Film

Cannes…from the Heart of an Outsider

Leila Hatami, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Jeon Do-yeon, Carole Bouquet

An American boy on the sands of Cannes, France: that’s how I’d imagined myself ever since I was seven (maybe eight?) years old, yearning for transcontinental air travel and a responsible adult to accompany me to the grandest of the world’s film festivals.

It’s a rather odd dream for a child to want to travel to a small town that comes alive in the international spotlight only once a year to celebrate an art that’s far beyond his comprehension. It’s also rather selfish. What the kid in me didn’t understand was that spending thousands of dollars of your hard-earned coin to relish in the best that world cinema has to offer benefits little more than the airline, taxi service, and bellhop who carries your bags. Casual Cannes-goers ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of the festival circuit, where moneymaking is all that’s left for anyone in an industry that–when it comes down to the life and death of it–could disappear off the face of the earth with little more than a monetary crater in its wake.

I don’t think, in the early months of 1997, my little brain even knew who Ang Lee was. If you would’ve asked me to sit through LA Confidential or Funny Games, I’d have told you I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies. The understanding of film, however, is an ever-evolving entity, and Cannes fosters an appreciation for the various perspectives in film that make it such a diverse, captivating industry.

But, how characteristic of a child is it to yearn after the flashiest, most sensational aspects of something you don’t quite understand? I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the machine that makes Cannes tick. The stars are out in full red carpet glamor, the journalists buzz about, the businessmen shake hands and exchange their millions.

Of course, Cannes is all about business, too. Just today, a $20 million deal for a film was inked by Paramount for Amy Adams-starrer Story of Your Life. There are deals here and deals there, as beautiful films from the brightest artists still come with a hefty price tag.

I can now read about who purchased what or who thought what about which film in the trade papers, but the fact remains that I am now, and always have been, a Cannes outsider. The way I view Cannes is filtered through the lens of those in attendance, and the type of coverage I could  be giving from my cramped, wood-paneled bedroom only speaks to my career aspirations that may or may not come at a later date; most bloggers like me only have the luxury of covering other coverage when it comes to festivals like Cannes or Toronto or Telluride. I’m either building a foundation to get paid to write about Cannes–from Cannes– in the future, or I’m wasting my time on a ship that will never set sail. Either way, I’m not there now.

But, that’s the flaw of living in the quick-fix film industry of today. It’s all rather infantile, really. We’re told that we all matter. My desire to cover Cannes without being there is difficult, but Hollywood consistently pushes each of us up the ranks of self-importance. We’re told that our dollar is worth spending on every tentpole that comes out. We’re pushed en masse to the theater, encouraged to tweet our reactions, to wear the t-shirt, to rep the brand for free under the guise of engaging in an elite sort of fandom; though, when it comes down to it, we’re all outsiders to the heart of the industry that beats at a place like Cannes. We lose sight of that from time to time, so perhaps it’s best if some things are left to the protected, sacred mystery of exclusivity.

Though, it’s funny how in such a fast-paced, easily-accessible world, we can still feel so disconnected from something as widely-covered as the Cannes Film Festival. There’s only so much a review of the opening night film or a photo of the crowds lined up to see the day’s most buzzed-about feature can do to satiate one’s yearning to be there. It’s difficult to put your finger on just what makes the festival so alluring, but it has got to be something, because the appeal is wide.

Cannes draws celebrities, filmmakers, publicists, and businesspeople from around the globe; the jury that decides the recipient of the festival’s top prize (the Palme d’Or) this year is made up of Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn, Leila Hatami, and Willem Dafoe among others; essentially a mishmash of someone from here, someone from there and everywhere in between.

The films in and out of competition represent diverse artists above all else. They have a place there because their films matter. They’re different. They’re things we haven’t seen before. They’re not bogged down with spandex, capes, and cheap romantic subplots.

There are films from established directors, and films from people we haven’t seen much from before. In that sense, Cannes makes insiders of the outsiders and places them on the same plane of presentation as the big boys, giving them a stage for the rest of us to see at some point down the line when the hoopla of the festival has withered away and all we’re left with is a remote and a subscription service with On-Demand capabilities.

It’s the job of the journalists at the festival, then, to make Cannes really mean something in the moment. We’ll all be invited to the party of opinion at some point, but these are the people who travel–sometimes on their own dime–to the waters of Southern France all for the sake of seeing, posting about, and championing films that will likely make it stateside within a few short months. These people sacrifice their sleep, sanity, and time, but it’s really a donation of all those things when you look at the big picture; world cinema–often under-appreciated in large markets like the US–is covered. It’s truly covered (in every sense of the word) by the hordes of writers who pack the screening rooms day after day and present their impressions to readers. Why? Because they’re the insiders who’ve been chosen to make it known. The prestigious torch is theirs to carry. They have a responsibility to promote the art in a climate that fosters the desire for spectacle versus creativity. They can’t afford to lose sight of the types of films that are shown at Cannes.

The journalists, while heralding films of worth, can also destroy the stragglers of the pack. Just yesterday we witnessed the downfall (more like the kick while it was already down, following a nasty dispute over final cut between Harvey Weinstein and director Olivier Dahan) of Grace of Monaco, the festival’s opening night film, which didn’t seem very Cannes-y in the first place. Still, the film’s stars (namely Nicole Kidman) and creators showed their faces, gave interviews, and upheld the tradition of a Cannes insider.

For most of us, all we’ll ever be to Cannes is someone hovering around the perimeter, holding out our basket, hoping to be thrown a few scraps here and there. We won’t show our films at special screenings, we won’t know how the sunlight hits our faces through the flash of paparazzi bulbs, how the salt air of the Mediterranean Sea wafts over the crowds waiting for the morning’s first screening. We won’t know how the wine tastes at the cafe around the corner from the best screening room. We won’t know what it’s like to be shut out of a screening because our press pass hasn’t been upgraded to “pink” from the standard “blue.”

We will always know, however, what it’s like to consume. Isn’t that the goal of it all, when you break it down? The filmmakers, the artists, the studios, the stars; each of them are vying for our consumption of their product.

We outsiders know nothing about the actual experience of Cannes, yet reap so much from it as these consumers. The kinds of films that have been shown and championed at Cannes rarely ride their glory all the way through to Oscar season, but the esteem is enough to last a lifetime. Tracking Oscar potential at Cannes is to miss the point entirely, though. Correlation is tricky to pinpoint, and it doesn’t matter. The Oscars have their ideology (and are a preservation of adult and art films in their own right), and Cannes has its own. Cannes is a celebration, a showcase, a hand on the ticker of the industry propelling world’s artists forward as they come together to say “look at what we can do,” and so we do just that. We obey, and we look on.

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I’m lucky now to be older, wiser, and more aware than my 7-year old self to know the whys, the ins, and the outs of why I want to be there in the first place: to experience that magical confluence of minds, talents, and to get swept up in the waves of collective appreciation shone from the world stage.

That’s something else I didn’t understand as a kid; the importance of Cannes across so many mediums speaks to the unison the art of cinema promotes. People spend thousands of dollars just to be there in the moment, in the magic of it all. People watch multiple movies–back to back–each day, writing about them in rented flats, cramped hotel rooms, and buzzing cafes.

People travel across oceans and trek mountains for the movies.

Though I can now experience the festival after sifting through journalist’s Instagram accounts, festival hashtags on Twitter, and hourly updates on the trade sites, I am still there secondhand, and that menas I’m not really there.

Cannes is a cloistered shell with pearls on the inside. Its mystery and allure are prestigious, and a great way to pinpoint the art we often lose track of. The exclusivity keeps the world’s eye on the prize. It elevates film to the level of the all-important instead of demeaning it to the easily-accessible. The films are challenging, complex, and fueled by creative passion from international perspectives, but at the end of the day, we’re all watching movies; alas, that’s the point–Cannes is so magical because it’s not about simply seeing a film, it’s about watching them and looking out for the ones that matter, because they often find a home there. We’ll all get that chance sooner or later.

So, as I sit here, some thousands of miles away from Cannes, I take pleasure in looking forward to upholding my end of the bargain when I buy my ticket to Foxcatcher or Maps to the Stars in a few months. It’s all about grasping the thread when it passes by, and I trust everyone at Cannes to push it in my direction.

We must trust that Cannes is one of the few remaining treasures left for world cinema. We trust that the filmmakers, artists, journalists, and insiders value the preservation of this congregation, that despite business deals and publicity, the fruit of the labor isn’t measured in such petty terms. They’re there for the art, for the treat of inclusivity, for the treat of being there when it all happens. They’d better enjoy it after all; they’ve moved across mountains and oceans to get there.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Review: ‘Godzilla’ Tips the Balance; Can Blockbusters Still Be Art?

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There’s so much ugliness in Hollywood.

We’re bombarded now, more than ever before, with the cacophonous battle cry of tentpole after tentpole, blockbuster after franchise sequel of the same formula of big-budget, effects-driven, fanboy-pandering dreck.

The American film landscape celebrates ugliness in bulk. The meaningless violence, the metallic clangs and clashes of mecha armor and explosions, the suits sitting behind it all and lapping up our hard-earned dollar; there’s simply nothing that champions beauty for beauty’s sake in mainstream cinema anymore.

Now we’re told how to think. We’re told which films are worthwhile (the ones the money is behind, the ones playing at 4,000 theaters, the ones based on an already-popular book series or graphic novel). We’ve lost the thread on adult films and what an “adult” film should be; gone are the days of anticipating a blockbuster from months in advance; we’re no longer permitted to look ahead. We’re forced to exist in the now, to gobble up Captain America while Spiderman 2 is nudging the main course out of the way on a triggered desert plate. These films are built on capitalizing on fanboy investment and returning the monstrous monetary budgets of the studios; it’s nothing more than throwing money around and watching the resulting fireworks of buzz-obsessed culture both onscreen and off. Everyone gets their kicks, but where is the art of it all going?

Godzilla should, by all means, fit in with the other effects-driven tentpoles of the year. It’s a revival of the classic series that defined spectacle for an earlier generation. It’s got a price tag hovering around $200 million. It’s got an aggressive marketing campaign even though its pre-established fanboy and casual audience appeal essentially secures ticket sales on name alone. Godzilla wouldn’t exist through the decades without the support of the same crowd that pushes the comic book films to $100 million weekend grosses.

And still, Godzilla feels refreshingly uncomplicated.

It’s a rarity for an American blockbuster to have a crescendoed artistic pulse throughout, but Godzilla’s is unwavering even in the midst of the film’s heaviest effects-driven scenes. For the most part, Godzilla is not a cacophony of Hollywood bullshit, but rather a delicately beautiful symphony of suspense that taps into a desire we’ve long been conditioned to ignore; to simply gaze upon and marvel at beauty that mystifies us instead of building up and sensationalizing our perception of spectacle.

Godzilla is a film that’s simply about what it’s about, and nothing else; in its world, the human race is careless. They struggle with each other and wage war, carelessly experiment with radiation, inadvertently create monolithic creatures who feed on it, and the earth is left with the burden of restoring order. From what the humans are able to gather, Godzilla is a product of the earth sent to eradicate the parasitic intruders (the “Muto,” which look like a cross between gargoyles, moths, and skinned-and-cooked bird of prey).

The bulk of the film is spent observing the would-be spectacle of the clashing monsters from afar. At its core, the film is merely about juxtapositions and finding a medium between the two. Godzilla and the Muto battle endlessly, though their conflicts are orchestrated with the stroke of a filmmaker who never loses sight of his film’s artistic heartbeat.

The film is peppered with characters that generally mean nothing in the grand scheme of things; there are scientists, soldiers and their wives, nurses, army generals and tourists, but we learn to appreciate the minimal presence of “character” and appreciate the scale of wonderment director Gareth Edwards taps into. He makes humans the least important element of the equation. He reduces us as an audience (as well as the characters in his film) as helpless spectators. All we can do is sit back and watch as powers larger than us have at it with our world, and it’s here that Edwards’ film hones its focus on the mystery of looking on; we’re ever transfixed by an infantile desire to see and engage with what we know so little about, and Godzilla is largely about indulging in that sense of mystery, balancing humble simplicity as we sit in awe of the grandiose scene–never outright spectacle–all around us.

Edwards’ primary strength is that he knows how to restrain himself and his material, even when that material is composed around two 400-foot monsters waging war on the streets of San Francisco. Where someone like Steven Spielberg or Zack Snyder would pull back the curtain and unveil a $200 million spectacle, Edwards meticulously draws it closed. He shrouds his monsters in smoke, in darkness, and the cover of the jungle or water. We see flits and pieces of them from time to time, their full forms only revealed well after the film’s midway point. We’re constantly learning about these creatures as we’re given doses of visuals here and there. Edwards builds a mystery, and we’re fully along for the ride. He builds tension in his scenes, cleverly deconstructing a traditional “reveal” by going back to the basics of suspense; simplicity, silence, long takes, and precise timing tied together with a thread of wit. We focus far more on the build-up than the payoff whereas typical Hollywood films kick back and relax in the mess of pure spectacle.

There’s a playfulness to the way Edwards structures his action, though. There’s a careful discretion at work, and the hand of the filmmaker functions as a companion instead of a prodding sensationalist. Edwards presents us with subjects of epic proportions and frames them gorgeously and cleverly, but reveals so little about them that all we can do is sit back and bask in the wonderment of what we’re seeing. We’re rewarded for our patience by being allowed to fantasize instead of having everything presented to us in cookie-cutter shape.

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In many ways, Godzilla is a response—almost a critique, if you will—of the state of things in Hollywood. It’s at first peculiar that Edwards’ creatures often find themselves battling amidst tourist attractions around the world. One of the Muto ravages the Las Vegas landscape, tearing through faux versions of the Eiffel Tower and Manhattan, we see them duke it out in Hawaii, destroying an airport and interrupting a beach full of lei-laden vacationers; in both locales, our focus is often placed on two small children; a boy at the airport and a girl on the beach. Edwards spends the majority of both scenes focused on the children’s faces as they watch, unsure of whether to be frightened or mystified at what they’re seeing. The adults—whether they pull levers on the slot machines or sip drinks on the beach—spend most of their time distracted, and that’s exactly how Hollywood operates; adults flock to the tentpoles weekend after weekend, fostering a culture of quick-fix fandom that’s never satiated until the next lever that’s offered is pulled, though it never quite yields a jackpot. The only ones left when the smoke clears, then, are the children who dare to explore and hang on to that sense of wonderment, and Godzilla nurtures that curious child inside us all. It’s a film that gives us beautiful images and sweeping vision at the hands of a clever filmmaker with a creative pulse beating through the veins of a film that would have otherwise been about reaffirming the status quo for the action-oriented blockbuster. Instead, Godzilla is able to find harmony amidst the bluster of pots and pans.

Throughout the film, we’re never given concrete evidence of what created Godzilla, though the film’s scientists are pre-occupied with the idea that the earth bore him as a means to restore the balance humans offset by fostering a world that allowed the Muto to exist. Godzilla is not an overtly political film, though it does do something typical Hollywood films don’t; it implicates its audience and relishes in ambiguity, seeing as Godzilla is not presented as a villain or a hero. The beast merely represents the natural order and aims to restore the balance of earth. Ultimately, he exists solely to clean up a mess that humans made. He’s generous for making things easier than they should be for humans, I can give him that, but he ultimately exists unto himself. He is not evil, he is not a saint, and he remains a mystery, and the film relies heavily on pitting the small against the big and the known against the mysterious. Is Godzilla a monster or a savior? Either way, the film’s characters should learn to regard him with respect instead of trying to understand it all. It’s much more beautiful that way, and isn’t that how we see life in general?

Hollywood tries to teach us that accessibility is earned by showing up and paying for a ticket, but it’s all really so much bigger than us. Mainstream cinema barely tries to scratch the surface of what film can be. It reduces things to simple spectacle, and films that value the art of it all have shrunk in size, confined to art house markets and box-office grosses 1/100th the size of the advertising budget for whatever superhero flick is playing this weekend. With Godzilla, Edwards challenges the idea of what a blockbuster should and can be. It’s flashy, it’s big, it’s effects-driven and expensive, but it never loses sight of the beauty that can be found in the spectacular image or that wondrous, fantastical feeling of pondering the immensity of that which we cannot control.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Of Goddesses and Monsters: The Female Body in “Under the Skin”

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Hollywood satiates the hunger for flesh.

For the better part of the past decade, the body of the woman has been both the main course (flesh on full display) and a lukewarm side-dish (the mother, the girlfriend, the “filler”).  Women are so unfairly represented in film that critiquing the system has almost become a stale art.

It takes a committed, visionary filmmaker like Jonathan Glazer—someone who knows how to treat the female body and is conscious of its treatment at the hands of other directors—to craft an entire film around the deconstruction of the sexualized image of the female body.

That’s not to say his brilliant Under the Skin doesn’t involve sex. At its core, the film is about an otherworldly being (Scarlett Johansson) traversing the streets of Scotland, luring men into its den under the pretense of sex, and harvesting their skin for sustenance. It sounds like the workings of an early Russ Meyer film; the alien assimilates into human culture, absorbs its surroundings, and regurgitates them to seduce earthly men, who willingly follow the penis wherever it might lead them. But, there’s an underlying persistence to the whole thing that forces us to confront the whats and the whys of what we’re seeing instead of indulging the side of us that has been conditioned to succumb to titillation at the sight of a disrobed Hollywood actress.

Glazer crafts his alien as if she were a child crawling, walking, and evolving through life. The alien draws upon societal structures to shape her projection of womanhood. She is drawn to expensive, attractive clothing after seeing women shopping at the mall; she splashes makeup over her face after witnessing masses of earthly women constructing a mirage of societally-coded “beauty” on their faces at a makeup counter; she learns that sex is treated like a tool for self-pleasure, self-sustenance, and self-worth, and appropriates it as a means to fit in; she sees that men respond to this image, so she zips up in a soft suit of milky skin and slinks along the streets with sexually-confident swagger.

Glazer structures his film as one of oppositions. From the get-go, we’re immediately introduced to the dichotomy between light and dark. A black screen overwhelms us as a small white dot appears at its center. It grows, evolving into the shape of what appears to be a series of planets aligned during an eclipse, then into a human eye, which eventually gives way to the images of a road, then to a stream, to the body of a dead woman, to Johansson’s alien—fully naked—stripping clothes off the dead body, placing them on her own, and assuming human form. Within minutes, we’re shown that the world is a series of opposites; light vs. dark, naked vs. clothed, earthly vs. alienesque, natural vs. constructed, sex vs. fear. None such a match is as powerful as the split Glazer wedges between the body and the allure of sex. The sight of Johansson’s naked body–that comes quite often throughout the film–recalls the faint glimmer of sexuality we’re so used to associating with the naked female form in contemporary cinema, but we sense that something’s not right. The goal for Johansson’s alien, however, is the body itself as a physical harvest versus a form of pleasure, and in that sense Glazer is able to recontextualize the naked human form.

The bulk of Glazer’s commentary on the female body in society comes from the way the alien digests our culture and the men she seduces, being that its interpretation of “normal” female behavior is to act, dress, and seduce like a sex machine. The scenes of sexuality are sensual on the surface, but we’re forced to see them as something monstrous—not necessarily because death is a certain outcome for the men the alien seduces, but because Glazer forces a disconnect between the naked human form and sex as we know it.

The alien’s body is undoubtedly “used” by the film, but the way the alien treats her body is non-sexual. She’s doing it not for the sex, not for the pleasure, and not for the sake of using sexuality as a weapon–she is not human, and therefore does not understand human sexuality the way that the men she seduces do. She’s not gaming; this is simply how she survives.

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Yes, the alien is sleek, she’s cool, she’s unaffected; her emotions aren’t human, so it’s ludicrous for us to attempt to unearth any sort of logic, reasoning, or motivation other than that it’s necessary for her existence. As a result, we must process the alien (in every sense of the word) procedure from an outsider perspective; we see sex every day and we know how it works, but Glazer instead tickles our curious fancy and probes us to question the limits of physical attraction by demystifying the constructed fantasy of the female body.

Women are generally sexualized in movies, whether they’re the girlfriend or the hot girl in high school; their bodies are conquests and possessions. But, Under the Skin views the body not as the goal, but as the bridge. The alien’s goal is not an emotional or sexual conquest, it’s merely to harvest and sustain, removing any traceable form of human connotations from the act of sex itself. There are no violent scenes in the film. We do not see the alien ripping throats out, drawing blood, or even engaging in any sort of overtly sexual contact with these men at all. Instead, Glazer wisely strips the seduction scenes of any surrounding distraction. They’re surreal, cold, and straightforward; we see two naked bodies against a black background, and the male form simply sinks into the darkness and out of frame. The body is disposable, yet charged with the implications of what we as an audience want to see happen—but are so deliberately denied—at the sight of flesh. We’re denied primal spectacles of violence and sex. The body is the body, and the body is all we get—no strings attached.

There’s a scene in the film where the alien has what can be construed as a change of heart. We see her go through the motions of seduction with a man with neurofibromatosis. He’s unsightly because our culture values a specific form of beauty, one that “deformities” do not fit in with. She speaks with him, asks him about his friends, asks him if he’s lonely, and systematically breaks the barriers a lifetime of being an outcast has built up, so much so that she’s thrown off-course by the pity she feels for him. She lets him go; beginning to understand at least some of the complexities of the human form she has taken. It’s here that she begins to sympathize with humanity. She escapes to the countryside and finds refuge with an older man who offers to help her. He gives her a coat as they walk side by side in the rain to his home. Her makeup wears off with the water, and he gives her his oversized coat, which covers her womanly curves. She attempts to eat human food—a piece of cake, in one of the film’s more obvious metaphors—but spits it out after we see it framed so lusciously next to her lips on the fork. The framing is delicious, but the taste of what we’ve been conditioned to eat (the female body as represented in film) is repulsive.

It’s here that the film’s refusal to objectify the alien’s human body becomes clear. We spend the majority of the film as mere observers. The film is not violent or sexual enough—by conventional standards, mind you—to titillate, and it never aims to be. It shows us a beautiful naked figure but does not indulge the coded desire to see that body used for sex, but for something disturbing and cruel. Glazer challenges the audience, however; does the film industry (and its audience) still view the female body in a film such as this as “sexy,” even though it’s associated—in context—with something monstrous?

A majority of audiences will say yes. They’re used to preying on the female body. They’re used to female actors being reduced to roles where the only things that are celebrated are their flesh or their ability to fill the role of a mother, a girlfriend, a sister, an appendage. Glazer’s alien is not an appendage. She is in control; she takes the form of something familiar, and turns it on its head. She forces us to question our perception of the female body, regard it with fear, confusion, and mystery; anything other than the sexual attraction we’re so used to seeing hawked by Hollywood studios. The film is not so much a triumph as a narrative, but rather as a funneling of the human form into a refreshing mold that challenges the industry around it.

Glazer peppers the film with a few scenes that show the alien looking into a compact mirror. The camera gazes into it from the alien’s perspective. We see her face, her tempting eyes, and her lipstick in its frame; it’s all a succulent dish, but under the surface we know we’re just smacking our lips. We’re not looking at an alien, we’re looking at our own painted reflection, and it’s here we realize that Glazer has created a character with big enough balls to show us the readily-consuming monster staring back from the other side of the glass.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Is There Beauty in the Breakdown of Race at the Oscars?

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While TIME Magazine gears up for its annual 100 Most Influential People issue—one that features politicians, artists, women who made a difference for women, minorities overcoming the plight of inequality—People magazine is sticking to its guns, reporting on stories about “Every Selfie Anna Kendrick Has Ever Taken” to crowning Lupita Nyong’o as the Most Beautiful Person in the World.

It’s an amazing thing to see a woman with dark skin on the cover of a magazine circulating in a predominantly-white culture. Movies are white-obsessed, the very Academy Awards that bestowed an Oscar upon Nyong’o for her role in 12 Years a Slave—the first film “about” slavery to win Best Picture—is white-washed (94%, to be exact), and our collective desire last year was to see this sort of overturning of the status quo become the status quo.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 12 Years a Slave is not the sort of groundbreaking film we all so desperately want it to be. It was objectified for its racial components (albeit for a positive cause) and, while still a perfectly acceptable, appropriate choice for the Academy, their decision could impact how future films about black characters fare at the Oscars (i.e., the “been there, done that” mentality might come into play.)

Some might say that Nyong’o, however, is a trailblazer. She’s breaking barriers within an industry that has tipped in the favor of the young, white, male actor. In an age where Pharrell is recontextualizing the image of Marilyn Monroe for his latest single cover and films like 12 Years a Slave are winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it should be obvious that the tide is turning in favor of the minority voice, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

The fact remains that, by awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the Academy essentially fulfilled a circular, pre-constructed prophecy that was waiting in the wings, bound to be completed whenever it was most appropriate. After films about minorities like The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain missed out on a gold-laden party, accusations of bigotry within the Academy intensified. It reached a head this year, with outside pressure mounting as the Black New Wave movement saw the release of three high-profile films from black directors (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in addition to 12 Years a Slave) take the awards race by storm. Timing is everything.

86 years of black filmmakers taking a backseat to the white pictures, directors, and actors resulted in a monumental Best Picture victory for Steve McQueen’s period drama about Solomon Northrup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into the southern slave trade. It’s a film with real-world implications for both Hollywood and American society. Racism is not a historical fantasy; it exists in every corner of the nation, and the minority is so often stifled in the film industry.

It’s clear that the Academy never really warms up to films laced with controversy, and 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront these issues and shouldn’t have to apologize for its mere existence because it doesn’t make the whole thing look pretty. Yet, all you’d hear coming out of industry parties was that Academy members weren’t watching 12 Years a Slave because it was difficult to sit through. Its members shy away from controversy and gravitate toward crowd-pleasing fare, and it’s difficult to please the majority when whips, flesh, blood, and the implications of modern racial inequality are looming over Academy members’ shoulders as they vote.

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The Academy heeded the pressure to make a monument out of the past Oscar year; 12 Years a Slave was a headline. It was the first “black” film, directed by a black director, starring a predominantly-black cast, to win the Best Picture Oscar. The white voting majority took it upon themselves to so graciously lower their standards, and they heeded outside pressure to award the film a compensatory win for every Do The Right Thing, Precious, or The Color Purple that slipped through the cracks.

Nyong’o’s arc of success rode similar superficial waves. She was consistently played up as a “fashion icon” on the red carpet. Her dresses became the conversation; the bright colors were the distraction from the brutal situation her character endured. She became an image instead of a person. She was the beautiful red carpet fixture being asked about her dresses versus the preparation she had to do for the role or how difficult it must have been to play the part of a woman who endured the hardships of slavery in real life. The conversation always turned to who she was wearing, her charm, her pizazz, how beautiful she is while the boys discussed the craft. That’s all empty, fading praise, just like the cover of a magazine celebrating exterior beauty. It’s almost as if the film and its cast had to distract the industry from the stigma of being “too difficult to watch” that the film had taken on, and Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover is still a ripple in that pond.

The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave did not succeed based on the votes of an equal Academy voting base. There are far more men than women, far more white voters than there are from any other race, and far more older people than there are younger. 12 Years a Slave found a way to appeal to the white majority. The accomplishment will come when the black filmmakers are able to reap the same benefits that white actors do after winning an Oscar.

This year’s cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue hasn’t entirely missed the mark, however. It does celebrate women and diversity, namely select women who’ve made a difference in the film industry over the course of the past year.

The cover itself also features two women over 40 (Julia Roberts and Juliana Margulies) alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a female movie star proving that:

1) While the age of the true movie star is dying, actresses like Lawrence and Sandra Bullock can still drive box-office and headline films almost single-handedly

and

2) That women can drive a film to the top-earning domestic spot at the yearly box-office (Catching Fire took in over $400 million in the US alone, while Frozen grossed over $1 billion globally)

But, what are the long-lasting implications for a woman like Nyong’o, who can lay claim to such a title bestowed by People, yet go home to a script pile that’s nowhere near as bountiful as the one Jennifer Lawrence gets to pour over?

I’d love to see Nyong’o get as many magazine covers as she can, but “Fashion Icon” and “Most Beautiful Woman” are fading titles. What Nyong’o needs is a casting director willing to take what the rest of the industry would consider being a risk by placing her in a high-profile role originally intended for a white actor (or even a man). What Nyong’o needs is work. She doesn’t need frivolous praise; she endured it enough on the red carpet.

The cover is an accomplishment and a step in the right direction. Visibility is visibility, and that’s key to changing the standard. My gripe is not with the magazine itself, but with the industry at large. Nyong’o is being heralded as the “It” black girl, as if there’s only one to choose from. Bigger changes need to happen before we can find solace and comfort in her presence on the cover.

The awards cycle has turned Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave into is a flavor of the moment. Flavors fade. The next black film to come along will likely be shunned by Oscar voters because they’ve been there and done that with 12 Years a Slave. So, will the People magazine cover matter after she’s taken the inevitable Halle Berry route post-Oscar? Or will the roles open up to her? Will she get the chance to headline prominent films originally intended for white actresses? Will a studio have the balls to change a script–alter character, race, and gender–to fit her in, to give her a chance, to truly make her Oscar mean something?

Could Lupita Nyong’o be the next Ellen Ripley?

Absolutely: whether the industry around her is ready and willing to foster such a thing remains to be seen.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Jane Fonda Talks Loving Pittsburgh: Exploring a Film-Laden City Amidst Its Cultural Revolution

Jane Fonda on-set in Pittsburgh (photo from her website)

So, Jane Fonda is here in Pittsburgh and just wrote this incredible blog about the city and how Russell Crowe isn’t crazy.

I mean, that sounds crazy in itself, but I’m all about relinquishing personal judgments when a Queen speaketh her truth—especially when it concerns showing such love to my hometown.

She’s been in the city for the past week filming scenes for Fathers & Daughters alongside the likes of Crowe and Amanda Seyfried (rumor has it that Octavia Spencer has also joined the cast). It does read sort of like an episode of “This American Life: Jane Takes Pittsburgh,” but she makes heartfelt observations about her co-stars, the film, and the wonderful city around her.

She talks about Crowe having the charm of a “little boy,” and how quickly he can “slip” into the pain and depth of his characters, but Jane also takes us on a journey through phrases one could only accept coming from the mouth of Jane Fonda. If spun gold were to take the shape of blog-based text, it would be the following: “My friend, Quvenzhane Wallis, is also in the film.” Does 10-year old Quvenzhane also describe 76-year old Jane Fonda as her friend? Oh, the conversations they probably have. Does Mrs. Wallis pick Jane up when Quvenzhane asks to go to the mall? Does Jane sit in the back seat? What does Mrs. Wallis’ face look like when she’s forced to remember she’s driving Jane Fonda around each time she looks into her rearview? The follow-up questions I have about this statement are for another article entirely.

All kidding aside, I don’t necessarily take the Crowe-praising bits 100% seriously (I’m not saying Fonda is fibbing, I just think even Russell Crowe knows not to spill his boiling pot of crazy onto the lap of a Queen/dignitary of sisterhood like Jane freaking Fonda). The post’s existence in the first place is rather odd, as it seems almost like Crowe’s PR had something to do with the nicey bits about him (come to think of it, what Fonda described about the actor above [re; “slipping” into his character, his boyish charm, etc.]  is merely a description of, well, “acting” in general).

What I do appreciate about her post, however, is its candidness and the way Fonda speaks about Pittsburgh.

It’s short and sweet, though she posts scores of photos, bits of history from her own recollection of having been there once before in the 70s, and textbook facts in addition to her personal observations. She’s done her research, and is engaging with the city versus letting it serve merely as her backdrop.

The city hosted a score of A-list talent over the last few years. From Anne Hathaway and Laura Dern to Tom Cruise and Chloe Sevigny, Pittsburgh has been a hotbed of celebrity activity for the better part of the past decade. Dozens of films and television shows have filmed here for networks like The Disney Channel and A&E to studios like Warner Bros. and Lionsgate.

Tax credits are the main incentive for productions to shoot here, but studios aren’t the only ones benefitting (I wrote a front-page article for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazeete about what happens to local businesses during production, here).

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The term “Hollywood of the East” has been slapped on to the city for quite some time now, and I’ve always had an issue with it. While certain films host part (The Dark Knight Rises) or all (Those Who Kill) of their production here, any shred of a potentially lasting implication on the city’s identity as a film-conscious production hub is packed onto trailers and shipped out when the crews leave. There’s not a lasting film presence (aside from a few studios in the city–namely the 31st Street Studios) and I’d love to see that change, but the city’s national identity needs to before anything else can.

Everyone remembers Sienna Miller’s trashing of the city when she tried to get in to a local bar without an ID (remember the article where she called us “Shittsburgh”?), but it was a momentary blip on the city’s otherwise spotless track record of hosting major stars and productions. People like Jane Fonda embracing the city is key to taking the appropriate steps in the right direction to make that happen.

The city is in the midst of its own little cultural revolution. There are things going on here that surprised even me, someone who was born and raised here, someone who’s love for film and the arts was fostered by the vast array of local festivals, theaters, and artists that served as a foundation.

I spoke with Neepa Majumdar (professor of Film Studies at the University of Film Studies, where I graduated from in 2012) about Pittsburgh’s place within the industry at large. It’s considered a “C” market, falling anywhere between 20th and 70th place in most population-based studies (we won’t get into metropolitan statistical area or mere urban population, that’s for another article), which essentially means that during Oscar season we don’t get all of the major nominees until their January/February nationwide expansions, and the latest indie and art house films generally reach us a month or two after their New York and LA premieres. There’s a market here for art and independent cinema (including its production, just check out something like the Steeltown Film Factory screenwriting competition by clicking here), but the market for foreign films is expanding—for Bollywood films, in particular.

“You can see a Bollywood film here often at the same time it premieres in India.” Majumdar told me.

That speaks volumes about the diaspora population in a city like Pittsburgh, and you can see it everywhere from the theater marquees at AMC Loews Waterfront (as of this publication, Bollywood comedy 2 States has four scheduled showings throughout the day) to the multiple Indian restaurants lining a neighborhood like Oakland.

The city still has identity issues—not from within, but it terms of outside perception. We’re still the “Steel City” to so many—still the ugly, browning, graying, cloud-covered, smog-infested river country lining the muddy waters of the Ohio. The city is a confluence of culture, art, and diversity far more than people give it credit for, and it’s fantastic to see such a legendary, iconic part of one of the city’s growing industries take the time to write so passionately about our city with such assurance. She’s sure she loves the city and has taken the time to explore it and share her love for it on a such a public forum.

On a final note that needs no justification other than exemplifying her appropriation of rap culture, I’d like to give a shout-out to Jane Fonda’s shout-out to Starbucks:

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The tribute proves everything I’ve been saying about my city, one that’s on the verge of finding its place within the natural urban stew; Pittsburgh is good, but hasn’t yet been able to own the spotlight by itself.

Thanks for helping us along the way though, Jane. I’m glad you’ve had a ball.

Click here to read the full blog on Jane Fonda’s official website.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Who Defines Film Culture: The Oscars or the MTV Movie Awards?

Host Conan O'Brien closes the show after Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson accepted the award for Best Movie of the Year for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards in Los AngelesThe burden of guidance is so often placed upon the shoulders of the most youthful generation. After all, they are the future.

But, they’re also the first group we criticize when examining the state of things, and the last we feel safe putting our faith in. According to the old and wise, they’re either setting sail in the wrong direction or dragging the vessel down; the youth of the nation can’t catch a break.

And so enters MTV, which has served as perhaps the most reflective mirror of youth culture for over four decades. What began as an outlet for the naturally-countercultural voice of the young has become a mold that defines the youth mentality instead of complimenting and accenting its evolution. Creativity and music videos gave way to reality television and cheap trash, which only makes sense; the defining media source for the culture of youth must mimic the devolution of the younger generation from a pre-adult, naïve mass into a noisy, pots-and-pans banger of endlessly empty product and consumption. Regardless of the network’s level of quality, it’s timelessly synonymous with the demographic that anchors itself at the forefront of popular culture.

When MTV first began airing its now-annual Movie Awards in 1992, they offered an alternative to the adult-oriented culture of the Oscars. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the adult film, what with the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and The Piano washing the bad taste of Chariots of Fire and Rocky out of the public’s mouth. Not since the 1970s had the film industry seen such a desire to release and market films to the older crowd. The public was hungry for maturity once again, so it only makes sense that MTV would step in with a youth-fueled alternative to the stuffy, graying status quo.

The MTV Movie Awards offered a timely chance for the general crowd-pleasers to find their stride and spotlight where the Oscars offered no shelter. The Oscars have always been more inclined to recognize adult-oriented fare,  and the MTV Movie Awards have always been there to crown things like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wedding Crashers, or Napoleon Dynamite as the best film of the year.

The type of voter choosing the respective winners has always defined the gap between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy is comprised predominantly of older white men who are professionals in the field, while the general public chooses the recipients of the MTV Movie Awards. Perhaps it’s here that lies the key to understanding the recent melding of the adult niche and popular appeal, only it’s not the MTV Movie Awards that are changing.

As a matter of fact, it’s the Academy that’s come to conform to the standards of the general public.

The MTV Movie Awards have very little changed their format over the years. There’s a Best Film category that shows little to no discrimination against any particular genre (films from The Matrix, Scream and The Ring to There’s Something About Mary, Bridesmaids, and JFK have each found nominations and/or wins here), whereas the Academy generally sticks to its dramatic guns when it comes to Best Picture. What does this tell us about the Oscars’ standing in American culture? That the Academy is often out of touch with popular mainstream culture—that is until you get to 2009, when the decision was made to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of ten. Five more slots meant five more chances for something like Avatar—2009’s James Cameron blockbuster—to partake in a race it normally would have only entered in the technical categories, as did MTV Best Pictures like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix.

Generally, the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Picture category shares around 1-3 nominees with the Oscar Best Picture race, and often the MTV Movie Award winner isn’t even nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture (nor are the other nominees) and vice-versa. On three occasions a film has won top honors at both ceremonies in the same year. It began in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, followed by Ridley Scott’s 2000 smash Gladiator, and then again with Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Each of these films had an immense budget and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally. They were perfect examples of when spectacle of screen and gross become far too big to ignore. The tide of Oscar voting was shifting to favor the crowd-pleaser over the artist.

mtv-movie-awardsThe rise of the blockbuster indicated a key turning point in the film industry; the disappearance of the adult-oriented film in favor of a big-budget spectacle. The blockbuster became par for the course instead of a singular event that came two or three times a year. The melding of the popular moneymakers with traditional Academy fare became ever more apparent when the Oscars—declining in viewership over the years—saw more and more big-budget films that would have normally only found traction with the MTV Movie Awards (District 9, The Blind Side, Avatar) began creeping into the Best Picture race.

The Oscars began their quest for all-inclusivity, which ultimately resulted in easy-to-swallow, non-polarizing, universal films like The Artist, Argo, and The King’s Speech to take Best Picture.

The streamlining of film culture into an amalgam of crowd-pleasers that resonate with adults and youth alike led to the increasing relevance of the MTV Movie Awards, which were once considered a useless appendage as a celebration of everything that was already gratuitous about Hollywood; cheap laughs, violence, spectacle, big stars, hot sex, and superficiality (what else can you expect from an awards show that contains a “Best Shirtless Performance” category?). With the rise of the $100-million grosser as the studio norm and the Oscars’ increasing pandering to a more generalized audience, the MTV Movie Awards complimented the industry’s shift toward flashiness over sophistication without evolving at all.

The MTV Movie Awards remain the one facet of the network that inserts its audience into mainstream culture instead of shaping their tastes for them; MTV executives seem to nominate films and performers that the target demographic has responded to in other ways (whether it be big box-office or social media interactions), and then lets the public vote to determine the winners. The MTV Movie Awards largely reflect the true general consensus of the average American moviegoer, where the Oscars now find themselves as the potential outcast caught between championing the adult film and appealing to the masses by recognizing popular films and performers.

It used to be that the rift between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards represented the split tastes of the American public. Today, the tentpoles that define summer and the crowd-pleasers that permeate the Oscar race often share recognition at both awards shows. There’s no need for the MTV Movie Awards to champion films that wouldn’t have a shot in the Oscar race; now there’s more room for everyone everywhere, and the culture at large is far more inclined to watch and tweet about three hours of bubblegum stars winning bubblegum awards at a bubblegum awards show that offers the same films up for grabs as the much-stuffier Oscar race.

Even recently, the Oscars are still a place where the adult film can flourish. Challenging pieces like Amour, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have proven that the Academy’s taste has not completely gone soft—and that this affinity can even propel little-seen, mature films to actually win Best Picture, like 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The problem is that the studio-shaped landscape is shifting so greatly that space for these films to grow and find an audience is shrinking by the day to the point where the Oscars are becoming the only place for films like this to succeed. For every Grand Budapest Hotel we get six of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though The Academy is likely to recognize both in categories with varying levels of esteem attached to them.

So, then, the MTV Movie Awards have separated themselves from the serious-minded awards groups without doing a single thing different over the course of their 22 years. They’ve become reflective of why our culture both works (the voice of the people, what with social media, has never been stronger) and what’s wrong with it (taste is far too often defined by the powers at large pushing dreck like superhero movies and big-budget blockbusters on a weekly basis so that they’re no longer event pictures but the standard). The MTV Movie Awards reflect the reality of our star-obsessed, instant-gratification culture far better than the Oscars do, and that’s evident by the way the Oscars have shifted their own categorical structuring since 2009 to include a wider range of films. The public demands more inclusivity as their wallets get bigger and their dollars more attracted to larger spectacles.

The people who watch the MTV Movie Awards are probably not the same ones who highly regard film awards in general. They’re the same people shelling out dollar after dollar to see blockbuster after blockbuster in quick succession; the audiences might be throwing their money at the same thing over and over, but it seems that MTV and their target demographic know which way to point the sails.

Their most recent Best Film winner (Catching Fire) also happens to be the top-grossing domestic film of the year, so it’s about time we start paying attention; they seem to know where the ships are docking.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Melissa May’s “Dear Ursula” Will Make You Cry

Writer Melissa May explores body image and how Hollywood marketing steals the voice of the minority via a personal letter to the iconic Disney character in this rousing slam poetry session. As a point of reference, here’s the doll in question:

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