Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Premature Death of the Video Store (And Why It’s Worth Saving). If you’re of a certain age, you’ve seen the video store die a slow death right in front of your eyes. You’ve heard all of the arguments about why streaming is destroying physical media, and how sooner or later, home video releases are going to go the way of vinyl. But there are still plenty of fledgling video stores in the country, pushing a film education that streaming can’t offer. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey examines the premature death of the video store, and why it’s worth saving.
Because those big chains were everywhere, and their failures seemed to indicate the end of that era, casual renters might not have noticed the independent stores that were thriving alongside them. Seattle’s Scarecrow Video grew from humble beginnings – 600 tapes, rented from the back of a record store – into one of the most eclectic and enviable film collections in the world. According to Kate Barr, onetime store employee and founding member of The Scarecrow Project, original owner George Latsios opened the store in 1988 and built its collection with a “we’ll take anything” philosophy and an omnivorous appetite for obscurities. (“Somebody told him about this incredibly rare Japanese laserdisc, and he flew to Japan to buy it.”) That collection became world-renowned, and their most valuable asset. “If you walk through the door and you pull any random thing off the shelf, that one item doesn’t have any particular value,” Barr explains. “I mean, maybe by the IRS’ standards it’s worth 50 cents. But the value comes in the collection in its totality – seeing it as a whole and its significance as a whole. We have over 120 years of film history and cultural history represented. We have over 125,000 titles and we represent 129 countries.” Down in Santa Monica, California, the store Vidiots grew from similarly humble origins to achieve local-legend status. Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber opened the store in 1985, mostly out of frustration with what their local stores had to offer. “The selection was just so mainstream,” Polinger recalls, “and I read an article in a magazine about these other stores around the country, and they talked about these independent films and video artists, and all these more offbeat things. I was like ‘Wow, we’re in a film town and we don’t have any place like that.’ So that kind of got the idea going.” Both stores’ wide selections of foreign films and obscurities helped them weather the storm of Blockbuster and the other chains – that, and a willingness to ride it out. But things started getting sketchy in the late 2000s, and by 2010, Tauber says, “we realized [that] if we don’t figure out another income stream and another way to make some money here, we’re gonna be gone.” A “Save Vidiots” campaign followed, and for purposes of charitable fundraising, they started a separate non-profit organization, “focusing on the community aspect and events and filmmaker talks and all that.” Those fundraisers helped, Tauber says, but it was “‘too little, too late’ because we were really in a downward spiral. We had all these ideas, but we had no money to implement anything or really do all the things we wanted to do as a non-profit. And by January of , we announced we were closing because we realized we were just going further and further in debt.” And then an angel appeared – two of them, actually. Dr. Leonard M. Lippman, MD and film producer Megan Ellison, both longtime customers, stepped in to provide funding to keep the store going for two years. “Now we are moving forward,” Tauber says. “We just celebrated our 30-year anniversary.” A similar problem, and solution, played out at Scarecrow. “Things had been pretty bad for about five years before they actually put out the call to help,” Barr recalls. But they did, in the fall of 2013, resulting in one of the store’s most profitable periods in years. “It was amazing response,” she says. “But the problem was that January came and everything dropped out again. So it was this very concentrated show of support.” It became clear that the only way to keep the collection intact – which was always their first priority – was to talk to a non-profit about acquiring it. And that announcement prompted Barr and two of her co-workers to decide that non-profit should be the store itself. They put together a proposal, which the owners accepted; the transition was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, with donations pouring in from not only across America, but around the world. “We got a lot of support,” Barr says. “And in addition to just raising the money, what it also signaled to us is [that] this collection is significant enough to people who love movies that, even if they don’t live here, even if they can’t access it on a daily basis, it’s still important for it to be around.”
2. Jerrod Carmichael Finds Humor in the Darkest Places. Jerrod Carmichael is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising young comics. His TV show “The Carmichael Show” garnered much critical acclaim for its six-episode first season, and is set to return to television this week. The New York Times’ Jonah Weiner profiles Carmichael and how he finds humor in the darkest places.
Barely four minutes into Jerrod Carmichael’s 2014 debut comedy special, “Love at the Store,” he makes a joke about the death of Trayvon Martin. “Money changes you,” Carmichael tells the audience, recounting how he recently entered his upscale apartment building wearing a hooded sweatshirt and made it through the lobby unquestioned by his doorman. “I was concerned,” he says. “I pay a lot of money — like, a lot of money — so that niggas in hoodies like me can’t waltz by you.” Addressing the doorman, he adds, “Next time, stand your ground.” The laughter that greets this phrase is scattered and uneasy, but Carmichael only digs in. “Really?” he says. “‘Cause, like, that Trayvon [expletive] is really affecting your day to day…you wake up, have your cup of coffee, and you do this” — he blows a kiss — “to a picture of Trayvon. And then you start your day. Is that what you do?” Carmichael grins genially. “ ’Cause you don’t.” Carmichael has one of stand-up’s most unorthodox approaches to exploring race and class, and in building to his Martin joke, he assumes an unexpected voice: that of the race traitor. While working on “Love at the Store,” Carmichael argued about this bit with Spike Lee, who signed on to direct the special at his request. “I just didn’t think it was funny,” Lee wrote in an email, “and it was too soon to be making a joke about” Martin’s “coldblooded murder.” Carmichael — insisting that his aim was not to mock a dead teenager but to explore what it means to truly care about his death — kept it in. “I want to be a voice that challenges,” Carmichael told me recently. He takes this mandate to extremes that can verge on perverse. Consider the bit, soon after the Martin joke, about how Carmichael can’t wait to grow rich enough to say “Republican things” out loud such as: “I don’t think people on welfare should be allowed to eat breakfast. . .which is kind of true when you think about it. Like, you’re building up your strength for what?” The satire and ironic distance here is sliced razor-thin; it gets thinner still when Carmichael, declaring that some people are “more important” than others, describes “looking at my little cousin, and you can just tell he’s gonna work at Wendy’s. Like, you could see it in his eyes: He has Wendy eyes.” By the time Carmichael arrives at his own account of police brutality — he was once slammed to the ground by L.A.P.D. officers, their guns drawn, because “I fit a description” — he is on the way to a point about how America’s racist legacy is worth accepting because, were it not for slavery, “I would be in Africa right now. Africa. Are you hearing what I’m saying to you? Like, they have AIDS there.” Jammed end to end with such jokes, Carmichael’s special is unrelentingly bleak — even toxic in its nihilism. And yet Carmichael remains supremely affable, speaking in a slow, honeyed voice and smiling throughout. “Your groans,” he tells the crowd, “will only make me go deeper.” At 28, Carmichael is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising young comics, and his preoccupation in “Love at the Store” is black-American success: systematically thwarted, highly politicized and something he enjoys all the same. In 2011, impressed by his stand-up, the makers of “New Girl” asked Carmichael to test for Winston, a main character, but he turned them down, uninterested in tying himself to someone else’s sitcom. That self-assurance paid off. NBC eventually picked up his own sitcom, “The Carmichael Show,” and the same week that he shot “Love at the Store,” the hit feature comedy “Neighbors” — which starred Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne — arrived in multiplexes, with Carmichael in a scene-stealing role. (Initially envisioned as a white Jewish kid, the part was rewritten for him.) This month, “The Carmichael Show” returns for its second season; a “Neighbors” sequel, again featuring Carmichael, arrives in May. The comedian Neal Brennan, a creator of “Chappelle’s Show,” was an early mentor. Praising the way that Carmichael’s disarming, bright-eyed delivery belies the grimness of his message, he told me that “at its best, Jerrod’s stand-up shows America/humanity at its worst — capitalist, cutthroat, cynical, narcissistic.” Even so, the speed of Carmichael’s ascent took him by surprise. “In 2010 or so, we got something to eat, and I explained everything that was gonna happen in his career,” Brennan said. “And I was right, except I mapped out way more hardship than he encountered.” A more recent admirer of Carmichael’s is 93-year-old Norman Lear, the man behind classic sitcoms like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” and, according to Carmichael, a major influence on “The Carmichael Show.” Lear told me that Carmichael’s comedy “helps America look at itself in the mirror,” adding, “He sees the foolishness of the human condition — he understands that there is humor to be found in the darkest of places.”
3. Which Late-Night Host Is Best Skewering This Election? After Jon Stewart retired from his “Daily Show” post and Stephen Colbert moving away from his satirical persona into network television, it’s difficult to tell which late-night host is covering the election best. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg debate which host can skewer the election best.
Goodman: [Meyers has] been a real revelation of late. Yep, the shift to the desk was smart and him getting such rich material in this election made that move truly pay off. Among the nightly hosts, nobody is even close to Meyers right now in terms of stingingly funny political observations — something I thought Colbert would own. Meyers is doing fantastic, sometimes angry, sometimes subtle political commentary and it’s been very impressive. I’d put Colbert right behind him for the daily hosts, and his qualitative résumé in that department can’t be disputed. Part of me misses him doing a full hour of that kind of satire or scathing take-downs, and some nights it appears he feels the same. Other times he seems just as happy to resume his new direction, which is understandable. I don’t think Corden or Fallon are really in the political comedy game at all. Kimmel has the funnier bits of those three but he’s also shown no interest in doubling the output.
Fienberg: Tuning in to Kimmel, Corden or Fallon for trenchant political commentary would be like watching”SportsCenter” for TV reviews. It’s just not what they do. Sometimes Kimmel has a man-on-the-street segment that properly zings the electorate, but they’re jesters of a different stripe. Colbert’s résumé for political commentary can’t be argued with, but that résumé is entirely built on stuff he did when he was a different guy. As Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, Colbert was incisive, cuttingly ironic and satirically self-lacerating. As the guy he currently is, who may be the guy he truly is, and he’s better than Kimmel, Corden or Fallon, but he almost never seems to have a POV, angry or otherwise. I think the question of tonal anger is important, because as Trump and Bernie Sanders are particularly proving, anger is driving the electorate and it’s also where Oliver and Bee so often live so comfortably (and it’s where Stewart was at home as well). Noah is being blamed for not being them because he’s not angry, and he’s being underestimated because his tone often comes with a smile and that sing-song delivery of his. Me, I give him credit for owning his voice. He and Oliver both have an outsiders’ perspective and they both approach the election with a “What are you American clowns doing?” But Noah doesn’t fear the apocalypse — and maybe he should.
4. Director of Photography Jarin Blaschke on “The Witch.” Robert Eggers’ new horror film “The Witch” has won over critics across the board and many audiences as well. Filmmaker Magazine’s Matt Mulcahey sits down with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke to discuss working on the film.
Filmmaker: Tell me about shooting in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Is that a tip of the hat to the influence of European cinema on”The Witch”?
Blaschke: No. I actually find 1.85, and especially 2.40, more unnatural rectangles in which to frame an image. I mean they were first devised as a gimmick to fight television in the 1950s, like 3D. The entire history of art and film up to that point was doing very nicely with 1.2 to 1.75:1 aspect ratios. I mean “Heart of the Andes” by [Frederic Edwin] Church, an epic a painting as I’ve ever seen, tops out at 1.80:1. And most films certainly aren’t conveying the scope of that monumental painting. Of course I’m happy to use, and normally use, 1.85 and 2.40 and like them for their more fragmented natures, but for this film 1.66 gives us a frame that evokes a history before the era of filmmaking to hopefully deliver something more timeless.
Filmmaker: Any time a movie features animals, I always think of the scene in Truffaut’s “Day for Night” where the film-within-a-film’s crew can’t get the cat to walk into frame and drink milk. You had quite the menagerie on “The Witch.” Any horror stories? I’ve read that Black Phillip was a bit of a pain in the ass.
Blaschke: Yes, he was. But he’s a goat, you can’t hate him for that. Most of the time he wouldn’t really do anything, except for some fluke accidents that we had to wait for, so we had some scenes where we had to just roll camera, chase him around with a Steadicam, and wait for something to happen. This is how I really hate to shoot. Working with him therefore forced a few serious changes in the script, most that ultimately made the movie better, though. The original script had something like a brief melee between William and Black Phillip. But after spending three hours and 27 takes on the first shot of this very physical scene, we utterly exhausted and ultimately injured [actor Ralph Ineson] because of our frustrated and confused and tired goat friend. We lost our day and Rob really had to rethink his ending. What we have now is simpler, stronger, and more meaningful to William’s character arc. We also had a scene where Thomasin goes to the goat shed to bed the goats. She was supposed to come across Black Phillip violently and disturbingly copulating with a nanny goat. For this to happen, we needed the fresh urine of a nanny goat in heat, and even then getting this difficult goat to mount another would be very questionable. Because of our remote location, we never found this golden urine so our shoot ended without that shot. For our small reshoot we didn’t have the goat so we all brainstormed over some bourbon one night for a simpler solution. And so it became a visit from the hare.
5. What It’s Like to Host a Political Debate? Speaking of the election season, the presidential debates have become hostile battlegrounds more so than usual, with just last night featuring Republican presidential candidates cracking dick jokes on national television while they vie for the highest office in the nation. The A.V. Club’s Caitlin PenzeyMoog interviews the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Zelazo Center’s Director of Facilities Randy Trumbull-Holper and Operations Manager Lisa Dickson about what it was like to host the Democratic debate.
The A.V. Club: How did it come about that the debate was held at the Zelazo Center at UW-Milwaukee?
Randy Trumbull-Holper: PBS approached us around late October. They knew they had a democratic debate — obviously at that time we had no idea how many candidates there’d be — but they looked at the Student Union as a possibility, they looked at the [basketball stadium at] Panther Arena as a possibility, and then Zelazo. And then they also went to Marquette [University] and looked at a theater there, and they looked at the Milwaukee Art Museum. So that was the first discussion. And then in November they had narrowed it to us or Marquette. And I think sometime in late December, early January, we found out that we were the site. But it wasn’t confirmed I think until mid- to late-January. They picked Zelazo specifically because they felt that the arena was too vast for what they were trying to do, and they felt that Student Union spaces were great, but they didn’t have the character they were really looking to bring into this debate in terms of the set. With Zelazo there are these columns and architecture that already exist in the space that they could play off in the set. And they actually did want a smaller room, because they were trying to get more of a town hall at one point.
AVC: Did you get a list of the requirements from each of the campaigns?
Lisa Dickson: Yes and no. Secret Service came in and looked at the different spaces, and where they wanted to place them… As far as requirements, a lot of that went through our external relations coordinator, and it was kind of done through a variety of different people.
RTH: Yeah. So there was a media consultant on the job, they kind of dealt with one portion of it; PBS obviously had their own contact who would negotiate with the DNC and the campaigns; and again you try your best to anticipate and say hey, do you need this, do you need this, do you need this, but last night I was running around trying to find a hand towel for Hillary Clinton, and it was one of those things that wasn’t on the list, but we’re like, “Yeah, we can probably find that.” And the bathroom where we put her makeup room ended up being a little too cold so we had to find a space heater, so it was just little stuff like that.
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