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Daily Reads: How ‘Nina’ Eventually Became a Disaster Movie, Why People Still Hate ‘Girls’ Hannah Horvath, and More

Daily Reads: How 'Nina' Eventually Became a Disaster Movie, Why People Still Hate 'Girls' Hannah Horvath, and More

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

1. How “Nina” Became a Disaster Movie.
The new Nina Simone biopic “Nina” has faced sharp criticism for its racist casting and has been plagued with behind-the-scenes fighting. Though eleven years in the making, it will be released under less-than-ideal circumstances. Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur reports on what went wrong with “Nina.”

The outcry against the casting of Saldana began immediately after it was announced in August 2012, and it grew loud enough that the “New York Times” wrote about the subject’s complexities. A consensus of media, scholars, and fans felt strongly — according to the “Times” — that casting the lighter-skinned Saldana, who is black and Latina, was an example of colorism, and that Simone’s physical image was of particular significance because the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist had “celebrated her looks, which were unconventional by show-business standards.” Most damningly, the article quoted Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, criticizing the filmmakers’ casting decision. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” Simone Kelly said. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.” (Saldana’s publicist said she was not available to be interviewed regarding “Nina.” Reached through Facebook, Simone Kelly said, “I have nothing more to say about ‘Nina.'”) While the clamor over the film ebbed — mostly because it’s taken so long to be released — it erupted again after the trailer was released in March. On “Jezebel,” Kara Brown wrote, “One of the most harmful products of anti-black racism is the notion that our proximity to whiteness increases our beauty and desirability, not just to white people, but also to each other. By simply existing, Nina Simone confronted this lie.” In “The Atlantic,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “There is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of ‘Nina’ is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem.” And after Saldana tweeted a Simone quotation — “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me- No Fear… I mean really, no fear” — the Simone estate’s official Twitter account smacked back: “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”

2. Hannah Horvath, Why Do We (Still) Hate Thee?
HBO’s “Girls” is having a stellar year in its fifth season receiving some of the highest critical acclaim since its first two years on the air. As a result, there has been more critical writing about the series this year than usual. Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk examines Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath and her divisive qualities.

Throughout “Girls'” run, this is the returning indictment of Hannah Horvath — her utter and complete self-absorption. It’s there in the pilot as she takes the tip her parents leave for their hotel housekeeper, it’s there as she interrupts Patti LuPone’s recording session to get some quotes for an article, and it’s all over season five, as she spreads her legs in front of her boss to avoid trouble, and later forces Ray into a blow job he explicitly does not want, thereby crashing his coffee truck. She has no boundaries. Her image of herself spills all over the world she views, transforming every problem and every success into a Hannah Horvath–shaped development. She is every hammer, and also every nail. There are important ways to read our intense distaste for Hannah that put her in wider culture contexts. Why is it, for example, that we find Hannah’s solipsism so powerfully detestable, but we find similar traits in a figure like Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” character to be comedic? Could it be because we consider male self-absorption to be quirky and expected, while those same traits in women are monstrous? Or, how much is our Hannah-hatred a dislike of her, and how much of it is symptomatic of bigger cultural discussions of millennials and narcissism? (This example cuts both ways — we hate Hannah for representing a cohort of millennial narcissists, and we hate her for misrepresenting that same group). We want so badly to see these characters grow, and to become functional, happy, confident, and thoughtful people. We want this in part because we identify with the characters we see in fiction, and it’s painful to watch them fail. But we also want this for her, because in constantly failing to meet our expectations for adulthood and growth, she regularly fails our cultural, societal requirement of what a successful person looks like. And she does this regardless of whether the standard you hold her to is based on the way women should act, or the way young people should act, or the way Brooklynites should act. Hannah never plays along with what we want her to be. Beyond that cultural framework, though, there’s another way to consider Hannah’s strangely potent impact on her audience: as a character on a TV show. She is, after all, not a real person, and not a direct extension of her creator, much though that conflation seems to plague her critics. She’s a construction, made for the express purpose of being viewed by others, and so it’s especially befuddling that she’s so constantly bad at pleasing us.

3. Louis C.K., “Horace and Pete,” and Our Fractured Media Landscape.
After word came out that the commercial failure of Louis C.K.’s experimental web drama “Horace and Pete” had put the comedian and auteur in millions of dollars of debt, a debate sprung up about modern business models, peak TV, and the worth of art. The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch examines the fallout from “Horace and Pete” and our fractured media landscape.

Much has been made of the show’s cost, and I think Matt Zoller Seitz’s comments are both representative and true, to a point. “It seems bizarre to me that people would consider $3 an episode exorbitant when a single drink in a bar can cost twice that,” the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com noted on Twitter, comparing an episode’s expense to the cost of a bag of chips and soda a couple of minutes later. This is a good counter to anyone who might defend, say, illicitly pirating the show on the pretense that they can’t afford it. “Not wanting to pay for” something is not synonymous with “not being able to afford” something, and anytime someone says that they’re too poor to pay for HBO so it’s cool that they download “Game of Thrones,” you should give them the stink eye and keep tabs on how many Natty Bohs they drink at the next happy hour. That being said, C.K.’s “Horace and Pete” experiment was designed in a way to discourage binge-viewing: By simply asking viewers to decide before each episode if they wanted to pay to keep going, he erected a steep barrier. Especially since it’s not the, ah, happiest program in the world, something akin to “Cheers” set in Purgatory. (*At least, that’s about what it feels like through the first two episodes; that’s how much I’ve watched thus far.) Imagine a Skinner Box — you know, the little experimental chamber where rats hit a button and get a reward — that fills you with existential angst every time you pull the lever. Would you pay $3 for the privilege? In particular, would you pay $3 if you’re already paying the better part of $300 a month for other entertainment options? Part of Louis C.K.’s problem is that he’s at the bleeding edge of artist-driven televisual self-distribution. Many of us are already throwing down money on a cable subscription, a Netflix subscription, an Amazon Prime subscription, a Hulu subscription. And the broadcast networks are moving into their own streaming services; CBS hopes to entice you to subscribe to “CBS All Access” with a new Star Trek series. One imagines the other nets won’t be far behind.

4. James Cameron’s “Avatar” Literally Made Me Poop My Pants.
Yesterday James Cameron announced his intention to release four “Avatar” sequels in the next few years, and Twitter all but broke out into yet another squabble about the worth of the original “Avatar” and whether or not they’re actually anticipating another four films in the series. At Thrillest, critic Jordan Hoffman tells a story of how in the lead up to James Cameron’s film, he soiled himself waiting for a phone call from the director. It’s very funny.

On a Saturday, a few weeks before “Avatar’s” release, my advocate at the studio would put Cameron on the phone with me after a day of meetings. And I’d be prepared to take the call from home. Easy. This is where it becomes important to remember it’s 2009. For me to record a phone call for eventual transcription, I had to pull a Linda Tripp and attach a little doohickey from Radio Shack onto my (cough) land line telephone. Or I would have if I had a modern phone — mine was vintage. For whatever reason, I couldn’t record off of it. Not a problem. In times of special need, I would drag out an enormous late-’80s fax machine that fit my recorder. Because the fax machine has a short, specific phone jack, I could only plug it in on the very far end of my sizable railroad apartment. Keep this image in mind. “Avatar” Saturday comes. I’ve got a stack of insightful questions ready to go. James Cameron would call at noon, then my seven or eight minutes will begin. Every second counted. I waited and ran through my questions. I waited some more. Then noon passed. No Cameron. At 12:30pm, I send an email. At 12:45, his handler responds. “He’s tied up, we’re calling soon, hang in there.” Now it’s 1pm. Now it’s 1:30pm. Another email: “Any minute.” Now it’s 2pm. Now it’s, ugh, it’s 2:26. I’m pacing, I’m sweaty, I’m frantic. I’m getting emails from Ed asking about the call. He’s promised his boss we’re gonna drop a huge bomb this weekend. I’m pacing more. More time passes, and I feel something in my stomach. A few more minutes, and I can no longer ignore my digestive system. I need to void my bowels. I can’t do this now, that’s ridiculous, James Cameron is about to take time away from transforming cinema to call me — ME — right here at home, on my antiquated fax machine with my Linda Tripp recorder attachment. It’s 2:51. It’s 3:06. Any minute, any minute. It’s 3:29. Oh God, I’m gonna blow. I gotta go. I’m gonna run to the bathroom, respond to the call of nature as quickly as humanly possible, and run back across the apartment to give the greatest interview in the history of entertainment journalism. I race to the bathroom, drop my trousers around my ankles, sit on the bowl, and just as I am about to commence the act: BRRRRRRRRRNNNNNGGGGGGGGG!

5. Misleading Men: Australia’s Biggest Exports.
We Are Mel publishes a column called “Misleading Men” that examines actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment. In the latest entry, Tim Grierson examines Paul Hogan and how he rode the way of Hollywood’s fascination with Australia.

Paul Hogan had such a long career that reducing it to a single blockbuster movie is kind of insulting. George Miller’s “Mad Max” came out in 1979, sparking Hollywood’s interest in the Australian landscape. The film starred Mel Gibson, who grew up in Australia, but was born in the United States. But long before Australian actors dominated Hollywood’s A-list, long before directors like Baz Luhrmann were given big budgets to create epics like 2008’s “Australia” (a bomb, but one that featured Aussie elites Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), came the peak of Australian cinema: Paul Hogan and his 1986 film “Crocodile Dundee”  —  the second-highest-grossing film of that year in the U.S., and a worldwide phenomenon. Before Hogan made it to Hollywood, he had to work his way up back in Australia: Hogan first appeared on “New Faces”  —  a kind of “Star Search” meets “America’s Got Talent”  —  and the news program “A Current Affair.” He had been working as a rigger and painted on Sydney Harbour Bridge, and his co-workers dared him to try out for the talent show, famous for judges who heckled the “talent.” As Hogan later recalled about his “New Faces” appearance, “I went on to persecute the professionals…I gave [the judges] a big taste of their own medicine. But it was very accurate and it was funny. I picked out all of their shortcomings, pointed them out and told them what to work on.” He would become the show’s Grand Final Winner in 1973; He was 34 years old. It worked, and Hogan would soon get his own sketch show. Premiering for Australian audiences in 1973, “The Paul Hogan Show” was slapstick-heavy, “Benny Hill”-style humor that spoofed cop shows, product placement and celebrities of the day like John McEnroe. None of it was very edgy, but the show was deeply silly and likeable throughout its 11-year run.Hogan came across as an affable, low-key star, always playing the role with aw-shucks modesty, as if he couldn’t quite believe he’d been given his own show. It was a huge hit in his homeland, and syndicated in 40 other countries.

“I Don’t Know Whether to Kiss You or Spank You”: A Half Century of Fear of an Unspanked Woman. In the early days of Hollywood, there were plenty of films that featured spousal spanking and that it stirred romance between them. At the Pictorial blog at Jezebel, Andrew Heisel explores the history of spanking on film.

In early 1946, a woman from Carmel, California wrote the Hollywood fan magazine “Screenland” to say how much she had enjoyed the recent Christmas release Frontier Gal — not just for its lovely performers and dazzling Technicolor vistas, but for saving her marriage by teaching her husband to spank her. After he’d returned from the war, she’d struggled to warm up to him again, she wrote, which caused a problem — and here was the solution. “In desperation, after seeing the show, he tried little Beverly’s philosophy,” wrote Mrs. J.B.M. “Daddies spank mamas because they love them. While this old-fashioned approach probably wouldn’t work in all cases, it did for us, and I would appreciate an opportunity to publicly thank Universal and ‘Frontier Gal.'” The letter is mysterious — is it describing erotic play, or spousal abuse? — but the context is less so. “Frontier Gal” was one of at least five movies with scenes of women being spanked released in 1945 alone. Though the movie culminates in a minute-long spanking of its star Yvonne De Carlo, the plot device was so unremarkable as to not even make the reviews. From the beginnings of cinema up through the 1960s, a spanking was just a routine part of a certain type of screen romance…For decades, in movie after movie, wily women were rendered the children of the men who loved them. It was entertaining. It was light fun. It was comfort for a culture uneasy about the advance of women’s liberation. It was, in countless period pieces, a way to revise history, to reassure Americans that the liberated woman had always been a problem and there was a time-honored, lovingly disciplinary solution. The film spanking was both a mirror and a model — Mrs. J.B.M. wasn’t the only one getting spanked, just one of few women off-screen who didn’t mind.

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