Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Binge-Watching TV as Therapy. Over the past few years, the term “binge-watching” has become a part of common parlance. Since streaming and television on DVD has become standardized, more and more people watch television in large chunks rather than weekly. In her last major piece for Flavorwire, Pilot Viruet writes a personal essay about how binge-watching television got her through the hardest summer of her life.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d marathoned a television series. I had already watched (and rewatched, and rewatched, and rewatched) my DVDs of the first ten seasons of “The Simpsons” and the entirety of “The X-Files.” During college, I would rent seasons of TV from Netflix (notably “NewsRadio” and, for some terrible reason, “7th Heaven”) and slowly work my way through them in between classes. I spent one Christmas break in an empty dorm room on a nearly deserted campus, watching the “Six Feet Under” box set and crying so hard at the finale that a confused resident advisor knocked on my door. But that was different. That was slow, occasional, “I have an hour or two to kill” watching. The summer was more desperate: I felt like I needed those shows, and I would often forgo sleep to watch Kyle Chandler save his blind best friend from harm. (In one episode, a man steals her seeing eye dog; in another, two teens leave her stuck in an elevator in an abandoned building, the motivation basically being, “Eh, she’s blind.”) The simplistic explanation for this behavior is that I needed to immerse myself in something that wasn’t my own life, even if that distraction was just another argument revolving around Dharma being like this and Greg being like that. There was a distinct loneliness to that summer. A few days after graduation I underwent the first of multiple painful surgeries attempting (and failing) to remove an unknown lump from my throat. As a result, I had to spend a few weeks alone in my childhood bedroom, away from literally all of my friends, watching four seasons of “The O.C.” in a painkiller haze. When I finally moved back to Long Island with the same friends I missed during my recovery, they were all either still in college or already working full-time jobs, leaving me to spend the vast majority of my time alone in an empty, too-big Levittown family house. All I had for company were the torrents on my computer (and the ridiculous Internet gigs I endured to make rent) and an overweight, lazy chihuahua who would loudly snore over whatever awful show I was watching. It was the most time I’d ever spent alone — but, occasionally, I preferred it. Without health insurance, I was out of therapy and off medication, and so I reverted to my earlier, socially withdrawn, depressive tendencies. Often, the thought of having a conversation with another human being would produce so much panic that I’d race to my bedroom whenever I heard a roommate’s car pull into the driveway.
2. Killing the Spirit of Fear: How Female Action Heroes Can Help Women Live Courageously. Diverse representation in pop culture is important for no other reason than it provides marginalized people the opportunity to see themselves on screen. It can give them the chance to see themselves in a positive light rather than the sidekick in someone else’s story. Christ and Pop Culture’s Lauren Wilford explores this idea through theology and “Kill Bill.”
A fictional bride helped me be a better woman, but it wasn’t Princess Buttercup. It was The Bride (Uma Thurman), the furious hero of Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge epic “Kill Bill.” The film follows the story of a former killer, known only as The Bride, whose wedding rehearsal was interrupted by an assassin squad who murdered everyone in the chapel — except for her. When she awakens from a coma, she makes it her mission to find and kill the ones who did this to her. She slays scores of men in a single fight, plucks out eyeballs, and punches her way out of a buried coffin. She trains hard and runs and pants and screams, laser focused on the task before her, often covered in sweat and dirt and blood. Her skills may be larger than life, but she’s a human being through and through, determined and vulnerable. Though she’s likely John and Stasi Eldredge’s nightmare, she’s certainly both wild at heart and captivating. She is an action hero in the fullest sense of the term: She is the one who acts. And watching her was a downright revelation for an anxious woman like me. My husband has observed that “Kill Bill” is one of the few films in which he has truly identified with a female protagonist. He describes feeling that he isn’t watching a woman from the outside, but rather experiencing the story from her perspective, wanting the things she wants — the way he would feel about a well-written male protagonist. Uma Thurman is beautiful, but in “Kill Bill,” gazing at her is never the point — instead we are fearing with her, fighting with her. Another film would have cast a woman as a stunt, put her in a catsuit, and photographed her with a smarmy “look-it’s-a-girl” sensibility. But the Bride is not there for men to ogle and not as a novelty; she is there because the story is about her. In a radical, all-too-rare kind of filmmaking, Tarantino invites the viewer to experience every struggle from her point of view. She’s not the “Strong Female Character™” we’re so often given, glamorous but ultimately generic. She’s a strong person, period. Growing up, that was never something I thought was possible for me. I didn’t need any classical administrators or bestsellers on biblical femininity to tell me how many ways there were to get it wrong. The spirit of fear was in my bones before anyone could teach it to me. I have suffered from anxiety all my life. I was diagnosed with panic disorder when I was 22. It was this year that I failed to graduate college on time, this year that I nearly lost my barista job, because I could not shut off the part of my brain that said that I was weak and worthless. The spirit of fear came over me in waves of panic that left me crying, shaking, useless. I spent my days shooting off desperate prayers that I wouldn’t screw things up too badly this time. Any Christian familiar with the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder knows that “take every thought captive to Christ” can descend into a kind of scrupulous madness, the kind that Martin Luther experienced as a fretful monk who hardly left the confessional. The language I had been given to describe the female life of virtue was a passive language. If you’ve never had the opportunity to envision yourself as a hero, or even as an agent, what are you meant to do when confronted with a problem that requires action?
3. On The Renewed Energy of a Good Second Season. The first season of a TV show usually cements a show’s perspective, illustrating the way its writers are going to tell a specific story, but the second season is when they can really take the next step and showcase all of the tools in their belt. It’s when good shows become great shows. It’s when they take the audience out of their comfort zone. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz examines the renewed energy of a good second season through “Fargo,” “The Leftovers,” and others.
How many times have you seen a series perform strongly out of the gate, only to falter when it returned for another go-round? But it’s the second season that often defines the character of a series. It’s a test of inventiveness as well as of stamina, and very often when you look back on a long-running show that’s mostly great, mostly terrible, or maddeningly inconsistent, you realize that season two is where the show’s true potential (or lack thereof) started to come into focus. While I was rewatching “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Simpsons,” and other canonical shows recently, it became clear that the series we think of when we say those titles were forged, or started to be forged, the second time around. Something about getting through the pop-culture furnace of season-one expectations unscathed makes showrunners and their teams relax, stretch their legs, and take risks, sometimes big ones. Season two of “The Sopranos” started, a touch self-consciously, with a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” but because the series had in fact enjoyed one of the very best inaugural seasons ever, it felt more like a promise of invention to come than an instance of a show patting itself on the back. What followed was a quieter, more disjointed, but more intuitive batch of episodes, an anthology of interrelated, forward–moving short stories in contrast to season one’s blackly comedic novel, and the rest of the series ultimately owed more to season two than season one. Sometimes the stench of the sophomore jinx is so strong that you can barely stand to tune in. One of the most notorious recent examples is “Homeland,” which had one of the strongest debut seasons in memory but stumbled when it came back and didn’t untangle the messes it created for itself until season four. (It’s almost as good as it’s ever been right now.) Another is Fox’s action series “Human Target,” which nailed an “Ocean’s Eleven”–style, lighthearted-caper mood in season one but became disjointed and strangely mean-spirited in season two (a devolution that some speculated was owed to network tinkering that aimed to turn a critically acclaimed, modestly successful show into a hit). “Glee” had similar trouble sustaining. This has often been the case with projects by writer–producer Ryan Murphy; the high-school-musical drama’s first season was perfect, on its own kooky and admittedly shameless terms, but in season two the seams in the concept had already started to show, and they only widened as the show moved into seasons three and four.
4. “Carol” Up Close. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Salt of the Earth,” Todd Haynes’ new film “Carol” follows the surreptitious relationship between a young shopgirl and an older woman going through a divorce. The film has received rapturous critical acclaim for its exquisite direction, beautiful photography, and nuanced performances. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody analyzes the film at length and how his view of it changed when he saw it “far back” and then “up close.”
It makes a big difference where you sit. I first saw Todd Haynes’s “Carol” from the back of a big hall (at its New York Film Festival première) and was struck by the expressive power of its colors, the sensual flair of its visual compositions. But the images didn’t so much arouse emotions as signify them. The romantic drama of two women who meet in New York in 1952 — Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a somewhat distracted, inexperienced nineteen-year-old who has never had a lesbian relationship, and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy, married suburbanite who has lesbian affairs — appeared, from afar, to be more of an idea and even an ideal than an experience. On that first viewing, Haynes — working with the great cinematographer Ed Lachman, who seems to have poured a lifetime of inventive ingenuity into the film — appeared to preserve the movie’s emotional world in its images rather than to embody it. But up close, six weeks later, in the second row of a compact theatre, Haynes’s fundamental artistic decisions struck the eye like a flash. With the nose pressed against the screen, it’s obvious from the very start of the movie, even under the credits (a shot of a sewer grating that fills the screen with more darkness than light), that it was shot on grainy, 16-mm. film, and this grain is no mere accident but an essential quality of Haynes’s world. I’m not among the viewers who obsesses about the physical medium on which a movie is made or the circumstances under which a movie is viewed. The circumstances make a difference, but no one of them has priority over another — a screening of a print, a viewing of a DVD on a television or a computer, a streaming video on a playing-card-sized screen, each offers distinctive delights as well as distinctive analytical and experiential possibilities. As for the means of production, what matters is the use that’s made of them. Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan fetishize film but do nothing unusual or original with it, while the most painterly, visually original movie in recent years, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language,” was shot on video. The grain in “Carol” matters because Haynes and Lachman force 16-mm. film stock to reveal the extreme range of its expressive possibilities. The viewing of the film becomes a sort of extreme experience, all the more so for its concentration of the movie’s central dramatic elements in its performances and in the composition of its images. Sitting far back, I saw the artifice in the actresses’ glacial, theatrical precision. Up close, their performances deliver a tremulous, tensile control, a precision that shivers with the passions straining to break out just below the surface — the surface of behavior, the surface of decorum, the surface of the skin. I don’t think that the subcutaneous frissons result from the actors’ performances but, rather, from Haynes’s performance-capture by means of Lachman’s grainy images. They’re not effects of the actors’ skin but of its appearance on the second skin of the film stock (the French word for “film” is “pellicule,” meaning little skin), which lends the actors’ theatricalized immobility an illusion of shivers.
5. “I’m Magic”: On “Magic Mike XXL” and Positivity. Audiences and critics alike are still catching up with “Magic Mike XXL,” the popular sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike.” “Magic Mike XXL” has a looser, populist feel that uses its male stripper characters to focus its sights on female desire. On his blog, Danny Bowes writes about “Magic Mike XXL” and how it’s a work of genius.
The human condition consists, to put it in perhaps overly harsh terms, in attempting to perceive the world through an organic cloud, encased in a mortal body of flesh and blood and roiling chemicals, all of which primarily serve, in their undirected and undirectable way, to mute the light of the (for the lack of secular synonym) divine. Every so often, the sun breaks through and we see a limitless light and warmth, an extraordinary and glorious and overwhelming “yes” that envelops all we can perceive. These glimpses are mainly just that, to our mortal and finite way of reckoning, and because what the glimpse is of is something indescribable by normal means, the scientific attempts to get at the empirical nature of the feeling are too prosaic and literal, inadequate in scope. Breaking through to that level of complete and utter joy is for the most part a matter of trial and error, but the arts, and specifically the arts focused on entertaining, are on the task. The creators of “Magic Mike XXL” seem to have it sorted out, though, because the whole fucking movie is basically a gently guided tour through realms of pure pleasure.
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— Peter Labuza (@labuzamovies) November 30, 2015