Tag Archives: John Wayne

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part three

Tropico p2 alternate

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

In Part One, we talked about Lana Del Rey’s “Body Electric” and our culture’s treatment of celebrity as religion. In Part Two, we talked about Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” and what might be our forms of worship and sin in such a religion.

We stopped at Lana Del Rey’s inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which takes place as she and several strippers arrive at a party for businessmen. As things get going, Shaun Ross bursts in with his gang, and robs them blind to “Howl.”

Vanessa: “Howl” is a call to throw out the old system. It’s a call for revolt. She knows what Shaun Ross is about to do. She’s not victimized here, she’s taking something back from that system. At the end of “Gods and Monsters,” he’s eating the apple like there’s no tomorrow. We cut to her during the robbery looking straight at us.

Gabe: So she’s in on it, that was my takeaway, too. She throws away one of the wallets during the John Wayne monologue later. It doesn’t make sense if she isn’t.

Vanessa: They don’t get to the rapture at the end without throwing out the old system. They have to take action against it.

Gabe: Cause the expected reading would be that the robbery is just a further descent into sin.

Cleopatra: That’s what I think.

Vanessa: Mary sings along to “Gods and Monsters.” John Wayne cocks his rifle right before.

Cleopatra: But Mary cries afterward.

Vanessa: At their sin or what they’re forced to do to overcome their punishment? It goes, “And so, from being created in his likeness to being banished for wanting to be too much like him, we were cast out, and the Garden of Eden transformed into the Garden of Evil.” It says the system’s got to be kicked over.

Gabe: Jesus doesn’t look too happy. You keep saying the system. What system?

Vanessa: Celebrity as religion. Everything’s celebritized now – your Izzy Black article – Wall Street bankers are the new gangster film, and The Godfather and Goodfellas are movies about worshiping the criminals who normalize it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t judge the piece of shit. He overwhelms you with him.

Cleopatra: So she’s saying reject criminals by being a criminal?

Vanessa: You don’t have to like it.

Cleopatra: People in those movies end up dead and arrested.

Gabe: Not all of them.

Vanessa: Yeah, but they’re gods until then. They’re treated as the ultimate realization of the American dream – people who start out small and buck the system to end up the new tyrants.

Gabe: Cycles of oligarchy. And a lot of times, it’s the peons who get killed and arrested, while the kingpins keep on rolling.

Cleopatra: But then it’s endorsing exactly what it’s criticizing.

Vanessa: Don’t take the mugging scene literally. It’s a call to change things. It’s not a call to go out and rob people.

Tropico lost faith

Gabe: Did you notice in that scene, in the hotel room where they give the party, that celebrities are looking down on the whole thing from the paintings on the walls?

Vanessa: No.

Gabe: It’s a constant throughline. You know, I’ve been raring to talk about William Gibson ever since we hit on the celebrity-as-religion idea. He’s the novelist who wrote Neuromancer and had a big hand in inventing cyberpunk as a genre. One of my big papers my last year of college was about what I called neo-feudalism, how corporation-states are making nations obsolete and essentially turning them into vassals. Point is, Gibson gave up writing cyberpunk because he said the dystopian future he had envisioned wasn’t nearly as bad as the real state of things. He had two novels post-cyberpunk that really struck my imagination. The first is Pattern Recognition. He envisions a film that gets released in clips randomly online. People can’t tell if the actors are real or CG. People can’t decide what it’s about. People can’t track down who made it. A trend analyst is hired to track its maker down, and there’s some action and espionage because it’s Gibson, but I swear to god, it plays as a brief history of the contemplation of God.

Cleopatra: I read it; I liked it.

Gabe: And then he wrote Spook Country, in which people start to create pieces of art – and some are subtle and great and some are looming and garish – but as long as you can log onto the server, you can put on glasses and see L.A. as re-imagined by, essentially, modders. You can hop onto one server and walk around the city, really physically walk around, and see great sculptures coming out of the water, or you can hop onto a different server and walk around the city and see celebrities in the exact spot in which they died – and it anticipated Oculus Rift and Google Glass and all these other innovations in how we’re about to start looking at the world, but it was also about this way in which we start to use celebrity in these artificial niche cultures to create alternate visual languages and knowledge bases to understand the world. It reminds me of a sort of return to our most basic Animist religions, where belief was based on a mountain having a certain meaning and a river having a certain spirit, and those meanings and spirits translated something important about a culture. And suddenly, we have these thousands of little niche languages, many of them becoming visually based so that we’re beginning to talk in themes and we give a movie a certain meaning or a piece of fashion a certain spirit – not literally, but effectually – and those meanings, well they translate something important onto the next collector, onto the next translator. You see it on Flickr and Tumblr and all these users who become popular cultural translators – and not just translators, I think as critics we can aspire to be those translators – but the meta-collectors of art who are creating those meanings. I posted an article on cyberpunk a few months ago that began to touch on that.

Vanessa: It sounds like Minecraft. People went through and just recreated all of Denmark on a set of servers, and anyone can log into it and make any changes they want, but it’s only up for so long.

Gabe: And then it’s gone?

Vanessa: And then it’s gone.

Gabe: Like a video game sand mandala.

Vanessa: It’s a crude version of what you’re talking about, but it lets people create landscapes, virtual landscapes that carry their own meaning. Right now, it’s for games, but….

Gabe: It’s creating a language, it’s creating a grammar that we’ll pull into tomorrow. The things they did in movies and TV for the first few decades created the same grammar we use today. And maybe visually it’s crude, and Gibson described his version as pretty crude, but conceptually, has anyone ever been able to do anything like that before? I mean, it’s funny, we have all this power taken away and taken away from us, and ideas banned, and people arrested, yet we keep on finding new ways to communicate and organize and translate ideas. And I don’t know, it may be really depressing to be just about anybody these days, but the tools we have to organize and effect change – we’ve never had anything like it before, we just need to figure out how to take those things and apply the history of art and resistance and governance to be able to take full advantage of them, to mature them into even greater usefulness and give them even more presence. And then you get the abolition of net neutrality trying to ruin it, but that’s a whole other tangent. What I’m saying about Lana Del Rey is that, what Spook Country posed as our attribution of cultural meaning onto celebrity as a tool of resistance and subtle change, as something that almost threatens to be the exact counter to neo-feudalism, a sort of visual language of ideas you have to develop fluency in to understand, is already there in Tropico.

Vanessa: Can you put a link in where people can contact their Congresspeople and tell them to keep net neutrality alive? Because everything you just described is gone if companies get to own the Internet.

Gabe: Yes. So I’m with Vanessa. I don’t think there’s a reason to include “Howl” there unless you’re saying things have to change, and we need to take charge, and that what gets us back to “America, Why I Love Her” and gets Lana Del Rey and Shaun Ross to the rapture at the end – they’ve clearly escaped that “Entrance to the Underworld,” that “Paradise lost” through their actions, she’s holding the gun and showing off the results of the money.

Vanessa: Mary’s not praying afterward for their sins, Mary’s praying for their salvation from John Wayne’s punishment, for extraction from a land of “Gods and Monsters” to someplace better.

Gabe: To the kinder God of the New Testament, perhaps?

Cleopatra: Maybe. But then is she saying to embrace celebrity and wealth as salvation? She becomes the new kingpin?

Gabe: But she uses it to extract herself, to change the equation, to leave that land and return to nature and to come closer to that ideal of herself she can never quite reach, to return to Whitman and that Mitchum poem, which was written for John Wayne – and I swear, I never thought I’d cry at a John Wayne monologue.

Tropico 5

Vanessa: It’s everyone’s way of returning to nature. To steal everything out from under the old system. Lana Del Rey gets a baptism back into it.

Cleopatra: So it’s Fight Club.

Gabe: It kind of is, isn’t it? It shares a lot of the same messages, although Fight Club takes on materialism where this, I think, is a much deeper contemplation on religion, celebrity, and resistance.

Cleopatra: Deeper than Fight Club?

Gabe: That would be an absolutely useless argument to have. I’d say they’re very complementary, and seeing one probably makes you understand the other better.

Vanessa: Yes, it’s deeper than Fight Club.

Gabe: The rapture scene takes place to “Bel Air,” which isn’t really about the place so much as Lana Del Rey’s character coming into her own. I think the “Bel Air” reference is something personal to the song.

Vanessa: It’s the last song on Paradise, isn’t it?

Gabe: It is the last song on the EP, yes.

Vanessa: I’ve been thinking about it as her double dissolving. It kind of wanders away into the sunset, you know.

Cleopatra: The film breaks down at the end. The skips and artifacts.

Gabe: Right, there are some skips in the visual and the audio develops background static. As they’re lifted up into the air, the entire video turns to black-and-white fuzz. Combined with Vanessa’s reading – her double dissolves, and the very method of communication that necessitates her double – the film itself – that dissolves, too. What do you think that signifies?

Vanessa: Celebrity is surpassed. If it’s something that’s really only visual.

Gabe: It’s the rapture for celebrity-as-religion?

Cleopatra: Maybe it says we’re all raised up in the end. If we all get 15 minutes, celebrity becomes obsolete.

Gabe: I handn’t thought of it that way.

Vanessa: It moves beyond the need for religion. I thought her throwing the pearls away looks a lot like throwing rosary beads away. Not like she’s throwing religion away, but that pearls are the rosary beads of celebrity, so she’s throwing that away.

Gabe: And then it all goes to fuzz, and the mode of communicating celebrity is done.

Cleopatra: Cue “Where Is My Mind?”

Vanessa: So our rapture is losing the double we create for ourselves.

Gabe: Or is it throwing out the system that idealizes the double? Gibson might say the meaning we assign to doubles is an evolution of language and religion itself.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s why you’re on Facebook so much and I can’t stand it.

Gabe: They both have the same goals, the same message. She does use her double, as a stripper, to be able to revolt, and Shaun Ross uses a mask. They have to play the roles in order to take advantage of them.

Vanessa: Stop making points. We’re done.

Gabe: I think it’s too big a problem for Lana Del Rey or William Gibson or Fight Club to solve on their own. But all together-

Cleopatra: With our powers combined!

Gabe: That’s right, we’re going to end this with a Captain Planet reference.

Vanessa: If it works with the theme.

Tropico 6

A brief message from Gabe
Thank you so much for reading this series. It’s an experiment and we’re all glad it’s resonated with others so far.

We all agreed that Tropico has an incredible amount to say about celebrity-as-religion, about socio-economics, about the false exaggerations we create of ourselves in a world of social media, about activism, and about the role of artists in shoving culture forward when governments become too stagnant to do so. Some of the most peaceful and effective coups in history are the artistic ones. We may disagree on certain other messages, but we all left thinking Tropico packs more meaning into its 27 minutes than most movies can into two hours. It’s absolutely worth picking apart and analyzing, and carrying forward as a movie that’s symbolic of this very crucial moment in our history, that can both speak on it and react to it.

We never thought that was a possibility when we first sat down to watch it. We thought we’d be one-upping each other’s jokes about this crazy, ridiculous video Lana Del Rey did. But this film took us all apart, it made us each weep at different points, and it spoke to something incredibly complicated, so universal and so timely that it became deeply personal for each of us. This isn’t just a good film or a great one, it’s an important one that knows what it’s doing, what message it wants to send, and can resonate with you for weeks after if you give it a chance. Thank you for reading. This won’t be the last thing we have to say about music videos or about the work of Lana Del Rey.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part two

Tropico p2 lead

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

This is the second part of our conversation. Read Part One here. Let’s dive right in:

Gabe: So far we’ve covered one song. There are still three poems and two songs to get through.

Cleopatra: Can I just say how much I like the part when Lana Del Rey bites the apple? Marilyn Monroe screams and Elvis does a kung fu move. That’s the best part.

Gabe: You guys like John Wayne and Elvis way more than I do. I think it’s interesting that she shifts right from the song “Body Electric” to the Whitman poem, but Whitman is absolutely not my forte.

Cleopatra: He based a whole bunch of poetry on the Bible. A lot of it supports ideas in it, but in a lot of it he rejects the Bible, too.

[Here’s an excellent article in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review on that topic.]

Gabe: On what grounds?

Cleopatra: Whitman said that people’s own souls should be their spiritual connection to God. He was anti-authority. He talked about people coming to their own beliefs about God and the universe, and how they should find an understanding of the universe through themselves instead of through what somebody else tells them.

Gabe: It’s like the Gospel of Thomas – “The kingdom of God is within you and all around you. It is not within buildings of wood or stone. Split a piece of wood and you will find me. Look beneath a stone and I am there.”

Tropico mid 1

Cleopatra: Where is that?

Gabe: Thomas is one of the Gnostic gospels. It’s one of several gospels the Catholic Church never accepted as canon. There are various arguments about why. Some are faith-based, some aren’t, but one of the major ones is that it quotes Jesus as saying houses of worship were bunk and people who tell you how to worship shouldn’t be trusted. You should find your own path to worship through experiencing nature and hard work. I won’t get into the politics of it-

Vanessa: Too late.

Gabe: But if it were ever accepted into the Bible, it would basically acknowledge that Jesus told people not to go to Church or listen to priests, because it would make them further from God. There are arguments for its inclusion and against, but let’s get back to Whitman and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Obviously, Lana Del Rey isn’t comparing Whitman’s views with going to a strip club.

Vanessa: Are you sure? Whitman was fired when Leaves of Grass was published.

Cleopatra: It was criticized for being indecent. A lot of people burned it.

Gabe: So what’s Lana Del Rey saying here?

Vanessa: Like I said, it links to the position men are taught to put women into because of what the Garden of Eden story says.

Gabe: You don’t agree.

Cleopatra: Maybe the strip club is just another house of wood and stone, but it’s not the Church’s house. It’s the new one we’ve built.

Gabe: The same thing the Church allegedly does to Thomas by rejecting him and building a central authority out from Jesus?

Cleopatra: With celebrity standing in for religion.

Gabe: So we’ve taken what Whitman said and, essentially, rejected him the same way the Church rejected Thomas. We’ve sort of bastardized his teachings to suit the powerful. That finds a way to marry your two interpretations, doesn’t it?

Vanessa: I like where it’s going.

Tropico connection

Gabe: So we have Eve put into a specific place in which men are trained to treat her a certain way, and we have Whitman being recited over this montage that runs counter to the meaning of the poem – and the store – Shaun Ross, the guy who plays Adam – he’s trapped in this cashier job at a mini-mart, in another house of brick and- sorry, wood and stone. Here you have the two people who commit sin, not against God necessarily – maybe it’s not a retelling of original sin. It’s a telling of our sin against Whitman and the idea of America – there’s the John Mitchum poem later, “America, Why I Love Her,” that leads up to Lana Del Rey’s rapture scene at the end. If these celebrities have become our religious icons, maybe the sin we’ve committed is against that early notion of the American ideal.

Cleopatra: I can’t really see Whitman and John Wayne in bed together.

Vanessa: I bet Whitman could imagine it.

Gabe: OK, but – look, Lana Del Rey’s obviously saying that our religion is celebrity, but she’s also saying that we’ve committed an original sin in that religion, too, that of – to go back to Warhol – that the purpose of each of our lives is to become celebrities, that that’s how we emulate our religious icons – we seek to be like them, and being like them is being beautiful and exaggerating our image.

Vanessa: Which means Facebook and Twitter are two more houses of wood and stone.

Gabe: Right, it’s the damn Richard Marshall article all over again. We’re haunted by the double we create to represent ourselves, and with Whitman involved, how do we find our own personal understanding of God if we’re busy replacing who we are as a person with that exaggerated double?

Cleopatra: We’ve sinned against Whitman. The house of worship is the strip club-

Gabe: It’s designed to make you feel like a celebrity, to practice making the body a commodity instead of something holy-

Cleopatra: -and the mini mart.

Tropico commodity religion

Gabe: “In the land of gods and monsters, I was an angel.” That’s how the next song begins.

Vanessa: There’s a place where it goes “I was an angel looking to get fucked hard.” The only way for her to achieve emotional reaction or catharsis is through sexual affirmation. And earlier in the song she says fame- the feeling of fame is something sex stirs up, and that it’s a medicine. “You got that medicine I need, fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly.”

Gabe: Then it goes “Like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer, life imitates art.” It’s autobiographical, but it plays into the Warhol universe she’s posed as the reality of the film. She specifically says, “God’s dead. I said, ‘Baby that’s alright with me.’ No one’s gonna take my soul away, I’m living like Jim Morrison. Headed towards a fucked up holiday.” The double’s taken over.

Cleopatra: And “innocence lost” is the refrain.

Gabe: So this middle section – and I had this whole bit ready to go about tribalism in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure we just sent that interpretation right out the window. The middle section is all about refining that original sin, that sin against John Wayne and Whitman and all the ideas we once thought the American dream represented.

Vanessa: I like your Book of Thomas- Gospel of Thomas reference.

Gabe: This is all really depressing stuff, right?

Cleopatra: She gets through it in the end. They both do. There’s a rapture scene.

Gabe: During the return to nature.

Cleopatra: And they each embrace themselves.

Gabe: They get away from the emulation and being haunted by their false self-images and finally get a chance to have that personal understanding of the universe. And we haven’t even talked about how she uses Ginsberg’s “Howl” or the mugging scene. I think we’re all treading lightly around that one.

Vanessa: I had a good idea for that.

Gabe: I’m beginning to lean toward Tropico being one of the best half-hours of film I’ve seen in my life.

Cleopatra: Yeah.

Vanessa: Agreed.

Gabe: So what about “Howl?”

Once again, watch Tropico here. The third part of this conversation will be posted on Tuesday, May 6.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part one

Tropico

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a 27-minute musical film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico on YouTube here. Here’s what those writers had to say:

Gabe: The Daily Beast called this “so bad it might be good.” Billboard called it “daring…a work of overflowing, era-traversing passion.” What three words would you use to describe it?

Vanessa: Lots of tits.

Gabe: Is that really how you want to start the article?

Vanessa: Yes.

Gabe: Using more than three words?

Vanessa: It’s pretentious. It’s not my kind of movie. It gave me epilepsy. But it was pretty brilliant anyway. I love the idea of John Wayne as God.

Gabe: To clarify for readers, Tropico opens with John Wayne creating the universe. He’s accompanied by Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus, and a unicorn. Lana Del Rey plays Eve, and model Shaun Ross is Adam.

Cleopatra: It uses Andy Warhol’s idea of celebrity replacing God.

Tropico 1

Vanessa: Regurgitated images we place onto God. How Jesus looks like Kenny Loggins for Americans. If the real Jesus walked into an airport, the TSA would strip-search him.

Gabe: Do you mean John Wayne is a stand-in for God, or that for Lana Del Rey’s character, he is God? I think he represents a set of values that were important in Del Rey’s cultural upbringing. And he stands in for how any celebrity – Kardashian, Bieber, LeBron – becomes the moral standard we start using to make decisions.

Vanessa: Is there a difference? If we’re raised by the TV and YouTube, and “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children,” the result is that God or whatever you believe in for a higher power gets replaced by celebrity.

Gabe: Is that a Crow reference? “Mother is the name for God…”

Vanessa: Thackeray.

Cleopatra: You don’t mean just for image. Like it assimilates the whole meaning.

Vanessa: Religious meaning? That’s what I’m saying – there’s no daylight. That’s what she’s saying. You posted a few days ago about Lana Del Rey being some weird dark mirror for the American dream.

Gabe: The Richard Marshall article. Her persona for Born to Die [her first album] is basically a ghost that’s constantly haunting her, sort of replacing her personality, yeah. It’s a perfect article. It’s perfect.

Tropico 2

Vanessa: That’s the same ghost that’s replacing all our personalities. We get…we get reflected, a reflection of ourselves, and especially with Facebook and Twitter and all these things we can use to portray an image of ourselves that’s exaggerated-

Gabe: That’s more perfect and more celebritized, yeah. I mean, do you think, in that way, we’re trying to pose ourselves as gods? Celebrity becomes God, then if we become celebrity, we become God-

Vanessa: Not for ourselves. Maybe for ourselves, but mostly for someone else. It’s an emulation of God. It’s what we’re taught. You airbrush the crap out of these beautiful people for the purpose of making them into Gods, and if we’re supposed to emulate our religious icons, and our religion is celebrity, then we need to be beautiful, too.

Cleopatra: That takes sexism to a whole other level. I just got depressed.

Gabe: So it’s religiously reinforced for celebrity and follower, and our Church is Facebook and our apostles are TMZ?

Cleopatra: Facebook’s more like Babel.

Gabe: I know you want to talk about the bikini, but to go back to Richard Marshall for a minute – he compares Born to Die to Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive. Those are avant garde films by David Lynch, in which – theoretically, the main characters are stuck in limbos. OK, if our religion is celebrity and our form of worship is social networking and seeking to celebritize ourselves, does Born to Die say that we’re stuck in a limbo pursuing the American Dream, seeking to become gods?

Vanessa: Absolutely.

Cleopatra: An image that isn’t there. I don’t see how you could say anything else.

Tropico 3

Gabe: The leaf bikini.

Vanessa: The leaf bikini. The fucking leaf bikini is everything, that’s just everything the movie’s about.

Gabe: The one Lana Del Rey wears in John Wayne’s Garden of Eden. And we talked about this before, but specifically how it cuts to her life as a stripper. We go from Garden of Eden bikini to stripper bikini.

Vanessa: The Garden of Eden one is more revealing. It’s sexier, and the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis is one that punishes and subjugates women at the end. It sexualizes subjugation. Makes it hot. Not that it can’t be as a choice by two adults, but doesn’t Genesis make it a requirement? Not just socially, like the man runs the house. God lays that all out. Sexually. Subjugation and painful childbirth are Eve’s punishments. If childbirth is an oppression and sex is required for childbirth, then sex should be oppressive. That’s what the Bible says to a lot of people. Lana Del Rey equates Eve to a fucking stripper, and it’s right.

Cleopatra: I read that as her falling from Paradise into sin.

Vanessa: It is, but even as Eve, she’s sexualized – that’s the important part. Eve is always sexualized. And I want to say that stripper is a viable choice. I’m not saying all strippers are sinful people.

Gabe: You’re saying that Tropico uses it as shorthand for sin.

Vanessa: No, I don’t think so. Tropico uses it as shorthand for the male – I don’t want to say tendency or the need. It uses strippers as shorthand for the training we give males to oppress and be violent. Strippers aren’t naturally sinful, whatever “sin” is supposed to mean, but they let men play out their fantasy to- I’m losing my thought.

Gabe: To oppress and dominate?

Vanessa: That’s Biblically justified, and one component of what she’s saying.

Cleopatra: I agree with the idea, like what you have to say about the subject, but I disagree that’s what Lana Del Rey’s saying here.

Gabe: You think it’s a more natural fall into sin? More straightforward, narratively?

Cleopatra: I think that her becoming a stripper is her, yeah, falling out of the Garden of Eden. She copes however she can. She struggles and goes through sin so she can come out the other side.

Tropico 4

Vanessa: It’s the same thing. Her punishment could be working in a coal mine, but it’s not. It’s – I want to be careful here because I don’t want to judge a whole profession that a lot of people work.

Gabe: Just say, “In the film.” It’s what I do all the time. Blame the film.

Vanessa: In the film, she has to perform in a sexually submissive manner. Her struggle is her relationship and the gang tensions, but it’s also this sexually debased place John Wayne puts her into.

Cleopatra: But John Wayne shakes his head-

Gabe: When she bites the apple. What I find interesting is that she also plays Mary, mother of Jesus. Is that a reflection of the perfection and lack of sin that she can’t get back to? An ideal of what she was in the past?

Vanessa: Yeah. That or a judge, but like a soft judge. Someone who’s impossible to measure up to. The idea of what women are supposed to be.

Gabe: Fetishized as both a saint and a whore, you mean?

Vanessa: Yes.

Cleopatra: It’s struggle. It’s not what John Wayne, or God, puts her into. It’s what she has to undergo.

Vanessa: But it’s the society that looks up to John Wayne, or God – they’re all shooting guns in the air, they all look tough like him – it’s their idea of how to emulate God that says women belong in that place.

Gabe: I like both perspectives because yours is a very Old Testament interpretation and Cleopatra’s is a very New Testament interpretation of what Eve does and goes through, and there’s a point at which Tropico shifts from Old Testament to New Testament. It’s just that we may disagree where that point is…

Once again, you can watch Tropico here. The second part of this conversation will be posted on Thursday, May 1.

Wednesday Collective — Irish Abandon, Italian Beauty, Ukrainian Soul

The first two articles this week are the very definition of how to write about film. Anyone who studies or makes movies should read them. Let’s dive right in.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
“How John Ford Fought McCarthyism”

The Quiet Man

This is an engaging look back at John Ford’s The Quiet Man, a movie about a man so fed up with America, he moves to a third-world, 1950s Ireland. Ford is best known for his Westerns, but The Quiet Man is a subversive reaction to the witch hunt for Communists orchestrated by Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1950s. In detailing how Ford got outspoken McCarthy supporter John Wayne to star, how critics stepped lightly in their reviews, and how the film was a box office smash, New Republic writer Ben Schwartz outlines how Ford’s film attacked the very nostalgia on which McCarthy’s breed of hatred was based.

La grande bellezza, The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty came out for home release this week. The Oscar winner for best foreign language film is written up by Alessia Palanti in a spectacular essay that also tackles nostalgia as a political tool, while linking the sin-eating nature of circular consumerism, the self-fulfilling prophecy of celebrity-as-celebrity, and the hijacking of connoisseurship. It’s a truly stunning essay from a writer who uses her historical and technical knowledge to break the film down into its cultural components.

“The Occupied Soul of Ukraine

My Joy

I’d say Ukraine’s been in the news a lot lately, but since it doesn’t have a missing passenger plane CNN can theorize was hijacked by a psychic alien yeti, it really hasn’t. Regardless, Anthony Kaufman at Fandor writes about Sergei Loznitsa, a Belarussian filmmaker whose My Joy and In the Fog contemplate the sense of dislocation caused by the oppression Russian and European Ukrainians exert on each other.

You might also check out this Hollywood Reporter brief about the (so far losing) effort to keep Ukraine’s national film industry bipartisan.

Recreating Genocide in Clay

The Missing Picture

The Missing Picture is a film about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. It’s directed by Rithy Panh, who lost his father, mother, sisters, and nephews, and was himself enslaved. There are very few documents that survive to tell the story – the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed nearly all film and video evidence of their atrocities. Every connection to his past was taken from Panh, even the evidence to communicate to others about his loss. He decided to tell his memoir through what footage is left and the use of clay figurines to stand in for what was missing. Fast Company tells the story of how he came to that decision. I can barely get past the trailer at the bottom; I fear and anticipate the import and impact of an hour-and-a-half of it.

Storytelling in the Circus – James Thierree

James Thiérrée

Never mind that he’s Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, James Thierree himself has long been an artist of renown. His approach to circus is small-scale, technically complex, and emotionally engaging. Thierree places a concise vernacular on the balance between possessive and generous storytelling that artists of all stripes seek.

Thanks to Elizabeth Quilter for the heads-up on this.

The Disconnect Between Critics and Audiences

I don’t like scoring movies. It’s too arbitrary a way to define any piece of art, especially one on which hundreds – sometimes thousands – of artists have collaborated. Avatar may be a tremendous piece of entertainment, but is it as important as even the most middling documentary? Should there be separate scores for entertainment and importance? Lost in many critics’ weekly reviews is the search for meaning both present and missing in particular movies, replaced by a good-bad scale that’s become obsolete.

So I don’t like scores, but they’re useful for the kind of statistical analysis writer-producer Stephen Follows posts on his blog. It concerns how critics and audiences diverge in scoring individual movies, genres of movies, and even movies from specific studios. His analysis isn’t so much a solution as it is a part of the diagnosis, but he comes up with some revealing findings.

Yours, Mine, and Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

Scott Tobias at The Dissolve considers the creative choices of Veronica Mars, a TV show that used Kickstarter to crowdsource more than $5 million for a movie continuation. How much is a Kickstarted film creatively constrained by a need for fan service, versus a comparable movie like Firefly-spinoff Serenity, which owed its existence to fans, but didn’t owe its funding to them? Tobias claims Veronica Mars as a movie is sidetracked by its allegiance to fans, while Serenity owed its allegiance to the story its creator wanted to tell.

Under the Skin, part two

Under the Skin

I wrote about Mica Levi’s brave, disturbing score for Scarlett Johansson-experiment Under the Skin last week. You can listen to the whole thing over at Pitchfork.

Celebrities Mug for Muppets

Muppets Cameos

Were you wondering about all the celebrity cameos in Muppets Most Wanted? Worried that you missed one? Did you even want them ranked (wrongly)? Then you should see a doctor about these urges. In the meantime, this list from film mag Vulture should sate your unnatural cravings.