Saturday, April 28, 2018

Producers in Focus: Lindsay Ellis

            The big shift, in my mind at least, was the Rent video. 

            On New Year's Eve 2016, in that time following the 2016 election when the Trump years hadn't officially started yet and we had nothing solid to try and mitigate our fears with, Lindsay Ellis released a 45-minute examination of Rent (both the show and the musical) that genuinely felt like a shot across the bow of American culture, a statement of the kind of critical thought and active engagement we would need to survive what was coming. 

            She'd been doing longer-form video essays for a while before this; after debuting her original internet persona of the Nostalgia Chick on That Guy With The Glasses in September 2008, she continued to build her audience and develop her voice as a critic and analyst after leaving the site in 2015 (under patently awful circumstances) with her Loose Canon series, where she examined the cultural evolution of how various characters and topics are treated in media (a pre-election examination of comedian interpretations of Hillary Clinton ended up being particularly, painfully prescient). 

            But something about the Rent video felt, and still feels, fundamentally different.  It was angrier, more pointed, and cut much deeper not just into the direct matter of the movie itself, but in what the movie's treatment of the AIDS crisis failed to do when compared to the real-life struggles of the LGBTQ community in the 80's to gain the recognition and help they deserved. 

            And she's been on a non-stop tear since then, regularly releasing massive video essays of similar length on a wide, wide range of shows, movies, and topics, and never failing to actively critique and consider how our production and consumption of media reveals truths in our society we'd often rather ignore, as well as what we can do about them. 

            When examining the collective body of work Ellis has produced in the past few years, I see a deep, thoughtful, and keenly perceptive mind producing some of the best and most meaningful film criticism to be found just about anywhere today.  Her dry, often ironic and/or detached style of humor is unlike anyone else online at the moment, making her unique voice all the more essential.  All of her work is worth checking out, but here are the works of hers that have made the biggest impact on me personally.   

Nostalgia Chick- The Lord of the Rings

            This was one of the last sets of videos Ellis officially did as Nostalgia Chick before leaving TGWTG, but given how much of her history with the franchise jives with mine, her in-depth examination of not only the movies themselves, but the stories around their development and the legacy they left behind makes this essential viewing for any fantasy fan. 

Loose Canon 9/11


            All of the Loose Canon videos are fascinating mini-history episodes worth watching, but my hands-down favorite of them all is this two-parter where Ellis explores the history, not of 9/11 itself, but of how we’ve processed it (or rather, haven’t) through film and television, noting different waves or phases in how we’ve thus far tried to interpret and tackle this terrible tragedy.  Like her Hillary Clinton episode, this was one that ended up being uncomfortably prescient in 2016. 


            With the abyss of a national government committed to eliminating health care and other systematic protections for the poor and vulnerable staring us in the face, Ellis’ closing segment of this video, featuring clips of a real speech exhorting action in the face of tragedy and ending with the echoing protest cry “Health care is a right!” was Goddamn revolutionary, and it was exactly the jolt in the arm I and many others needed.  Even well over a year later, it still gives me chills. 

The Whole Plate- Michael Bay’s Transformers

            This series is still ongoing and far from completion, but although I loathe this bloated corpse of a franchise as much as anyone, Ellis is right on point when she questions our willingness to not examine the cultural significance of one of the highest-grossing film series of all time.  Plus, watching her dig into more detail about these films than Bay has ever deserved it just plain funny, as well as hella educational for anyone who didn’t go to film school. 

The Producers

            Mel Brooks remains one of the greatest comedic filmmakers of all time, but his legacy has become all too often abused by people trying to find a shield to cover their own lack of talent and/or actual racism by using Blazing Saddles and The Producers as “proof” that society is too up-tight and politically correct these days.  This is wrong-headed for a number of reasons, and Ellis goes through each one in great detail, and for good measure she throws in a fairly comprehensive look at how American interpretations of WWII and, by extension, the Holocaust shifted in the decades between the war itself and the premiere of The Producers. 


            This might be my top favorite of Ellis’ videos, if for no other reason than that the continued global cultural myopia among whites and Westerners about the true extent, legacy, and price of Western colonialism is one of my biggest, most race-inducing bugbears.  It is a massive topic that can only be grasped through serious, complicated thought, but here Ellis did about as good as a job as can be done distilling it into a single sentence, which is quite a feat.

Stephanie Meyer

            I was all-in on Twilight hate during my college years, and so was Ellis.  So were a lot of people.  There has always been a certain disingenuousness to that, but it never really struck me until Ellis became one of the first major voices to point it out and examine the latent sexism in much of our “dialogue” about this odd franchise.  Not an easy take, to be sure, but a needed one. 

The Hobbit

            Her latest major work (as of this writing), a long-awaiting follow-up to her examination of the LOTR franchise, is a massive journalistic undertaking.  I was and have remained a defender of The Hobbit movies over the years, but following Ellis’ explanations of the many, many ways in which both the production of the films itself went south and how its legacy adversely impacted the New Zealand film scene have led me to seriously reconsider my stance.  Which is, in the end, the whole point of good film criticism.  The whole scope of the downfall of the franchise as Ellis paints is damn near the level of a Greek tragedy, one that I hope does not, in the long run, adversely affect the legacy of LOTR.  Sadly, as Ellis points out, a bit of that is unavoidable. 

            Are there any former TGWTG/CA producers you’ve been missing and what to get caught up on?  Then check out and follow the Unawesomes page on Twitter.  Let’s make the internet economy of tomorrow a better, more equitable place, starting now. 

-Noah Franc

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