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Daily Reads: A Fond Farewell to ‘American Idol,’ The Story of ‘The Bad News Bears,’ and More

Daily Reads: A Fond Farewell to 'American Idol,' The Story of 'The Bad News Bears,' and More

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

1. A Fond Farewell to “American Idol.”
Last night, the long-running singing competition show “American Idol,” credited for bringing reality television into the mainstream and whose success was entirely unprecedented, came to a close. NPR’s Linda Holmes pays tribute to “American Idol” phenomenon, even when it was “too rooted in people voting via telephone calls.”

When the show, which concludes its run Thursday night, started in June 2002, the first publicly available iPhone was almost five years away. Imagine starting a show today where you asked people interested in pop music to use a phone to dial a toll-free number. You might as well ask them to vote by waving a fountain pen at a dodo. Sure, text and online voting came along later, but at the outset, it was audience engagement by telephone call. That says something about just how long this show hung on. And on. Tonight’s battle between La’Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon will be its last. The keys to the show’s long-running success? For one thing, it was different (at the time). It offered nasty (but often right) Simon Cowell at one end of the scale and sweet (but sometimes hard to parse) Paula Abdul at the other, with catch-phrase-y (but extraneous) Randy Jackson in the middle. There was, at first, a strange thrill in seeing people’s dreams dashed, as if we were all gradually reclaiming every moment we’d spent listening to performances we didn’t think were very good from people who seemed to…well, who seemed to have whatever you would call the opposite problem from not knowing your own strength. But had it just been a chance to gang up on moderately talented dreamers, it would have been rapidly supplanted by YouTube commenting. It has always been my theory that the key to “Idol’s” success lay in the notoriously dastardly practice known in psychology as intermittent reinforcement. I think of it informally as “the way to make rats go mad,” but that’s not really right: In this case, what it means is that you usually didn’t hear particularly great performances, but every now and then, something really special would happen. And that’s how they got you. At least that’s how they got me.

2. The Story of “The Bad News Bears” On Its 40th Anniversary.
40 years ago, Walter Matthau led a rag-tag bunch of misfits on a Little League team to…well, not victory, but definitely into the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere. The New York Daily News’ Christian Reid details the story of the making of “The Bad News Bears.”

“We were a rather crude bunch of kids unleashed on the baseball park. This was 1975 when we filmed it. A different time. They had trashcans full of ice and Heineken for the crew, because it was really hot. I guess that was the incentive of the crew to hang in there, deal with a bunch of crazy kids,” says Cruz, another L.A. native who still lives there. “I can’t really speak for other people, but I helped myself to the crew’s freebies on a daily basis. I was between seventh and eighth grade that summer. I was 13, already off and running, smoking pot, drinking. I was into surfing and skateboarding. There were extras – people my age and older that lived around the park where we filmed – that liked to hang out with us. One older girl had pot on the set. We were happy to go across the street to her house. Nobody knew where we were half the time. We just kind of ran wild. Some of us. Some of them were really good kids. And some of us were doing our thing. It was fun.” That kind of rebel nature and irreverence embodied the language and tone of the script, but despite a heavy dose of racial epithets and profanity, none of the actors today say that they or their parents were overly shocked when they first read the screenplay. Not even when the character Tanner Boyle (Chris Barnes) delivers his famous screed after the team’s first practice is an unmitigated disaster. “If we keep playing like this we’ll be the laughingstock of the league,” says Bears pitcher/outfielder Rudi Stein. “Well what do you expect? All we got on this team is a bunch of Jews, Sp–s, n—–s, pansies and a booger-eating moron,” says Tanner. The “moron” refers to perennial Bears benchwarmer Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith). Tanner later adds a sarcastic “and now a girl?” to the sentence when Whurlitzer joins the team. “To tell you the truth, to us kids, it was just true to life,” says Haley, 54. “I’m sure everyone was giggling, ‘Oh look, we get to cuss in front of everybody.’ At the same time, zero shock. This is exactly what it’s like at school. I’m sure it’s that and worse now.”

3. Why “The Girlfriend Experience” Is The Best Film About the 2008 Financial Collapse.
Starz’s new original series “The Girlfriend Experience” premieres this Sunday. Loosely based on the Steven Soderbergh film of the same name, the series follows a high-end escort plying her trade among her rich New York clientele. For We Are Mel, Tim Grierson argues that Soderbergh’s film is the best film about the 2008 financial crisis.

“The Girlfriend Experience’s” relevant obsession with money was partly a product of good fortune. The film, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, had begun development in 2006, but when it came time to shoot in the fall of 2008, the financial crisis was dominating the news. “By design, the people that are cast in the film are encouraged to speak for themselves and to say whatever’s on their minds,” Soderbergh told “Filmmaker” around “The Girlfriend Experience’s” release. “It just happened to be a weird circumstance that we shot the movie in October of last year and all anybody was thinking about was money and, secondarily, the election.” Soderbergh purposefully chose non-professional actors for major roles  —  including model and personal trainer Chris Santos to play Christine’s personal-trainer boyfriend and film critic Glenn Kenny as a self-described “erotic connoisseur” whose “review” of Christine could make or break her career. The director’s strategy helped give the film an air of unpolished, documentary-like realism, making the characters’ shared anxiety all the more believable. There are very few scenes in “The Girlfriend Experience” in which money isn’t being discussed. As a result, “The Girlfriend Experience,” now quite a few years removed from the financial crisis, still elicits the same queasy feeling. Because it was filmed as the crisis and the election were looming, the film has a you-are-there quality, but its time-capsule value extends beyond that. The film hangs heavy with dread: The sky is falling and nobody knows what to do. And unlike these recent Wall-Street-is-evil films, “The Girlfriend Experience” isn’t set directly in the financial world. Christine’s clients come from all different walks of life  —  including more than a few from the entertainment industry  —  which lends the movie a broader perspective. This was a crisis that affected everyone, not just the day traders. And whether it’s Christine’s wealthy johns or her boyfriend (who’s struggling to get a sports clothing line off the ground), everybody’s hurting.

4. Why Does Cinema Still Demonize Grieving Mothers?
Throughout film history, cinema has had a strange relationship with grieving mothers, with writers and directors often forcing the characters to do dastardly, insane things out of grief. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee explores why cinema still demonizes grieving mothers in the context of two recently released films.

“There is still a romanticized notion of motherhood in our culture,” says Denise Turner, a lecturer in social work at the University of Sussex whose research focuses on bereaved parents. “To be an archetypal ‘mother’ is to be selfless: endlessly loving and without negative emotion. To be a ‘good’ mother is also to nurture your children – certainly not to ‘let’ your child die. There are ever-increasing expectations on mothers to entertain and nurture children, often to impossible standards. Therefore, death is the ultimate failure of motherhood.” The scant choice of female backstories offered by cinema – and the offensiveness of many of them – can be seen as one of the more obvious iterations of a longstanding inequality that is being addressed in the current diversity debate. But it is also one of the most insidious. Identical ideas are transferred from film to film, regardless of genre or psychological ambition, and as cliches become tropes, so they move further into the realm of received cultural wisdom. “The Ones Below,” for instance, is a sister to 2007 French thriller “Inside,” and last year’s Isla Fisher vehicle “Visions” both of which have pregnant women targeted by grieving mothers fixated with their fetuses. “Many women – and some men – who have experienced miscarriage can feel very jealous of women with babies,” says Ruth Bender-Atik, national director of the Miscarriage Association. “But there is a world of difference between wanting that baby to be yours and actually taking it. Fictional media – and to some extent the print and broadcast media – can still be driven by exaggeration and shock.” The message from cinema is clear: women whose children have died are dangerous and if they won’t try and steal someone else’s, they will make life hell for any “functional” family. “I think that culturally we need mothers to go mad because it is unthinkable to us that children die – mothers cannot ‘survive’ this event because we can’t survive this event,” says Turner. “It’s also possible that there is a cultural penitence in mothers going mad it’s their punishment for letting the child die.”

5. Last Film, Best Film: On Cinephilia and a Filmmaker’s Late Career.
A while ago, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody tweeted that if someone likes a director’s early work best, they don’t really like their work because an artist grows over time. Last night, Brody expanded on that claim in a post about cinephilia and imaginative sympathy.

The experience of art is the virtual encounter with artists, and going to look for them is like going to look for friends — impossible or pathetic. The mark of personality that gets affixed to a work, the name or names of its creators, is no banner but the very mark of artistic consciousness. Yet nothing seems to provoke or rile some critics more than an idea that’s already venerable and that has spawned more or less the entire cinematic scene since it first got voice: the idea that the director is a film’s author. No one sees the director but everyone sees the actors, so the notion of directorial authorship flies in the face of common sense as well as of the theatrical tradition on which movies appear to be based. Yet the very notion of authorship (whether with movies or books or elsewhere) isn’t a theory, a policy, or a wish — it’s either the viewer’s experience or it’s nothing at all. The reason why this idea has proven inspirational to filmmakers and critics alike, and why it has gained a significant measure of traction among general viewers as well, is that it’s a common experience, one that brought the cinema into line with the other arts at exactly the moment when a generation raised with talking pictures understood movies as their prime artistic vernacular — which, for successive generations, it still is. It’s when artists reach their later years that they tend to be more themselves, that they separate themselves from whatever system or industry or conventions gave rise to their talents. It’s in later years that artists tend to be freer, to give less of a shit than they did when they were younger, to affirm their ideas and their passions with less inhibition. An affinity for particular artists — in effect, a close virtual personal relationship with particular artists — involves a craving for the fullness of their character, for its self-revelation in a display of its widest and wildest range of powers and possibilities. Of course, directorial “authorship” doesn’t happen as a rule but only when a director exerts sufficient control over a movie to make it so. But it’s not a matter of contractual relations, of final-cut or backstage battles, of designing the angles and pointing the camera (sometimes it even involves a renunciation of that option). Artistic authority is a matter of vibes, of world-making, and it arises not through a smart shot list and a detailed storyboard and a tyrannical reduction of actors to marionettes (though these elements figure in some great movies) but from filmmakers’ presence and bearing — their relations with cast, crew, and producers, the creation of a tone and a mood that is essentially continuous on- and offscreen. Directing is a matter of style, which is inseparable from filmmakers’ personal style.

6. One of the Sickest Exploitation Films Ever Somehow Spawned Three Sequels.
The A.V. Club’s “Run The Series” examines film franchises and how they evolve and change with each new installment. Past entries have looked at “Rocky,” “The Exorcist,” and “Resident Evil” series. This week, Vadim Rizov explores the “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS” franchise, some of the sickest exploitation films in history.

Admittedly excellent title aside, it’s very hard to defend “Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS.” The movie is sadistic in the most unpleasant way possible, prioritizing violence over very weak sex scenes. By sociology professor Lynn Rapaport’s count, there are 44 torture scenes but only five that actually feature sex. One of these is the first, introducing Ilsa with an anonymous lover. She tells him to wait, he can’t control himself, and she slumps over, muttering in a sort of monstrous Marlene Dietrich-meets-Bela Lugosi parody “You should heff vaited.” This dialect is a key feature of Dyanne Thorne’s performance in all the films, a sort of dinner-theater parody of menacing Teutonism that’s bewilderingly unlike anything real. Ilsa subsequently has the young concentration camp victim castrated, contributing his member to a museum designed to prove that his race is inferior in that anatomic respect as well. The Nazism on display is strictly of the fetish/camp variety, with a heavy emphasis on form-fitting, top-button-open tops for Ilsa, whips and cat-o’-nine-tails for flogging, etc. It’s part of a general trend Susan Sontag noted in 1975: “the SS has become a reference of sexual adventurism […] in the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear.” The fetish aspect is textbook and basically innocuous; the leering violence is something else. Ilsa’s catalogue of heavy-makeup sadism — deliberately infected women (stripped nude, naturally) having maggots introduced into their wounds, etc. — is close to “Salo,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s litany of Nazi sex crimes committed against teenagers. The difference is that “Salo” clearly signals that no viewer should enjoy themselves, let alone get an erotic charge from the action on screen, whatever its fetishistic charge. “Ilsa,” by contrast, is for precisely the kind of person who enjoys combining staring at breasts while violence against women occurs. With her castrating ways and literally murderous insatiability, Ilsa is a walking vagina dentata. Only a dreamboat named Wolfe can subdue her; as an improbably chiseled American POW, Gregory Knoph staggers through with brick-like self-confidence. It turns out he never needs to ejaculate; as he explains to camp buddy Mario (Tony Mumolo), he’s “a sort of human machine, a machine that can set its control to fast, slow, or never.” (“My god,” Mario solemnly replies.) When he returns from his first bedroom session, he re-enters the bunk to a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” drum-and-fife, drawing the link between virile American battlefield prowess and sexual macho.

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