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Daily Reads: How David Bowie Challenged MTV on Race, The Authentically Pleasurable Nonsense of the Oscars, and More

Daily Reads: How David Bowie Challenged MTV on Race, The Authentically Pleasurable Nonsense of the Oscars, and More

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

1. How David Bowie Challenged MTV on Race.
The world is still mourning the loss of artist, cultural hero, and all-around genius David Bowie after he died this past Monday. People have celebrated his contributions to music, fashion, and film, but he also tried to make an impact in television. The New York Times’ Wesley Morris examines how Bowie challenged MTV on race at a time when they weren’t showcasing work by black artists.

As a self-concocted alien, he was drawn to other people’s otherness. Yet no matter how otherworldly and genderless he made himself, Mr. Bowie was aware that he was a white man. For MTV, he leveraged it. As a performer, he dramatized it. By the time of that MTV interview, Mr. Bowie had rerouted rock ‘n’ roll toward R&B with the slink of “Young Americans,” his 1975 album whose high point isn’t the not-as-jaunty-as-it-sounds title song but the aptly named “Fascination,” some disco-dusted jubilation that he wrote with a young, unknown Luther Vandross. Mr. Bowie had affixed an obviously blacker facade. Somewhat sheepish, he quickly labeled this foray “plastic soul,” a pejorative designation meant, in part perhaps, to insulate him from charges of inauthenticity. (To more than one black artist, it was Mick Jagger who was guiltiest of that charge.) But the phrase also suggested that anything Mr. Bowie sang could be construed as soulful. To that end, he appeared on “Soul Train” in 1975, a rare invitation extended to a white artist. During the interview with the host, Don Cornelius, a man in the audience asked Mr. Bowie when he got into soul music, and the partial, unserious answer — “We have street corners in London” — probably made it less fun to dance as he lip synced “Golden Years.” The next year, in a Playboy interview, Mr. Bowie dismissed “Young Americans” as the “squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock.” Perhaps as repentance, he spent his “Station to Station” tour in 1976 performing as an Aryan wraith he called the Thin White Duke. His tragically feeble Duke seemed like cultural atonement not only for his own sins (as he perceived them, anyway) but also for the muscular certainty of John Wayne’s Duke. Mr. Bowie was queering both masculinity and whiteness. In appearance, however, Mr. Bowie was a drug-den Frank Sinatra. During this period, he was often high and let the persona carry him away. As the Duke, Mr. Bowie made statements about fascism and Nazi gestures and had to recant those, too. What seemed like repentance was actually a doubling down.

2. The Authentically Pleasurable Nonsense of The Oscars.
The Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and many are still reeling from the various snubs (or perceived snubs) and the many deserving films that were overlooked. Predicting the Oscar nominations and wins has been a time-honored tradition observed by many people, and though there are those who would turn their nose up at such an activity, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that the Oscars are pleasurable nonsense in their own right, and they contain truth underneath all the vulgarity.

The Oscars are hardly a matter of art. What matters, beside the pleasures of the immediate experience, is the critical insight that deepens the pleasure — or, for that matter, questions it and sparks a viewer’s self-questioning reflection about the very nature of that experience. The Oscars are, above all, a sociologist’s delight — they’re Hollywood’s idealized self-portrait, one in which commercial success is essential but not sufficient. They show what the industry thinks of as its best — or perhaps the consensus of what, in the domain of films that have a decent shot at commercial success, they want to be seen deeming the best. There’s something doubly, triply impersonal about the Oscars, as a tally of positioned responses, but calculated impersonality of the awards makes them, therefore, all the more representative of trends and currents (even if it takes some doing to tease out those trends). From an artistic perspective, Oscars matter mainly because they give artists a career boost; the fact that Martin Scorsese has attributed his spate of productions from “Shutter Island” to “The Wolf of Wall Street” to his Oscar for “The Departed” justifies the Academy’s labors. Nonetheless, even apart from the impact of awards, I get an extra jolt of pleasure seeing awards go to movies, performances, or technical achievements that I admire — and that pleasure has its roots in the essence of movies. It’s a sign of the intensity of the movie business’s mighty conditioning of individual consciousness, which is inseparable from the cinema’s unique and epoch-determining power, from the peculiar nature of the art. When Alfred Hitchcock spoke to François Truffaut about his effort to “use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion,” he identified a distinctive aspect of the movies that remains an elusive mystery—its connection to power. Movies depend on their machinery, and that machinery reaches deep into the technological economy of the modern world. There’s no intrinsic merit in popularity or in the effort to win it, but the element of reflexivity in modern movies is also the recognition of the art’s odd combination of material sophistication and vernacular simplicity. The complex threads of economic and social practicalities that are woven together in virtually any cinematic image make the appreciation of the art itself all the more difficult. Popularity or the lack of it is the elephant in the screening room, and it often blocks the view of the screen. But the very question of commercial recognition renders the directorial exertion to imprint one’s own style on the world at large all the more difficult. Short-term success, whether at the box office or in awards, isn’t a mark of this imprint — but it symbolizes it. Even though awards are a grotesque parody of the actual appreciation and merit of the movies, their cheerful vulgarity — contained as well in their desperate reach for dignity and prestige — suggests an underlying truth about the art’s connection to the business, and an underlying conundrum about modern art over all: does it matter whether anyone’s watching?

3. Spielbergs: Alex Karpovsky and Teddy Blanks’ Music Video Duo.
Alex Karpovsky is an actor best known for his work as Ray on “Girls,” and made an appearance in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and is set to appear in their new film, “Hail, Caesar!” as well. But when he’s not acting in film and television, he directs music video with designer and musician Teddy Blanks under the name Spielbergs. Pitchfork’s Eric Ducker sits down with Karpovsky and Blanks to discuss their team.

Pitchfork: What lead to you becoming a directing team?

Teddy Blanks:
Tanlines brought us together. CHIPS, the design studio that I co-founded, was working on album artwork and various promotional materials for “Highlights,” the band’s most recent record. Eric Emm, their singer, had been repeatedly told that he bears a striking resemblance to Ray from “Girls.” When the band realized that I was friends with Alex, they asked me if I thought he would be interested in working with them on a music video that explores a doppelgänger or “parallel lives” theme.

Alex Karpovsky:
The four of us had dinner and really hit it off. The next day, Teddy and I were brainstorming ideas and realized that it would be much more fun to write and direct the video together. We had a great time making it and were happy with how it came out, so we naturally wanted to make more. And we did.

Pitchfork: Alex, since you’ve taken a break from directing these past few years, what motivated you to start making music videos?

Making a film is a herculean endeavor that takes a lot of time. Things often move at a glacial pace as you try to assemble a team and financial backing. Making music videos, along with other short-form content, allows me to stay creatively stimulated during the waiting periods. A few short weeks after you pitch a music video you can be on set shooting away. That’s exciting. Videos are also a more immediate way to experiment with style, test out the latest gadgets, and meet new collaborators. Increasingly, short-form stuff is not just a gap-filler, but something that informs and expands my approach to features.

4. How “The Force Awakens” Turned an Indifferent Viewer Into a “Star Wars” Fan.
Despite the impression that the Internet and large swarths of the world gives, not everyone is a “Star Wars” fan. Hell, many people feel ambivalently about “Star Wars,” completely divorced from the on-the-ground realities of living in a “Star Wars”-obsessed planet. But sometimes, all it takes is a new movie with a different perspective. On her blog, actress Zandy Hartig writes about taking her children to see “Force Awakens” and how she converted to a “Star Wars” fan.

And when Han Solo, dying on the Starkiller Base’s vertiginous bridge, reached out and stroked the face of the son he lost to the Dark Side, my eyes welled up again. I am neither a father nor a son, but I do sympathize with that often difficult, conflicted relationship. Fathers don’t carry a baby in their body for nine to ten months. Their feelings for their children often manifest later than mothers. When struggling with the concept of what it means to be a man, how does a father teach his son what he’s not sure he understands himself? He loves his son, but he’s competitive with him. Historically, fathers often left their sons for the majority of their childhood while they worked, but then were resentful when their sons wanted to distance themselves psychologically from them as well. I see with my own own boys how difficult it is to raise good men. It’s confusing. Signals are often crossed. Messages are mixed. Even if there is a backlash against the term “manly,” many still look down on men if they cry. (You only have to listen to last week’s scathing criticism of Obama when a few tears involuntarily ran down his cheek as he talked about first graders gunned down at Sandy Hook. This from the same people who have alternately accused him of being too remote and professorial on every other issue). I’ve seen for myself the stay-at-home fathers in my sons’ schools unconsciously ostracized by moms at social gatherings, as if we still don’t know what to make of them. The struggle between fathers and sons is a dominant theme throughout the Star Wars series. The wish for connection and understanding verses the battle for control. A longing for each other, however perverse and fraught. Abandoned sons, unknown fathers. Love and death inextricably linked. Luke helped lead “the Rebellion” against his yet undiscovered father. The audience saw the conflict even reflected in the color of their costumes. As clear as black and white. Both fathers and sons are lost in space looking for the gravitational pull of the other. Kylo Ren wore a mask to disguise the fact that secretly he was a scared boy. The filtered, altered voice hid any vocal nuance and hesitancy. It shielded the eyes that brimmed with tears. But when the mask came off, Kylo Ren was Ben again. A boy who missed his father but felt reconnecting was capitulating to weakness and failure. I looked over at my older son after Han Solo tumbled off that bridge and thought about the inevitable struggles he will face as he navigates manhood, and I felt my chest tighten.

5. Why One Critic Wants No Part of the Oscar Conversation.
Though it’s assumed that everyone even remotely related to the film industry will have some place in the “Oscar conversation,” not every critic wants to be a part of it. At the Salt Lake City Weekly, critic Scott Renshaw writes about why he resigned from the Broadcast Film Critics Association after the BFCA made a controversial last-minute decision.

Right around the time the print issue of this paper hits the streets on Jan. 14, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce nominees for the 88th Academy Awards. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that those nominees have nothing to do with me. I risk treading into territory that’s pretty inside-baseball for most movie fans, and territory I’ve covered previously over the years. I’ve made peace with the Oscars as a part of the movie world that, if they’re ever actually about greatness, are about it incidentally. The correlation between Oscar nominees and my own favorites inspires a shrug more than a grumble. But in 2015, the matter became personal again. For several years, I’ve been a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which selects the Critics’ Choice Awards. This year, members’ nominating ballots were due in early December, before any media would see the much anticipated “Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens.” When critics finally did see the movie, and it was generally well-received, BFCA leadership considered adding “The Force Awakens” to its already-announced list of 10 Best Picture nominees. The question posed to members, verbatim: “If you had seen ‘The Force Awakens’ before casting your Critics’ Choice Awards ballot, would you have included it in your five choices for Best Picture?” On Dec. 22, the BFCA announced that “The Force Awakens” had been added as a Best Picture nominee. A few hours later, I resigned.

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