Quvenzhane Wallis

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

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The Road to Oscar; the Relevance of Originality in the Race

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There’s no denying the social and cultural force that the film industry has grown into for the American people. Ushering in new ideas, fantasies, and stories for a willing audience to indulge in, letting us live out the dreams that play over in our heads night after night, the film industry is a longstanding conduit between our reality and the “reality” we so desperately seek to inhabit in times of need. Movies are our escape, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences champions the very best of such devices year after year.

If we look back at past winners of the Oscar ceremony’s top honor, the significance of each year’s respective Best Picture to American culture is glaring. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, a ravishing, colorful emotional epic of renewed perspective and undying hope for a better future paralleled the historic Presidential Election which saw Barack Obama give “power” in America a new face. A year later, The Hurt Locker not only attempted to delve deeper into Middle Eastern conflicts that took up a huge portion of topical discussion during the 2008 Presidential Election, but also catapulted a female director to the forefront of Oscar recognition. At a time when issues of women’s/gay/”minority”/civil rights in general were gaining momentum in the political arena, the Academy again asserted film’s social “relevance” as a sign of the times as Kathryn Bigelow (whether fully deserving or not) became the first woman to notch a win in the Best Director category.

The social climate of the nation has changed drastically throughout much of recent memory. The first four years of Obama’s Presidency haven’t gone over well with the American public. His election to a second Presidential term over Mitt Romney this past November proved the nation is divided almost evenly. The economic downturn (whether attributed directly to George W. Bush or diffused onto the shoulders of Oabama) has seen record numbers of unemployment, working families living in homeless shelters, and the disappearance of the middle class becoming a very tangible reality for average American households that form the bulk of the film industry’s consumer base. Thus, 2011’s Best Picture, The Artist, took us back to times of grandeur and prosperity; the silent era of Hollywood’s roaring heyday, when film stars were poster children for the prosperity of a nation versus a distant metaphor for the unattainable life so many Americans have given up dreaming about.

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Anne Hathaway, likely Best Supporting Actress winner in Best Picture contender “Les Miserables”

The road leading to the 2012 Presidential Election drove a wedge between Americans not unlike the Union/Confederacy split depicted in this year’s Lincoln, which chronicles a time in U.S. history bearing resemblance to the social climate we endure today. Slavery, violent opposition to the man we call President, and an increasing hostility between opposing views of social, civil, and economic ideologies make Lincoln a timely piece of perspective for contemporary unrest. It’s no surprise, then, that the filmis an early frontrunner to take the Best Picture prize in February. Les Miserables, another heavyweight contender, bears parabolic similarities to the Occupy movement, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo bringing up the rear with musings on the ever-sizzling conflict in the Middle East and the boiling pot of uncertainty that no politician, country, or war could put a lid on over the past decade.

The bleakness doesn’t wear off until we examine the latter half of 2012’s Best Picture contenders; i.e., the Silver Linings Playbooks and Beasts of the Southern Wild—multiple pictures that are still “in the race” but don’t stand a chance at taking home the Oscar come February 24th. Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts of the Southern Wild tap into an almost fantastical notion of optimism amidst tragedy, the former chronicling post-personal-meltdown recovery and the latter compartmentalizing pure, individual struggle of residents trapped within with a weather-ravaged, poverty-stricken, fantastical Katrina-esque village fighting oppression from a class of bourgeois oppressors. While Silver Linings and Beasts are adapted from other works, they capture the spirit of perseverance post-trauma. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence overcome adversity and create a unique emotional environment as “minorities,”  whereas little Quvenzhane Wallis, portraying a six-year old girl in Beasts, captures the “rebirth” of youth, her character forced to grow up (yet retain the undying spirit of optimism) in a world with no time for innocence or purity.

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Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in the Oscar-worthy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” that will most likely go unnoticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The thematic nature of Beasts makes me question why the Academy (and its precursor award brethren) hasn’t embraced a more fantastical branch of filmmaking 2012 was rife with. Films like Beasts, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and Holy Motors use their whimsical nature to make powerful statements on the persevering spirit of humanity in times of dire opposition. Grounded more in “reality” but still spiritually ambitious, films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Master, The Hunger Games, and The Grey delve deep into territory which sees humans overcoming obstacles far beyond their control. Celeste and Jesse Forever, being the most “human” of the bunch, sees a woman’s journey to spiritual homeostasis come after learning to cope with the absence of a lover while keeping him close as a “friend” in her life. It’s a task that seemingly pales in comparison to overcoming the psychological control of a cult (The Master), fighting back against an oppressive government (The Hunger Games) or finding true love amidst the end of the world (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), but one that shows the evolution of the human spirit endures even in the simplest of vignettes involving a boy, a girl, and the universal thread of love.

Another interesting contender (only for technical categories at this point, it seems, although Emily Blunt still has slight buzz for her supporting performance) is the sci-fi actioner Looper, about do-overs, internal strife, self-hatred, and the often intangible idea of fresh beginnings. The sentiment could be applied to anyone at any given time, but Looper’s insistence on ridding our reality of darkness and preserving it for fresh perspectives of change are, perhaps, the most “relevant” to the culture of 2012 America as we head into a second term with President Obama.

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Jessica Chastain, only slightly behind Best Actress frontrunner Jennifer Lawrence, struggles between her duty as an American and her impulses as a human in Best Picture contender “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The lack of “originality” in what’s vying for the Oscar for Best Picture this year frightens me a little. Out of the ten films Awards Daily (one of the most accurate prediction sites on the web) acknowledges are in the running for Best Picture (Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Flight, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom), only two are not “based” on some other form of media/socio-cultural figure or event (Moonrise Kingdom and The Master). With the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle naming Zero Dark Thirty their Best Film of 2012, and other precursors pointing to either Argo, Lincoln, or Les Miserables, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom find themselves somewhere near the bottom of the pack (if they pick up a nomination at all). Small buzz for Michael Haneke’s Amour, about aging, death, and the degenerative mental capacity that comes with them, has been building since its screening at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. While likely to win Best Foreign Language film but almost assuredly out of the Best Picture race, perhaps it taps into the most terrifying element of humanity, which is not oppressive governments or masked supervillains blowing up football stadiums; it’s the potential for human fracture, the potential for degeneration, the potential to “forget” the very things that make us who we are and, in turn, losing the ability to preserve the “feelings” of our times within original fiction that seems to be slipping by the Academy’s scope of interest in a time where “escape” is needed the most.