Month: August 2013

Post-Ripley Feminism in “Getaway”: How An Awful Film Can Matter

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How do you make a terrible film, actress, and director infinitely more interesting?

Is it possible? Is it wise to use a terrible film to highlight discussion of gender politics in Hollywood?

These questions might never find answers, but a good place to start looking is in what we see onscreen and recognize first: The human body; the actress herself.

The majority of her lines amount to nothing more than fearful ejaculations. No doubt, her budding image as a young sex symbol—meant to inspire ejaculations of a different kind—is responsible for her landing the part in the first place. She’s pretty. She’s popular. She’s modestly talented. She epitomizes everything that makes celebrity such a shallow, superficial affair on all fronts. She’s Selena Gomez, and she stars in Getaway, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, due for release this Friday.

It was inevitable that a film helmed by the same man who gave us Dungeons & Dragons would be as terrible as it sounds on paper: a woman is kidnapped and her husband, Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke), is forced to indulge a crafty criminal mastermind (Jon Voight) and his diabolical wishes to retrieve her. “The Voice,” as Voight’s character is billed, outfits a car with cameras and microphones and forces Magna to steal it, coaching his victim through a series of illegal tasks with the goal of wreaking enough havoc on the city of Sofia, Bulgaria to distract police from a bank heist.

Courtney Solomon, the captain of this ill-fated shit-ship, hasn’t directed a film in nearly eight years, and it certainly shows. From the sloppy editing to the pitiful narrative logic, the film borders on incoherence unlike any other film I’ve seen in its final cut phase. It isn’t until Gomez’s character (known only as “The Kid”) enters the picture that the film takes on a slightly more enjoyable tone thanks (in part) to the unintentional hilarity of her casting. During my screening, the audience erupted with laughter as Gomez appears onscreen for the first time—clad in “tough girl” attire including a baseball cap and hood—pointing a gun into the car of Hawke’s character and demanding that he “get the fuck out.” She might as well have been a plush toy, and the gun a lollipop. Note to future filmmakers: babyface and intimidation aren’t synonymous.

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It turns out that the car Magna drives in fact belongs to The Kid. One thing leads to another, and we’re forced to endure 90 minutes of painstakingly pathetic excuses for chase scenes as Selena Gomez frantically screams in the passenger seat.

As annoying as Gomez is as a person, The Kid as a character is a rare highpoint in a murky sea of inadequacy, both in terms of the film and the industry that produced it. For starters:

A)     She’s young, and isn’t a sex object

In fact, as sexual as the real-life image of Selena Gomez is, she’s clothed in a bulky hoodie for the majority of the film. Usually roles like this are reserved for older actresses, ones that Hollywood deems as incapable of sexual appeal once they hit 40. But, the efforts undergone to desexualize The Kid are extensive. Her position in relation to Hawke’s character is merely coincidental and not founded on sexual attraction. They’re two people on an even playing field. He is married, and she’s just along for the ride. There’s never a moment where Magna’s determination to get to his wife is broken. The film doesn’t feel the need to justify her presence in relation to a male’s. After all, she actively pursues a male for reasons other than to capture his penis and use it to fulfill a part of her that’s missing; the girl just wants her car back, and uses a gun to try it. She sees herself on an even playing field, stepping to the much bigger Magna, and doesn’t seem like she’s trying to prove anything. Merely existing.

B)      She’s nobody’s property

Of course, The Kid is her father’s daughter.  But, as most children tend to be, they are their parents’ children. Gender, at least here, is irrelevant. She reveals that her dad owns numerous banks throughout the country, and that the car (a souped-up Mustang) was a gift for her 16th birthday. Here, we could have easily lost The Kid to a different kind of sexual marginalizing. She could have readily fallen into the “Daddy’s girl” category which defines so many teen girls in contemporary films. However, we never even meet her father throughout the film’s run. She mentions it once, and only again when the heist is revealed to be taking place at one of her father’s banks. In fact, she actually uses her knowledge of the intricate inner-workings of the bank system to foil The Voice’s plans. It’s Magna, in this situation, who is at the mercy of another man using a woman to bait him to do his bidding. For once we see a woman in a position of power (The Kid, of course, not the idiot who got herself kidnapped) and the male relegated to a one-note, cold-staring, heart-aching quest to retrieve the vagina he feels is rightfully his. As The Kid’s cunning shines through in key scenes, we also being to realize that:

C)      She’s not stupid

If she isn’t a sex object, isn’t someone’s girlfriend, isn’t at the mercy of her father, and isn’t conventionally “unattractive,” she has to have the intelligence of a paperweight, right? Wrong. We’re given little information about her home life, with the film only giving us enough information to satisfy our curiosity’s as to why she belongs in the film in the first place. She has a powerful father, but he remains unseen for the film’s entirety. He has money, but she doesn’t talk about spending it frivolously. She shows huge interest in computers and technology when confronted with the cameras-in-the-car-so-he’s-watching-us thing, prompting Magna to question her ability to handle things like hacking and rewiring. “Oh, a girl likes cars and computers. How butch. This is the 21st Century, you should try joining it,” she tells him, also speaking directly to the audience as we understand her as a smart, talented woman spitting in the face of so many other characters who would have just sat back and screamed the entire time while forming a sort of Stockholm Syndrome-esque attraction to the man driving the car.

The Kid is absolutely that girl, though, in a select few scenes. There must be pages of the script where The Kid’s only lines are things like “Slow down!” *screams* “Stop!” and “We’re going to die!”, but it’s easy to give her a pass because of what she represents as a character written with what seems to be feminist inspiration. It’s sad that female characters like this exist so rarely in these types of mainstream films that they have to be dissected in such a manner. This case is particularly interesting because The Kid is in a film that, by all means, no one should care about. It’s loud, it’s silly, and it’s stupid, and Solomon has to understand that he’s not taken seriously as a filmmaker given his lousy track record both directing and producing. The fact that The Kid is treated almost as an afterthought—and still exists free of the tropes usually plaguing contemporary female characters—is a true testament to how the filmmakers view women, and how women should be represented in film.

It’s a shame that the film is so terrible, and that the only other female character is such a pathetic excuse for a role, but her victimized status is balanced by a strong female character who ultimately becomes the most interesting, varied, and dynamic person throughout the film.

Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" - opens October 4th

Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” – opens October 4th

2013 has proven to be an amazing year for women in Hollywood. Sandra Bullock is earning rave reviews for her film-carrying performance in Gravity, Vera Farmiga similarly escaped sexual objectification and male-dependent status in The Conjuring, and the “Bridesmaids Effect” continues to work its magic as female-driven comedies like Identity Thief, The Heat, and The To-Do List make exponentially more than they cost to produce, while male-driven and targeted films with hefty price tags continue to sink.

The best way to think about Getaway, however terrible it might be, is to focus on these characters that are all interchangeable with the opposite gender. The Kid could have easily been a male with minimal script restructuring. As Brent and his wife could just as easily switched roles. It’s telling because the only other film that automatically pops into my mind when talking about interchangeable parts is Alien, which contains a script that was intentionally written so that each of the characters could be played by a man or a woman. The film doesn’t get any better, but this single element has given me more to talk about in terms of gender politics in Hollywood than Iron Man or The Lone Ranger.

While Getaway is lightyears away from the quality of Alien, at least we can credit Solomon for allowing Ripley to live on in the smallest of ways all these 34 years later.

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America’s Fear of Sex; “Blue is the Warmest Color” Gets NC-17 Rating

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The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.

Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.

What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.

Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.

That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele) film still

For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.

For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.

There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.

Black Cinema and the Oscars; “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station” as Game-Changers?

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Will 2013 be the Oscar year for black cinema? We can attempt to sift the answer out of the Academy’s track record for failing to recognize influential black cinema; it’s an issue that comes up a few times every Oscar season, and for good reason.

Just ask Spike Lee.

I detest the word “minority” not for its inherent definition, but for its becoming a socially-coded word synonymous with “outcast” or “inferior.”

Minority is small. Minority is defeated. And in a system such as the Academy’s voting process—which sees a membership that’s 94% Caucasian cast ballots to determine the best films of the year—the majority often has unchallenged control of the status quo.

Is this not how democracy works, you say? Sure. But when such a high percentage of one race, age group, and gender (old white men) determines what qualifies as great cinema within an industry in which so many “minorities” have given themselves an independent voice, we often question what is presented to us and deemed worthy. It’s good fun predicting the outcome but, at the end of the day, the system becomes all too predictable thanks to the consistent complexion of the voting base year after year.

The last time the Academy wholeheartedly accepted a film by black filmmakers, about black people, for black audiences, was 2009’s Precious. That’s four calendar years. 2011’s The Help, which received numerous nominations, was crafted primarily by white hands and told from the perspective of a white protagonist. It detailed black issues, albeit coming off more as a product of white guilt (a white woman almost single-handedly combats racism in a small Mississippi town) than a beacon of the black voice that is so often stifled in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

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And then we look at calendar year 1985, when The Color Purple received 11 nominations without notching a single win. Also directed by a white male (Steven Spielberg) The Color Purple was—more distinctly than The Help—a film with a black cast dealing with, for the sake of this argument, “black” issues. Marred by controversy on both sides (NAACP protests against the film’s portrayal of black males, industry backlash when Spielberg was snubbed for a Best Director nomination), The Color Purple stands as a reminder of the inability for the film industry, as progressive a medium it often tends to be, to agree on issues of race and presentation.

Precious was unique in the sense that Mo’Nique, giving one of the most emotionally-arresting performances in any film, was awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role in a black film. Her costars are primarily black, her director is black, and the film’s narrative is told from a black perspective—and it’s not pretty. It can’t be glossed over with Jessica Tandy in a Sunday hat. Quite simply, it’s something white Oscar voters tend to shy away from recognizing. Of course other black actors and actresses have won Oscars, but the films which birthed their performances aren’t necessarily “cultural” cinema in the way that Precious featured a black cast, a black director, and a black narrative perspective.

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The Butler, helmed by Precious director Lee Daniels, chronicles the life of a White House butler who served several presidents during his tenure. It comes as an almost accidental metaphor for the Academy itself. An industry built on “alternatives” from the very start and throughout its history (“film is fad, film is not art,” countercultural independent and art films, subculture film movements, etc.), its flagship product is still determined by a gathering of old white men. The film is building immense buzz, especially for Oprah Winfrey’s supporting performance—for which it seems poised to win if things continue as they are. The Butler, however, might come as the first film to be widely recognized by Oscar to feature a black perspective commenting on a white status quo (whether historical or contemporary is irrelevant).

And then we have Fruitvale Station, which falls in-step far more comfortably with a film like Precious, though dealing with contemporary issues of race and power with real-world implications as its protagonist, Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan, sure to earn a Lead Actor nomination here), existed outside the confines of a fictional text. The film continues to resonate with audiences and critics alike, and will likely be a contender in a few major categories at this year’s Oscars.

That gives us two products of black cinema building Oscar momentum. I don’t think either film has a serious shot to threaten the likes of American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street’s chances at winning Best Picture. In a way, I don’t think they were ever in a position to, as films like The Color Purple or Do The Right Thing were crowning achievements of racial discourse within their respective calendar years. Sure, films deemed as the best picture of the year often fade into obscurity not even a year after their crowning (I’m looking at you, Argo), but there’s something so momentarily important—urgent, even—about the importance of what the Oscar ceremony says about our culture and film industry as a whole, and our society is long overdue. Argo was, in the simplest terms, the safest choice out of last year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. It was topical enough (conflict in the Middle East) to be relevant, but a social statue of limitations, if you will, (it chronicles events which took place decades ago), kept it from veering too far into controversial territory. If it’s one thing the Academy has been consistently afraid of over the years, it’s controversy (just ask Kathryn Bigelow). Safe bets prevail over artistic or social radicals. David Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Blue Velvet and Best Picture was only a fraction away from Brokeback Mountain’s grasp, but they were present, no? Inclusion is recognition, but the prize is reserved for films that everyone can sit back and feel comfortable about, and while The Butler and Fruitvale Station are far away from changing the game entirely, the fact that they are even in the Oscar race at all is vital for continued presence of a racial dialogue in mainstream cinema. Oscar winners often fail to capture the immediacy and cultural spirit of their respective years, favoring “safe” or “default” winners over anything slightly controversial—even if that controversy (say, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty or Do The Right Thing) preserves the climate of the society and point in history the film came from.

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If 2013 has taught us anything it’s that the industry is shifting towards more specific audiences than big-budgeted, broadly-appealing blockbusters. Where male-driven-and-targeted pictures like The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., White House Down, and Pacific Rim failed to make even close to their supersized budgets back in ticket sales (each cost well over $100 million to produce), films with unique appeal (The Purge, The Conjuring, Now You See Me), a built-in commentary on race or culture (The Butler and Fruitvale Station will earn their budgets back by the end of their runs) or the female-driven “Bridesmaids Effect” (The Heat) surged with audiences. We’re consistently shown that things which challenge the heteronormative standard are popular with audiences; why, then, are we consistently reminded of the opposite when it comes to championing the best films of the year at the Academy Awards?

As the Academy welcomes its first black female president (as well as a diverse range of women and minorities joining its ranks, from Jennifer Lopez to Ava Duvernay), we’re still not at a point where we can call the playing field even. It’s easy to view wins for films such as In the Heat of the Night (white director) or Driving Miss Daisy (white director) as mere apologies for cinematic inequality. We can only hope that, with renewed vision and a healthy dose of time, we will see the type of change that Do The Right Thing could have brought if only it had been so lucky all those years ago.

His Name is Baby Tap, and He Doesn’t Know Why

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“Um. My name is Baby Tap. I don’t know why, but, my name is Baby Tap. It’s nice to meet you,” he says in a video message posted to his YouTube account in July.

A more important question might be who is Baby Tap?

But, it’s unfair to the essence of the human behind the art to ask such a question.

After all, it’s not like Avess Arshad isn’t a person in the first place.

With a steady job, full-time hours at a café, and a quaint London apartment he shares with his boyfriend, he’s most humanly human. It’s just that his musical endeavors are unlike anything the patrons he serves within a commercialized London could easily warm up to.

Beats of otherworldy flair. Electronic murmurs. Lyrics some might call crass—the package is chaotic yet calculated; There’s a science to Arshad’s craft. It just takes some getting used to.

Even he struggles a bit to define himself in “normal” terms.

“I feel music, I become music. I don’t sell that shit or ever intend to. It’s far too precious to me,” he says, like a rebel (revolutionary?) defending a countercultural identity as an independent artist. What a dead-on-arrival term in today’s music industry, huh? Independence. For some, it’s synonymous with a lack of grandeur. Of meager means heralded only when recognized by the masses. Is it possible to be an independent artist in today’s world without automatically shoving oneself into a niche with potential for fluke success? We see artists who were once firmly-planted atop the charts of yesteryear (Eve, Radiohead, Bjork) now releasing music independently—free of constraint—to satisfy their artistic craving seemingly stifled years prior.

Indie is synonymous with freedom. With uprising.

How does Arshad explore this freedom?

“I fit into the equation of music as a whole as an enjoyable catharsis through energy and expression, spirituality and dance,” Arshad says of his art. “It’s fire, you know. Music is like fire.”

It’s an elemental likeness that illuminates all the things which make Baby Tap an undeniably radiant spectacle. For Arshad, having conviction in songs like “Gay for the Hip-G Girly Girls,” “Fuck Me With No Rubber,” and “Kill Yourself” transcends mere shock value.

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“I know there are people out there with the same sense of humor as me,” he says of the tracks on his first full-length release, Gem Pop, released earlier this month. “I work hard. I say what I want to say. I am destined to find the most hyphy, insane beats. I am destined to give people the opportunity to release their craziness. Whether that works on a big scale or not, I don’t give a shit. As long as I’m enjoying my own journey I invite others to enjoy theirs.”

For Arshad, it’s a journey nearly ten years in the making. In 2003, a 14-year old Arshad began dabbling in electronic production. Never losing sight of what was once just a fun way to pass the time when nothing else could, he’s amassed hundreds of tracks, ten full-length demos, and a decade of experience. That’s more than most major-label pop stars. For Arshad, however, success has been defined by time spent perfecting his passion after 12-hour shifts at work. Of hours clocked cutting tracks and laying down vocals (with no pay) in a cramped apartment while the rest of the world (or his corner of London) toiled away just outside his window.

“I had to work so long and so hard to manipulate feelings into sounds the way I wanted to. I spend at least an hour on it almost every day,” he says of his process, which still includes balancing a “real” job aside from crafting videos to accompany the tracks in addition to writing and producing music. “I will never appreciate having to work to live under these rules from the government. I would rather just do what I want and take life slower and more freely but I just make sure I kick my own ass into gear and work on that music as much as I can.”

He pauses.

“But, sometimes I am so tired. I don’t know what the outcome is. I will let it be what it turns out to be. I do not know.”

If the amalgamation of pop-culture collage, candy-coated colors, and graphics inspired by the 90s digital era are any indication: does anyone know, really? Do we know how to define art? How to define ourselves? Or do we let a cyber-footprint fill in the empty spaces we’re too lazy to show in waking life? Is there vision in independent expression like the uninhibited beauty which flows forth from artists like Baby Tap? We see a portion of ourselves in this type of art. Perhaps this uninhibited display is what makes independent artists such as Arshad such clear points of interest in this mess of a society where slaving to unseen masters can inspire alternative output.

“At the end of the day we die alone and nobody will really understand us as we understand ourselves, so I’m just following my desires and needs,” he says. “Baby Tap represents the acceptance of confusion and the ability to ride on the flow of life.”

Whether it’s recording into the wee morning hours, filming a video like a pop icon on a London park bench, or merely toying with new sounds—boyfriend and day job tucked at his hip as a reminder that life exists outside of art—we’ll indulge in the flow of life Baby Tap wants us to see, and realize that a separation of the two is mere child’s play.

Download Gem Pop for free (payment optional) here:

Baby Tap will be playing from 10PM-4AM on Sunday, August 25 at:

Star of Bethnal Green
359 Bethnal Green Road
E2 6LG

Directions:

Tube: Bethnal Green
Overground: Shoreditch High Street

Bus: 8, 106, 388, 254, D3
Nightbus: N8, N253