Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013
In the eighth installment of Michael Apted’s epochal documentary series, his aging participants (one of cinema’s greatest assemblage of living characters) provide not just a telescope into the past but also a kind of primer for how to live, even as the specter of mortality starts to cast its shadow.

This was a film series that should have been nothing but a gimmick. 1964’s 7 Up was a short and none-too-serious look at a gaggle of 14 English schoolchildren from a variety of backgrounds. The narrator made a lark of it, intoning about the children’s styles of play and pointing them out after the other (“there’s Nicholas…and Tim”) as though he were identifying different species of animal in some amusing wildlife short. What ideology existed in the short seemed to come from the filmmakers’ reflexive expectation that the rich kids would be assured of powerful places in society, while the poorer kids would have a harder time of it. The three prep-school boys reciting in plummy tones the list of exclusive institutions they were sure to attend were set in direct contrast to the orphanage boy asking a simple question: “What is a university?” There were hints of something deeper here, particularly its version of the old Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” But it didn’t seem to be anything made for longevity.


Eight films on, director Michael Apted (who worked as a researcher on the first film) has created something for the ages. The Up series is like a living, breathing cinematic experiment. (More than a few of the people appear to feel they are being watched under a microscope, and resent it.) But after each seven-year delay, when Apted and his crew returns to interview those of the original 14 still talking to them, the drama of it increases in small increments almost scientific in tone. We see person turn not just from children into adults, but from characters into people. By the time that the current installment, 56 Up, comes around, most of those involved have left so much of themselves on the screen that the impending clouds of sickness and mortality begin to carry an almost unbearable weight.


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Monday, Nov 19, 2012
Perfectionist or pariah, cad or creative genius, Alfred Hitchcock is, was, and remains a cinematic legend... one that's perhaps too big to encase in a single, celluloid statement.

He began in Britain, working his way up from title card designer for silent films to director, over the course of five frustrating years. Then, various production and financing snafus delayed his eventual status as one of England’s motion picture best. Over in Hollywood, producer David O. Selznick was looking for new blood, and based on his UK rep, the unknown was signed to a seven year contract. Thus began his time in Tinseltown, a four decade redefining of who he was and would eventually be known for. By the end, he was a true auteur, the Master of Suspense, and an unfairly dismissed, Oscar-less superstar. But who was the “real” Alfred Hitchcock. Which of the many rumored personalities did he offer to his cast, crew, and confidants when the media wasn’t manipulating his future myth?


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Friday, Nov 16, 2012
Sam Mendes’ tough, relationship-focused Bond film is really about leadership in extremis, with towering and isolated icons fighting tooth-and-nail to keep society together amidst the growing chaos of modernity.

Whatever romanticism was left in the hoary old Bond franchise, in Skyfall Judi Dench’s M does her best to put a bullet in it. The standard opening chase sequence sends James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a motorbike over the roofs of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul before putting him onto the top of a speeding train to do battle with an assassin who gunned down an MI6 agent and stole a datafile holding the identities of covert agents. First, M instructs Bond to leave his wounded cohort behind. Then, since agent Eve (Naomie Harris) can’t get a clear shot to take out the assassin without also risking hitting Bond, M tells her to fire away anyway. Result: one big bloody hole in Bond’s trim suit coat and one escaped assassin.


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Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012
Are these the real number ones, or just excellent pretenders to an impossible throne?

So…we’ve come to the end. We’ve reach the top, the cream of the crop, the upper most of the topper most. Over the last few weeks, we’ve discussed the links - both pragmatic and poetic - of the 15 films featured on the overall and director’s Best of List as compiled by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Magazine. We run the gamut from ten to one, debated the causal as well as the creative connections between these often divergent titles. We’ve even tried to figure out how certain works warrant their placement, while others suddenly stumble and fall. Nowhere is this more intriguing than within the two films that ended up in first place.


The displacement of Citizen Kane by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo remains an eye-opening rejection of old school Hollywood, a veiled attempt by the “new guard” to guide the critical conversation away from movies made in the earlier part of the artform to things more ‘modern’ and by assumption, meaningful. Granted, Kane came out in 1941 and Vertigo landed a mere 17 years later, but that’s several legitimate lifetimes for those making such aesthetic determinations. That Orson Welles’ masterpiece could last as long as it did at the top of the charts signals something that the James Stewart/Kim Novak vehicle has a few decades to equal.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012
How did 'Citizen Kane' and '2001: A Space Odyssey' end up as the "second" best films of all time? According to Sight & Sound, it's popularity vs. prescience.

A famous football coach once said that “winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing.” Another member of the pigskin profession argued something similar, that is, that you “play to win the game.” So what does it mean to be number two? What does it say about who you are and what you represent when there is one better than your tired and tried self? Well, some argue for comfort in defeat. After all, you’ve bypassed many significant others to get to the point where you can actually taste the ultimate triumph. You just missed by a single mark. Others settle for the moral victory, recognizing that everyone can’t be first and everything can’t be measured in placements and plaques. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world of plastic trophy ‘participants.’ We specialize in crowning the winners and lamenting the losers. It’s who we are, or at the very least, seem to be.


So it’s interesting to view the films sitting just below the top on Sight & Sounds’ 2012 Best of Film List (general and directors only). In one case, we have a long standing champion finally dethroned. In the other corner is a competitor that has slowly worked its way through a couple of different placements over the years. Granted, 2001: A Space Odyssey has only been eligible since the 1972 listing, and since then, it’s bubbled beneath the Top 10, moved from said number (1992) to number six (2002), only to stay in said position this year. It’s the directors who drove it to number two in 2012, after 20 years of basically ignoring it. As for Citizen Kane, it’s been number one since 1962 (in 1952, on the first list Bicycle Thieves held that position, with no mention of Welles’ seminal work). This year, another film finally beat it.


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