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Links for the Day: Ulysses and the Moral Right to Pleasure, Scream Queens, Transformers: The Premake, Brian Williams Raps “Baby Got Back,” & More

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Links for the Day: Ulysses and the Moral Right to Pleasure, Scream Queens, Transformers: The Premake, Brian Williams Raps “Baby Got Back,” & More

1. Ulysses and the Moral Right to Pleasure.” Dan Chiasson celebrates Bloomsday.

“The book is dirtier than people imagine or remember. If you know it only by reputation, you know, probably, that a guy jerks off on the beach, while, at home, his wife entertains her lover (the hilariously, humiliatingly named Blazes Boylan) in a bed whose brass quoits have been ’loosed’ by her infinite trysts. But sex, a pleasure more intense than others but not fundamentally distinct from them, is everything in Ulysses. There has never been a novel more sympathetic to every weird thing people do to make themselves happy, from preparing a mutton kidney to eating a gorgonzola sandwich, to singing aloud ’Love’s Old Sweet Song,’ to ’worshiping at that altar where the back changes name,’ one of many, many descriptions of backsides and things people do to other people while on all fours. You could watch porn for weeks and see the same repertoire of actions, the identical durations, the same outcomes, over and over; once in a while somebody mixes in a gourd or dresses as a nun, but the basic template is fixed. In Joyce, cheering on your wife as she fucks her boyfriend is a fantasy, a source of pleasure. (Joyce wanted Nora to cheat on him, so that he could feel for himself what a cuckold feels.) The pleasure Bloom takes in Molly’s backside, especially in its messes and smells, finds, in Joyce (like so many pleasures of its kind) an exact linguistic embodiment: ’I do indeed explore the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump.’ Language is, of course, the real pleasure, the fundamental bawdiness.”

2. “Scream Queens.” What do we hear when a woman screams for the camera?

“Like pornography, horror is what Linda Williams so usefully terms a ’body genre,’ a cinematic configuration that operates by visceral mimesis, shuttling bodily pleasure and performance between screen and spectator. Insofar as the filmed scream in Murders in the Rue Morgue cues audiences to scream, the request to censor it is a response to that response. Jason Joy is effectively troubled by a scream that alighted not from the screen but from his own body in the screening room: an unexpected echo, an uncanny reverberation of the death rattle. The censor’s is the first in a series of screams that every horror film elicits: Everywhere it goes after it demands and draws more, its screams are often doubled and sometimes, quite strangely, dubbed.”

3. “Transforming Phone Video Into Publicity and a Film.” Cara Buckley on Kevin B. Lee’s video essay Transformers: The Premake.

“In assembling what Mr. Lee calls a ’desktop documentary,’ he also probed the political and economic forces that shaped the film. Footage from Detroit, for example, includes details of the tax subsidies awarded to Paramount to shoot there. ’It was about poking inside and asking what brought this film together,’ Mr. Lee said. Transformers: Age of Extinction was co-produced with a Chinese company, a designation that lets the film bypass China’s strict quota on foreign films; just 34 non-Chinese movies are allowed to appear in theaters there each year. As is required of a coproduction, much of the film was shot in China and also features Chinese performers, namely the pop star Han Geng and the actress Li Bingbing, who is seen in the premake at an appreciation cocktail party tearfully thanking Mr. Bay. While Mr. Bay, in another clip, tells an interviewer, ’It’s not about box office, I care about making a good movie,’ the financial bounty of the Chinese component is plain. The country reaps the second-highest box office receipts in the world and is projected to assume the top spot in coming years.”

4. “Why Game of Thrones Isn’t Medieval—and Why That Matters.” Fantasy worlds are never just fantasy. They appeal to us because they refract our own histories and speak to contemporary interests.

“So why, outside of dorky pedantry, does any of this matter? Because fantasy worlds are never just fantasy. They appeal to us because they refract our own histories and speak to contemporary interests. George R. R. Martin’s fantasy has grown to enormous popularity in part because of its modernity, not its ’medieviality.’”

5. “Bombast: Punking Out.” Nick Pinkerton on We Are the Best!, Suburbia, and more.

“I’m not inclined to chastise the Moodyssons for making a movie that showcases their version of what punk is or was or could’ve been—here, a space outside of official adult and school culture in which to craft an identity and foster a sense of self-worth—rather than another. Why, though, should We Are the Best! be about punk rather than any other niche extracurricular hobby? I’m not sure that it makes much difference that it is. If anything, showing the application of punk’s universal prescription for disobedience to a particularly Swedish context may say more about national culture than the subculture. Perhaps the defining aspect of rebellion in wealthy Scandinavian countries, where a base-level prosperity is virtually guaranteed by small populations and a surfeit of natural materials, and where permissiveness is woven into the fabric of national identity, is the invention of an enemy—see the xenophobia of Norwegian Black Metal, based on a fantasy of encroaching foreign hordes in what is in actual fact one of the most uniform gene pools on the planet.”

Video of the Day: Brian Williams raps “Baby Got Back”:

https://vimeo.com/99802660
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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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