This is part two in a six part series pimping my favorite podcasts. I am happy to hear further suggestions from readers.
It will not surprise anyone who knows me well that I listen to a large number podcasts focused around popular culture, media, and entertainment. The one ring to rule them all is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, which feels like a bunch of really smart and witty friends who get together every week to talk about their most recent discoveries and passions. My personal favorite segment is when they each share “what’s making them happy” that week. This can include anything from a small budget genre film, a pop song, a young adult novel, or an offbeat televisions series. The hosts are unapologetic about the pleasure and joy pop-culture brings them — no “guilty pleasures” here. Don’t get me wrong. These guys can pontificate with the best of them but they do not need to justify or explain away their passion for popular culture. These people know their stuff. My personal favorite is Glenn Weldon, NPR’s resident comics and SF, enthusiast, was published book length studies of Batman and the rise of nerd culture, Superman, and Roger Corman. If you want to hear the program and best, check out their special episode long discussion of Hamilton. For a more typical example, see their discussions of Jane the Virgin and My Crazy Ex-girlfriend, two of my favorite television series. Every so often they do what they call smallbatch episodes which are more focused, often interviews with people like Amy Schumer, Stranger Things‘ Duffer Brothers, The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah, or UnReal‘s Sarah Shapiro. But this also might include their field reports from San Diego comic con, their reactions of Pokémon Go, or something else that just can’t wait.
In The Next Picture Show, Keith Phillips, Tasha Robertson, Scott Tobias, and Genevieve Koski, the former editorial team behind The Dissolve, provide a biweekly series focused around contemporary movies and the older films that help to inspire. I hesitate to call the older films classics since they rarely go back before the 1970s. Perhaps we can use the Turner networks phrase — “the New Classics.” The core of the program is in these juxtapositions between old and new. Some are predictable, inevitable, but still fascinating such as the Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lalaland, Suicide Squad and The Dirty Dozen, or the old and new versions of the Ghostbusters. Some take more reflection such as Memento and Finding Dory. Once they’ve been disdained tackle television as a trace the similarities between the film and television versions of Westworld. These critics go deep with hour-long discussions for each film covering history, technique, genre, characters and themes. The hosts are well-informed and thoughtful without being stuffy or overly technical. They won’t talk over your head but I managed to leave each episode with new insight and often an urge to dig out my DVD versions of the New Classics.
The Cinephiliacs is willing to take things in a much more ponderous direction. Its center of gravity is the realm of academic film studies. The quality of the episodes has everything to do with the quality of the guests, many of whom are old friends and colleagues of mine, such as David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Scott Bukatman, Leah Jacobs, and J Hoberman, though they might also include media makers who have a deep knowledge and passion for their medium. The host Peter Labuza annoys me at least a few times every episode, sometimes coming across as a precocious undergraduate too eager to impress. Once you get to interviews, he does his homework and talks us through interactivity jump key insights and their lifelong love affairs with the cinema. Each interview culminates with an in-depth discussion of a classic film. Here he’s not afraid to go to older and more obscure works. This is where you can enjoy serious conversations about The Tall T, Out of The Past, Daisy Kenyon, How Green Was My Valley, and Only Angels Have Wings.
Somewhere in between is The Canon. Each week the hosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson propose a new title for inclusion on their list of all-time favorite films, providing some justifications for their choices, and allowing their audience to determine the outcome. Sample titles might include The General, Blazing Saddles, or Stand By Me. In short, selections are old and new but nothing that won’t be familiar to the average person with a Netflix account. The discussions are engaging but on the surface as in an extended debate about whether we could make a film like Blazing Saddles in today’s politically correct times or another about the relative virtues of Ringo Starr or George Harrison.
If you want to learn more about film history and in particular Hollywood’s dark and sordid past, let me recommend You Must Remember This which is ever so much better, more substantive, and better informed than we have any right to expect. Keep in mind that I loath the pompous old windbags in armchairs that introduce film classics on television. They generally repeat mythologies that could be disproven by anyone with an undergraduate film studies degree and access to Google. Once my eyes start rolling three or four times per minute, I put them on mute until the movie starts. So I was skeptical when my son shared his excitement about the host Karina Longworth and her hour-long episodes about Silver Screen legends. However, I’ve only caught her in a few howling mistakes – mostly when she tried to describe films she hasn’t seen and no one else has either — for example the sound films of Buster Keaton or the non-horror films of Val Lewton. For the series at its best, check out the season-long 16 part account of the Hollywood blacklist which offers juicy tidbits of gossip one moment and a deep dive into Cold War American politics the next.
I have to confess to being a lifelong obsession with the Oscars. I get much deeper into the weeds about industry buzz than most. I am often the ringer who wins your parties prediction pool year after year. Little Gold Men is my favorite Oscar prediction podcasts. It is created by the entertainment reporters at Vanity Fair. They use the Oscar prediction frame to focus attention on a broad range of contemporary releases, dealing with everything from the sexual assault charges that largely destroy the chances for Birth of a Nation to the films that won the hearts critics and audiences at the Toronto film Festival. While they focus on the top five or six categories like everyone else, they’re willing to spend time on documentary, animation, or technical categories and if you want to stay competitive, this is what separates the newbies from the pros. They also can provide back story on the negotiations around eligibility such as why Moonlight is competing for best adapted screenplay, why Viola Davis is up for best supporting actress for Fences, or why Arrival was disqualified for musical score.
The Talkhouse Film Podcast is in a league of its own. Each week it brings together two filmmakers, mostly from indie circuit, to engage in a serious but freeform conversation about anything they want. The host get out of the way and let the gas guests interact with each other. So you can geek out with Joe Dante and Max Landis, do some female bonding between Amber Tamblyn and and Aisha Tyler, go goofy with Paul Rubens and Kid Cudi, ponder the nature of the universe with Laurie Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, debate media violence with Abel Ferrara and Gasper Noe, or sound world-weary with Allison Anders and Wim Wenders. Here the quality of the episode rests with the guests and as my descriptions suggest, the tone varies dramatically week by week. Thanks to Jocelyn Kelvin for introducing me to this one.
Film Comment was one of my favorite magazines when I was an undergraduate: every issue yielded intense lunchtime conversations with my cineaste friends as we debated various claims made about the state of contemporary cinema or the value of particular films. I was so happy when Virginia Wright Wexman told me that they had a podcast. This one is full of love of movies, new and old, and there’s an atmosphere of passionate friends getting together to replay old debates and score new points. I am just digging into it, but it is a last minute addition to this post.
I am also now digging into the Aca-Media podcast, produced by the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. Here, the focus is decisively academic, including information about archives and new research initiatives, but along the way, you get to hear smart people sharing their insights about film studies, broadcast history, sound studies, cultural studies, comic studies, game studies, transmedia studies… I particularly enjoyed a recent oral history interview with Constance Penley, an old friend and an important voice in feminist media studies.