Culture Warrior

Culture WarriorEvery Tuesday, Landon Palmer brings you Culture Warrior: an analysis of film as an art form and an examination of its role within larger trends in culture and society. Integrating media scholarship and film history with a critical eye on popular and contemporary cinema, Culture Warrior combines ongoing conversations in the worlds of academia and online film criticism. Whether looking at big studio franchises or arthouse indies, changing industry practices or new distribution models, every week Culture Warrior brings what you’re seeing in the theater or at home into a whole new light.

Updates Every: Tuesday

Mad Men Split Season

This past week, AMC announced that it will split Mad Men’s seventh and final season into two 7-episode increments to air in 2014 and 2015, similarly to the way that Breaking Bad has been careening to its much anticipated yet seemingly breathless finale. On the one hand, this represents a business move that exists anywhere between shrewd and shameless, but one that is unlikely to anger fans who would be happy to follow Don and Roger well into the disco era, even if they’re ultimately only getting one extra episode as a result of the wait. But the decision has convincingly been perceived as an act of desperation on behalf of a network whose two brand-making critical darlings of original programming will soon see their end, with no surefire successor to take their place (perhaps Low Winter Sun should create a crossover story with The Killing). But what I find most striking about this decision is the fact that, perhaps more so than any recent quality cable show, Mad Men has done of great deal of work to identify itself through – and, in the process, help to define – what a television season means in the age of binge-viewing. By separating each season by discrete gaps in the historical procession of time, Mad Men has overtly defined each of its seasons as characterized through changes in its characters’ associations, lives, relationships, locations, business affiliations, etc. So, will each “part” of Mad Men’s final season take place in a separate […]

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May, riding a wave of critical praise given towards what is, by most accounts, an ambitious, immersive epic of a tumultuous young romance. Its sexuality is frank and transparent, and no punches are pulled – this, it seems, is the type of risky, visionary cinema speaks to the very rhyme and reason why Cannes exists in the first place, especially in the context of an ever-homogenizing global market. Recent news, however, has cast a different light on what would otherwise be a surefire arthouse darling. First, author Julie Maroh (who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based) all but disowned the film for framing a straight male gaze on a relationship between two women – a serious critique indeed, but not at all surprising considering past Cannes darlings. Things became considerably worse when news of Kechiche’s on-set antics entered the discussion. The film’s cast and crew have attested to exploitative labor practices and possible emotional abuse directed toward the two leads, particularly during extended takes of the film’s central lovemaking scene.

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Last week, conversations flared around the alleged retirement of Jack Nicholson. The jury is still out as to whether or not he has officially called it quits in his acting career, but even if the accomplished performer (nominated for Academy Awards 12 times – more than any other male actor) and notorious personality hung up his guns for good, he’d leave behind a rich 5-decade-long career. Magnetic but not conventionally handsome, brash but able to convey remarkable subtlety, Nicholson is as much a consummate actor’s actor as he is a movie star. Like other aging stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, some of his later roles have found him exercising a form of self-parody, a send-up of the patented “Jack” persona. But when you look past the long list of Nicholson’s greatest hits, a rather complex performer emerges, one that any late-career parody can’t contain. Beyond the groundbreaking performances of The Last Detail and Cuckoo’s Nest or the canonical star turns of Batman and As Good as It Gets, here are some of Nicholson’s under-appreciated deep cuts.

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Amongst all the star cameos in Lee Daniels’s late-summer hit The Butler, one performance stands out as a particularly curious bit of stunt casting. John Cusack, with nary any make-up, a slight gruff in his voice, carrying that aura of meandering disinterest and slight condescension he’s fine-tuned for nearly a decade struts onto the screen as none other than Richard Milhous Nixon. Cusack’s turn as Nixon is both ingenuously lazy and charmingly surreal – no effort is made to convince the audience that the man onscreen is anybody but John Cusack (in contrast to Liev Schreiber’s Norbit-esque turn as LBJ), yet the continued reference toward Cusack as one of modern history’s most readily recognizable and continually invoked Commanders in Chief has a certain Dadaist charm to it, as if Daniels and Cusack were admitting playfully that this was simply yet another star turn and that Nixon was too large and imposing a historical figure to channel with any serious effort for a film not about Nixon. Nixon himself, of course, probably wouldn’t stand for a film not about Nixon. Nixon is a figure that refuses to leave public consciousness. The central subject of more narrative films than any modern President, Nixon’s endless contradictions, standalone history, and almost inscrutable public appeal has provided a subject of endless fascination for storytellers of all stripes, from John Adams to Robert Altman. Here’s an overview of the 37th President’s cinematic highlights.

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Fruitvale Movie

During the summer of 1998, one of the two multiplexes in my modestly sized hometown devoted one of its sixteen screens to limited release films throughout the entire season. They showed a range of small, non-mainstream narrative works from that surprisingly indie-rich summer, including Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box, James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy, Don Roos’s The Opposite of Sex, Whit Stilman’s The Last Days of Disco, Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, and Mr. Jealousy, a film that almost nobody remembers Noah Baumbach made. Despite their nearby availability, I saw approximately zero of these films. I was thirteen years old, and my parents maintained their strict no-R policy. But it was enough for me that the names of these films showed up in the local paper, and that I saw their posters displayed through smudged plexiglass outside the box office as I bought my ticket to see Jane Austen’s Mafia! for the third time (I’m not kidding). I told myself I was perfectly content with the likes of Godzilla, Small Soldiers, and that other Avengers, but I patiently looked forward to the day when I was brave enough to sneak into (and, a few years later, pay to see) these movies so that I could figure out what this trailer was all about. I wasn’t yet experiencing blockbuster fatigue, just bottled excitement that there were new and weird and envelope-pushing movies that existed out there. But apparently, my multiplex’s experiment was a […]

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Loki Glass Prison

The glass prison designers of the fictional world are making bank this year. It seems that almost every action-packed superhero or quasi-superhero film features the same prominent set piece and it hasn’tt gone unnoticed: a recent meme circulated remarking on the inefficacy of the glass  prison, showing the evolution of the structure on film. The image, created by Raven Montoya, stacked a number of villains captured in glass prisons on top of each other: Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Magneto from X2 (technically a plastic prison), Loki from Avengers,  Raoul Silva from Skyfall, and lastly, the animated Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. The caption  quipped, “Yes! Of course it’s a good idea to put the homicidal maniac in a glass prison. I’m sure he won’t get out.” That the villain always escapes comes hand in hand with another trope of the glass prison—to  quote the Joker in The Dark Knight, “It’s all part of the plan.” The villain intends to be caught in order to set his diabolical plan in motion. Charlie Jane Anders of io9 cites the Rube Goldbergian  nature of the scheme as one reason for the evil mastermind to create this situation—to enhance  his devious nature. She also notes a more important use of such a tactic: “You get to put the hero and the villain in the room together, without having them fight.” All this would seem to be blockbuster screenwriting 101. You set up a mid-movie failure to create tension before the final […]

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Passion Movie

During a 35th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Indiana University Cinema in 2011, Paul Schrader stated that studios stopped making movies like Taxi Driver a long time ago, and moreover, studios weren’t interested in making movies for adults anymore. Judging by his collaboration with novelist/screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis in The Canyons, it seems he believes Hollywood isn’t interested in making movies anymore. The Canyons portrays an entertainment industry that has collapsed into the things that its product has afforded for its participants: lifestyle and status. The Lindsay Lohan’s Ghost-starring flick envisions a Hollywood in which its movers of money have stopped even pretending to care about the product peddled, instead spending all their time and efforts on the social capital afforded. The stylish restaurants, isolated mansions, cold XXX-capades, and even the privilege of getting away with murder.

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Sharknado

Last week, my partner hosted a screening of Miami Connection, Drafthouse Films’ release of the heretofore largely unseen low-budget Tae Kwon Do musical from 1987, for a small group of friends. Ever the meticulous party-planner, she made the viewing interactive by constructing, amongst a litany of other viewing activities, a series of Bingo cards that our friends could play while watching the film. At first, I was a bit worried that this might make the viewing of a ridiculous ‘80s cult film all too predetermined, forcing our friends to anticipate amazing lines like “I thought we are all orphans” or the transcendent pro-friendship tunes of Dragon Sound ahead of time rather than experiencing these moments organically, as she and I did the first time we saw Miami Connection. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. The interactive viewing was a great success for our dear Miami Connection virgins, and everyone went home whistling “Against the Ninja” whether they wanted to or not. But I’m not interested in talking about a party that went well (okay, maybe a little bit). I’m interested in what something like Miami Connection Bingo cards represent for people seeing the film for the first time: the simultaneous, seemingly paradoxical engagement with cult film initiation and cult film participation.

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The Act of Killing

There’s plenty of violence in Hollywood summer tentpole movies. In superhero films and toy adaptations, it’s become something resembling common practice to have a climax that involves the probable off-screen collateral deaths of thousands of nameless civilians. But most Hollywood film violence is of the largely inconsequential, routinely PG-13 variety, with the bad guy inevitably receiving their comeuppance, all of it “tastefully” lacking realism. As if Hollywood’s representations of violence didn’t seem cartoonishly inconsequential enough, in a move approaching self-parody, this weekend saw the major release of a film involving supernatural cops who hunt down perpetrators that are already dead. Early this year, in response to the controversy over the representation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, I quoted the argument from a friend’s rather great book that “movie violence” is a floating, elusive signifier; it hardly means one given thing, and its possible meanings and potential affects are largely dependent upon a great many intersecting factors. While I stand by this assertion, during the summer more than any time of year, it’s clear that Hollywood film violence can be relatively homogenous: typically passive, unimaginative, unserious, stultifying. But during past few weeks, the limited release/arthouse sector has seen an abundance of films that represent violent actions in myriad ways, using and exploring violence towards varying ends, none of which involve a fleeting moment of utilitarian spectacle.

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trailer enders game

“Probably the most egregiously overlooked area of gay visibility is, if you can swing with me on this, science fiction…Since all these shows are set in the future, the grim possibility exists that, at least in their creators’ minds, there are no gay people in the future. It’s a curious notion for science-fiction to embrace…” Discussing queer visibility on network television, Bruce Vilanch wrote these words for The Advocate in 1997, but he might as well have been talking about films in 2013. Last year, I made a point that “the genres that dominate Hollywood right now are also the most heteronormative (action sequels, superhero franchises, and children’s films)”; outside of the occasional allegory, one could add science-fiction to this mix as well. Of all the conversations surrounding the controversy over Orson Scott Card’s affiliation with the homophobic National Organization for Marriage in advance of Lionsgate’s expensive adaptation of Ender’s Game, one repeated assertion has been bugging me quite a bit – the notion that the film itself will have nothing to do, and does not in any way exercise, Card’s problematic politics. Such a view sees the routine absence of homosexuality in popular movies – specifically, genre movies – as somehow apolitical.

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High Fidelity

“The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned. It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed, the word “abortion” shall not be used.” No, that’s not an excerpt from Texas State Senate Bill 1. That’s a December 1956 amendment to the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), the Hollywood studio system’s internal playbook for strictly regulating content until 1966. The amendment was a clarification of, and addition to, a prior amendment from March 1951 which was a bit more direct and concise in its stance about representing abortion in the movies: “Abortion, sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not proper subjects for theatrical motion pictures.” I find this older quote more interesting, for it not only tells us about what moral gatekeepers thought of the subject of abortion, but also betrays the MPPC’s perspective of the limited utility of movies as a whole: as both a means for light escapism and affirmative moral pedagogy, but not a forum for discussing serious (or, rather actual) issues and situations. The history of abortion in American movies is, not surprisingly, largely a history of absence. But what is perhaps a bit surprising is how little American movies have referenced abortion since the quoted amendments descended into obsolescence. This despite the fact that the ratings system, New Hollywood, and […]

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Band Called Death

June saw the buzzed-about release of not one, but two documentaries examining talented but underappreciated and not-at-all famous musicians: Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom, about the careers of female back-up singers, and Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, about an African-American, Detroit-based proto-punk bank who recorded music and broke up before The Sex Pistols initiated any anarchy whatsoever in the UK. These two documentaries are hardly the first non-fiction films to focus on the lives and extraordinary-ordinary struggles of marginal musical subjects: Sacha Gervasi’s popular Anvil! The Story of Anvil was perhaps the first really visible instantiation of this subgenre, which reached its height when Searching for Sugar Man struck awards show and box office gold, resurrecting the career of long-forgotten singer-songwriter Rodriguez in the process. Back in March, I argued contemporary mainstream documentaries seem to be heavily preoccupied with resurrecting exceptional but buried personalities, while mainstream narrative films do the opposite. Christopher Campbell tackled a similar subject in regard to music docs, but placed their appeal in more direct terms: we’re drawn to such docs because they essentially tell a Cinderella Story. It’s clear that films like these are compelling, entertaining, headline-ready, and can often be damned funny (and it doesn’t hurt that they typically have killer soundtracks). But perhaps one of the more interesting, little discussed aspects of these documentaries is what they ultimately say about the huge gaps we take for granted in ways we think about American popular music.

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As a period drama, Mad Men has sustained a notable gap between the dispositions of its audience and of its characters. We approach the show from the privilege of hindsight, knowing the major events that the characters will encounter before they encounter them. When Roger Sterling announces his daughter’s wedding date to be late November, 1963 during the third season, for instance, we know that the assassination of the US President will put a considerable damper on the that event, even though we might not know precisely how that will play out. But if we suspend our disbelief to the extent that we buy into the fantasy that these characters exist (at least, in Matt Weiner’s 1960s), the show’s characters also have an advantage over us: that of present experience, of living history not qua history, but as an inevitable component of the ongoing present. “History” becomes a series of moments deeply entangled with the circumstances of characters’ personal lives, and these moments can be experienced directly or peripherally – a history not understood, in short, through the distilling practices of a textbook, but through the disorientation of immediacy. Whether dealing with the death of John F. Kennedy, the University of Texas shooter, or less canonized events like the 1962 plane crash in Jamaica Bay, Mad Men has walked the difficult tightrope of re-framing annals of America’s past in terms of the characters’ perpetual present, and “history” as recounted by the show can be as forceful as an interpersonal crisis […]

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Will Smith After Earth

We are living in a post-movie star era, but Will Smith was the last one to find out. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-turned-21st-century box office king has enjoyed his time as perhaps the sole exception to the many articles that have discussed at length the death of the traditional movie star (including ones written here). Smith’s magnetic charm, family-friendly aura, and conventional good looks (coupled, more importantly, with an incredibly calculated, decidedly un-risky series of career decisions) made him a star with mass audience appeal – an increasingly rare commodity as studio films geared more and more toward dedicated niche audiences. But Smith’s anachronistic career (even with two Academy Award nominations and 11 blockbusters under his belt in almost as many years) was growing ever more conspicuous even before his four-year absence from the silver screen. He came back with the serviceable (read: unremarkable) MIB3. However, it was this summer’s After Earth (whose opening weekend gross was $100K shy of, erm, Wild Wild West) that solidified the fact that even Hollywood’s “biggest star” no longer provided a guarantee that anybody would show up. Six months ago, Scott Beggs and I argued that 2012 signaled, with certainty, the death of the movie star. If the movie star died in 2012, then 2013 is most certainly its wake.

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Resident+Evil+Afterlife

I’m not entirely certain, but I think I’m late to the conversation about “vulgar auteurism.” While I’m sure I’ve heard the hundred-dollar phrase at some point before, it wasn’t until this weekend that my Twitter feed became overloaded with musings about it (and the inevitable punnery – i.e., “vulgar aneurism”). As far as I can see, more has been written in an attempt to either define or dismiss the phrase (or both) than actually practice it. After reading some pro and con pieces about attempts to assess supposedly “disreputable” films by the likes of Justin Lin, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Neveldine/Taylor, I found myself at a crossroads. I’m not convinced that the term has much (if anything) valuable to offer serious criticism, or constitutes a significant intervention within good ol’ auteurist readings. At the same time, I can’t align myself with its critics, notably their implicit or explicit dismissals of the possibility that Hollywood’s postmodern modes of address have anything to offer serious assessments of film as an art form. Thus, in lieu of taking a side in the admittedly insular “debate” about “vulgar auteurism” (think of it as the revenge of “cultural vegetables”), that this debate is happening at all evidences several important points about both the state of mainstream cinema and the role of the discerning critic within it.

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Arrested Development

The original 3 seasons of Arrested Development that ran from 2003-2006 represent arguably the highest form of situation comedy. The show contrived and constructed a complex web of intersecting situations within each episode that continually developed and overlapped with each other throughout the series. Gags like Tobias’s coming out as a denim-cutoff-donning “never-nude” were briefly hinted at, later explained, then circuitously referenced during the rest of the series as the characters and the ensemble developed through a fast-paced narrative. It’s Arrested Development’s deft balance of many simultaneous situations that made it such a continually rewarding, notably risky, and certainly groundbreaking show for network television: the show remunerates the attentive viewer by returning to gags and referencing situations from past episodes even as present situations rapidly advance. I can’t think of another show before it that successfully and inventively got so much mileage out of individual revisited gags. Rather than simply repeat the same gag, like a catchphrase, Arrested Development laboriously re-contextualized prior jokes with big and small variations on their results (e.g., the many ways Michael forgets who Anne is). Netflix’s new season of Arrested Development is, as reported, comparably ambitious in its approach to the situation comedy. The show makes good on its promise of audacity by replacing its prior experimentation with the situation with an experiment in structure.

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review behind the candelabra

There seems to have been a decisive change in the mainstream biopic recently. Instead of attempting to chronicle a public figure’s emergence into renown from childhood to death, several biopics find their subject in a way that assumes the achievement of fame to be a given from the get-go. Movies like Capote, Invictus, Hitchcock, and Lincoln (not to mention the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks) choose to examine a particular episode in the life of a well-known person instead of justify its subject’s achievement of fame by depicting a summary trajectory of youth to adult achievement. Sure, J. Edgar and The Iron Lady stand out as conspicuous exceptions, as signs that the conventions of the biopic are still alive and well. But this newer approach to the biopic (Invictus excepted) seems to allow a great deal of opportunities that conventional biopics don’t (to the point where they’re arguably no longer biopics): the ability to understand the exceptional individual not through a portrait of their entire life, but through a detailed examination of a more narrative-friendly set of select events and circumstances drawn from a particular point in their life. Such is the same with Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and purportedly last) film, HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. By taking a more modest and focused route to the biopic, Candelabra is a close and fascinating examination of the bizarre phenomenon of fame itself.

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Kickstarter Last Resort

Recently, the act of donating to or promoting a Kickstarter campaign has become a highly politicized and moralized one for movie fans, an act brimming with questions, crises, and conundrums about systemic economic disadvantages normalized by dominant industries of filmmaking. Suspicion has been directed in droves toward legitimate-seeming yet vastly-supported projects like the studio-release Veronica Mars movie or Zach Braff’s directorial follow-up to Garden State, whose constellation of multiple funding sources perhaps says more than we’d like to admit about the complex process of realizing even the most distinctly above-the-line indie projects. While frustration directed at a feature adaptation of a canceled UPN show or Braff’s seemingly boundless ability to produce haterade may appear legitimate when accounting for Kickstarter’s role as the possible final refuge for American alternative filmmaking, fingers should instead be pointed to the reasons that a resource like Kickstarter has become necessary in the first place.

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Warner Bros

In the days leading up to Wednesday, May 1st, Netflix subscribers scrambled to get through numerous titles on their Instant queues that were scheduled to disappear as part of their move to the Warner Archive Instant, easily the highest-profile to-date streaming archive owned and operated exclusively through a particular studio. With an expanding selection of films and television programs that range from classics like When Harry Met Sally to dozens of resurrected B-movies to truly hard-to-find films like Wim Wenders’s forgotten sci-fi epic Until the End of the World, the Warner Archive Instant is a treasure trove for any cinephile invested in the potential of the digital preservation and exhibition.*** Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Warner Archive Insant is that its potential success should assuage fears about the digital conversion process and studios closing their vaults on repertory prints: here’s an example demonstrating how studios can utilize their back log in a way that caters to film fans and, in effect, looks to future possibilities for cinema’s past. It’s also a nostalgic foray into the most legible qualities of the classical studio system: gathered together in this archive, the monster movies and gangster films of yesteryear exhibit a collective identity that feels particularly Warners. That said, there are some notable and perhaps troubling implications about a streaming service dedicated to and exclusively run by a major studio. Warner Archive Instant resembles a digital equivalent of the exhibition methods practiced by Warners itself during the years in which […]

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Iron Man 3 Iron Patriot

Spoiler warning: There will be spoilers. Since 2008, a great deal of ink (or, at least, the Internet’s equivalent of ink) has been spilled on the political weight of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. From the depiction of post-9/11 trauma and Batman’s Patriot Act-style tactics in The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises’s ideologically incoherent depiction of Gotham’s Occupy-enabled descent into a metropolitan anarchist dystopia, multiple theories and debates have assessed where the Nolanverse lies on the 21st century American political spectrum. The self-serious tone of these superhero films lend themselves to similarly solemn allegorical readings – Nolan’s Batman films are inferred as brimming with meaning and intent by virtue of an auteur director envisioning an alternative vision of America on a mass scale. But most political readings of the Dark Knight films inevitably encounter contradiction – the ambivalence of these films always fails to match their allegorical promise. The Robert Downey, Jr.-led Iron Man series presents itself as lightweight, goofy summer entertainment, a media object designed to be consumed passively rather than interrogated for its layers of meaning. But Iron Man has explored far more legible, richer, and more interesting politics than its darker counterpart. Its two directors (Jon Favreau and Shane Black), while talented, are situated less as auteurs and more as contributors to a collective, synergistic corporate vision. Iron Man’s politics, while often foregrounded narratively, are presented as a set of ideological assumptions rather than an active investigation of contemporary political tensions. And that’s exactly what makes […]

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