Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Why the Disney Vault Needs to Go Away. For those who don’t know, the Disney Vault is a term used by Disney Studios for its policy of putting its films on moratorium, suspending sales of them for years at a time in order to spike demand. Disney argues that this is a way to introduce their films to generations who have never seem them before. In light of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Blu-ray release, Movie Mezzanine’s Josh Spiegel argues that the Vault is a cheap marketing tactic to release multiple formats of the same release.
Why does Disney do this? Why release multiple versions of the same film on the same format with few updates and too many reductions? Why do so for a short period of time before removing these films from the market? To make sure that a whole new gaggle of toddlers and elementary-school-aged kids get a chance to see Disney movies for the first time. Consider this comment from Marcelle Abraham, Executive Director of Public Relations for Buena Vista Home Entertainment: “‘The Little Mermaid’ is a great example of this…It came out on video in the Spring of 1990. Now there’s a whole new generation of young people who haven’t seen it.” You may note that Abraham’s explanation seems a bit dated, and therein lies the rub: Abraham said this in the fall of 1997, on the eve of a theatrical re-release of “The Little Mermaid.” Nearly twenty years have passed, and modern society has cycled through different popular home media formats since then, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray and digital purchases. (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” for instance, has been available to purchase since mid-January on iTunes and other digital platforms; this is now standard practice for Disney movies released on Blu-ray, that they’re available digitally two weeks before they are physically.) Theatrical re-releases are sadly rare, especially after Disney’s attempt to revive a handful of modern animated classics with 3D post-conversions underperformed at the box office to the extent that a new re-release of, coincidentally, “The Little Mermaid” was halted. When the Disney Vault concept began in the 1940s, it made fiscal sense: the Disney Studios were being contracted by the U.S. government to make World War II propaganda in favor of the fighting effort against the Nazis, and they had a minimal cashflow. Thus, they would re-release a beloved classic like “Snow White.” Now, the concept of the Disney Vault makes no sense.
2. Donald Trump and the Republican Primary Have Broken “SNL.” “Saturday Night Live” has become a staple of weekly political commentary since its debut in 1975 by employing its talented cast to mimic politicians and using the Weekend Update segment to target the week in news. But many balked when “SNL” decided to allow Donald Trump to host the show as it seemed dangerous to give such a virulent extremist a microphone. Though the decision created some backlash, Uproxx’s Mike Ryan claims that it’s the Republican primary this election season that has really thrown “SNL’s” political segments in disarray.
“SNL” made a big deal before the season started when they announced Taran Killam would be playing Donald Trump. “SNL” wanted this to be news. From what I understand, this was a hotly contested role and after tryouts, Killam narrowly edged out Beck Bennett. Killam wasn’t given much of a shot, as his first time was a poorly conceived cold open on the season premiere and his second appearance was up against Hammond’s Trump and the real Trump…which pretty much negated Killam’s Trump from the start. (Putting Killam next to the real Trump, in only Killam’s second ever time as Trump, was a huge mistake and was really unfair to Killam.) By the time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the last “SNL” of 2015, Killam had been reassigned as Ted Cruz (we’ll get to this in a bit) and (in what kind of seems like a desperate move), Darrell Hammond was brought back as Trump full time. (There’s a little more to this story: Jimmy Fallon had been tapped to guest as Trump during this show, but that fell through and Hammond stepped in. Regardless, Hammond has been playing Trump ever since with mixed results.) What a mess. It was Killam who originated the role of Marco Rubio and he’s really good at Rubio, but after losing Trump, Killam is now playing Ted Cruz. And it goes without saying that Taran Killam looks absolutely nothing like Ted Cruz…to the point that a lot of people still just assume Killam is playing Rubio. And he seems a little lost as Cruz, and who can really blame him? It’s almost as if the line of thinking was, “Well, Ted Cruz is kinda nuts like Trump, so he might be fun to play. What do you say, Taran? Not a bad consolation prize, right?” Killam is legitimately great as Rubio. It makes no sense that, already working at a disadvantage with material that’s so hard to parody, they wouldn’t be putting cast members where they all fit best. But the problem is, it’s Rubio who made the biggest impression on the Republican side Monday night in Iowa and may now may be well-positioned to become the frontrunner. Killam should play Rubio again. No offense to Pete Davidson, but he just kind of seems to be playing Rubio because no one else is left to play him. That’s not really a good reason to do anything.
3. America’s Unfinished Business From the O.J. Simpson Trial. Yesterday, FX premiered the first episode of its new true-crime anthology whose first season focuses exclusively on the O.J. Simpson trial. Though the trial was twenty years ago, the issues it raised about race, celebrity, domestic violence still hang over American culture. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg examines America’s interest in the O.J. Simpson trial and how it still resonates today.
For anyone unfamiliar with the murders and trial, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” draws plenty of parallels between that moment in American history and our own, 20 years hence. The series begins with the video of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers, an event that set off riots in 1992, and continues on to trace the rise of cable news and tabloid press and even to foreshadow the rise of the Kardashian reality television empire. (Robert Kardashian, played here by David Schwimmer, showing new depths, was one of Simpson’s best friends.) And if you were old enough to remember the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; the clash between prosecutors Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), and the lawyer Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who ultimately took the lead in Simpson’s (Cuba Gooding Jr., the weak link in the production) courtroom defense; the way Detective Mark Fuhrman’s (Steven Pasquale) racism made him an ugly symbol of law enforcement; and Simpson’s acquittal in the slayings, the Simpson case has retained a particular hold on the imagination. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a portrait of a squandered moment in American history, a time when we might have planted a very different kind of fruit from the bitter harvests we’re reaping now, if only we were capable of it. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man,” a long piece Henry Louis Gates Jr. published in October 1995 after both Simpson’s acquittal and the Million Man March, Gates wrote that, “As blacks exulted at Simpson’s acquittal, horrified whites had a fleeting sense that this race thing was knottier than they’d ever supposed — that, when all the pieties were cleared away, blacks really were strangers in their midst. (The unspoken sentiment: And I thought I knew these people.) There was the faintest tincture of the Southern slaveowner’s disquiet in the aftermath of the bloody slave revolt led by Nat Turner — when the gentleman farmer was left to wonder which of his smiling, servile retainers would have slit his throat if the rebellion had spread as was intended, like fire on parched thatch.” I’ve come back to that passage again and again as I’ve read books and articles about the trial, and as I’ve watched and re-watched the first six episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” And that idea of a flash of light that rearranges the way we see the world, but that casts as many shadows as it dispels, seems to me to be the perfect way to explain why we can’t let go of the Simpson case. During 1994 and 1995, police brutality and racism, domestic violence, the worst impulses in the media, and bitter divisions on the basis of race and gender were all on stark display. But we didn’t manage to resolve any of the questions outlined by that flash of light.
4. Darin Morgan Brings “The X-Files'” New Season to the Level of Its Best Work. On Monday, “The X-Files” revival premiered an episode written by legendary series writer Darin Morgan. Morgan is responsible for such classics like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” that are famous for their off-beat sensibility. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz writes about how Morgan’s episode brought “The X-Files'” iffy season to the level of its best work.
Morgan’s aesthetic, as PopMatters’ Jonathan Kirby put it in 2007, was “satirizing the two agents’ personas and relationship while simultaneously lending them greater human depth, a sly but affectionate skewering of the show’s conspiratorial norms.” He managed to write “X-Files” episodes that were also meta-narratives about “The X-Files,” and what it means to love “The X-Files” and become invested in its alternately paranoid, goofy, horrifying, and lyrical universe. And with his interest in storytelling, narcissism, alienation, individual and species-wide delusion, pop culture and literary allusions, and self-referential jokes, Morgan is the ideal person to bring this long-delayed tenth season (or mini-season) up to the level of “The X-Files'” best stuff. On a deeper level, Morgan’s scripts were always about stories, and the inability of humans to consider lives other than the ones they’re currently living because of the narratives encrusted on their consciousness, and the primal human desire to impose narrative on a seemingly unruly, unfair, senseless life. “Mulder, the human mind naturally seeks meaningful patterns and configurations in things that don’t inherently have any,” the psychic title character of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” tells Mulder. Morgan’s “Humbug” was set among a community of former circus-show performers, including Dr. Blockhead, the Enigma, Jim Jim the Dogface Boy, and Lanny, a drunk with an inchoate conjoined twin named Leonard; the entire episode is about the passing of one way of life and the panicked quest to find another one and keep living (the question of Leonard, who wants to find a new host to replace the brother who’s dying of liver failure). “War of the Corprophages” finds Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating an incipient invasion of Earth by extraterrestrial cockroaches. It drew parallels between insects that are more intelligent than were assumed, and humans, who smugly fancy themselves superior to insects but exhibit many of the same behaviors. And it made Scully and Mulder seem about as normal as Scully and Mulder can seem (we see Scully shampooing a dog, eating ice cream out of the carton, and reading Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” itself a reference to Duchovny’s appearance on “Celebrity Jeopardy,” in which he whiffed on a Capote-related question). Morgan really flowered, though, once he began inserting authorial figures into his scripts. The title character of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” played by the late, great Peter Boyle, can foretell the circumstances of others’ deaths (and his own), and therefore has a quasi-authorial distance from the same world he has to move through; this makes him as alienated, melancholy, and cripplingly self-aware as Guy Mann.
5. Knowing Me, Knowing You: “I Knew Her Well” and “Marguerite.” Film Comment consistently puts out some of the best film writing in print and on the web with pieces that go in depth on topics that reflect the writers’ sensibilities as well as remaining accessible to those on the outside. In her new column, Violet Lucca takes on the cultural debates of the week weaving together responses and film criticism. This week, Lucca examines Antonio Petrangeli’s 1965 musical “I Knew Her Well” and Xavier Giannoli’s new film “Marguerite” and the idea of celebrities’ carefully constructed public personas.
Expecting your favorite famous person to share your beliefs has always struck me as a fool’s errand. Great artistry isn’t contingent on good politics, or vice versa. Any celebrity’s public persona is mediated and constructed by (most likely a team of) publicists, advisors, and agents, regardless of how casual and “real” it appears to be. While this seems like a painfully obvious point to make, it’s a fact that gets obscured by the false transparency that social media and interviews offer. The likes of Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine, and Julie Delpy are still products of their upbringing and surroundings, as we are reminded when they say, with great confidence, something head-slappingly ignorant. (Do you know many septuagenarians who aren’t professors that are familiar with intersectionality?) It’s always worth bearing in mind the gulf between star text and human being. The process of fabricating a glowing persona can be glimpsed from another perspective in Antonio Pietrangeli’s superbly crafted “I Knew Her Well,” which this Friday gets a very welcome revival. In Pietrangeli’s 1965 picture, Adriana (Stefania Sandreli) — or “Adri Astin” as her lecherous and talentless talent agent rechristens her — is an aspiring and appealing actress in Rome, living an alternately bohemian and glamorous existence. Such incongruity is just an occupational hazard of the movie business: for every scene in which she sleepwalks through some crappy part-time job, there are about five more that show her partying while dressed to the nines. Through 19 episodic sequences, each generally entered in media res, we witness Adriana good-naturedly taking an aimless path toward stardom. Due to the film’s elliptical treatment of time and context, it’s unclear if she has been detoured from or is closing in on her goal. In a sequence where she goes on-location for a week to shoot a historical epic with chariots, it’s unclear whether she’s the lead or just an extra; instead of acting, we only see her rushing to a trailer to call potential beau Franco Nero back in Rome. (This sort of misdirection runs throughout all of her acting work, such as her first gig, where she wears a gown and pearls… for a commercial that only shows her calves in knee-high boots.) What Adriana is thinking or feeling is also left ambiguous. She demonstrates a degree of agency: free and open with her sexuality, she won’t sleep with anybody to get ahead (she rebuffs an elderly actor’s invitation per un drink after a party because she finds it impolite), but she’s also not naïve enough to get sentimental about the guys she has a good time with (she laughs off a detective’s scorn for her not knowing the surname of an ex who stole a bracelet for her). But unlike, say, Diana Scott in “Darling” from the same year, she’s obviously not calculating enough to get ahead in the business, even if she weren’t surrounded by “Day of the Locust”-caliber industry types.
6. On Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman,” and the Resistance to Narrative Life. Even though it’s been four months, cinephiles everywhere are still reeling from the death of Chantal Akerman, a legendary director whose work has left a permanent footprint on the medium. At Hell on Frisco Bay, high school math teacher Brian Huser examines his love of “Jeanne Dielman” and the irresolvable questions it poses.
I thought, wrote, and talked “Jeanne Dielman” ad nauseam in college. (It even catalyzed one of my closest friendships of those years.) The film entranced me, and I often reflected on what made it so entrancing — about the experience of watching it. At the Castro, this experience differed from what I remembered. Delphine Seyrig’s gestural performance and the apartment’s dull-yet-sensuous surfaces still entranced; what had changed was that the film was newly tragic and terrifying. Jeanne appeared this time not just as an enigmatic laboring body, but as a character with a rich psychological interior, living out a story. One image took on new significance. At the first day’s close, the film cuts to Jeanne sitting on her bed with her back to the camera. There is a brief, maybe two-second pause. For the first time, I sensed a premonition of the film’s distressing second half in that pause. I felt that Jeanne, too, had a premonition. Inextricable from this image’s new premonitory quality was its sudden resonance with other images from Akerman’s life and work: Ariane pausing to look at the sea shortly before (maybe) committing suicide in “La Captive”; Akerman telling interviewer Nicole Brenez that her depression had led her to spend too much time in bed. I now understand that through this constellation of images, I sought to narrativize both Jeanne’s pause and Chantal Akerman’s death, conflating two inexplicable and terrible events, one actual and one fictional. Why? I had returned to “Jeanne Dielman” to mourn for an artist whose work has moved me; in subsuming what is inexplicable and abject about death, in providing coherent meaning, narratives reassure. I grasped at the bits and pieces of drama in “Jeanne Dielman,” and so they came alive in a way they never quite had for me, hence the film’s modulation into drama.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Just watched IDIOCRACY for the first time. I know everyone says that movie’s uncannily prescient but holy goodness.
— Noel Murray (@NoelMu) February 3, 2016
HORACE AND PETE: I know people are complaining, but if a bunch of killer actors making me laugh my ass off isn’t worth five bucks, what is?
— Jim Gabriel (@flipyourface) February 2, 2016