issue one / entanglement
issue one / spring 2017
issue one / entanglement
i n t e r c u t
Intercut Editor-in-Chief IAN RICE Assignment Editor KIRA NEWMARK Creative Director (Print) SARIEL FRIEDMAN Creative Director (Web) JACOB SUSSMAN Editors EMILY APTER ARNAAV BHAVANANI JAMIE CURETON JOSEPH EUSEBIO BEATRIX HERRIOTT O’GORMAN KALEE KENNEDY ANNIE NING VINCENT WARNE MEGAN WEST BRYCE ZURCHER Financial Manager MEGAN WEST Publication Advisor A.O. SCOTT Publication Consultant ISABEL FATTAL Graphic Design CARINA BOLAÑOS LEWEN ARNAAV BHAVANANI LAURA BROWN LARA ELLENBERG Cover Art KAITLIN CHAN Illustration JUSTINA YAM EZRA SCOTT-HENNING VINCENT WARNE
Contents On Cinema at the Cinema: Re-envisioning Comedy for a Farcical Reality David Whitehouse
Rules of Disengagement: Kristen Stewart and Performances of Female Apathy Megan West
La La Land vs. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Miranda Hoyt-Disick
UnScripted: Accountability and Progression in the World of Reality TV Kalee Kennedy
Budgeting Diversity: How Hollywoodâ€™s Lack of a Middle Class Affects Inclusion in the Film Industry Hannah Cooper
Film History and White Supremacy: Intimately Tied or Barely Connected? 29 Yael Horowitz Black Narratives on Network and Cable TV Naomi Williams What is Queer Cinema and Why Do We Need It? Beatrix Herriott Oâ€™Gorman
I-Be Area / Eye-Was Camera: Dancing Identities and Other Edits 42 Zander Porter
Red, Black, Gold: Revisiting Black Swan and the Ballet Film Rebecca Foster
Shot, All of a Sudden: A Comparison of Form in Casino Royale and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 55 Eli Sands Approaching Infinity in Borges, Nolan, and Ito 60 Vincent Warne Eye-to-Eye with Ozu Jamie Cureton
Superhero Movies are the New Westerns, But Like for Real this Time 72 Jack Warren This Article Will Return In... Avengers: Infinity War 75 Will McGhee An Interview with Grant Singer Jacob Sussman
An Interview with Anna Biller Kira Newmark
i n t e r c u t
From the editor Imagine a particle, essentially just a dot, floating in a big, empty void. Let’s call her Felicia. There’s nothing around Felicia, no other particles to talk to. It’s pretty lonely out there in space. Then, suddenly, another little dot comes careening toward our particle friend. Before Felicia has a chance to say “Hello,” the other little guy rudely crashes into her and leaves without even a “Do you come here often?” or a “Sorry about smashing into you! You seem nice! Bye, forever!” Felicia may never see this particle again, but, somehow, he has left an impression on her. As she floats along, she wonders what that particle might be up to. Their brief encounter colors all her future interactions with other particles and at times, she thinks she can still feel a connection. Moments of sadness she can’t explain, a sense that he’s out there somewhere. Maybe he’s thinking of her too. In quantum physics, this idea is called “entanglement.” Due to some interaction, the properties of two particles become inextricably linked. No matter how much space may separate them or how much time may pass, what happened to one affects the other, linked as they are by that infinitesimal point in time where their paths collided. Interestingly, it is not until an observer comes into contact with one of these particles that this entanglement, and its implications, becomes apparent. In film, cutting is also a form of collision. Two events separated in space (and even time) are unceremoniously ripped from their natural contexts and smashed together. Somehow, our brains process these leaps in perspective, linking them together as a logical progression of events. Intercutting is a specific type of cutting where a sequence cuts back and forth between two scenes happening in different locations or times. For example, we might cut between gangsters robbing a bank and a man sitting happily at home with his dog, drinking tea. As observers or viewers, we give these collisions new meaning by drawing connections between these previously disconnected scenes. Destruction facilitating creation. Perhaps that man sitting at home and those gangsters may cross paths one day, or perhaps he’s involved in some way, connected.
Film, like any medium, is a universe of its own, defined by its own set of fundamental components (color, light, audio, frame size, etc.) and laws, fluid as they may be. Film, as an art form, is undeniably complex, bringing together time-based visual and audio media in an ever-changing technological and cultural landscape. Film shapes our society, affects our collective understanding of who we are, and provides a means of expression and common connection. There are many ways to interact with film as an observer: formal analysis, socio-political commentary, personal reflection, and passive enjoyment to name a few. Oftentimes, these things are seen as disparate ways of dealing with and discussing film. In starting Intercut, I had hoped to bring these perspectives together, placing them side by side, to draw out how the different ways we interact with film are all bound together, entangled within the complicated universe of film and film analysis. But what good is analysis if it isnâ€™t careful? Watching a movie is a form of exchange: you bring yourself, the film brings an entire universe for you to explore. A movie screen is a like translucent mirror, a silvered window providing a glimpse into another reality with your reflection imprinted upon it. My other main goal for Intercut was that the writing within would be thoughtful and in-depth. I wanted the editing process between editors and writers to be lengthy, with as many drafts as possible, so as to give writers and editors time to cut deeper, with razorsharp precision. As film lovers, we affectionately dissect the medium. But to analyze film is more akin to performing an open-heart surgery than an autopsy. We may take a quick peek inside and try to make sense of what we see, but eventually film is going to have to get up off of our operating table, go back home, and get on with its life. Film is multifaceted, complex, entangled, living, and breathing. Cut carefully. Ian Rice Editor-in-Chief
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2016 was more than just a singularly unpleasant year. It’s too early to say definitively, but it seems, at least to this writer, that lying just beneath the radical social upheaval, whiplashinducing in intensity; the obliterative dance of ideologies, spinning ceaselessly around ruinous images of what America once represented; the man with the wheelbarrow piled high with famous bodies, calling “bring out your dead!”; these were the tortured baby sounds of a new world emerging. Donald Trump’s meteoric ascent, posttruth political rhetoric reaching critical mass and the extant reality of systemic violence and state surveillance have more or less spelled out the end of comedy. It would be more apt to say the end of conventional humor. Donald Trump rose in no small part off the back of an aggressive meme campaign, a deluge of digital content that spilled forth from basements and smart phones across the country, fueled by millennials but capturing the attention of
On Cinema at the Cinema: Re-envisioning Comedy for a Farcical Reality David Whitehouse
i n t e r c u t waning role of the critic, particularly within conservative America, is plainly evident, both through the divergent television consumption of red states and TV critics, and through the right’s willful ignorance of Trump’s incompetence in the face of constant, ruthless scrutiny. The face of potent political satire is changing rapidly, and few have as keen a grasp over the subversive potential of comedy in a delirious and unhinged world as Tim Heidecker, who, alongside Gregg Turkington, has created the most ambitious multimedia project this side of the decade through their experimental web series, On Cinema At The Cinema. On Cinema is a staggering, genre-bending work of performance art and pop culture dissecting spectacle that begins as a humble film review podcast hosted by two amateurs, but evolves into a prolonged character study and a rigorous examination of life in the age of content oversaturation. Heidecker and Turkington begin with a simple premise: a parodic rendition of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s classic film review show, Siskel & Ebert. The pair of comedians play fictional versions of themselves, two aspiring film critics with vastly divergent personalities and goals. Heidecker is condescending, abusive and egotistical. His interest in film is wafer-thin, and it quickly becomes apparent that On Cinema is little more than a vanity project, engineered as a means of raising his profile and as a platform for espousing his right-wing political opinions. On the other hand, Turkington plays a meek and mild film buff—a nearly asexual character whose interests lie solely in movies, particularly the forgotten and/or forgettable film canon of the 80s and 90s. The two offer flat criticism of the most beige Hollywood offerings, babbling inanely for the length of each episode and assigning the maximum possible score to nearly every film. To Turkington’s chagrin, the drama of Tim’s personal life frequently takes center stage over the reviews. While not exactly revelatory, their mode of parody is of particular interest here, insofar as Heidecker and Turkington have vividly realized parodic personas, parodic
the tech-savvy-enough baby-boomer generation. Posing unexpected new questions about what exactly differentiates a fierce game show host from a strongman, Donald Trump ran his campaign more or less like a classical stand-up comedian, tapping into the rich stand-up tradition of belittling his opponents and, most critically, punching down at marginalized peoples. Sarah Kember notes in her essay “Uncloaking Humour: Ironic-Parodic Sexism and Smart Media” that humor, “as a deeply social phenomenon, […] has always had a conservative, even reactionary role.”1 She continues, “there is nothing new about jokes that are discriminatory, regulatory and judgmental,” and, tragically, Donald Trump’s entire campaign represents one discriminatory, regulatory, and judgmental joke. American Democracy has perhaps been irreversibly branded as a grand farce, and staring into the eye of a nation-sized black hole of irony, it becomes difficult to see the merits of a performance like Alec Baldwin’s all-too-competent Trump impression, highlighting the irrationality of the burgeoning Trump administration—an irrationality which Trump truly makes no attempt to obscure. Trump’s approach is one of grotesque absurdism. By overwhelming the American populace with ignorant buffoonery, baffling cabinet selections and incongruous policy suggestions, the senselessness has a numbing effect and enacting any meaningful change—even mustering up the desire to do so—appears increasingly out of reach. Baldwin’s classical caricature is only successful inasmuch as it ticks off the thin-skinned villain in chief. After all, who exactly is bearing witness to his satire? As a 2011 survey conducted by Experian-Simmons for Entertainment Weekly notes, there’s very little confluence between the television consumption of self-identified liberals and conservatives. The former are predominantly drawn to quirky comedies like Community and Parks and Recreations, while the latter abide by Duck Dynasty and Deadliest Catch. And, since 2011, the partisan gap has only grown wider and factions more radicalized. The 8
phile (Turkington, a former record label owner and something of a renaissance man, has gone on record espousing his love of cinema) are intended to provoke more rigorous reflection on the sociopolitical conditions explored by their characters. While Heidecker and Turkington display a clear vision for On Cinema through the base-level construction of the film review series, the project swells and expands according to a dizzying accelerationism. Interpreted as a whole, On Cinema is a staggering tower of genre parody that yields revelatory insights. At an early point in the On Cinema timeline, Tim enlists Gregg’s help for the creation of a second web series called Decker, a Bond-esque spy drama in which Tim stars as Agent Jack Decker, a CIA agent who is tasked with defending America from Al-Qaeda insurgents. In a performance that Dan Caffrey of The A.V. Club eloquently describes as “Heidecker as Heidecker’s id as Jack Decker,”4 Tim uses Decker as fuel for his ego, renewing the show for an extended second season set in Hawaii. During this time, he raves about its “good ratings” and slaves over it tirelessly, even as his health suffers due to his misguided interest in “natural medicine” and his family life plagues him with constant turmoil (to mention two divorces and the death of his only child is barely scratching the surface of Tim’s woes). Turkington is offered to direct a season of Decker, allowing him to indulge all of his worst movie-worshipping impulses, and the resulting series, which sees Agent Decker working alongside the Taliban to defeat Dracula, enrages Tim. The result is the cancellation of the season and a backand-forth volley of cheap exposé documentaries, exploring the behind-the-scenes drama. The On Cinema body of work also includes Turkington’s On Cinema On Location series, which spoofs Hollywood trivia and DVD commentary, as well as the annual Oscar Specials, live broadcasts which find the duo improvising an off-the-rails show over the Oscars (it’s a bit like watching a madcap student film sloppily taped over Citizen Kane). Tim always
inventions of fiction that nonetheless act and create according to simulated genuine impulses. Both comedians are experienced performance artists and clear descendants of Andy Kaufman. Turkington has more than two decades of experience performing as Neil Hamburger, a miserable invented comedian who relays woefully out-of-date jokes and enrages audiences. He didn’t grant interviews out of character until 2015. Likewise, Heidecker antagonized interviewers for years with absurd antics, and as he admits in an interview in the Capital Times & Wisconsin State Journal, he performs standup comedy (oftentimes booked alongside Neil Hamburger) as “a character who shouldn’t be doing stand-up, who’s not very funny and is kind of a bad person.”2 But, with On Cinema, their fictional personas arguably go even deeper. As if maintaining their characters across the multifaceted video web series wasn’t enough, Heidecker and Turkington also maintain their personas on Twitter and routinely interact with fans. The lines separating reality from fiction were nearly incomprehensibly blurred when the pair acted in rival superhero flicks— Turkington enjoyed a brief cameo as a Baskin Robbins manager in Ant Man while Heidecker was featured briefly in Josh Trank’s Fantastic 4—and then proceeded to treat both performances as On Cinema canon, translating the Marvel/DC rivalry into a season-long interpersonal conflict between the two fictionalized personae. In an essay on the film Airplane! and its parodic soundtrack, which was deliberately composed from the perspective of an amateur composer, Tim Summers posits that the presence of a parodic persona “asks us to consider how the persona […] is implied by performative action […], and in turn, how this implied author is understood by audiences.”3 Similarly, the carefully constructed performances of a staunch conservative from a candid liberal (Heidecker has made no secret of his political views in more candid moments) and an oblivious philistine from a deeply cynical cine9
i n t e r c u t ends up inebriated and violent, while Gregg grows despondent when his film of choice—each successive installment of The Hobbit trilogy during the first three Oscar Specials—fails to take home any awards. One of the most prominent themes tackled by On Cinema is the oversaturation of content in the digital age. Heidecker and Turkington directly evoke the preponderance of useless media, or in this case, media about media. They’ve cranked out eight full seasons of film criticism alone, meaning they’ve reviewed somewhere in the range of 160200 films, all in a perfectly useless and insubstantial fashion. The bloated whole of the On Cinema media universe, which now spans an unbelievable range of genres and media platforms as well as a not insignificant length of time, is nearly impenetrable to the outsider who catches a glimpse at the tangled mass of media. Without a guide or an uncommon sort of dedication, On Cinema has now been rendered inaccessible and incomprehensible by design, smothered under its own gross weight. The characters themselves seem lost within the deluge of content. After a dry run of the film review show, Tim first goes on to seek fame and transcendence through Decker. Growing impatient and feeling increasingly estranged from his co-star and his family, he next forms the band Dekkar and uses On Cinema to advertise his music. And yet the more scattered his media empire becomes, the more Tim’s life falls apart. As of the current date, Tim has suffered life-threatening injuries, nearly every character in the On Cinema universe resents him, and the very existence of the show has been thrown into jeopardy by his careless financial blunders. On the topic of emerging smart media, Sarah Kember writes:
worlds that are at once hyper-sensory and senseless, irrational in their relentless pursuit of a rationale formed by the total, seamless fusion of corporate and computational values. The inhabitants of uninhabitable, inhospitable environments constituted by networked, distributed, ambient forms of intelligence embedded in mirrors, windows, walls and worktops are the emergent ideals of neoliberalism: transparent, efficient, managed, measurable and ultimately machinic. They embody what Bergson took to be laughable and what Beckett subjected to a mirthless, despairing laughter that was always reflexive, always bound to rebound on us, on the machines that are us; the laughers. (1911; 1979)
Tim endeavors at the outset of the series to not only make a living through digital media, but to achieve fame and acceptance. Desperation motivates him to create more content, more series, and as a result, his very identity begins to fracture, causing him to rapidly lose his grip on reality within a world of heightened artifice and social media scrutiny. On Cinema also seems to subscribe to the previously mentioned notion, namely that reality has effectively eclipsed humor. I stated that Heidecker in particular has a heightened understanding of the formless new face of political satire, and to expound on that, he has helped finance and produce a wealth of boundary-pushing comedic content since the turn of the decade that explores contemporary life from unique perspectives. For example, he championed the work of video editor Vic Berger, who received viral attention for his surreal, Lynchian edits of footage from the GOP debates. He serves as a producer for Nathan For You, a genius subversion of the reality TV show format and an examination of how absurdity drives the contemporary economy. Rather than directly parodying Republicans in his own work (outside of On Cinema), Heidecker instead live streamed himself walking around the Republican National Convention, simply filming the roving lunatics and shouting “senator!” at random passerby (presumably in the off-chance that one of them might have actually been a senator). On the subject of paro-
Environments of smart media are, it seems to me, contemporary theatres of the absurd. Presented in promotional videos by Corning, Microsoft or Google, such environments, both domestic and urban highlight the tragicomic plight of people trapped in incomprehensible worlds,
Heidecker and Turkington instead opt to painstakingly construct their own elaborately warped reality. In response to a world that has devolved to shameless self-parody, Heidecker and Turkington have crafted a controlled environment in On Cinema, one that is capable of reflecting the world like a funhouse mirror, but also one that maintains a suitable distance from said world. The parodic personas are afforded ample room to behave dynamically and to react to societal trends. This parodic tactic helps makes Tim Heidecker’s uncanny prediction of Donald Trump so affecting and disturbing. Tim has played the egotistical right-wing narcissist since 2012, replete with spectacular facial expressions and bumbling, moronic speech, and the role only began to take on more urgency and refined power in late 2015 as Donald Trump emerged and entered the political fray. The parallel motion between the two realities very nearly poses a challenge to Gary Saul Morson’s
dy—particularly its decline in the mid-twentieth century, Dwight MacDonald writes that “The real world has become so fantastic that satire, of which parody is a subdivision, is discouraged because reality outdistances it.”5 He closes his discourse on parody with the suggestion that “history seems to be parodying itself,” and what was evident in 1960 only seems more apparent in 2016. Tim’s belief in this principle is abundantly clear throughout the aforementioned body of work. His stand-up material obliquely approaches comedy through the simulation of an unskilled and unpleasant comedian, subverting decades of establishment stand-up in the process. His numerous other projects either settle for patiently observing the world through his contextualized comedic lens, or else creating gradated distortions and microscopic examinations of reality that approach a different sort of inner truth. And yet On Cinema is the most successful of the lot, because 11
i n t e r c u t films in question aren’t even worthy of discussion, and while I suggested at the beginning of this essay that film critics and conservative America exist in opposite spheres, Tim Heidecker (the comedian) miraculously reaches a sizable right wing audience, stragglers from the less partisan era of his comedy who confusedly linger to complain or to ask “is he serious?” When asked about the future of film criticism in Trump’s America, critic Vadim Rizov had this to say:
definition of parody as a “double-voiced word” or more descriptively, as “a special sort of palimpsest in which the uppermost inscription is a commentary on the one beneath it, which the reader (or audience) can know only by reading through the commentary that obscures in the very process of evaluating.”6 Tim Heidecker and Donald Trump definitely constitute one of On Cinema’s numerous double-voiced utterances, and yet the chronology is confounding. It’s a testament to precisely how perceptive and forward-thinking Tim Heidecker is. As I mentioned previously, On Cinema goes through great lengths to establish the dehumanizing and incomprehensible reality of social media. Thus, when Donald Trump finally emerges within the historical timeframe, filling Tim Heidecker’s character mold to the brim with sociopolitical context, the Trumpian phenomenon is cast in a new light completely. The social media meltdowns and perfectly unpredictable success of his vigorous post-truth campaign are revealed to be (nearly) sympathetic symptoms of social media and the glossolalian chaos of contemporary life. While On Cinema paints a bleak portrait of the future of humanity, there are some redemptive elements to the parody. On a micro scale, Gregg Turkington’s role is a sort of redemption of his two-decade tenure as the rancorous and impossibly offensive Neil Hamburger. With regards to the production, Decker: Port of Call Hawaii prominently features James Mane, a local Hawaiian comedian, and Tim reports that half of the people employed on On Cinema are women. And on a macro scale, the film criticism might not be as useless as I previously suggested. At a point in time when Hollywood grows increasingly stagnant and the internet abounds with amateur film criticism, the On Cinema film reviews pose a comedic but inspired alternative to the digital din. Rather than searching for anything to say about rote blockbuster dreck, uninspired sequels or pointless reboots, Heidecker and Turkington opt to say nothing at all. The style of review implicitly suggests that the
First off, nothing good is ever going to happen, at least not in the immediate moment. “Film criticism” is, by and large, currently defined more precisely as the process of aggregating trending topics with zero reference to anything that can’t be found on Google in 30 seconds flat: take two Max Landis Tweets and write 500 words about how he’s not woke. The economics of this whole enterprise suggest precisely zero flexibility to practice film criticism as a mode of expressing your most idiosyncratic responses to something, the only things that could fall out of the realm of “the performances were good and the whitewashing was bad.”7 On Cinema cracks film criticism wide open, eschewing industry formalities and dilutive selfserving writing and arriving at the pure and radical notion that absolutely nothing can or needs to be said about awful films.
Works Cited 1. Kember, Sarah. “Uncloaking Humour: Ironic-Parodic Sexism and Smart Media.” New Formations, vol. 86, no. 86, 2015, pp. 113–117. doi:10.3898/newf.86.07.2015. 2. Downing, Andy. “WHAT’S SO FUNNY? ; COMEDIANS NEIL HAMBURGER AND TIM HEIDECKER FIND THEIR LAUGHS IN THE STRANGEST PLACES.” The Capital Times & Wisconsin State Journal (2012): n. pag. Web. 3. Summers, Tim. “”Shirley, Bernstein can’t be Serious?”: Airplane! and Compositional Personas.” The Journal of Film Music, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013., pp. 75-86 Performing Arts Periodicals 4. Caffrey, Dan. “Dr. Steve Brule, Fake Tim Heidecker, and the Comedy of Warped Masculinity.” The A.V. Club. Onion Inc., 17 June 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016. 5. Macdonald, Dwight. Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm--and after. New York: Random House, 1960. Print. 6. Morson, Gary Saul. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Austin: U of Texas, 1981. Print. 7. Rizov, Vadim. “How Filmmakers And Film Critics Need To Adapt In the Age Of President Trump - IndieWire Critics Survey.” IndieWire, 14 Nov. 2016, www.indiewire.com/2016/11/president-trump-moviesfilm-criticism-critics-survey-1201746331/.
i n t e r c u t
Rules of Disengagement:
Kristen Stewart and by Megan West
is because she represents herself. The idea of an actress embracing her “type” and “playing herself ” is sometimes considered a lesser form of performance, especially in the world of American awards shows, where transformation is seen as the ultimate commitment to art. It is difficult to analyze acting; there are ever-evolving cultural factors that influence the way we communicate, such as our body language, mannerisms, and what we deem “natural” or “unnatural.” In post-WWII-era American film, the “realistic” performances associated with Method acting often involved a repression that built to an inevitable explosion of emotion. While this kind of outburst is still what wins Oscars, as recent winners such as Brie Larson, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman prove, there have also been a number of highly-praised recent performances by actresses who are noted for their subtlety, such as Rooney Mara in Carol, or Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. The effectiveness of these more low-key performances might be connected to their capacity to channel the anxious and depressive behavior that seems to characterize our time. This move towards repression is something that Shonni Enelow, author of Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-drama, calls “The Great Recession.”
On February 20, 2015, Kristen Stewart won a César for her role in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. While the César has been called “the French Oscar,” the possibility of Stewart bringing home a statuette from the Academy Awards remains relatively implausible. Oscars go to the Julianne Moores, the Meryl Streeps, or to the fresh blood of “it” girls like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. While some stand strongly by Stewart’s side, others can’t seem to wash the taste of a certain bad teen movie franchise from their mouths, or, rather, haven’t tried to cleanse their palate with recent independent releases such as Still Alice, Certain Women, and Personal Shopper. The Hollywood of today demands a strong female lead—a working mother who dedicates equal time to her career and children, someone sensitive and strong and multifaceted, single and in a relationship, promiscuous and chaste. These “feminist” characters represent the conglomeration of multiple realities, but don’t always do justice to the lives of individual women. While the task is noble, the results are often impersonal. This “everything” woman tries to portray the many ways in which women can live--all at once. If watching Stewart perform feels liberating in any way, it is not because she represents everything that a woman can be. It
Performances of Female Apathy 15
i n t e r c u t performance, in which she might freely give herself to the audience. While Personal Shopper is extremely erotic, Stewart’s most sexual scenes are played opposite a cell phone or feature masturbation. Conversations with a faraway boyfriend are held over Skype, and there is nothing overtly romantic about them. Her “sex appeal” is not tied neatly to an arrow directed at observers, on or off-screen. In Personal Shopper, Stewart’s character, Maureen, does not become “empowered” through a transformative experience, at least of any explicit kind. She is the lead, present in every scene, but in interactions she is rarely the initiator. Yet in this reactionary mode, she conveys grief in one of the most telling and effective performances in recent memory. This is in part thanks to Olivier Assayas’s script, which channels Hitchcockian thrillers, such as Vertigo, in making tangible the suffering associated with the death of a loved one. Maureen’s mourning is assumed, rather than spelled out, a structure in which Stewart thrives. The power of the performance is in the details, rather than a direct response to tragedy. Stewart’s acting style is reminiscent of actress Charlotte Rampling, whose later movies, notably Swimming Pool and 45 Years are carried by Rampling’s reservation. In Swimming Pool, Rampling plays opposite Ludivine Sagnier, whose performance is direct and sexual. Rampling, in contrast, has been called “unknowable”. She, too, confused audiences. What was it about her that was so engrossing on screen? Rampling began her career as a model, and some chalked up her magnetic screen presence to natural charisma and captivating beauty. She was “playing hard to get.” But to attribute her success to an unexpected, shielded beauty is failing to see the reality of Rampling’s work on-screen. We are trained to expect that emotion (particularly of the easi-
Enelow cites culture as the reason for the departure from classic styles of Method acting. Some of today’s performances reflect an unwillingness to perform, a turn towards an every-man-for-himself form of survival, rather than an appeal to other characters or the audience. 1 If we consider this “recession” the new movement, Jennifer Lawrence seems to walk the thin line between past and present. Winter’s Bone and American Hustle both earned the actress a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but Lawrence’s performance in the latter is open and over the top, while her breakout role in Winter’s Bone, like in The Hunger Games, seems to channel an inner ferocity and an unwillingness to give her emotions over to the audience. But where The Hunger Games helped, Twilight hindered. While Jennifer Lawrence garnered frequent praise throughout her career, even as the star of a young adult novel adaptation, Stewart’s rise to acceptance in Hollywood has been far more gradual. It is only recently that critics have jumped on the KStew bandwagon, gushing about her promising recent roles, about an unknowable and mysterious quality in her acting that makes for a compelling viewing experience. The same qualities that made her so “unlikable”— such as her aloofness and unwillingness to engage in pleasantries with the press—seem to be the very things that define her “cool” persona. But even commendation for the actress is formed in relation to classic expectations of femininity on screen. In a New York Times review, A.O. Scott writes, “She possesses an uncanny ability to turn her natural charisma into diffidence.” 2 While on the surface, this seems to be getting at a certain shut-off quality that is so central to Stewart’s acting abilities, it frames it in such a way that she is fighting off the more “natural” female 16
process, a rare attitude in the Hollywood interview circuit. Stewart’s refusal to engage has made her career somewhat tumultuous. But her collaboration with numerous celebrated directors such as Kelly Reichardt, Ang Lee, Woody Allen, and Drake Doremus, as well as her critically acclaimed directorial debut, Come Swim, have made it so that she now has the clout to bring attention to independent movies, rather than having to prove herself through relations to already established filmmakers. Both her performance style and public perception mirror trends in culture; with restraint, androgyny, and a “fuck this” attitude--Stewart works for herself in a world that works in opposition. She active pursual of apathy is something that is often conflated with a lack of care. In reality, her perspective makes her one of the most exciting actresses of our time.
ly-categorizable variety) will be freely available to us. When our expectations are subverted, we hold what we see up to what we know, trying to compare Rampling’s distant look, or Stewart’s distinct mannerisms, to the eruption of tears and fits of violence that are projected onto the screen at the Academy Awards. What’s more, Stewart must combat the failings of celebrity culture, the obsession with the not-so-private lives of stars which audiences sometimes find inextricable from their theater experience. While praise for Kristen Stewart is often one step shy of Manic Pixie Dream Girl sexism, critique is often shallow and aimed more at her off-screen actions than on-screen contributions. An Elle photo shoot from 2012 shows Kristen Stewart in a leather bustier-top and skirt, flirting with a male-presenting version of herself. The photo represents, perhaps unknowingly, the fact that audiences can’t reconcile these two “opposite” sides of Stewart into a singular person. Elle presents two binary forms of masculinity and femininity, unsuccessfully expressing Stewart’s exceptional ability to shirk both labels in favor of something entirely undefinable. “I live in the fucking ambiguity of this life and I love it,” said the actress in an 2015 interview with NYLON. Stewart’s gender deviance comes with a distinct lack of commentary from the actress herself. When asked about the lack of female directors in Hollywood, she responded, “Just make stuff,” an answer that rightfully angered those who pointed out that the simplistic answer failed to acknowledge the power imbalances and economic disadvantages that women in Hollywood face. In interviews, which frequently loop around to sexuality, Stewart maintains that she just is, trails off, and makes little reference to politics. She is more outspoken when it comes to her own art and creative
Works Cited 1. Enelow, Shonni. “The Great Recession: American Movie Acting Today.” Film Comment. Film Society of Lincoln Center, Oct. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017. 2. Scott, A. O. “Review: Kristen Stewart Is Entrancing as a Haunted ‘Personal Shopper’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Mar. 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
i n t e r c u t “failing in the arts vs, selling out is such a relatable fear.” Someone should cue the swelling string arrangements though, because I think I might be able to win this one at the last minute and get Noah back home to his gal safely, dammit. Here’s the thing. I didn’t hate La La Land because it was bad; I hated it because it could have been so much better. Let me first say that I was prepared to love this movie. I think musicals are the best. Just, as I discovered, not for the reasons that Damien Chazelle thinks they are. La La Land is in many ways a nostalgic film recalling the days of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. It pays homage to a “golden age” when characters would sing for a very long time about how in love they were, and that would be the only point of the song. Of course, it’s easy to view the form as a friendly dinosaur past it’s prime—something we say hello to now and then, even though we know its time is long since passed. But the thing is, for as long as it has existed, the musical has been evolving right along with its audiences, not so much a friendly dinosaur as a genetically engineered one from Jurassic Park that has learnt too much about our ways. If we shift coasts, moving for a moment from Hollywood to Broadway, we can note the handing of the baton in musical theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein initiated the practice of moving the plot along with music rather than just creating atmosphere. A cowboy convinces an outcast to kill himself in a song from Oklahoma. In Carousel, Billy Bigelow, an expecting father, literally soliloquizes about how he will provide for his family when the baby arrives. Sondheim took this idea a step further by deconstructing it. Songs in his shows not only move the plot along, they also tear characters apart. In Epiphany, from Sweeney Todd, and “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, people break down and lose their grip on reality. Sondheim communicates this shift in their perception of the world through cacophonic sound and lyrics that devolve, changing constantly in speed
La La Land vs. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Miranda Hoyt-Disick Wesleyan, home of the Joss Whedon Mezzanine and the Michael Bay Production Lab, is chock full of film nerds, if you hadn’t noticed. A few of them started this magazine. The rest of them are writing for it. Ask any of us politely and you will receive a strong opinion re: La La Land that you will probably tune out after the first fifteen minutes of ranting. It’s surprisingly divisive for a movie with such congenial stars. Personally, when I talk about it, I feel like I’m on the losing side of a small land war. I’ll look over at my friend Noah with stoic humor in my eyes as we cower in our small trench, trading stories of what we’ll do when we return safely home and dodging deadly bullets such as “it was so visually compelling” and 18
dency to use people of color as literal scenery, setting the visually compelling and textured scene for the two intensely white main characters. To be fair movie musicals do not have much of a precedent of being racially sensitive or open-minded. Most from the “golden age” include blackface. However, they did become a safe-haven of sorts and a form of assimilation for Jewish immigrants. Ironically, this is evident in the film White Christmas. Danny Kaye, who starred in the film, was born David Kaminsky. The title song was composed by Irving Berlin, who probably bought his kids some nice Hanukkah gifts with the royalties. This tradition of minorities finding a home and a means of expression through musical theater has been continued by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But an even clearer parallel exists, not in Broadway or Hollywood, but West Covina, California. I’m speaking, of course, of Rachel Bloom’s masterpiece, the musical television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
and rhythm. His artistic descendants, Jonathan Larsen and Lin-Manuel Miranda used his tactics and added their own indispensable contributions to the form. Miranda, uniquely equipped by his ability to shift between numbers inspired by Destiny’s Child, Biggie Smalls, and The Beatles specializes in using musical genres to establish character. Musicals exist for reasons other than being fun and colorful. Their creators have discovered a way for form to serve story rather than the other way around. Everything about La La Land suggests the opposite. Sebastian and Mia fall in love so we can watch them sing a song about it. In Mia’s big number, she finds her voice, singing out to a big-time director in an audition about “the ones who dream.” She never specifies what they’re dreaming about. The movie’s racial politics are similarly regressive. Many articles, including A.O. Scott’s rave review have grudgingly noted the film’s ten-
i n t e r c u t she is able to project whatever she pleases onto the people in her life. Bloom uses music to suggest a fracturing of perception in the world of the show, a tactic reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim, but deftly translated into the language of film. Musicals on camera can depict opposing states of consciousness in the same manner as Modernist novels without sacrificing visual beauty or humor. Why should viewers settle for anything less? I don’t mean to say that La La Land has any particular obligation to do anything other than please an audience. Some might argue that it is valuable purely for its visual beauty. But the thing is, more than ever, we need art that says something other than “Look at me, I’m pretty.” The narratives mentioned above as a counterpoint to La La Land work because they have texture. They come from a place of marginalization, and recognize themselves as modern musicals with new sensibilities, leading the form in a compelling new direction. Musicals are an inherently generous and versatile form of expression. They work best when crafted not by the hands of the ones who dream, but the ones who are determined to contribute something to the creation of a better reality.
Honestly, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably familiar with the premise, but just in case (plus it’s just really fun to say), it’s about a high-achieving lawyer, Rebecca, who leaves her job and New York City apartment to make her summer-camp boyfriend fall desperately in love with her in Southern California. Bloom, who writes and stars in the show, makes it her business to create a diverse version of LA. Josh Chan, the object of her affection is a Filipino SoCal bro. His girlfriend, Valencia, is Latina. Greg, the cranky third member of the show’s love triangle, and Rebecca, have Italian and Jewish origins respectively. The insane amount of cultural variety shines through when the two eat tacos and drink tequila together—”The food of our forefathers… well not really yours. Or mine,” Greg quips. None of this is a coincidence. An avid musical theater fan, Bloom understands that the genre has a long, non-illustrious history of white-washing. However, she also recognizes the power and limitless nature of the form. Musicals have always used elements of different cultures to tell their stories. It is only recently, in works such as Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Hamilton, when members of these cultures have become gloriously visible. Bloom continues to explore new artistic frontiers by imbuing every song on her show with the psychological study of character. In the number “Settle For Me, Greg,” convinces Rebecca to give up her fantasy of being with Josh and go out with him instead, singing in Fred Astaire-style black and white, complete with a tuxedo, top hat and cane. The number is just as pretty to watch as Ryan Gosling’s wistful rendition of “City of Stars” in La La Land, but says a lot more about the mental state of the character. It communicates the darkness and insecurity that impedes on both these people’s lives. Moreover, when Rebecca references Greg’s “settle for me” vibe later in the episode, he tells her “That’s not quite how I remember it,” reminding the audience that many of the musical numbers only exist in Rebecca’s head, where 20
It’s the dead of night. Ethereal music plays, setting the mood. Love is in the air, people. Two males, the man of the hour and the host, stand in front of a grand mansion in tuxedos. The camera roams around as they converse. They wait. A limo approaches and stops. The music cuts out and the tension swells. The driver opens the door and a woman emerges wearing a Left Shark costume. Things are just getting started; it’s a long road ahead. The parade of women continues with appearances of camels, uncooked hot dogs in books, and surprise kisses. The twenty first season of ABC’s The Bachelor has commenced. In the spring of 2002, ABC debuted what would prove to be a longstanding hit, The Bach-
UnScripted: Accountability and Progression in the World of Reality TV Kalee Kennedy
i n t e r c u t is sometimes threatened. The opposite, however, seems to have occurred with The Bachelor. It appears that the actual reality show, The Bachelor, is taking cues from its opposition and complicating UnReal’s commentary on The Bachelor’s formula by responding to it. So, which dating show is setting the standard of ‘good’ television? UnReal is not afraid to showcase many of the critiques The Bachelor has received. The producers within UnReal don’t exactly excuse the behavior of reality show producers, but instead frame reality TV audiences as the culprits of these shows’ problematic tendencies. When Zimmer’s character says, “It’s not my fault that America is racist,” we are seeing content creators removing themselves from their material. They are not condoning their actions on the basis that they believe in the prejudices echoed in their shows, but rather on the basis that America wants reality shows that appeal to their darkest desires. While The Bachelor has also been criticized for its absence of “reality” and its emphasis on drama (frequently manufactured by the show’s producers), UnReal effectively showcases these show’s contestants as victims who assert different types of agency. These girls buck the “damsels in distress” trope and try to advocate for themselves amidst oversight and control from production. In this way, UnReal does a great job of exploring the issues from which The Bachelor profits. By detailing the “behind the scenes” component, UnReal is able to show the viewer the ugly side of this televised pursuit of love. It’s not all about the love seeking, people. Noxon and Shapiro expose the reality genre as bully television. Shapiro said to the New York Times, “Viewers want to believe in fairy tales, and those reality shows tap into that want. Our show dismantles that want.” Noxon and Shapiro seek to convince audiences to treat these women as humans – people that are manipulated and heavily edited for the consumption and pleasure of audiences. The show effectively characterizes these women as real
elor. Hosted by Chris Harrison, the reality show follows one man’s journey to find the love of his life by dating over twenty females at the same time. Each week, the bachelor goes on dates and engages in various activities with these women in order to eventually discern with whom he might find lasting happiness beyond the show. Not without controversy, the show had been panned by critics for being misogynistic, racist, and a field of television tropes. In an effort to curb one of these critiques, the show produced a spin-off, The Bachelorette, with a female lead looking for love. Since then, the show has alternated female and male leads each year. Despite being severely problematic, the show and its many spinoffs are commercial successes. The show’s antithesis, UnReal, premiered in 2015 on Lifetime. A fictional narrative rather than a reality show, it depicts the production side of dating shows and how these shows impact contestants as well as producers. Lifetime was fortunate to receive the show in spite of their reputation for producing programs along the same line as The Bachelor (Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras for example), which many critics and viewers have gone so far as to call abusive to their constituents. The show revolves around actors Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer who play producers for the fictional reality dating competition, Everlasting. UnReal is a dark comedy drama that simultaneously criticizes shows like The Bachelor and defends the producers/creators behind those shows. The show is based on Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, and Shapiro herself helps to run the show as co-creator along with TV writer/producer Marti Noxon. Shapiro knows a little something about reality shows since she was a producer on The Bachelor for nine seasons and often draws comparisons to the lead character of UnReal, who is also a reality show producer. When a fiction program acts as an exposé to its nonfiction counterpart, the nonfiction show 22
The Bachelor still stands by its tried and true model and feels no reason to completely upend it. The show still makes sure a woman of wife material leaves the limo first to shape the audience’s first impressions. They also still make sure said woman is not black. In the past season, Corrine assumed the villain role by stealing Nick’s attention and kissing him in front of the rest of the girls on the first night. Instead of labeling Corrine as the “crazy” one of the season, the show had her fellow contestants address her as immature. Any other season, she would have been eliminated early on, but she somehow managed to grip the audience’s attention. No matter if you hated or loved her, Corrine’s immaturity led to her becoming a kind of hero. The difference is that this past season she was allowed to be a person instead of a caricature and, as a result, connected with audiences. The producers of The Bachelor also tweaked their formula à la UnReal by managing to keep crowd engager, Corrine Olympios, on the show until as close to the end of the season as possible. She boosted ratings from week to week and excited the audience in a way that the bachelor himself, Nick, failed to do. In a time where representation on all levels is important, UnReal applies pressure on us and the media we consume to be held to a higher standard, paving the way for its sister show to perform dramatic television without its bullying tendencies.
people and not as tired stereotypes. The viewer should feel some sympathy for the contestants despite the false, preconceived idea that the women participating know what they are signing up for with these shows. In season 21, the most recent season, The Bachelor seemed to follow almost the same storyline as the “reality” story fabricated by Zimmer’s producer character on UnReal. Nick Viall, the season’s bachelor, was the suitor that America loved to hate. He didn’t understand love or the basic rules of human decency and care. This was the fourth go around for this man in his hopes of finding a woman to spend the rest of his life with. Among the lady contestants, Corrine stood as the “villain”, Elizabeth was the “surprise”, Raven was a “wifey”, and Rachel was America’s favorite girl, “the blifey” (black wifey). Beyond these details, what made the season in question notable was that it signaled the most diverse cast of contestants the show has ever had. Throughout the season, Nick was running the show. The producers allowed him to buck the rules. He didn’t wait for rose ceremonies to create tension in the inevitable breaking of women’s hearts. He chose to break their hearts in private after said woman revealed to him that she was falling in love with him. Rachel Lindsay got to the second to last round before she became another one of these broken-hearted girls. However, everything isn’t lost for Rachel; she was selected to be next season’s bachelorette. For the first time in history of The Bachelor franchise, the shows’ viewers will experience a black lead. Was the decision to pick Rachel based on the social-political climate or was it based on UnReal’s critical influence? Well, the answer is both. UnReal pushes the buttons of its counterpart, holding the creators of The Bachelor accountable for their mistakes concerning diversity, and, because of the heated social-political climate, there has been a greater outcry for adequate representation for all identities on television. It seems the show listened. 23
i n t e r c u t
Budgeting Diversity How Hollywoodâ€™s Lack of a Middle Class Affects Inclusion in the Film Industry by Hannah Cooper 24
“There is a direct relationship between the decline of middle class films and the lack of…diversity in movies.” He stated that “more diversity in filmmaking will beget more diversity in storytelling.”2 In this vein, USC Annenberg’s study unsurprisingly found that female directors do indeed tell stories with more female characters, more characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, and more women over age forty. They also hire more women for notable behind-the-scenes positions, such as writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers.3 However, because studios are “taking gigantic gambles financially,” they’re offsetting those bets by “[ensuring] that the entertainment they’re producing appeals to as many people as possible.” This approach more and more often backfires, as it “dilutes the originality, and therefore, [the story’s] appeal to niche audiences.”4 Additionally, it has led to whitewashing in several films, such as the casting of Matt Damon in The Great Wall, Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, and Emma Stone in Aloha. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Keegan-Michael Key condemned the growing budgets of top-tier films, stating that “one of the greatest enemies of filmmaking, period – not to be too dramatic – is largesse.” Key quoted
The Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study in February examining the top 100 grossing movies from 2007 to 2016. Their study presents a bleak reality: across 1,000 films and 1,114 directors, four percent were female, five percent were Black or African American, and three percent were Asian or Asian American. Of the fifty-seven Black directors and thirty-four Asian directors, six were female. Over the past decade, there has been no meaningful change in the prevalence of female, Black, or Asian directors across top films. Few worked more than once across the ten years examined, and women of color have been virtually absent as top-grossing directors.1 A significant cause of these numbers is the fact that the work assigned to female and minority directors often falls in less lucrative genres, and the lack of resources available often prevent them from being able to compete with big-budget films. To address this, I believe he development of a middle-class in the film industry would help promote diversity, both in front of and behind the camera. Amidst the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy, writer and director William Dickerson wrote,
i n t e r c u t ally great, they always [sort of] feel a little cheap.” This not only distracts from and limits story, but also prevents the films from being the same level of quality as more expensive films. The Black Rock Kickstarter ending up making $10,000 more than the goal amount, but as Aselton said, “When you start using more expensive cameras, everything around it gets more expensive… Your lighting package gets way more expensive, and then coloring it is going to be more expensive… Budgets beget budgets, and expenses beget expenses.”7 It takes a lot of money to make even small improvements, and that level of funding is not readily available. However, the introduction of Amazon and Netflix into the film industry may be able to help with these levels of financing. With “their massive audiences, superior technology, and business models unfettered by the typical constraints of Hollywood,” streaming services have the potential to form a “new arthouse circuit” for “artistic storytellers.” While they are not without problems, one significant advantage to these subscription-based models is that “[a] single movie or show…doesn’t need to appeal to everyone” as long as “they offer enough of everything to attract anyone.”8 Netflix acquired Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation for $12 million in 2015, releasing it simultaneously in theaters and online.9 Spike Lee went to Amazon to make his film Chi-Raq after being turned down by major studios. Because they aren’t chasing blockbusters, these platforms are more willing to invest in non-mainstream stories. However, their method of release does have the potential to be a major drawback. By simultaneously releasing films theatrically and on streaming services, films often receive less attention than they deserve. Government funding has long been considered a viable method of financing. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, America’s Works Projects Administration (WPA) had an incredible impact on the film industry. For example, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), and Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men)
his ideal budget for any film at $20 million, a number he believes would lead to “invention,” “creative problem-solving,” and better storytelling.5 Comparatively, blockbuster budgets often reach over $100 million.6 With studios unwilling to take risks on big budget films, the task of accurate representation has largely been left to independent production companies that often don’t have the resources or influence to make an industry-wide difference. In 2011, filmmakers Katie Aselton and Mark Duplass used Kickstarter to fund the purchasing of a new camera, an Arri Alexa, to film their indie thriller, Black Rock. In doing so, they were hoping to help revive what Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) has more than once referred to as the dying middle class of filmmaking. In an interview with GQ on the subject, Aselton explained that when it comes to low-budget films, “even if the heart of the movie and the story are really, re-
“[...] more diversity in filmmaking will beget more diversity in storytelling.” - William Dickerson on his decision to retire from the film industry, director Steven Soderbergh went so far as to say, “I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.” He expressed an interest in moving to the small screen, explaining that “the audience for the kinds of movies [he] grew up liking has migrated to television.” Soderbergh blamed the move in part on the focus on money over story. Series are less financially risky, as they build a “continuous audience” and invite “binge viewing”. Even Robert Redford himself has said that “television is offering more opportunities … and is advancing farther than major filmmaking.”13 However, the distinct qualities of film storytelling that distinguish it from television should not be forgotten, even in this economic climate. William Dickerson claims that the viability of a middle class in filmmaking is a matter of balancing art and commerce within the industry, writing, “All we need to do is figure out a way to provide filmmakers with the adequate resources to tell those
all came out of the New Deal program.10 Though the WPA was abruptly ended with the onset of World War II, government-funded film still exists in Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany, and France, as well as a number of other countries.11 Even in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been funding Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute for decades, providing filmmakers with the tools and guidance they need to tell their stories.12 Films by Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), and Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) are only a few of the projects developed through Sundance Institute workshops. However, with the current administration threatening to slash NEA funding, those unable to find paths like this are more and more often abandoning filmmaking altogether. Many filmmakers choose to move to the small screen, as it offers an alternative route for storytelling with far easier methods of financing. In a 2014 interview 27
i n t e r c u t 3. Smith, Dr. Stacy L., Dr. Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti, Inclusion in the Directors Chair? Gender, Race, & Age of Film Directors Across 1,000 Films from 2007-2016. USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. February 2017.
stories that absolutely need to be told, and allow them to make living doing it.”14 Industry leaders continually assign only small, independent films to minority filmmakers, giving them little chance to show their abilities and achieve the scope or scale of larger-budget content. USC Annenberg’s study found that the majority of films directed by female directors in the ten-year period were dramas and comedies, with less than a third being animated, science fiction/fantasy, action, or thrillers. Similarly, most films directed by Black directors were dramas and comedies, with less than 10% of the films being science fiction/fantasy, thrillers, or horror.15 Some recent developments suggest that the industry is beginning to take small steps. Moonlight, produced by the independent company A24, won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. With the upcoming adaption of A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay is the first black female director to helm a $100 million film.16 Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out has also broken records; it’s not only the first film with a black writer-director to reach $100 million in debut box-office sales, but also the highest grossing film debut for any writer-director with an original screenplay.17,18 While these accomplishments deserve recognition, they shouldn’t distract from issues still at hand. There is an ever-widening gap between low-budget independent films and billion dollar blockbusters, and it’s in desperate need of a bridge. It’s unlikely that building that bridge is as easy as Dickerson makes it seem – progress tends to be frustratingly slow at best. But it starts with taking financial risks on filmmakers with no means of their own to get their stories off the page.
4. Dickerson, William. Middle Class Films: The Demand for Diversity in Hollywood. Film Slate Magazine. February 22, 2016. http://www. filmslatemagazine.com. 5. Kohn, Eric. Keegan-Michael Key on Why Less Money Means Smarter Movies, and Why the Whole Country Needs Anger Translators – SXSW 2017. IndieWire. March 10, 2017. http://www.indiewire.com. 6. “Movie Budgets.” The Numbers. http://www.the-numbers.com. 7. Raposa, David. The GQ&A: Katie Aselton. GQ. October 5, 2011. http://www.gq.com. 8. Greenberg, Julia. Netflix and Amazon Offer Indie Filmmakers Hope (And Lots of Money). Wired. January 28, 2016. https://www.wired. com. 9. Setoodeh, Ramin. Netflix’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’ Could Change the Movie Business. Variety. September 1, 2015. http://variety.com. 10. Dickerson, William. The Decline of Middle-Class Films and the Case for Government Funding. IndieWire. December 30, 2015. http://indiewire.com. 11. Bruder, Emily. The Best Countries in the World to Film Your Movie, Based on Production Incentives. No Film School. August 22, 2016. http://nofilmschool.com. 12. Miller, Matt. Seven Influential Filmmakers Whose Careers Were Launched By Federal Funds. Esquire. March 17, 2017. http://www. esquire.com. 13. Schilling, Mary Kaye. Steven Soderbergh on Quitting Hollywood, Getting the Best Out of J.Lo, and His Love of Girls. Vulture. August 8, 2014. http://www.vulture.com. 14. Dickerson, William. How Can Middle-Class Filmmakers Make a Living? IndieWire. October 26, 2015. http://www.indiewire.com. 15. Spangler, Todd, and Ramin Setoodah. Filmmakers Moving Where the Money Is: Digital TV Series. Variety. April 30, 2014. http://www. variety.com. 16. Desta, Yohana. Ava DuVernay Is First Black Female Director to Helm a $100 Million Film. Vanity Fair. August 4, 2016. http://www. vanityfair.com.
17. Morales, Wilson. Jordan Peele’s Get Out Now Highest Grossing Film Debut For Writer-Director. Black Film. March 21, 2017. http:// www.blackfilm.com.
1. Smith, Dr. Stacy L., Dr. Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti, Inclusion in the Directors Chair? Gender, Race, & Age of Film Directors Across 1,000 Films from 2007-2016. USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. February 2017.
18. Boyd, Jared. ‘Get Out,’ filmed in Alabama, becomes first $100M debut for a black writer-director. March 14, 2017. Alabama. http:// www.al.com.
2. Dickerson, William. Middle Class Films: The Demand for Diversity in Hollywood. Film Slate Magazine. February 22, 2016. http://www. filmslatemagazine.com.
Graphics are adapted from: Smith, Dr. Stacy L., Dr. Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti, Inclusion in the Directors Chair? Gender, Race, & Age of Film Directors Across 1,000 Films from 2007-2016. USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. February 2017.
Film History and White Supremacy:
Intimately Tied or Barely Connected?
by Yael Horowitz
i n t e r c u t the Advancement of Colored People all over the country. An especially iconic and troubling moment of the film is the burning of a cross. This ritual did not exist before the film, but was adopted by the newly resurgent KKK as a result of the film itself. Griffith is deemed the creator and ‘pioneer’ of cross-cutting, of the close up, and of the feature length film. But what does it mean to so casually canonize a piece of work that is wrapped up in the logics and ideologies of white supremacy? What does it mean that in classrooms the film is consistently mentioned without its full historical context? In many ways, the film is directly linked to the resurgence of the KKK and is thought to be the source of their iconic cross burnings. A film like Birth of a Nation is an enactment of violence and acclaiming it for its aesthetic innovations without grappling with its racist ideology is a perpetuation of this violence. It is not coincidence that D.W. Griffith was both a racist and an innovator. D.W. Griffith’s innovations are often viewed as “universal” storytelling. This idea of universality told through a director’s unique personal vision is what lead to later conceptions of the auteur. By exalting the auteur, however, we deny the socio-political context in which the filmmaker worked, and subsequently ignore the personal and political ideologies that seep into the film as a result. In other words, the very idea of a “universal” perpetuates a white cis-heteropatriarchal norm, as anything that exists outside what is defined outside of the universal is further marginalized and rendered niche or deviant storytelling. In many ways, those who are tasked with creating the film canon do not want to grapple with film’s dark past and present. They ask their viewers to “meet the film where it was at,” which is to say, justify racism, misogyny, and violence because they
Film is a medium that straddles multiple definitions of art within society: it is technological, it is a part of mass culture, and it is subject to review and critique. Film is also a focal point for mass ideology. The aesthetic and technological components of film are important in situating the art of film in a larger cultural and ideological context, and the political implications are essential to understand because of the power that the medium holds over audiences. The goal of classical cinema is to use narrative to take audiences on a journey and inspire a specific emotional response. Thus, the emotional effect that a film has on its audience cannot be separated from the formal elements that facilitated that response, which, in turn, cannot be separated from the ideology espoused. The layers of film (i.e. narrative, character development, miseen-scène) coexist in a manner which allows for the communication of nuanced (and often problematic) ideologies. Through looking at Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer, we can understand the connection between aesthetics and ideology in film. Further analysis of classical Hollywood genres like the Western and the Melodrama allows us to understand the hegemonic forces at play in mainstream cinema. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation is lauded as a turning point in the American film consciousness. Released in 1915, it was the first film to be screened in the White House while Woodrow Wilson was president. Wilson called the film “history written with white lightning.” The film follows two white families over a span of many years and tells the story of the unification of the white North and the white South through the subjugation of and violence against Black Americans. Upon its release, it was immediately controversial. The film was protested and boycotted by members of the National Association for 30
A film like Birth of a Nation is an enactment of violence and acclaiming it for its aesthetic innovations without grappling with its racist ideology is a perpetuation of the violence.
were “just the way of the era.” However, if we do not confront the deeply racist parts of film history then we will be forever unable to understand why movements like #OscarsSoWhite are historically relevant. By delving deep enough and understanding the formal workings of the medium, we can genuinely question if the ideology behind a film informs our sense of innovative or “good” aesthetics. Another key example of innovation’s connection to ideology is The Jazz Singer, a film that is marked as the first ‘talkie.’ Released in 1927, The Jazz Singer follows the story of a performer who seeks success but is tied to his Jewish roots and responsibilities. A scene that often goes unexamined in the film is when the protagonist, Jack Rabinowitz, dons blackface to perform onstage. The ideology represented in this scene reflects precarious racial hierarchies; the only way a Jewish performer can be successful is through the subjugation of and visual violence towards Black folks. Because the audience is cued to sympathize with Jack throughout the film, his problematic action is justified within the context of the film. The audience is queued to understand it as something he has to do, rather than an active and racist choice. The film’s treatment of Jack’s actions is not a coincidence, nor is it simply a product of the times. Dominant and racist ideologies dictate what gets put on screens, which is intimately tied to the aesthetics of canonical films. What is seen as universal or “good” storytelling is highly specific. It is mainstream (i.e. white supremacist) ideology. It is white and it is male. We are able to talk about the male gaze in movies—how it truncates shots of women’s bodies and how women serve only as objects of desire and not as active participants in the narrative. However, so many of the early films that have been canonized are so blindingly white that conversa-
i n t e r c u t understand and familiar stories as a means of easing viewers into the new technology. As a result, Black characters in these films adhere to strict stereotypes. Evidently, filmmakers believed that white audiences would not be able to recognize or internalize complex Black characters. Again, some might say that this is just a product of the time. However, as we saw in the case of Birth of a Nation and the resurgence of the KKK, film is more powerful than that. In other words, it is no coincidence that D.W. Griffith is both an innovator and a racist—perhaps his and others like him’s innovations are reliant on forms of subjugation. If we believe that film and, more generally, art not only reflect socio-political moments but also have a specific role in informing and actively shaping them, then there has to be a level of accountability and responsibility for filmmakers as well as those that engage with film that is currently missing. Issues of representation, authorship, and which stories/ideologies get told are directly connected to the politics of filmmaking and filmmakers. The means of film production are monopolized by dominant ideologies and those who the dominant ideologies serves. The issue of diversity within the film industry today extends beyond our current moment; it is historical and it has great implications for the future. Film is a powerful tool. It lends itself to the replication of dominant and oppressive ideologies, but it also has the potential to be resistant and subversive. As filmmakers, we need to confront these histories in order to make active choices about the stories we are telling and consider the implications of the emotions we are inspiring.
tions about how race and racial ideologies inform aesthetic trends are often ignored. They ask “How could a film be about race if there are only white characters?” That assumption of the universal is what allows certain films to be canonized. When we talk about “Classic Hollywood” we are synonymously talking about a “Classic Whiteness” that cannot go unexamined. This can be clearly seen in many of the first, and most popular, genres. Westerns, for example, are filmic incarnations of manifest destiny; they assert the boundaries of the frontier and cannot be divorced from colonialism and structural genocide. Even if Westerns aim to be progressive, the very idea of the frontier is a confrontation with the indigenous ‘other,’ whose rightful claims to land are consistently denied. The heroes of the Western, no matter how brooding and dark, are tasked with expanding the possible realms of white, heterosexual domesticity. Domesticity is also a key component in Melodrama. The genre focuses on excess of emotion (note who is allowed this excess) and on defining and policing the borders of the domestic (often leaving the realm of the domestic leads to great peril and to death). These films are deeply concerned with preserving the integrity, sanctity, and honor of white womanhood. It is not surprising then that stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin became melodramatic narrative staples. The forms of heterosexual love and fantasy that are foundational to melodrama are not only gendered but are also raced and classed. Melodrama and early cinema often relied on tropes and stereotypes to express emotion and communicate with audiences. This brings us back to ideas of innovation. In the early twentieth century, as film technologically continued to advance, many early filmmakers focused on telling easy-to32
both broadcast and cable networks would add layers and much needed depth to the stereotypical characters that have been created in an attempt to encapsulate an entire community. Many different techniques have been used to simplify the narrative of the poor black family and they differ in both broadcast television and cable networks. Broadcast television erases several issues poor black communities must deal with like police brutality, colorism, racism that exists in the workplace, and intersectionality that further defines the black experience as something that makes us so much more complex than Good Times and Sanford and Son. Cable networks, on the other hand, often sensationalize the violence that poor black communities deal with, be it gun violence, gang violence, police brutality, or homophobia and/or misogyny stemming from toxic black masculinity. They also donâ€™t have to be as worried about confronting certain issues head on because they have the option of catering to a specific audience. For example, there is no need to worry about satisfying White America if the audience is African Americans.
As a black woman who grew up in a lowincome family, it is very difficult to seek out black characters with upbringings that resemble mine. I never sold drugs. The police havenâ€™t beaten me, but they kept a heavy presence in my neighborhood, and always kept tight surveillance on the young black men. The entertainment industry needs more realistic narratives of poor black families on television. These stories being displayed on
The Struggle in Realistically Portraying Poor Black Families on TV Naomi Williams 33
i n t e r c u t early 2000s, the technique2 of appealing to White America evolved to simply avoiding conversations about racism. Shows like The Fresh Prince of BelAir and The Cosby Show held onto white viewers by exploring universal themes through the lens of middle and upper class African-American families. There were no explicit confrontations with racism. Exploring universal themes today from the perspective of a poor African-American family would require the acknowledgement of institutional violence or else it would not be realistic. Statistically speaking,3 poor black families watch the most broadcast television;4 however, because they are still a minority, them being loyal viewers isn’t enough to keep TV shows that captured their experience on air. Today, talking about race on broadcast television is a risk if the protagonist is not white and if white people as a whole are portrayed as an antagonistic force. This becomes an issue when trying to confront white supremacy and white privilege without triggering white tears. White tears, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, are the result of white people complaining about racial injustices that are non-existent or upset that a person of color is succeeding at the expense of a white person, (example: Fisher v. University of Texas,5 a case involving a white woman who claimed she had been discriminated against in the admissions process when in reality white Americans are the group with the most college degrees6). Lee Daniels’s TV show Star has a white lead because he felt it would heal the nation7 and stated that “…this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her and white people will embrace her.” A white lead does not end police brutality, institutional racism, or the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies; however, it does increase viewership. Nonetheless, there are shows breaking the mold to acknowledge current events like Black-ish. Yet because issues like police brutality are acknowledged in the show by a wealthy black family, there is a distance created by class. This family didn’t have to deal with the trauma
Broadcast television, which consists of networks whose signals are transmitted by radio waves (ABC, NBC, CW, FOX, and PBS), have a tougher time giving this narrative justice because of its relationship with institutional violence. The various way in which institutional violence manifests include racial profiling amongst law enforcement, homophobic state and federal laws, and racist policies that aim to control black and brown bodies (often concerning Planned Parenthood, mass incarceration, housing lines, and so on). If a show about poor black families portrats White America as an oppressive force then it will be difficult for that show to stay on air due to a lack in overall popularity. Because of this, writers of TV shows about poor black families use specific strategies to evade conversations concerning institutional violence and racism. Cable networks on the other hand, which are transmitted by cables to paying subscribers, (HBO, AMC, STARZ, etc.), have more freedom to define their audience and explore violence and crime’s relationship with poor black characters. The 70s and early 80s is known as the “Lear Era.” Norman Lear1 is the white screenwriter and producer who helped create several hits like “Good Time”, “Sanford and Son”, and “The Jeffersons”. These shows introduced several black leads during a time when all the protagonists on broadcast television shows were white characters. Nonetheless, a white man needing to step in to make these characters existent in television is still problematic. In these 70s and 80s TV shows, blackness simply existed, rarely in relation to whiteness. The black characters lived in a world that didn’t need to acknowledge institutional violence head on because oppressive forces were almost non-existent. If they did appear in an episode, it would take the form of a faceless entity. When James from Good Times was struggling to get a job, it was simply because the jobs available were slim to none. There was no explicit mention of him being denied because he was black or lived in the projects. In the 90s to the 34
i n t e r c u t Angry. Violent. Contempt with poverty. Although we may have very valid reasons for being angry, for needing to protect ourselves and our families, for struggling to escape generational poverty, someone who does not already know these reasons will be satisfied with the stereotypical images they consume and reproduce racist ideals without even understanding why they are racist. Insecure is an example of a show that airs on a cable network (HBO) and comedically acknowledges the frustrating and even awkward interactions black women have in the workplace with their white co-workers and supervisors. It even touches on the relationship issues a working class black couple has, rooted in financial insecurity. This show differs greatly from The Wire in the sense that it acknowledges systemic violence directly through comedy. By doing this, those who canâ€™t sympathize with this experience are still given an opportunity to understand why the black characters carry a certain amount of frustration toward white people, and make the decisions they do in the show. Poor black families therefore become beings that can be used to expose and comment on institutional violence and its repercussions, to expound on a narrative that is rarely told from the primary source. When white people, or anyone else who is not black and has lived in poverty attempt to reproduce this narrative, it often results in the reproduction of stereotypes and even minstrel characters. At the end of the day, using techniques to dilute the institutional violence that exists within this nation is just one way to strategically avoid conversations that need to be had. This includes conversations about how and why various power structures systemically control and oppress people of color and keep poor people from elevating themselves financially within this capitalist society. By painting poor black people as two-dimensional beings that seem to consciously make the decision to stay poor and commit crimes that lead to incarceration, other groups of people that consume shows like The Wire end up believing stereotypes are actually
of losing a family member to police brutality because they live in a neighborhood where the presence of law enforcement is not as intense. They live in a neighborhood where black and brown bodies may be criminalized every now and then, not in one where people of color are often criminalized, beaten, and even killed for simply being. Any form of resistance may lead to death. This is a frightening reality, but one that exists and should not be polished for the sake of television ratings. If police brutality was tackled by a show with a poor black family at its core, it would have been one of the children or a parent killed, not some poor soul in another neighborhood. It would have been much more impactful for the audience to witness the loss of one of the main characters they had grown attached to. Cable networks have more freedom to explore the violence and crime that exists within poor black neighborhoods. This is also a double-edged sword because on one hand the show is realistically displaying elements that are unique to this environment. On the other hand, crime and violence are acknowledged without recognizing the oppressive forces that contribute to the reproduction of said crime and violence. This results in certain stereotypes about poor African Americans being reinforced. For example, The Wire is a brilliant show that allowed viewers to witness a representation of the crime and violence centered around drugs that takes place in poor communities of color. This HBO series realistically recognizes crime becoming the only option of attaining income to provide for oneself and/or oneâ€™s family in ghettos across this nation. What The Wire fails to do is tie together the role institutions play in reinforcing the War on Drugs and allowing poverty to run rampant in certain neighborhoods. To negate the root of these issues makes it very easy to criminalize black and brown bodies. The result is people who arenâ€™t poor and black (specifically those with no connections to these neighborhoods like wealthy white people) painting stereotypical images of poor black people. 36
facts. When people begin taking stereotypes as reality, it makes it extremely difficult for a society as a whole (including its political structures) to recognize inequalities that exist and make changes to help support and elevate the standard of living for these communities. One of the main reasons why poor black families don’t have much representation on broadcast television, especially, is because there are very few African Americans from lowincome families getting contracts to write for TV networks. This goes beyond poor African Americans. Any script that shares the experience of a protagonist who isn’t a wealthy, heterosexual, ablebodied, white character/family should be represented on television. This not only allows people to witness an experience they know little to nothing about, but also adds layers to the entertainment of mainstream television in the United States, layers that go beyond diversity and truly embrace inclusion.
Works Cited 1. Biography.com Editors. “Norman Lear.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 26 Oct. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <http:// www.biography.com/people/norman-lear-9376137>. 2. Williams, Brennan, and Gazelle Emami. “How To Make It As A Black Sitcom: Be Careful How You Talk About Race.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/21/ black-sitcom-black-ish_n_6002850.html> 3. Schwindt, Oriana. “Nielsen Report: How You Watch TV Depends On How Much You Make.”International Business Times. N.p., 13 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.ibtimes. com/nielsen-report-how-you-watch-tv-depends-how-muchyou-make-2223459>. 4. ”Time Spent Watching TV in the U.S. 2015.” Statista. N.p., 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <https://www.statista.com/ statistics/191558/average-daily-time-spent-on-watchingtelevision-in-the-us-by-income/>. 5. “Fisher v. University of Texas.” Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/ cases/2012/11-345. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017. 6. Kolodner, Meredith. “College Degree Gap Grows Wider between Whites, Blacks and Latinos.” The Hechinger Report. The Hechinger Report, 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http:// hechingerreport.org/25368-2/>. 7. Arceneaux, Michael. “Lee Daniels Needs to Stop It With This White-Girl Lead in Star and His Magical Negro Speeches.” The Root. Www.theroot.com, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.theroot.com/lee-daniels-needs-to-stop-it-withthis-white-girl-lead-1790858054>.
i n t e r c u t direct queer narratives and enter into these worlds without polluting them or destroying the people that inhabit them. The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning is a prime example of a film that details a world in which many intersecting marginalised identities interact—a world of which the director was not a part, yet the film is revered and cherished as a significant and accurate cinematic representation of an African American and Latinx gay and transgender subculture in New York City in the 1980s. While there was some degree of backlash against director Livingston for profiting off of QTPOC’s experiences as a white cisgendered woman,2 the film was ultimately praised for its empowering presentation of this community of artists and performers. How much does standpoint epistemology legitimize or discredit filmmakers who attempt to create films with queer narratives? In her 2014 article, “Missing in Action: Violence, Power, and Discerning Agency” Alisa Bierria explains to us that “to read an act is to apprehend an existing meaning, but to author an act is to create something new”.3 Do non-queer filmmakers “read” queerness and apprehend its existing meaning or “author” queerness in their films which feature queer protagonists and/or are based upon original works by queer authors. I would argue that these filmmakers simply recreate worlds that perpetuate their own misconceptions about queerness instead of accurately representing the world as it is. Often, queer people’s original intentions, in their own personal lives, are rewritten by filmmakers for the big screen in order to garner mass appeal. This phenomenon is referred to by Bierra as “social authoring.” Bierra tells us, “Social authoring relies on and further entrenches an institutionally sanctioned distortion of the intentions of some agents”.4 Bierra goes on to say that, “Intention is not just authored by the agent, but is also socially authored through others’ discernment and translation of that action”.5 I believe queer cinema and films that centre around people of marginalised identities will never truly speak to
Breaking Out of the Celluloid Closet: What Is Queer Cinema and Why Do We Need It? Beatrix Herriott O’Gorman What makes a film “queer?” This is a constantly evolving, multifaceted question that requires more than a single succinct response. Is a film considered ‘queer’ if it features characters that identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum? Even if the actors playing these characters are not, in fact, queer? I would argue that a film is more confidently ‘queer’ if it is written and/or directed by a queer person, as it then represents their cinematic vision, influenced to whatever extent (even if not at all) by their queerness. As queer filmmakers remain the exception to the norm, I will delve more deeply into queer representation and whether non-queer filmmakers can create authentically queer characters. I also wish to challenge whether they should, even if they can. In addition, I suggest that films featuring ‘queer’ characters often rely too heavily on this facet of identity in order to achieve a compelling underdog narrative that does more to exploit queer people than to enlighten audiences. Is our current incarnation of queer cinema a necessary form of representation and a creative outlet for queer storytellers, or is it an exploitative endeavour practised solely in order to provide others with entertainment at the risk of further oppressing LGBTQIA+ people? According to feminist philosopher and social critic Maria Lugones, playful “world”-travelling involves “going to a world of another quite different from us without trying to destroy it or them.”1 Queer people of all intersecting identities of race, class, religion, and gender differ in their opinion on whether non-queer directors should 38
i n t e r c u t the Warmest Colour therefore could be considered an example of what political theorist and feminist writer Iris Marion Young defines as “exploitation”.7 Reclamation of ‘queer’ cinema necessitates an understanding of Young’s theory of “exploitation” explored the second chapter of her book Justice and the Politics of Difference. In this chapter Young tells us that, “bringing about justice where there is exploitation requires reorganization of institutions and practices of decision making”. In order to reclaim ‘queer’ cinema we must reorganise institutions and practices of decision making to prioritise queer filmmakers. Not only is Blue Is the Warmest Colour a presentation of male sexual idealisations of womanon-woman love but, like the much-loved Brokeback Mountain and the majority of ‘queer’ films today, it also revolves solely around the lives and relationships of two white, cisgender people. It appears that mainstream ‘queer’ cinema focuses on the romantic relationships of lesbian/gay cisgender white women/men. For example, the closest we have seen to mainstream presentations of trans narratives in contemporary cinema have been Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and The Danish Girl (2015). Both films detail the stories of two white trans women, the former film does not feature its trans character in the leading role, while the latter, claiming to revolve around Lili Elbe could be considered more accurately focussed on her cisgender wife.8 Moreover, the trans characters in both of these films are depicted by cisgender men. To be clear, the dispute is not whether cis men can accurately portray trans women on screen; their abilities are not in question or threatened by trans women playing roles that they deserve. Too often the conversation steers towards defending the merit of an actor but the crux of the issue is that trans women deserve to work in the industry and speak for themselves. There is a shocking disparity of trans women of color within the film industry in particular, which, until it is resolved, will ensure ‘queer’ cinema’s limitations as a potentially important category
the experiences of queer people unless non-queer filmmakers resist the urge to ‘translate’ the emotions and behaviours of their queer subjects. Until this social authoring is removed from ‘queer’ cinema it will continue to be a limited and cheap imitation of ‘queerness’ as opposed to a captivating and “playful” representation of the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Films detailing the lives of LGBTQIA+ people directed by non-queer people often run the risk of further entrenching institutionally sanctioned distortions of queerness. For example, people have argued that French female director Celine Sciamma recreated a world which perpetuated her own misconceptions about and discriminations against black youth, in her 2014 coming-of-age drama Girlhood. Her film ‘socially authored’ a narrative of black womanhood that people argued was divorced from the reality of black women growing up in France. A clear example of this social authoring is director, Abdeletiff Kechiche’s, film adaptation Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Julie Maroh author of the graphic novel, Le Bleu Est une Couleur Chaude, upon which the film was based, completely denounced Kechiche’s interpretation, stating it was “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.”6 The film, in her opinion, was not taken seriously as a love story because, in the screening she attended, “everyone was giggling.” She believed this laughter was because the straight people in the audience didn’t understand the sex scenes, while the queer audience members found them ridiculously unconvincing and inauthentic. In Kechiche’s imagination and through his visualisation of those imaginings, he managed to exploit same-sex love and intimacy. I believe Kechiche socially authored the film in such a way that the intentions of the two women were rewritten to prioritise satisfying male sexual fantasies, which completely contradicts the film’s potential to showcase the sincerity and authenticity of unexpected queer love. Blue Is 40
shouldn’t focus on whether non-queer filmmakers can accurately portray the lives of queer people but rather that queer/trans people deserve to tell their own stories. I feel similarly about filmmakers from all cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds and members of all marginalised identities. Cinema should be a platform for playful “world”-travelling but in the hands of people with epistemic privilege it runs the risk of becoming a vehicle for the exploitation of queer narratives and further encourages the oppression of LGBTQIA+ people through emboldening epistemic ignorance.
of cinema. The whitewashing of queer narratives, specifically the very few trans narratives that are told on the silver screen, create hierarchies within an already marginalised identity. These films appear determined to normalise ‘queerness’ through affiliating it with ‘whiteness,” an extremely disturbing trend that succeeds in further encouraging institutionalised distortions of ‘queerness.’ It appears that in order to make ‘queerness’ more palatable in mass media it must be directly related to ‘whiteness’. The only exceptive film of recent years that has received mass attention is Tangerine (2015) – a film revolving around the lives of trans women who are sex workers in Los Angeles. Tangerine was directed by a white cisgender man. However, my criticism is not pointed at the director himself, instead I wish to highlight the complete misdirection of attention the film received. Tangerine was primarily celebrated for its technical achievements – it was the “first movie at the Sundance Film Festival to be shot almost entirely on an Apple device” – as opposed to its gripping and impactful storyline and vibrant, authentic characters. The success of Tangerine hinging on its iPhone footage suggests the further tokenisation of queer narratives and how in order to appreciate, or even acknowledge, films about trans women of color we need some sort of attractive gimmick. I feel conflicted in my attempt to conclude this article. I wish to promote and encourage Lugones’ suggestion of “world”-travelling and therefore believe non-queer individuals should be at liberty to create and act in ‘queer’ films without doing those stories a disservice but I also question their ability to accurately capture the experiences of queer people. However, perhaps whether heterosexual cisgender people can or cannot convey queer narratives authentically is not the question we should be asking. Rather, we should be asking ourselves how imperative it is that queer writers and directors have a voice and vision that’s listened to and seen, especially in an industry dominated by those in positions of epistemic privilege. We
Works Cited 1. Lugones, Maria. Playfulness, “World”-travelling, and Loving Perception. Hypatia. Vol. 2, no. 2. (Summer, 1987). 2. http://www.autostraddle.com/15-best-trans-woman-movies-according-to-trans-women-303713/. 3.-5. Bierria, Alisa. Missing in Action: Violence, Power, and Discerning Agency. Hypatia. Vol. 29, no. 1. (Winter, 2014). p 130. Print. 6. Sciolino, Elaine. Darling of Cannes Now at Centre of a Storm. Movies. The New York Times. August 10, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/movies/juliemaroh-author-of-blue-novel-criticizes-film.html. Web. 7. Young, Iris. Five Faces of Oppression. Oppression, Privilege and Resistance. McGraw Hill, Boston. 2004. Print. 8. Buchanan, Kyle. Enough with the Queer and Trans Films That Are Actually about Straight People. Vulture. September 16, 2015. http://www.vulture. com/2015/09/when-queer-films-are-still-aboutstraight-people.html. Web. 41
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Eye-Was Dancing Identities With echoing tap shoes and a whale-pitched screech, pasty, yellow-skinned, adultbodied Pasta skips down the road where she encounters baby Polly. She carries Polly into a modest, white suburban home projecting atomic explosions and a psychedelic jungle through its front door. Leaning over Polly in bed and speaking in campy falsetto, Pasta shows Polly printed images of her child-self: a young blond-haired boy, Jengo. “In 25 years [from 2007], we won’t have baby Polly anymore. We just won’t need her,” claims Pasta, or rather Uri Anderson Somerset, or more accurately perhaps, the formerly readably male-gendered Jengo. Artist Ryan Trecartin plays Pasta, a recurring presence in his feature length film I-Be Area (2007). In the film, Trecartin employs some of the tools of more traditional narrative filmmaking as the foundation from which he creates not just an art film, but an unsettling and stimulating audiovisual experience. Beginning with the purchase-adoption of a young, black, American-flag-color-clothed, dancing girl and concluding with a “power prop” pregnancy dance-song from the blue-bodypainted BodyLanguage Band, I-Be Area positions dance as an act performed not only between fleshed bodies, but also between racial and sexual identities. This identity dance is itself warped by a digital click-dance of high-speed cuts, iMovie transition effects, and prosthetic body attachments. By sitting in duration with these alteration-edits, a world seemingly not-so-serious becomes increasingly layered. What can watching I-Be
/ Camera and Other Edits Zander Porter Area articulate about the effects of identity, often positioned by Trecartin as virtual or pretend? How do these effects work to describe relations between viewer, performers, and screen? I, as a watcher-listener, perform a dance with my eyes as they dart across the YouTubehosted movie-box on the screen of my MacBook Pro. Trecartin and his collaborators maintain near-constant eye contact with the camcorder lens-vortex while I look at their pixel-bodies – mutual yet temporally distinct surveillances mediated by my screen. This camera-omnipresent and chaos-driven world fuses formal unintelligibility and overdriven internet imageries, which conjure not just surveillance but a world of associations derived from 21st century cyborg lives. Extrapolating from Hito Steyerl’s words on museum-installed cinematic experiences (from The Wretched of the Screen), interactive spectatorship (or visual-tasting) of Trecartin and his caricatured selves betrays the illusion of “cinematic duration. [...] In circulating through the [digital] space, spectators are actively montaging, combining, zapping fragments—effectively co-curating the [movie-]show” (Steyerl 70). I understand Trecartin’s films not as passively digestible objects, but rather experience-files, zap-activated by subjectively felt humors as audio-visual flavors. I-Be Area celebrates a kind of wretchedness in Steyerl’s book title. Considering I-Be Area as both a visual art object and fleeting performance can be helpful because of how its multitudinous visual-sonic and linguistic signs render it devoid of strong
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semiotics. These images, sounds, and gestures produce meanings and references that feel difficult to describe coherently. Mårten Spångberg’s manifesto-essay “A Dance That Is” aligns dance with a kind of anti-semiotics, in which he proclaims that “to engage in dancing is not a matter of language or writing; it’s a particular kind of carpenting” (Spångberg 2). Though not a work of site-specific movement, I-Be Area functions as a museuminstalled or internet-site-specific documentation of a virtual screen-dance. It instead dances among the visual and linguistic semiotics of the internet – from digitized weather effects to the neologism “command-V” as a method for human cloning. I-Be Area collapses its overabundant semiotics into becoming a dance object. Some can relegate the film to the nonsensical, but what happens when it is read as performance, “one that minds its own
business, not one that I know what it means already before I start it up[?]” (Spångberg 2). Reading with underdetermined semiotics, I-Be Area becomes a dance that “escapes semio-capitalism” (Spångberg 1), a movie which finds a queerer trade-interaction of social capital between variously aged bodies of viewers and performers. Yellowskinned, blond-wigged, and caked in red, white, and turquoise makeup, the character Pasta is at home in Trecartin’s aestheticized reality, whose pre-smartphone-era props and representation of people-as-social-mediaprofiles confuse temporal legibility. Trecartin and his collaborator characters of a similar 20-30 age group, in a vocally pitch-shifted alliance of irony and tech-savviness, characterize I-Be Area’s rearticulation of normativity. The less edited children, babies, moms, and elders positioned around them illustrate
a “who’s in / who’s out” complex, a campy line-in-the-sand characterization of Trecartin’s semiotic-generational penchants. For example, while Pasta tells stories to baby Polly sitting on a queen-size bed, she also talks on a flip-phone to Sen-teen (aka Wendy M-PEGgy), who, half facially covered in red and blue, falls over her series of lesbian paintings midconversation, announcing “it hurt like shit” to phone, camera, and Pasta. M-PEGgy’s shrills and Pasta’s tap shoes echo together, yet baby Polly is unaffected. Instead, Pasta’s sonically overwhelming attentions satisfy a responsive and smiling baby. Pasta inquires, “Polly, listen, I need to know. Tell me about your age. What is your team like?” Here she ironizes the failure to connect her and Polly’s points on an intergenerational and technological time continuum. Polly’s very selfhood gets articulated by Trecartin as inseparable from her future
cyborgian identity-glitches. Pasta desires to both perform for and imagine a failed future of baby Polly: Their intergenerational kinship casts Pasta as a utopic entertainer-mentor who juggles Polly as discardable young life. Moments between Pasta and Polly seem to dialectically position the optimistic potential of queer futurity in José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia next to the impossibilities of queer life-making in Lee Edelman’s No Future. With Pasta lamenting “I want to feel babies grow inside of me,” perhaps baby Polly’s future depends on these queer theories’ coexistence, on a shift away from reproductive binarism or understandings of queerness as somehow unrelated to Polly’s burgeoning cyborg being. After Pasta’s time with Polly, Pasta renames herself Amerisha. Still closely resembling Pasta, Amerisha enters a roomful of the middle-aged Other Moms from Mother
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Everyone, one of whom calls Pasta “Oliver” – dismissing her new name-identity and the gendered performance she carries. In return, Amerisha calls the moms in the room “wrong fuckers” and the women applaud in stupor as the longest-haired of them flails her arms eccentrically. The density and speed of events between Polly and Pasta and Sen-teen and Other Moms from Mother Everyone characterize the impossible digestibility of I-Be Area, as each of the movie’s many scenes involves such compression. I-Be Area illustrates a perpetual audition of identity, where identity is mimetic, coming from ideas of other characters, digital artifacts, or familiar/familial relationpositions. This reads alarmingly in the case of the movie’s opening, the self-monetization of a young black girl’s dancing/auditioning body, or it reads more humorously as in copy-paste body cloning, pasta-as-name, and, “That was cute, yeah; your hair looked really cute.” Collective identity amasses as groups of bodies inclining towards total mimetic unification. Zombie moms applaud, and two younger girls respond with mirrored gestures, “Whatever, you don’t even know me.” In her “After Affect: Sympathy, Synchrony, and Mimetic Communication,” Anna Gibbs introduces mimesis as “an image in which figure and ground can always be reversed, so that sometimes subjectivity is in focus, while at other times it recedes into the background, leaving something new to appear in its place” (Gibbs 187). I-Be Area performs similar reversals of subjectivity. Multivocalized recitations accentuate certain affects and language over individual characters’ identity positions. Subjective feelings
about a character or scene are often better illustrated by the familiarity of the half-virtual half-real forest/room which contains them. In the case of Pasta, subsumed into her evolution Amerisha, the variability of her identity becomes apparent. Formerly/being Jengo, whose representation is a young boy locked in a changing room dungeon where moms in wigs burglarize a jewelry store, Pasta stands out as Trecartin’s experimentation with identity instability. I consider the ways my own subjectivity reverses in light of the ways I desire to see myself mimetically in Pasta, a process made exceedingly complicated when holding Pasta’s multiple related bodies, genders, and relations in memory. At one point, a character named Soda Pop repeats one of Trecartin’s character’s lines verbatim, and a different Trecartin character (Onlineboy?) responds, “Hey, that’s what I say, Soda Pop; in natural life, that’s what I say.” These mimetic connections “are a result of contagious processes in which affect plays a central part. […] [Affect emerges] as an asubjective force in a perspective from which the human appears as an envelope of possibilities rather than the finite totality or essence represented by the idea of the individual” (Gibbs 187). Trecartin’s copycat character above, in his similarity to former characters played by Trecartin, is the performative “non-natural-life”-version of itself, a mimetic body-copy emerged from the envelope of possibilities described by Gibbs. Trecartin’s work visualizes Gibbs’s concept of affectation performed in mimesis: I-Be Area itself auditions a grotesque and excessive imagining of affect within a high-pitched internet machine
that crunches out permutations of the same phrases and bodies for characters to grab onto like blips of mimetic identity, only to be immediately discarded and for characters to change names and again forget who they were and who surrounds them – distracted by camera eyes or their selves. Trecartin’s characters mimic not only each other, but ideas about what an increasingly mediatized future may look like. For example, the entertainment complex industry becomes equated with family identity-relations (“I want this to be a music video; that’s what my mom likes, it’ll bring her home if she finds it”) or cyborg-fantastical area-capitalism (“I hate how new mer-people wander around shape-shifting other people’s property that don’t know how to open doors and dress themselves”). Incessant camera gazing and OTT narcissisms betray a dystopian fear of plugged-in alienation, an internet-hosted apocalypse. “I don’t wanna talk about the end of the world, or even fake talk, or even funny talk, or even real talk,” says Trecartin’s hotel room-trapped character (whose name is possibly Torithelesbiansuicidebomber), speaking to the selfiecam. But “it’s so popular, I could plan a plague tomorrow, and everybody would just roll their eyes in boredom. Tomorrow, until they die.” These words both echo deep-internet doomsday theory and, as performed by Trecartin’s “daydream farting” hallucinatory body-minds,
give rise to newly affected language. In his essay “He Stuttered,” Gilles Deleuze describes this kind of linguistic transformation as “a creation of syntax that gives birth to a foreign language within language, a grammar of disequilibrium” (Deleuze 112). This helps to understand Trecartin’s film, an art object whose main aural component is spoken language used as a “pure dance of words” (Deleuze 112). This feels similar to the movie’s earlier-mentioned visual-semiotic overabundance, but here instead, we feel linguistic-semiotic overstimulation. Trecartin’s performers at once seem to abide by a written script while simultaneously infusing and disobeying it with hysteria, unprovoked unaffectedness, and sex: flailing characters scream-dancing “I hated it!” / “you just be recording shit” before a blip of surprisingly real penetrative anal sex: “I want that cameraman to fuck my avatar in my trashcan, making him deserve his independence.” In its last 20 minutes, the film collapses in on itself. Characters begin destruction of the studio sets, at this point a colorfully perverted girl’s bedroom and a jungly gymclassroom filled with tablesaws and figurative paintings. Now boundaries that separated space and scenes from one another are removed, enlarging the play area. The dance-as-carpentry (Spångberg) that evolves
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from the film’s warbled becoming, defining the film until now, unites with breaking glass and razed wood-scaffolding. During this destructive conclusion, Pasta returns by emerging from a gym locker. This time, her interloping presence intrudes on the “area” of Jaime, played by Trecartin’s frequent collaborator Lizzie Fitch. Pasta says Jaime’s area “makes me feel like I don’t have a friendship,” and Jaime, hunting for Pasta because she smells her, screams, “You know not to go camping around my area without a permit, you pervert, poor piece of food.” Jaime’s alliance soon seems to realize they’re “clairvoying a Pasta-melt,” and it’s not long before Pasta finds herself flattened out onto Jaime’s room wall, with Jaime excited to have “made” such a pasta melt at her slumber party.
In Pasta’s final melt, I am reminded of early-childhood social relations. Trecartin uses area to denote both size of space and boundaries of friendship, beyond which Pasta experiences (social) death. I attempt to trace Pasta’s own identity-area construction throughout her body-forms in I-Be Area: In the movie’s beginning, the second of the two auditioning children talent-show-tapdances throughout his audition. The connection between Pasta and this not-Jengo tapping boy is the two’s echoing tap shoes, a sonic implication of identity similitude or gender evolution. Pasta’s tapping perhaps originates mimetically from the tapping child’s very identity at the
point of his adoption-acquisition, almost as if an adoption could be successful as a result of the sounds of tap shoes. The camera zooms out to show the young boy’s tap dancing playing on a small tv screen to a roomful of young adults surrounding an older woman. Named HeadParent, the woman acquires the tapping boy, admitting, “I want that little person in our lives, running the drama department immediately.” Soon, as academic-institutional half-mom, she commands a nearby Laurie the Dancer to give a talent show right then right and there. The tapping boy, never appearing again with his little-boy-form, recurs as Pasta, tap dancing on the sidewalk towards baby Polly. I-Be Area resonates as literal and nonliteral dances, those that serve as performance-auditions and those that authoritatively receive such auditions and subse-
quently choreograph more dancing, as in authorial HeadParent’s attention-consuming, gendered, body/age power exerted over her younger cohorts. In watching, I feel interpolated into the film as one of these younger performance-receivers, my watching and engagement an important area-adhesive to I-Be Area’s dance. My area creates “a heuristic for innovation” (Gibbs 203): a space for new imaginings of being-together between myself, HeadParent, and the computer screen. Pasta, in her identity-morphing and recurring presences, communicates between generations and breaches Jaime’s area – resulting in her murder-melt. I imagine her, warm and sticky, being command-V-recycled back into the YouTube page upon which I watch the film, in order for her, hopefully, to evolve again, and interlope between future-watching identities and generations. A young-teenage
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Charity in one of I-Be Area’s earlier transient scenes suggests the language of her generation “doesn’t deal with direct sarcasm.” I exit, feeling a pleasure of Zander-melt, contemplating Trecartin’s regurgitated suggestions for encountering evolved sarcasms of evolving babies. The effects of such pleasures are refreshing, like the movie’s characters’ – and hopefully also my – command-R identity deaths.
Bibliography Deleuze, Gilles. “He Stuttered.” Essays Critical and Clinical. London: Verso Book, 1998. 107-14. Print. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print. Gibbs, Anna. “After Affect: Sympathy, Synchrony, and Mimetic Communication.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 186-203. Print. I-Be Area. Dir. Ryan Trecartin. By Ryan Trecartin. Perf. Ryan Trecartin, Lizzie Fitch, Raúl de Nieves, Alison Powell, Katrina, Kelly Pittenger. I-Be Area (Full Movie). AAAAAAAAAA42, 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2016. <https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=V27rH6b5ub4>. Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York City: New York UP, 2009. Print. Spångberg, Mårten. “A Dance That Is.” Spangbergianism. Mårten Spång berg, 15 Sept. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. <https://spangbergianism.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/a-dance-that-is/>. Steyerl, Hito. “Is the Museum a Factory?” The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg, 2012. 61-76. Print.
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Darren Aronofskyâ€™s 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan received five Oscar nominations, with Natalie Portman taking home the award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Nina Sayers, a tortured prima ballerina at a prestigious New York City-based ballet company. In total, it won 90 awards and was nominated 247 times. Seven years later, it is still a compelling addition to any cinephileâ€™s collection, but there remain deep misgivings about the world of it ballet due to the way the film portrays them that need to be addressed. When Nina unexpectedly rises to the top of her company, she is forced to face her inner demons through the split role of the White and Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake. Though she
Red, Black, Gold: Revisiting Black Swan and the Ballet Film Rebecca Foster
of earlier ballet films, such as 1948 classic The Red Shoes. Like Nina, professional dancer Victoria Page is driven to suicide by the pressures of her life as a dancer. Split between a callous, but brilliant instructor and possessive boyfriend, Victoria is forced to choose between romantic love and complete dedication to her art. Her instructor insists that “the dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer.” In the film’s conclusion, Victoria’s red pointe shoes take over her body and dance her to exhaustion, spurring her to suicide in front of a train. The implication of films like The Red Shoes and Black Swan is that ballet dancers who achieve greatness are simultaneously plagued by intense psychological torment and must endure the relentless criticism of bullies. In order to be great, a dancer must “feel,” and “feeling” inevitably entails madness. Lauren Cuthbertson, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, says “[Black Swan] makes ballet look as though it’s all blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice.” What about the joy, the pleasure that courses through physical perfection? Instead, the best dancers are portrayed as totally consumed by their craft. They are expected to dedicate every aspect of their lives to the roles they are playing on stage, or else they are not true artists. Gottlieb observes that for dancers in ballet films, “You have to become a monster to succeed— or sleep with the boss.” In a way, Nina does both. In Black Swan, she literally transforms into a terrifying black swan and murders her rival in a fiery hallucination. She also passively obeys her dance instructor when he demands her to “open [her] mouth” as he tries to kiss her. He later tells her to go home and touch herself in order to “feel” something deep and emotional, as if this will enhance the power of her performance, as if sexual stimulation is the only way to achieve true, artistic passion. Because dance is all she has known (to the point that she loses any capacity for self-respect), Nina obeys his request. Nina and other dancers in ballet films are single-minded: dance is all they have to live for. And if they desire to care for something other than
captures the delicate White Swan with ease, the ferocity and sensuality demanded by the role of the Black Swan is at odds with her typically reserved manner and deliberate technical perfection. She can’t quite seem to get it right. Through this struggle, the film explores a tormented human psyche; disturbing images of hallucinatory bird-human hybrids, bleeding knife wounds, and ferocious love scenes punctuate Nina’s descent into insanity— a spiral that carries all the trappings of time well spent. Nina’s helicopter mother, ruthless dance instructor and free-spirited rival, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), send her spiraling into madness for the parts of herself she cannot understand. At one point, consumed by the innate evil in her role as the Black Swan, Nina scratches away at her skin with fingers that morph into talons, anticipating her full and grotesque transformation into a black swan. Near the film’s conclusion, moments before going on stage to perform Swan Lake, she stabs herself in the stomach, thinking that she is wounding her rival lost as she is in the fractured psycologies of the roles she plays. Despite these many elements that made the film an instant box office success, Black Swan was highly criticized by the dance world for its clichéd treatment of dance. It was successful in revealing some truths about the nature of ballet, showing cracked toenails from point shoes, competition for the best roles, and dancers’ incredible physical dedication; and it was even successful in its artistic pursuit as a whole. However, in the beauty of its visual elements, Black Swan perpetuates a reductive image of the ballet world, diluting the complexities of dancers’ lives into a series of ugly stereotypes. In an interview in The Guardian, Tamara Rojo, artistic director and principal dancer with the English National Ballet, called Black Swan “a very lazy movie, featuring every ballet cliché going.” The dark content in Black Swan is not new to films featuring dance. Robert Gottlieb of The Observer remarks that Black Swan “deploys and exaggerates…all the old, ugly misrepresentations” 53
i n t e r c u t Nina is supposed to be a phenomenal artist, yet she is played by someone with no real understanding of the ballet world. Even worse, after the film’s release, Aronofsky and others who worked closely on the film largely attributed Nina’s dancing in the film to Portman herself in an effort to boost her chances at winning the Oscar for Best Actress. In reality, Sarah Lane, soloist with the American Ballet Theatre and Portman’s body double in the film, deserves the recognition. In contrast, and to the credit of The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, who plays professional ballerina Victoria Page in the film, was an internationally renowned ballerina at the time. The film stars real dancers and foregrounds the work of the true artists (rather than intentionally concealing their identities and throwing them under the bus). Rob Kirkpatrick of The Huffington Post notes that Black Swan is advertised as “auteur highart” due to the sizeable list of impressive names attached to the project, masking over its many misgivings. In reality, the film exploits all the clichés of ballet for the sake of entertainment and sets them against a dark milieu without demonstrating any real appreciation for the talent, dedication, and lives of real ballet dancers like Sarah Lane. 90 awards and 247 nominations is great for business, but integrity is not predicated on business. Instead of continuing to glorify films about ballet that perpetuate the same tortured-artist stereotypes, we should look to films that manage to use ballet to tell a story without disrespecting it, and the artists who practice it, in the process. The Turning Point with Leslie Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov, or Black Tights and Hans Christian Anderson with Zizi Jeanmaire and Roland Petit are a few good examples. These are films that capture the heart of ballet and continue to inspire young artists rather than simply casting them into tired Hollywood metaphors in the shapes of phony golden men.
dance, like Victoria Page in The Red Shoes, they will be forced to make a choice, or else meet their inevitable demise. However, this destructive pattern does not hold true for ballet dancers in the real world of professional ballet. Cassa Pancho, artistic director of Ballet Black, argues, “The most realistic character [in Black Swan] was Lily, who smokes and has fun.” She is Nina’s antithesis—laidback and happy. She too is extremely dedicated to ballet, but it is clear that she has a diverse personal life separate from her art, which much better imitates the lives of real dancers. Of course, it is also made clear that Lily is not as talented as Nina, for how could she be when she is not experiencing immense suffering for the sake of her art? Critics in favor of Black Swan argue that the film self-consciously plays with these dark clichés with the intent of creating a disturbing, reflexive piece of entertainment. They assert that the film does not try to mimic any realistic image of the ballet world; it is rather a self-contained metaphorical narrative. However, I would argue that Black Swan in fact attempts and succeeds in revealing certain elements of truth in its storyline about the physical and emotional demands of ballet. It breaks down any sense that ballet is entirely glamorous, but, in that deconstruction, it sacrifices authenticity. In pushing beyond a romantic image of dance, the film focuses too much on the story’s creepy metaphors and thus reduces the realistic details it draws from to oversimplified clichés. Rather than providing an honest exploration of dancers’ lives and reflecting meaningfully on them, Black Swan merely uses ballet to complement the plot’s principal goals to thrill and terrify the audience. Tamara Rojo explains in The Guardian, “Ballet isn’t something you can just add on. The characters are important because they’re dancers – and if they aren’t very good ones, it doesn’t make sense.” In the case of Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky cast Natalie Portman, a non-dancer, to play a professional ballerina and, in doing so, failed to show a level of respect for the value of the art. 54
“I’ve never been killed by hitmen, so I don’t know what it’s like in the moments just before you’re killed by hitmen, but I bet it’s not unlike when you’re on the subway and you realize that a mariachi band is about to start playing. Just that brief moment where you’re reading and you’re like ‘Oh, a guitar player. Oh, another guitar player. Oh, an accordion player-OOOOH NOOOO.’ [singing] ‘BA DA SE WA TA DE WA DA DE. THIS IS THE LOUDEST THING IN THE WORLD.’” (John Mulaney, New in Town, 2012)
There are certain moments in the movies that are analogous to comedian John Mulaney’s apt description of realizing a mariachi band is about to play. We are calm and unsuspecting; our guard is lowered, as is normal. Then, we become suspicious of some approaching danger—then we are sure of it. Time seems to slow down and immediately speed up. We have that moment to think “OH NO,” and then someone on screen is attacked. It’s not quite a jumpscare. Or, it is, but it’s a specific type of jumpscare. It’s craftier than your usual fare, for which there is typically a suspenseful buildup, then a moment of relaxation to (theoretically) lower our guard, then the scare. This type of scare has fewer stylistic cues to warn us, but it’s not completely out of nowhere. The All-of-a-SuddenScare: it feels like it happens suddenly because we are given none of the typical cues that a jumpscare is coming. Our suspicion builds more suddenly as we wait. Here we will examine two All-of-aSudden-Scares for their formal similarities as well as how their differences fulfill their films’ distinct narrative functions. The All-of-a-Sudden-Scare (from now on, referred to as the ASS) in David Fincher’s The Girl
Shot, All of a Sudden: A Comparison of Form in Casino Royale and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Eli Sands
i n t e r c u t acts this arc by asserting Bond’s stealth, suaveness, and—well, he carries a big gun. He always has to be the one on top, as the last shot of the movie frames him. The ASS of the ending reassures the Bond purist viewer that James is still the dominant model of masculinity (a discussion of how so follows). This is, as it has always been in the James Bond series, a problematic aspect of his character, yet it is what the ending accomplishes. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the ASS comes at the end of the third act. Mikael Blumkvist and the intense, wickedly skilled Lisbeth Salander (though we meet Mikael first, it’s really her movie) have been investigating a mysterious disappearance together, circling the truth slowly. The ASS here is the first direct attack on the detectives (mutilated cat notwithstanding) and the purpose of the scare is to up the stakes—the villain means business. Suddenly, the protagonists are in high, constant danger, from a faceless source that knows where they live and, apparently, where they go. It’s an effective and frightening way to launch into the fourth act. Stepping closer to look within each of these scenes, we see that the ASS’s also have different build-ups. They both quietly build the sense that something is about to happen, but with different styles of warning. Casino Royale truly starts its buildup to its ASS in the previous scene, when Bond finds Mr. White’s phone. With that knowledge, subsequently seeing Mr. White drive his car up to the mansion lets us know what’s coming. The question is not if, but when and how. Campbell lets us sit with this question for twenty-five seconds of Mr. White parking, getting out of his car and staring at the view. Mr. White gets his call, then talks with Bond for five seconds until he is shot (how Bond manages to so precisely fire a gun as he holds a phone up to his ear is beyond my knowledge. I guess that’s why he’s a secret agent and I’m a civilian). Bond is effectively shattering Mr. White’s luxurious sanctuary. A line of Mr. White’s dialogue, “who’s this?,” directly precedes the shot, which lulls
with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) always sticks out in my memory. At the 1:35:32 mark, Mikhael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), exits the Wanger’s cabin, which he has just covertly investigated alone. He comes to a standstill and looks around. Four seconds into that shot, a tree explodes behind him and we hear the echo of a gunshot. That four-second pause before the shot takes us through the arc of an ASS: calm, increasingly suspicious, OH NO, the attack. The second scene is from Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006). In the final minutes of the movie, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) emerges from his car outside his mansion, stares out at the view, then receives a call on his cell phone. He picks it up and walks toward his home, only to be shot in the leg by an unseen Bond, who then emerges to state the standard, “The name’s Bond. James Bond” before the credits roll. I’ve specifically chosen these two scenes for their controls: they both have sudden gunfire from off screen, they ultimately go for the same emotional effect of squeezing the adrenal gland for a moment, they both have Daniel Craig. But it’s where they differ that illustrates the subtlety of directing a scene, and how a device can be tweaked for a different narrative purpose. *** First, it is worth examining where in the story each scene takes place, as this can help to shed light on what is accomplished for the narrative arc. In Casino Royale, the ASS comes right at the end. Bond has faced a brutal rebirth from the camp of Pierce Brosnan into the Bourne-steeped grit of the mid-2000s. He has lost his smirk (a Bond who cries?), his love interest, and quite nearly his patent Bond Testicles™. I say this jokingly, but it really does come down to this: his classic Bond manhood, all the off-putting Bond masculinity that has defined the character has been challenged for over two hours of runtime. The ending counter56
i n t e r c u t camera jolting downwards as he falls in pain (the camera had been tilting up slightly as Mr. White walked towards us, making for a transition from smooth movement into the attack). Additionally, there is the scare chord in the score track as the bullet hits. It’s an amalgamation of elements that conveys the surprise and disorientation of being shot ‘all of a sudden.’ All is quiet as White writhes, then he begins to crawl towards his mansion. Fincher makes the scare explosive by countering his style. Throughout the film (as well as his wider filmography), Fincher tends to employ either a smoothly gliding or a locked-down camera. The camerawork is calm, and in the case of the shot with the bullet here, completely still. The violence shatters that calm. Like in Casino Royale, the camera darts down with Mikael as he ducks, but it had been completely still beforehand, making for a greater contrast. All the audio through the scare is diegetic. We get the burst of the bullet against the tree, shrapnel spraying, Mikael grunting, then the echo from the far away rifle. All is quiet as Mikael stands upright again and feels the blood on his forehead, and we have a moment to process what’s happened along with him. It’s startling and realistically aligned with Mikael’s subjectivity. After the ASS’s, the scenes continue. For the most part, the goal is to keep the heart racing after the scare, but again the two movies differ. Campbell’s goal is to slowly step from Mr. White’s experience of the attack into Bond’s, then back to Mr. White again to look up to Bond in the end. As Mr. White crawls to his house, the camera is handheld in front of his pained face. Camera steady on Mr. White as he reaches his stairs, Bond’s shadow slinks across his victim. We track on the action of Bond’s movement upwards, entering that low angle of Bond holding his gun and his phone as the Bond music trickles in. Campbell is taking us from the fear Mr. White feels to a testosterone-fueled admiration of Bond himself, even as we look up from what is close to Mr. White’s subjective view. It is from this low angle, that Bond delivers the classic
the audience into the unsafe assumption that the attack won’t happen during a spoken line. There is an interesting conflict in perspectives here: we are with Mr. White in his experience, yet we know what’s coming. We are really halfway between his and Bond’s perspectives. We get that same adrenaline rush Mr. White gets, even as the brassy Bond chord hits on the soundtrack, so we get to simultaneously feel Bond’s domination through his victim and through the high Bond himself feels. It is a complex position, and the ASS aids that complicated goal. Fincher crafts the buildup differently, and the key here is expositional setup. As is typical of a mystery movie, each scene is a step forward in the investigation, and usually at the end of each scene there is a line or discovery that lets the audience know where the next destination will be. Effectively, it’s a way of making sure the audience isn’t lost in a new place; we know why we’re here and what the goal of the scene is. This is not the case for the ASS scene. Why are we suddenly outside with Mikael simply pacing? There’s no dialogue to hold onto. What’s the goal of this scene? Fincher doesn’t tell us or give us warning, and he is notoriously economical, so any apparently wasted time would be instantly glaring. As viewers, we have maybe five to ten seconds of screen time before we start to wonder what’s up and become suspicious. Fincher plays that understanding up to the hilt. We get two shots: Mikael walks up a hill outside the shack towards us as we slowly track back; then he stops and waits those critical four seconds before the ASS. We have just enough time to suspect, then dread an incoming attack, which makes the ASS particularly alarming. I’ve watched the scene many times and I can still never predict exactly when it will occur. Next, let’s examine the scare itself within each scene. Visually, Casino Royale creates momentary confusion: the bullet lands in Mr. White’s leg off-screen. The cues that he’s been shot are the dust that the bullet whips up, his scream, and the 58
den-Scare, its placement in the story, how it matches with the film’s style, its buildup, its release, and its aftertaste, differently, and to different effect. When directing, knowing exactly what you want to say can mean employing those quietly different techniques to different ends. It’s worth thinking about exactly what the director is trying to say; what message or agenda is being pushed on the audience. In the case of Casino Royale, an interrogation of why James Bond is portrayed as so heterotypically masculine is a worthy endeavor. For The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an examination of how Mikael manifests his masculinity (and vulnerability) is a key part of considering the arc of Lisbeth, far and away the most interesting and complex character in the movie. The fine-tuning of every scene, every shot, adds up to a statement. Look for the trick before the movie is done and you’ve consumed its message. If you don’t, the realization that you’ve internalized without question may make you feel like you’ve been shot all of a sudden.
line: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” The movie ends with a cut to black and the invigorating thrill chords of the theme song. Ultimately, this ending for the scene accomplishes the goal established earlier: by experiencing Mr. White’s fear, then stepping more towards Bond’s cool dominance, we are left with a full impression of Bond, his danger and his intrigue. We get to taste both from a subjective view. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has different goals; it wants to keep the tension and fear up to carry into the next act. As Blumkvist stands in shock, feeling his cut, Trent Reznor’s ticking, nervous music kicks in—Mikael realizes he should be running about now. The camera tracks smoothly and quickly through the woods as Mikael sprints laterally to us. This sequence is broken into four of these tracking shots that create an antsy nervousness. The score ticks away atmospherically. Intercutting Mikael’s flight with Lisbeth installing cameras on their house further obscures what’s happening to Mikael and builds tension. When he finally arrives home safe, the music recedes and we can relax. The sum of this scene is a feeling of intense paranoia and fear. It’s a turning point in the investigation—this incident was a close call, and now we feel highly anxious for the protagonists for the rest of the runtime. Fincher, with his ASS, tightens the noose. *** This discussion may seem needlessly specific. Neither of the scenes in question are longer than three minutes of their respective films. In the movies, every specific choice in what is seen or heard ties back to overall purpose of the director. Each piece of what the audience takes in, down to the finest minutia and creative decision, shows how the movie functions as a whole. A device, even in tonally similar movies— even in two movies that both star Daniel Craig— can be used to affect the audience in different ways. Campbell and Fincher construct the All-of-a-Sud59
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i n t e r c u t be. The ideas in the story are fascinating, but its enduring appeal comes from Borges’s detached narrative style, which is distinctly bookish and academic, while still retaining a tone of casual playfulness. The sheer density of ideas he packs into each paragraph gives the reader the impression of Borges himself as one of these mystical Librarians, as though they have stumbled upon an entire infinite world of the imagination conjured up between a few pages of text. It is a prime example of modernist medium specificity, the concept so perfectly married with the medium; reading a book about books adds an inevitable layer of reflexivity to the experience that doubles down on the story’s literariness and enhances the tangibility of its themes. Extending out towards the reader, the physical book itself is manifested as the continuity of its diegetic content, a unit externalizing its internal structure to be found within a library or bookshop and reprinted in ever-increasing translations. The proliferation of Borges’s text creates its own sort of infinity as long as physical books continue to be manufactured, with eBooks providing an even further proliferation of endless content. There is even a real website that someone made, bringing the concept of the Library of Babel to fruition. Digital or physical, “The Library of Babel” is nothing if not infinitely literary, a hallof-mirrors of textuality and intertextuality that has crossed over from its narrative plane into the bookshelves that populate our own world. Despite their origins on the page, the richness of Borges’s mind-bending concepts make his ideas a tantalizing prospect for film adaptations. The cross-pollination between Borges’ short stories and films has a long history, with several direct adaptations of his work and innumerous films incorporating Borgesian ideas. Popular director Christopher Nolan, for instance, is a self-professed fan of Borges’s work. Nolan has used Borges’s stories and ideas as a basis for a number of his films (if you want to know the seemingly ambiguous truth of Inception, read Borges’s “The Circular
Among Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges’ many enduring metaphysical obsessions, infinity may be the most pervasive. A daunting concept, infinity encompasses seemingly contradictory aspects like recursion and disorder, fragmentation and wholeness, the imaginary and unimaginable. Appropriately, Borges explored the concept from a variety of perspectives over the course of his lengthy career. With stories tracing the infinitely branching paths of time (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), seeing infinity condensed into a single point or object (“The Aleph”, “The Zahir”), or imagining a book with infinite pages (“The Book of Sand”), the motif recurs through his work in seemingly endless permutations. One of Borges’s most famous stories, 1941’s “The Library of Babel”, offers a strikingly specific vision of infinity that is rife with both literary imagination and mathematical precision. “The Library of Babel” imagines a vast, geometrical library which comprises the entirety of an alternate universe. The library is rigidly symmetrical, divided into identical hexagonal rooms, each containing four bookshelves stacked with 410-page books containing all possible permutations of twenty-five characters, arranged randomly. A bit like the classic monkey-typewriter thought experiment, the Library is said to contain every book ever written, as well as those not yet written, scattered among inconceivably large amounts of books full of nonsense. The library is populated by Librarians whose lives consist of nothing but reading and searching for rare or legendary books, or developing strange superstitions or cults. After establishing the initial spatial conditions of the library, Borges sidesteps plot and instead uses the story as an opportunity to explore philosophical concepts, touching on fate, religion, order, chaos, and of course, infinity. At the story’s conclusion, Borges’s narrator remarks: “The Library is limitless and recurrent,” and his conclusion suggests a transcendent order in randomness, incomprehensible as it may 62
the shots swooping forward through the labyrinth of bookshelves. In some ways, it nearly resembles a 3D model of Borges’s literary blueprint. But through this surface-level borrowing, Nolan captures the framework of the story, and not the spirit. The extra reflexive weight that “The Library of Babel” acquires through its medium, (as a compact short story in a book about books, which a reader might conceivably find in a bookshelf) is lost in Nolan’s grandiose three-hour movie about space travel and love that also happens to have a scene featuring some bookshelves. To give Nolan some credit, there’s something to be said about the bookshelf ’s connection to nostalgia, especially in a nostalgic movie made by a director who expresses certain nostalgic tendencies, among them his devotion to film as a medium in an increasingly digital world (who nonetheless uses highly advanced technology to visualize CGI black holes). So it could be said that the climax is reflective of the film as a whole in its synthesis of the simple and nostalgic with complex advanced science and technology, hinging as it does on the connection between Coop and his daughter’s childhood bedroom. There’s some appeal to the ancient communication medium of books as a four-dimensional delivery system for a complex world-saving mathematical formula from the future. That’s all fine and good within the context of the film, but it still diminishes the richness of “The Library of Babel” into just another piece of Nolan’s jigsaw puzzle of a plot; his borrowing reduces the story to a CGI set piece which is divorced of any of its original context and deprives it of a proper filmic realization. Nolan’s infinity is claustrophobic, immobilized, suspended within a bloated three-hour drama. And like much of the rest of Interstellar, the tesseract is visualized in a typically Nolan style, that is to say, “gritty realism” at the expense of the potential for a more interesting and colorful visual imagination. See Inception versus Paprika for a further example of Nolan’s ability to sap the vibrancy from
Ruins”), and his 2014 space epic Interstellar is no exception. Interstellar is already an amalgamation of various ideas from past sci-fi books and films, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from other, better works. The Borges inspiration comes relatively late in the film, but serves a pivotal role in the plot and provides the movie’s most cerebral set-piece. In the climax of the film, NASA pilot and sad-dad Coop (Matthew McConaughey) enters a black hole, and subsequently a four-dimensional tesseract, which offers a trippy window of sorts into his daughter Murph’s bedroom at all points in time. Nolan’s practical/digital hybrid visualization of the space, (symmetrical, geometrical, uniform, infinite) recalls “The Library of Babel,” compounded by the fact that Coop sees and interacts with the space through Murph’s bookshelf, echoing the theme of the total library. And as a token of Nolan’s admission to the homage, the bookshelf contains a copy of Borges’s Labyrinths, a collection featuring the story. If that wasn’t enough, along with the dimension-bending artwork of M.C. Escher, Nolan has directly cited Borges as an influence on the film in interviews. That “The Library of Babel” influenced Interstellar’s tesseract scene is neither news nor a topic worth exploring in and of itself. Rather, taking the influence as a given, I’m suggesting that for all its ground-breaking technical wizardry, Interstellar’s Borges homage is an empty appropriation which doesn’t do the story justice, and that “The Library of Babel’s” true filmic counterpart can be found in a Japanese experimental film from 1981. First, my issue with Interstellar (one of many, actually, but that’s for another article); the tesseract scene’s Borges quotation lifts the “The Library of Babel’s” concept alone, and guts it of any of its aesthetic relevance and medium specificity, as well as providing another example of Nolan’s dryly scientific imagination. Visually, the tesseract shares the “Library of Babel’s” infinitely recursive structure, and gets some mileage from 63
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Spacy is a â€œpureâ€? film, a concentrated dose of sound and image which exists in its own n o n - n a r r a t i ve plane of ecstatic world-creation. 64
the imagination. The infinite space of the library is both a place where the medium of literature is deconstructed and analyzed, and an example of literature’s power to create such spaces through the very medium it self-reflexively presents. It uses the medium of literature to create a world presenting the infinite possibilities of literature. Meanwhile, Spacy uses the medium of film to create an infinite world that could only exist on film. Like the words of Borges, still frames in motion are the building blocks of film, and Ito mashes 700 photographs together to create the illusion of motion, specifically a relentless, forward, rollercoaster-like motion. But, like the uniform and symmetrical hexagons or precise length of books in of Borges’s library, Ito’s world is governed by rules. The camera movements go from straight, forward motion to circular and parabolic motion, then from horizontal to vertical motion. It adds the element of control to what could otherwise be pure chaos, and unites the fragments of still images in a continuity of regular, infinite movement. The music in Spacy is also worth mentioning, a driving, repetitive electronic pattern which grows increasingly discordant and aggressive as the film stock changes colors and the movements become faster and more unpredictable. The music and sound compliment the images on screen, but don’t provide any narrative explanation like Coop’s expository dialogue in the tesseract. Rather, Spacy is a “pure” film, a concentrated dose of sound and image which exists in its own non-narrative plane of ecstatic world-creation. Like Borges’s short story, the short film Spacy isn’t concerned with storytelling as much as immersing the audience in a self-contained world, utilizing the constraints and strengths of its medium. Ito says his intention in filmmaking is to draw audiences “into a vortex of supernatural illusion by exercising the magic of films,” and I feel the same could be said of Borges’s fiction (substituting the magic of books). Each artist dazzles in their respective fields, and these two works in particular epitomize each respective
his source material. Stretching the limits of the word “adaptation,” I would suggest that a certain experimental short film does a better job of capturing Borgesian infinity than Interstellar’s attempt. Takashi Ito may not have the name recognition of Christopher Nolan, but his work is much closer in spirit to the metaphysical games of Borges. An experimental Japanese filmmaker emerging in the 1980s, Ito studied under the prominent avant-garde film artist Toshio Matsumoto at the Kyushu Institute of Design. Ito made a splash in 1981 with the debut of his experimental short film Spacy, which also served as his graduation thesis, and set the tone for much of the rest of his work in its distorted exploration of space. While Spacy has no direct connection to “The Library of Babel”, and I doubt that Ito was even aware of the story, to me the film is a much more successful rendering of the infinite of “The Library of Babel” through the specificities of the filmic medium. Its clever title already announcing its manipulation of space, Spacy is a ten-minute short consisting of 700 still photographs, cycled through rapidly to give the impression of motion. Shot in a gymnasium, the frames thrust the viewer forward into photographs of the gymnasium on poles, which fill the screen and become the starting point for the next sequence of camera movements, giving the viewer an impression of an infinitely expanding space, sort of like a hyperspeed version of Michael Snow’s Wavelength filtered through the videogame Portal. Due to its distinctly cinematic nature, it is a difficult effect to describe in words, so I would recommend watching the short on YouTube. Like the setting of “The Library of Babel,” Spacy presents the architecture of a seemingly infinite world. Borges crafts his world using the building blocks of literature, words. His story is about, among other things, the metaphysical wonder of literature as a system of inert symbols which, when arranged in a certain order, unlock 65
i n t e r c u t medium’s ability to depict infinity, making it possible to briefly glimpse the beauty of the sublime impossible. As a caveat, I have to acknowledge that using medium-specificity as a criteria for artistic “purity” or success has its issues, but I feel that, in this case, it is appropriate, as each of these works’ power is so closely interrelated with their utilization of the specific strengths of the medium in which they were created. And thanks to their brevity, both works can be returned to endlessly, their re-readability and re-watchability another component of the infinite built into their concise structures. The final shot of Spacy adds a layer of selfreflexivity which further aligns it with Borges, depicting Ito himself in a still photograph on the pole, the photographer taking a picture of a photograph of himself. It’s a Borgesian image in film form, and provides the perfect coda to a film that uses the cinematic apparatus to approach radical new ways of seeing space through images. Significantly, the camera is held at eye level and obscures Ito’s face, evoking the idea of the kino-eye and its potential to liberate the constraints of limited human point of view, so while it does put an end to the film’s infinite space and motion, it is an openended conclusion, almost like an introduction to Ito’s career in which he would go on to further stretch the limits of perception through images. Borges was blind by the time Spacy came out, and it’s doubtful he would have come across the film. Spacy and “The Library of Babel” may not actually each other in any tangible way. But I suggest that Ito’s film captures Borges’s depiction of infinity better than a film which was consciously inspired by the story. In Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s quotation of “The Library of Babel” reduces it to a plot device and set piece, but thirty years earlier, Takashi Ito created a work much closer in spirit, adapting its depiction of an infinite world from a literary space of word-symbols to a filmic space of movement-images.
Ozu by Jamie Cureton 67
i n t e r c u t ity of literature on Ozu tends to focus on the superficial aspects of his style that are essentialized as “Japanese”, his narrative ellipses, slow pace, and rigid compositions. These are not the only qualities that make Tokyo Story a great film. Serenity be damned, because Ozu’s cinema is fundamentally confrontational and dramatic. To be sure, Ozu’s late style is one of the most rigorous visual systems of any auteur. He kept his camera low to the ground and rarely moved it (just once or twice in a film, if at all). But his most striking technique is his use of the point of view shot, or the perspective shot. Using the camera to simulate a character’s point of view is among the most subjective shots possible, and so, paradoxically, it can be used both for empathy and objectification. Alfred Hitchcock is a great case study for this dichotomy, because his perspective shots often build tension by pointing to exactly where the character is looking. But then he’ll also use the perspective shot to appreciate a nicelooking lady. Just count the number of rapturous close ups of Kim Novak in Vertigo, filtered through Jimmy Stewart’s moonstruck eyes. In contrast, Ozu integrated the perspective shot regularly into his conversation scenes, such that the audience inhabits each person in a scene, taking their place and looking dead-on into each actor’s eyes. He would use this shot for every conversation scene, from the most mundane moments to the most melodramatic standoff. No other major director places their audiences directly in the eyeline of their characters, as Ozu does, in nearly every scene. You could call this approach anti-voyeuristic, because you identify with the one looking and the one looking back. You’re trapped in their exchange of looks. This is what I mean when I call Ozu confrontational; his camera literally confronts his characters head-on. It’s hard to square this technique with the assumption
Yasujiro Ozu’s reputation is nothing to sneeze at. He’s been considered one of the greatest directors of all time for decades now. In 2012, when Sight and Sound polled directors and critics for the greatest films ever made, his Tokyo Story made it to #1 on the directors’ poll. For a filmmaker whose work is so highly esteemed, his work preserved and distributed by companies like Criterion and Masters of Cinema in the UK, the studies of his work can be frustratingly reductive. His highly idiosyncratic and rigorous style, something that set him apart from his contemporaries in Japan, has been routinely pigeonholed as representative of the Japanese sensibility in film. In Donald Richie’s 1959 book The Japanese Film, Richie insists that Ozu was regarded in his country as the “most Japanese of all directors.” In the span of five pages on the director, Richie calls him “truly Japanese,” “utterly Japanese,” “most representative of the Japanese people,” his films “faithfully reflect(ing) Japanese life” and having “the Japanese flavor.” As knowledgeable and insightful as Richie can be, his insistence on Ozu’s nationality was the beginning of a problem in Ozu studies, the implicitly Orientalist view that what made him great and valuable was his “Japaneseness.” Let me briefly note how this line of thinking diminishes Japanese culture down to what should only be regarded as one artist’s personal concerns. But, what’s more, this idea also makes it harder to appreciate the films themselves, to actually see them as individual artistic statements. Rather than focusing on the “Japanese flavor” of Tokyo Story turns it into a sociological study. Yasujiro Ozu was a very unique film artist who developed a style over many decades that amounted to something that hundreds of artists after him have found useful, artists as varying as Paul Schrader, Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami, and Mike Leigh. But the major68
on the â€˜Japanese flavorâ€™ of
Tokyo Story turns it
sociological study. 69
i n t e r c u t Spoilers incoming. The story centers on two sisters, Takako and Akiko, who were raised by their father after their mother ran off with another man. Takako is a married woman with a daughter, but at the start of the film, returns to her father’s house to protect her daughter from her husband’s alcoholic rages. Akiko is a wayward college-age youth who frequents mahjong parlors and nighttime Tokyo life in search of her boyfriend after finding out she’s pregnant. Feeling down yet? But wait—it gets worse! Both of their lives are disrupted by the sudden return of their mother to Tokyo. Such a melodramatic situation sets up several highly dramatic confrontations, and we can see how POV plays out in them. When the father, Sugiyama, arrives home to first discover his daughter Takako has moved back in, Ozu uses this POV shot to slowly uncover the reason she’s left her husband. He cuts between Sugiyama asking her questions, his eyes looking into the camera, and Takako, who faces away from him, busying herself with housework. Interspersed are wide shots of the room to emphasize their spatial and emotional distance. We see from his perspective how she avoids looking at him and answers his questions. The subtle tension of the scene builds from Takako’s refusal to look at him—and thereby look into the camera and at the audience—and give a straight answer. Finally, after insisting she sit down and talk, we get the desired return of her gaze to Sugiyama and the camera, as she explains how her husband’s behavior has driven her away. This is one of the quieter and more tender confrontations of the film, and it ends in the character’s mutual understanding. Other encounters end ignominiously, such as when Takako meets with her mother, Kikuko, to ask her to leave their family alone. Here, Ozu does not progress the scene by denying eye contact, but rather by contrasting the difference
that his style is simply oblique. Instead, his style creates a confrontational dynamic between the audience and the characters. Because he specialized in “home drama,” the focus of his films was on the mundane, natural chapters in most people’s lives, the marriages, funerals, and meals (oh, so many meals). If his concerns are so narrow and everyday, then the tag of serene and conservative is understandable. But then how do you explain the confrontational approach to dialogue scenes? By turning the actor’s gaze toward the audience, trapping them there, Ozu forces us to scrutinize these ordinary exchanges and draw out the hidden tensions in these everyday spaces. When we recognize the tension in the most innocuous social banter, we understand fully when the tensions erupt later on. We can see how this technique plays out in one of Ozu’s most overlooked masterworks, his 1957 flop Tokyo Twilight. Pretty much since its release, Tokyo Twilight has been regarded as something of an aberration in Ozu’s career, because it ventures so far into the terrain of melodrama. Its characters are haunted by their pasts and thwarted by their circumstances; the plot relies heavily on chance and delayed information to trigger escalation and resolution. As a dramatic mode, melodrama tends to subordinate character and agency to narrative, playing on the audience’s emotions by sharing the passivity and pathos of the characters. Critics generally see these overt melodramatic trends as fundamentally opposed to Ozu’s style. As David Bordwell puts it, they “deform Ozu’s characteristic narrational tactics,” which tends to be less causally motivated and more abstractly structured. I can’t deny Tokyo Twilight is odd for Ozu, but I think it’s oddity is a strength, because its emotional extremity clarifies how his use of POV shots works confrontationally. 70
share Kikuko’s shock. The news is all the more unbearable for us because it is delivered in the POV fashion, with Takako looking out to us as she speaks to Kikuko, simulating directly how we might receive news of a loved one’s death. The melodramatic structure allows these overwrought scenes to occur, and their emotional excess has made the film vulnerable to criticism of manipulation. Tokyo Twilight may always be an Ozu outlier, but at the very least, I’d suggest that it shows that Ozu was sensitive to the struggles of young people with issues of abuse and depression. But more than that, the melodramatic reversals and confrontations can better demonstrate how his approach to dialogue and point of view presents a confrontational dynamic with the audience. After seeing Tokyo Twilight, even if you turn to a work as lighthearted as Ozu’s Good Morning, you’re better prepared to notice the tension, the conflict just on the verge of being articulated, behind the eyes of his characters as they look back at you.
in their expressions. Kikuko’s wide smile and gregarious hospitality is out of place when cut against Takako’s pained face, a mask on the verge of cracking. When Kikuko blithely asks about Takako’s daughter and husband, we can feel how painfully out of touch she is with her own child. The direct access to their eyes makes Takako’s discomfort visceral and immediate. As Takako asks her mother not to reveal her identity to Akiko, we watch, from Takako’s perspective, how Kikuko’s face falls. Their contrasting expressions are enough to convey their emotional distance, and the disruption is palpable without screaming or violence. As I’ve said, this confrontational technique appears regularly in every conversation, from a restaurant scene where Sugiyama orders sake and salted sea cucumbers to Akiko’s hospital visit for an abortion. We become accustomed to the technique and sensitive to its variations. Ozu uses it most forcefully and melodramatically towards the end, when Takako comes to Kikuko to tell her Akiko has died. Because the death was elliptically omitted, the news comes as a shock to the viewer; in true melodramatic fashion, we
i n t e r c u t adapted from source material locked into a larger franchise. While some Westerns may share a visual consistency, there is no John Ford Cinematic Universe. Westerns were also vastly cheaper to produce, meaning that they was fertile ground for experimentation. Films that subverted tropes, such as High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, are remembered now as classics of the genre. Meanwhile, every 21st century culture critic and their uncle recognizes the sameness of superhero movies, from the composition of the soundtracks to the faceless hordes of purple-greyish villainy. The common explanation is that so much money goes into every shot of every exploding city (poor, poor NYC) in every superhero movie that studio execs resort to tired story techniques built to attract audiences. Even films that feel like a breath of fresh air, such as Doctor Strange (superheroes… with magic!) or Deadpool (superheroes... with dick jokes!), follow a similar story structure and utilize similar gimmicks. The superhero genre is changing, but it didn’t begin with Logan. Like with most exciting things in the film world, innovation is at its strongest on the small screen. DC’s Arrow premiered in 2012, the first live-action programming of the 2010’s superhero era. In many ways, it appeared to be typical superhero fare. A billionaire playboy by day, brooding
Superhero Movies are the New Westerns, But Like for Real this Time Jack Warren
Everyone from IndieWire to The Argus has called Logan a Western, and, like, I get it. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) carries himself with the same hypermasculine seriousness as pretty much every Sergio Leone hero ever, and the backdrop of mutants disappearing from the gene pool is analogous to the Western’s “end-of-an-era” tone in a cool kind of way. The film doesn’t shy away from the comparison either; in one scene, old-man Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and adorable-tiny-death-machine Laura (Dafne Keen) watch Shane, a 1953 film about another eponymous lone badass who swears he’s too old for this shit. Later, Laura even quotes one of the film’s monologues word-for-word in one of the most engaging displays of screenwriter game-recognize-game I’ve ever seen. This isn’t the first time film writers have compared the two genres. Whereas Logan apes Western grit, other superheroes have mimicked more idealistic cowboy stylings. Their stories are painted in broad strokes, with battles of good versus evil marked by the color of a hat or the shape of a mask, ending with the victory of heroic justice. Regardless of whether they’re Spider-Man or Batman, Roy Rogers or Harmonica, these heroes are quintessentially American figures, masters of their respective box offices. Of course, there are major issues with this comparison. Superhero films are nearly always
sues while diverging tonally from the wider cinematic universe. Jessica Jones pits the hero (Krysten Ritter) against her former abuser, the hypnotic Kilgrave (played by a terrifying David Tennant) and Luke Cage delivers the iconic image of a bulletproof black man (Mike Colter) standing unharmed in a hoodie shredded by gunfire. Both series distinguish themselves from the shiny epics Marvel produces for theaters, with Jessica Jones adopting a neo-noir tone and Luke Cage immersing itself in black culture. (Meanwhile, Iron First is about a white guy who punches good...? They can’t all be winners.) The Western is not a genre particularly known for its progressive politics (here’s looking at you, Mr. Eastwood), but issues of race and miscegenation are explored in films such as The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn, both directed by John Ford in an attempt to sympathetically re-examine the Native Americans he had caricatured and demonized so frequently in the past. While the effectiveness of such social critiques are debatable, the Western was at least willing to explore such issues. While Marvel focussed on producing more politically daring content for the small screen, DC expanded its range of superhero subgenres. Gotham reimagines the Batman mythos as a crime procedural, Legends of Tomorrow is a timey-wimey sci-fi show with echoes of Doctor Who, and Powerless is the world’s first superhero sitcom. None of these subgenres overlap with Westerns, but their variety in tone reflect the wide spectrum between Oklahoma! and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Powerless is also notable because it is the first superhero property produced by Marvel or DC to be non-adapted. While shows like Gotham and Legends of Tomorrow don’t map onto a particular series of comics, most of their characters are derived from pre-existing properties. Not so for Powerless’ cast of hapless humans cleaning up the messes that the (mostly unseen) heroes leave behind. While Marvel’s most recent show, Legion, is technically based off a pre-existing character of the same name, the majority of characters introduced
vigilante by night patrols the streets and takes down villainy—pretty much Batman with a Robin Hood vibe. What makes the first season so unique is that the major antagonist is not an alien, a mad scientist, or a god, but instead a gentrifier trying to eradicate low-income housing. Three years later, Marvel would feature a similar villain with Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk. Played with gravitas by Vincent D’Onofrio, there is more complexity in Fisk than most of Marvel’s flagship heroes, with entire subplots dedicated to exploring Fisk’s personal life and childhood. The evil of his actions are apparent in their effects on the lives of the show’s low-income characters, but his intentions are shown to be chillingly human. In The Dark Knight, the villain is a cackling, bloodthirsty manifestation of pure evil. In Daredevil and Arrow, he is a greedy man who is willing to hurt the underprivileged in order to achieve his goals. The Dark Knight cost $180 million to produce, the first seasons of Arrow and Daredevil each cost a small fraction of that. Without having to worry about filling theater seats with a tagline of “Masked Vigilantes Versus the Evils of Late Capitalism,” the writers were able to explore more complex issues. It’s not that villains like the Joker don’t appear in the Western. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Frank (Henry Fonda, like Heath Ledger, playing brilliantly against type) murders a family of innocent farmers literally in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. But villains like Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the tycoon who hires Frank to clear the farm for his railroad, are underrepresented in big-screen supervillainy. While Frank spends the film being an unrepentant monster, Morton gazes into a painting of the ocean, waxing on about his dream to reach the Pacific before he succumbs to tuberculosis. Following the success of Daredevil, other Marvel shows have further explored social is73
i n t e r c u t in season 1 are either original or unrecognizable versions of their comic-book selves. Unlike Powerless, it is independent from any shared universe, although it is described as being “parallel” to that of the X-Men films. Plus, it feels like it was filmed by David Lynch, which is a serious tonal departure from any other superhero property out of Marvel or DC. The Western and the superhero film are by no means the same, but one can certainly learn from the other’s longevity. To survive for as long as it did, the Western had to be daring in the content that it produced. TV is expanding the definitions of superhero entertainment, and film is slowly but surely following suit. As franchises develop and origin stories are left behind, originality is beginning to grow out of flagship properties. Captain America: Winter Soldier feels like a 70s political thriller, Ant-Man is modelled after a heist film, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera comedy. Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo steals the show in Captain America: Civil War, playing a villain with complex motives for his dastardly master plan.
Women and people of color have continually been consigned to supporting roles in superhero films, but this will finally change with the arrival of Wonder Woman in 2017 (directed by Patty Jenkins of Monster) and Black Panther in 2018 (directed by Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station and Creed). After an embarrassing streak of all-white, all-male heroes in Marvel and DC’s big screen superheroes we are finally starting to see other identities represented. It’s been a long time coming, and will hopefully signal a change in the genre greater than the small attempts at leveling the playing field made in the Western. For Westerns and superhero films alike, they’re often at their most interesting during the scenes when New York City isn’t getting blown to smithereens and the saloon isn’t getting ransacked by robbers. What made Logan and Shane both brilliant are not the scenes when the gunfighter or the Wolverine is being a badass, but those in which they’re desperately trying to connect with the people they love. Superheroes, like cowboys, have the potential to do so much more than just protect humanity from evil–they can tell new and exciting stories and unmask mankind’s most secret identities.
makes Marvel so insidiously smart is that its dozen films cohere into single, sprawling serial narrative. Characters from one series will pop into another, and all the biggest names will show up every three or four years in an Avengers installment. And where some bloated franchises (ie, X-Men) have had their timelines become increasingly convoluted with each installment, Marvel moves ever forward. You must see every film if you want to keep up to date with the ever-changing storyworld. This February, Marvel Studios released a video announcing the start of production on Avengers: Infinity War (the first half of a two-part film). Kevin Feige, producer and Marvel studios brainchild, stated, “Infinity War is the culmination of the entire Marvel
This Article Will Return In... Avengers: Infinity War Will McGhee John Wick: Chapter 2 is an excellent addition to the action genre. It’s fun, unceasingly energetic, and knows exactly how to use Keanu Reeves as an action star. It also isn’t really a movie. It begins by ending the first film in the series and ends by beginning the next. And while certain plotlines and characters are introduced and closed within its two-hour runtime, one gets the unmistakable sense that John Wick 2 is very concerned with moving its pieces to prepare for the conclusion of its trilogy. It feels like the Empire Strikes Back. This is not a new concept. Sequels and franchises are older than the medium of film itself. It is only in the last few decades that serial action blockbusters have become the most popular films, the highest grossers. And, since Star Wars, many franchises have adopted (or attempted to adopt) this practice of serialized cliffhangers to keep their audiences permanently hooked. “Enjoy your three hours with Bilbo Baggins in Desolation of Smaug, but, really, we’re just setting you up for the bigger installment next year.” In recent years, blockbuster filmmakers seem to have become more concerned with the next than the now. And none are more successful at this than at Marvel. Marvel, the originator and codifier of the cinematic universe franchise, operates on two levels. In effect, it is an umbrella of several smaller franchises. You can check back in on the specific cast and worlds of the Captain America or Guardian of the Galaxy films every few years. But what
Cinematic Universe as started in May of 2008 with the release of Iron Man 1.” Its main villain, Thanos, was teased at the end of Avengers in 2012. Its main plot, that six space gems can control all aspects of reality when combined, has been teased out through half a dozen films, with each gem driving the plot of a particular installment. The stakes in every specific Marvel movie are never explicitly large because we know the heroes must survive for the next step in the serial escalation. In this way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not cinematic at all. It is the most expensive television series of all time. 75
i n t e r c u t cinema of expectations. We don’t need to care about Thanos; we just need to care that the Avengers are going to face a tougher challenge. We want a sense of accumulation. There are many times this doesn’t work. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice caught heavy criticism last year for not-so-subtly building excitement for future Justice League installments. Spectre lost
I am far from the first to make that claim. And Marvel certainly has this in mind. Several of its creative collaborators, including Joss Whedon, the Russo Brothers, and Alan Taylor, have all been plucked from television. And many of its screenwriters look to the medium for inspiration. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, screenwriters of six Marvel entries, including Civil War and the two upcoming Avengers, have cited Game of Thrones as an influence on how to tell a large scale story. “There are times when I’m watching Game of Thrones and I do not completely know what’s going on,” Markus told Vox in an interview, “but I’m having a great time. So I watch that show and kind of study it, because it’s like, how are they pulling this off? How are they bringing some characters to the foreground and letting [others] drop back?” “For whole seasons!” McFeely confirmed. And it’s true. Game of Thrones is the Marvel Cinematic Universe of television, telling a sprawling, fast paced narrative in which characters pop in and out of very different locations and worlds. Vaes Dothrak and King’s Landing could well be in entirely different shows, just as Asgard and Harlem enable entirely different Marvel films. Thrones is notorious for taking characters out of its narrative for multiple seasons before returning to them, even characters as pivotal as Bran Stark. Marvel has gone further, making us wait several years before we see Thor again, or even eight years before bringing back General Thaddeus Ross for Civil War. And this kind of storytelling pays off. Despite not being even a decade old, the MCU is already the highest grossing franchise of all time, amassing $10 billion and counting. That’s higher than Harry Potter, higher than Bond, and it’s higher than Star Wars, which is now beginning to mirror Marvel’s sprawling seriality under Disney’s oversight. And so, as TV at the highest budget scale turns cinematic, film at the highest scale is turning into television. Now, more than ever, audiences want prolonged escapism. They want sprawling stories that last for the better part of a decade (or more), that they can come back to repeatedly. They want a
steam as it retroactively tried to build a serial narrative from the last few Bond films, and Fantastic Beasts shot itself in the foot when it tried to reveal the main villain of its franchise in a plot twist. The greatest sins come when the first film of a series becomes more interested in enabling future films than laying enough foundations to merit them, as the graves of Assassin’s Creed and Dracula Untold can attest. So, what made Marvel work where others have failed? For one, it started small. Iron Man and Incredible Hulk were largely self-contained, leaving sequel hooks on top of firm conclusions. It was not until Iron Man 2 and Thor two years later that the films began heavily laying expositional groundwork for a larger universe. It also helps that the first film, 76
all may have the same core plot, but present entirely different story worlds and experiences. Just within the Thor movies, Taika Waititi’s upcoming take (Thor: Ragnarok), which is shaping up to be a cosmic buddy/road movie, is vastly different from Branagh’s take in the first film. And then, every few years, we get the added fulfillment of all these story worlds coming together in an Avengers film. The cycle feeds itself. That hasn’t stopped many other franchises from attempting to take Marvel’s place. Every studio is trying to jumpstart a Cinematic Universe of their own, from Universal’s Monsters (starting with The Mummy after Dracula’s loss) to the Knights of the Round Table (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) to Robin Hood (Robin Hood, 2018). And that’s just the beginning. Legendary has recently continued its foundation for the MonsterVerse with this year’s Kong: Skull Island. Justice League, the fourth DCU film, comes out later this year. In 2018, S.C.O.O.B. will be the first entry in the Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe. Lego has branched out from The Lego Movie with the Lego Batman Movie and will also offer The Lego Ninjango Movie later this year. Lego’s entries are, for now, a welcome anomaly. Each film shares a universe and characters but offers an isolated emotional experience with a firm beginning, middle, and end. How many of these franchises will be successful? A few, perhaps. Many of them are trying to force a shared world on source materials that were never created to be combined. How well that ends up working for any particular project depends on the creative talent behind it and the prioritization of character as well as a fulfilling, contained narrative. But, John Wick: Chapter 2 relies on the previous and next installment to be cohesive. Without the inevitable Chapter 3, 2’s climax is hollow. It relies on anticipation and an expectation that narrative closure will one day be provided. Even as Wick sets his sequel in motion, we begin to miss him. We long for an ending that will not come for several years. That is the brilliance of the cinema of expectation: the story is more powerful when we’re not watching it.
Iron Man, was one of the best, and few actors can anchor a franchise as well as Robert Downey Jr. Marvel also has an exceptional knack for hiring the right creative talent to fit the project. While Marvel’s authorial voice remains highest, they allow each director to bring their own approach to the film world. This has usually served them well, with the occasional creative clash (Age of Ultron, Ant-Man). Marvel has now established a built-in trust to its name and lasting relationships between the audience and its growing carousel of characters. And this evolves to outlast the characters. As the Iron Man and Captain America trilogies fall away, Doctor Strange and Black Panther franchises rise up to take the torch. It also helps that Marvel refuses to be irrelevant. From 2017 until the foreseeable future, there will be three Marvel movies released each year, not to mention the half-dozen Netflix series and handful of ABC shows. Marvel has three major advantages. First, it started the trend. As other cinematic universes now attempt to replicate its success, Marvel is branching out and growing past a dozen entries. Second, it knows to place character before world. While later Marvel entries have become bogged down with their massive casts, each individual franchise uses its characters (and stars) to hook audiences into the world, not the other way around. Stark’s charisma and Roger’s personal conflicts have anchored many a bloated Marvel film. And in Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, which depict massive storyworlds, the core of the narrative is the internal team dynamic and conflict. Most other modern franchises ignore this, expecting that the brand itself will sell the story. Third: It’s versatile. While much has been (and will be) said on the generic superhero formula, Marvel has found a way to offer widely different experiences of the same structure. The comedic heist film (Ant-Man), the space opera (Guardians), the global espionage thriller (Winter Soldier), the mystical medical drama (Doctor Strange), and the Shakespearean rom-com (Thor) 77
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INTERCUT: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me! I remember hearing that you started in the art world before moving into film directing. Do you feel that your studio art background has impacted your filmmaking?
Grant Singer has emerged as one of the world’s leading music video directors through his dark and stylish collaborations with artists such as The Weeknd, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Skrillex. His films convey dream-like narratives through a lurid visual style marked by its experimental play with color and form.
GRANT SINGER: I think my filmmaking is a reaction to my work as a traditional visual artist working in photography or collage. My experience was that the art world was very vapid and that a lot of the things were very trendy. You can’t separate art from the world in which it is exhibited like galleries and, to me, it felt based upon intellectual theory rather than artistry in a way that was frustrating. One of the things that I love about filmmaking is that you cannot justify anything that’s bad with something that’s intellectual. Filmmaking is much more of an immersive, experiential medium and it’s more black and white. If something’s terrible, it’s undeniable. I love the transparency of film. If
Intercut’s Jacob Sussman sat down with Grant to discuss his path into the film industry and his distinct approach to the craft of music videos.
An Interview with Grant Singer Jacob Sussman 78
throws a lighter on him and he’s engulfed in flames and everyone gets up and parties. My concepts are really simple so my style is essentially in my execution. The execution is what’s compelling.
you’re an artist, you can take a shit in the corner of a room and people will think it’s brilliant because it’s an homage to what came before you, but you can’t really do that with film. There just is no patience for bullshit. I love things that are entertaining and exhilarating and fun. I love when filmmaking becomes an experience that transcends the medium and affects your psyche and your subconscious. I think that’s the sign of great directing.
I: As you brought up about your music video for “The Hills,” in conceptualizing the video it seems like it was a massive creative risk to just follow someone walking slowly over a three minute span. Despite that, the video works incredibly well and is very visceral and haunting. I was wondering if it was scary for you to be working with such a highprofile artist and to shoot only long-takes and have most of the video be composed of just three shots?
I: You said that you love films that are visceral and immersive, and I think it’s very fitting that you’ve chosen to start out with music videos because they are such a sensory type of film. I was wondering how you find making music videos in relation to other types of film and what you bring to them in terms of style and form that you wouldn’t do in a feature.
GS: I get off on pressure and the suspense of making or breaking it. I’ve had a couple of big moments in my career where if I fuck up, it might be the end of me because there’s so much money involved. I like those challenges. If I was twenty, I don’t know if I would be able to handle it. Because I’m thirty, I have more confidence in myself to step up to the plate. I live for those moments. That’s what excites me about life. I don’t like banal, boring, safe things. I like living on the edge. I live for this feeling of euphoria through my work and through the things I do in my life. So yeah, there is a pressure. Just so you know, we had one chance to blow up the car in “The Hills” video. We had one fucking take. That video was in forty frames per second and we were doing playback and the song was sped up so Abel’s lips would match forty frames per second. I didn’t trust the pyro guy to hit that explosion on the specific beat because he had never heard the song before, so I knew that I couldn’t trust him. If it happens a second later, the video is unsuccessful because the explosion happens offbeat. I had to hit the explosion myself. The explosives were on a wire so if you look carefully in the background of the shot I’m lying down on a driveway holding the button right next to the car because I could only trust myself to hit it on that beat and I knew the video lives or dies on this explosion. So I’m fifteen feet
GS: You definitely have more freedom in a music video in terms of your approach. If you’re shooting a scene from a movie, you have to communicate the story and the narrative. In music videos, the narrative is almost secondary to the filmmaking, to the experience of the shot, the performance, or whatever it is that you’re filming. You can be more daring in terms of its construction. Of course, you’ve got Terence Malick, you’ve got Carlos Reygadas, really experiential filmmakers who focus on environments and sounds and the subconscious of the human experience. They take a lot of risks in terms of how they construct scenes, but generally when you’re looking at movies you’re looking at more formal approaches to narrative. I can’t talk about how other people approach music videos because I only know how I approach them and I would actually say that my work is very simple. A lot of the videos I have done that are successful are one-liner concepts. For example, “The Hills” is about a dude exiting an upside down vehicle and entering a house. “Can’t Feel My Face” is about a dude playing in front of a crowd who doesn’t give a fuck about him and then someone 79
i n t e r c u t GS: You know, I never intended to make music videos. Years ago, if you told me I would be directing music videos, I wouldn’t have believed you because it wasn’t a dream of mine or something I envisioned for myself. I wanted to be a director and it was a way for me to practice directing and prove I could direct to myself and everyone else. I now love it. I’ll be directing music videos as long as I’m inspired. Mark Romanek for example, he’s been directing music videos for how many years? And he’s still doing it, not as often as he once was but he still comes out with a fucking amazing music video and it’s a cultural event. Even David Fincher did that ‘Suit and Tie” video. These guys, legends, still make music videos even after they’ve made some of the greatest films of our time.
from the explosion and we had one take and I’m lying down in this driveway and then BOOM. It’s one of those moments where everything is riding on one thing, and I live for that shit. I would be a fucking accountant if I wanted to have a safe life or work on Wall Street. I do this not just because I love filmmaking but because I love the suspense and the risk of it. I: What are your thoughts on film school as preparation for becoming a director? GS: I went to film school, and I’m the only kid from my class who’s doing anything. Not saying the other kids weren’t talented, you know. They did all the assignments, they were educated. You can’t teach being a director. Even your professors might agree. You could be a scholar on Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut, whoever. The execution of directing, its so much more than film history or taste, it’s an innate thing. You either have the thing or you don’t. I have a lot of friends who are directors, some of whom are phenomenal and some who have all the characteristics but there’s no magic when everything happens. Everything’s there but it doesn’t add up. You have to have such specific attention to detail and environment and editing. You can have the best taste but if you can’t get a performance out of someone, then what are you doing? That’s about communicating with people. What if you’re working with someone that can’t act or do what you want them to do? How do you make it happen in the moment, when you have fifteen minutes to get that shot? A lot of times, I’ve had to shoot twelve minutes of content in eight hours. How the fuck do you do that? You have to be fast and know exactly what you want and not waste any time.
I: Which contemporary films and directors do you most admire? GS: I love Jeremy Saulnier, who did Blue Ruin and Green Room. I love Carlos Reygadas. I thought The Night Of was some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen recently, even though it’s television. I love The Witch, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and Son of Saul. And David Fincher. Fincher is my favorite director alive. He makes intelligent, razor-sharp, precise, viscerally entertaining films that are unique to him and his very specific aesthetic. I don’t want to make films for nineteen-year-old New Yorkers or even twenty-seven-year-old pretentious assholes. It’s very important for me to make films that connect to a broader spectrum of people and hopefully inspire them. It’s the same thing with music, I think it’s not good to be super exclusive. One of the things that I like about Kubrick and Fincher is that they made movies for mass audiences that were also transgressive. They made art films that everyone can appreciate. I am so much in awe of that type of talent and that type of career.
I: I know that you’re interested in making feature films someday. Do you view your music video directing as a means of training yourself for features, or a craft in its own right?
Interview edited for brevity.
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Anna Biller by Kira Newmark 82
I went into the art department temporarily, and ended up staying here. Later I applied to graduate school for art, but decided to do film instead so ended up being interschool with art and film.
Writer-director-production-designer-composer extraordinaire Anna Biller has carved out a unique space for herself within cinema, exploring issues of femininity through a vibrant vintage aesthetic lens in Viva and The Love Witch. The former critiques the fauxrevolutionary sexual practices of the 70s, while the latter addresses obsessive eroticism and power imbalances with an occult-heavy satirical edge. On behalf of Intercut, Kira Newmark was lucky enough to conduct an email interview with the singular visual artist behind these works.
I: How did your education at UCLA and CalArts impact you? How did your unique perspective fit into these academic environments? AB: UCLA was great because they forced you to do everything – drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, performance, video. So you could really figure out what was best for you. I mostly did drawing and painting there, but I found that performance and video were the most exciting for me. CalArts was great because it was a totally conceptual school, so it got you thinking about your ideas and why you wanted to make things. They were trying to prepare you for the art world, in which you’d have to do lots of spin to sell your work to galleries. So I feel I got the right things at the right times: the craft and discipline first, and the conceptual and career skills later.
INTERCUT: It’s clear in a lot of your interviews that you have a true passion for filmwatching. What was your first meaningful interaction with the world of cinema? Are there any female filmmakers you feel especially inspired by? ANNA BILLER: I can’t remember my first meaningful interaction, since I’ve been watching films since I was a baby. The films I remember most from that time were the 1930s musicals – the Astaire and Rogers movies, the Busby Berkeley movies. I remember almost dying when I first saw a Busby Berkeley movie (Dames) on a nitrate print on the big screen. My favorite female filmmaker is Dorothy Arzner (Dance, Girl, Dance). I: Have you been a creative since youth or was there a later turning point for your artistry?
I: Your two features, Viva, and The Love Witch take classical style and narrative tropes but twist them into something completely new. How was this repurposing informed by your perspective on gender issues? How do you deal with viewers that fail to understand your critical commentary or brand of satire?
AB: I was always creative, but I shifted around. I was an avid reader as a child so I always wanted to be a writer. Then in high school I studied theater and wanted to be an actress. So I applied to theater school at UCLA, but soon realized that I wanted to direct films instead of act. But you couldn’t go into film directing until your third year, so
AB: All of my work is informed by being a woman – not just incidentally and accidentally, but purposefully, provocatively, and deliberately in the text. My love of classic movies is very deep, and I think that’s partly because the roles for women were so great. People who don’t watch a lot of those movies don’t realize how much better roles for women used 83
i n t e r c u t AB: I’ve always loved color. My dad is a painter and he always used bright colors, and I grew up looking at Matisse and Max Beckmann art books, as well as Fra Angelico, Giotto, etc. Looking at all of this art made me obsessive about color, especially primary color. Later when I started to see more films in the cinema I became highly interested in Technicolor. But I remember one day when I was around sixteen Démy’s Peau d’Ane came on television, and I thought it was one of the most extraordinary things I’d eve seen. I wasn’t thinking so much about the color as the whole thing – the way the fairy tale’s dark secrets of incest were covered up with frothy musical numbers, the way pain and beauty were all mixed up together, the way the villagers called Catherine Deneuve smelly and ugly, but then she returned to her hut and became an enchanting princess. I was on the threshold between girlhood and adulthood when I saw it, and so my feelings about it were very personal. It seemed so unique to see a girl’s story being told – a girl who was not goofy or silly, not a baby, not sexualized, but dignified, beautiful, glamorous, deserving of every wonderful thing in the world.
to be. Those movies inspired me to make my own “women’s pictures,” telling my own stories. So my films are not satires about other movies, they are social satires about how insane the world is today, and especially how insane it is if you’re a woman. I would say that at least fifty percent of people (and I’m being generous) have no idea what I’m doing with my movies, but are still entertained by them. I am mostly saddened by all of the misconceptions, especially because so many of them have to do with either a lack of empathy for women, a tendency to laugh at anything feminine, or a lack of respect for women who create work. I: Unlike in Viva, you chose to remain behind the camera for The Love Witch. What drove this decision? How did the choice of Samantha Robinson as the star impact the film? AB: After making Viva I was so relentlessly objectified that it ruined acting for me, so it was never a question for me to act in The Love Witch. But I think that even if I’d wanted to do it, I wasn’t right for the part. I’m more of a passive type like my character in Viva, and I needed someone who was more cold and dominant. I think Samantha Robinson was absolutely perfect for the part, and also I saw that I could get the acting so much more finessed when I could watch it from the outside instead of directing myself.
I: You have acted as director, writer, producer, composer, production designer, etc. Did you take on these roles to maintain creative control and how did you balance them? In light of this, you are basically the ideal “auteur”. How do you generally perceive auteur theory in relation to your understanding of film?
I: In one interview you mentioned your “alltime favorite” Jacques Démy as an inspiration for The Love Witch. It got me thinking about the expressive use of color in your film in comparison with Démy’s in Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Young Girls of Rochefort. Could you comment on this in relation to the creation of your visual palette?
AB: I do like to maintain creative control, but the decision was also driven because of budget. I would have liked to have had more support in terms of division of labor. I don’t really think about auteur theory too much, but I think I would fit the definition. I don’t know that I think it’s so important who does what 84
i n t e r c u t bullshit on that. Young women should push ahead and explore their ideas as honestly and passionately as they can and not let others talk them out of being artists. I got so much flack right out of school because of the pressure to take an industry job instead of making my own work. Everyone else was taking jobs in the industry, but I was poor because I wanted to leave time to create my own projects. But I’m the only person in my class who is still making films, so there’s something to be said for believing in yourself. It seems everyone else gave up on themselves before they even tried. If you think that “someday” you will be a director, chances are you never will. There’s no “someday,” there’s only now.
on a film, but more that the finished product works. And since the death of the studio system it’s very difficult to create cohesive works unless there is one person behind a lot of it. I think of my films so far as individual art projects more than as collaborations, but The Love Witch was the most collaborative film I’ve made so far, since the DP, makeup artist, and actors all contributed so much expertise. I: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers? Anything young women in particular should keep in mind? AB: Young women so often second-guess themselves and think they need to be helpers or muses instead of creators, and I call
issue one / entanglement
issue one / spring 2017
Published on Sep 15, 2017