By: Joey Nolfi
What makes a movie worth something? In the blistering months of summer, we find ourselves flocking to the theater in droves to see them: the good ones, the bad ones, the everything-in-between ones. We accept the notion that this is a supposed to be a time for relaxation, a time to drift away from the 40-hour workweek and into the soft caress of increasing temperatures and cool breezes in that wide open space that’s in between your front door and your air-conditioned sedan.
But, being the good cinephiles that we are, we shut ourselves away in tiny, cramped, darkened little theaters and let others create the fantasy for us. We still associate film with escapism, just the same as we hold onto the coded image of summer as if it still bears the same fruits that three months of nothingness ahead of you in the waning days of May did when you were 15 years old.
Of course, the reality for adults is much different. Summer is simply supposed to be synonymous with easy, but the film industry often kicks into overdrive during these months, pummeling us with male-driven tentpole after male-driven tentpole in a cycle that’s driving its top-heavy films into the ground, pushing “minority” characters and stories to the side, and testing just how much audiences will put up with (grosses for 2014’s summer flicks thus far trail last year’s grosses by 15%, according to Deadline Hollywood) en route to a monolithically-male American film culture.
In an industry where real female characters in front of the camera are rare and a female eye behind the lens is even harder to come by, it’s unfortunate that a film like Tammy—one undoubtedly meant as a lighthearted tread through fields of breezy summer tastes that appeal to the masses—lands itself amid an inescapable storm of web-based chatter from all possible perspectives. People don’t want to let the film be as it is without all the extra baggage it may or may not be carrying with arms of its own. Still, we talk; “Tammy is a film about equality for big girls” some say. “Can we please stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s weight?” others, like Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby did here) chime in. Tammy is being pulled in a million different directions so much that feels like we’ve run the course with it even though we’re still a good 24 hours away from its official opening.
What is true “worth” when talking about a summer blockbuster, then? If we tip so heavily to the side of male taste, is there room for anything else—even, say, a subpar overall film like Tammy—to be worth something in bits as opposed to as a whole?
Heavy discourse might be valid when talking about a film that’s worth something in the eyes of the masses, which Tammy will be if good word of mouth carries it past the modest $30-$40 million holiday haul it’s poised for, though we seem to be more preoccupied with throwing our own words around prior to seeing the actual film than seeing Tammy for what it is; a ridiculously uneven spectacle that digs its own holes that are similar in size and size and scope to the ones dug by others it so desperately seeks to climb out of. But, in the age of the internet court, where everyone’s voice is falsely validated by their ability to fit it into a 140-character space, criticism becomes something that altogether precedes content, and it’s dangerous to glob a film like Tammy into a grey box in an industry that so blatantly separates gender into black and white despite its shortcomings.
We have to pick and choose what we pull from films like Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a 30-something slob with an ex-job, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and an excommunication from a reality, as she attempts to capitalize on her newfound freedom with a road trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), though they veer far off track and the film careens into all-over-the-place territory as Tammy embarks on a true journey of self-discovery. McCarthy’s script (co-written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the picture) feels like a series of aimless vignettes that wear the same comedic gimmicks that McCarthy has relied on for three years now so extremely thin that the barely-there thread connecting everything feels as if its about to snap and coil in on itself if one more self-deprecating fat joke or improvised run-on slithers out of McCarthy’s mouth.
Take it like any subcultural film movement appropriating the normative culture’s use of words that are derogatory (the “f” word, the “n” word), but McCarthy’s use of fat jokes at first doesn’t seem like a harnessing of control, but rather feels like a repetitive reliance on an easy gag. The laughs are there, but the punch isn’t. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to leave the discussion about weight and gender at the door, namely because the film is more than attributable to McCarthy’s own doing: she wrote the script, after all, and her husband called the shots on set. That doesn’t do much for objectivity on their part, and it makes for a film that feels more self-indulgent on McCarthy’s part than it does self-revelatory for the character she’s created on the page and on the screen…for the first half, that is.
So, the overwhelmingly negative response the film is receiving from initial screenings is warranted for the most part: the film’s first half is a silly romp that does very little to elevate itself above the rest of the summer muck. Again, we must be careful, as so rarely are we given female characters like the ones in Tammy that the film surrounding them takes a backseat to the importance of their existence as characters in the first place. The film’s back half, however, turns the nose of the sinking ship toward the sun.
For starters, it’s become quite common to observe that Melissa McCarthy’s body type doesn’t fit in with the normal blueprint Hollywood has drawn for women to build upon, and when lines like “you didn’t fuck the ice cream man just for the ice cream, did you?” and “I kind of got into the pies” punctuate a film that includes scenes of an overweight woman struggling to climb over a small counter top and falling to her knees after dropping three feet off the top of a table, what is an audience supposed to think? McCarthy begs us to view her body as a comedic tool, and while that makes it impossible to leave discussion about its star’s body out of the equation, it does indicate that there is a consciousness to her methods.
Tammy is a studio production aimed at pleasing the crowds, and it will do that on some level, but the film also explores things you’d never see in the male-driven industry today, thanks largely in part to McCarthy’s power as a box-office draw and audience darling. There are female characters (even lesbians!) that are defined by more than their sexuality and/or their relationship to a man—in a Hollywood production! Though the lack of objectivity and more creative license given to McCarthy in terms of script and performance speaks to her power as a female star with a box-office draw, her decision to include the fat jokes in her own script indicate a comfort and an acceptance of her body. That’s obvious. It’s just wholeheartedly discouraging to see her reducing herself to fodder for trailers with material that’s just not very creative, and altogether makes her body something that we have to think about as something someone has to “accept” in the first place. Is there something wrong with you if you aren’t Melissa McCarthy but have Melissa McCarthy’s body type and no outlet to show off your self-deprecating humor?
Sure, we can say that it’s unfair to talk about women’s bodies and focus on the weight, but Melissa McCarthy’s films seem to fixate on it more than the rest of us do: the jokes are at the expense of her weight and wouldn’t work on a skinny person. McCarthy doesn’t use these jokes as a crutch beyond the first half of the film or so (they’re peppered throughout the entire thing, but ultimately don’t define it), she’s just playing up her assets, and she treats her body as such; she doesn’t create a character who’s disgusting, but rather someone who’s in control of losing control of her body for comedic effect.
It’s this consciousness of what makes McCarthy “different”—both as someone who doesn’t fit the “normal” mold of Hollywood actresses and as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men—that makes aspects of Tammy accessible in a way we’re not used to seeing in a big-budget Hollywood production. There’s a deliberate effort to construct a non-mainstream, non-typical woman and give her the agency that beautiful, rail-thin leading ladies in other films don’t even get. Without spoiling anything, we do see Tammy getting a choice along her path to romance, the freedom from hinging her life’s decisions on the pursuit of a man, valuable, complex relationships with women based on things that don’t have to do with men, and the power to be the agent of her own story, not dangle from the hands of someone else. This is a story about women helping women, even if the beginning bits distracted us along the way.
So, what does Tammy want to be, and what does it end up being? It’s a line we can’t clearly draw because the film itself is so structurally misshapen, but we can appreciate what little glimmer there is to be extracted from the earnesty of its all-poweful female star and screenwriter. We can’t blindly accept films like Tammy as a whole simply because there are elements that subvert the norm. A mediocre product from a woman, starring a woman who contrasts what other studios are pushing doesn’t make it a great film, but you can make a dry, crusty, dirt-browned potato shine like a juicy red, freshly-plucked tomato; you just have to tilt it a little and lift it into the sun for closer inspection.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi
So often does Oscar season turn into a public war of tastes that we lose sight of the race that’s happening right in front of us.
The Oscar race is an ever-evolving beast. With the influence of the online community, the court of social media, and the guilds and critics circles all jockeying to push films into the race before anyone else, Oscar Season now stretches across the better part of a year where it used to fit comfortably within the confines of a few months’ time.
As early as May, just a little over two months since the Oscar telecast, we find the discussion revolving around the traditionally un-Oscary Cannes Film Festival. We can try to talk about it in an Oscar context all we want, but that festival will never be a legitimate stepping stone across the Academy pond. The ideologies of both the Oscars and Cannes force an undeniable divide; one is there for the satisfaction of studios and English-speaking audiences (namely the United States, of course), while the other is a celebration of the congregation of art, cinema, and culture along the shores of France’s finest coastline.
Still, the Oscar pundits want to do their shoving, their squeezing, their hammering of the season’s potential players into the respective boxes they’ve cut out for them–whether they fit or not. Of course, aside from Cannes, the reality is that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the festivals that matter in an Oscar context. Telluride, Toronto, and Venice are all still some time away, with slates that have yet to be announced.
And here we find ourselves squabbling about Oscar potential from all ends of the arena. Just last week, a focus group screening was held for Tim Burton’s much buzzed-about Big Eyes, a live-action biopic about the life of artist Walter Keane and his wife, Margaret. In attendence were general audience members and Oscar bloggers alike (apparently the Awards Watch crew attended).
Granted, even before we saw pictures from the set, the film’s cards were presumably aligned for awards season greatness: Tim Burton, a beloved and iconic filmmaker, has yet to win (or be nominated , for that matter) for an Oscar for a live-action film, and Big Eyes boasts a cast that features Oscar-charged talent like Christoph Waltz (two-time winner), Danny Elfman (four-time nominee), and Bruno Delbonnel (four-time nominee).
Burton has assembled a gaggle of overdue players that, in an ideal world, sets the stage quite nicely for Oscar legacy/career awards for himself, Elfman, and Delbonnel. It’s Amy Adams’ turn in the other lead role, however, that has Oscar pundits’ hearts aflutter.
Since 2005, Adams has gone five Oscar nominations deep without a win. Her rabid online fan base is keen on 2014 being her year to finally win; whether it’s just another bout with wishful thinking (that her fans should have long grown tired of by now, as this seems to be the same story heading into every Oscar year after her second nomination in 2008 for Doubt) or a legitimate prophecy remains to be seen, but that doesn’t stop those with a voice–hidden behind the screen and typed word–from shouting praises from her end of the ring.
Awards Watch was quick to spout about guaranteed nominations for Waltz and Adams. Others chimed in with–what seemed to be–overwhelming approval for Adams’ performance. She’s been “overdue” in the eyes of her fanbase for quite some time, and while it can absolutely work in your favor when final ballots go out (and your name is on them, as happened with Kate Winslet in 2008), the art of being “overdue” has little relevance this early in the race, especially when applied to the awards season trajectories of Julianne Moore (who won Best Actress at Cannes for Maps to the Stars) and Amy Adams here.
Still, that doesn’t stop the internet age from fostering a community where self-importance breeds a necessity for anyone from an Oscar blogger to a nobody to push something–anything–into the race, but it’s simply unwise to make guarantees this early in the game.
It’s completely safe for people who’ve seen Big Eyes to speculate on nominations and gauge a film’s potential, but prophesizing a win at this point? It’s ridiculous, and it’s an increasing trend in the digital age. I’m all for using an informed perspective to gauge how well something will do at the Oscars, but with major performances by actresses who are–quite frankly–better than Amy Adams in general that haven’t been seen yet (along with the fact that we don’t even know if these buzzed-about performances will be campaigned in lead or supporting), it’s very unwise (and potentially detrimental to Adams’ awards trajectory this year) to peg her as a winner this early.
Remember how the eye of the target immediately became 12 Years a Slave when Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan in September declared it the Best Picture winner? Early praise (and such definitive statements) make the film in question both the sexiest dish for a minute, and immediately fodder for the online court to push it to the background as the “obvious” choice. Early praise is essentially helping a film on its way to front-running to instant death. This early, it’s nothing more than loudness for loudness’ sake.
The guys over at Awards Watch are borderline obsessed with their red-headed divas, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but giving them early access to an already-hyped potential vehicle for Adams’ long-awaited Oscar only runs the risk of inflating their reaction, which I guess is good press from the studio’s marketing standpoint. The problem with taking these types of early Twitter reactions seriously in the grand scheme of the race, though, is that they’re immediate, unfiltered, and squished into 140 characters, where you’re forced to talk bigger instead of talking better, and inflated again by the fanboys on forums and blogs that seek them out after the screening. Audiences and pundits are waiting for an excuse to explode with praise for a film that’s already charged with Oscar conversation, especially this early in the year. This seems to happen every time an Oscar movie is screened early. They’ll freak out and heap praise immediately because:
A) They’re excited that they’ve seen it before everyone else
B) It fills the egos of those who’ve seen it because they were able to see it before anyone else, so of course they’re going to capitalize on that esteem by inflating their reaction as a means to validate the fact that, well, they’ve seen it before anyone else
I’m not doubting Adams’ performance at all. I actually have high hopes for it, though it’s just really tough for me to take seriously the opinion of an Adams’ fanboys who were given early access to one of her films, but the excitement (and the thirst) of those who’ve seen the film already is far too real and pre-established to amount to a serious reaction or gauging of her placement in the race thus far, and preview screenings without embargoes on audience reaction are only tools to aid in the film’s publicity machine.
It’s important to pay attention to people’s reactions to these screenings as a whole, and not take the word of a few loud individuals who want to make their opinion on the film matter more than the collective. As a whole, it seems like people liked Adams’ performance. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that a good number of people actually feel that Waltz outshines her (see Oh No They Didn’t!’s review by clicking here).
The opinions of these chosen few don’t mean anything more or less than that, and a single day of screenings should, by no means, be used to say that an actress is going to win the Oscar when the landscape she’ll be competing in hasn’t even been laid out yet. It’s just irresponsible and false amplification of an untested, tiny sliver of a much larger race with fixings that have yet to fall entirely into place.
It all amount to little more than jockeying for the pole position, to being able to shout one’s own stance at Ground Zero, and our obsession with “being there” at the beginning instead of being in the moment when everything’s unfolding is turning the Oscar race into a dull screaming match between voices that don’t really matter.
As much as we’d like to gain control, to wrangle our favorites from the grasp of the studios who fuel their Oscar campaigns and steer them along the path to greatness, we lose sight of one thing: it’s all in the hands of the Academy, and we must surrender control until the time to intervene is just right. Keep the shouting to a minimum until all the pieces are in play, no?
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi
The dust has settled after the typical weekend clash; tentpole after tentpole, soaring budget after soaring budget coming for each other’s throats and the number-one slot at the box-office. Prestige is in the numbers, and it’s clear that the box-office titans of years past have little sustainable clout with the contemporary audience.
Tom Cruise is one of those hardened box-office warriors whose armor is beginning to crack. His Edge of Tomorrow, which reportedly cost around $178 million to produce, earned an estimated $29 million this past weekend, well below what a film of this caliber should be hauling in. Cruise isn’t the only megastar to fall short of expectations as of late; Johnny Depp hasn’t carried a film to more than $80 million in the U.S. since he last rode the waves of the Pirates of the Caribbean series back in 2011, and Will Smith’s After Earth earned only $60 million from American audiences just last year. It’s becoming ever-apparent that:
1) The age of the “movie star” and box-office success going hand-in-hand is dead
2) The American industry is driving itself into the ground with a stacked slate of tentpoles that never have a chance for survival
There’s nothing wrong with shifting away from individuals toward broader appeal and familiarity (with a young adult novel, a comic book, a long-standing superhero franchise, etc.) to secure box-office success, but it’s hard to let it go nonetheless. While Depp, Smith, and Cruise—whose last film to ride past $100 million domestic without the help of pre-established series popularity (the Mission Impossible series) was 2005’s War of the Worlds—find their films doing well in overseas markets (Depp’s The Lone Ranger earned $170 million in foreign receipts, while Smith’s After Earth raked in $183 million), their domestic fall from grace isn’t due to an indifferent general public. The worldwide appeal is there.
Quality is something audiences still value; Edge of Tomorrow received near universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. Warner Bros. pushed a major pre-release campaign that hinged the film’s success on good word of mouth; the studio held at least three preview screenings in many major markets over the last few weeks, and the reaction was largely positive. If you build it, they will come in droves—if it’s free, as most word of mouth screenings are.
The problem with today’s film industry is not that that the tentpoles (for the most part) are inferior works (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are just a few examples of 2014 blockbusters with stellar critical reviews), it’s just that the industry is overcrowding its own shell and pushing itself out of every orifice.
Edge of Tomorrow never had a shot; riding between Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent last weekend and the YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars this week, Cruise was sandwiched in between two event pictures with a much higher profile than his—which rode on his star appeal alone. Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s first live-action turn in four years and appeals to the grossly-underrepresented female audience, and The Fault in Our Stars comes pre-packaged with an audience comprised of fans of the novel it’s based on. The market for Edge was satiated only two weeks prior with X-Men and Godzilla. In short, Cruise didn’t have a home in the crowd.
If we look back to the beginning of the blockbuster—let’s just use Jaws, for example—the films themselves were an event that rode through to success simply on being an event. From its opening on June 20, 1975 through the next 30 days of release, Jaws never made more than $7 million per weekend. Let’s jump to 1997, when Titanic—which went on to hold the record for top-grossing domestic release until Avatar in 2009–opened to $28 million in December, followed by a steady stream of weekend grosses ranging from $35 million to $1 million when it fell out of the Top 10 exactly six months later.
Sure, the blockbuster was a new concept in 1975, and the 1990s were heavy on action-oriented films, but the success of films with astronomical budgets was not entirely dependent on how top-heavy a studio could make a film. Blockbusters are becoming so frequent that they’re the norm, not the event.
So far in 2014, we’ve seen approximately 13 major blockbuster releases; that’s an average of nearly two per month thus far, though the majority of them have fallen in the summer release window. Seven films with budgets of over $100 million (some coming in at nearly $200 million) have been released since April; 5 more uber-expensive tentpoles will release from now until August. That number would have been 6, but Warner Bros. pulled Jupiter Ascending from its original July release date and re-slated it for February of next year (they cite issues with post-production and visual effects, but it seems like the studio was feeling burned from the heat of competition).
When blockbusters are released in rapid fire succession like this, there’s bound to be ones that slip through the cracks. It’s simply unwise to create an industry where bloated-budget films fail not on quality, but because they’re no longer capable of being “event” pictures because the event is now the standard.
The fact remains that we’re seeing consistently-underperforming films with budgets of over $100 million. Foreign audiences (namely Asian markets) have shaped American productions for quite some time now, but something needs to be said for the American audience becoming an afterthought.
There’s nothing that separates a film like Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim—two quality productions deemed “flops” because their budgets far outweighed their American grosses—from each other or from other action-oriented an event that makes them worthier of the general audience’s dollar. Audiences would rather save their money for a brand they’re familiar with (Marvel, DC, etc.) instead of risking it on a title they have no prior relationship with.
But, as the top-heavy numbers get bigger, the studios get more ambitious and the competition gets stiffer; this would explain why May box-office hit its lowest levels since 2010; the drop-off for huge openers is part of the equation when you go bigger, harder, and faster on tiny little legs trekking up a mountain of buzzy pre-release anticipation. If we take a look at the Top 100 opening weekends of all time, 80 of them were released between 2004 and 2014, 18 of them within the last year alone. Of the Top 20, only one was released before 2006 (and it was still a superhero film, 2002’s Spider-Man). Nearly all of the contemporary top-grossing opening weekends are sequels, animated family films, superhero films or, yes, sequels to super hero films.
Again, the movie star used to be that point of familiarity. A movie star could really make something out of an adult-oriented narrative that would have found little success otherwise; now we rely on broader concepts of appeal to drive our box-office, but it’s all front-loaded. Even the front-loaded are front loaded, as The Fault in Our Stars earned nearly $25 million on its opening Friday, but dipped to $12 million and $9 million on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, since the last weekend of March when Noah premiered, every film that opened to more than $40 million (aside from Neighbors and Maleficent) dropped over 57% of their audience in their second weekend. Why? Because they don’t have room to breathe. Noah faced Captain America the week after; Spider-Man faced Godzilla 14 days after opening; Godzilla faced X-Men, X-Men faced Maleficent, and Edge of Tomorrow faltered in the wake of Angelina’s box-office reign–all within seven days of each other, respectively.
It’s no surprise, then, that films like Edge of Tomorrow aren’t reaching their audience the way blockbusters used to. It’s a film that, 15 years ago, would have waltzed past the $150 million domestic mark in three or four weekends. Cruise will be lucky if Edge limps to $80 million in North America. When the “movie star” was a business, an industry unto him or herself, films like Edge of Tomorrow were given room to spread their wings and soar. When audiences have a film like this to choose from at least once or twice a month, it’s harder for them to justify spending money on a something they’re unfamiliar with when they know they have 10 superhero flicks to catch just around the corner.
Perhaps Warner Bros. is on to something, here; the studio dumping months have turned into an ideal, wide-open space to drop big-budget films at a time when they’re all crowding toward the summer slate like never before. Just this year, their The Lego Movie soared to nearly $250 million domestic with a February release date, while the studio’s Gravity rocketed to $270 million from American markets in October of last year.
Everyone loves a good event picture here and there, but the battle for weekend supremacy and who can go bigger is a tired one, and the tentpoles aren’t going to stop. It’s hard to find a slot in the picture for gargantuan puzzle pieces, and we’ve created a crack in the armor of the titans. The implosion is imminent unless the air supply increases for those who can’t breathe.
Follow the author on Twitter: @joeynolfi
“There’s a quote by Cassavetes…”
She trails off for only a split moment, pausing our conversation so she can skim through something (Her personal archives? Her email? I never find out) to locate it. A few shuffles here, a few seconds there, and she’s got it, reading it crisp and clear with the assertion of assurance on her side.
“The only thing you need to make a film is to not be afraid of anybody or anything.”
I prepare to agree and tell her how much I like the quote; it’s standard interview etiquette to flatter your interviewee, I remind myself. I open my mouth to chime in with my approval, but she continues.
“…and I love John Cassavetes, but I think to myself, ‘that’s just not me.’ I’m afraid and full of doubt. I am uncertain all the time, but I think to live and create and be in the world in spite of that or with that, through that, and being afraid and doing it anyway, being uncertain and plowing through anyway, that’s much more interesting to me.”
It’s dangerous to make assumptions with Ingrid Veninger.
She doesn’t fit into any particular box, but again, assuming she’s obligated to is a colossal misjudgment of her character.
“To me, it’s all about where I feel comfortable, because I feel comfortable on a subway full of misfits and outcasts and people from elsewhere, because people are struggling to belong but are also ok with who they are.”
But, like any filmmaker with a product on the market, Veninger has to tackle the task of making her creative, individualized, highly unique voice heard amidst a sea of what can often seem like audience indifference when the masses are used to their Spidermans and Iron Mans.
I first saw her latest film The Animal Project, which is readying for a worldwide June 6th release on Vimeo VOD and iTunes Canada, when she brought it here (personally) last November as part of Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival. I found it odd that such an accomplished international filmmaker would make a mid-sized American city like Pittsburgh a travel priority; after all, she’s helmed (written, produced, directed, or a combination of all three) 18 films, and has shown a few of them at the Toronto International Film Festival (her Modra was named one of the 10 best Canadian films at TIFF a few years back) and elsewhere abroad.
“[Film festivals] are not about the money, but they are about exposure. With each film festival comes, hopefully, a little bit of local press and a live audience that you can exchange with,” she says of her insistence upon traveling with her films from places like Santiago to Ashland. “That exchange with living people happens at film festivals, and for me it’s crucial.”
There were maybe a little over 20 people in the audience when The Animal Project screened here in Pittsburgh, and Veninger made a point to probe us with questions, but I get the sense that she would’ve delighted to speak about her work to only the projectionist and a house full of empty seats if no one at all had shown up. While the goal for anyone working in any business is to earn some sort of revenue, Veninger hopes for something much simpler.
“I just hope some cool adventures come out from all of this,” she says.
It’s clear to see that Veninger cares about her films like they’re living, breathing children that have sprung forth from her flesh and being—and she treats them accordingly, seeing it as her duty to show them off and talk about them to strangers, like a parent with a child on the honor roll every semester.
“Every time I wanted to make [The Animal Project] sparkle and shine, the film said ‘no can do’,” she says of the decision to minimize non-diegetic music within the film. “Music was just getting in the way of [the film’s tone]. Music could have tied a lot of thematic ideas together, aided in transitions, created a bigger emotional impact…but every time I explored putting music in the film, it rejected it. I had to stay out of the way of the simplicity and the bareness and the rawness because that’s the purse essence of the film. The film isn’t always going to do what you want it to do.”
I realized it then at the screening (and even more so now as I speak with her during our interview) that there’s an ever-present urgency with which she speaks about her work, and it comes through whether she’s holding a microphone thirty feet from you at a Q&A session or talking via cell phone some 400 miles away. She sometimes revisits topics we’d covered earlier in our interview, and some she felt like needed to expand upon just a bit more without a second thought. She isn’t being rude when she talks enthusiastically over me, she’s just having trouble keeping the ever-churning, gloriously enthusiastic ideas she has at bay.
When you speak with her, it’s clear that she’s focused on her words, how they’re coming out, indicating how tactfully she’s pulled from the sea of ideas that’s ever-present in her creative brain. These waters are not intimidating or fearsome, uninviting, or unnavigable; Veninger overflows with passion for her subjects, her work, her family, her craft—and at first glance it might look like she’s in over her head. That’s not the case, even in the slightest.
“It’s an exciting time to be an independent filmmaker,” she says. “We can make high quality work for very little money, and it’s really hard if you have no one championing and supporting you. You can’t do it by yourself.”
But, it’s the refined subtleties of Veninger’s films that make the struggle of being an independent filmmaker look like a breeze. She’s involved in all aspects of production on her films. She writes, she directs, and finds herself doing everything in between. She might not be able to do everything herself, but Canadian magazine Maclean’s has dubbed her the “Toronto’s reigning queen of DIY cinema” thanks to her extremely hands-on approach.
“DIY is like, doing it yourself with a village,” she says. “Film really becomes a living organism, and that’s really exciting to me…the push and pull of it, for me, is the essential practice of filmmaking, and it is a practice. You have to keep doing it. You can get out of shape really quickly. It’s a muscle.”
It’s this sort of attitude—facing the world army with a tiny village (usually a crew of 2 to 4 other people) on her side—that makes Veninger such a sensation in the independent film world. Her work feels refreshing in that it features characters you’d never see in a commercial Hollywood release.
She writes characters who are flawed, who are unabashedly themselves, who are real; but, they’re also all the more relatable for those reasons, and with The Animal Project, Veninger chooses to let them speak for themselves without much influence of the director’s hand, and the process of creating the film speaks to that.
The Animal Project is a rarity as a film and as a concept. Veninger says she knew she wanted to make a film in Toronto, where she lives, but she didn’t have any idea for a script when she set out to make the film. She contacted talent agencies throughout the city, met with 100 actors who were willing to blindly donate three months of their time to a project without a script, and whittled that group down to the final eight who appear in the film. Once she had talent secured, she went off and wrote the script without the actors knowing who they’d be playing or what they’d be doing.
Her background as an actor (she has appeared in over 100 different projects) helped her connect with the group she’d assembled for The Animal Project, and exploring the dynamics of the unknown alongside the film’s talent was very important to her going into the film.
“It was kind of a test of faith. I wanted to take a leap into challenging myself in a different way. I wanted the creators, the actors, and the crew to take [the test] with me. If no one was with me, The Animal Project wouldn’t exist,” she says. “Some of the ideas in the film are about performance and about authenticity. Acting is about being truthful in the moment, but it’s also about lying. Actors are professional liars, and I really wanted this film to be raw in its performance. The actors are really naked up there, and being naked is a really important part of The Animal Project.”
The film is certainly a marvel for its uniqueness. There’s an ever-flowing emotional current running throughout the film, which follows a group of diverse characters as they embark on a new acting project (and bouts with self-discovery as a result) together, but that current is urgent without being pushy. Since the actors, characters, Veninger, and the audience are each jumping into this experiment together, it puts us all on the same plane. Everyone wins when they’re playing on one team, and Veninger has created a film that requires an equal amount of investment from all participants.
“I took a leap into a process that was kind of irrational, but that I had an instinct about. The actors took a leap also, being full of fear, being quasi-trusting, and had an instinct about it being worthwhile. The characters took a similar leap in becoming part of The Animal Project, but do it and it’s irrational and it could fail and lead nowhere, but they do it. The audience is taking a leap into the film, too, as an audience watching something that’s irregular and odd and unconventional and shouldn’t really work, and hopefully it does in some way. That makes it feel original and fresh and exciting.”
Keeping things fresh and exciting might seem difficult for a director who’s seemingly played every role in front of and behind the camera. Veninger has been many things throughout the course of her career. She’s been a mother, a director, an actor, a producer, a spouse; and there are struggles that come with that. Taking time away from family wasn’t something she wants to do, so she finds ways to incorporate her personal life into her films. Her son, Jacob, has worked with her numerous times, including having a lead role in The Animal Project, while her daughter Hallie (who starred alongside Veninger in the brilliant i am a good person/i am a bad person) works as a costume designer on her mother’s features.
“I love working with my family. They trust me. There’s a shorthand between us, whereas working with new people there’s always a process of ‘get to know you’ and resistance,” she says. “I respect [my kids] so much, especially working together, and then we have these amazing experiences of traveling to film festivals around the word, so it contributes to the family. My personal goal, especially as a woman, is to balance being a responsible parent, with holding a long-term relationship, and challenging myself as a filmmaker. There is a limit to how much I can push.”
It’s not like family is automatically a confine, though. Veninger is proof that a strong, creative voice can be the focus of a career. She just finds a way to meld it with her personal life, so her films become extensions of herself, and she’s not afraid to be herself in an industry that so often pretends like she–and her indie colleagues–aren’t there.
“I think [filmmaking] shares elements with being a parent. A director is a parent,” she says of sending her projects, her family, and her vision out into the world in film form. “You know, you have a kid and they want to wear something or they want to do something that is going to make them have a really tough time at school. You know if they just put on the nice little dress and wear the shiny shoes, they’ll be really accepted and loved and celebrated. When I was in Kindergarten there was some drawing assignment, and I can remember painting the sky magenta, and the teacher came by and said the sky has to be blue, and I really wanted to keep it magenta. Basically, my picture didn’t get put on the bulletin board of all the most beautiful pictures, and part of you just [tells yourself to] paint the sky blue and you’ll get on the board.”
Just don’t count on her to condone that perspective any time soon.
“In this age of bigger, stronger, faster, my impulse is to go smaller, simpler, truer,” she says of her work. “In this pace I feel like I want to slow down and retreat a little bit, making films in a very modest way for a little bit of money with a very small and tight creative group of people that I love and respect as opposed to going big or going home. That’s not my philosophy; it’s more about going inside and being as truthful as you can.”
Veninger’s earnesty is valuable. She’s not going against the grain for the sake of countering or subverting mainstream taste. In fact, she wants to connect with more people through her work instead of turning them away. There’s truly something for everyone in Veninger’s films. They’re arty and alternative, but not inaccessible, and with the Vimeo VOD release, the film will be available worldwide for everyone to consume. Casual moviegoers love for things to be easy, but the fact remains that Veninger faces an uphill battle as a female in a male-dominated field. She is proof, however, that great storytellers are women; her films are proof that female-driven narratives (with deep female characters who are agents of their own stories, mind you) exist, it’s just that the studios are reluctant to catch on.
“I feel like in many films I’m seeing slivers of women, but I’m rarely seeing whole women, and women are really complex. I’m interested in the nooks and the cracks and the flaws and the people that are struggling,” she says. “Women who are struggling as mothers, as creators, as partners in their world are so much more interesting to me than seeing some sort of bullshit façade of someone that has their life together and is just kind of quirky and funny and quippy and cute and really hot in bed with flawless skin and isn’t constipated.”
Veninger validates her own stories and characters within herself, so she doesn’t need it from the industry at large. She does hope, however, that English-Canadian filmmakers can one day share a unique identity on the world stage.
“French-Canadian cinema does have its identity. We see what Xavier Dolan is doing in the world, we see what Jean-Marc Vallée has done previous to Dallas Buyer Club, and now he’s exploded. Quebec also has so many incredible women filmmakers,” she says. “English Canada, I think, from the international industry’s point of view is just seen as America. I mean in Cannes I was at a round table with a sales agent and I asked her if there’s any difference from [her] perspective between an English-Canadian film and an American film, and she said no. The challenge for English-Canadian film is if an international institute is going to acquire an English film, they tend to go toward the film with movie stars or names attached as directors, and that’s what Canadian films are competing against in terms of sales. We have to be even more original and even louder about the great films we make, and we have to really start fostering the appetite for our indigenous cinema inside our country.”
These aren’t just empty words merely hoping for advancement of the medium in her country. Aside from making films, she’s also busy putting female filmmakers to work with her pUNK Films Femmes Lab, a collaborative program that involves six female writer/directors from Canada working to create six feature scripts. The program has attracted interest from Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, who ponied up $6,000 for a first look at the scripts as the lab, which has its final meeting later this year, makes headway.
It all sounds like a bit much for one person to do, no? There’s beauty in the seemingly chaotic, overwhelming way of floating from project to project with such intensity, but she finds a way. The sea of ideas might be vast, and the sea of opposition from an industry that wants to set her out in a makeshift raft of sameness or slap labels onto what she does or where she comes from might make the waters a bit choppy, but if there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t need a paddle, it’s Ingrid Veninger.
The Animal Project will open theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets here: http://tiff.net/programming/new-releases/the-animal-project
On JUNE 6th, 2014, The Animal Project will be on iTunes throughout Canada here: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/movie/the-animal-project/id871991994
….and VIMEO VOD throughout the world, excluding Canada here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theanimalproject
Watch the trailer here: http://theanimalprojectmovie.com/#watchTra
Visit http://www.punkfilms.ca/for more information on Ingrid’s work
Like The Animal Project on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TheAnimalProjectMovie
Follow Ingrid Veninger on Twitter: @punkfilmsnow
Follow Joey Nolfi on Twitter: @joeynolfi
The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.
Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.
The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.
Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.
Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.
She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.
On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.
We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.
It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.
The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.
It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.
Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together.
If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).
You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.
There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.
If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.
Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?
It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.
It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).
Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.
As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.
Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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:
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