Media

What Critics Write About and Why

A normal piece in which everything is chill.

Having placed in his mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, the narrator of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds remarks: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author.” Similarly, I would suggest that a piece trying to make more than one point could start more than once – or, at least, that my aunt’s car still works even if she must turn the key in the ignition two or three times to get the engine going.

Here, I suppose, is one way that a piece could begin:

The trailer for Star Wars Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker has sparked discussion about the future direction of the franchise. Following the trailer reveal at the Star Wars Celebration event in Chicago, some writers have speculated that the upcoming film will fly in the face of its 2017 predecessor, The Last Jedi. The latter film, considered boundary-pushing by Star Wars standards, was in large part concerned with challenging the series’ narrative of chosen ones and bloodlines. Rather than being the child of some lore character or another, Rey is a hero by her own merits. By comparison, the follow-up is, uh, called The Rise of Skywalker. Phil Owen writes for MSN that “it very much looks like the film wants to abandon whatever The Last Jedi was setting up, thematically.” Phil Pirrello writes for Hollywood Reporterthat Rise of Skywalker director J. J. Abrams (returning as director after 2015’s The Force Awakens) seems to be “ret-conning certain narrative threads of that movie for his trilogy’s final chapter.”

But, hang on. Does this make sense? Certainly, a title that foregrounds the importance of the name Skywalker is notable. Combined with the apparent return of the classic villain Emperor Palpatine, Rise of Skywalker seems set, on the surface, to be a very un-Last-Jedi way to end this. But, the only way Abrams would even try to outright ‘retcon’ the events or thematic threads of Last Jedi is if there was some real-world, behind-the-scenes drama between him and Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. There’s no evidence that this is the case, even as other Star Wars dramas have made headlines: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) were fired as directors of last year’s spin-off Solo and replaced by Ron Howard; similarly, Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was fired as director and writer of Rise of Skywalker after failing to deliver a satisfactory script and was replaced with Abrams. More to the point, even if Abrams wanted to retcon Last Jedi, he wouldn’t be allowed to.

Put it this way: LucasFilm Kathleen Kennedy must have had a plan for the trilogy from the start, as that is part of her job. Disney placed enough confidence in her plan that they let her make the somewhat controversial decision to toss out decades of stories from Star Wars ‘Expanded Universe’ tie-in media so she could do her plan instead. Considering that, you’d have a hard job convincing me that the outside-the-box nature of Last Jedi was an accident, that Kennedy and other higher-ups just turned an auteur loose on their biggest property and didn’t make him clear everything with them first. She and the rest of LucasFilm are also clearly happy with Last Jedi since they’re giving Rian Johnson his own spin-off trilogy. And why wouldn’t they be happy? It received rave reviews and a huge box office turnout of $1.333 billion-with-a-b; Deadline Hollywood calculated that it was the most profitable film release of 2017. If Abrams got a bee in his bonnet for some reason and tried to seriously retcon Last Jedi – which I would define as overriding plot decisions such as the truth about Rey’s parents – then Kennedy would clamp down on him. When speculating about the franchise’s future and behind-the-scenes drama, we should try to understand how these films are made rather than think of them mainly in terms of things that are only happening on Twitter.

Laherty, Mark. ‘You’re Wrong About the Rise of Skywalker Trailer’ on On Your Mark, Get Wrecked

This is my blog, so I can write about whatever I want. If the mood took me, I could write 2,000 words about different ways of thinking about film and TV score through the lens of a comparison of Murray Gold and Segun Akinola’s different scores for Doctor Who. But, I want people other than my friends to read my work so that I might draw in some more money through Patreon, so I should write about the new Star Wars trailer.

Of course, this is a self-perpetuating cycle. Media writers must write about Star Wars or Game of Thrones in large part because we (and our editors) decide that we should. This results in media journalism serving a secondary function as advertising for brands. A few years ago, The Mary Sue, a women’s media website,stopped covering Game of Thrones in objection to a rape scene that they viewed as unnecessary and sexist. This move might seem counterintuitive; surely that would be the time for a feminist website to dive in and deliver some valuable takedowns. But, really, they were being remarkably savvy. Running pieces on speculation or memes or recaps all serve as advertising. If they don’t want to engage in that for ideological reasons, they don’t have to. (Note that the Mary Sue shouldn’t receive too much credit for this, as they’ve since flip-flopped and are presently running loads of pieces on the final season.)

When writers choose what art they write about, they’re choosing the canon. They’re deciding what’s worth writing about and what isn’t, what their readers should pay attention to. Look up what’s new on Netflix this week. Last Sunday saw the addition of the 2018 film Antidote, a supernatural action flick with a 3.1/10 on IMDB. Am I going to tell you that you should pay attention to that? Of course not. I was on thin fucking ice when I reviewed the new Amy Schumer special.

I insert more bread into my mouth and begin to type:

Last year, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter headlined the Coachella festival in a makeup performance from the previous year, which she had to cancel because of her pregnancy. The 26-song set was a homage to black communities, especially historically black universities. It also had some high-profile guests along the way: a Destiny’s Child reunion, Beyoncé’s sister Solange, and her husband Jay-Z. It was described as a “spectacle for the ages” by Vulture and as a “high water mark in 21st-century entertainment” by Chris Willman for Variety.

This week on Netflix, Beyoncé dropped her film Homecoming: a film version of the performance intercut with a documentary of its creation. The result cheerfully swings back and forth between the high-energy show and slow, thoughtful sections shot blurrily in a square aspect ratio as if on VHS. Different sections are demarcated by quotes from different black women – from Toni Morrison to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Tessa Thompson – printed on-screen, with recordings of other quotes also sampled. Being of both a different race and different country, I couldn’t pick up on all the meaning behind the myriad black sorority signifiers (what the heck is a bugaboo?), but you don’t need to understand more than the surface to appreciate drummers doing cymbal crashes between their legs while doing high kicks.

Those dancers aren’t backup dancers. They’re collaborators and representatives of black excellence. Part of the point of the show is to platform them. She says in the documentary: “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s intended for black folks only – there is, again, universal joy in the spectacle alone – but it’s aimed at them in the main, intended to empower them. Nearly all the crowd reaction shots are of black people, especially black women.

Up on stage, Beyoncé’s power seems effortless. Backed by shirtless male dancers and a deep, thrumming brass section, she declares that she woke up like this. She didn’t. That song is placed after a section of the documentary where she talks about how, when people see the show, they don’t see the sacrifice. “I definitely pushed myself further than I knew I could. And I learned a very valuable lesson. I will never, never push myself that far again.” This is in the context of Beyoncé struggling to recover from her pregnancy. But, the jubilant tone wins out. That the show is called Homecoming isn’t just a reference to black universities. This is the show where she comes home to the stage. She comes home to the crew and black community that she calls family.

There’s a lot to celebrate there, culture and community in need of celebrating. There are choices to be made about

Laherty, Mark. Review of Homecoming on Virtual Citizens

what is and isn’t written about. The film quotes activist Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”


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