Mark Harris on What He Learned from Re-Watching Old Cop Shows

Posted on September 8, 2020 at 12:01 pm

One of my favorite cultural critics, Mark Harris, has an uncharacteristically personal take on the cop shows he watched, some as a way to connect to his father, when he was growing up, from “Adam-12” to “The Mod Squad” to “Kojak.” He talks about his own experience and perspective as well as what, looking at them now, he sees about the way law enforcement has been portrayed in the media and how it has shaped our ideas.  It’s one of the most illuminating pieces of cultural criticism of the year.

And then, at night, the TV would go on and I would be transfixed by the cops I saw there, the men who seized a piece of my consciousness when it was at its most impressionable, captured my imagination, and made me believe in their effectiveness….I needed a better connection to my father than I had, and the one I found was Adam-12, a series that was, in a way, designed with almost insidious perfection as My First Police Show — a smooth transition from kids’ TV into the grown-up world. For one thing, it was only 30 minutes; for another, that half-hour was usually divided among two or three bite-size, easy-to-follow, often amazingly uneventful stories of two white cops on the beat in Los Angeles (a city as exotic as Mars to a child who had never been west of New Jersey)….

In an era when all TV shows have age-suitability ratings and content guides, the vigor with which adult cop shows of the 1970s were marketed to children seems shocking. But in fact, immense energy was invested in embedding those series in the collective consciousness of children. Dell published 15-cent Mod Squad comic books, and Topps sold Mod Squad chewing gum. You could get a wheel of Hawaii Five-0 Viewmaster slides and click through color pictures of unsmiling, black-suited Steve McGarrett arresting Honolulu’s miscreants, or buy Milton Bradley board games based on Columbo, Starsky & Hutch, or Kojak (“Be a part of thrilling police action on the city streets”), which allowed young players to use informants to track down a suspect hiding in a building. I coveted the Adam-12 lunchbox, which had an illustration of Malloy and Reed helping a little boy on one side and on the other the two of them crouching with their pistols drawn, ready to fire on an unseen suspect. The images were two halves of the same coin.

The Mod Squad was largely goodhearted, but in a way that made clear that the parameters of what constitutes a good heart were defined entirely by its white writers and producers. If the show were on now, it would be in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests, but it would single out those who lit fires and threw bricks as people who don’t truly believe that Black lives matter, and it would definitely not endorse defunding the police, because without the police, who would be able to explain all of this to the young people? Cops knew everything, could solve everything, could protect everyone … if you would just let them do their work.

Not all cops” was the baseline ethic of shows like Kojak; they would occasionally critique a policeman, but not policing. These series were “knowing,” they were savvy, and their cynicism seemed to spread in all directions at once. The vibe was, We’re not gonna pretend that some criminals aren’t Black, and we’re not gonna pretend that some cops aren’t racist, and most of all, we’re not gonna pretend that this is a nice place to live or that anything about it can be fixed.

Highly recommended.

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Mulan, Tenet, Antebellum: Critical Insights

Posted on September 6, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Some of the best writing about film I’ve read this week:

Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Jackson McHenry on Vulture discovers that The Best Parts of Christopher Nolan Movies Are All the Dainty Snacks and Drinks.

His films are full of immaculately manicured and coiffed heroes who tend to sport expensive suits, nice watches, and a level of deep sadness about women who’ve died in their proximity. They rarely sit down for a full meal, but they often pause for a quick cup of a tea and maybe half a sandwich, often while delivering some bit of exposition to another character. Once you start noticing the number of conversations that take place over dainty drinks and appetizers in Christopher Nolan movies, you simply cannot stop. He loves a small, civilized repast, especially if it involves a silver serving tray, and his universe is full of angsty men having a cup of a tea and a little something to tide them over till later.

On Slate, Sam Adams explains “Tenet” as thoroughly and clearly as it is humanly possible. Here’s a sample:

The word tenet reads the same backward and forward, one of several references to reversibility embedded in the film. Andrei Sator’s surname comes from the Sator Square, a five-by-five grid of interlocking letters that reads the same in every direction. It was first discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, which is a location that Andrei’s wife, Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki), and their son seem especially keen on visiting.

The other five words in the Sator Square all turn up in the movie at some point: There’s Rotas, the name of the security company that guards Andrei’s warehouse in the Oslo airport; Opera, the location of the movie’s first set piece; Arepo, the name of the art forger whose bogus Goya Katherine, who works at a high-priced auction house, arranged to have sold to her husband, and which he’s now using as leverage to keep her from leaving him. And there’s the central word in the Sator Square, the axis on which it turns: tenet.

Tenet is also the word ten backward and forward, which becomes key to the movie’s climactic sequence, in which synchronized attack teams move through time in opposite directions on a 10-minute countdown, performing what the movie calls a “temporal pincer.”

“Mulan” director Nikki Caro talks about filming the battle scene in the New York Times. At Polygon, Petrana Radulovic writes about one big change from the Disney animated version. The scene where Mulan dramatically cuts her hair off with her sword does not occur in the live-action remake and the larger implications of the Eastern vs. Western ideas about characters.

Copyright Disney 2020

From an East Asian perspective, it’s pretty apparent why an independent Mulan wasn’t working well with the story. The idea of pursuing an individual destiny has been romanticized for male protagonists throughout Western canon. In adapting fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, where female protagonists passively waited around and suffered, Disney found it empowering to reinvent them as active heroines taking control of their own destinies. But Mulan doesn’t draw from a history of male heroes embarking on journeys. The idea of striking out against family goes against the Confucian notions of the original ballad.

My friend and one of my favorite critics, Roxana Hadadi writes about “Mulan” for Pajiba. She calls the film “visually resplendent but narratively stifled.”

On paper, the representation politics of the film hold up—but they act in service of a story that is so adamant about traditional masculinity and nationalist loyalty that there’s literally no other plot. Niki Caro’s Mulan is grandly rendered but narrowly minded, and the film’s self-seriousness will make you long for the 1998 animated version’s subversive gender politics and sense of fun.

And Robert Daniels says that “Antebellum” is the worst movie of the year. His review may be one of the best of the year. “‘Antebellum’ is an unrepentantly violent film, and this entire sequence shows how it falsely equates shock value with empathy.”

In Antebellum, Bush and Renz desperately prod around in the dark, trying to discover the gravity of prestige slave movies like 12 Years a Slave. Slaves whistle “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the cotton fields; one Confederate soldier calls another “snowflake”; grey-coats chant the Nazi refrain “blood and soil”; a statue of Robert E. Lee materializes on a foggy battlefield. The directors evoke these images as symbols, but don’t have the next-level horror-film ability to match symbolism with meaning. The narrative’s metaphorical thud resounds as loudly as the rolling sea.

In one of the movie’s few satisfying moments — and in a lyrically beautiful image — Eden rides a horse while wearing a Union coat and brandishing a battleaxe. She careens through Confederate lines, mouth bloodied and agape. But her uplifting revolution can’t redeem Antebellum’s grotesque wallowing and jangly script.

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Hitchcock in Hitchcock Movies

Posted on September 5, 2020 at 8:00 am

Alfred Hitchcock fans loved to spot his cameos, which added a touch of whimsy to his thrillers. As time went on, he made sure they occurred early in the films to avoid distracting the audience. The biggest challenge he faced was in the movie “Lifeboat.” Unless he was going to play one of the characters in the title craft, how could he find a way to appear? The answer is delightful. He was on a diet at the time, and had lost a lot of weight. So, he created a fake ad for a diet medicine and had it in a newspaper that appeared in the film. People actually wrote and asked him where they could get some as it was so effective!

Here’s a compilation of Hitchcock’s cameos.

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How Many Movie Characters Have Your Name?

Posted on August 23, 2020 at 8:00 am

On Twitter I asked people to tell me their favorite movie character with their name. I got a lot of great answers and some surprising “none” answers, which led me to this study. Type in a name and see how many movies have a character by that name. The implications for gender and race and ethnicity of movie characters are illuminating.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Even Infants Have a Range of Perceptions When They Watch Screens

Posted on August 5, 2020 at 8:00 am

We have just begun to explore the complexities and wide range of differences in the way individuals watch and respond to what we see on screens. A new study about babies shows that these differences are present at birth. While these study results are illuminating, it does not change my firm position of no screen time before age three and no more than an hour a day and no theatrical screens before age five.

Children’s own temperament could be driving the amount of TV they watch – according to new research from the University of East Anglia and Birkbeck, University of London.

Copyright 2009 Carolien Dekeersmaeker

New findings published today show that the brain responses of 10-month-old babies could predict whether they would enjoy watching fast-paced TV shows six months later.

The research team says that the findings are important for the ongoing debate around early TV exposure.

Lead researcher Dr Teodora Gliga, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “The sensory environment surrounding babies and young children is really complex and cluttered, but the ability to pay attention to something is one of the first developmental milestones in babies.

“Even before they can ask questions, children vary greatly in how driven they are to explore their surroundings and engage with new sights or sounds.

“We wanted to find out why babies appear to be so different in the way that they seek out new visual sensory stimulation – such as being attracted to shiny objects, bright colours or moving images on TV.

“There have been various theories to explain these differences, with some suggesting that infants who are less sensitive will seek less stimulation, others suggesting that some infants are simply faster at processing information – an ability which could drive them to seek out new stimulation more frequently.

“In this study we bring support for a third theory by showing that a preference for novelty makes some infants seek more varied stimulation.”

Using a brain imaging method known as electroencephalography (EEG), the research team studied brain activity in 48 10-month old babies while they watched a 40-second clip from the Disney movie Fantasia on repeat.

They studied how the children’s brain waves responded to random interruptions to the movie – in the form of a black and white chequerboard suddenly flashing on screen.

Dr Gliga said: “As the babies watched the repeated video clip, EEG responses told us that they learned its content. We expected that, as the video became less novel and therefore engaged their attention less, they would start noticing the checkerboard.

“But some of the babies started responding to the checkerboard earlier on while still learning about the video – suggesting that these children had had enough of the old information.

“Conversely, others remained engaged with the video even when there was not much to learn from it,” she added.

Parents and carers were also asked to fill in a questionnaire about their babies’ sensory behaviours – including whether they enjoyed watching fast-paced brightly-coloured TV shows. This was followed up with a second similar questionnaire six months later.

Dr Gliga said: “It was very interesting to find that brain responses at 10 months, indicating how quickly infants switched their attention from the repeated video to the checkerboard, predicted whether they would enjoy watching fast-paced TV shows six months later.

“These findings are important for the ongoing debate on early TV exposure since they suggest that children’s temperament may drive differences in TV exposure.

“It is unlikely that our findings are explained by early TV exposure since parents reported that only a small proportion of 10-month-olds were watching TV shows,” she added.

Elena Serena Piccardi, from Birkbeck, University of London, said: “The next part of our research will aim to understand exactly what drives these individual differences in attention to novelty, including the role that early environments may have.

“Exploration and discovery are essential for children’s learning and cognitive development. Yet, different children may benefit from different environments for their learning. As such, this research will help us understand how individualized environments may nurture children’s learning, promote their cognitive development and, ultimately, support achievement of their full potential.

The research was led by UEA in collaboration with Birkbeck, University of London and Cambridge University. It was funded by the Medical Research Council.

‘Individual differences in infant visual sensory seeking’ is published in the journal Infancy on August 5, 2020.

 

 

 

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