Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. “Cloverfield” to “Batman v. Superman”: How Did 9/11 Change Cinema? The 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed the course of American history as well as American culture at large. In the aftermath, films have overtly and subtly appropriated images of those terrorist attacks to subconsciously connect to audiences’ fears. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin examines how 9/11 changed film from “Cloverfield” to “Batman v. Superman.”
One day before the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the artist Damien Hirst said something that was both incredibly perceptive and gob-smackingly stupid. “The thing about 9/11 is that it’s basically an artwork in its own right,” he told the BBC. “It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually.” He’s simultaneously right and wrong. Art can be about murder and terror and the propagation of foul ideologies – and it can (and sometimes must) depict these things in vivid, hellish detail – but it can’t actually be these things, in the same way it makes no sense to describe someone’s face as a portrait. But what Hirst said next largely redeemed him. “I think our visual language has been changed by what happened on September 11,” he went on. “An aeroplane becomes a weapon – and if they fly close to buildings, people start panicking. Our visual language is constantly changing in this way, and I think as an artist you’re constantly on the lookout for things like that.” For the past 15 years, cinema has been scrambling to adapt. The destruction of the Twin Towers became a psychologically burnt-in image as memorable as anything in cinema – which meant it was up to cinema to tame it. Many of us may have found ourselves thinking at the time that it looked like “something from a movie.” But, increasingly, movies came to resemble it. This might sound odd, but films do it all the time. Think of the uptick in paranoid thrillers and eavesdropping-based plots following the Watergate scandal and the White House Tapes revelations of the early Seventies, or the flourishing of lightweight, feel-good British cinema under New Labour. In one way or another, a huge part of Japanese animation since the Fifties has been about coming to terms with the A-bomb. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that the most arresting image in the trailers for “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” (which opens on Friday) turned out not to involve either iconic superhero costume, but Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, in a waistcoat and suit trousers, dashing through the streets of Metropolis towards a billowing cloud of ash. It’s the same ash we saw in the news images of New York City that September morning, creamy grey and snowstorm-thick, with skyscrapers looming on both sides like canyon walls. A second shot shows Affleck kneeling on the ground, surrounded by debris, holding a little girl close to his chest, and looking upwards in confusion. Again, we know the pose – and remember the feeling. By reflecting images of 9/11 back at us, “Batman V Superman” might allow us to understand them in a new way, even perhaps come to terms with them – or it might be a cynical recourse to deep-seated public fears that cheaply amp up the movie’s thrill count. Its 2013 predecessor, “Man of Steel,” deployed 9/11 imagery in its destructive finale, in which half of Metropolis is demolished and presumably thousands of civilian lives are lost. The human toll of the sequence, and Superman’s seeming indifference towards it, caused an outcry among fans that the film’s director, Zack Snyder, is still addressing in interviews now.
2. Looking Back at “Sucker Punch,” Zack Snyder’s Female-Dominated Film. Though “Batman v Superman” will soon take over the hearts and minds of the global comic book-loving public, it’s easy to forget Snyder’s pre-“Man of Steel” films, like “Watchmen,” and especially “Sucker Punch.” The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg looks back at “Sucker Punch,” Snyder’s only original film to date.
If the idea of the Snyders as feminists seems odd or tenuous to you, I’m not here to mount a defense of their whole oeuvre. But in the past year or so, I’ve found myself occasionally thinking about how Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,” which was a widely derided commercial disaster when it was released in 2011, might play in a post-“Mad Max: Fury Road” world. Yes, Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” heroines, the patients at a mental hospital, are relatively thinly-sketched. Yes, in the fantasy world they enter to battle for their freedom, their outfits are not, shall we say, practical. But at the time “Sucker Punch” came out, it was the rare movie with a female lead to come out of Warner Brothers, Snyder’s longtime studio. Even rarer, it was an original action movie starring women. And whatever you think of Snyder, “Sucker Punch” has a great many of the elements that made director George Miller’s explicitly feminist action movie “Fury Road” so politically exciting to so many observers, despite the films’ considerable aesthetic differences. In both movies, women are battling against patriarchal institutions that are not merely corrupt but also abusive. In “Sucker Punch,” Babydoll (Emily Browning) is committed to an asylum by her sexually abusive stepfather after her mother’s death, and learns that she is at risk of being lobotomized — an act that’s explicitly compared to rape in the movie — by a corrupt psychiatrist (Jon Hamm). And in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) betrays the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) by helping the women he has taken as sex slaves to free themselves. Both films have a model of action that’s collaborative rather than focusing on a lone hero.
3. Pee-Wee Herman’s Coy Gayness In His Netflix Special. Netflix has revived Pee-Wee Herman last Friday with a new special “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.” Though critics are decidedly mixed on the new special on the whole, especially its fan-service, but few have found plenty to like in it. Slate’s Paul H. Johnson discusses how “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” brings the character’s coy gayness into the foreground.
In the charming Netflix revival “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” Joe Manganiello roars into Pee-wee’’ hometown of Fairville on a motorcycle and sweeps Pee-wee off his feet. The pair quickly hit it off over their shared love of Root Beer Barrel candy and tree houses. When Manganiello, playing himself, finds out Pee-wee has never left his small town, he beseeches him to come to Manhattan to attend his birthday party. Pee-wee agrees, but on the way he has some of his trademark wacky adventures. He is kidnapped by a band of butch bank robbers; he tours a snake farm where he is kidnapped by a crazy farmer and nearly forced into marriage (to a woman!); and he gets a makeover by a gaggle of fabulous hairdressers led by Darryl Stephens, the onetime star of the gay-focused Logo network’s sadly departed series “Noah’s Arc.” And that’s all before he arrives in Manhattan, where he falls into a well when he’s supposed to be at the big birthday party. Luckily, the strapping Manganiello, despondent over Pee-wee’s absence, eventually arrives to rescue our hero. This is all to say: “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is clearly fan service — if you weren’t already enamored with the goofy, bowtied, breakfast-loving manchild, this won’t help; but if you were, the Netflix update is catnip. Indeed, given the sweetly flirtatious dynamic between Manganiello and Pee-wee, it’s tempting to argue in particular that the movie is a kind of wish fulfillment for fans who grew up with the character and his barely coded queer persona. All of that queerness is basically explicit this time around. But for many decades-long fans, this one included, Pee-wee never had a “gay subtext.” For everyone but the willfully ignorant, it was always just text. Pee-wee Herman, the character, always trafficked in the language of a certain kind of queer comedy. His jokes often had the same style of innuendo made popular by the likes of Paul Lynde and Bruce Vilanch. As the center square on the game show “Hollywood Squares” in the 1970s, Lynde was once asked “You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” to which he answered: “Humble.” In “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” Manganiello is dumbfounded that Pee-wee has never heard of him and asks if he has seen Manganiello’s hit movie “Magic Mike,” to which Pee-wee responds: “You would think so, but no.” Then, as now, anyone paying attention needs no explanation. But Pee-wee’s comedy is more than just sly gay suggestion. His persona actively celebrates camp, particularly the kind of camp that elevates the language and style of the 1950s, when gay love was addressed evasively, if at all. While Pee-wee might seem childlike and sexless, his affection for Manganiello can only be called a crush. Pee-wee dreams of jousting with Manganiello using rainbow colored lances, and they exchange friendship bands at the end of the movie while squeezed together in Manganiello’s treehouse. This is what love looks like in Pee-wee’s delicate, but deliberate, mode. And that’s what love looked like to many gay kids like me. We didn’t have any idea what sex was, but we clearly knew we wanted to share a treehouse with that hunky special someone.
4. Uniquely American Symptoms: “The Manchurian Candidate.” The Criterion Collection recently released John Frankenheimer’s classic paranoid film “The Manchurian Candidate,” a film that has great significance with relation to the 2016 election. For Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman examines “The Manchurian Candidate” and the complex idea of Donald Trump as a Manchurian Candidate.
In the waning days of 2015, public intellectuals as varied as Salman Rushdie, Bill Maher, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar floated (or sky-hooked) the notion that Donald Trump was a “Manchurian Candidate,” despite the fact that none of them — or the many, many pundits and think-piece artists mining the same vein of pop-culture reference — could agree exactly how the putative Republican frontrunner fulfilled that role. While the concept of Trump as a Democratic mole planted to divide and conquer the GOP, thus paving the way for a Clinton Presidency 2.0, was comically satisfying, the alternate hot take — that The Donald’s vociferous anti-Islamist rhetoric functioned dually as a recruiting tool for ISIS — became harder to laugh off as his public appearances incited greater and greater furor. The words of one Eleanor Iselin come to mind: “Rallying a nation of television viewers into hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law look like anarchy.” The idea that Donald Trump could memorize the sort of rousing, precisely written stump speech that Angela Lansbury’s Beltway Clytemnestra outlines near the climax of “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) is perhaps laughable in and of itself. Whatever else one can say about James Gregory’s McCarthy manqué “Big” Johnny Iselin — the title character of John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece — he’s good at taking direction from his handlers, whereas Trump seems resolutely unmanageable, his televised rallies projecting the atmosphere of a freakishly well-attended open-mic night at a comedy club in Hell. Rewatching “The Manchurian Candidate” in 2016, on the occasion of a gleaming new Blu-ray edition from Criterion, is an instructive lesson in how the passage of time normalizes that which was once appraised as outrageous — but without diminishing its power to shock, appall, and entertain. “Does he have a girl back home?” That’s the question posed in the film’s first scene by the members of an American platoon stationed in Korea circa 1952. The subject of the query is Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), whose lack of interest in the earthly delights on offer at a local brothel indicates a stubborn sense of fidelity (or, given Harvey’s familiar prissiness, possible homosexuality). Like most of the jokes in George Axelrod’s screenplay — which stays true to the cold, cynical spirit of Richard Condon’s source novel while jazzing up the dialogue and characterizations — this one deepens upon reflection. Raymond’s old lady stateside is his mother Eleanor, whose role as the soon-to-be-brainwashed sharpshooter’s “American operator” is both narratively shocking and slyly redundant. Even before instructing her hypnotized son to orchestrate the staged assassination of a presidential hopeful, Mrs. Iselin is pulling Raymond’s strings. Free will is a precious commodity in short supply in “The Manchurian Candidate.” The plot’s focus on mental manipulation is very much of its time: post-World War II advances in psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals led the American military to experiment with behavior modification for a host of reasons (including the empathetic de-programming techniques showcased in John Huston’s suppressed 1946 documentary “Let There Be Light”), and the same thing was assumed of the Soviets under the anything-you-can-do-we-can-do-sooner impetus of the Cold War. But while the film’s wildest and most memorable images come swathed in a somnambulistic fog — enough has been written over the years about the soberly surrealistic “Garden Party” sequence that I won’t waste space recapitulating it here — even fleeting exchanges express the difficulty of self-directed choices. When Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who correctly suspects that he and Shaw’s heroic homecoming from Asia has happened under false pretenses, is told by his superior officer to take a mental health break, he bridles against the instruction before letting his eyes fall meekly to the floor. For a soldier, an order is an order.
5. On “Girls,” Performance, and Artificial Experiences. Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” recently returned for its fifth season and to much critical acclaim. Freelance writer Kyle Turner writes a personal essay about the series, the nature of performance, and authentic feelings within artificial experiences.
I’ve been watching the show “Girls,” and like using Snapchat, knowing what the fuck Vine is, or being able to connect my school email account to my Gmail account, I am late on the ball for this seemingly very Millennial thing. I mean, I’d intended to watch the show, like I intend to watch “The Wire,” do my laundry, pay rent, be an adult — I just never got around to it. A college course was my impetus, which has proved illuminating. Applying theoretical frameworks to media texts I my crack. Perhaps unexpectedly, the class, called “HBO’s ‘Girls’ and the Millennial Generation,” has proven confrontational in a way that I am somewhat disinclined to disclose in class. I suppose that was what drew critics to the show in the first place: the story of a young person, whose generational or sociopolitical, economic, etc. identities were both crucial and inessential to understanding her character, navigating her identity in the midst of a turbulent transition into adulthood. The details of Hannah’s life hone in on specificity to the show’s style and a universality to the show’s, and in turn Lena Dunham’s, sentiment. What gets me is this, an aspect that has been discussed to some degree in class: her desire to chronicle her life for the sake of constructing her identity as a form of commodity. Her experiences are for her essays, and Hannah feels validated when those experiences are put to paper and received (hopefully well) by an audience. There’s an implication that there’s little point in doing the thing she does without some form of “compensation”, whether monetarily (her book advance, the freelancing), or sentimentally (the reception from her editor, her friends, e.g. Marnie). I have done this. I have done this many times. I don’t think that the idea of putting X experience to paper and being validated with Y reception is necessarily the catalyst for all of the things I do, but it’s definitely driven some of my weirder moments. Like the time I had anonymous sex at the Dick Dock and told a joke, which the guys watching did not think was funny. I remember having a mild panic attack, my palms sweating in spite of the cool ocean breeze brushing up against my at that point clothed body, walking towards the spot. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, at least this will make a good story.” As the boy on top of me struggled greatly and as my face was sort of in the sand, I began writing an essay about the experience in my head. I imagined the punch lines I would write for jokes (“This is the closest I will have identified with gamers, as I said to him, ‘Up, up, down, left, left, down, up, right, right, Jump, Sprint, Square, Triangle, Circle… there we go…’), the way I would try to articulate the ambivalence I felt about what was happening, and how it would or wouldn’t change me.
Tweet of the Day:
Just back from seeing a TV show on the big screen. Now I’m watching a movie on the small one. Depressing/exhilarating. #BetterCallSaul
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) March 22, 2016