Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Oscars So White or So Dumb? The Oscar nominations were announced Thursday to a variety of negative reactions. Oscar commentators, critics, and much of the general public balked at the overwhelmingly white nominees, especially in a year filled with high-performing films with diverse casts. In light of the Oscar’s latest out-of-touch selections, The New York Times’ film critics examine the nominations and wonder if the Oscars are so white or if they are just so dumb.
Wesley Morris: So this brings us to the racism-of-math vs. math-of-taste portion of our conversation. For something like “Straight Outta Compton” to have been close to a best picture spot, enough voters would have had to think that a movie about the outfit that did “[expletive] tha Police” was the best one they saw last year. No matter how many Jennifer Hudsons and Jennifer Lawrences join the Academy, the numbers aren’t in the favor of a movie like that, not the way the voting works now, not with the field that can now include as many as 10 movies. It might have ranked somewhere on 1,000 ballots, just obviously not at the very top of the 300 or so necessary to make it rain eight balls for Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the gang. The year 2010 was the first that the field went back to including more than five best-picture nominees, and that was a reaction to the omission of “The Dark Knight” from the best-picture list in 2009. That was perceived at the time to be a cataclysm. And what happened in 2010 was a pretty astounding range of movies (of varying excellence, but still!): “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “District 9,” “An Education,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Precious,” “A Serious Man,” “Up,” “Up in the Air,” all up for best picture. Now I can’t prove this, but I think that might be the most honest reflection of the Academy’s taste and priorities that also includes a vision of a possible industry future: movies about women; movies directed by women (about women, about men!); movies about racism; movies about genocide (in 3-D!); one cartoon about an elderly widower in a hot-air balloon; another (in live action) about exterminating the Third Reich; a sci-fi allegory about apartheid; a movie about black people that wasn’t actually about racism; the Coens! There were demands but not for all of that. Important stuff and garbage. What a bounty. And to think it came about because the world was mad that the Oscars dissed a comic-book movie. The question is: Could the range happen again now that the system seems thoroughly rigged for campaigns, and this time be even more diverse?
2. Cosby, Trump, R. Kelly, and the Myth of a Male Media. In an age when awareness of privilege has never been higher in this country, there are still plenty of male celebrities who hold on to their fame as a shield from any and all criticism so they can do whatever they want without any consequences. Of course that is rapidly changing, but in the age of Cosby and Trump, there are still plenty of men aggressively flouting their privilege. At GQ, Nathan Rabin writes about the myth of a male media in the age of Cosby, Trump, and even R. Kelly.
We inhabit a time when gender and race and religion are at the forefront of our social and political life; there’s an ongoing, ever-evolving conversation about sexism and racism and power and privilege. But men like Cosby, Donald Trump, and the recently-in-the-news-again R. Kelly have all demonstrated in recent months that they seem to see the press as a fundamentally male institution, whose job it is to serve their interests and reinforce their privilege—and when reporters (especially female reporters) refuse to fill that role, their responses can be bitter, mean, and personal. In the Cosby case, of course, one of the most damning voices comes from Cosby himself. After all, it was Cosby who confessed, under oath, that he illegally sought Quaaludes with the specific intention of using them to facilitate sex with younger women. By his own admission, then, Cosby is a man who used his money, power, status, fame and access to powerful, illegal sedatives to facilitate extramarital affairs, all while positing himself as the conscience of black America and stridently lecturing African-Americans about morality and personal responsibility. And it’s Cosby himself who told Florida Today,” I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos.” (Three’s Company is full of innuendo. Cosby’s story is full of horrifying and compelling accusations from women stating loudly and clearly that they’ve been traumatized and deeply wounded by Cosby’s abuse.) But by Cosby’s apparent logic, the job of the press is to serve as mouthpieces for powerful men, to help them broadcast their messages (in this case presenting Cosby as a philanthropist and not a serial rapist), not to challenge them. When the Associated Press sat down with Cosby and his wife, Camille, to discuss the collection of African-American art he’d donated to the Smithsonian, he seemed to assume that despite the media frenzy surrounding the dozens of rape allegations against him, the interview would feed into his self-image as a kindly humanitarian. When the Associated Press reporter cautiously began to ask about the allegations, Cosby glared at him and stonewalled before insisting, out of respect for the reporter and the Associated Press’s “integrity” and seriousness, that the exchange about the allegations be “scuttled.” In his twisted definition, a journalist has “integrity” and is “serious” if they lob lazy softballs over the plate and ignore issues of extraordinary importance, like the very real possibility that one of the most beloved American entertainers ever might have drugged and raped women for decades without any serious consequences.
3. Notes on the World Premiere of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” Michael Bay’s latest film “13 Hours,” the supposedly apolitical film about the terrorist attack on Benghazi, premiered at the AT&T stadium in Arlington, Texas to a crowd of 30,000 people. At Gawker, Christopher Hooks writes about watching the film in that crowd and what kind of impact it will have on the upcoming presidential election.
Why did “13 Hours” premiere in Arlington? On the red carpet, Bay said he had come because the city was “the heartland of America.” Tuesday’s premiere was, indeed, a very American event. The Dallas Cowboys, after all, bill themselves America’s Team, signifying perhaps that they are a deep well of mediocrity in thrall to a rich, old, spiritually corrupt creep, which is to say that the Cowboys are a PAC or two away from earning top-tier presidential contender status. But Arlington is more than just the home of a bad football team: It’s the spiritual center of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, a great galactic plane of young suburbs home to some of the most reactionary politics in the country. What happens here steers America, but it’s often less visible in the wider culture than what happens elsewhere. It’s also a place that’s responsible in large part for the rise of the new civic religion built around the worship of the most lethal among us. This shift, which manifested in the culture some time before Hollywood began to capitalize on it, was partly born of the interest in Navy SEALs after the death of Osama bin Laden. But it’s also partly created by the warriors themselves. Chris Kyle of “American Sniper” fame had much to do with this. After Kyle left the Navy in 2009 and moved to Midlothian, Texas, 25 miles southeast of Arlington, he skillfully made himself into a media figure. He gave riveting talks at local churches, and built a mystique around himself, emphasizing his decency and proficiency with danger. The release of his memoir propelled him to national fame. When he was murdered by another vet with severe psychological problems, he became a martyr. AT&T Stadium was the site of his memorial service, with his casket sitting on the 50 yard line. Kyle was a complex man, but in Texas he was rendered a Christ-figure, beloved and beyond reproach. Before his death, Kyle told several troubling stories about killing people stateside, either under orders or in self-defense, with the tacit approval of the government and the police. They were probably untrue. But then they surfaced, even writerly “Dallas Magazine” jumped to defend him. The story was true, because Chris Kyle said it was true. “Consider this story confirmed from the man himself,” the item concluded. “In every sense of the word, Chris Kyle was a true American badass.” In Texas — and particularly in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex — signs of this cultural shift are everywhere. When former Governor Rick Perry first launched a bid for president in 2011, the unofficial start of his campaign took place in the stadium of the Houston Texans, where he convened and presided over an old-fashioned religious revival called “The Response.” But by the time he launched his second bid in 2015, he had exchanged the old gods for the new. In Addison, a little town 30 miles northeast of Arlington, he was flanked on stage by veterans of past wars, in front of a giant C-130J like the one he used to fly. Chris Kyle’s widow spoke. The true stars were Morgan and Marcus Luttrell, two former Navy SEALs who stood on both sides of Perry, silent sentinels. Marcus, played by Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor,” is a heartland celebrity in his own right. To the delight and mock horror of conservatives, few watching from New York and Washington D.C. had any idea who they were.
4. Why “Carol” Is Misunderstood. Todd Haynes’ latest film “Carol” has garnered almost universal critical acclaim and has racked up a few Oscar nominations, but it nevertheless has many, many detractors who describe the film as a “cold,” emotionless film. The Atlantic’s David Sims argues that “Carol” has been misunderstood as a work of distance when rather it’s a tale of intimacy and repression.
The film’s bookended scenes were the one major change asked for by its director, Todd Haynes, from the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s landmark 1952 lesbian-romance novel “The Price of Salt” and had tried to get it filmed for many years. Haynes was inspired by David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” a 1945 romantic classic about an emotional affair that similarly begins and ends with the same scene, its meaning deepening the second time. There, the romance is forbidden because both individuals are married; in “Carol,” the obstacle is societal. But Haynes’s genius is in the ways he taps into universal anxieties about love and relationships without ever letting go of the sense of imprisonment that came with being gay in the 1950s. The film introduces Therese as an introverted shopgirl silently broadcasting a signal of loneliness that no one seems to notice. Carol is the first to sense her sadness and to offer understanding, with the two forging an instant bond that’s entirely non-verbal. Here’s where the “chilliness” comes in — so many of their early interactions are centered around fleeting touches and glances, or pleasant small talk that doesn’t remotely stoop to the level of innuendo. In analyzing Highsmith’s novel, Haynes hit on a key point — that a writer who usually wrote crime thrillers (like “Strangers on a Train” and the Tom Ripley series) had encoded this romantic drama with the “same sense of the criminal [mind],” as he explained to Indiewire. The novel captures the inner monologue of someone (Therese) falling in love and trying to figure out if her feelings are reciprocated through every subtle hint she gets. “And the mind is in this extremely productive state that is very much like the criminal mind, imagining every outcome and every possible scenario that could you get caught,” Haynes said. “And in that way it does an extremely good job of linking something extremely universal to something sort of transgressive.” “Carol’s” brilliance is exactly that — it never forgets the criminality of what Therese and Carol are doing (Carol’s husband, Harge, uses it against her in their divorce hearings), but aligns it with the terrifying experience of falling for someone without knowing how they feel about you. In their early meetings, Carol projects class and authority, all the way down to her drink order (which Therese awkwardly mimics), but that’s quickly shattered when Therese visits Carol at home and walks into the domestic drama she’s still navigating with Harge. “Oh, that’s bold,” Harge scoffs when he learns who Therese is, and he’s right in a way — but Carol’s boldness is only that she semi-openly tries to court someone she’s interested in rather than locking her feelings away.
5. The Evanescent Moment: A Conversation About “The New Cinephilia.” Girish Shambu, the Associate Professor of Management at Canisius College and co-editor of the film journal LOLA, has written a book about the changing practices of cinephilia and how it has moved to a virtual realm. He has a new book out on this subject called “The New Cinephilia.” For the L.A. Review of Books, film writer and programmer Jordan Cronk interviews Shambu about his book and the ever-changing cinephilic landscape.
Jordan Cronk: What first struck me about “The New Cinephilia” is how it’s so uniquely situated in the present tense. It’s fascinating to read a book on cinema in which the issues discussed are evolving at the same time as a cinephile’s everyday interaction with film and forms of online criticism. But I experienced a weird sort of cognitive dissonance as you began to dive into the ways of engaging with film that I — and likely a majority of your readers — partake in on a daily basis, sometimes unconsciously. What drew you to modern cinephilic discourse? What is it about cinephilia today that you felt warranted a lengthy examination?
Girish Shambu: I think the answer might involve a deep personal element. As a teenage cinephile in India, cutting my movie teeth on the Hindi popular cinema of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, and Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s, I found myself drawn not just to cinema, but equally to discourse about cinema. As much as image and sound, my initiation into movie-love was through words — whether these words were written (reviews, essays, or books), spoken (conversations about films with friends) or simply just “thought” in solitude. This was in an era when India strictly limited its imports of foreign goods (like movies and records), before it threw open its doors to the world and to economic globalization in 1993. So, often, it was much easier to read about movies than to actually see them. I remember devouring James Monaco’s book “The New Wave” in the library at my university (where I was studying to be a chemical engineer), but not being able to see any of the films discussed in the book until many years later, when I moved to the USA to go to grad school. In all those intervening years, all I had — in the absence of the experience of all those great movies by Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, and Truffaut — were Monaco’s words about them. They became a kind of “substitute cinema” for me. Once I moved to the West and was able to catch up on the all the viewing I had been craving for years, those “words about cinema” — that cinema discourse — didn’t become obsolete for me; it became integral to the cinema experience. But in those days — by which I mean before the internet — there was a particular “economy” of film writing and reading that was in effect: You had a few professional or semi-professional writers who wrote for a large number of readers. Most cinephiles were “silent” in that their voices were not heard or read widely. But once the internet made it possible for these cinephiles to get online, the sheer volume of “movie discourse” exploded. It made me realize that even though traditional forms of movie writing were proven and great, they weren’t the only useful ones out there. Insights about movies could come from unlikely places and in unlikely forms (like they do on social media), and I have found this to be a great spur to cinephilic desire in my daily life as a lover of cinema. I wanted to look at the life of the “new cinephile” up close because I felt that my experience as a typical, “amateur” cinephile (who does not make his living from cinema) is probably widely shared by hundreds if not thousands of others around the globe. And this large shared existence (of which I’m reminded each day on Facebook, Twitter, Letterboxd, etc.) suggested to me that a close examination of “new cinephilia” might be worthwhile.
6. An Interview With the Guy Who Taught Christian Bale to Play Drums in “The Big Short.” Adam McKay’s latest film “The Big Short” about the 2008 financial crisis features Christian Bale as Michael Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who predicts the housing bubble’s collapse back in 2005. Burry is a fan of metal and plays drums to blow off steam, so naturally Bale had to learn to play drums in the movie. Pitchfork’s Matthew Schnipper interviews Scott Wittenburg about training Bale to play drums for the film.
Pitchfork: My big question for you is, how the hell did this happen? How did you end up teaching Christian Bale how to play drums to Pantera for a movie about finance? It’s such a bizarre thing.
Scott Wittenberg: Well, I’ve been teaching the heavy metal class at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, California for about 10 years. And Paramount Pictures called the school, asking if my boss had any guys he could refer. He gave a few names out, and I guess based off my metal background and teaching the metal class I was the guy.
Pitchfork: Is teaching someone how to act like they’re playing the drums different then teaching someone to actually play the drums?
SW: That’s a good question. I started by giving him the basics. Like, really basic: This is a ride cymbal, a crash cymbal, a snare drum, a bass drum, toms, etc. We did six or seven lessons, each one between a hour and a half and three hours.And from there, after a few listens of basic how-to-hold-the-sticks kind of stuff, we just turned the song on. Basically it turned into a copycat game, the repeat-after-me thing, where I would play and he would try to mimic my motions as best as he could. We would talk about trying to get some height on the sticks and trying to get his hands high, looking like he’s having fun. This wasn’t, you know, “Whiplash 2.” He just had to look like a guy who was a metalhead who was blowing off some steam.
Pitchfork: Even in just your teaching of normal metal drums, how much is actually about looking the part?
SW: Well, I do think it’s very important. Metal music, probably more than most styles, is more a showmanship thing. When I go see a metal band, I like to see the drummer rocking out, his hair down and the cymbals swinging. I think it’s also important to tap into inner animal, to get the point across the right way.
Tweet of the Day:
So cold in Chicago right now that Alejandro G. Iñárritu just won an Oscar for directing me walking my dog.
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) January 17, 2016