that ostensibly invigorating, hugely irritating statement of artistic and aesthetic principles — the director has gone chasing after Herzog, Coppola, Friedkin, and all the other mad, corporate-backed visionaries who’ve dragged movie stars into the jungle, or in this case, the Rockies. In interviews, Iñárritu and his actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy have dutifully discoursed on how insanely, dangerously difficult the naturally lit, expensively intercontinental shoot proved to be, and how the crew’s struggles with their environment and each other mirrored the action onscreen. They suggest, helpfully, that this long, punishing movie about an onerous quest — a stranded trapper tracking down the man who left him for dead — could, just maybe, be some kind of allegory for itself, and thus a pretty important venture, all things considered, for all involved, not to mention for journalists, audiences, and Oscar voters as well. The main difference between “The Revenant” and, say, “Apocalypse Now” or “Fitzcarraldo” — two flawed epics that were, indeed, allegories of themselves and pretty important ventures, all things considered — is that there’s no real madness in it. That’s surely to Iñárritu’s credit in a practical sense: nobody’s going to seriously criticize a director for not ruining careers or nearly getting people killed. But the overall impression is of a film that plays by the rules even as its director made an on-set fetish of flouting them. Shot for authenticity’s sake in chronological order at outposts in Western Canada and Argentina — meeting in the middle to approximate America circa 1823 — and, supposedly as sans CGI as possible (“if we ended up in green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time…most likely the film would be a piece of shit,” crowed Herr Director), “The Revenant” is indeed an allegory for itself, but maybe not in the way it was intended. If Iñárritu means this story of a noble, mortally wounded hero surviving and conquering on his own uncompromised terms as a self-portrait, then it’s one steeped in arrogance — so much that the widescreen can barely contain it. In “Birdman,” Iñárritu (and his co-screenwriters) inveighed against, among other things, the lack of originality that turned audiences into passive consumers; their hero was a hack actor clinging to a scintilla of principle and, in the process, transforming himself into a transcendent performer. What does it say, then, that so much of the putatively audacious and outrageous spectacle of “The Revenant” feels borrowed from other movies? An extended set piece showing a raid by Ree Indians on a troupe of American fur traders is straight out of the “Saving Private Ryan” playbook, with the mobile camera catching sudden-death atrocities at the corner of the frame. Technically, the aesthetic is different — extended 360-degree perspectives instead of frenetic editing. The basic atmosphere of hysteria and dread is identical, however, which probably says less about universals of combat and mortality than the influence of one serious Hollywood entertainer on another, with the latter’s work looking short-stacked in comparison. And so it goes, with almost every aspect of the film. The sinuous long takes are an Emmanuel Lubezki specialty, and can’t help but evoke the cinematographer’s work on “The New World,” an appropriate reference point, perhaps, but also one whose deep, ineffable strangeness on a shot-to-shot level exposes the conventionality of Iñárritu’s aesthetics. Contrast Malick’s fleeting magical realist flourishes at the end of “The New World” — the jarring, quick-cut montage to symbolize Pocahontas’s death and her spirit’s progress from civilization back to the elements — with Iñárritu’s imitative imagery of a bird escaping a mortally wounded woman’s chest. The difference is one of speed and subtlety, but also trust, between the director and audience and also for himself and his powers of suggestion. In “The New World” everything in creation is made to appear hallucinatory; in “The Revenant” we get bracketed-off hallucinations to delineate the feelings of its main character, and if the shots of mysterious, skeletal structures and levitating earth mothers (Malick, by way of Tarkovsky) are diverting within the surrounding context of blood-and-guts realism, they’re also more prosaic than their creator would probably admit.

5. Michael Mann’s “Heat” at 20.
Michael Mann’s three-hour crime epic “Heat” turned 20 years old a couple days ago, and it still stands as one of the greatest cops vs. crooks films in the past two decades. Drawing from a real-life story of an obsessive detective’s quest to hunt down a career criminal, and using Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro’s twin star power, Michael Mann turned “Heat” into a fantastic portrayal of competing psychologies and Hawksian professionalism. Rolling Stone’s Jennifer Wood talks with Michael Mann about the origins of “Heat” and how he came to make the film.

“Heat” began really with a friend of mine named Charlie Adamson, who killed the real Neil McCauley in Chicago in 1963; he’d been telling me about how interesting this guy was. Charlie had great admiration for Neil as a thief, because he was very professional, very disciplined, and very, very smart. It’s kind of like a rock climber having admiration for a very difficult rock face he’s going to scale: The challenge of the course is what you admire. Charlie was dropping off his dry-cleaning at a little shopping center in Chicago on Lincoln Avenue, and he saw McCauley, who he had already been surveilling, getting out of his car to go in for a cup of coffee. Neil knew he was being watched — and he knew who had been watching him. The two of them see each other; a gun fight might have broken out in the parking lot right then and there. But Adamson says, “Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” They went in, sat down and had coffee at the Belden Deli, which is no longer there. They had kind of a version of that same dialogue scene that I wrote and put in the movie, but it was very personal — the kind of intimacy you can only have with strangers who think in ways that are not dissimilar to the way you think. They definitely discovered a rapport for each other, and Charlie declared that, “We’re sitting here like a couple of regular fellows, but if you come at me or if I come at you, I will not hesitate.” And McCauley said the exact same thing. By the way, this elite major crime unit that Charlie was in — one of the sergeants in that crew was Dennis Farina. I recruited him to be in “Thief” (1981), and because of that he decided he wanted a career as an actor because, as he said, he’d be known as “Dennis, the Dream to Work With.” That’s why people would hire him, he thought. Which was probably true. This was probably about 1979 or 1980 when I heard the story, and then I wrote a spec version of the screenplay. But there were things wrong with it. The ambition was to have multiple characters that are complete dimensional human beings and are not defined by being merely a protagonist or an antagonist. They don’t self-identify as “I’m a villain.” Everybody is somebody else’s mother…somebody else’s brother, father, son.

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