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Daily Reads: An Oral History of ‘All the President’s Men,’ A.O. Scott on the Relevance of Film Criticism, and More

Daily Reads: An Oral History of 'All the President's Men,' A.O. Scott on the Relevance of Film Criticism, and More

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

1. An Oral History of “All The President’s Men.”
Forty years ago this year, Alan J. Pakula’s journalism thriller “All the President’s Men” about Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal entered theaters and brought Hollywood conceptions of “cool” to the button-down world of DC politics. It was later nominated for eight Academy Awards winning four of them. At the Washingtonian, Michael J. Gaynor conducts an oral history of the making of that classic film.

[Carl] Bernstein: “Both Redford and Hoffman did more than shadow us for a few months; they kind of half-lived with us. I introduced [Hoffman] to friends, he came to a family Seder at my parents’ house, we hung out at the Booeymonger in Georgetown. He kind of became a reporter. He studied relationships I had, my history. I remember he wanted my watch — he wore my watch during the film.”

[Harry] Rosenfeld: 
“Someone told Dustin Hoffman that I insisted my male reporters own a necktie, so that if they had to be sent out on an assignment that by my sensibility required a necktie, it would be available for them. Hoffman was amused by that, and he didn’t own one. So he went out and bought one and with a flourish came into my office and said, ‘Look, I bought a necktie!'”

[Robert] Redford at the 2006 Panel Discussion:
 “Bob was really a tricky guy. ‘Cause I’d say, ‘Bob, you seem like a pretty dull guy.’ And he says, ‘No, that’s right, I am.’ And I said, ‘That’s not great for me to play that. Can you give me any clue of some kind?’ [Bob said,] ‘No, I’m telling you, Carl’s the exciting guy. I’m not interesting at all.’…After I’d spent a lot of time with Bob, I realized that that part of Woodward, that kind of flat, polite, kind of gentle, slow-talking manner was basically a front for a person with a killer instinct…So that’s when I realized I did in fact have something to play…

2. A.O. Scott on the Relevance of the Movie Critic.
Three years ago this week, legendary film critic Roger Ebert passed away, so it’s only natural for other film critics and writer to wonder about relevance of film criticism, even if that line of thinking only leads to a black hole of irrelevant and unproductive self-doubt. For Keyframe, Sam Fragoso interviews New York Times film critic A.O. Scott about his new book “Better Living Through Criticism,” film criticism as a profession, and everything in between.

Sam Fragoso: 
Your hiring at “The New York Times” has always reminded me of when they tapped Renata Adler to be film critic. People werent so pleased, right?

A. O. Scott: It was similar to Renata, I was pretty young. She was even younger. I was thirty-three and I had no track record as a film critic whatsoever. I had written a couple of pieces that had to do with film, including a pretty long essay about Martin Scorsese at “Slate,” which was the piece that had gotten the attention of the “Times” editors. I had crashed a charmed circle that I had not been invited to, and got a very coveted job that a lot of people wanted or felt that they deserved or felt that friends of theirs deserved. There were a couple critics, like Roger Ebert and Michael Wilmington, who had things to say about it. Wilmington (at the Chicago Tribune) had written a column about how terrible I was before I had even published a word in the “Times.”

Fragoso: Were you petrified going in on day one?

Scott: Certainly. I was stepping out onto this big stage and not sure how to do it. I was arrogant enough to think that I could do it. I felt like I had something to prove; I needed to show these people that I was for real, that I belonged, that I could do this, and that I could do it well enough, and maybe I could even do it better than people who had been doing it for all of their careers. It’s not for me to judge whether that came true or not.

Fragoso: How long did that first review take?

Scott: My first review was of “My Dog Skip.” I started in January, and the movies released in January are not necessarily masterpieces, but “My Dog Skip” was loosely based on a memoir by Willie Morris, the novelist and journalist, and I read it and read everything he had written. And the review itself was probably 600 words. But yes, I sweated through it.

3. A Room of One’s Own: The Films of Chantal Akerman.
Cinephiles, filmmakers, and critics are all still mourning the loss of director Chantal Akerman and the indelible mark she left on the medium. For Movie Mezzanine, Willow Maclay examines Akerman’s final film, “No Home Movie,” as well as the rest of her career.

Akerman’s body of work rewards exploration, but her compositions reward analysis. The critical narrative around her work is one of difficulty, but Akerman is a director of possibility as long as you enter her world on her terms. Take the opening of “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” (1974), in which a woman rearranges furniture, writes a letter over and over, removes her clothes and eats sugar. None of these things necessarily correlate into a point-A-to-point-B narrative, but it is evocative of a specific mood that’s also prominent in “Jeanne Dielman,” “The Meetings of Anna” (1978) and “Toute une Nuit” (1982) — one of the (female) private space. The most striking image in “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” is of a nude Akerman, back arched, sitting in front of a shower. The angles of the wall as well as her back create a beautiful contrast, and the black-and-white image physically deepens because of how she has framed herself. The chasm-like image was not something typically present in movies up to that point, and the ability to show a woman with no window-dressing or perceived intentions about what she should be doing or how she should present herself remains powerful even in today’s cinematic climate. It’s evocative, because she exists purely for herself, away from the male gaze, and in her own defined space. “Je, Tu, Il, Elle,” like much of Akerman’s work, could carry the subtitle “A Room of One’s Own.” The interior space of women’s lives is the reason why “Jeanne Dielman,” her unequivocal masterpiece, exists. In an interview with the Criterion Collection in 2009, Akerman states, “It all came very easily, because I’d seen it all around me. It was in my blood. I made this film to give all these actions that are typically devalued a life on film.” She is, of course, referring to the day-to-day housework conducted by women; Akerman sought out to give these tasks a resonance in cinema. Making the bed, doing the dishes, and preparing meals for men was never something given much mind, especially not in the male-dominated film industry. But with “Jeanne Dielman,” she pulled the rug out from underneath the male gaze, asking viewers to closely observe what a woman does and thus grasp the confinement of the routines that were expected of women. Akerman cast Delphine Seyrig in the lead because she wasn’t the type of person you normally see doing the dishes. “Men were blind to their wives doing dishes,” Akerman later says in that Criterion interview, “but with Delphine, it would suddenly become visible.” She wanted to equalize women to make a statement that this is something we all are taught with this gender role.

4. “Horace and Pete,” Silence, and the Failure of the Patriarchy.
TV critics are still reeling from the conclusion to Louis C.K.’s web series “Horace and Pete” last Saturday, with appraisals only coming out this week. Vulture’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz examines the series’ use of silence and its examination of the failure of the patriarchy.

It’s also respectful of the raggedness and spontaneity of life. Apparent mistakes are left in: an actor stammering through a monologue with many twists and turns; a character snagging her coat on a chair as she storms out of the bar. As in a three-camera sitcom, the camera stays on one side of the axis of action, as if to represent the vantage point of an unseen ticket buyer, but that’s where any comparison to the standard TV comedy ends. There is no studio audience or laugh track. There is no soundtrack music save for Paul Simon’s brief, haunting theme song, which plays as intro music, end-credits music, and in the middle, implying an “intermission.” And, in contrast to almost any bar you’ve visited, the boozy, self-pitying, sometimes hostile conversations at Horace and Pete’s unfold in spooky quiet: no Spotify playlist, no jukebox, nada, except when a patron played by Tom Noonan briefly plays on an unseen upright piano. You see patrons in the background “speaking” to each other, but there is no burble of background talk. The only audible talkers are the characters having the most important conversation of that moment, and when we leave them to eavesdrop on someone else (even if they’re a couple of stools away), we don’t hear that first conversation continuing. The show’s ethos could be summed up as Let’s slow everything down and concentrate on one thing at a time. The “one thing” is the validity of personal emotion: We feel the way we feel about things, and it’s usually better for other people to try to understand why we’re feeling things and let us tell our story rather than try to delegitimize the feelings or suggest a “solution” that might not work for us. “Horace and Pete’s” characters are all storytellers of one kind or another, and the show lets them tell their stories at length, while the other characters listen; when they fail to listen, often because they’re not willing to pay attention to somebody else’s story because it’s preventing them from telling their own, they get cranky and start interrupting or nitpicking or trying to derail the story. And that’s how arguments break out, not just between major characters but one-scene cameo players, such as the journalist in a later episode who confessed she finally achieved her dream of working for “The New Yorker” but felt only disappointment, and her date, who grew increasingly frustrated at her failure to acknowledge the fact that his father was an astronaut and one of the few humans to have walked on the moon. The problem there, as is often increasingly the case in 21st-century life, is that they were never actually having a conversation: They were just delivering adjacent monologues broken up by the other person’s expressions of impatience.

5. Why We’ll Never Forget Robert Mapplethorpe.
The controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is best known for his sensitive depictions of everything from celebrity portraits to the underground world of BDSM in the 1960’s and ’70s. Rolling Stone’s Jerry Portwood examines the new HBO documentary on Mapplethorpe and why we’ll never forget him.

Robert Mapplethorpe decided he was an important artist long before he was even making important art. Growing up in 1950s Queens, New York, he escaped to art school in Brooklyn, searching for a way to transform himself. He was the outcast who took drugs and dressed weird, until he found his path to stardom. That ambition shines through in the new HBO documentary, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.” Directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey — the producers of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” who have also examined oddballs and outliers in documentaries such as “Party Monster,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Inside Deep Throat” — the film allows us to linger on many of those sensational images of men in states of agony and arousal, blurring gender and sexuality that continue to provoke with their questions about what can be beautiful and what can be art. His early self-portrait in which he looks at the camera with a bullwhip for a tail can be seen as a taunt and a promise of his power. Even more than the aesthetic merits of the photographs, however, is the narrative of striving that transformed Mapplethorpe from a fringe photographer into one of the most collectable artists of the last half of the 20th century. The film begins with the voice of Senator Jesse Helms exhorting everyone to, “Look at the pictures!” He was protesting an exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work that he viewed as pornographic, and we see the conservative politician waving what he viewed as smut, seeking to inflame the culture wars, despite the fact that Mapplethorpe had died just a few months prior at the age of 42 of AIDS. That protest turned out to solidify the artist’s legend, and the documentary continues to burnish his reputation. “We took all our cues in making this film from Robert,” Barbato tells “Rolling Stone.” “From the humor in it and explicitness, to the volume of artwork that we show — because we feature almost 500 images of his art — that we’re almost shocked that it’s going to be shown anywhere because it’s so explicit! We feel like a golden shower or a fist fucking image deserves a Ken Burns treatment.”

6. The Lousiness and Harmfulness of “God’s Not Dead 2.”
Harold Cronk’s “God’s Not Dead 2,” the sequel to the smash-hit faith-based film “God’s Not Dead,” has garnered less-than-glowing reviews from both secular and religious critics. For Patheos, Peter T. Chattaway reviews “God’s Not Dead 2,” and examines the lousiness and harmfulness of the film.

Like its predecessor, “God’s Not Dead 2” is competently made on a technical level, but on a creative level it represents the worst kind of storytelling — not just because it is full of plot holes and thinly-written characters, but because it espouses a harmful message. It encourages sloppy thinking and sloppy apologetics, and it encourages deeper divisions between Christians and their non-Christian neighbors. Films, at their best, can encourage a kind of empathy, but there’s no room for that in a film like this that draws clear lines between its heroes and its villains. Kane, the ACLU lawyer, is a hater pure and simple, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if he had had reasonable or even commendable motives for objecting to teachers talking about sensitive religious issues in a public classroom? An atheist parent says at one point that teachers shouldn’t contradict what atheist parents have taught their children — but haven’t Christian parents also asked teachers to respect what their children are taught at home? There could be room for common ground here, but the film would rather dig trenches and prepare for war. And “war” is indeed one of the metaphors used by this film. If you stick around to the end of the credits, you’ll even see a bonus scene that hints at where this “war” could go if the series gets as far as a third film. “God’s Not Dead” and its sequel belong to a strange genre of paranoid wish-fulfillment fantasies: they tell their audience that the world is out to get them, but they also hint that it’s possible for Christians to have their stories celebrated by Christian rock bands playing in sold-out stadiums. Whether you think Christians are an oppressed minority or (as the box-office success of films like this might indicate) a demographic with some clout, the sort of tribalism espoused by these films isn’t helping anybody.

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