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Daily Reads: Insiders on Fixing Hollywood’s Diversity Problem, How ‘WarGames’ Changed Reagan’s Cybersecurity Policy, and More

Daily Reads: Insiders on Fixing Hollywood's Diversity Problem, How 'WarGames' Changed Reagan's Cybersecurity Policy, and More

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

1. Hollywood Insiders on Solving the Film Industry’s Diversity Problem.
At this point, if you have no idea about Hollywood’s pervasive and widespread diversity problem, you may literally be hiding under or behind a gigantic boulder to shield you from the truth. But it’s out there and there are numerous ways to alleviate the problem. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey asks Hollywood insiders on how they thought they could fix the industry’s inclusion problem.

One of the key points that Spike Lee has hit, on social media and in television interviews, is that the real responsibility for the whiteness of mainstream product lies at the feet of “the gatekeepers,” who “decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to ‘turnaround’ or scrap heap.” These gatekeepers, the argument goes, are overwhelmingly white – and are thus more likely to assign their resources to filmmakers who look like them, and are telling stories that resonate with their own experience (and, conversely, less likely to finance films and filmmakers that don’t). This rings true to Roger Ross Williams, the first African-American director to win an Oscar (Best Documentary Short Subject, “Music by Prudence,” 2009) and recent winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Directing prize for “Life, Animated.” “I totally agree with Spike,” he says. “The ‘gatekeepers’ who are white wanna entrust their money and stories to people who they can relate to. So people of color are left out. I won an Oscar, won best director at Sundance and still can’t get an agent. I’m pretty much invisible to Hollywood.” “For lack of a better word, I think ‘gatekeeper’ is somewhat accurate,” says Anderson Vilien, a Directors Guild of America member and assistant director for television and such films as “Straight Outta Compton” and the forthcoming “Jason Bourne.” “It smells a little more intentional or deliberate, and I don’t know that there’s someone actually deliberately keeping the gates, saying ‘I’m not going to let you because of this,’ although there may very well be.” Vilien sees Hollywood’s problem as something more ingrained. “My idea of this is that it’s the infrastructure,” he explains. “And there’s not diversity. People are going to be around the people that they’re familiar with, and they’re going to open up opportunities for people, like their friends; just the same way I open opportunities for the people that I’m friends with. And that’s kind of a diverse group, a couple white guys, black guys, Puerto Rican, but that’s how I grew up, with the relationships that I had. It’s a mirror, or a microcosm, of the actual infrastructure. Those are the people who going to benefit from it.” Geoff LaTulippe, whose screenplay “Going the Distance” was produced by Warner Brothers in 2010, also agrees with Lee, while seeing underrepresentation as “a subconscious issue rather than an overt one. While there are absolutely racists in Hollywood – just like there are everywhere else – this is more an issue of inaction and laziness than it is a purposeful attempt to keep women and people of color out of the industry. And that is, I think, almost worse in its implications, because it gives the straight white men at the top an excuse to take a pass on responsibility: ‘Hey, I’m not keeping anyone out!’ That may be true on the surface, but if you’re not actively looking for other voices and viewpoints, aren’t you part of the problem regardless?”

2. “WarGames” and Cybersecurity’s Debt to a Hollywood Hack.
Despite its wide reach, film has very little influence over actual political policy, and for good reason! However, there have been times when Hollywood has seeped its way into the White House in oftentimes troubling ways. The New York Times’ Fred Kaplan explores how the government’s cybersecurity policies were indebted to the film “WarGames.”

The film — starring Matthew Broderick as a tech-whiz teenager who unwittingly hacks into the computer of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and nearly sets off World War III — opened nationwide that June 3. The next night, President Ronald Reagan watched it at Camp David. And that is where this strange story — culled from interviews with participants and Reagan Library documents — begins. The following Wednesday, back in the White House, Reagan met with his national-security advisers and 16 members of Congress to discuss forthcoming nuclear arms talks with the Russians. But he still seemed focused on the movie. At one point, he put down his index cards and asked if anyone else had seen it. No one had, so he described the plot in detail. Some of the lawmakers looked around the room with suppressed smiles or raised eyebrows. Three months earlier, Reagan had delivered his “Star Wars” speech, imploring scientists to build laser weapons that could shoot down Soviet missiles in outer space. The idea was widely dismissed as nutty. What was the old man up to now? After finishing his synopsis, Reagan turned to Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked: “Could something like this really happen?” Could someone break into our most sensitive computers? General Vessey said he would look into it. One week later, the general returned to the White House with his answer. “WarGames,” it turned out, wasn’t far-fetched. “Mr. President,” he said, “the problem is much worse than you think.” Reagan’s question set off a series of interagency memos and studies that culminated, 15 months later, in his signing a classified national security decision directive, NSDD-145, titled “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security.” The first laptop computers had barely hit the market; public Internet providers wouldn’t exist for another few years. Yet NSDD-145 warned that these new machines — which government agencies and high-tech industries had started buying at a rapid clip — were “highly susceptible to interception.” Hostile foreign powers were “extensively” hacking into them already; “terrorist groups and criminal elements” had the ability to do so, too. General Vessey could answer the president’s question so promptly — and national-security aides could compose NSDD-145 in such detailed language — because, deep within the bureaucracy, a small group of scientists and spies had been concerned about this looming threat for more than a decade.

3. TV’s Prestige Comedies’ Sour Depiction of Los Angeles.
Plenty of comedies on TV are set in Los Angeles for all the obvious reasons — show is filmed there, creators are from there, writers live there and have had experiences there — but what’s interesting is how some of these shows are arguing that the city of dreams is a pretty bleak place to live. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya examines TV’s prestige comedies’ sour depiction of Los Angeles.

In the landscape of young, hip, and edgy comedies—which are cropping up in droves on new networks Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and FXX, as well as old standbys like Showtime and HBO—a certain deep-seated bleakness toward life has become de rigueur. I hesitate to call this crop of comedies “indie,” because they are financed by some of the biggest budgets in television; a better term is prestige comedy, the counterpart to prestige drama. These have existed for some time, in the form of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO and “Weeds” on Showtime, and they have always tended toward the dark and deeply ironic, drawing from the much more cynical British tradition of comedy and catering to a smaller but socioeconomically powerful demographic. But what’s more interesting — perhaps through mere correlation, perhaps not — is that these prestige comedies are making the case for Los Angeles to be a pretty awful place. So much of television’s existential despair today is centered on the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, home of the film and television industry, 4 million people, gridlocked traffic and the Kardashian clan. Meta-commentary on Hollywood’s grind is rife, but many of these shows also feature Los Angeles in rich, multifaceted ways — through sad, bad, or messed-up people. I’m not sure if I actually believe that living in Los Angeles corrupts your soul and makes you want to die — the Mexican food alone is worth living for — but it’s rather surprising how easy it is to conclude that based solely on watching some of the latest comedies to flood the market. These do not construe a love letter to the City of Angels; instead it’s more like an emo Livejournal post, with no comments. You can see it in the geographical divide within the four comedy debuts or season premieres this past week: “Love,” “Togetherness,” “Girls” and “Broad City.” Just as “Girls” and “Broad City” are emphatically New York City shows — that other media metropolis — “Love” and “Togetherness” are quintessentially Angeleno. In both “Togetherness” and “Love,” half of the lead cast works in “the industry” — Brett (Mark Duplass) and Alex (Steve Zissis) in “Togetherness,” Gus in “Love.” All three suffer from frustrated ambition and deep-seated cynicism about their creative process. In a nod to the city’s highway culture, the type of car a character has is made to be significant. (There are a lot of Priuses.) And the eternal summer of Southern California tinges both sets of characters’ existential angst with melancholy irony; in the pilot of “Togetherness,” Brett faces a beautiful Pacific Ocean view and finds himself dissatisfied, while in the second episode of “Love,” Mickey and Gus climb onto the hood of her car and eat fast food while high, in an expression of high-school rebellion and bone-deep boredom.

4. The Making of “Homer at the Bat,” the Episode That Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago.
On February 20th, 1992, a little show called “The Simpsons” aired an episode that scored higher ratings than their competition “The Cosby Show” for the first time ever. That episode was “Homer at the Bat,” a legendary episode that featured nine baseball players who guest-starred as themselves to play ringers on Mr. Burns’ softball team. Deadspin’s Erik Malinowski traces the history of “Homer at the Bat.”

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the episode, the premise was relatively simple: Mr. Burns’s company softball team, having lost 28 of 30 games the previous season, goes on an incredible run when Homer starts hitting, well, homers with his WonderBat, carved from the fallen branch of a lightning-struck tree. (Sound familiar?) As the season winds down, it becomes a two-team race for the pennant: Springfield vs. Shelbyville. While dining at the Millionaires’ Club with the owner of the Shelbyville Power Plant, a cocky Burns agrees to a handshake bet worth (you guessed it) $1 million. To fix the game and secure his victory, Burns orders Smithers to enlist ballplayers like Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, and Jim Creighton. (Swartzwelder’s choice of Creighton was particularly inspired. The ace pitcher for the Brooklyn Excelsiors in the 1850s and ’60s, Creighton supposedly didn’t strike out once while batting during the 20 games of the 1860 season. Creighton died two years later. He was 21.) Upon learning that his entire suggested lineup is dead, Burns instructs Smithers to come back with real ballplayers. And so he sets off across the country: nabbing Jose Canseco at a card convention, accosting a Graceland-touring Ozzie Smith, nearly getting shot in the woods by Mike Scioscia, and stopping by Don Mattingly’s pink suburban house to interrupt his dish-washing. Before “Homer at the Bat,” “The Simpsons” had used guest stars only sporadically—and never more than four of them in a single show, that I can remember. Recognizable voices popped up now and then, but no athlete had appeared until Magic Johnson on Oct. 17, 1991, five episodes into the third season. (Exactly three weeks later, Johnson held a press conference to announce he was HIV-positive and would immediately retire from the NBA.) Now it was using nine guests, some of whom were obvious baseball Hall of Famers. The end result was not only an iconic piece of pop culture but a loving satire of baseball that looks downright prescient today, here on the other side of the Mitchell Report. Our heroes got drunk in bars, ingested odd substances because they were told to, and mindlessly clucked like diseased poultry. “Homer at the Bat” felt vaguely forbidden, like an animated addendum to “Ball Four.” This was the side of the sport we never saw.

5. Storyboard Artist J. Todd Anderson on Working with the Coen Brothers and “Hail, Caesar!”
J. Todd Anderson has been “drawing” for the Coen Brothers since “Raising Arizona,” working as a storyboard artist on every feature for almost thirty years. In light of “Hail, Caesar!” Filmmaker Magazine’s Matt Mulcahey sits down with Anderson to discuss the Coen Brothers’ process.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk a bit about your process of working with the Coens. Was there anything unique about “Hail, Caesar!”?

: The only thing different about “Hail, Caesar!” is that we did everything in Los Angeles. When [the Coens] normally do their movies, they start them in New York at their office there and then we go to the location and continue drawing. Generally the way we work is — and it’s always been this way, it hasn’t changed — [during preproduction] I go in for a session in the morning and they’ll bounce into my office and say, “Let’s draw some.” Joel has a shotlist and he’s very specific about that shotlist and Ethan’s not a bad artist and he’ll have drawn thumbnails. I stand there with a clipboard and they both hit me with ideas and I scribble them down as fast as I can on a fabricated piece of paper that has little squares on it. If a drawing isn’t working, I throw that paper on the floor. So I’m usually standing there with a bunch of paper around my feet. Then they’ll say “You got enough to keep you busy, J. Todd?” and they’ll bounce away. Then I put those drawings on my tracing table and do a second pass. The next day they come in and I’ll show them that pile of drawings. They’ll okay them or they’ll say, “This one’s not quite right,” or they’ll get a different idea and want to change it. Then the third pass is when I go in and make them look as nice as I can. I’m always suspicious of really nice-looking storyboards, though, because time is money. We storyboard the whole movie, every set-up. We even draw the over-the-shoulder stuff. It’s a big volume of work. It takes about six to eight weeks most of the time and the irony is that it takes about as much time to shoot the movie as it does for me to draw it.

: During that process do you share the storyboards with people like the cinematographer or production designer?

: Absolutely. We tend to get the movie drawn a couple of weeks before the shoot so everybody can look at the storyboards and understand what the movie is all about. Until I get them all drawn people aren’t really allowed to take them out of my office — because then I’d go crazy — but I put a table in my office and people can come in and look at the drawings. That’s part of my job — to make everybody else’s job a lot easier. So I always try to make my door as open as possible. And anybody that comes into my office — it could be somebody’s parents who’re visiting or even the after hours cleaning guy — I’ll sit them in my chair and I’ll go through my drawings and I’ll say, “What’s happening here? What’s happening here?” They’re just people off the street, but if they can understand what the movie is from the drawings, then I know we’re in business.

6. The Political Science Fiction of “Born In Flames.”
Through February 25th, Anthology Film Archives in New York is screening a new 35mm print of Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi film “Born in Flames.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody praises the film’s guerrilla filmmaking style and its raw, revolutionary politics.

Borden constructs this large-scale social drama like a collage, with faux newscasts and talk shows, fictionalized documentary footage, police-surveillance tapes and the officials’ commentary on them, protests and confrontations, organizational meetings and strategy sessions, behind-the-scenes looks at the broadcasters Isabel and Honey on the air, musical performance, and intimate glances at private life in a time of conflict. She proves herself to be a far more imaginative and farsighted screenwriter than many celebrated Hollywood figures, because she sees the plot from a wide range of perspectives and circumstances, including one that she palpably views with hostility. Borden’s very sense of what constitutes a story, and how to realize it in images and sounds, is as radical as the social politics that she asserts. The raw tone of her filming is nonetheless canny and precise; blunt closeups in contrasty light have a rough sculptural solidity, and the confrontational simplicity of the images evokes a rare blend of anger and analysis, affirmation and questioning. Leftism, Borden asserts, isn’t enough; a political revolution, to have any deep effect, must be a revolution in ideas and attitudes, a cultural and an intimate revolution that itself involves the media and the arts — and of which “Born in Flames” itself is an example. Though Borden’s own impulses aren’t far from the surface, she applies the lesson of Jean Renoir from “The Rules of the Game”: “The terrible thing about life is that everyone has their reasons.” Like Renoir, Borden gives these reasons organic roots by means of character — not by the scripting of characters or by actors’ pointedly psychological performances but by the personal temperament and attributes that she reveals in the florid and loamy personalities of the actors themselves. The movie is a glowingly varied feast of performance, or, rather, of performers and their styles, filled with a vivid range of expressions and inflections, tones and temperatures, which threaten to burst through the movie’s visual rhetoric no less than through its narrative’s straightly defined but broadly based political constructions. The movie’s burst of exuberantly energized and politicized performance includes a title song — a melismatic rock anthem that’s a Top Forty-quality enduring earworm — and musical numbers such as Bertei’s catchy punkish jam with a studio band as well as her and Honey’s rap-like rhymed incantations into their underground-radio mikes. The aesthetic tones of the movie are themselves rendered political while remaining free and uninhibited; it’s among Borden’s great achievements that she avoids the doctrinaire hardtack of narrow-bore advocacy and, for all her focussed outrage, makes a film of comprehensive vision and curiosity, a virtual documentary inquiry into her own progressive dreams.

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