Daily Reads: Why Female/POC Directors Aren’t Treated as Auteurs, Broadcast TV’s Age of Denial, and More

Daily Reads: Why Female/POC Directors Aren't Treated as Auteurs, Broadcast TV's Age of Denial, and More
Daily Reads: Why Female/POC Directors Aren't Treated Auteurs, Broadcast TV's Age of Denial, and More

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

1. Why Aren’t More Female/POC Directors Considered Auteurs?
 Since its inception in the mid-1950’s, auteur theory has dominated critical attitudes for much of the past half-century. Critics and scholars consider many filmmakers to be the true authors of their texts, giving them claim to being an artist. However, why aren’t women or people of color included in such labels? Paper Magazine’s Shelley Farmer explores the reasons why more minority directors aren’t considered auteurs.

Film history, like all history, is not a static thing, but is in a constant process of re-assessment and re-writing. While the popular conception of film history is still dominated by mammoth male figures — Welles, Godard, Fellini, Bergman, et al. — there have been encouraging signs in recent years of the narrative expanding to include more and more female filmmakers. In some cases, this has manifested itself in the rehabilitation of neglected careers, like that of Elaine May. The sharp director of “The Heartbreak Kid” and screenwriter of “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors” first rose to prominence as half of a brilliant comedy due with Mike Nichols. While the latter went on to be enshrined in film history for works like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate,” May’s directing career was cut prematurely short after the failure of her notorious Dustin Hoffman-Warren Beatty comedy “Ishtar,” for which she was unfairly and disproportionately blamed. However, within the past several years, May has been rehabilitated as a critical darling, with “The New Yorker’s” Richard Brody lauding her as “one of the great geniuses of the American cinema” and Criterion’s online release of her Peter Falk and John Cassavetes-starring “Mikey and Nicky,” which Brody has called “the great gangster movie of the nineteen-seventies” and “a welcome corrective to ‘The Godfather.'” You could argue that cinema’s delay in recognizing May as a great director is due, in part, to the fact that like other female directors such as Amy Heckerling or Nancy Meyers, she worked in commercial cinema, rather than the more self-consciously serious and highbrow modes of independent or art cinema. However, critic Stephanie Zacharek of “The Village Voice” — who objects to auteur theory primarily on the grounds of being overly simplistic (“To me, the auteur theory is a way of trying to break film down into manageable chunks to understand it. And who wants film to be manageable?”) — has found that the commercial film stigma is often applied unequally.” Even if we’re just talking about male [commercial] filmmakers who have come to prominence since the 1970s — Scorsese, Tarantino, Spielberg, De Palma, Nolan, Fincher — we feel very comfortable discussing their individual styles, or at least their specific approaches to filmmaking,” she says. “But you don’t hear a lot of people discussing the films of, say, Sofia Coppola or Kathryn Bigelow in the same way, even though each, by this point, has a very distinctive voice.”

2. Your Show Is Dead (or the Age of Denial in Broadcast TV).
Though cancellation denial is rampant among fans of TV show, it’s also become the mode for broadcast network executives. In the age of Peak TV, broadcast networks are hesitant to cancel DOA shows because they hope to make money on it sometime in the future. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman examines broadcast networks’ denial with relation to their programming.

This math is not hard math. It’s not TV Industry New World Math that stumps computers. Numbers, to this day, still don’t lie. They might not tell you what you want to hear — that your industry has a severely damaged foundation and the whole thing is framed in balsa wood — but they aren’t deceptive. The patterns are pretty evident. What you once learned by tracking overnight ratings is now the same arc with the same conclusion once you punch in the three-, seven- or (fool yourself all you want) 30-day ratings: The show is dead. In relative terms, nobody is watching. The demos are terrible. Small spikes in viewership are not something to cling on to, like little handles of hope. They do not change the narrative. The show is dead. It’s underperforming for advertisers. It wasted your promotional budget. It’s not adding new viewers week to week. There is no Lazarus-like moment coming. The show is dead. Here’s where things get more confusing, and probably sadder. Networks are holding on to some shows because they own them — congratulations, you own a corpse. There is a strand of logic in the industry that ratings woes, advertiser disappointment and network pride can be somehow mollified by stockpiling episodes for streaming purposes, and that if everybody in the company just wrings a disappointing show ferociously it will drip out a few more dollars that justify doing this whole death march again at midseason and next fall. Here’s a short story about that: No.

3. How Composing For TV Is Paying Rent and Hurting Bands.
Despite all the technological changes and new avenues for content, television shows still need original scores, and nowadays, many artists and band leaders are composing those scores. Pitchfork’s Courtney Smith explores how composing scores are paying the rent for a lot of artists.

To understand why artists are pursuing this as a career path, you have to look at the the current landscape of music placements on TV, or as they’re known in the industry, needle drops. Lyle Hasen, the owner of Bank Robber Music and House of Hassle Music Publishing, works with Grizzly Bear, Beirut, Joanna Newsom, and hundreds of other independent bands by placing their music in shows. Music placement opportunities are up, thanks to the growing number of shows on basic and premium cable, as well as streaming — though the overall price for placements has been dropping for a decade as more bands and artists are willing to say yes to what was once considered a taboo revenue source. “There’s so much more programming looking for licensing material. Fees have dropped considerably over the last decade, so [bands] have to change their game a bit,” Hasen says. “It’s more a game of small goals, where you try to get more licenses rather than a few biggies on the major networks.” Where in the previous decade there were a host of shows that specifically sought independent music for needle drops and considered them central to the show’s aesthetic (i.e. “The O.C.,” “Gilmore Girls,” “One Tree Hill,” “Gossip Girl,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” etc), shows now are more interested in whatever is new. “Some of your established licensing workhorse bands have aged out a little bit,” Hasen says. “It’s ‘What do you have that’s new?'” Jason Rothenberg, show runner for “The 100,” wasn’t looking to hire someone from the indie world to score his post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama. He ended up working with Liz Phair because he’s close with one of her composing partners, although he’s a longtime fan. In the show’s first two seasons, the composing team was creating nearly wall-to-wall score, as much as 30-to-36 minutes of music for a 42-minute episode. With two seasons under their belt, Rothenberg explains that they now have a library of music to reuse, but it was absolutely a grind during the first season to create that much new material for a 22-episode season on an 8-day shooting schedule, spread over 9 months. Even a demanding job like this is an attractive and stable way to make a living for artists who might prefer to stay home with their families rather than tour 200 days a year. Artists can work a fixed schedule with a guaranteed paycheck — entirely unlike releasing a record. “It’s so crazy when you do work for people to pay you when it’s over. People in the music business say, ‘We’ll pay you 90 days after the next fiscal period, maybe if the accounting comes through.’ I was shocked when I first did some ads. I did the work and then they just paid for it,” Zach Rogue says of his experience composing.

4. How Chantal Akerman’s Suicide Alters Her Final Artwork.
Last month, legendary director Chantal Akerman tragically took her own life leaving behind an essential body of work. Her last installations are full of painful, private moments, but also full of life as well. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle looks at how Akerman’s suicide affects and alters her final work.

Akerman only began to make what we might call installation works in the mid-1990s, after an invitation by curator Kathy Halbreich at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The result of her first foray into gallery installation was “L’Est: au bord de la fiction,” reworking footage from her 1993 film “From the East,” shot in several eastern bloc countries just after the collapse of communism. In the gallery version we see interminable queues in the snow, the faces of passers-by, a cellist accepting a bouquet to thunderous applause at the end of a concert, a woman in a cramped kitchen preparing food. Scenes of domestic and public life pass by. If there is a story, it is made by our movement from screen to screen and scene to scene, plotting a narrative for ourselves, captivated by small human gestures, anonymous faces that linger for a moment then are replaced by others. Who are these presences in their winter coats – and what are their lives now, in the east after communism? The last monitor, alone in a further room, shows TV static and dim footage of a highway at night, retreating through a car’s rear window. The artist speaks, inveighing against images and reciting the Jewish interdiction on graven images. Now images are everywhere, selling us everything from movies to ideologies. This is the subject of her single-screen “Nightfall” in Shanghai, 2007. Bright lights and electronic adverts are reflected with a lurid shimmer on grey water under a polluted sky. A boat crosses the water. Instead of a sail, it too has a big screen planted on its deck. Night falls and animated adverts hang in the air. LED fireworks explode up the side of a skyscraper. The view is like Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” redone by JMW Turner, except for the fact that this is real. There is no sign of human presence in Akerman’s final gallery work, first shown at the current Venice Biennale. It occupies a big black box. The sound thunders out. You can hear it everywhere. Multiple suspended screens step back into the darkness; on each one a different desert rushes past, seen from a moving vehicle. Horizons rush across the screens, grey deserts sweep away and nearer bluffs of red rock and crumbling stone walls rush from left to right, sometimes faster, sometimes slowing to a halt. Visually relentless, Akerman’s “Now” is also a furious aural cacophony, filled with the sound of skylarks, gunfire, ululations, calls and cries, the whinny of frightened horses, the sound of helicopter blades, thuds, engine noise and armory. We hear all this but the deserts are empty. They could be anywhere: the Negev, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, places between places, regions whose names we hear constantly on news reports, places with no names at all. Everything rushes, slows and rushes again.

5. Norman Lloyd on Upstaging Orson Welles and Playing Tennis With Chaplin.
Hollywood’s oldest working actor Norman Lloyd worked with such directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Charlie Chaplin, but is best known for playing Dr. Daniel Auschlander on the acclaimed TV show “St. Elsewhere.” At the A.V. Club, there’s a column called Random Roles in which writer Will Harris sits down with an actor and goes through their entire acting history. This week, Will Harris sits down with Lloyd to discuss his illustrious career.

AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?

: You know, as I approach this age of 101, I do a lot of thinking about the long story of my life, and some of it astounds me. I was clearly brought into the whole thing about acting by my mother. She loved the theater. She had a very pleasant singing voice, which she used to sing for her ladies’ club. In those days — when I was about 9 or 10 up to when I was about 14 or so — you took what were called elocution lessons. You went to an elocution teacher, and he taught you elocution, so you learned to speak with elocution. And that led to my volunteering, when I would be in an early grammar school class. They couldn’t keep me from standing up and practicing my elocution, and as a consequence, it drifted into acting. Which was, of course, a very bad turn of events, but what the hell: It happened. [Laughs.]

AVC: You worked for several years in the theater before ever setting foot in front of the camera, including a few plays directed by Elia Kazan.

: Yes, I was in a couple of plays that Kazan directed. “The Crime” was the first. It was with an outfit called The Theater Of Action, which was a young theater that was very much influenced by The Group Theatre. We did “The Crime,” and in it were some good guys, like Nick Ray, who became a prominent director, and Marty Ritt, who became a prominent director, and so forth. The main thing I did with Kazan was an Irwin Shaw play for The Group Theatre, because we had hit it off when we worked together on “The Crime.” It was a play called… [Chuckles.] “Quiet City.” You know, occasionally I forget! But I usually tend to remember.

6. We Watch Films With Our Nervous System: Sebastian Schipper on “Victoria.”
Sebastian Schipper’s new film “Victoria” is a crime thriller all shot in one long take. Though many have decried the film as gimmicky, Schipper stands by his vision and relished the chance to not work within traditional filmmaking. At RogerEbert.com, Tasha Robinson profiles Schipper on “Victoria” and engages his perspective on his film.

Schipper says he’s always reluctant to admit what camera he used on the shoot, because he and his producers approached Canon about using their equipment, “and they didn’t even answer our email.” It was one of the few places in the film where they couldn’t economize. Otherwise, it was a cheap, lean shoot: Schipper admits he underpaid his actors and crew. He didn’t seek permits for his run-and-gun shoot, because he couldn’t afford them. He just started the shoot at 4:20 a.m. on a Saturday, in a “rather lame area of Berlin” without much nightlife. He used three separate roving sound crews and nearly two dozen assistant directors to ward off pedestrians and create a moving “bubble” around the action. He shot a dramatic gunfight in a closed housing project, on private property where he could control the action. He replaced low-level lights on a billboard and in a parking garage with brighter ones to give him more light to work with. But ultimately, he didn’t worry much about the logistics, especially about trying to direct his actors in the moment. “I know it’s a bit of a hippie answer, but the film was not in the planning,” he says. “It was not in the logistics. If we’d just concentrated on the logistics, we would not have been able to make it. If this had been a super-long list of boxes to tick, this would have never gotten together. We had to neglect all the boxes and concentrate on some other level that was more vital and flexible and organic. And that’s the heart and soul of the performance, which also includes the performance of the camera.” The primary issues became keeping people off the set — Schipper personally had to head off one drunk Russian couple who tried to help one of his actors, who was playing out an emotional breakdown. And when Schipper got one setting ahead of the action, he found three men waiting to unload a truck in an alley where a key scene was about to take place. He had to convince them to hide for just 10 minutes, while the action moved through the alley, and then kept going.

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