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Daily Reads: Sundance’s Place in the Diversity Conversation, A Road Trip With New York Times Film Critic A.O. Scott, and More

Daily Reads: Sundance's Place in the Diversity Conversation, A Road Trip With New York Times Film Critic A.O. Scott, and More

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

1. Where Does Sundance Fit In The Conversation About Diversity?
The Sundance Film Festival recently ended its run last week and the big winner there was Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a film about Nat Turner and his slave rebellion that won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and was sold to Fox Searchlight Pictures for a record-making $17.5 million. Though the film industry’s lack of diversity affects everyone everywhere, Sundance is trying to be a positive force in the conversation. For NPR, Monica Castillo writes about Sundance’s place in the industry-wide conversation about diversity.

During Sundance’s opening press conference, creator Robert Redford fielded the diversity question directly, saying “diversity comes out of the word independence. That’s the principle word that we operate from.” He pointed to greater support for independent creators outside the studio system — which is what Sundance aims to do — as one answer to the industry’s lack of diversity. Conversations with several filmmakers and critics of color during the festival suggest that while Sundance could never be a silver bullet in fixing Hollywood’s diversity problems, it indeed has an important role to play. Bird Runningwater, director of Sundance’s Native American and Indigenous Program, says Sundance can point to three decades of experience championing and funding the works of marginalized filmmakers. After a lengthy career in philanthropy and nonprofits, Runningwater, a descendant of Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache peoples, became involved with the Institute’s Native Lab, which helped to develop and workshop movies like Drunktown’s Finest, Miss Navajo and Four Sheets to the Wind. Since the program began in 1981, about 300 Indigenous filmmakers have received grants, lab fellowships, training and mentoring. Runningwater says the Sundance Institute (the company umbrella that includes festivals and various workshops) has always taken an interest in the work of diverse filmmakers. “The work with Native filmmakers actually precedes the Institute because of [Sundance co-creator Robert] Redford’s work with Native communities early on in his career,” he said. Part of the Native Lab’s history can be traced to early Institute founders Larry LittleBird (Taos Pueblo) and Chris SpottedEagle (Houmas Nation). “When Sundance was founded, it was one of the threads of work that [Redford] wanted the Institute to serve,” Runningwater said. After launching its Native American and Indigenous Program, Sundance began experimenting with new career-building opportunities for a variety of communities often excluded by the Hollywood system. Now aspiring filmmakers can apply for theLatino Screenwriting Project, Asian American Feature Film Fellowship and the Women in Sundance Program. “I think Sundance at the very least makes more of a concerted effort than many other festivals,” says Huffington Post culture writer Zeba Blay. “We’ve seen films written and directed by black folk (“Dear White People,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Dope”) get lots of buzz and go on to do incredibly well after debuting at the fest.” She said that the Sundance Institute “has explicitly defined diversity as one of its core values.” The buzz around this year’s major Sundance offering “The Birth of a Nation” is even louder than last year’s hype around “Dope,” culminating in a $17.5 million deal signed by “Birth” director Nate Parker and Fox Searchlight and a standing ovation in Utah. But Sundance’s efforts are just one piece of a much larger, very complicated puzzle, Blay cautions. “At the end of the day, the industry as a whole is still broken,” she says. “The talent is there, but they have to work twice or three times as hard to generate the kind of interest that leads to distribution and further opportunities.”

2. On Criticism: My Road Trip With A.O. Scott.
The New York Times’ film critic A.O. Scott has a new book coming out tomorrow called “Better Living Through Criticism,” a book arguing the necessity of criticism today more than ever. On a road trip from Brooklyn to Middletown, Connecticut to sit in on a class in film criticism, Vulture’s Christian Lorentzen converses with Scott about criticism, literature, theory, and more.

“Better Living Through Criticism” wasn’t meant to be Scott’s first book. Years ago, those tracing Scott’s byline might have noticed that his author’s note mentioned that he was working on a history of the postwar American novel. Scott had left behind graduate school and adjuncting in the late 1990s. By this time, married and a father, he had begun writing reviews for “The Nation,” then under literary editor John Leonard. (Scott was a friend of Leonard’s stepdaughter at Harvard, and the Leonards’ house had been a place to stay on his early visits to New York City.) Scott took a job as an editorial assistant at the “New York Review,” where he worked for a year before becoming the Sunday book critic for “Newsday” and a regular contributor to Slate. It was a Slate piece on Martin Scorsese that drew the attention of editors at the “Times” and got him hired, along with Elvis Mitchell, to replace Janet Maslin as film critic in 1999. It was a hire greeted with skepticism in some quarters. “Has he seen six films by Bresson? Ozu?” Roger Ebert asked a reporter for Salon. “That’s not the sort of question they would think to ask. Would they hire a book critic to be their music critic? Architecture critic? No, but that goes without saying. They probably believe, like many other editors, that anyone can be the film critic. It is the only job on the newspaper that everyone, including the editors, believe they can do better than the person on the beat.” Ebert later recanted his remarks, and Scott was one of his successors on the final season of “At the Movies.” But Scott admits there was a learning curve in taking his new job, and the process of learning on the job, taking in the history of cinema, interfered with the process of surveying the history of the postwar novel, a project he’d envisioned as picking up the thread of Alfred Kazin’s “On Native Grounds.” The project stalled, and he came to see it as a failure he’d conjured to offset his success at his day job, and he eventually paid back his advance to FSG. Scott has now been on the job for 17 years, and though he may have his rivals and detractors, his legitimacy isn’t in doubt (except to the extent that every critic’s legitimacy is always in doubt, by the general public, by anti-critical critics, by Scientologists). Every critic constructs a persona (or a few) that will necessarily be something of a fiction, however much overlap there is with the facts of the writer’s life. Scott told me that the “I” in his writing is always a father. (He is a father of two.) A glance at Scott’s annual lists of the year’s top-ten films shows an openness to family-friendly fare, movies that you wouldn’t expect on an intellectual’s roster of favorites. (I noticed many titles I’d never considered seeing: I’m uninitiated in the charms of Pixar; Scott named “WALL-E” his top film of the year.) His position doesn’t allow him to restrict his attentions or his praise to the Werner Herzogs and Olivier Assayases of the world. Scott is also a regular contributor of essays to various sections of the “Times.” In the autumn of 2014, he contributed an essay on the end of adulthood in American culture that traced a twisty path from “Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby-Dick” to “Knocked Up” and “Girls,” observing that our fictions, if not our real-life institutions, are witnessing the collapse of patriarchal authority, with liberating effects (if mostly imagined ones). Around the time he finished the essay, Scott also found himself reviewing “Boyhood” (another of his annual No. 1s), just as his son was leaving home to attend college. His emotions were evident in his criticism.

3. The American Action Auteur: On Michael Mann and “Thief.”
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting a Michael Mann retrospective for the next week. Director of films like “Heat,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and his brilliant debut “Thief,” Michael Mann is widely considered one of the best filmmakers of his generation. For The L.A. Review of Books, Isaac Butler examines Mann as the “American action auteur” through “Thief.”

Michael Mann’s directorial style is so assured in “Thief” that it can be easy to forget that, when he made it, he was far better known within the industry as a writer. He wasn’t the premier auteur of American action cinema. He wasn’t the pioneer of digital video or the man who changed television with “Miami Vice.” He was a graduate of the London International Film School who had shot documentaries and commercials in Europe before moving back to the States, where he worked as a journeyman writer, doing an uncredited rewrite on the film “Straight Time,” and working on TV shows like “Police Story” and “Starsky & Hutch.” Mann’s first directorial effort was the TV movie “The Jericho Mile,” a film shot on location (and in 35mm) in Folsom Prison. It won him an Emmy for writing. In interviews throughout his career, you can feel Mann trying to force the conversation back to his writing, back to meaning and away from the idea of himself as a “stylist.” He insists that, even at his most dazzling, each gesture and camera movement flows from character, theme, and research — from an effort to externalize psychological reality. What makes “Thief” so special isn’t just the beauty of its tracking shots, or that its editing rhythms are perfect, but that it announces Mann as one of the singular voices in American screenwriting, along with the major themes, gestures, and motifs that he will return to, and obsess over, throughout his career. “Thief” introduces us to Mann’s fixation on stopwatches, water, love at first sight, prison, postcards where his protagonists store their dreams, tough guys, big scores, cars gliding at night, beginnings in medias res, and synthesizers. It also introduces the hallmarks of Mann’s writing: a heightened hardscrabble lyricism, often devoid of contractions and rooted equally in classic gangster cinema and real life vernacular; episodic plot structures made out of sequences that feel like the chapters of a novel; and storytelling through implication instead of exposition. Mann’s dialogue, which is generally as serious and sincere as it is stylized, can flirt with unintentional ridiculousness. When Vincent Canby, panning “Thief” in “The New York Times,” complained that the writing is filled with “juice[d] up” moments that “have nothing to do […] with clean-cut movie making,” he was launching a complaint that would follow Mann throughout his career. For those who love Mann’s films, lines like, “Kids are special, a miracle. A little hoochy-coo. A drop of energy. wham-bam magic Sam, there’s something sacred there,” are charming in their utter lack of taste. With “Thief,” Mann works through what he has called “stylized realism,” marrying his love for German Expressionism and Alain Resnais to fastidious research and an exacting attention to detail. His research for “Thief” took many forms, some of which would have lasting effects on his career and work. The film is based on “The Home Invaders,” a jailhouse memoir from 1975, written by Frank Hohimer. Originally published by the then-fledgling Chicago Review Press, Hohimer’s book tells the improbable story of his life as a cat burglar, largely working for a mob-backed ring of thieves who would take down scores in people’s homes. Mann appears loath to give much credit to his source material. In the DVD commentary track to “Thief,” he speaks of throwing the book out after reading it, and, in a bit of dialogue that feels like an act of resentment, Frank explicitly refuses to do “cowboy shit,” including “home invasions.”

4. The Trouble With Superman.
Next month, Zack Snyder’s “Batman Vs. Superman” will enter theaters, another attempt to dramatize Superman and his character on screen. The Atlantic’s Asher Elbein explores the trouble with Superman and why so many filmmakers misunderstand the character’s strength.

The problem DC faced was this: You can’t fix something if you’re not sure where it’s broken. One of the issues halting a successful reinvention of Superman is a shift in the nature of the comics market. Since the 1980s, the dominant trend in the industry has been specialty comics shops replacing newsstands as primary distributors. Given this change, companies like Marvel and DC have focused their marketing toward an ever-dwindling market of adult fans, darkening their characters in an attempt to keep the interest of a readership desperate for mainstream respectability. In effect, adults were colonizing young-adult narratives and warping them in the process — an early example of what later occurred with Michael Bay’s legendarily crass Transformers films. In one of the uglier paradoxes of the superhero-comics industry, characters who were devised to entertain children soon became completely unsuitable for them. Leaning into this trend in an effort to entice new adult readers, DC largely abandoned its strengths as a publisher of optimistic, bizarre superheroics and fumbled for an edgier identity. Aspirational characters were hit hard by this change — Wonder Woman in particular has suffered nearly as many reboots as Superman, the latest of which has cast her as the bloodthirstiest of her Justice League coworkers, her trademark lasso of truth traded for a sword. But the trend proved particularly damaging to the Man of Steel. The 1986 “Dark Knight Returns,” one of the landmark wave of “mature” superhero comics, cast him as a Reaganite stooge and ended with Batman knocking him out. The choice directly shadowed Superman’s history up until the present. The dour trailers for “Batman v Superman” draw directly from the imagery of “The Dark Knight Returns,” with several shots paralleling panels from the earlier comic. The effect is to shout for everybody watching: This is a serious film. Pointedly, in these trailers Superman never once smiles. In fact, it’s hard to escape the impression that Superman’s own company finds him a bit embarrassing. As the comics writer Chris Sims points out in his review of the anniversary compilation “Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years,” DC’s company line on Superman seems to be that he’s “a depressed sad sack who never wins.” The company ditched his iconic red trunks in 2011 and placed him instead in the blue, armor-like suit he currently wears on film. In response to fan complaints that Superman was “too powerful” and thus boring, it constantly adjusted his level of strength. Broader attempts to reconcile the character with its new approach have been filled with false starts and cold feet: Many of the innovative Superman runs of the past decade, including Joe Casey’s short-lived attempt to position the character as a pacifist, were either quickly rolled back or derailed by editorial interference. Promising new approaches, including a radical late ’90s pitch by the modern comics superstars Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Mark Waid, likewise went unexplored. Instead, the majority of Superman stories published in recent years have either been chair-rearranging reboots or have focused on the question of his relevance. The relaunches have been particularly difficult to ignore. Since 2001 alone, DC has commissioned five different reboots of Superman’s origins in the comics: the excellent “Superman: Birthright” and “All-Star Superman,” the adequate “Superman: Secret Origins,” the execrable “Superman: Earth One,” and the ongoing (and rather good) “Superman: American Alien.” Mass media has gotten in on the act as well, with the show “Smallville” and the blockbuster “Man of Steel” likewise being obsessed with reinventing the character for modern America. Questioning Superman’s place in culture isn’t an inherently bad idea, and it’s no wonder that creators want to dig into his truth-and-justice symbolism in a world that seems to hold both in short supply. However, that impulse has led into a rabbit hole of navel-gazing narratives that endlessly attempt to justify the character’s existence. In its constant attempts to “fix” Superman over the last 20 years, DC has largely forgotten to tell stories with him.

5. Scenic Routes: Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood.”
There has been all this Oscar season about Leonardo DiCaprio and the grueling tasks asked of him during the shoot of “The Revenant,” like eating raw bison liver and almost contracting fatal hypothermia. But if you want to see a real terrified performance, all you have to do is watch Toshiro Mifune at the end of “Throne of Blood.” For this bi-weekly Scenic Routes column, The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo examines “Throne of Blood” and Mifune’s performance.

Even if you didn’t already know, before viewing the clip, that “Throne Of Blood” is a Japanese take on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the sight of a grove of trees advancing on a castle would likely tip you off. Kurosawa takes even more liberties with the play than did Justin Kurzel in his recent adaptation, tossing the poetry (at least to judge from the English subtitles, which are quite prosaic) and ditching aspects of the plot that don’t serve his needs. “Throne Of Blood’s” equivalent of Macduff, for example, called Noriyasu, plays a much smaller role in the movie than he does onstage; the character is neither seen nor mentioned for most of the second half, and Washizu (a.k.a. Macbeth) never bothers to have his family killed. As a result, the second prophecy — told by one creepy forest spirit rather than by three witches — assures Macbeth only that he’s invincible until the trees of the nearby forest advance upon him, without mentioning that “no man of woman born” (a reference to Macduff, delivered via Caesarean section) can kill him. Kurosawa thus had to invent a new way for Macbeth to die — and maybe for Mifune to die, too. Because those are all real arrows. Now, Mifune did wear protective boards underneath his costume, to ensure that the arrows actually shot into his torso wouldn’t penetrate his flesh. And those arrows were tricked out with long, sharp needles affixed to the arrowheads, designed to do less damage in the event of an error. But the spectacle doesn’t work unless the majority of the arrows get embedded into the walls right beside Washizu. So Kurosawa hired skilled archers and had them shoot arrows en masse
to Mifune’s immediate left and right. That Mifune agreed to do this boggles the mind, as what befalls Washizu at the end of the scene could have befallen Mifune himself, should one of the archers have slipped or misjudged the angle or whatever. Imagine how long it must take a knife-thrower’s assistant to feel little or no apprehension when tied to a board and watching blades THWACK inches from their head and body. Mifune likely had little or no time to get comfortable; however confident he was in the group’s collective accuracy, the actual experience of all those arrows zipping so close to him must have been terrifying. And that terror shows onscreen. Mifune wasn’t always the most subtle of actors (though he was perfectly capable of reining it in when a role required subtlety rather than bravado), but Washizu’s hysteria here goes above and beyond the call of dramatic duty; everyone involved with “Throne Of Blood,” including Mifune himself, always maintained that his reactions are largely unfeigned, simply because there was little need to feign them. While it’s possible that this is just hype, not unlike all the “Revenant” hype, he deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially after looking at the scene closely. Early on, when Washizu is moving from left to right, you can see Mifune falter slightly in his step as he approaches the target area — he clearly knows where the arrows are going, and he’s momentarily afraid he’s going to arrive at that spot before the archers let fly, so he pauses very briefly to wait for the volley. (It’s just a split second, but it’s visible.) And it’s not as if Mifune did it once and then heaved a big sigh of relief. Kurosawa shoots the sequence from multiple angles; even if each was a single take (unlikely), that’s a whole lot of flinching.

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