Weekend Reel Reads: The Wachowskis' Journey and Critical Idols

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by Steve Greene
September 9, 2012 2:18 PM
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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.

Beyond the Matrix:

As the film "Cloud Atlas" bows at TIFF to conflicting, Aleksandar Hemon’s New Yorker profile chronicles the process that the film endured to make it to the screen. From the initial inspiration of Natalie Portman reading the source novel on the set of "V for Vendetta" to the involvement of Tom Tykwer to the eventual collaboration with author David Mitchell. But at its core, the piece is mainly about the difficult personal and professional evolution of the Wachowskis, siblings who have gone from preteen drive-in movie marathons to taking part in some of the landmark cinematic achievements of the past two decades, whether "Cloud Atlas" joins those ranks or not.

"Mitchell, who lives in the southwest of Ireland, agreed to meet the filmmakers in Cork. In 'a seaside hotel right out of 'Fawlty Towers,'' as Lana described it, they recounted for the author the painstaking process of disassembling the novel and reassembling it into the script he’d read. 'It’s become a bit of a joke that they know my book much more intimately than I do,' Mitchell wrote to me. They explained their plan to unify the narratives by having actors play transmigrating souls. 'This could be one of those movies that are better than the book!' Mitchell exclaimed at the end of the pitch. The pact was sealed with pints of Murphy’s stout at a local pub."

Beginning to See:

Karina Longworth’s article for Slate on the writings of culture critic Ellen Willis isn’t explicitly a piece about film. But Willis’ contributions to the critical profession and their effect on Longworth, whose writing has been featured in this space before, make for a sincere and personal retrospective. “To critique the culture industry and its products is to freeze the ephemeral in amber,” she writes, a statement that applies as much to the developments in the film industry as any other social branch. To see the development of two critics’ philosophies in such a concise package is a fascinating insight into what it means to evaluate the world around us.

"The very mainstreaming of the counter impulse makes Willis' approach to argument itself more valuable and vital than ever. I love the way Willis practices storytelling as criticism, and vice versa. A great example is Beginning To See the Light's title track, a rambling 1977 reflection on her 'capitulation to the Sex Pistols.' In the first paragraph, Willis is 'skeptical about punk,' jaded about 'the revolt against musical and social pretension' and 'put off by the heavy overlay of misogyny in the punk stance.' On the next page she bitches about Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo before embarking on a hiking trip; on the page after that, she admits she 'was beginning to emerge from a confusing and depressing period' and was starting to wonder if 'rock-and-roll [was] no longer going to be important in my life.' The very next sentence: 'Then I gave up trying to censor my thoughts.' So she breezes through 'thoughts' on Bessie Smith, the Ramones, the ongoing struggle to assimilate the developments of the ’60s, disco, and 'womens-culture music' before concluding that 'music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated ... challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman ... the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.' Consciousness is a process, and so is criticism; the act of beginning to see is as important as the light."

When Harold Met Lucy:

1941’s "A Girl, a Guy and a Gob" was one of the first films that silent-film icon Harold Lloyd began to produce for other filmmakers after his acting career was over. Although the film below the radar of most cinephiles, David Kalat’s post on TCM’s Movie Morlocks manages to contextualize the film both as part of the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s and in the greater career of the film’s star, Lucille Ball. For those unfamiliar with the slapstick conventions of the silent area that extended prominently into the post-war period, Kalat provides a helpful primer. He also pinpoints what separated Ball’s brand of comedy from her larger-than-life male predecessors in a way that stresses process rather than gender.

"This brings up another aspect of screwball and early dialogue comedies worth mentioning. The major works of 1920s comedy were vehicles constructed to showcase the personality of their toplining stars. Supporting players were not permitted to steal laughs from the likes of Chaplin or Keaton (I’m leaving Lloyd out consciously, as he was a more generous costar, and sometimes outshined by the likes of Noah Young or Ernest Morrison). Come sound, and comedies increasingly became ensemble affairs, populated by colorful character actors in supporting roles given all manner of digressive and tangential business. With the slapstick largely the province of her supporting cast, Lucille Ball instead takes over a leading role much closer to the kind of role that Ginger Rogers might take, were this a bigger budgeted and more prestigious picture. She’s a shopworn angel, buffeted by life but not beaten down. Unlike O’Brien’s character, her world is one of unknowns and risk. She has no reason to believe the future will be bright–might as well live for today and hope for the best."

Director Andrew Stanton looks back on 'John Carter's' rocky path:

The tortuous box-office demise of "John Carter" earlier this year spawned countless stories on the source of the failure, be it studio, talent or marketing factors that deserved the most blame. Months after the worst of the public scrutiny began to fade, director Andrew Stanton is finally beginning to speak about enduring the process. In an interview with Rebecca Keegan in the LA Times, Stanton discusses, among other things, how his Pixar experiences clashed with his expectations of live-action directing. While not much of the details in the piece are revelatory, it’s interesting to gain a peek into the mind of one of the figures at the center of the firestorm.

"The director was accustomed to Pixar's method of storyboarding a movie and massaging the script multiple times — a luxury afforded by the deliberative way animated films are made, not on sets where massive crews can burn through $500,000 a day. Early on, he said he requested that multiple reshoots be built into the production schedule. Disney granted that request, but a perceptual difference emerged. In Emeryville, reshoots are synonymous with improvement; in Hollywood, they're synonymous with screw-ups. The film was beginning to generate scorn. 'There was this weird air the summer before of schadenfreude, of doomed to fail,' he recalled. 'It isn't a nice atmosphere to be in, but what can you do about it?'"

David Fincher: A Film Title Retrospective:

It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into the content wormhole that is Art of the Title, a site devoted to unpacking and celebrating the best of film and television credits sequences. Their recent career retrospective on David Fincher is a fascinating deconstruction of the director’s filmography, viewed through a helpfully restrictive prism. An extended interview with the director serves as a key roadmap through Fincher’s work, essentially narrated by the man himself.

"With Fight Club, the whole thing could have started with the sound of a gun being cocked, opening on Edward Norton — which is how it began in all the preview screenings — but I had this idea to begin with the electrical impulse of information between two synapses to cue the fear or panic receptors in Edward Norton’s character’s brain. Then we literally pull back, changing in scale all the way back, and we pull out through his forehead. Now, did we need that? No, we didn’t. We probably spent $750,000 or $800,000 dollars on the title sequence. So to go to the studio and say, 'Hey, this could be a really good idea. We’ve already seen the movie with the sound of a gun cocking and it works pretty good. But this… this will put asses in seats!' — it’s a gamble. They don’t see it that way. So it’s a minor indulgence, but I remember that stuff."

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