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Daily Reads: Remembering Roger Ebert Through His Reviews, the Seismic Shift in the World of Film Festivals, and More

Daily Reads: Remembering Roger Ebert Through His Reviews, the Seismic Shift in the World of Film Festivals, and More

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

1. Remembering Roger Ebert Through 13 of His Reviews.
Three years ago yesterday, legendary film critic Roger Ebert passed away. Forever a titan of criticism, Ebert’s legacy lives on through his many disciples and followers, along with his work archived on his website. RogerEbert.com Editor-in-Chief Matt Zoller Seitz remembers Ebert by annotating 13 of his reviews, including his best and his most controversial. (Criticwire encourages you, the reader, to follow the link and read Ebert’s reviews, but here we will only provide Seitz’s annotations.)

On “A Clockwork Orange”:
 Roger called Stanley Kubrick’s film “an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning. It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex.” This is one of those instances where consensus says Roger “got it wrong,” but I don’t think he did, exactly. It’s possible to think that a film is worth seeing while still feeling that it’s not perfect in every way. Here, as in his review of “Blue Velvet” — another violent and disturbing movie that Roger had problems with, and that is mostly adored by critics — the critic admires the movie’s craft and originality (and says so) but distrusts aspects of its vision. He asks whether the film is getting off on its images of cruelty, and whether it ought to. That’s an important question rarely asked by people who push “A Clockwork Orange” as an unmitigated classic. Caveats like “If the film disturbs you, it has done its job” are sometimes trotted out reflexively, without subjecting movies to the scrutiny that Roger brings here. For what it’s worth, other prominent viewers have accused “A Clockwork Orange” of using the story of a criminal’s psychological rape by the state as an excuse to encourage viewers to revel in the exploits of a rapist and batterer. Pauline Kael questioned the film’s methods, and Quentin Tarantino once said, “I don’t think Stanley Kubrick was condemning violence in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ He wanted to film that stuff. It was cinematically exciting.” Even if you disagree with Roger’s conclusion, here or with “Blue Velvet” or any other acclaimed film that he disliked, it’s good to have his nagging voice in your head as you watch. It keeps you honest.

2. The Seismic Shift in the World of Film Festivals.
To state the obvious, film festivals are important because it provides a venue for filmmakers to show their work to audiences as well as to potentially receive distribution from a studio. But the world of film festivals has drastically changed since the halcyon days of the 20th century. On his website, Stephen Fellows examines the shift in the world of film festivals, the various problems and criticisms of self-distribution sites, and the opinions of filmmakers and festival directors alike.

Even before the sale to IMDb, filmmakers were starting to voice their concerns about Withoutabox as their system was clunky, slow and relatively buggy. I ran a film festival around this time and we repeatedly found that our festival details had been wiped over with old information. In addition to technological struggles, the payments system was hugely unpopular. If film festivals wanted to accept free submissions then they would be charged an upfront fee of $2,000. Festivals which charged submission fees (as two thirds do) were charged a commission of up to 18%, plus an upfront fee in the region of $500 to $1,500. Festivals could reduce the commission if they purchased advertising packages, costing between $300 and $3,500. This meant that the smaller festivals which couldn’t afford the advertising packages ended up paying the highest commission. Festivals were required to give a “discount” of five currency points to filmmakers using Withoutabox (so a UK festival would be required to drop the submission price from £15 to £10). While this sounds like a move to help filmmakers, in fact it had the effect of causing ‘standard’ submission fees to rise. In addition, Withoutabox members only benefited from this “discount” if they had bought a premium package costing between $160 and $400 to upgrade their account – none of this revenue was passed on to festivals. If a member submitted to a festival without an upgraded account, then Withoutabox kept those five currency points, on top of their commission fees. All this meant that if a festival wanted to charge £25 for submissions then they would end up with just £16.40 (£25 minus £5 and 18% fee). Finally, festivals were required to sign exclusivity deals, meaning they couldn’t use other companies which provided core services similar to Withoutabox, such as handling submissions. When festivals experimented with other services (in addition to Withoutabox, not instead of them), they would receive strongly worded missives making it clear that if they did not desist then they would no longer be able to use the Withoutabox platform.

3. Ethan Hawke on Chet Baker and Surviving Showbiz.
 In the new film “Born to Be Blue,” Ethan Hawke plays Chet Baker as he’s struggling to revive his career in the mid-60s while he’s recovering from heroin addiction and re-learning to play the trumpet after a drug dealer knocked out his teeth. Vulture’s Stacey Wilson Hunt interviews Hawke about his performance and his career in front of a live audience in Los Angeles for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Conversation Series.

Why do you think you escaped the pratfalls that have claimed River [Phoenix’s] and so many other young actors’ lives? What choices did you make that saved you from being another child-actor casualty?

Well, one of them was to not shoot heroin. If there was a big book full of all the people who wanted to have a substantive life in the arts, and you went through the list of people who didn’t live up to what they wanted for themselves, and then crossed out the names of everyone who ultimately self-destructed, you’d be left with very few people. If you can just tell yourself, “All I’m going to do is not self-destruct,” your chances of achieving what you want to go up exponentially.

It’s also very difficult for some to resist the notion that real artists live in their heads; that being tortured is simply inherent to the artist’s life.

Yes, but it’s not just artists who feel that way; they just tend to do it with a particular flair. Everyone struggles with drugs and alcohol. Everyone is navigating their own insecurities, pain, and disappointment. The use of drugs becomes, “If I can just deal with this thing I’ve put in front of myself so I don’t have to deal with the larger questions like, am I talented? Do I have something to offer? Does the art have something to offer? Why am I living? Why am I dying?” The questions that cause all of us anxiety. I remember Robin Williams once telling me that he thought cocaine is what made him funny. He didn’t realize that he was funny without the coke.

4. “Horace and Pete” Concludes as One of the Very Best Dramas You’ll See.
Louis C.K.’s experimental dramatic web-series “Horace and Pete” concluded its run last Saturday with a stunning, beautiful finale. HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall examines the finale and why “Horace and Pete” is one of the very best dramas you’ll see this year.

Besides, every time I have written about this show, I’ve gotten questions from people who haven’t watched and are wondering if it’s worth the investment of time and money — which, after C.K. lowered the price following the first episode, came out to $31 for the whole series. In an age where a month of a streaming subscription costs much less than that, while offering far more content, that may seem a steep cost. But it’s not that simple. If C.K. had mounted some kind of streamlined version of this story as an actual Broadway play, with this amazing cast doing some of their best work ever — Alan Alda is one of this medium’s greatest actors, and his performance as the vile, pathetic, foul-mouthed Uncle Pete outstrips everything he’s done before — a good ticket would have cost you a whole lot more. (For that matter, buying a season of a show a la carte from Amazon or iTunes can cost a similar amount to what C.K. ultimately charged.) Making and distributing the show on his own meant C.K. didn’t have to make compromises — for all the talk of his creative freedom on “Louie,” he does still have to have conversations with the executives at FX, and this show is so uncommercial and counter to most current TV trends that even John Landgraf might have balked at ordering it as is — but it also meant that some of the cost of his vision gets passed onto the consumer. I’m never going to tell someone who doesn’t do this for a living the best way to spend their entertainment dollar, and particularly on something as specific and dark as this. But I will say that this is easily the best show I’ve watched so far in 2016, and that other contenders (whether the rest of this season of “The Americans,” or the final season of “The Leftovers,” whenever it airs, or something coming from out of left field) will have to work very hard to surpass it. This wasn’t a perfect, polished work of art. It was messy. It tried a lot of things, many of which worked, some of which (having the barflies debate current events) didn’t quite. But those performances, and the work done in crafting the characters and having them shoulder the weight of generations and traditions, were extraordinary. It was grim, it was thoughtful, it was on occasion shockingly hilarious, and it wasn’t quite like anything anyone’s attempted in TV before. Even in this golden age of experimentation in comedy and drama, that’s hard to do, let alone to do it as well as nearly everyone involved in “Horace and Pete” did what they did.

5. The Road Trip Within: On Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”
Paste Magazine’s “Paste Monthly” section spends each issue delving deep into a single topic through essays and long-form journalism. This month’s issue is about The Road — the romantic conception of the open road and the idea of it as mechanism for self-discovery. For Paste Monthly, freelance writer Kenji Fujishima examines Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” and the idea of the road trip within your soul.

“Something Wild” offers the odd-couple pairing of two such people: Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a vice-president of a banking company living a comfortable existence in a Long Island suburb, and Audrey Hankel (Melanie Griffith), a free-spirited woman seemingly without attachments, but also with a lot of money at her disposal to fund her devil-may-care ways. At first introducing herself to Charles as Lulu, Audrey basically ropes this yuppie into following her on a bizarre road trip throughout a good part of the East Coast — an adventure that, true to genre form, encompasses everything from screwball comedy to violent thriller, with the tone often shifting on a dime. Certainly, Demme’s film lives up to its title just in the all-over-the-place story it weaves. But the film is more than just the sum of its deliberately disparate parts — especially because neither of these two characters can be easily pinned down as types. The first time we see Charles in the film, he’s walking away from a diner having not paid for his meal — an act he later justifies as his way of rebelling within the system. Whether that is in fact true or not, it’s nevertheless clear that he does have certain unruly impulses in him just itching to pop out—which naturally catches the eye of someone like Audrey, who has made such unruliness her whole mantra in life. But Audrey isn’t simply the kind of character who would later become known as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” When Audrey makes a stop at the house of her mother, Peaches (Dana Preu), she impulsively adopts a cover story with Charles as her new husband, tossing aside the black-haired wig to reveal her short blonde hair, and exchanging her previous extravagant black attire for a more conventional white dress to further the illusion; later, at the high-school reunion she attends, two children are added to their nonexistent home life. But there’s a layer of underlying emotional truth to the elaborate fib, one that only fully reveals itself when Audrey’s ex-husband, the even more volatile Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) — recently released from prison, but still as nutty as ever — enters the picture: Audrey, to some extent, is attracted to Charles’s relative solidity, seeing in him a chance to finally settle down. That said, it turns out that Charles himself isn’t entirely settled, either, when one of Charles’s co-workers, who is also at that high-school reunion, reveals that Charles, in fact, has been divorced from his wife for quite a few months now — a fact Ray learns and breaks to Audrey in an attempt to win her back.

6. Who Killed “Chameleon Street”?
The Metrograph Theater recently opened in New York and has already gained much acclaim for its diverse repertory programming that includes prints of prestigious classics, little-seen masterpieces, and obscure gems; their website features a blog that features essays on retrospectives and repertory films, personal essays, and interviews with filmmakers. This Thursday, the Metrograph will play Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s independent treasure “Chameleon Street,” the 1990 winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize about the real-life story of a Detroit con man. On the Metrograph site, Wendell B. Jones looks back on “Chameleon Street” and the story of his film and its aftermath.

When I tell white people that “Chameleon Street” has been summarily banned from broadcast television, they invariably express profound disbelief and almost always start explaining to me why I’m mistaken. Again…I’m not really sure how much time I’ve expended trying to convince Caucasians that media suppression is reality, not fantasy. On the other hand, black people never give me an argument. On the contrary, they look at me and usually express some form of surprise that the film was ever made at all. And yet “Chameleon Street” has always had allies, friends, and admirers from all over the world. Many of these people run institutions, festivals, and archives. Many others are film critics. These people have kept “Chameleon Street” alive throughout these long, lost years of enforced oblivion. The film has screened at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the British Film Institute in London, Film Forum in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum, and many other prestigious venues. In 2009 it was inducted into the Sundance/UCLA archival “hall of fame.” And just last summer while the euro-based economic edifice of Greece tumbled into disarray, “Chameleon Street” received a standing ovation at the Syros International Film Festival in Athens. While American audiences have always “plugged into” “Chameleon Street,” the same can also be said of European, Japanese, and African audiences. Not only do they all “get it,” they really “get it”! I remember watching a middle-aged Italian gentleman in Venice laugh so convulsively hard that he ended up falling out of his chair. Never seen that before or since. And then there are the reviews. All those amazing, illuminating reviews. I think I’m most grateful for the reviews, which have continued to crop up throughout these last 25 years. I started assiduously reading movie reviews and film criticism at the age of six. After the films themselves, film critics were my first and maybe greatest teachers. Still are. Film critics are filmmakers — all of them…not just Truffaut and Godard. All of them. Whether they ever actually make a film or not, their insights into the medium and storytelling are aesthetically invaluable.

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