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Daily Reads: Penny Marshall on Robin Williams, the Rise of Gross TV and More

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 18, 2014 at 9:52AM

Plus: fighting back against a film thief, and the blacklist's effect on Hollywood cinema.
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Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in 'Awakenings'
Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in 'Awakenings'

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

1. Penny Marshall on Robin Williams. Plenty of tributes to the late Robin Williams are still rolling in, the most moving coming from those who worked with him and were directly affected by him. Speaking with Tad Friend of The New Yorker, Penny Marshall, who directed Williams in "Awakenings" and whose TV show "Laverne & Shirley" was, like "Mork & Mindy," a spinoff of "Happy Days." She noted his kindness, and his ability to make even his "Awakenings" co-star, the intensely focused Robert De Niro, bust up laughing.

On the press tour, she recalled, “I slurred, and said the film was set at a menstrual hospital, instead of a mental hospital—and Robin immediately said, ‘It’s a period piece.’ But he also made you cry at the end, when all the patients go back to being frozen.” She grabbed another cigarette—“I’m going to stop smoking”—and continued: “We had a Ouija-board scene, and it looked like a monkey was doing it, and I told him, ‘Robin, you gotta take the hair off your hands!’ He said, ‘I know: I sweat! I’m hairy! God’s gifts to me!’ He made fun of himself, which a lot of comedians can’t, and he had a great laugh, and there was not a mean streak in him.” Read more.


2. The Blacklist and Hollywood Cinema. 
The new documentary "Red Hollywood," from directors Thom Andersen ("Los Angeles Plays Itself") and Noel Burch, covers not only the how the blacklist smeared the names of left-wing and communist artists in Hollywood, but also removed much of the social concerns that made Hollywood films so vital in the time. Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote about how the movement exiled not only great communist directors like Abraham Polonsky and Joseph Losey, but people who weren't members of the American Communist Party (Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin), and how filmmakers now had to code their political ideas in order to smuggle them through.

But the inquisitional atmosphere, the virtual political censorship of Hollywood movies at the time, and the deëmphasis of express social content (or discontent) pushed filmmakers to express their ideas and emotions symbolically, to convey their “general philosophical attitude” not in dramatic substance but in mood and tone—and these were hectic. Whether filmmakers were on the left or the right, the best of them captured, expressed, and aestheticized something raucous and discordant in the air. (The very title of Mankiewicz’s “People Will Talk,” a medical comedy about an investigation of skeletons in the closet, and the clandestine intellectual cell of Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” are just two of the myriad hints and winks at the ambient paranoia that found their way into movies by non-Communists.) Much of what we love about classic Hollywood is what we hate about its times. Read more.


3. Eastern European Sci-Fi. It's hard to escape the dominance of science fiction on much of post-"Star Wars" American cinema, but there's plenty of interesting stuff going on in the genre in Eastern European cinema as well. Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian covered the FIlm Society of Lincoln Center's "Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi" program, which was moderated by Film Comment's Nick Rapold, and the obscure films included (there's no "Solaris" or "Fantastic Planet" here). Hoffman writes that the wildly varying films show "the elasticity of science fiction."

My favourite pairing is probably the two from East Germany, Gottfried Kolditz’s 1976 "In The Dust of Stars" with Herrmann Zscoche’s "Eolomea." While the two share some production aspects (those fabulous costumes!) they couldn’t be more different in tone. "Dust," which has a bit of an early "Star Trek" vibe, follows a ship of exploration to a peculiar and ultimately dangerous planet, and as such dips its toe in a bit of pulpy whiz-bang camp. But the strong female captain and her down-to-party crew eventually make a stand for workers’ rights, despite the many passed aerosol cans that give everyone the giggles. "Eolomea" is far more serious, showing us a spacefaring future Earth that can conquer the stars, but can’t conquer bureaucracy. Despite an incredible emphasis on design and visual effects “people are just sitting at desks!” Rapold remarks with some wonderment at its hinted political commentary. Read more.


4. A Tale of the Film Thief. 
Austin-based filmmaker Clay Liford ("Wuss") found himself a victim of intellectual property theft when a man calling himself "Frankie Hopkins" picked Liford's short "My Mom Smokes Weed" to call his own by ripping it from YouTube, retitling it, and renaming the cast and crew. "Frankie" has done this to several filmmakers, but Liford chose to take matters into his own hands and fight back, drawing attention to his fraudulence on Facebook and Twitter. Liford shares his story with The Talkhouse, also musing on what lies ahead for him as a filmmaker who's had his work stolen.

The question I should probably analyze more than any others is, what’s the endgame for me? This is where I have to step back and take a hard look at myself. I would be lying if I said I didn’t take some glee in roasting this obvious fool, who threw back in my face multiple chances to confess and apologize. When I proposed a truce, Frankie seemed to want one — until he realized that my conditions included taking down all his stolen videos. And the attention critique applied to Frankie also applies to myself. Hell, this is more free press than I’ve had in years. I’m about to launch into my next feature, and frankly (sorry), every little bit helps. Am I wrong to exploit this situation for personal gain? Perhaps. But I’m also making the best out of a personal loss. Intellectual Property may not come with a physical mass, but it is indeed something that can be taken away from you. Not only did Frankie illegally download my work, he made an attempt to obscure and possibly eradicate my authorial presence, which is the only real currency left to me in a weightless world of digital art. So yes, if I can get something back, something beyond just a simple “win,” then I’m all for it. Read more.


5. The Rise of Gross TV. 
Depending on the time of year and day of the week, viewers can turn on the TV and watch a beheading on "Game of Thrones," flesh-chomping on "The Walking Dead," a kidney removal on a lucid patient on "Hannibal," or a dismemberment on "Outlander." Just in time for the new Steven Soderbergh-directed "The Knick," The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman writes about how TV might be overreliant on gore as a selling point now, and how some shows justify it while others don't.

"The Knick" might not be "enjoyable" per se, but it intrigues by taking a premise we haven't seen much of — medicine in 1900 — and wrapping solid characters and storylines around it. The grossness is essentially something you have to endure to get to the better stuff. Furthermore, the series would be duly knocked if it shied away from honestly portraying the medical chaos of a burgeoning nation. It's well worth watching, even through fingers splayed on a dismayed face. Read more.


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This article is related to: Richard Brody, Robin Williams, Outlander, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones


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