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Weekend Reel Reads: A Few Looks at How the Way We Watch Movies is Changing

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire March 31, 2013 at 10:42AM

This week on Reel Reads, we have a measured defense of a much-maligned filmmaker, a biography of the source novel of one of Hollywood's greatest epics and a look at funny documentaries. A pair of other pieces examine the double-edged swords in recent movie industry development: streaming and plot dissection.
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Ben Hur Chariot

Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

The Passion of Lew Wallace

Ben-Hur is one of the best-selling novels in history, a feat that's helped its story give rise to a number of memorable adaptations. But, compared with the authors of other great source material, little is discussed about Lew Wallace, the Civil War general with a font of his own stories to tell. John Swansburg's mini-biography at Slate details how Wallace emerged from a certain amount of disgrace in his military career to pen the book that helped guide a Christian reading public through a time where religion was facing strong challenges. Perhaps the most memorable revelation in Swansburg's piece is that the legendary chariot race sequence may have begun as a fictional account of a real-life horse race between Wallace and Ulysses S. Grant.

"Or maybe Wallace did write of the race, but only under the veil of fiction. In every incarnation—novel, play, the 1925 silent film, Wyler’s 1959 spectacle—'Ben-Hur’'s most celebrated scene has always been the chariot race between Judah and his friend-turned-rival Messala. Early in the story, Messala betrays his boyhood companion, accusing Judah of a crime he didn’t commit: the attempted murder of Judea’s Roman governor. After years of suffering in exile, Judah is afforded an opportunity to avenge himself in the arena. Though Messala is heralded as the greatest charioteer in the empire, he can’t contain the superior horsemanship of Judah, who rides to victory. It’s hard not to read some wish fulfillment into Judah’s triumph. In the wake of the chariot race, Judah is cleared of the charges that have tarnished his good name, and, having goaded Messala into betting heavily against him, his victory also wins him a fortune to rival the emperor’s. Whatever satisfaction Wallace may have felt racing Grant through the fields of Virginia, it did nothing to improve his reputation or finances. But 'Ben-Hur' 

would indeed fulfill its author’s wishes, making him fantastically wealthy and dimming the memory of Shiloh—in the public imagination if not Wallace’s own."

Coen Brothers Week

The fine folks at Press Play went above and beyond this past week, producing a fantastic series of videos and essays on the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. All are noteworthy and can take up a good chunk of your free weekend reading/viewing time, including pieces on the filmmaking brothers' music choices, their overlooked work remaking "The Ladykillers" and the thematic origins of "The Hudsucker Proxy." Mark Greenbaum's analysis of their 2007 film is particularly intriguing. One of the most critical successful novel-to-film adaptations of all time, "No Country for Old Men" exists in both of its forms as a naturally complementary pieces of work. Greenbaum looks at the differences between the novel and the screenplay and the potential iterations that the latter went through before becoming a recent classic.

"The final scene, in which Bell reveals two disturbing dreams about his father—and his failure to live up to his legacy—and expresses fear about what is to come, is developed from McCarthy’s thirteenth and final monologue and is as poignant as the first scene is captivating. Interestingly, in an early version of the screenplay, the Coens intended the end of this scene to be given as a voiceover delivered around images of a snowy mountain pass, in much the same way as the beginning was done. Thankfully, they changed their minds, ultimately keeping the camera directly on Bell.  For it is better to see the despair on his haggard face than just to hear it. As he speaks, he is clearly affected and upset by his dreams, and at no point in the film has he looked weaker or more vulnerable than when he finishes and looks to his speechless wife for validation."

Why Tyler Perry May Be the Most Underrated Filmmaker Working Today

One of the most polarizing creative forces in the entertainment industry, Tyler Perry has received a substantial amount of negative critical attention. Even Todd Gilchrist's defense of Perry for Movies.com starts off with a qualification that not everything in the writer/director/producer's filmography is defensible. But Gilchrist does acknowledge that there are certain areas to Perry's body of work that merit some...well, merit. Highlighting Perry's ability to observe and analyze everyday human behavior and his willingness to tackle race-based issues, Gilchrist makes a compelling argument that to dismiss Perry's output offhand would be doing everyone a disservice.

"That the alternative is rom-com garbage about men and women in perfect jobs looking for perfect relationships – and invariably finding them -- is a testament to our increasing desire for empty-headed wish fulfillment. What Tyler Perry, amazingly, incisively and so often entertainingly tells us is that we’re all the same – we all have problems, we all struggle, and finding solutions are seldom easy. But most reassuringly, he also says those solutions are almost always within our grasp. And the fact not only that he grasps that idea, but repeatedly utilizes it to such powerful effect, shows that whatever sort of genius he demonstrates, intentional or not, should not be ignored."

The Importance of Continuity

Nitpicking is a curious movie-lovers phenomenon that we've discussed on the blog before, but it looks as if superhero franchises aren't the only targets. In his Pixar Perspective column, Josh Spiegel takes aim at the pre-emptive questioning that some fans have done in anticipation of the upcoming sequel "Monsters University." Regardless of the kind of film that prompts these plot-hole/unanswered question collections, Spiegel argues that the existence of these critical lists imply a certain level of perfection among Hollywood outputs that doesn't (and really, could never) exist.

"These minor issues of continuity have become a serious albatross on critical discussion revolving around any movie. You can love or hate any movie for any number of reasons, but listing out a series of nitpicks specific to a movie’s continuity or to its similarity to other movies is the antithesis of criticism. That 50-second video, titled 'The Problem with 'Monsters University,'' is of a piece with these YouTubed lists, in which we’re meant to see the error of our ways in liking some movie. The video’s creators presume they’re wise, but even in less than a minute, there’s zero substance here. In case you weren’t clear on the argument being made, the person or persons who created the video slowed down the footage. Now we can hear Billy Crystal bursting the airtight plot of 'Monsters University' extra-slow thanks to audio-manipulation technology, as if it’s meant to prove something definitive."

What is the Funniest Documentary of All Time?

The genre has not always been one that's easily lent itself to chuckles and knee-slapping. But the Documentary Channel's Christopher Campbell points out that that distinction is beginning to disappear. With a recent focus on the art and creation of comedy as well as some in-depth looks at larger-than-life characters (who also happen to be funny), doc-inspired laughs are beginning to become more pervasive than perhaps ever before.

"There was a time when 'funny' and 'documentary' seemed like oppositional words, and put together they’d be considered an oxy moron. The only comedies in documentary form were fictional mockumentaries and the only docs in comedy form were concert films of stand-up shows. Maybe people laughed at or with the behavior and statements of real quirky characters in docs like 'Grey Gardens,' 'The Decline of Western Civilization Part II,' 'Sherman’s March' and 'Vernon, Florida,' but it wasn’t the primary intent of their filmmakers to get laughs from the audience. At least I hope it wasn’t. That would be cruel."

How Digital Libraries Made My DVD Collection Better

The growing prevalence of streaming and instant video is certainly changing the way we absorb content in all its forms, whether it's TV, movies, games or any other type of entertainment. But as this programming becomes digital, what happens to the literal tons of physical media that make up home collections everywhere? Alexander Huls' editorial at Film School Rejects looks at how, despite the changing modes of film delivery, disc libraries still exist as a testament to the films that are worth keeping and the titles that become more precious in tangible form.

"The transition was so natural and so stealthy that it took me a while to realize I had been completely compromised. The unshakeable beliefs I’d held for years had been shaken and it ignited a cinematic identity crisis. I worried my days as a DVD/Blu-Ray worshiper were numbered. It felt like a sucker punch to the existential gut. This was who I had been for years. My former self was disappearing without so much as a conscious decision. It had simply been dismissed without regret or awareness. Something about that stung. More deeply than I would have ever expected or admitted. Why was I so afraid of giving up physical media and losing what had become a way of life?"



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