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Why People Stopped Reading the Stuff You Post on the Internet

August 12, 2015

A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion about the state of then-contemporary film criticism. Arriving hot on the heels of lay-offs affecting some of America’s most prominent film critics, the panel’s tone was sombre and flecked with bitterness. They decried the editorial preference for celebrity gossip, they decried the lack of respect afforded serious criticism and they admitted that eight-figure publicity spends had made their writings irrelevant. The only exception to the apocalyptic rhetoric was an admission that people had started doing some interesting things online, and that maybe those new spaces would help foster serious discussion and maybe provide film critics with a source of money and social capital. Writing in 2007, the veteran critic Jonathan Rosenbaum captured the optimism about online publication in an essay arguing that the internet’s capacity to connect film lovers from across the globe might allow the creation of new cultural spaces:

I realized that the shifting paradigms of today might also transform what we normally regard as a minority taste. Once the paradigms of a single geographical base changes, all sorts of things can be transformed.

A beautiful dream… but it didn’t come true.

Many of the sites Rosenbaum mentions in his essay “Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections” have since shut down and even well-resourced and high-profile attempts at broadening the cinematic conversation like The Dissolve have resulted in humiliating failure. All across the cultural spectrum — from high-brow literature to low-brow video games – the interest in online reviews and criticism has collapsed. Optimism has been replaced by cynicism as the insightful and principled are drowned in a never-dwindling tide of recycled press releases and promotional fluff.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a short piece exploring the tension between a critic’s need to remain enthusiastic about their own work and their need to fit within the boundaries of an existing cultural conversation. The piece generated a wave of soul-searching and pledges to abandon the conventional review in search of something more in keeping with the current cultural moment.

So where did it all go wrong? What happened to Rosenbaum’s dream of self-sustaining cultural communities in which great works would generate great critical conversations? This is an essay about the decline and fall of online reviewing and how the changing nature of the internet seems to have made it harder to have a civilised conversation.

 

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REVIEW — Les Combattants (2014)

August 10, 2015
Combattants

FilmJuice have my review of Thomas Cailley’s hugely engaging teen drama Les Combattants (a.k.a. Love at First Fight). Having received a standing ovation at Cannes, Cailley’s debut film went on to secure nine nominations and three wins at the French equivalent of the Oscars. Celebrated by French critics as nothing less than the future of French cinema, Les Combattants limped onto Anglo-American screens where it was marketed and reviewed as a romantic comedy (hence the stupid English-language title). Given that it is short on jokes and long on the kind of evocative, hands-off storytelling that is common in European drama and absent from the history of romantic comedy, the film received middling reviews from critics who seemed more interested in engaging with the press release than the nature of the film itself. According to Gary Goldstein at the LA Times:

There’s a better movie floating around the edges of the French import “Love at First Fight” than first-time feature director Thomas Cailley has allowed to surface. Though it’s billed as a romantic comedy, this quirky tale takes too many narrative U-turns that seem to dodge the genre’s more traditional (read: satisfying) tropes and dynamics.

There’s misprision and then there’s critical laziness. This is an example of the latter as Les Combattants is actually a fantastic meditation on Young Adult fiction and contemporary gender roles. You just need to make a bit of an effort in order to see it.

Les Combattants is built around two young adult protagonists: Kévin Azaïs‘ Arnaud whose lack of ambition and focus in no way seems to prevent his integration into a French society that is always pleased to see him. Everywhere he goes, Arnaud is offered jobs and opportunities for advancement despite the fact that the French economy is evidently still in tatters. Adèle Haenel plays Mathilde, a fiercely intelligent and incredibly driven young woman whose every attempt to secure an education or job is met with dismissive scorn. The fact that Arnaud’s white male privilege protects him from economic deprivation means that he is far better disposed to people and society than Mathilde, who spends the entire film having doors slammed in her face:

When Mathilde joins Arnaud’s family for dinner, the conversation naturally turns to the lack of jobs for young people and we see how the inequalities in French society have nurtured two very different reactions to the economic crisis: Embittered and unappreciated, Mathilde reaches the conclusion that society has nothing to offer her and so sets about preparing for its imminent demise; Pampered and protected, Arnaud has the luxury to consider a number of different career paths and so admits that he has never really thought about the collapse of Western civilisation.

Arnaud slowly falls in love with Mathilde and so decides to join her at a boot camp designed to help young adults preparing to join a parachute regiment. While Arnaud’s easy charm and happiness going with the flow mean that he fits right into a military environment, Mathilde solitary nature and intense disposition mean that the army falls out of love with Mathilde almost as quickly as Mathilde loses interest in the army. Eventually, things get so bad that Arnaud decides to abandon his shot at a military career and simply wanders off into the wilderness with Mathilde in tow.

As I explain in my review, I think that Cailley was wrong to have Arnaud discover his agency at the end of the film. I think that having Arnaud lead the pair out of danger undermines Mathilde’s character and turns Les Combattants from a film about a couple into a film about a young man. This misstep aside, I think this film has a lot of interesting things to say about gender. Particularly when you realise the similarities between Haenel’s intense survivalist Mathilde and the intensely self-reliant young women who feature in books like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling.

Les Combattants suggests that women have it considerably harder than men in the current economic climate. What makes Cailley’s analysis interesting is the suggestion that these inequalities might well have a knock-on effect of how the different genders perceive society. For example, Mathilde has grown intensely self-reliant because she no longer trusts society whereas Arnaud is happy to trust society and go with the flow because his experience is of people and institutions falling over themselves to offer him jobs and opportunities for advancement. The film’s ending strikes a false note because allowing Arnaud to save the day sends the message that Arnaud’s vision of society is somehow correct whereas Mathilde’s is paranoid and self-destructive. I disagree… I think Mathilde’s wariness is a rational response to an irrational world and I can’t help but wonder whether the immense popularity of YA among women might not be a direct response to their unequal treatment at the hands of society.

Interesting stuff aside, Les Combattants is one of the better looking films I have reviewed recently, so I thought I would share a few screen grabs:

 

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TV Games Are For Boys

August 6, 2015

So… today, I’m doing something different. Rather than me rabbiting on about a film, a book, or a misshapen cloud, today’s post will be written by someone different.

Joel Goodwin (a.k.a. Harbour Master) is the founder of Electron Dance, a wonderfully singular site devoted to the world of independent PC gaming. It says something about Joel’s writing that I became a fan of his work long before I acquired a PC allowing me to play any of the games he wrote about. Joel writes about games with the kind of critical intelligence that is vanishingly rare in the world of mainstream games writing; he cares about how games work, he cares about how different elements of a game interact to create a particular experience and he aggressively seeks out games that push the limits of what the medium can achieve. I recommend his (now sadly defunct) podcast Counterweight, I recommend his on-going video series Side-by-Side, and I definitely recommend posts such as his take on AAA story-telling, his take on Christine Love’s Don’t Take it Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story and the so-called Petri Dish trilogy of posts about the Internet and online culture that begins with “As Good as it Gets”, progresses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cat Videos” and ends with “TV Games are for Boys”.

“TV Games are for Boys” is a piece about parenting, making mistakes and trying to participate in a culture where even the tiniest misstep can result in complete social annihilation.

 

 

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TVG1

 

It seems I’ve been terrified for nearly three years.

Young brains are wired to mimic. This gets them up to speed as quickly as possible, meaning children often want to get involved in whatever their parents are doing. This includes cooking and the washing up at early ages (I hear this doesn’t extend into the teens) and also the playing of games. At the age of two, my son, K, wanted to play games with Daddy.

He certainly didn’t like Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) but if a game’s Spookiness Factor was low, he would be happy to watch. The only game that really worked for him was an early version of Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2012) which satisfied him for a while.

 

 

K was fascinated with city infrastructure: recycling trucks, fire engines, trains, that sort of thing. I thought of GTA III (Rockstar Games, 2001) and, heartened by the tale of another parent who exposed their four-year old to GTA, I let K have a dabble.

His controller skills were poor as his fingers were too small to manipulate the thumbsticks, so I had to keep course correcting, but he enjoyed his excursion in Liberty City and rode the train over and over again. I felt comfortable because he didn’t have the maturity to comprehend what was happening in the game: he saw roads, trains, bodies of water. The muffled shouts of angry pedestrians and the occasional traffic accident were background detail.

But I left the room for a moment and when I came back, my son was carrying a rifle.

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Killer of Sheep (1978) — The Neorealist Equivalent of Conan’s Hat

August 4, 2015
KILLER OF SHEEP

One of the most enduring creation myths to emerge from late-20th Century popular culture is that of Los Angeles as a city built on bones. Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells of an incestuous white man who engineers water shortages in order to force poor farmers off their land and build new homes for middle-class families. Set a number of years later, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet provides Capital with an even more corrupt figurehead in the person of Dudley Smith, an OSS spymaster turned anti-Communist and White supremacist who uses his institutional power as chief of detectives to corner the local drugs trade in an effort to keep the city’s non-White population under control and away from the classy White neighbourhoods that Chinatown’s Noah Cross famously described as “the future”.

While American popular culture is often willing to recognise the racial character of the oppressive forces it seeks to catalogue, its viewpoint is invariably that of the White liberal onlooker rather than that of the explicitly oppressed. This is particularly evident in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a polymorphously problematic remake of Chinatown where California’s marginalised population is represented by a ghetto filled with a diverse population of cartoon characters who eke out a living on the margins of Hollywood and eagerly distance themselves from a villainous Judge Doom who acquired considerable power and money by passing himself off as a respectable White man. The film ends with the ‘toons bickering about whether Doom was actually a duck, a dog or a mouse because obviously no White man would ever stoop so low as to use institutional power to brutalise and immiserate the poor and dispossessed. Even Chinatown’s most famous line resonates with the privilege of being born White in a White supremacist state; Jake may be able to ‘forget it’ because it is Chinatown but the actual residents of Chinatown are forced to live with ‘it’ every day of their lives.

As Thom Andersen suggests in his peerless video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, the American film industry has long proven reluctant to engage with the city of Los Angeles on its own terms and turn the camera over to the real victims of its emerging creation myth. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of only a few films to consider what it means to live in the town of Noah Cross and Dudley Smith.

 

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Last Night by James Salter: “Palm Grove”

July 31, 2015
LN

This is a story that left me somewhat unconvinced. What drew me to Salter in the first place, was the promise of unfamiliar psychological vistas: As a reader, I wanted to encounter something new. As a critic, I wanted stories that would ask more from me than the ability to recognise stock characters and the relationships that traditionally bind them together. This is a very well-crafted story but it also rests upon a dynamic that is both ancient and toxic, namely that of men viewing women as objects and psychological props rather than living, breathing people. Salter handles his charges with considerable sympathy but it is noticeable that Noreen never quite manages to come together as anything more than Arthur’s perceptions of her. I knew coming into Last Night that Salter was an older writer whose worldview was not likely to be particularly progressive but it is still disappointing to run into lazy thought patterns in the work of someone who is manifestly capable of real empathy and understanding. “Palm Court” is what theatre people would call a two-hander: Two characters drawn are together after a long time apart, their unexpected closeness compelling them to consider both why they parted and why they cannot remain together. Read more…

Podcast Round-up 2015

July 29, 2015

I suddenly realised that it has been a number of years since I last wrote something about my favourite podcasts. Unlike previous years where I’ve given a complete assessment of all the different podcasts I listen to, I’ll limit myself to two relatively recent discoveries:

 

NM

 

Novara FM started out as a regular radio show on London’s Resonance FM. Usually an hour long, the show basically involves a bunch of radical leftists discussing the issues of the day. Usually hosted by Aaron Bastani and James Butler, the show somehow manages to find the sweet spot between Marxism 101 and the deluge of jargon that academic leftism can so often become. A lot of Novara’s charm is down to the communication skills of its two primary presenters: Bastani is confrontational, intuitive and loves boiling complex issues down to amusingly polemical soundbites while Butler is more expansive, careful and alive to nuance. I have often found myself in the position of having encountered an idea and reached a conclusion only to completely reverse my position based on the analyses presented on this podcast. Particular favourites include:

 

YMR

 

You Must Remember This is the brainchild of one-time LA Weekly film critic Karina Longworth. The best way of describing this series would be to think of it as a storytelling podcast similar to Sarah Koenig’s Serial except that it deals with the scurrilous history of Hollywood. Closer to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls than Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, the show explores the private lives of 20th Century Hollywood with an eye to how those lives intersected with the industry. The current series is taking a long hard look at Charles Manson, his Family, his crimes and how 1960s Hollywood allowed a murderous cult leader to get so close to them. While the current series was clearly inspired by Jeff Guin’s brilliant biography Manson, Longworth approaches her subject with a feminist slant that really sheds new light on old Hollywood legend. As brilliant as Charlie Manson’s Hollywood may be, it is also worth checking out earlier episodes including:

 

REVIEW — Stalag 17 (1953)

July 27, 2015
s17

FilmJuice have my review of Billy Wilder’s misleading P.O.W. comedy Stalag 17. I say “misleading” as while the film was initially marketed as a tribute to America’s brave prisoners of war, the film’s depiction of life in a World War II prison camp is actually far from flattering.

Originally a hugely-successful Broadway play, Stalag 17 revolves around a group of American POWs who are trying to escape the camp. Using all of their initiative and sneakiness, the men dig tunnels, fashion civilian clothes and scout for weaknesses in German security only to wind up delivering their escapees into the waiting arms of German machine-gun fire. Shocked but reticent to engage in any form of concerted self-criticism, the group’s frustrations wind up being unleashed on William Holden’s Sefton, a cynical individualist who would rather profit from the group’s desires than aid in their fulfilment. What makes this film “misleading” is the fact that, rather than conforming to genre expectations and producing a film all about a bunch of POWs coming together to outwit the Germans, Wilder has produced a film that portrays American POWs as boorish, overbearing idiots. In fact, Sefton’s rugged individualist is quite obviously intended to be the film’s point-of-view character:

Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.

My review places Stalag 17 in the broader context of Wilder’s career and his tendency to view American society in very cynical terms but it also occurs to me that films like Stalag 17 could very well mark the point at which war-time solidarity left the American cultural bloodstream, taking any and all faith in collective action with it. Sefton’s rugged individualism provides the film with its moral centre precisely because America was entering an age where it became the individual’s moral duty to look to their own advancement whilst questioning any and all conceptions of the public good that were not grounded in material largesse.

 

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