On Virtue Signalling

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I had an argument on politics where the phrase “virtue signalling” popped up. I realized that the other guy and I were coming at the topic from different angles. He focused on people who were insincere in their stated convictions, seemingly with the belief that the convictions are understood by all to be good and just. So, an example might be former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a favorite of the #metoo movement until last week when it turned out he was physically abusive to multiple ex-girlfriends. Presumably, he had always known he was in the wrong on that one.

Obviously that’s an example of insincere virtue signalling, but there are further implications. One question would be why an opinion is considered popular enough to signal. If there is a consistent failure for people to be completely ideologically consistent with expressed views, there is a possibility that there is a deficiency in their position. In some cases, the problem may be that the virtue they’re trying to signal isn’t able to withstand scrutiny. There was an example of a writer whose protagonist didn’t seem to stick to his political ideas. If a writer says they have one view, but they don’t articulate in work that addresses the topic, because the situation is more complex and messy, it might suggest the fallacy of their stated view. The same could be true of efforts to implement ideas as policies.

The stated “virtue” will often have unintended consequences, especially when taken to extremes and efforts at oneupmanship. For example, modern politics seems to prize outsiders and denigrate career politicians, so elected officials may virtue signal about their ties to the community and unfamiliarity with the capital. There can be some drawbacks, as decent people who know about the issues and have been involved in it for a while feel the incentive to lie about who they are, and ignoramuses who get elected into office by being fresh faces get rolled by lobbyists who have a better understanding of the existing structures than the newcomers.

Many controversial topics do come down to competing interests, so there will be rivaling virtues to signal, which gets to be another complicating factor. There’s diversity VS qualifications, believe the woman VS innocent until proven guilty, giving young people chances VS ageism, nuance VS moral clarity, etc.

“Virtue signaling” can apply to a situation in which someone takes a good thing and goes too far. The official definition “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue” does allow for the possibility of taking the wrong stand, or someone doing the wrong thing to demonstrate their good character. The idea that all humans should be treated equally works as a starting point but can be problematic if taken to an extreme, if someone demands that airline companies have the same percentage of minority pilots as found in the population, or that hospitals have the same percentage of minority heart surgeons. You can believe that cultures should be treated with respect, but disagree when there’s a push for the United Nations to make cultural appropriation illegal. Virtue signalling could also be something nice but impractical, such as excessive generosity, as when someone supports a project that sounds good, but is either a scam or well-intentioned but poorly run. An example would be FanCon, at best a deeply flawed effort at an inclusive comic convention.

Finally, “Virtue signalling” could be applicable to people who believe in wrong and disgusting things. Antisemites might try to make sure their fellow antisemites know how much they hate Jews. The willingness to threaten an abortionist could be seen as virtue-signalling for members of a far-right group.

I wonder if there’s an underlying reason I came at this from a seemingly atypical angle. Perhaps I’m a particular type of conservative who is concerned about unintended consequences, so my skepticism of virtue signalling is to be suspicious of the incentives, rather than just the individuals who fail to live up to their image.

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Movies Watched in 2018 Part 3

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This is a continuation of notes on films I’ve seen this year, following Parts 1 and Part 2. I set myself a challenge of watching ten films per decade (counting the silent era up until 1929 as one decade) while allowing for recent films with additional goals of ten films from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018. I picked new challenges for this entry with five films by the same director (Hitchcock), five films in the same genre (musical), five films from another country (Italy) and five films connected by a theme: in this case, five directorial debuts, because I’m interested in how people in film choose to do their first projects. At this point, I also aimed to be at least four films into each yearly category.

Movie #61/1930s Movie #4/ Criterion Edition #12/ Hitchcock Film #1: The 39 Steps
The early Hitchcock thriller suffers a bit from technical issues, and some plot-induced stupidity, but it does put the lead through some fun situations and has some decent twists. It has influenced some better movies in later decades (Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the 1990s The Fugitive) but it’s still enjoyable.
8/10

Movie #62/ New Movie #34/ Silent Movie #3/ Directorial Debut #1/ Russian Film #2: Strike
Eisenstein’s debut has striking imagery and sequences, taking advantage of the resources (large groups of extras, interesting 1920s factories) to show major political developments, giving the revolution an epic scale.
9/10

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Movie #63/ New Movie #35/ 1960s Movie #5/ Criterion Edition #13/ Directorial Debut #2/ Musical #1: Head
This is part of Criterion’s BBS Blu-Ray collection, and the first film from the studio that produced Easy River, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. The Monkees film is a just a mess, seeming to be a combination of sketch comedy and modern museum video performance art project, which would be fine if any of it were good.
3/10

Movie #64/ New Movie #36/ 2017 Movie #15/ Directorial Debut #3: The Lego Batman Movie
Chris McKay’s solo film debut is an inventive take on the Batman and Robin story, providing a narrative spine about a loner learning to work together to inspired gags and sequences for a parody and celebration of the dark knight.
7/10

Movie #65/ New Movie #37/ 2017 Movie #16: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
It’s not terrible, as the effects and sets are decent, and there are solid action sequences, but it’s a weaker film than any of the original trilogy, with a villain that isn’t all that interesting, and little new for Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. The male lead is generic, although Kaya Scodelario’s astronomy buff is better, even if she’s a bit generic in this type of film.
6/10

Movie #66/ New Movie #38/ 2018 Movie #5: Game Night
Decent comedy about sibling rivalry, and mistaken identity, as an ordinary game-obsessed couple comes into conflict with career criminals. Winning performances by Rachel McAdams, and Jason Bateman as the central couple, and Kyle Chandler, as the always one-upping brother whose story takes some decent twists.
7/10

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Movie #67/ New Movie #39/ 2018 Movie #6: Chappaquidick
I can’t help but think this film would have been made forty years ago if it was about a Republican Senator. It is a decent character study of a man who screws up in a terrible way, and a procedural about the inevitable cover-up. Good performances, and it’s also an effective conversation starter.
8/10

Movie #68/ New Movie #40/ 2016 Movie #3/ Criterion Edition #14: Personal Shopper
It’s a weird film that might be trying to do a bit too much, although it has a terrific performance by Kristen Stewart as a woman dealing with a lot (she’s a professional psychic trying to get a sign from her deceased brother, something terrible happens to an employer, she starts getting voyeuristic texts.)
7/10

Movie #69/  1960s Movie #6/ Criterion Edition #15/ Directorial Debut #4: Night of the Living Dead
Romero’s genre-inventing independent film holds up, introducing some of the most iconic monsters in film, while suggesting very ably that humans might be worse. The extras on the Criterion collection are quite illuminating on how he was able to get so much done with limited resources.
9/10

Movie #70/ New Movie #41/ 2018 Movie #7: The Endless
This is an interesting horror film that has some effective world-building, establishing a mystery with some decent payoffs, although the conflict of the characters (two brothers who left a cult as teenagers, and have been unable to find success in their adult lives) isn’t as well-developed and often tonally off.
7/10

Movie #71/ New Movie #42/ 2018 Movie #8: Isle of Dogs
Impressive stop-motion film that has solid animation, a witty script and astounding voice cast. Not Wes Anderson’s best, but a good reminder of his talents.
8/10

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Movie #72/ Criterion Edition #16/ Silent Movie #4: The Passion of Joan of Arc
This might remain the best silent movie I’ve ever seen, a film that just isn’t like anything else, due to the focus on the the last moments in the life of Joan of Arc, as she faces her greatest struggle, the script largely based on the actual trial transcripts, and the artistic decisions Carl Theodore Dreyer that strip anything that isn’t essential tot he story, and focus as much as possible on the powerful performance of Maria Falconetti. It’s unclear that anyone has ever been better.
10/10

Movie #73/ 2000s Movie #7/ Musical #2: Chicago
The musical adaptation has great production values, songs, and cast (four Oscar nominated performances and it could easily have been five- poor Richard Gere) and a messed up take on celebrity culture.
9/10

Movie #74/1950s Movie #3/ Hitchcock Film #2: Rear Window
It might not even be Hitchcock’s top three, although I can’t think of any director who clearly has a better fourth best film. It’s a clever concept as a convalescing photographer recovering from his injuries notices a potential mystery in his building. That part’s executed really well, while there’s also Jimmy Stewart as the lead- likable but a bit flawed, Grace Kelly as the ice queen girlfriend who wants him to settle down, and the stories of everyone else in the apartments.
10/10

Movie #75/ New Film #43/ 1980s Movie #5/ Italian Film #1: Cinema Paradiso
A really-well made film about the power of cinema and fantasy that incorporates specific developments in Italy (censors forbidding the depiction of any kissing, classified information about war dead, a complex massive lottery system) while covering the great artist as a young boy (kind of a brat), young man falling in love with a girl outside his station, and legend returning home.
9/10

Movie #76/ 1960s Movie #7/ Criterion Edition #17/ Italian Film #2: La Dolce Vita
An excellent film on many levels. Structurally, it’s quite interesting, a largely episodic take on the life of an Italian reporter hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, in stories that vary in tone, from fun to pathetic to absolutely shocking. His famed night with Anita Ekberg’s flighty starlet is a smaller role than I remembered from the one time I saw the film, although it’s definitely memorable. I’ve never seen a film that is so effective at burying the character arc, so that it comes out in the intersection of the episodes. It holds up to deep study, but doesn’t require it.
10/10

Movie #77/1940s Movie #4/ Hitchcock Film #3: Rope
A decent thriller where the characters’ amorality is a bit extreme, but it often makes excellent use of the one-shot gimmick.
8/10

Movie #78/ New Film #44/ 1960s Movie #8/ Italian Film #3/ Directorial Debut #5: Black Sunday
Mario Bava’s debut is a creepy take on witches and haunted lineages. It’s very dark and moody, stark, overdramatic and fun. Technically, Bava had directed earlier films, developing a reputation for saving troubled projects after the original directors ran away.
8/10

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Movie #79/ New Movie #45/ 2018 Movie #9: A Quiet Place
It’s a film that shows quite well the day to day life of a family in a messed up environment, with unusually excellent performances for the genre, and tough questions on meaning and purpose.
8/10

Movie #80/ 2016 Movie #4/ Musical #3: La La Land
The Hollywood romance has catchy songs, great costumes and design, winning central performances, and is about something, even if that topic (artistic independence) might come across as increasingly indulgent on a second viewing. Still pretty good, and the parts that are a bit annoying aren’t necessarily unrealistic.
9/10

Movie #81/1940s Movie #5/ Hitchcock Film #4: Saboteur
It’s definitely lesser Hitchcock (the great master admits as much in Hitchcock/ Truffaut) as the story of an innocent man on the run (a common theme Hitchcock typically does better) is combined with clumsy World War 2 era jingoism, which isn’t the best fit for a story about how the right thing to do is to ignore the authorities and help out the guy who seems nice.
6/10

Movie #82/ New Movie #46/ 2018 Movie #10: Avengers Infinity War
This is a weird film to consider because it can’t really be judged in the most basic way: as a standalone film. Instead, it’s essentially the first part of the conclusion to a decade-long saga spread out across 22 films, as well as the beginning of a decent adaptation of Jim Starlin’s cosmic Marvel comics. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but have a different context for it than most filmgoers. As the beginning of a movie equivalent of an event comic, it works pretty well giving most of the heroes decent moments, while keeping the focus on Thanos after years of build-up (and keeping it interesting- imagine the disappointment if he hadn’t been one of the best MCU villains.) Some of this clearly seeds moments in the sequel, although I appreciate how the generic Thanos henchmen serve as the equivalent of mini-bosses, so the heroes accomplish something in this film. And the big moment does deliver.
9/10

Movie #83/ 1940s Movie #6/ Hitchcock Film #5: Shadow of a Doubt
There are parts of the take on small town American life that seem over the top in unintended ways (everyone’s eager to hear a visitor from New York give a speech, dramatic revelations are made at inappropriate times, a sociopath with really strange views goes undetected) although the general story of a teen girl realizing her beloved uncle is a sociopath and trying to figure out how to communicate this to anyone is elevated by the combination of small-town life and noir sensibility, Hitchock’s use of tension, and the performances by Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton.
9/10

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Movie #84/ New Movie #47/ 1970s Movie #4/ Musical #4: Fiddler on the Roof
Exceptional musical, that works with the strength of the material, the cast, and the central story of a Jewish family adjusting to change in Czarist Russia.
9/10

Movie #85/ New Movie #48/ 2016 Movie #5/ Musical #5: Popstar Never Stop Never Stopping
Decent satire of the modern music industry elevated by the quality of Lonely Island’s absurd riffs (The Bin Laden song), and the payoff to some jokes (the quickchange disaster being a highlight.)
7/10

Movie #86/ 1950s Movie #4/ French Film #6/ Criterion Edition #18: Pickpocket
The story of a young man compelled to commit petty crimes is stylistically quite daring, and worth deeper examination in the complex decisions made by the characters. The mechanics of how the pickpockets operate is a highlight.
9/10

Movie #87/ New Movie #49/ Silent Movie Era #5/ Directorial Debut #6: Nanook of the North
The context is a bit weird, since it was essentially a prototype for two types of films: the documentary, as well as a sustained narrative starring amateur actors. It’s a fascinating spotlight of a very different culture (the Eskimo about a hundred years ago) with personality and strong visuals.
9/10

Movie #88/ 1960s Movie #9/ Criterion Edition #19/ Italian Film #4: 8 1/2
One of the best films ever about the creative process, as well as one of the best films ever about a person’s inner life (granted, you probably can’t have the former without the latter). An excellent cast, and some truly inspiring twists.
10/10

Movie #89/ New Film #50/ 1980s Movie #6: The Karate Kid
An excellent underdog sports movie, where the best part is the friendship between the kid (an Italian from New Jersey who has to go to California) and his mentor. Some of the moments seem kind of obvious, although that’s largely because of the impact of the film, and how it has permeated the culture (IE- the wax on/ wax off training.)
9/10

Movie #90/ 1970s Movie #5/ Italian Film #5: The Conformist
Beautifully shot film about a man who just wants to be ordinary, but who has the bad fortune to live in Fascist Italy.
9/10

Best Film I Hadn’t Seen Before: Cinema Paradiso

Best Film overall: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Most Disappointing Film: Head

Best Musical: La La Land

Best Italian Film: La Dolce Vita (they were all good)

Best Directorial Debut: Night of the Living Dead

Best Hitchcock: Rear Window

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A Vice-Presidential Primary?

There was an interesting hypothetical on a political forum: What if nominees for Vice President were selected in primaries the way many states select candidates for Lieutenant Governor?

It highlights the problems with the method many states have of selecting Lieutenant Governors. Those should be replaced by a system where a candidate for Governor chooses a running mate after securing the nomination, so that the pool of potential nominees can include people who lost primaries for other prestigious posts, rather than limiting to those who initially see Lt. Governor as their best shot. It could very well be that an also-ran for Governor, Senate, US House, or Attorney General has greater political talent than those who pick this one particular office.

There is a bit of a distinction that Lieutenant Governors have specific responsibilities, like presiding over the State Senate, whereas a Vice President’s power can be determined by the strength of their relationship with the president. So it may make more sense to have these primaries, although this rarely comes up in the campaigns.

There are additional issues with applying a primary system to Vice Presidents, which would prevent some recent nominees from being selected. The VP would be someone who has been campaigning for the post for at least an year before the election, which excludes presidential primary also-rans (Ronald Reagan picked George HW Bush, John Kerry picked John Edwards, Barack Obama picked Joe Biden), retired statesmen who might be talked into campaigning for a few months (Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney) but not longer, and statewide officeholders/ prominent cabinet-congressional members who might be uncomfortable spending over an year running for non-presidential national office, or for promising to serve with any presidential candidate their party selects. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine probably would have been willing to do it, though, so it might not have changed too much in 2016.

The constitutional restriction against electors voting for people from the same state also complicates matters. How would it be coordinated that two California Democrats or two New York Democrats or two Texas Republicans don’t win both spots on the ticket, resulting in a potentially difficult situation with electors who are legally not allowed to vote for candidates for President and Vice President from their state?

One further problem is that the VP candidate might end up being a poor match for the top of the ticket. In 2012, John Huntsman could have been a good fit for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty, but not Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon businessman. There could be weirdness if the same ethnic or religious minorities were on both the top and bottom of the ticket, without either candidate wanting that outcome. You might also have two candidates for different offices trying to sabotage one another during the primary process, which isn’t conducive to party unity.

Electing an Attorney General makes more sense, though.

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Oscar Ratings And Popular Films

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The ratings for the most recent Academy Awards were the lowest-ever by a large margin. This leads to some questions about why that is.

Is there too much focus on material that isn’t commercial? Is Hollywood liberalism turning off moderate and conservative viewers? Are the decisions made by powerful white men turning off viewers?

One major issue is that the Academy makes certain decisions that aren’t based on merit, and this diminished the award. There’s some focus on the private lives of nominees, but a related problem is that the Academy isn’t nominating the most popular films. That’s an understandable decision when the films are bad, but not as much when the films are well-reviewed. There are certain types of films that will get nominated if they’re good enough (the likes of The Post) and I could understand why viewers wouldn’t be interested in the awards if they felt that a superior film that they liked wasn’t nominated.

In the last decade, there have been opportunities to nominate good films that haven’t been taken. I do have a general rule when criticizing Oscar nominations that someone has to be willing to mention what shouldn’t be nominated when promoting someone else, so I’ll look at that as well.

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In 2008, the decision to not nominate The Dark Knight is seen as responsible for the Academy expanding the best picture nominations to ten. It was probably a worthier choice for Best Picture/ Best Director than any of the nominated films, as something that was excellent at the time and remains relevant today. Downey Jr’s Tony Stark had a bigger effect than Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so that would have been a better lead actor nomination. A quick issue is that suggesting a film should’t be nominating isn’t the equivalent of saying its bad, just not in the top one percent of its category. There’s a bit of a problem in Hollywood that quite a few films are made under the assumption of Oscar nominations as part of the marketing, which really should never be the case, because no one would know in advance if a supporting performance will be the fourth best of the year, which means it should be nominated, or the seventh, which means it should not.

2009 included Best Picture nominations for Avatar and Up, so there isn’t much of a complaint in that category. I do suspect more people will fondly remember Up than than The Hurt Locker, so there’s an argument that it should have been the one to win Best Picture.

In 2010, Toy Story 3 was nominated as was Inception. Neither was nominated for Best Director, even if their work was better received than David O’Russell for The Fighter.

2011 was a bit of a rebuilding year for blockbusters. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was good, but not the top ten films of the year good. A nomination would have been popular, although largely based on the strength of the rest of the series. The rest of the Top five was pretty weak, with a Twilight sequel, a Transformers sequel, a Hangover sequel, and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean.

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In 2012, Jennifer Lawrence probably didn’t get a nomination for Hunger Games, because she’s only limited to one per category, and she had Silver Linings Playbook. Skyfall was an acclaimed hit, so it would’be been better had it been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (over David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, or” Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild), Best Actor (over Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook), and Best Supporting Actor (over Alan Arkin in Argo, although it was a strong year in the category.)

2013 honored Gravity, which did win Best Director. I do think Frozen should’ve been a Best Picture nominee, as it’s had more staying power than Philomena (a perfectly good film).

In 2014, American Sniper was the movie of the year, and got multiple nominations. Captain America: Winter Soldier is one of the contenders for best MCU film, so it should have been nominated for Picture (over The Theory of Everything), Director (over Morten Tydum), and Screenplay (over The Theory of Everything).

In 2015, The Revenant was a hit and The Martian was nominated in major categories. To be fair, the best picture winner Spotlight wasn’t a box office smash, but it was really good. In terms of ratings and cultural impact of the Oscars, it might have been better to nominate the Force Awakens, although its staying power is a bit questionable, due to the later realization that it rehashed old territory.

In 2016, Captain America: Civil War should have been nominated for Best Picture (over Hacksaw Ridge), Best Director (over Mel Gibson), and probably Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr- although I’ll be honest I’ve got to catch up on Lion, Manchester By the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, and Hell or High Water before making a definitive declaration here.)

In 2017, Star Wars: the Last Jedi should’ve been nominated for Director (over Phantom Thread), Picture (over The Post), Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Mark Hamill over Woody Harrelson), Adapted Screenplay (over The Disaster Artist) and Supporting Actress (Carrie Fischer over Octavia Spencer.) Wonder Woman should have gotten a nomination for Best Actress since we’ll remember Gal Gadot’s performance for some time, probably more than Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.

Nominating good popular films is a key way to go in order to increase the relevance of the Oscars, although this is a bit incomplete. How do you change the habits of Hollywood insiders? Lifetime bans on anyone who hints that anything other than quality matters would be controversial. This was an issue during the #metoo movement when there’s a push against douchebags nominated in key categories. And they can’t really just kick out people with bad taste. They could try to nudge voters in a particular way, but this could backfire.

If there was a way to put a thumb on the scale to get popular nominations, that might engender a backlash or a push for further manipulation. This was a suggestion to offset the Oscars So White backlash, allowing for extra nominations that fit some quota. Once you do it one way (well-received blockbusters), there’ll be pressure to do it in another (representation, political messages, etc).

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There has been a push for new categories limited to effects heavy films, such as best live-action performance. One idea might be a category for characters that aren’t the result of one actor. This could be animated characters, stop motion performances, and even trained animals (which opens it up to films like The Artist). It would fill the Academy’s goal of educating the public, in a way that I’d imagine people would enjoy.

A fair counterpoint to the view that the Academy should consider popular films more, is that they have another more significant bias against foreign film (it is ridiculous to suggest that Amour is the only foreign language film in the last decade to be one of the best of the year) but there’s no real push against this because there’s no financial interest in nominating people from films that make even less money in the US than the typical Oscarbait films.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat suggests that one issue is the lack of middlebrow films with broad appeal. The problem isn’t that Hollywood is nominating the wrong films, but that it isn’t making enough of them in the first place.

The ideal Oscar nominee is a kind of high-middlebrow work, a mix of star power and strong writing and gripping storytelling that at its best achieves great artistry (as happened often in the 1970s, less often in other eras) but even if it falls short maintains a certain level of quality joined to broad, dare-one-say populist appeal. The classic Hollywood genres, from gangland movies to historical epics to literary adaptations to Westerns and war movies and musicals, were all calibrated for this zone, and when the calibration was successful, the Oscar nominators had a lot of material to work with that was at once popular and pretty-good.

To pick a representative year from my adolescence, in 1996 the academy nominated five movies for Best Picture — a classic-novel adaptation and romantic comedy in “Sense and Sensibility”; a historical epic-war movie in “Braveheart”; a work of can-do Americana in “Apollo 13”; and then an ingenious children’s movie in “Babe” and a foreign film in “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). The foreign movie made “only” about $21 million in domestic United States box office (still a large haul for a subtitled movie); the other four made about $354 million combined, with “Apollo 13” the easy leader. Adjusted for today’s ticket prices, that works out to well over $700 million in contemporary dollars between them …

… which is more than the total earned by the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in 2018. The winner, “The Shape of Water,” is the most popular trophy-getter in five years — and its current box office take is just $58 million.

What has happened in the intervening years is well known to everyone. The combination of a global audience (which doesn’t necessarily relate to a lot of old-Hollywood genres and tropes), the ease of substituting special-effects work for storytelling, the ascent of geek culture and the lure of online life and the flight of talent and viewers to the ever-expanding realm of prestige TV have turned Hollywood into a comic-book blockbuster industry with an Oscar-bait subsidiary.

The result is a cinematic common culture increasingly reduced to Marvel sequels and other genre remakes and reboots and spinoffs. Half the Top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2017 were superhero movies; you have to go 13 spots down the list, to Pixar’s “Coco,” to find a movie that isn’t based on a “presold” pop culture property. This is the landscape from which the academy has to pick its nominees, and it basically offers them a choice between mass-market mediocrity and the more rarefied fare that now dominates the Oscars.

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One issue with his response is that it is largely based on subjective opinions (he thinks Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t worth nominating for Best Picture, but Blade Runner 2049 is when the latter doesn’t make sense from the point of view of honoring blockbusters) which any would-be pundit is vulnerable to. In these analyses, it helps to look at metrics developed by other people, like imdb ratings or rotten tomatoes scores. I’m a bit curious as to how someone would objectively measure why Spotlight (a Best Picture winner with a domestic gross under $50,000,000) isn’t a middlebrow mix of star power and strong writing.

A final factor in declining ratings, and the nominations of films with low box office is the nicheification of culture, as people fall into smaller and smaller subgroups with increasingly limited common ground. One result of this may be the way movies from the early 90s (Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs, Unforigven) regularly pop up on Best of lists, but films from later years don’t do so in the same frequency. There’s less of a consensus on what’s the best of that era, which could diminish the perceived significance of markers of consensus like academy awards.

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The Firing of Kevin Williamson

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The Atlantic made a really bad decision recently in firing Kevin Williamson for expressing a controversial opinion on abortion, weeks after hiring him because he is able to articulate controversial opinions.

Some of the people pushing for his removal predicted a spate of hot takes defending him, although this isn’t really a hot take matter, since there are sincere good-faith opinions on multiple sides (people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he was a poor fit for the Atlantic, people who agree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s good fit for the Atlantic, people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s a good fit for the Atlantic.) Hot takes are done in bad faith, and most of the discussion doesn’t fall in that category.

The underlying question is more about what ideas should be considered so beyond the pale that there must be professional repercussions to voicing them, and whether the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime with what this implies in terms of criminal penalties falls into category. Personally, I don’t think obtaining an abortion should be treated as a serious crime. My view on the controversy is that the belief that abortion should be a serious crime should not be considered to be so outrageous as to be a cause for denying employment, especially when the specific goal was to get a diverse array of opinions.

There is a key distinction here that might not matter for many. My understanding of Williamson’s comments was that it was about a policy going forward, with the understanding that this would be unlikely to actually be put into law, rather than an explicit endorsement of ex post facto or extralegal punishment. I don’t know how much this matters to anyone, whether there’s someone else who thinks the idea that in the future abortion can have the maximum criminal penalty possible is acceptable to discuss, but advocacy of prosecuting anyone for things they did in the past when these were legally and fully protected by the law is going too far.

There are two further problems with the Atlantic’s decision.

I think people should be honest about the implications of their views, and the decision encourages an intellectual cowardice in which people are unwilling to say what they believe, or to openly consider the implications of their own views. Late-term abortion is a rather icky procedure, and people who advocate for it should be honest about what they want, rather than sanitizing it. People who want police officers to change their procedures and use force less often should be willing to discuss the downside of what they want (greater risk for police officers which does mean more dead cops) in addition to the upsides (other people get to live; probably resulting in a net gain in terms of lives saved.) There’s a potential counterpoint to that one in that there will be people who believe that there will be no effect on police safety if they are trained to wait longer before opening fire, although that suggests the pundit would be willing to abandon the earlier position should any new information come to light.

The second problem with what the Atlantic did is that the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime is one that is held by a non-trivial percentage of Americans. It’s not going to go away if there’s a refusal to engage it, and when people who hold these positions are marginalized or realize that they should keep quiet, the main result is that the public and the media are less informed, and don’t realize the popularity of a position until a state legislature passes a bill on it. Buck Sexton notes how a smaller range of acceptable ideas creates more ideological polarization, a further issue.

Selfishly, I’m happy that this mess probably means the continuation of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast.

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Movies Watched in 2018 Part 2

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I’m continuing the series of observations on films I’ve seen this year, setting a challenge of watching ten films per decade (counting the silent era from 1915-1929 as one decade) in the calendar year, and allowing for special attention to recent films with additional goals of ten films from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018.

For this entry, I also set sub-challenges of five films in a foreign language (French), five films from the same genre (went with two: science fiction and period fantasy) and ten Criterion films, while trying to make sure that I had seen at least two films in each time period. I thought about doing a five films with the same actor subchallenge with Casey Affleck, since he’s been in some acclaimed films I haven’t seen, but with the last entry, I did focus a lot on newer stuff thanks to all the Oscarbait in theaters, so it makes sense to stick with subchallengers that fit older material.

The films I saw were…

Movie #31/ New Movie #21/ 2000s Movie #5/ Documentary #2: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan
For whatever reason, this has been playing at the Metrograph, an independent movie theater for over a month, with no signs of stopping. My mom’s an architect, and my dad’s a history buff with an interesting in urban planning, so this documentary about an architectural rivalry seemed like something worth checking out. It leaves a slightly better impression a month later than when I first saw it, since the divisions covered are illuminating, even if there are flaws in the storytelling.
6/10

Movie #32/ 1960s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #2/ French Film #1: Band of Outsiders
Like The Graduate, this is probably one of the definitive films about early adulthood. It’s a very striking film about aimless wannabe criminals who aren’t all that competent, or nice, but do seem believable. It remains entertaining as all hell.
10/10

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Movie #33/ 1940s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #3: Sullivan’s Travels
A witty comedy about a wealthy artist trying to understand the simple everyday man with a star turn by Veronica Lake as a struggling actress who offers a dose of reality to the lead. The third act features a great twist, and resolution, which is a big part of why the film succeeds so much today.
9/10

Movie #34/ New Movie #22/ 1930s Movie #1/ Russian Movie #1: Earth
This guy thinks it’s one of the best movies ever made. I would not go that far. It has some striking visuals and storytelling although it is a bit difficult to divorce the film from its initial purpose of propaganda for one of the worst causes in human history (the Soviet collectivization of farms which led to the Ukrainian famine.)
7/10

Movie #35/ 2010s Movie #9/ Science Fiction Film #1: Avengers: Age of Ultron
It’s a slightly arbitrary distinction that I’m counting a film with an evil robot AI as sci-fi and Captain America: Civil War as not, even with the overlap in characters. The sequel that was so difficult that it chased Joss Whedon away from Marvel has plenty to recommend it, with some interesting team dynamics and questions about culpability and human potential, as well as seeds for future films (divisions between the Avengers heading into Civil War, prophecies about Thanos, early references to Wakanda).
8/10

Movie #36/ New Movie #23/ 2017 Movie #11/ Tom Cruise Film #6 : American Made
A solid fun film about a hard-partying American (with a perhaps slightly more intense than usual lead performance by Tom Cruise) who gets involved in a messy international conflict on behalf of the US, and later gets betrayed by them.
8/10

Movie #37/ 2000s Movie #6/ Criterion Edition #4/ Period Fantasy #1: Pan’s Labyrinth
A beautiful film that works on multiple levels, as a fantasy involving the reincarnation of a lost princess, and as a story about a girl caught between rebels and family in Franco’s Spain. Probably still Del Toro’s best (not a slight on his other work).
10/10

Annihilation

Movie #38/ New Movie #22/ 2018 Movie #2/ Science Fiction Film #2: Annihilation
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina follow-up is pretty accessible as far as sci-fi mindfuck films go, as a team of female scientists go into a zone where things get weird in interesting ways, although there are some lost opportunities (upon arriving in the zone the next thing they know it’s several days later, a point that has implications that aren’t explored.)
8/10

Movie #39/ 1960s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #5/ French Film #2: Breathless
Godard’s debut has a film-obsessed minor criminal haphazardly flee authorities and hang out with a girlfriend. Simultaneously enjoyable, and worth examination in terms of technical daring and overall significance.
9/10

Movie #40/ New Movie #23/ Silent Movie #1: The Haunted Castle
An early Murnau silent mystery demonstrates how essential sound is to drawing room mysteries. There are some nice sets and camerawork, but the work is largely primitive, with performances that are often over the top, although there are some satisfying twists at the end.
7/10

Movie #41/ 1930s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #6: Pygmalion
Smart script by George Bernard Shaw that very faithfully adapts his play with intense performances by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.
10/10

Movie #42/ New Movie #24/ 2018 Movie #3: The Death of Stalin
Interesting mix of Veep style absurdity (by the former showrunner) in a totalitarian dictatorship, where people get killed for stupid reasons. It blends several genres well, especially as it shifts from the ridiculousness of people who don’t know what to do after Stalin’s death, to a violent coup. Simon Russel Beale’s Beria is a nasty villain, going from comically opportunistic to so grotesque that you end up rooting for Buscemi’s Khrushchev in the later power struggle.
8/10

Movie #43/ 1930s Movie #3/ Criterion Edition #7/ French Film #3: The Rules of the Game
The reputation of the film might be slightly exaggerated, as it’s regularly considered one of the five best films ever made, though it is quite well-made and interesting, and suggests potential greater rewards the next time I watch it. At the very least, it’s an excellent country house farce with a cast of unique personalities, all of whom seem to have lives outside the film.
10/10

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Movie #44/ New Movie #25/ 2017 Movie #12/ Estonian Film #2/ Period Fantasy #2: November
This might have the lowest box office of any film I’ve seen in an American theater (at least that went into mainstream release) which is a bit disappointing as it is rather decent. The cinematography is gorgeous, and they capture the milieu quite well of 19th Century peasants who live in a world in which magic is real and kinda nasty, starting with a Day of the Dead celebration in which deceased relatives pop up.
8/10

Movie #45/ 2016 Movie #1: Captain America: Civil War
As a comic book geek, I’m probably going to enjoy this more than most, just due to how well the Russo brothers balance characters from at least seven film series in a conflict that features superheroes fighting one another as part of a believable mix of differing motives, manipulation and tragic misunderstandings. It’s not the most accessible MCU film, but it may be my favorite.
10/10

Movie #46/ New Movie #26/ 1990s Movie #4/ Science Fiction Film #3: Total Recall
This is an interesting 90s sci-fi film with great effects and set designs, and a fun narrative that works on two levels, with all of the experiences of Schwarzenegger’s seemingly brainwashed lead, as well as the alternate explanation.
7/10

Movie #47/ New Movie #27/ 2017 Movie #13: Jumanji- Welcome to the Jungle
One of the biggest hits of the last year is simply a lot of fun. The idea of teens inhabiting video game characters played by Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillen and Dwayne Johnson gives the stars a chance to give a very different type of performance. The villain’s not that great, although they set up the rules and well, and the team dynamics are decent.
7/10

Movie #48/ New Movie #28/ Silent Movie #2/ Criterion Film #8: Häxan/ The Witch
In terms of genre, it’s weird to categorize, perhaps because this was made at a time before these things were defined. It could be plausibly described as a documentary, or horror, or anthology of historical pieces, but it’s a satisfying exploration of the myths of witchcraft and the effects, with some impressive early set designs.
8/10

Movie #49/ 1950s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #9/ Swedish Film #1/ Period Fantasy #4: The Seventh Seal
It’s weird to think that Bergman made this at the same time as Wild Strawberries, a decent but quite different type of film. He captures the medieval era well, with the memorable death fantasy sequences raising interesting questions about man’s search for meaning. The ensemble is distinctive and memorable, with Bibi Anderson and Max Von Sydow demonstrating why they’d go to international stardom.
10/10

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Movie #50/ New Movie #29/ 1960s Movie #3/ Period Fantasy #5: The Masque of Red Death
This Corman Poe adaptation generally has impressive production values (they were able to use sets from other British prestige pictures) and a villain (a Satanic Italian prince) that fits Vincent Price’s scene-chewing persona, with memorable visuals and a good mix of characters.
7/10

Movie #51/ New Movie #30/ 2010s Movie #10/ Documentary #2/ Estonian Film #3: Disco and Atomic War
I close out my first challenge (10 films from 2010-2015) with the one Estonian film on Fandor: a documentary about the efforts of Estonians to access Finnish television when they were part of the Soviet Union. The stories about this are satisfying, with terrific examples of human ingenuity and the local results of various international policies, while there are larger questions about free expression and the use of soft power, even if the film is quite pro with both.
8/10

Movie #52/ New Movie #31/ 2016 Movie #2/ Animated Film #4: Moana
Another reminder why Pixar continues to be so dominant. The film succeeds on pretty much every level, with a well-realized world (inspired by Polynesian mythology, which isn’t that well-represented in film), excellent songs and a strong central narrative of a stubborn princess trying to explore the world and a flawed demigod forced to take big risks. It does seem quite similar to Pixar’s Coco (which they had to be working on at the same time) in terms of the conflict between the lead and their parents, although they go in different enough directions that both can remain quite satisfying.
9/10

Movie #53/ 1940s Movie #2: The Magnificent Ambersons
Welles’ Citizen Kane follow-up has some excellent storytelling, and is surprisingly sympathetic to the lead: a spoiled brat from a rich family struggling with the pace of change. The film captures the power of memories quite well.
9/10

Movie #54/ 1950s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #10/ French Film #4: Rififi
A combination of elements makes this one of the best crime films ever. The 30 minute silent robbery sequence is exceptional, the payoff to careful planning that seems believable enough that career criminals have used it as a reference guide. But it goes in some interesting turns after that, as the original crew is drawn organically into a new conflict.
10/10

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Movie #55/ 1990s Movie #5: Bowfinger
This was at the Metrograph theater as part of a retrospective on Terrence Stamp, who pops up as the leader of a scientology style cult. It’s a very funny satire of Hollywood with a hapless film crew trying to make a sci-fi film with the world’s biggest star without letting him know he’s actually in it.
8/10

Movie #56/ New Movie #32/ 2018 Movie #4/ Science Fiction Film #4: Ready Player One
Spielberg’s a great director, although on a meta level, an odd choice to direct a film about people influenced by his generation. The storytelling is generally pretty good (not a shocker with arguably the best director ever) in the high stakes hunt for easter eggs in a VR world.
7/10

Movie #57/ 1970s Movie #3/ Estonian Film #4/ Science Fiction Film #5: The Dead Alpinist’s Hotel
I watched the Estonian sci-fi film again on youtube, now that I know where the mystery was going. There are two distinct parts in the film. The first hour has a good sense of atmosphere and mystery as a detective tries to piece together a conspiracy in a secluded mountain hotel. It takes a sci-fi turn, and explores interesting questions of duty and morality, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
8/10

Movie #58/ 1960s Movie #4/ Criterion Edition #11/ French Film #5: Jules et Jim
The French New Wave film about a love triangle where the two men might love one another more than the girl is inventive with freewheeling techniques that maintain the emotional core. It starts with them as young Bohemians, but covers the effects of time, changing affections and the first world war (one of the men is French; the other Austrian.) I’m not sure any movie’s been better at depicting the ups and downs of a relationship.
10/10

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Movie #59/ 1980s Movie #3: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Fun noir pastiche in a world in which cartoon characters are real, and trying to make a living like everybody else. The central story is satisfying, and it really excels in the little moments, as clever as the original cartoons.
9/10

Movie #60/ New Movie #33/ 1940s Movie #3: The Stranger
Welles’ most successful box office hit has impressive cinematography and suspense (You might watch it and think it’s Hitchcock, but it’s not bad Hitchcock) and a daring narrative, as his lead hero is an unrepentant Nazi about to get married to the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.
8/10

Best of the batch: Rififi

The best film I hadn’t seen before is Moana, I suppose.

My reviews have been pretty positive in these two entries (the majority are 8/10 or higher) so I should mention that. I suppose a key factor is selection bias. I’ll pick films that have good reputations, that have received or been nominated for major awards, which tends to weed out the amateurish and the ambitious failures. I watched a Roger Corman film, but it was one of the better-regarded.

I’d imagine a major difference for professional critics is they’ve got to see everything. The main films I saw that didn’t have fantastic reputations were The Greatest Showman (and I liked the soundtrack before I watched it so I was primed to enjoy it), Kingsmen- The Golden Circle (a sequel to a film I liked), Cruel Intentions, Get Me Roger Stone (a documentary on politics by people with impressive credentials), Tall: The Story of the American Skyscraper, and November. I have enjoyed some films with mixed reputations (The New World) which may also skew results a bit.

There’s material I’m not inclined to like (The 50 Shades Sequel, the Karl Marx biopic at 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, various poorly received Netflix projects, the Clint Eastwood film with amateur actors, the Helen Mirren ghost story at 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) that I haven’t bothered seeing.  It might be helpful for me to recalibrate with some crappy movies, or take more risks with material that might be terrible and might be fascinating or both, but there are too many alternatives available, with Moviepass, streaming services and reasonable cheap DVDs/ Blu-rays. Why watch a Nicholas Sparks pastiche (a type of film that isn’t for me) when there are MCU films I haven’t rewatched, an Indian crime epic has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, the Kanopy streaming service has seven Fritz Lang films, I have a backlog of criterion blu-rays from various sales, and I can’t say whether Casey Affleck or Denzel Washington deserved the Best Actor Academy Award since I still haven’t seen Fences or Manchester By the Sea (which I should probably remedy in the next entry)?

 

 

 

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On Film and Diversity

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This is a response to some points raised by Film Critic Hulk in his piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Female Filmmaking.”

He suggests that some of the standards by which we measure film are biased against women and films against women, using the cinematography of Lady Bird as an example.

But yeah, the real thing about Blade Runner 2049‘s cinematography is that it is tangibly impressive. But equally impressive in terms of cinematography, editing, and construction?

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

It just happens to err on the side of naturalism, which makes sense given that it’s a realistic coming of age story about a high school senior trying to find her place in the world. Thus, it is trying to echo that realism and make us feel a sense of intimacy with it. It needs to feel like life, not a “movie movie.” But there is no less craft in achieving that. Believe me, naturalism is insanely difficult to achieve.

I like the examples of Lady Bird’s impressive cinematography. Interestingly enough, cinematographer Sam Levy is so unknown that he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. However, I’m not sure the lack of appreciation for Lady Bird is so gendered. Greta Gerwig was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Sam Levy (not nominated/ rarely discussed) is a middle-aged white guy. I was wondering if the lack of nomination has something to do with the film not being a period/ sci-fi piece, although there have been recent nominations for Moonlight, La La Land, Birdman, and Nebraska, so it can’t just be that. A lot of it probably is because, as he pointed out, it is harder to note craft that is natural and subtle. However, I’m not sure if the female subject matter is the difference, since recent years have consistently seen cinematography nominations for films with female leads (Black Swan, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Anna Karenina, Gravity, Ida, Carol, Arrival, La La Land, Mudbound, The Shape of Water.) It’s not 50/50, but in an industry where it’s a gain for 29 percent of the top 100 films to have female leads, it is quite representative

He considers the critical backlash to A Wrinkle in Time as part of a larger segment of criticism against director Ava Duvernay.

I have not seen Ava Duvernay’s Wrinkle In Time yet, but it’s one of my favorite children’s books (and comic, if you’ve never read Hope Larson’s adaptation) and I plan to see it soon. But I actually think the following argument works better if I haven’t seen it and can just make some observations about the dialogue surrounding the film. Why is that?

Because there’s a lot of white film bros who hate Ava Duvernay.

Did you know this? Boy howdy do they hate on Ava. And they won’t stop popping up in my damn feed (and always creating new accounts! Which is always a sign of being a well-balanced individual) to make “logical” points about how everyone’s just treating her nice because we surely must be afraid of backlash! And by not tearing her apart and by “pulling punches,” we must be doing this because we’re afraid to upset the critical status quo and call the movie bad, etc… I’m not kidding.

I think he exaggerates the significance of people who were biased against Ava Duvernay. They weren’t able to have discernible impact on the critical acclaim of Selma or 13th, so why would it be different now? The biggest name among critics who hasn’t cared for her work is Kyle Smith, and it would be weird for him to suddenly be an influencer now. Film Critiic Hulk notes the significance of subject matter as part of the appeal of a film, but it could be that this is part of the poor response to A Wrinkle in Time. The key thing with subject matter is how people tell a story. The difference between Munich (Best Picture nominee) and 7 days in Entebbe (22% on Rotten Tomatoes) probably comes down to execution.

Finally, he expresses a preference for filmmakers who are truly representative, suggesting the problem is with the film industry.

It is so much more difficult for those who don’t fit the white dude movie lover mold. It’s downright systematic. You have to watch as female filmmakers from your classes slowly get railroaded into being producers, editors, and working in public relations instead or storytellers, all because “thats where they fit.” Just as you have no idea what it’s like to be a minority and get constantly used as a prop of collaboration and not get to be the engine of it. So you have to understand that something that has been so hard for you, has actually been 1000% harder for someone else. And sure, you can be sensitive to that idea all your want. You can say it’s unjust. You can say you want more female and minority filmmakers. But when you put forth the perfectly-sane and not -radical idea that “50% of studio films should be directed by women and 40% should be directed by minorities,” people lose their god damn minds.

The expectation of getting filmmakers who represent demographics perfectly seems unrealistic. Is there any profession that accurately represents the demographics of the country? There would be the initial factor that most people already in the industry are going to keep their jobs, so even if the new directors, cinematographers, sound mixers, etc. represent demographics perfectly, those who came in during earlier eras are going to stick around, skewing statistics for decades to come.

There are probably some institutional fixes if qualified women/ minorities are passed over for equally or less qualified white men, but some of the problem is going to be that white guys are more likely to get the jobs that lead to being in a position to get money to make films, so there would have to be reforms on the lower level. Even if there’s a fix in one area (American film production) the pipeline involves other areas. Looking at recent directors of Best Picture nominees, Jordan Peele came from television. Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro came from the television industry of Mexico. Morten Tyldum came from the Norwegian television industry. Lenny Abrahamson came from advertising. Martin McDonagh was an Irish playwright. Kenneth Lonergan’s first major work was an off-Broadway play. Paul Thomas Anderson used his college savings to make a short film. Even with reforms in all these industries, it doesn’t offset other potential problems that lead to less women and less people in color in a position to get the job that results in them getting the budgets to make major films.

 

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