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The Dissolve: Some (Highly Subjective) Highlights

written by rick July 5, 2016
The Dissolve: Some (Highly Subjective) Highlights

Yesterday, we kicked off The Week of The Dissolve with what the site itself, in one of its “Movie of the Week” features, might’ve called a Keynote. Today, continuing this meta-One Year Later appreciation thread, we move on to some Essentials.

The Dissolve’s core team produced a veritable hit parade of reviews, commentaries, interviews, re-considerations, and features, bolstered by a solid roster of consistently insightful contributors. There’s no way to do their collective output justice in a single post, so I’m not going to try.

Instead, here are a handful of pieces that stick out in my mind and which I’ve returned to since their publication. The selection process wasn’t exactly rigorous. There were no specific criteria apart from that, and I didn’t spend much time combing through the stacks. These are, simply put, representative samples of an impressive body of work, according to one reader. In each case, you might well respond, “Sure, but what about this other one, though!” and I’d probably shrug and agree.

These are some candidates for inclusion. Feel free to add your own in the comments. (Or just follow the links and enjoy — The Dissolve is, thankfully, still available for your reading pleasure.)

[Editor’s note: Images do not necessarily correspond with authors mentioned. Except for Rabin’s, who is, in fact, a dead ringer for Burt Reynolds.]

Charles Bramesco

kanye

A later addition to The Dissolve team, Bramesco ably reported on the news of the day with wit and insight. But I’m particularly fond of longer pieces like this one on “Kanye West, filmmaker”, which combined clearly personal fandom with a wider lens on less-considered intersections of cinema and pop-culture. It’s good stuff:

West’s ability to simultaneously self-aggrandize and self-efface has made him the polarizing figure the public loves to hate, and his films place that contradiction front and center. “We Were Once A Fairytale” finds a lightly fictionalized version of West drunk as hell and acting a fool up in the club. After clumsily failing to impress women with his status as a celebrity, and generally embarrassing himself, West stumbles into the bathroom, where he stabs himself with a conveniently available  knife. Instead of viscera, however, rose petals spill forth from West’s wound, along with a little stop-motion critter credited as “Henry” (a nifty throwback to Charles, the anthropomorphic dog-headed man from Jonze’s video for “Da Funk” by Daft Punk). The film shows both sides of Kanye—the self-proclaimed International Asshole, and the hurting, artistic soul—without using one to explain away the other.

Mike D’Angelo

blair witch2

D’Angelo is always fascinating to read, bringing both an obvious breadth of film knowledge and some refreshingly idiosyncratic viewpoints to the table. (Read the comments on any given D’Angelo piece and they usually seem split between those who generally agree and others who think he must’ve watched an entirely different film.)

Reviews aside, though, it’s in things like “15 years beyond the hype and hatred of The Blair Witch Project” that his insight pays off. This offhand (parenthetical, even!) observation about the central role editing played in the ultimate found-footage success story is typical:

(Quick aside: Part of what makes this approach so unusually effective here is that Blair Witch, though ostensibly consisting of the footage these three kids left behind when they disappeared, has been trimmed down to the bone. Myrick and Sánchez, who edited as well as directed, are utterly ruthless about cutting away from any shot the instant it becomes less interesting; many of the film’s “scenes” last 10 seconds or less, especially early on. This makes no sense at all in terms of the found-footage conceit—Who’s supposed to have assembled it so efficiently? The people who found it? The witch?—but it serves both the pace and the actors extremely well. Any moments when fiction and reality weren’t in sync were tossed aside, and if that demanded the inclusion of a single line or expression ripped from its context, so be it.)

Matthew Dessem

mccabe

Dessem is one of the most astute critics around (and I don’t say this just because I share his fascination with early film). In “The making and unmaking of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he took one of his standard deep dives into the creation of a classic, exploring the conditions and contradictions of Altman’s adaptation in absorbing detail. It’s one of my favorite pieces The Dissolve ever published, and I re-read it regularly:

Not to say that after all that, the writing was the most crucial part of Altman’s style in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It was essential, but not sufficient. The real truth Kael was getting at by ignoring the writers is that a lot of how the film feels is found around the margins. In the unimportant, half-captured dialogue. In the tiny scenes that go nowhere, while the main engine of the story moves along elsewhere. So although it’s wrong to say Altman transformed a story that meant something different into McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s entirely accurate to say he changed the way the story felt.

David Ehrlich

me and earl and the dying girl

Ehrlich is another idiosyncratic writer and critic, the kind of guy who will nominate Girl Walk // All Day as the 10th best movie of the century so far and surprise absolutely nobody with such an offbeat selection.

But his piece “This is the part where I defend Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” is an entirely different beast. Intensely personal and gorgeously constructed, it’s the single most painful piece of film of writing to which The Dissolve ever gave space. Given that it’s hard to imagine any other site doing the same, maybe it’s also the most important one:

This is an article about perspective, written by somebody who currently doesn’t have any. It’s an article about death, written by somebody who can only talk about it like he’s speaking a second language. It’s an article about why, in the most confusing time of my life, one of the only things I’m sure of is that some stupid Sundance movie is being widely misunderstood. Maybe that put me in the perfect headspace to write about Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s controversial new film (controversial on Film Twitter, at least), but if I knew what I wanted to say about it, I had no idea how. I still don’t. I wasn’t sure if I should make this personal—I wasn’t sure if I should make it about me—and so it is and it isn’t, lost in the limbo between a diary and a term paper, part Xanga and part Film Comment. I’m not ready to write about this stuff, but I so desperately want to be that I couldn’t stop myself.

 

Anyway, spoiler warning: You probably shouldn’t read this before you’ve seen Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Or after.

Rachel Handler

oscars

Rachel Handler was one of the newer voices on The Dissolve, and one of the funniest. There are a number of pieces I could’ve chosen here — her Read On selections of “Essential Film Writing” were always well-chosen and often filled with endearing running gags — but it was her Female Stuff column, with the deadpan subheader “How’s The Movie Industry Treating Women This Week?”, that I most looked forward to. Rounding up extensive news items and commentary and presenting them in a singular, wry, and slightly exhausted voice, she brought much needed attention to issues of representation that were in short supply elsewhere. This summation of Oscar diversity (or lack thereof) can stand in for the important discussions she emphasized:

Overall, was this a positive, negative, or neutral week for women in movies, Rachel?

 

Well, Rachel, I’m gonna have to go with negative. I know, I listed more good signs than bad here, but the bad signs were pretty damn bad, weighing heavily in the balance. The Oscars, which are (somewhat sadly) arbiters of taste to millions, are failing to honor significant achievements by women and people of color, and the industry’s employment of women is somehow declining, even though it feels like something we’re talking about now more than ever. It’s 2015, people! Let’s get our shit together.

Genevieve Koski

jurassic world

Based on sheer output, Dissolve Managing Editor Genevieve Koski likely played a larger role behind the scenes than on the page, but her writing was always a treat. A memorably insightful and witty entry on “Jurassic World, high heels, and why wardrobe matters” focused in on the gendered design aspects of mainstream film; a later one expanded on “Hollywood’s ‘female stuff’ problem,” a worrying narrative impulse that “reduces the inclusion of women and stories that speak to them down to a gimmick, something to be grafted onto a project to expand its potential consumer base”:

This may not seem like an important point, because it’s not, relatively speaking. (The absurdity of Claire’s footwear in the film has already been mocked, in characteristically charming fashion, by none other than Pratt himself.) It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise solidly realized, if not exactly groundbreaking, character. But it provides a handy object lesson in why wardrobe matters: Wardrobe is a storytelling tool, same as production design and music and even CGI, all of which Jurassic World make smart, ample use of. Wardrobe allows filmmakers to reveal details about characters, or show their development, without drawing attention to it through dialogue. Wielding wardrobe sloppily may not ruin a character, but it’s a missed opportunity for a deeper level of characterization.

Noel Murray

dissolve murray

Dissolve Staff Writer Noel Murray was, and remains, an almost frighteningly erudite and knowledgeable pop-culture encyclopedia. Reading his stuff, there’s often a disconcerting sense that he knows literally everything about everything. Surely, this can’t be true — I assume he just knows a lot about a lot, while also being an accomplished researcher. (Or at least I hope this is the case. The alternative is eerie, and, if true, we should probably prepare ourselves for his eventual takeover of the planet.)

Here is one example of many, but a favorite: “The history of American pop, via 12 fictional acts”. It’s a listicle, that oft-derided feature. But on The Dissolve, and in Murray’s hands, it’s one that actually informs while it entertains, thanks to his expertise and enthusiasm:

The 12 acts below—some solo, some bands—appear in comedies, dramas, musicals, and art films, and represent multiple genres and eras. There are plenty of other fake musicians who could replace or complement them, but this dozen collectively fills an alternate-universe timeline of chart-toppers and obscurities, stretching back over a half-century. Together, they function as a mosaic of American popular music, illustrating what artists have struggled with since the emergence of rock ’n’ roll: trying to connect simultaneously with young people and with the older corporate lackeys who are signing the checks.

Keith Phipps

laserblast-1Keith Phipps, Dissolve Founder and Editorial Director, seemed to wear a number of hats, as his title would indicate. But my favorite was resident sci-fi guy, deploying an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and its particular instantiations in the Laser Age feature.

I’m not a sci-fi guy by a long shot, and I always found these entries fascinating, like when he gamely revisited MST3K favorite Laserblast and placed it and some contemporaries in almost loving context:

In the three-year gap between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, film after film appeared thanks to that logic, with a surprising number of them able to make it into theaters just a year or so after Star Wars’ release. Some movies are easy to rip off on a low budget, as evidenced by the pile-up of slasher movies that started appearing seemingly from the moment news of Halloween’s box-office returns was passed around. In that case, all anyone needed was a knife, some screaming victims, and a halfway novel premise. (Or sometimes just a knife and some screaming victims.) Star Wars isn’t one of those cheaply reproducable films, yet that didn’t stop some producers from trying.

Nathan Rabin

burt-reynolds-photo

By now, expressing my admiration for former Dissolve writer Nathan Rabin seems like belaboring the point.

I have written a straight-up appreciation. I have shamelessly stolen his ideas: the “You Might Also Like” concept (two times), the “Mutations” conceit (once), and a soon-to-be-posted “Forgotbuster” entry or two. (It’s here! And here!) I watched and reviewed Foodfight!, despite the facts that his review for the AV Club needed no epilogue and, frankly, I didn’t need Foodfight! in my life. Rabin’s one of my favorite writers, full-stop. His work combines wide-eyed incredulousness and incisive wit with a genuine sympathy for the overlooked and much-maligned in ways I find deeply affecting. And he makes it look so easy.

Any number of pieces could stand in for the more general tenor of his work here. I would be remiss if I didn’t link to his Philip Seymour Hoffman piece, which is sad and perfect, and which captured a lot of the sorrow film fans experienced at that artist’s unexpected loss in 2014.

I opt here instead for this delightful write-up of two Burt Reynolds films, published as part of that same “Forgotbusters” series that I will soon be mangling in his honor for your amusement. Neither Hooper or The End seem remarkable in their own right, but Rabin uses an astute analysis of both as a launching pad to discuss wider issues of celebrity and 1970s cinema. Affectionate but bemused, it’s typically engaging and funny:

Hooper eventually steers in the direction of a dramatic conflict similar to that of countless previous heroes torn between their need for safety and security, and the irresistible pull of that one final job that promises to send them out in a blaze of lucrative glory. But it’s a tribute to the filmmakers that for its first hour or so, Hooper doesn’t seem headed anywhere much at all. It’s a markedly 1970s movie, one less concerned with plot than with people being people. Much of the first two acts are devoted to Hooper and his buddies simply goofing around, trading impressions and affectionate insults, and sharing in the folklore of the stuntman trade. But because this is Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham’s version of a rambling 1970s character study by way of a goofball comedy, the things the characters do while passing the time include getting into a wonderfully high-spirited bar fight with a group led by Terry Bradshaw. The fight concludes, in the traditional fashion, with the principals being thrown out of the bar’s window.

Tasha Robinson

trinityIn her bio, Dissolve Senior Editor Tasha Robinson, and frequently hilarious foil to apparent frenemy Scott, described herself as growing up “with limited access to movies, but a great deal of access to film criticism.” It shows. (The second part, I mean.)

In incisive pieces that pay particular attention to subtexts hiding in plain sight — not to mention masterful interviews — Tasha’s writing on The Dissolve time and again made me reconsider and recontextualize films I thought I already knew. (See: Clueless.) She also frequently shined a light on larger trends best seen through a wider lens. Her essay “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome” is a personal favorite, and a classic of the form:

“Strong Female Character” is just as often used derisively as descriptively, because it’s such a simplistic, low bar to vault, and it’s more a marketing term than a meaningful goal. But just as it remains frustratingly uncommon for films to pass the simple, low-bar Bechdel Test, it’s still rare to see films in the mainstream action/horror/science-fiction/fantasy realm introduce women with any kind of meaningful strength, or women who go past a few simple stereotypes.

 

And even when they do, the writers often seem lost after that point. Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say “See? This film totally respects strong women!”

Matt Singer

stallone

Though he’s gone on to fame and fortune (I assume) as the critic most likely to eat some gross shit for work, Matt Singer was once the Newswire editor at The Dissolve, as well as a witty reviewer and commentator more generally. (His line about one of the Transformers films — “Give Age Of Extinction this much credit: Of all the Transformers movies, this is the longest.” — surely ranks among the great sentences in 21st century thought.)

But his Career View column on Sylvester Stallone is the one I remember most, an elaborate and studied consideration of a cinematic fixture that never veers into easy chuckles. You might even come out of it with a renewed appreciation for the guy:

When he appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman in October to promote his recent film Escape Plan, Sly was introduced with an astounding statistic: He’s the only man alive who’s had a No. 1 box-office hit in each of five consecutive decades. It hasn’t always been easy; after his remarkable early success and a long run as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, he bottomed out in the dregs of direct-to-video thrillers. But years after his action-hero peak, Stallone returned to his roots and sparked one of the most remarkable comebacks in movie history. When things looked their bleakest, he rallied for one more climb up the Art Museum steps. This is the story of how Sylvester Stallone went the distance.

Scott Tobias

eraserheadDissolve Editor Scott Tobias is always a pleasure to read, constructing well-argued, cogent pieces in clear, unfussy prose. He also occasionally exhibits an outre taste I share (De Palma obsession notwithstanding). His reflections on David Lynch’s Eraserhead capture much of the enduring mystery of that early masterpiece, the heady mix of surrealism, horror, and the uncanny mundane we call “Lynchian”:

“In Heaven, everything is fine,” the Lady In The Radiator assures us. She’s the closest Eraserhead gets to it, despite the softball-sized masses growing out of her cheeks, and the squished beasts that dot the sort of zigzag performance space Lynch re-created later in Twin Peaks. But in Spencer’s world, the thought of any transcendence, even one this weird and grotesque, is still a daydream away from the unearthly howls and mechanical clunks defining his environment.

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There are so many more I could cite, but that seems like enough. Apologies to all those I omitted, but a heartfelt thanks to everyone involved.

I don’t know if I’m smarter for having read these things, but I feel like they were worthwhile, and made me consider aspects of art and approaches to analysis that I might not have if I’d never encountered them.

One of the primary values of any critique is the way in which it makes familiar things strange and exciting again. That’s something these writers did, and do, consistently.

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The Week of the Dissolve continues tomorrow, with some thoughts about readership.

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