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
“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