An Ear for Film: The Festival of Festivals

The three best movie-related podcast episodes of the week.

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An Ear for Film: The Festival of Festivals

Each week or so, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.

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The Toronto International Film Festival just concluded—I think?—and, having never been, I understand its clout and importance only via fellow film writers and “tastemakers” who are there and have been plenty times before, and the extent to which I understand it is subsequently limited to Instagram posts of said writers with various degrees of celebrities (“I just had a wonderful chat with the always down-to-earth and fiercely intelligent Riley Keough; here she is wearing a #sweater”), the barrage of capsule reviews in major publications, and the insistence that the festival is some sort of crucible in which the edifice of the critical darlings to come for the ensuing year is molded and simultaneously fine-tuned.

I also learn about the festival via podcasts, my only window into the outside world. This week, Sam Fragoso’s Talk Easy featured a brief but enlightening conversation with Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, recorded while Phillips was eating sushi at TIFF. Instead of describing their favorite festival movies that no one will be able to see for quite some time, the two thankfully share a pleasant rapport musing about the art of criticism, making such a calling a career, and the habit of obsessively watching films, let alone obsessively engaging in any one kind of art. Quickly dispelling the cloud of egoism that shrouds any critic’s compulsion to serve up hot takes long before the public that they’re supposed to be serving has even a remote chance of considering the validity of that opinion, Phillips talks about how “unhealthy” it is to watch so many movies so frequently, but not before admitting that most writers who are part of the exquisitely small enclave of people who give a flying fuck about TIFF are pretty much, at best, boring, and at worst, barely in control of the English language. Still, like in every episode of Talk Easy, there emerges the moment when Fragoso’s ability to foster intimacy with strangers becomes suddenly perfect, and in this case (though Fragoso and Phillips know each other) it’s when Fragoso references an email he sent when he was in high school, asking Phillips about what it takes to have a life devoted to writing about movies. Phillips remembers the email well.

Also this week, Will Sloan and Justin Decloux use their Important Cinema Club podcast to both reflect on their times spent at TIFF—which they seem to have either sparsely attended this year, or not attended all—and decry what TIFF has become. The two provide some casual but welcome context to what was once widely considered a staunchly populist festival, kneecapping any illusion that one of the highest-profile film festivals in the world has somehow strayed from its more proletarian roots, because even when it was founded in 1975 it was run under the auspices of film producers and assorted industry folk. Sloan and Decloux point notably to this year’s Opening Night film, the remake of The Magnificent Seven, wondering what kind of person would pay $60 for a ticket only to get stuck in the balcony while film stars and related personalities get an actually serviceable view of their own film, especially on a night during which the stars’ presences there functionally do nothing for boosting the film’s box office or supporting an after-screening Q&A.

Overall, the hosts’ personal oral histories of TIFF fail to encourage a non-accredited film buff to make the trip to Toronto each year, instead portraying such corporate-driven festivals as this an affair of infuriating exclusivity. No one outside of “Film Twitter” or the film industry itself really gives a shit about TIFF—unless you live in Toronto—and even then, all of the reporting and commentary and thinkpieces derived from the festival operate in a vacuum, devaluing the art of criticism by cutting it off at its fan-based roots. In other words: If you’re a movie critic but you forget that you’re writing predominantly to and for movie fans, then aren’t you just kind of a self-serving asshole?

Speaking of self-serving assholes, here are my three picks for the best movie-related podcasts of the week.

ear-film-projection-booth.jpgThe Projection Booth
“Oliver Stone”

Mike White knows exactly what makes for authoritative podcasting, so while his typically ultra-thorough take on individual films isn’t on display for this Bonus Episode, White does invite Matt Zoller Seitz to the podcast in order to serve as his trusty #2 during a conversation with Oliver Stone. Even better, White knows presciently when to remove himself from the back-and-forth, which he does often during this episode, as Seitz (who literally wrote the book on the director, The Oliver Stone Experience) and Stone share a believably chummy repartee. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Oliver Stone would befriend—and to a certain extent, at least based on listening to this podcast episode, rely upon the validation of—critical experts in his oeuvre, but there’s still a strangely meta-textual component to how often White will ask Stone a question, which Stone then underhand passes to Seitz even if the question is more attempting to gauge Stone’s mindset rather than establish a seemingly objective critical interpretation. It’s all part of the charm: The interview covers a lot of ground without feeling overstuffed, mostly because Stone is relentlessly confident about his brilliance as an artist yet somehow still comes off like a humble, hardworking, boot-strapping kind of fella. Plus, his hot takes are refreshingly lukewarm: He really loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon.

blank-check-US2.jpgBlank Check with Griffin & David
“Bender Siege 2: Dark Podcast”

Having finished their “We Pod a Cast” series on Cameron Crowe last week—with an instant-classic episode featuring David Sims’ patience drying up to a husk of no-fucks given, which, as you may know from a previous column, is something I love hearing in any podcast host—hashtag-the-two-friends have another “palate cleanser” before they start on James Cameron with a run-through of Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Though Producer Ben Hosley is the ostensible guide on our trip through a film which stands as one of Steven Seagal’s best examples that he’s a magnetically terrible action star, like always, Griffin and David can’t help but take over the commentary, mostly because they know a lot more than Ben about Seagal, the film’s director, the film’s genre, the time during which the film was made, films, trains maybe, dark territories, Katherine Heigls, etc. While there’s plenty to make fun of here, the fact that Ben’s hosting duties are under siege solidifies what Blank Check has become: For a podcast which began as a sort of extended bit in which Griffin and David analyzed The Phantom Menace as a totally stand-alone film, divorced from the immense, galactically far-reaching context any Star Wars movie must shoulder, Blank Check is now compulsively about context. Like every podcast I love—Hollywood Handbook, say, or even the aforementioned Important Cinema Club—the best shows are those which constantly discover, each week, exactly what it is they are. It’s clear that whatever Blank Check is now, it might not be soon enough.

ear-film-you-must-remember-this.jpgYou Must Remember This
“Six Degrees of Joan Crawford: Mommie Dearest

Following Karina Longworth’s meticulous, exhaustive series on the Blacklist, her summer serialization of the life of Joan Crawford (and all the folks her life touched) was a comparative frolic. By no means devoid of drama or tragedy, “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford” still felt like a spritely return to Longworth at her less-serious best, replete with plenty of Crawford impersonations (delivered in tandem with her Bette David impersonations, identical but always welcome) and all the damning, delicious gossip anyone should expect from such a compulsively listenable show.

The final installment in the series has Crawford barely in it, covering instead Christine Crawford’s tell-all book about her estranged mother, Mommie Dearest, and the making of the film adaptation, starring Faye Dunaway as the elder Crawford. The details of both are of course heartbreaking, hilarious, and more than often disturbing (with hints of the supernatural courting Dunaway’s methods in embodying Crawford), but Longworth is able to seamlessly describe how a film about Crawford, which transformed in its marketing from a serious drama to a camp masterpiece based purely on the film’s original reception (an early example of how public perception can completely alter an artist’s intent), elucidates the figure of Crawford herself. An icon who spent her whole life building the iconography that would, in a feedback loop of sorts, vaunt her even higher, Crawford came to the end of that life forgetting, Longworth suggests, the real person underneath all of that artifice. Just as audience laughter made the otherwise Oscar-baiting Mommie Dearest an arch cult classic which would never dream of winning a statue, so did Crawford’s dream of stardom erase everything about her that wasn’t star-material, until Crawford couldn’t remember the person she was before she had a devoted audience to remember all that for her.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor and Resident Matt Damon Expert at Paste, as well as a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can find it on Twitter.

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