Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. How Samantha Bee Plans to Make Her Late-Night Show Count. Samantha Bee’s late-night show “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” premiered last night, and you may have heard that it’s the only late-night show with a female host, and there are many ways Bee is taking advantage of the opportunity. Vox’s Caroline Framke examines how Bee plans to make her late-night show count.
When Bee’s fellow “Daily Show” alum Stephen Colbert was transitioning from “The Colbert Report” to CBS’s “Late Show,” he came under scrutiny for the wildly skewed makeup of his writers’ room. The charge was that while Colbert has insisted he supports women, he nonetheless only hired two to write on his late-night show, along with 17 men. But as I wrote last September, Colbert was far from alone. While late-night TV’s gender balance is slowly shifting behind the scenes — Jimmy Kimmel and Larry Wilmore even have women head writers — for the most part, the genre is exactly the sausage fest Bee is so sick of. Late-night writers tend to have one of the more consistent jobs in television, as late-night shows are often renewed for a couple of years at a time (in contrast to most scripted shows, which can get renewed or canceled on extremely short notice). It’s understandable that people wouldn’t want to leave a stable job, but the relative lack of turnover makes it even harder for new talent to break in. To that end, Bee and “Full Frontal” showrunner Jo Miller have set some initiatives into motion that could reverberate far beyond their show. When asked about their hiring process, both spoke passionately — and at length — about how they opened up applications beyond the usual (white, male) comedy circles, and how they hope to make it easier for more than the usual suspects to break into “Full Frontal” and the world of television in general. As Miller told me when we talked after the press event, as waiters served “Shaken Up Late Night” vodka cocktails: “If we change people’s senses that writers rooms are hostile, beardy plaid male places [in which] women and people of color aren’t welcome, that’s like, the minimum we can do.” With four writer slots to fill — and 230 applicants — Miller and Bee had their work cut out for them. But at the press event, Bee visibly lit up when she was asked about “Full Frontal’s” approach to hiring a less homogeneous staff, describing a thorough operation including a “blind submission process” that strips applications of any identifying details, the better to keep bias out of it. Added Miller, “There are many people who want a more diverse room and don’t know what to do, and there are other people who just haven’t thought about it and figure it’ll just happen naturally — and it doesn’t.” And so they set about trying to find new talent, making an effort to go beyond existing comedy communities to ask friends and peers if they knew any writers — especially women and people of color — who might not have realized that they could do television. “It’s not just opening your application process,” Bee said. “It’s calling everybody you know and going, ‘Who do you know that’s not in the world of late night who you think would be well-suited to this, [and] interested in this, but they’re too shy to ask?'” Bee also pointed to Miller’s willingness to help new writers structure their scripts correctly as a particularly novel way to help broaden their search. This was key, because an amateurish format can sink a script that is otherwise excellent. “Jo put together a packet that gave everybody the fundamentals of just how the script should look,” Bee explained. “Regardless of your level of experience, you could [still] turn in a script that was polished-looking, that could be seen on the merits of the writing.”
2. Reflections From a Bechdel Test Fest Curator. The U.K.-based film festival The Bechdel Test Fest celebrates, you guessed it, films that pass the Bechdel Test, which essentially means that a movie must 1) contain two female characters and 2) must talk to each other at least once about something other than a man. Bechdel Test Fest curator Corrina Antrobus reflects on what she’s learned as the festival celebrates its first birthday.
Not Everyone Gets Diversity: Women may be big in the cinema programming game, but people of color are the scarce chocolate chip on this giant cookie. Conferences serve as the butterfly net of the cinema business and parade its demographic profile which is very, very white and when I see a fellow black person in the conference coffee queue I wonder if they too are on the diversity panel. I’m always honoured to be invited to speak on panels, but feel an enormous responsibility being asked to comment on how to reach diverse and feminist audiences as if there’s a secret pied piper tune I know the notes to. One answer, as journalist and programmer Ashley Clark shrugged in his “Bamboozed” intro last year at the Ritzy; “just hire more people.” Diverse programming comes naturally to people who are classed as “diverse” but we don’t want to only be wheeled out for panels or the odd commission to lament on being in the skin we’re in; we want to wade in on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death or be asked if Orson Welles really is all that. We want full time jobs, in big time positions and a chance at calling the shots.
Fear of Feminism Is a Real Thing: My feminist conscious was being tuned from an early age. I knew who Germaine Greer was way before I bought The Spice Girls album and “feminism” was never a scary or ambiguous word. Naively, I thought this was standard, but now I see how many shy away from feminism contexts, and I’m not talking about men or people who are outright sexist. I’m talking liberal minded, intelligent people who aren’t yet comfortable calling themselves a feminist despite honoring the values. I realized this when a friend declined to come to a BTF event despite screening one of her favorite films. She thought it would be “too intelligent.” Perhaps she thought the feminist undertones of our otherwise very giddy sold out screening of “Magic Mike” would wrench the fun out of what would otherwise be a gratuitous Channing Tatum carnival. Feminism is a political subject and politics isn’t everyone’s idea of fun times, but it’s sad to think we’re losing bums on seats because they feel it will be too intellectual or a guise to lure them into a bra burning cult. The same goes for men. We love men, particularly ones that come to BTF events, but it’s startling to be asked if men are “allowed” or can volunteer. Yes. Always. From day one some of our biggest cheerleaders have been men and I can genuinely say that’s not just because they’re on the pull. I keep this in mind every time I program an event and aim to strike a balance between empowered, entertaining and welcoming to all.
3. The Real-Life Inspirations Behind “Hail, Caesar!” The Coen Brothers latest film “Hail, Caesar!” is set in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and though the Brothers have stated that the characters in the film aren’t really based on real people, Slate’s Matthew Dessem explores the real-life inspirations behind the film given the Coens’ deep understanding of Hollywood history.
Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton): The press in the film is represented by Tilda Swinton, playing two rival gossip columnists who happen to be identical twins. 1950s Hollywood had nothing as bizarre as dueling twins, but the world of gossip columns was defined by the feud between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The actual people were far nastier than Swinton’s twins, particularly Hopper, who embraced the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s.
Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill): The ghost of Clark Gable makes another appearance in “Hail, Caesar!” in the backstory for Jonah Hill’s deadpan notary/”professional person” Joseph Silverman. When he’s drafted to be the foster parent for DeeAnna Moran’s child until it can be adopted back, Mannix explains that Silverman did three months in jail in place of a star who killed a pedestrian by claiming to be the driver. There’s a long-running rumor about an unnamed MGM executive taking the fall for Clark Gable after he killed a pedestrian on Sunset. Gable did get into a couple of accidents that the studio covered up, but no one was killed in these incidents, and there’s no trace of anyone from MGM doing jail time for the death of a pedestrian. However, in “The Fixers,” Fleming advances the theory that Gable may have been the driver who hit and killed Tosca Roulien, the wife of Brazilian film star Raul Roulien in 1933. John Huston, 26 at the time, was reported to have been the driver of the car that hit her. Huston was found blameless in her death, however, so whoever was driving, no one did any jail time.
4. How Hollywood Caught Up to Channing Tatum. Anyone who has seen “Hail, Caesar!” knows that Channing Tatum has one great scene where he performs a show-stopping Gene Kelly-inspired musical number that many cite as the film’s high point. Uproxx’s Charles Bramesco examines how “Hail, Caesar!” subtly comments on Tatum’s career arc and how Hollywood slowly caught up to him.
Tatum began his career as a guileless hunk, attracting roles that drew on both his smoldering appeal as a romantic lead and his virtuosic dance mastery. “Step Up” was the launching pad for Tatum’s stratospheric rise: he’d meet costar Jenna DeWan (and marry her a few years later), showcase his unparalleled skill as a muscular yet agile dancer in the tradition of Gene Kelly (it’s no coincidence that the Coens stick Tatum in a sailor suit for his big musical number in “Caesar!”), and he proved that he could keep it together as a studio film’s headliner. 2006 paired that breakout turn with a competent performance in “She’s The Man,” but neither film makes a particularly strong argument for Tatum as great thespian. There’s just a lot of potential, a memorable face, and a clear drive to please. This, it turns out, would be all he needed. In the next five years the young star rounded out his resume, taking on a prestige project with a major auteur (he played Pretty Boy Floyd for Michael Mann in 2009’s “Public Enemies”) and angling for a major franchise gig but only finding one that failed to meet him halfway. (His “G.I. Joe” films did well enough at the box office, but a lukewarm critical reception and lack of public interest diminished the series’ staying power). He studded his work with the slam-dunk romance projects he was becoming known for, eagerly playing a Sparks heartthrob in “Dear John” and a Sparksian knock-off in “The Vow.” But the throughline of sincerity connects all of these performances, with no film challenging Tatum to do more than simply be himself. The subversively self-aware “21 Jump Street,” however, asked more of Tatum. He would have to both be himself and know himself. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s tautly meta comedy was the first to access Tatum’s persona as an avenue toward self-parody. Posterity would reveal the role of Greg Jenko as the best thing to ever happen to Tatum’s career: He had never been so likable, never seemed so lively, and never given off the impression that he was actually in on the joke. Beginning with that film, he refined his dimwitted hunk persona, adding irony little by little until it became a schtick that he could play against. Tatum seems like a simple man with simple tastes, a nice Southern boy who likes playing in mud and sends emails with dozens of lines of hand-typed cackling. His willingness to exaggerate, subvert, or otherwise make fun of that basic persona has made his recent roles more roundly entertaining and attracted the attentions of some top-notch directors. “21 Jump Street” was the turning point, the film where Tatum realized that everything he had been doing — the macho swaggering, the test-dummy kindheartedness — could be really funny if he wanted it to be. As he stormed away from a whiteboard full of lunatic ravings and crowed, “Fuck you, science!” Tatum progressed into the next phase of his career. A quiet savviness has defined most his recent performances, with the straightforwardly rote “White House Down” as the significant outlier. He played an actual caricature of himself in the self-reflexive “This Is The End,” being a good sport about his fate as bestial sex slave Channing “Taint-Yum,” but most of his recent roles have copped this same joke, albeit in less literal ways.
5. Director Adam McKay on “The Big Short,” Fact-Checking, and Hollywood’s Conservatism. Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg sits down with McKay to discuss the film, how it fits into his filmography, and Hollywood’s conservatism.
Q: You brought up an interesting point about factual accuracy and diversity in casting. Part of what struck me about the movie is that, factually, this is a story about what a community that’s mostly white guys did. It struck me as a case where the diversity argument was sort of counterproductive, in that if this is a movie where women and people of color are playing characters who were originally white guys, you kind of don’t get the truth of that environment.
A: I’m kind of with you. It’s a strange thing when people complain about diversity in a movie like this, because I definitely think diversity is a big issue, and should be complained about and addressed, especially with the arts and filmmaking. So I’m in 100 percent agreement with the controversy. But with this movie, I feel two things. I feel like, number one, I’m glad that you’re concerned about diversity, but, you know, if I was making “All The President’s Men,” would you want me to have Nixon’s Cabinet be really diverse? Because, like, you’re right. Part of the point of the movie is this is a white, male-dominated world, and maybe it shouldn’t be. So it felt, I just felt like no way, I’m not going to put women in these positions when a system was collapsing and they weren’t really in those positions. Because I do agree with you, I think part of the story of Wall Street, is it’s a white, male, it’s a boy’s club, no question, though it’s slowly getting better in small, small ways, and we’re occasionally seeing CEOs of Fortune 500 companies that are women, and we’re a hell of a lot better than we were 100 years ago. It’s still a big part of the story. So I always have to curb my frustration when I hear that complaint, because it comes from a really good place. But I think any time I’ve talked to anyone one on one about it, they always go oh, yeah, I didn’t think of that. And then it’s over with.
Q: I think part of that is there’s just a sort of reflexive habit of assuming that stories with casts that are largely white or largely male are meant to represent the norm instead of being about subcultures that are specifically white or specifically male.
A: I think you’re 100 percent right. And actually, if I had known, I could have. Well, I don’t know. Could I have had a character call it out in the movie? That might have felt a little sweaty, actually. I think you just take it on the chin, you let it speak for itself. That wouldn’t have felt right. But yeah, yeah. I think you’re right. I think it comes from a good place, though. So on the list of things to be annoyed by, it’s pretty low. But I do hope that people understand that was a conscious choice on our part.
6. The 40th Anniversary of “Taxi Driver.” Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the release of Martin Scorsese’s landmark film “Taxi Driver” featuring Robert DeNiro as the disturbed, violent Travis Bickle. For Movie Mezzanine, Jaime N. Christley explores “Taxi Driver” and how Paul Schrader’s words and Martin Scorsese’s direction feed into each other.
A year before the word was spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), “force” held Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) transfixed. More accurately, “true force,” followed by a line about “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” incoherent ramblings that don’t amount to anything presentable, but exhibit vividly enough the weather systems of a disturbed mind, the color and temperature of his obsessions, the texture of the imprint he’d care to leave upon the world. “Force” appears on the first page of Paul Schrader’s script, a keyword in his description of Bickle. The Vietnam veteran who takes up driving for vague reasons (“I can’t sleep nights”) is in many ways a fantasy, and very possibly a projection of Schrader’s inner mind or self-image, at least at some point during his early Los Angeles days, when he lived a Bickle-esque life himself. It’s important for Schrader to get these ideas down on paper right off the bat, that Bickle is lonely, hollow-eyed, lean and hungry, smells of sex (“Sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless”), but is characterized most of all by “force,” the all-purpose, universal adapter of fantasies that speaks to nothing more complicated than our desire to acquire agency in a world of open-air hostility, whether it’s by money, works good or ill, sex, violence, or speech. Bickle’s Hamlet longs only “to be,” and, in the blood-saturated climax, he does. He is. As it happens, Schrader’s script is one thing on the page, and quite another on the screen. The lion’s share of Schrader’s dark thoughts makes it into the film intact, but around Bickle’s head, Martin Scorsese builds Bickle’s world, a dirty, frustrating, corrupt New York City, but a Scorsese city all the same, not always a Schrader city. And while “Taxi Driver” had been his most ambitious undertaking to date, Scorsese nevertheless brings the DNA from some of his earlier, smaller movies into the mix. The film benefits from the chatter between Bickle’s fellow drivers, like Wizard and Charlie T., and the banter, well-researched shop talk and complaining in Schrader’s script, dwells on tall tales and absurdities in the final film, as if the knuckleheads from “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” had invaded. It’s this quasi-Hawksian milieu that softens the rigid realism Schrader prescribes on the page, and Bickle’s tale, at its core a rather solipsistic yarn about a righteous loner taking on the world from the gutter up, the dream life of a decrepit barfly or a Young Republican, is leavened by a more cautious, more humorous, and more philosophical set of eyes, alive to the doors to invention left open by the script’s far more linear shape. The city on the page has grit and documentary detail, not to mention a splash of lefty New York theater, heir to the legacies of Kazan and Brando, but a process of innovation and improvisation during production gives the city of “Taxi Driver” a life of its own, the kind of environment that inspires in us the urge to recite the old chestnut, “Only in this fuckin’ city.”
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Meditating on the layered, nuanced Hail, Caesar and now perturbed with Fargo TV, which mimics the Coens on surface levels. Step off!
— Matt Patches (@misterpatches) February 9, 2016
One Weird Trick That Makes a Collaborative Film the Product of the Director’s Single Consistent Creative Vision
— #BRANDREW $ARRI$ (@NickPinkerton) February 8, 2016