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


Few years in the history of recent Hollywood have gone by without a sizable pile of ‘80s remakes. Typically, those remakes are at least somewhat spread out. But this Valentine’s Day weekend greeted us with a grand total of three remakes, all bearing (with the exception of a conspicuously absent ellipsis) the titles of their predecessors: RoboCop (original: 1987), About Last Night (original: 1986), and Endless Love (original: 1981). So many ‘80s clones haven’t opened wide the same weekend in two and a half years, when Footloose 2.0 battled the prequel to re-re-make of The Thing. Recycling the ‘80s is hardly exclusive to cinema. Indie and mainstream pop have been revisiting the era of New Wave and post-punk for years. Sometimes this results in uncanny synergy, like two singles from the past few months referencing the opening sequence of The Hunger. And, of course, in the political sphere the ‘80s are ever present, as the exponential concentration of wealth to the very rich have forced a public conversation rethinking Reaganism and neoliberal economics. Few films used popular culture as a platform for exploring this political climate quite like RoboCop and About Last Night. So rather than taking to task whether these remakes are “worthy” or “necessary” or not (is any?), I’d rather mine how the subtle differences between these revisitations and their originals betray our complicated relationship to the era of “Just Say No” and “Where’s the Beef?”. Perhaps we keep recycling the ‘80s because that decade in particular, invited […]


28 Days Later

When grassroots production company InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) quietly shut down in 2006, it marked the end of an era that never really got going. There was a lot of talk about digital filmmaking around the turn of the last century, but this was more from the point of skepticism directed at a burgeoning new means of shooting, not an embrace of new cinematic possibilities. Inexpensive and boundary-pushing indies, then, were the only projects decisively making use of the new portable technologies out of a mix of economic necessity and aesthetic choice. As a result, for a few years at the end of the ‘90s and the very beginning of the 2000s, a few movies were made that truly look like nothing we’ve seen before or since. InDigEnt was founded in 1999 under the inspiration of the Dogme 95 and the guerrilla, no-budget pioneering of John Cassavetes. That the name of the company’s pseudo-acronym also means “poor” seems self-deprecatingly apt, and not without some frank truth knowing the company’s fate. But they produced several films (e.g., Tadpole, Pieces of April, Starting Out in the Evening) that flirted with the boundary between indie and mainstream, perhaps suggesting some potential accessibility of this nascent shooting format. Yet early digital filmmaking was conspicuously marked as something other than what our eyes were used to when entering the movie theater, and therein lied both its promise and its problems.



There’s a unique double-take aspect to Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s magnetism that defined many of the diverse roles he inhabited. Hoffman was a chameleon, able to lend even the smallest part a distinct impression that he knew the character’s entire history. But Hoffman’s chameleonic skills were internal, not external; he “looked” relatively the same across much of his work. More specifically, Hoffman looked like a man we could pass by on a crowded city street without ever noticing, and that’s partly why his roles could take us by surprise. As Hoffman carefully unfolded his characters, we began to realize he was rarely as “normal” as first impressions made it seem; his characters were often weighed down by some burdensome personal history, a phantom force that they continue to reckon with daily. Hoffman’s charisma was subtle and patient, captivating an audience that eventually began to associate him with the best of late ‘90s and early 21st century American movies. Hoffman, in effect, became a signature of quality, a sign that legitimated a project as thoughtful, worthwhile filmmaking. By the time he won the award for Best Actor for 2005’s Capote, it was for fans of P.T. Anderson and Todd Solondz a belated recognition of a committed and unorthodox talent; for the rest of Hollywood and those who had not yet fallen under his spell, this was an introduction an unlikely leading man.


Brad Pitt 12 Years a Slave

After the first Sunday of March, movie star Brad Pitt might be an Academy Award winner — not for his acting, but for his role as producer. His production company, Plan B, has been deployed since 2006 as a platform for making films (many that star or co-star Pitt, and a few that don’t) largely outside of the franchise and sequel mentality that a name brand like Pitt would otherwise be subject to. Pitt is hardly the first example of an actor who exchanges celebrity capital for some industrial and artistic autonomy – examples of powerful actors who have used the capacity of producer to buck the studio system go as far back as Humphrey Bogart – but Plan B is unique particularly because it’s been utilized as a means for Pitt to rather self-consciously define himself against any conventional understanding of his movie star image. Rather than use the production arm as a means for gritty, challenging, Hollywood-unfriendly lead roles (as Bogart did with In a Lonely Place), Pitt is casting himself conspicuously on the margins of his own work, often in supporting roles that have in common characters who somehow omnisciently perceive a bigger picture than what’s available to the foregrounded characters around him. These are characters that exist inside and outside the narratives of their films simultaneously.



As I’m sure you’re aware, Matthew McConaughey is currently experiencing His Moment. Seemingly resurrected from the depths of bankable but critically ill-regarded romantic comedies, McConaughey is now headlining a gritty new HBO series, briefly stealing a scene in a Scorsese movie from fellow Best Actor nominee Leo DiCaprio, taking the lead in a characteristically ambitious and mysterious new Christopher Nolan movie, and, of course, cementing it all with an Oscar nomination and plenty of momentum to take home the statue in March. The fascinating turn of events that have occurred in the former Sahara star’s career since 2011, aka “The McConaissance,” is catnip for people who enjoy treating Hollywood seriously: it represents a tacit recognition by the star of the inherent limitations of Hollywood, and an attempt to transcend them; it evinces a star aware of his own public persona, who is seeking out roles that play with, and even subvert, that persona; and this particular star’s devotion to truly off-beat roles has made for something far more interesting than conventional career “comebacks” a la your Travolta, Rourke, or Downey, Jr. An Oscar for McConaughey would likely represent the apotheosis of the actor’s decisive shift in creative effort, a reward for his calculated and compelling career “redemption.” But McConaughey’s recognition for Dallas Buyers Club shows how even the most surprising of career moves are recognized for their most conventional and least surprising moments.


A repeated critique leveled at Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is that it doesn’t show the consequences of Jordan Belfort’s actions – we don’t see, in other words, the direct repercussions of Belfort’s lies to and manipulations of ordinary people. In contrast to the director’s otherwise very similar Goodfellas and Casino, it’s easier (cinematically speaking) to show somebody getting beaten to a pulp than panicking about their house payments. However, Wolf does have one interesting moment in its final minutes that stands distinctly from the miasma of excess coating its other three hours – when Kyle Chandler’s Agent Denham takes a subway ride home, surrounded by an anonymous underclass whose lives and identities never breach Belfort’s bubble of expensive distractions. Had The Wolf of Wall Street spent significant time representing those directly affected by Belfort’s actions beyond the class seclusion suggested by this brief moment, it would have illustrated a type of everyday financial struggle rarely addressed in detail in American cinema. Class differences and conflicts have been an ever-present topic in American movies, especially in Romeo and Juliet renditions like Titanic and Love Story, but there are have existed few narrative traditions for representing in detail particular class struggles, specifically those pertaining to poverty.



The beginning of a calendar year is an active time for the serious movie-watcher. Besides providing the most accelerated moment of awards pre-season and a profusion of top 10 lists, the new year also portends surprises from the influx of films annually chosen for preservation by the NFPB and the new streaming contracts that motivate some heavy updates on your Netflix queue. But the Duke School of Law has also annually contributed another litany of films to these annual aggregations: films (and other creative works) that, as of January 1st of each year, they argue should be, but aren’t, added to the public domain. According to the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, if the Copyright Act of 1976 (which went into effect in 1978) had never been passed, as of last week many works from 1957 would go into public domain in the United States, including classic films like David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the great Elvis flick Jailhouse Rock, the original 3:10 to Yuma, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and so on. Some of these works have gone into public domain in Canada and Western Europe as a result of more lax copyright laws abroad.



When Roger Ebert passed away in April of this year, one quote that made significant rounds was his assertion that, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” It would be easy to extract this quote as a solitary, general observation on the value of empathy, bereft of its cinematically specific context. Some liked to see Ebert’s overt progressive politics as separate from his evaluation of films, but in fact the two were inextricably linked. The source of this quote, in fact, came from Ebert’s overview of Cannes in 2010, in which he discussed what a diverse array of art films like Lee-Chang Dong’s Poetry and Mike Leigh’s Another Year collectively offered despite their evident differences. The full quote reads as follows: These aren’t all masterpieces, although some are, but they’re all Real Movies. None follows a familiar story arc. All involve intense involvement with their characters. All do something that is perhaps the most important thing a movie can do: They take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization. If empathy is the most essential quality of a civilization, as Ebert makes the case for, then movies which invite the viewer to have an empathetic experience become far more than “just movies,” but “Real Movies” – that is, devices that shape a compassionate worldview which acknowledges the unique experience […]


Mary Poppins author DL Travers with Walt Disney and Julie Andrews

There’s a scene late in John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks in which author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) barges into Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) office, livid about the fact that the company’s proposed adaptation of her intellectual property “Mary Poppins” may contain a moment of animation integrated into live action, which Disney promised her would not occur. Travers catches Disney putting a cigarette out into an ashtray, blindsided that she caught him in this uncouth moment. Disney says something out loud about not wanting to be seen with a cigarette in his hand, and the scene moves on. We never see the cigarette touch Disney’s lips. There is no still image that exists of Hanks-as-Disney smoking. Yet the Disney-produced film acknowledges that Disney himself smoked and hid that fact from the public eye during the 1960s. Saving Mr. Banks admits openly that there is a distance between the man and the myth, the everyday Walt Disney and his heavily regulated public image. The film makes a gesture of transparency in this direction, yet not enough to actually show the contradiction between the myth and the man. We never see that cigarette hit his mouth. This moment isn’t really all that important on its own, but it is in terms of what it represents: that Saving Mr. Banks is a film which acknowledges the negotiations and compromises that go into making and reinforcing the image of “Disney,” while also exercising careful maintenance of the identity of the Disney brand.



For many, finding out the truth about Santa Claus is an important first step of a ritual entry into adulthood. The experience differs from person to person, but for me it happened gradually and without incident. Around 7 years old, I reasoned that it was impossible for a character as absurd as the Easter Bunny to exist. A year later, I came to the same conclusion about the big jolly guy. I didn’t see my parents as deceptive, or myself as naïve – this exit from childhood fantasy was more like an induction, or the first of many doors opened into rational adult living. I preserved the fantasy as best as I could for my younger brother, and played along with my parents whenever Kris Kringle’s name came up. My experience must not be unusual, as many children’s Christmas films deal directly with a similarly gradual onset of Santa skepticism – that moment where one’s imagination is put in conflict with the dawning truth that the world operates on particular rules that are impossible to break. Gravity, time, matter. In this way, such films imbue an adult and a child’s view of Christmas simultaneously by investing in the illusion while also showing its manufacture. But these films (as children’s Christmas films will unsurprisingly do) ultimately demonstrate the impossible fantasy to be undeniably true, to the dismay and shock of enlightened skeptics like James Caan’s Walter Hobbs in Elf or Judge Reinhold’s Dr. Neal Miller in The Santa Clause. And Reinhold’s […]



“There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show.” The above summary is of an an impromptu speech The Wire showrunner David Simon delivered at “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas” in Sydney this week. Simon’s work as producer has been characterized by a distinct effort to represent the “great horror show” America he mentions – the America without social mobility, the America where people are left to survive in the marginal social position they’ve inherited, the America without special interest groups to make a perpetual underclass visible in the media and worth pandering to for politicians’ votes. The Wire, as Simon attests directly, sought to represent the conditions and lives of people who are “economically worthless,” a series that lent a rare lens to ordinary people’s endurance in the face of total invisibility in the public sphere. Mainstream contemporary movies and television shows have, perhaps until very recently, almost exclusively surveyed the lives of those with considerable economic worth: audiences with expendable income that can be advertised to during commercial breaks or be expected to buy most movie tickets. But Out of the Furnace and Killing Them Softly – both of which take place in 2008 and were released almost exactly a year apart – offer an incisive lens into a hermetically sealed, economically deprived, and otherwise underrepresented American underclass.


Anchorman 2 Baxter

“Black Friday” sales have spilled over into Thanksgiving Day. Amazon just announced that it wants to set the stage for the robot war by piloting commodity-delivery drones to your home. The holiday shopping season has literally become a deadly event. Consumer culture is out of control and omnipresent, rampantly breaking through boundaries of common sense, private space, and basic human decency. Yet on the everyday, experiential scale, consumer culture seems, more than ever before, like no big deal. Perhaps we have, for better or worse, collectively accepted it as an inevitable part of living. We expressed shock that the NSA was data-mining its citizens without any evidence of consistent legal parameters, yet only the occasional TED speaker is concerned that similar practices persist on behalf of marketers who feed from the social media we volunteer our lives to. Public schools are looking to private sponsors to fill in the funding gaps left by austerity. Bookshelves are stocked with arguments that our purchases – not our civic engagement, social awareness, or self-determination – have become the major constitutive factor in developing our individual sense of self. To these, we don’t really seem to mind. However, one place that blatant product-hawking is held accountable, in which peddling is met with a rattle of dismissal and rejection rather than tacit acceptance, is decent movies. Until now.


Kill Your Darlings

Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the new crop of Beat movies that have surfaced during the past few years is that they obscure the fact that there was once an older crop of Beat movies. If your only exposure is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, Walter Salles’ On the Road, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, and Michael Polish’s Big Sur, you might assume that the Beats participated in an artistic movement reserved exclusively for the written word. Yet Allen Ginsberg was front-and-center of experimental film projects like 1959’s Pull My Daisy (narrated by Kerouac) and 1966’s Chappaqua, while William S. Burroughs spent most of his career after the 1970s in independent films (alongside producing spoken word albums). Even Jack Kerouac, the most novelistic of the best-known Beats, showed his media literacy by recording improvisatory experiments in audio technology before he published “On the Road.” The literary Beats not only inspired later independent filmmakers, musicians, and artists, but they participated in multimedia productions themselves, seeking to realize a revolutionary new aesthetic across a variety of platforms of expression, often concurrently with their most famous published work. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing only on these authors’ best-known works in adapting them to screen, but the resulting films do reinforce a rather common image of the Beats as forever-young literary outsiders, when they were in fact heavily involved in the social and artistic movements their work cultivated and helped inspire throughout their lives. But this raises a question: Do […]


Into Silence Header

Captivity/survivor narratives are hardly unfamiliar to our movie screens, and such films tend to come in bunches. Three years ago, for instance, both Buried and 127 Hours boasted solo or near-solo performances from two rising Hollywood stars who spent the duration of their films as the solitary face we see. But last month brought a prominent and concentrated group of such films, all met with overwhelmingly good reviews, promising major performances from their leading survivor types, and coasting on significant awards buzz. While each film explores near misses, false moments of possible redemption, the necessary instance of despair, and ultimately an incredible optimism in the possibility for human beings to survive a conflagration of elements that work overwhelmingly against them, each of these films go about this differently. Yet the major factor connecting J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is that they all stage humans’ fraught relationship to nature through the problems and failures of human commerce and its attendant production of waste. Their respective fights with or on the landscape of nature, in other words, are inaugurated by the failure of humans to wield their own devices.



Last week, Rob Hunter was so befuddled and inspired by Drafthouse Films’s newest resurrection project The Visitor that he coined a term to make sense of it: “WTF Cinema.” Says FSR’s resident critic Lorde Mayor, “Basically, these are movies that consistently challenge expectations (both visual and narrative) to the point that viewers have literally no idea what to expect. This has nothing to do with plot twists, reveals, or shock endings, and instead has everything to do with leaving an audience in a frequent state of head-scratching awe as the unexpected appears onscreen again and again.” Hunter’s coinage is a useful idiom to describe (or express one’s total failure to describe) a certain type of movie that defies easy comprehension or simple justification for its existence. But I think there’s another aspect of The Visitor worth focusing on that tells us a lot about why it’s taken on this wonderful WTF currency: The Visitor, despite not having been re-edited since its initial theatrical run, is in no way the same film it was when originally released. The Visitor is a film of 2013 more than it ever was a film of 1979.


District 9

This week’s Culture Warrior looks at District 9’s place amongst the very best of smart science fiction.



Ten years ago today, The Matrix: Revolutions was released in theaters. This is, of course, no monumental cinematic anniversary. It’s quite likely that nobody will ask you today, or any day for that matter, where you were the first time you saw the third Matrix film. At most, this revelation will be a reminder that you, like me, are getting older, and the space between decades ain’t what it used to be. But much has changed in studio tentpole filmmaking in the past ten years – in practice, if not, well, “quality.” On this rather unceremonious anniversary, the third Matrix film has a surprising lot to tell us about how studio franchises have developed since the early Bush era, and where they likely will and won’t go moving forward. The Matrix, a film series initiated by a late-90s cyberpunk sleeper hit that arguably overshadowed the return of f*cking Star Wars, by its final chapter came to be treated by Hollywood as a failed prototype never to be repeated again.



Cinephilia can take the form of an insatiable hunger, an obsession that continually demands for more – films that cater to more exclusive and refined taste, more resurrected annals of long-forgotten film histories, and more works that pose ever-escalating challenges to the dominant language of cinema. It is no revelation to observe that the Internet has realized a newfound framework for such obsession, like a magic well that promises an endless depth of access to knowledge about obscure, lesser known, or forgotten works. The Internet is not a space where filmic knowledge is publicly available; it is a space where potential knowledge can be excavated and contested over. The game of happenstance is addictive precisely because it carries an eternal promise of more. It is this type of cinephilia that accompanies the recent emergence of several obscure auteurs in web, literary, and moving image culture. One is an Italian-American sicko visionary whose approach to giallo-style torture porn marries the snuff film with high cult art cinema. Another is a Russian émigré whose obsessive Kubrick-on-steroids brand of perfectionism arguably oversaw some of the greatest British films ever made. Yet another is Charles Manson meets Tobe Hooper, a schlocky and gore-obsessed B-auteur and countercultural burnout whose communal approach to filmmaking blurs the line between events behind and in front of the screen. But none of these filmmakers ever existed. All were invented to explore the myth of the genius auteur in the complete absence of an actual body of work to talk […]


Carrie 1976

In contrast to Stephen King’s famous tomes The Stand, The Shining, and It, the author’s breakthrough novel – 1974’s “Carrie” – is relatively fit for adaptation as a feature-length film due to its various publications rarely running over two hundred pages. That said, beyond the usual acts of restructuring typical of Hollywood treatments, the movie versions of Carrie White’s story have stopped short of recreating the third section of King’s novel, “Aftermath.” Thus, they forego the subsequent history of a town that must physically and psychologically rebuild itself after an unfathomable tragedy. This section of King’s novel surveys the systemic long-term reactions to the Carrie incident: the development of scientific research and social programs for telekinetics, the slow rebuilding of a small town, and, naturally, a nation’s serious look in the mirror on the subject of high school bullying. While such a vast third act rarely takes shape in Carrie films, it’s the act that we’re collectively most familiar with when it comes to national news stories about young people, violence, and the ever-persistent phantom of bullying (still a term that resists a stable definition in school administrations), whether these real-life tragedies take the form of suicides or mass shootings.


Captain Phillips

A boat at sea is a pretty rich place to explore ideology. Bear with me here. The sea, by assumption, bears no visible national borders, no unified language, no tactile culture for human beings. Yet humans travel the sea, conquer it, capitalize on it. Our use of the sea is in no way apolitical, yet an endless horizon subject to the laws of nature conveys something essential, a visage that suggests a false, elusive neutrality. The sea simultaneously erases and amplifies the distinctions we’ve made between ourselves on land. Much has been already discussed about the ideological implications Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. What to make of a popular piece of entertainment that is, at least in part, about global inequality? Are the systemic factors that motivate Somali piracy ignored? If not, might audiences still interpret the film in a simplistic hero v. villain binary de rigueur of Hollywood entertainment? Is the film, as Dana Stevens observes, “a tragedy about the ruinous consequences of global capitalism” or is it, as Andrew O’Hehir argues, “a disturbing celebration of American military power”? Perhaps a film like Captain Phillips, by virtue of its setting and narrative, can be seen as a vessel of ideology that, at the same time, investigates the core processes by which our political identities and assumptions come into realization.

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published: 12.19.2014
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