pittsburgh movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Filmic Confluence: Oscar Potential for 3RFF Offerings

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Tickets and Showtimes:

http://www.showclix.com/events/14020/

Screening Rooms:

The Harris Theater

809 Liberty Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 471-9702

Melwood Screening Room
477 Melwood Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 681-5449

Regent Square Theater
1035 S Braddock Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15221
(412) 682-4111

Waterworks Cinemas
930 Freeport Rd
Pittsburgh, PA 15238
(412) 784-1416

With Night of the Living Dead celebrating its 45th birthday just this past month, the spotlight once again turned to the innovative ideas and inspired cinematic products emanating Pittsburgh’s movie scene.

George A. Romero’s stamp on film history as the definitive catalyst for a single genre’s decades of socio-cultural critique began right here in the Steel City. A place with a rich film history with an even brighter future, Pittsburgh’s cinema-friendly roots bolster the city’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival which this year features a vibrant collection of buzzy awards season contenders, beloved classics, local productions, and various documentaries.

While the city’s future in the domestic film industry continues to blossom (studio spaces have opened across the city, industry executives have purchased homes here, and the Pittsburgh Film Office continues to bring new and exciting productions to our area), Pittsburgh’s independent scene is prospering as well. The winner of the Steeltown Film Factory (My Date with Adam) screenwriting competition will be shown at the festival, and projects from local filmmakers (Blood Brother, amongst others) will have screentime as well.

Throughout its history, high-profile films as Precious, Rust and Bone, and Silver Linings Playbook  have opened the festival’s two-week schedule of screenings preceding their own domestic release dates. A print of Leos Carax’s highly-praised film Holy Motors also played at the festival last year and was, at the time of the screening, the only print of the film in the country.

2013 is no different. This year features a variety of films submitted for the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category, which is spectacular—especially in a mid-sized market like Pittsburgh—given the lack of outlets that show these films prior to their nominations.  

So, let’s take a look at a select few of this year’s crop of offerings and dissect their potential at next year’s Academy Awards:

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Philomena

Initially screened in competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival (winning the award for Best Screenplay), Philomena went on to garner critical and audience praise at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Runner-Up prize.  Judi Dench stars alongside Steve Coogan (also the film’s co-writer) as a woman in search of her long-lost son, giving a performance that could very well lead to an Oscar nomination.

Oscar Potential: Philomena’s awards season potential lies largely within its appeal to the heart. As we saw last year, the change to Oscar’s voting process (as well as a shift in voting deadlines that don’t give Academy members the pleasure of using the guilds as a compass) made for a uniquely diverse set of nominees. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour are films largely backed by passionate admiration, and Philomena could find its footing in a few categories.

It certainly helps Judi Dench’s case for a seventh nomination (though she has never won in the Lead category) that director Stephen Frears has a positive track record for poising his female stars for Oscar glory (Dench was nominated for his Mrs. Henderson Presents, Glenn Close was nominated for his Dangerous Liaisons, and Helen Mirren won for his The Queen). Right now, it’s on the outskirts of any major nominations, but its domestic release and critical reception will tip its Oscar prospects one way or another.

Screenings: Saturday, November 9th (Regent Square) 5:00 PM and Tuesday, November 12th (Waterworks Cinemas) 7:00 PM

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

2013 has played host to a dazzling array of diverse voices. Still, The Academy has yet to recognize a black filmmaker with an award in their Best Director category. Three black filmmakers are challenging history this year with strong contenders in the awards race. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station seems poised to make a minor splash at the ceremony, while Lee Daniels’ The Butler will get a significant push once its Oscar campaign ignites in a few weeks. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, however, continues to lead the Best Picture race since its screenings at Telluride and Toronto thrust it to the forefront of the Oscar discussion.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has played fourth fiddle to these films, though its subject material fits in perfectly with this awards season’s narrative of “minority” voices. Based on Mandela’s autobiography chronicling his anti-apartheid practices in South Africa, the film screened to glowing reviews for star Idris Elba’s leading performance.

Oscar Potential: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is unfortunately teetering on the edge of a select few categories, mainly because 2013 has been such a crowded year for leading men. Elba’s shot at garnering his first Oscar nomination is slim, but still present nonetheless. If anything, the film will remain a vital part of this year’s legacy as a showcase for diverse filmmaking styles and minority representation. U2 also have an original song within the film, which could prove strong enough to receive another nomination.

Screenings: Sunday, November 10th (Waterworks) 7:00 PM and Monday, November 11th (Waterworks) 6:15 PM

 

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Best Foreign Film Academy Submissions: Ilo Ilo and The Rocket

The Singaporean and Australian entries for Best Foreign Film at the 86th Academy Awards, both films seem poised for international breakthrough. Having won the Camera d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Ilo Ilo became the first film from Singapore to win an award there. The film also received 6 nominations at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. The Rocket opened earlier this summer in Australia to ecstatic reviews.

Oscar Potential: While receiving heavy recognition from foreign institutions and festivals, Ilo Ilo faces unprecedented competition from other foreign entries in the Best Foreign Film category. Asghar Farhadi’s The Past has gotten an overwhelming push behind it and will likely find itself with the top prize come next March. Reviews for Ilo Ilo have been ecstatic nonetheless, which could push it far enough to reach the Academy shortlist in January. There’s no clear indication that it will receive a nomination in the category just yet, and its potential will simmer as voting commences in the next few months. The Rocket’s chances are extremely slim, though the quality of the film shouldn’t be diminished by its lack of awards season prospects.

Screenings: Ilo Ilo Sunday, November 10th (Waterworks) 2:00 PM and Wednesday, November 13th (Waterworks) 4:45 PM The Rocket Friday, November 8th (Waterworks) 7:15 PM

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Bastards

Women have certainly taken control of the conversation with regards to 2013’s film offerings. Whereas male-driven and male-aimed pictures like White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and R.I.P.D. tanked on colossal budgets, female-driven pictures like Gravity, The Heat, The Conjuring, and Identity Thief solidified the notion that a handful of the few remaining box-office stars are women.

It’s not only actresses getting in on the conversation, either. 2013 saw the release of plenty of quality releases from female filmmakers, including Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring amongst others. Claire Denis’ Bastards, screened in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, divided audience and critics alike, and will have a screening at this year’s 3RFF as well.

Oscar Potential: Zero. Nada. Zilch. But, that doesn’t mean that your purchase of a ticket is wasted. Support female filmmakers at a time when the industry so desperately seems to want to cast them out. A ticket for Denis’ film is a ticket to build a better channel for female filmmakers to share their voice.

Screenings: Saturday, November 9th (Harris) 8:30 PM and Friday, November 15th (Harris) 7:00 PM

Other opening night screenings/galas:

A Perfect Man – November 8th (Harris Theater) 7:15 PM

The Girl From the Wardrobe – November 8th (Regent Square Theater) 7:15 PM

American Pessimism and the Cultural Implications of “Night of the Living Dead”

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George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a film that, upon its release, flew almost entirely under mainstream audiences’ radar. An independent production with characters played by no-name actors, the film opened gradually in drive-ins and rundown theaters after being rejected for distribution from AIP  because it “lacked a romance and had a down-beat conclusion” while Columbia Pictures declined to distribute it because of its grainy black and white style (Merritt 237). Though the film was written off the mainstream map before it was even unleashed, its impact within American society was felt as the film connected with audiences and film scholars alike through various aesthetic elements and symbolic cultural implications upon its release. Through its newsreel and cinema verite-esque visual associations as well as its depiction of a group of “normative” and societal “others” thrust together in an ill-fated apocalyptic setting, Night of the Living Dead represents both the countercultural movement and atypical 1960s culture as self-implosive entities within a hopeless era of American pessimism.

The countercultural movement in the United States arose as a byproduct of the suburbanization of 1950s American culture. Initiated as an “opposition to the war in Vietnam and embracing tolerance, free love, and common property,” the countercultural youth revolution of the 1960s functioned as a rebellion against normative cultural standards established in postwar American society (Phillips 82). The anti-establishment social climate of 1960s counterculture stemmed from a “generation that grew up, largely, in the protected and isolated environment of 1950s suburban culture…” where “…the desire for liberation and experimentation became almost an obsession” (Phillips 86).  Night of the Living Dead stages a narrative which mirrors the countercultural societal climate within which it was produced, depicting a massive and fear-inducing challenge to “normative” life in the form of an assault by “ghouls.” In the case of the film, this is overcome by simply surviving as one of the “living” (not subdivided into “minorities” or “others” just yet) and not assimilating into the group of counter-normative monsters.

The social dissolution and hopeless social mentality which pervaded 1960s American society is codified in Night of the Living Dead first through a scene which depicts a young woman named Barbra fleeing from a ghoul and stumbling upon a secluded house in rural Pennsylvania where other survivors have taken refuge. The scene reflects the notion that the film is essentially a parable about Americans consuming themselves (Merritt 238). As Barbra enters the home (which is prim, tidy, and well-kept in terms of its décor) the mise en scene drastically alters to reflect increasing social anxieties in 1960s society concerning the traditional American household. A deafening score mirrors Barbra’s anxieties as quick-paced shots juxtapose her progress with that of the ghoul’s pursuit. But, as Barbra enters the house the score immediately cuts out, replaced by the stark silence of the stagnant, seemingly empty home. The lighting setup shifts from the brightly-lit exterior shots (ironic because the supposed threat exists “outside”) to a chiaroscuro effect, highlighting the foreboding interior atmosphere which eventually facilitates the deaths of everyone inside. The American home, typically represented in 1950s media (such as “Leave It to Beaver,” etc.) as facilitating healthy familial relations, is instead ominously alluded to through the foreboding and moody mise en scene as a trap for interpersonal conflicts.

In Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond, Robin Wood describes horror films as generally representing a normative society threatened by a monster which results from the repression or oppression of certain aspects of the Self (66). Wood indicates that the repressed/oppressed entity of the Self is often represented, in horror, as the “Other,” or “that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with…” (65). The “Other” is often represented by women, ethnic groups within the culture, and children (Wood 66-67). In Night of the Living Dead, the group of people Barbra encounters in the house is comprised of a mix of “Others” (a black man named Ben and a single woman named Barbra) as well as people who fall in line with what Wood would describe as “boringly constant” normal societal institutions (a heterosexual couple named Tom and Judy and a nuclear family, the Coopers, comprised of a father, mother, and young daughter) (71).

In order to facilitate the group’s survival, Ben takes on the role of barricading the house’s doors and windows with wooden boards, hoping to keep the ghouls from entering the house. In a scene that literally and figuratively deconstructs traditional societal notions concerning the familial living space, Ben disassembles a dining room table to use in the barricading process. A long shot shows Ben entering the room, which the mise en scene indicates was once used as a traditional dining space (seeing as the table is adorned with an elaborate tablecloth on which a serving dish delicately rests) for the family who once lived there. Ben proceeds to systematically deconstruct the table, first removing the tablecloth, moving the chairs away from it, flipping the table over, breaking the legs off, and tearing it to shreds. The camera alternates between medium shots of Ben, hacking away at the table, and Barbra, who clings to the discarded tablecloth as a child clings to a blanket. This symbol of the “safe” haven of the American family, which she rubs over her neck and face, provides Barbra with comfort in the midst of a grim situation; she clasps the blanket as if grasping the only connection she has to the now tarnished “normal” life which preceded the ghoul invasion.

As the group eventually finalizes a plan for escape which involves Ben and Tom exiting the house to pump gas into a getaway vehicle (a truck stationed just outside the house), Judy expresses her concerns for her boyfriend’s safety as he is about to embark. For Judy, Tom represents her “normal” half, seeing as she is part of a heterosexual couple. If Tom should die,  Judy becomes the “Other” without him to complete their heterosexual union. Women were already condemned by Harry Cooper, who speaks of them with contempt when discussing their escape plan. He notes that the group has three anchors weighing them down in the form of “two women, [with] one woman out of her head.” Because Judy does not want to be left alone as a single woman, she decides to go with Tom as he runs out of the house. Her decision ultimately leads to both of their deaths as the truck catches fire and explodes, leaving their bodies for the ghouls to devour in graphic detail. While heterosexual couples are generally a stable normative societal institution and not a part of Wood’s list of “Others,” it is the second of such social institutions (“Other” or otherwise) to meet a grim end in Night of the Living Dead (the first death being that of another social institution, Johnny, a heterosexual male). The fact that the heterosexual couple meets such a gruesome end before the “Others” mirrors the violent happenings (such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, etc.) in an increasingly pessimistic 1960s America (Phillips 81).

The violence and brutality that is present throughout Night of the Living Dead also has cultural implications beyond the scope of its own narrative context. In Projected Fears, Phillips discusses the shifting attitudes of the American counterculture from peaceful opposition to violent rebellion, stating that “…in the face of the long list of assassinations and escalations, the movement became violent and divisive. Violence, indeed, became an almost defining characteristic of what had been a largely peaceful cultural revolution” (89). Since both representatives of normative social institutions (such as Tom and Harry) and social “Others” (like Ben) resort to extreme acts of violence in the face of their slow-moving foes, Romero shows his audience characters who are united by their dominant expressions of self-preservation instincts which manifest in acts of violence. Scenes that exemplify this include one towards the beginning of the film where Ben, after stating that there are only two ghouls outside, ventures outside to beat them repeatedly. Tom also hacks away at a ghoul’s hand as it reaches through an already well-barricaded window, knocking off fingers and flesh in the process.

Images of violence were not foreign to the general American public as a result of the Vietnam War. Romero’s use of a filming style reminiscent of newsreel films shot with hints of cinema verite style connects Night of the Living Dead to the vast amount of wartime images that circulated in the United States during the Vietnam War. Films shot in color were no stranger to the film industry by 1968. The fact that Night of the Living Dead is filmed on black and white stock aligns it with wartime images from the Vietnam era, most notably those which depict graphic realities of the violence occurring during the war. According to Caroline Brothers in War and Photography the Vietnam War brought countless shocking images of the realities of war (most notably in the form of news motion pictures) into the homes of millions of Americans, giving a wide audience “access to scenes of combat and [the media’s] vivid representation of it…” (202). Often the media broadcasted photographs or video documentations of the war in black and white, similar to images that show the conflict overseas (a photo showing General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong soldier in the head) to the horrors unfolding as a result of countercultural war reactions on homeland soil (including photos depicting the shootings at Kent State war protests).

Night of the Living Dead employs a visual style similar to the grainy, black and white news documentation of the violent atrocities occurring as a result of the Vietnam War. Romero ultimately utilizes key characteristics of cinema verite style in a fictionalized context, most notably in the form of the static camera which lets events unfold directly before the viewer as if they were there (Pramaggiore 289). The images shown to the public on news stations broadcasting coverage of the Vietnam War were often explicitly violent and gruesome (similar to the shots of Ben’s body at the end of Night of the Living Dead), assaulting the audience with the realities of war and sparking a cultural opposition to the United States’ involvement similar to Romero’s use of shocking and assaultive violence in his film. While not a true cinema verite film, Night of the Living Dead’s visual style aesthetically aligns the picture with news documentation (photographs and motion pictures) of the war occurring at the time of its production.

By the film’s end, each of the original survivors (including Barbra, Ben, and the Cooper family) have succumbed to the ghouls’ attacks. As the core group of characters has died (the “Others” as well as normative social institutions such as the heterosexual couple and the patriarchal family led by Harry Cooper), the film cements itself as a reflection of and increasingly violent society where “the hope of a peaceful future seem[s] lost” (Phillips 86). While the majority of the film is spent observing the group’s interpersonal displays of dominance and assertion (generally on the end of the males) over one another despite their “Otherness” or complacency within their normative social role, the end of the film presents the audience with a void where each of the characters once existed, eradicating any point of familiarity with the fictional space, therefore implicating 1960s American society as one where hope for a better future was lost in the midst of social rebellion, war, retaliatory acts of violence, and a youth reacting against suburban confinement.

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Cited:

Brothers, Caroline. War and Photography: A Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Merritt, Greg. Celluloid Mavericks: The History of American Independent Film. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth, 2000. Print.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. 1968. DVD.

Phillips, Kendall R. . Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Laurence King, 2008. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.