Archive for June, 2013

The Heat

Reactions to the female buddy-cop movie, The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, have been predictably polarizing. Many female critics have praised the film for its self-aware reworking of the tropes of the buddy-cop movie, while others, including Andrew O’Hehir, express disappointment that The Heat falls into storytelling cliches–drug dealers, many of them minorities, hiding out in abandoned warehouses–offering regressive humor in the guise of feminism. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wells, citing A.O. Scott’s indifferent review, seems to offer a tacit disdain for the lowbrow (or possibly white bread) humor of the film, even resolving to “just man up” and fork over the fifteen bucks to see the movie. Implied in many of these reviews is the idea that a mainstream film with two female leads also somehow needs to be revolutionary or subversive in order to be worth our time.

A description of The Heat’s plot would lead us to believe that it is formulaic: Straitlaced FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) joins forces with the edgy, emotional Boston street cop Shannon Mullins to pursue a drug kingpin. Ashburn is so conservative and isolated by her duty to her work that her only companion is a cat, a neighbor’s cat. Mullins is bawdy and sexually self-assured, and the streets of Boston seem to be littered with needy guys that she has abandoned. They each have their own motivations for pursuing the kingpin–Ashburn wants a promotion, Mullins wants to protect her brother–and like most buddy-cop movies, they violate a laundry list of police protocols along the way. Purely on that level, I can see why O’Hehir might be hoping for more, even when he acknowledges that much of this is completely “agreeable” and fun, especially the undeniable chemistry between the two lead actresses. O’Hehir’s reading is pretty close to my initial reaction to the film: it was a fun way to pass two hours at the movies with my family, even if it ran a little long in places.

But what sold me on the film was the NPR review by Linda Holmes. While her headline oversells The Heat a little bit by describing it as “revolutionary,” her review captures the aspects of the movie that are pretty rewarding. First, I think she’s right to point out that the film doesn’t overplay McCarthy’s weight, focusing instead on her manic energy (other than one early scene where Mullins struggles to squeeze out of a window). Second, Holmes points out some of the ways that the film uses typical female buddy-movie tropes and seems to turn them on their head. Throughout the film, there are several jokes at Ashburn’s expense regarding her conservative wardrobe (all buttoned-up pantsuits), which sets the stage for the inevitable makeover scene, which takes a place in a nightclub where Mullins (quite literally) rips Ashburn’s clothes to shreds in order to make her fit in at the nightclub where they are staking out a dealer. As Holmes points out, the scene is a “twisted, tortured parody” of typical makeover scenes where a character’s beauty is revealed only when she gets the right (usually expensive) clothes.

To some extent, we’ve been here before with Bullock. As Anne Helen Petersen pointed out some time ago, Bullock’s films are often filled with the promise of transformation, hence her appeal to her female fans. She is often cast as a “non-glamorous protagonist” who is able to transform herself–and her material conditions–by the end of the film. But what makes this film work for me is that this transformation isn’t based on romantic affirmation or even necessarily professional affirmation from a male boss. Instead, it’s almost completely based on the friendship between the two women. If this film were subject to the “Bechdel Test,” which asks whether a movie depicts two female characters talking about something other than romance with a male character, not only would it pass, but it also seems to suggest that romance is beside the point. Yes, Ashburn shows a slight attraction to an FBI colleague (played by Marlon Wayans), but the real story is is the female friendship. The police subplot, we know from having seen others in the genre, will work itself out, and it does so mostly in entertaining fashion.

I don’t think The Heat is revolutionary. It’s also easy to forget some of the precedents when it comes to the female buddy-cop genre (after all, Cagney and Lacey was a top-rated TV show for years). But it still offers something relatively rare, in much the same way that Bridesmaids upended the male “wild party” comedy subgenre. It offers two, talented female comediennes in entertaining roles that subtly challenges gender norms. And in a multiplex dominated by somber superheroes and zombie hunters, we need more of this type of counter-programming.

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Crowdfunding and Offensive Material

I’ve mentioned my fascination with crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo several times. It’s a great tool that allows people to support the production of projects they want to see, whether that entails movies, web series, books, software, or something else. There are some widely-discussed limitations to crowdfunding. Not all creative workers will be equally good at marketing themselves or their work, leaving many worthwhile projects unfunded. That said, I’m not terribly conflicted about seeing these tools become a means for people like Zach Braff or James Franco to raise money for projects that might not get funded by a studio. Sure, they’ll have an advantage over a relatively unknown artist, but I’m not convinced that the competition for crowdfunds (is that a word?) involves a zero sum game.  People may discover other projects they want to support after giving to a more familiar figure.

But one issue that (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) hadn’t crossed my radar is the possibility that a Kickstarter campaign could be used to support a project that is not only offensive but also promotes sexual assault. This is what happened with a book project that was posted to Kickstarter a few weeks ago and which recently did achieve its fundraising goal (I’m not going to mention it directly by name to avoid giving it further publicity). Just before the project was funded, however, a group of activists called attention to the offending project and set in motion a campaign (1) to stop the project from being funded and (2) to strive to ensure that Kickstarter would be more vigilant about supporting this kind of project The blogger Casey Malone deserves a great deal of credit for writing a blog post that stirred people (including myself) to contact Kickstarter about this issue (Malone has a great rundown of why this particular project is so harmful).

To their credit, Kickstarter responded relatively quickly, apologizing for allowing such a project to appear on their site. The apology is pretty emphatic in acknowledging their error and the company has backed their apology by donating $25,000 to RAINN, an organization focused on stopping sexual violence. They have pulled the project page from their website to avoid giving it further publicity (although a cached page still exists for documentary purposes). But, claiming that they are unable to stop the funding process (which is managed by Amazon Payments), they stopped short of actually withdrawing funding for the project,claiming that it is beyond their control.

That’s probably not entirely inaccurate, but it is a little unsatisfying. It begs the question of whether Amazon would be able to stop payment, but barring that, the controversy raises a few questions about how crowdfunding functions and what possibilities are available for monitoring against harmful content. Kickstarter states that content that espouses violence against women has always been banned, but this project obviously slipped through. The reporting mechanism appeared to work only belatedly, once the project was nearly funded. So this raises some questions about how projects get approved, an issue that is extremely pertinent given the fact that crowds can’t always be trusted to be very smart, an issue that would become explicitly clear when looking at the comments section of just about any newspaper website in the country. Crowds can be manipulated through fear and other emotions to support positions or actions that are incredibly harmful.

That said, I’d also argue that there are also some blurry lines between content that is explicitly promoting physical or emotional harm and content that is disagreeable. This project clearly should be pulled, but I wonder about those gray areas (and I’m reluctant to give a specific example). At what point do you decide that something crosses the line between offensive and tasteless into something more genuinely harmful? It seems clear that Kickstarter is genuinely apologetic and that they have redoubled their efforts to prevent other projects that advocate sexual violence from showing up on their service, but other projects in the future may be a little more ambiguous.

There may not be an easy answer here, but like Kickstarter, I’d like to see crowdfunding services remain some of “the friendliest, most supportive places on the web.”

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Before Midnight

Before MidnightThe first two films in the ongoing narrative of Jesse and  Céline, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), offer variations on different romantic fantasies grounded in the age and social class of their characters. The first film depicts Jesse (Ethan Hawke, then an icon of Generation X) improbably meeting Céline (Julie Delpy) on the last night of his European adventure, with the two of them sharing a romantic night of conversation as they walked through the streets of Vienna. Before Sunset updates this fantasy, nine years later, when Céline shows up at Jesse’s book tour in Paris, allowing the two of them to rekindle their romance, escaping, if only for a few hours from the concerns of early adulthood: a loveless marriage for Jesse, career struggles and bad relationships for Céline.

But both films, even though they are structured by an awareness of passing time and of an imminent departure (in both films, Jesse has a plane to catch), seem to exist almost outside of time, at least in the sense of the everyday routine of going to work, maintaining a home, and caring for kids that most of us face. Both films involve hours of aimless walking and talking, first in Vienna and later in Paris. For the most part, they are not heading anywhere in particular; they just want to keep walking, keep moving, together. Thus, for just a few hours, Jesse and Céline escape from the demands, even if their preoccupations with parenting and  career are constantly press down on them in Before Sunset, which ends with Jesse, mesmerized by Céline singing and strumming her guitar, choosing to linger in the fantasy, to try to keep it alive by making the choice to correct the mistake he made at the end of the first film when he left the possibility of a reunion with Céline almost completely to chance.

Before Midnight almost completely inverts the formula of the first two films, calling into question the construct of romantic love that Before Sunrise and Before Sunset had established. The result is a film that Mike Russell correctly describes as an “emotional evolution,” one that shows incredible maturity and emotional complexity in exploring the consequences of their decision to pursue a relationship built upon two improbably romantic interactions. Unlike the first two films, Jesse and Céline are now two fully-fledged adults, their lives intermingled in ways that are far from simple.

In addition to this thematic inversion, Before Midnight also inverts the plot formula of the first two films. Rather than ending with a potential departure, the film opens with one, in this case the departure of Jesse’s son, Hank, who is returning to the United States to live with his mother (Jesse’s ex-wife, never seen on screen) after spending the summer with Jesse and Céline in Greece. Although Hank cheerfully pledges that it had been the best summer of his life, Jesse clearly feels disconnected from his role as a father. Hank dutifully agrees to play soccer–even if it seems likely he’ll break that promise–but begs his dad to stay away from an upcoming piano recital because it will create too much stress. Jesse is self-conscious about his geographic distance from his son–they live an ocean apart–and his inability to serve as a fully adequate father figure. This sense of failure becomes even more acute when Hank calls Céline, twice, to check in at various points in his journey, not bothering to talk to his dad, prompting Jesse to propose the idea of asking Céline to move with him back to the U.S.

[Note: for those who want to view the film completely fresh, as I did, this might be a good place to stop] We also learn that Jesse and Céline have twin daughters, about eight years old, and the product of their first days together after their reunion, a detail that is introduced when Jesse gets in the car after dropping off Hank. Céline is also mulling taking a government job that would allow her to work on her pet environmental issues in a more official capacity. When she floats this news, she initially plays coy, acting as if she is just considering the job. When Jesse describes why she might not enjoy the work, she becomes defensive, and as the couple drives (rushing past some ancient ruins that they normally might have explored), Céline points to this as a pivotal moment in their relationship, one that (she imagines) will inevitably be the turning point that leads to their break up.

The rest of the film is structured around two extended scenes that allow Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (who are also credited as screenwriters) to explore the complexities of being in a committed relationship and the choices that people must make to maintain that commitment when the initial romance seems to fade. The first scene is a dinner party at the artists’ retreat where they have spent the last several months, Jesse basking in the adulation directed toward him by and older writer, while Céline silently stews at being away from her work and, in some sense, feeling the persistent gaze of being objectified into a romantic ideal in Jesse’s books (by the time of Before Midnight, he has written a sequel updating their story). While in Greece, the couple seem to have been living in separate realms. Jesse hangs with the men who praise or tease him about his writing. Céline works in the kitchen to prepare food (“filled with feta cheese–ugh!”) and care for their daughters. Céline also catches Jesse ogling the younger girlfriend of one of his friends, reinforcing insecurities about aging, worrying several times about her “fat French butt.” During the dinner, couples (and widows) of multiple generations meditate and reflect on the nature of romantic love and whether it is a fantasy, whether it can be maintained. Most of the people at the table are cynical, and given the tension on Jesse and Céline’s relationship, we can begin to see the film deepening its critique of its predecessors.

The second set piece is a scene in a hotel that friends have booked for Jesse and Céline. While the room is nice, it is distinctly modern, cold, and a little sterile, even with the nice touches–a complimentary bottle of wine and a couple’s massage–that have been provided. Unlike the romanticism of the first two films, the couple are grounded in the contemporary. Cell phone calls disrupt their conversation and their attempts to have sex and to rekindle their relationship. They also–most notably-no longer seem to be moving. After a brief walk together through the town, they remain in the room together, arguing and reintroducing old resentments about the sacrifices they have made for each other in seeking to make a life together. And what results is one of the most compelling and believable explorations of committed relationships I’ve seen on screen. If Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were two variations on a fantasy of courtship, Before Midnight reminds us that what happens next isn’t always “happily ever after.”

Like the first two films, the concluding scene of Before Midnight ends with a similar–if slightly altered–sense of ambiguity, asking again, where do we go from here? If the first two films offered a kind of romantic longing, Before Midnight takes us in a slightly different direction, asking how (or even if) these two people will continue to make a life together. In keeping with the other films, the question is built around a clever fantasy scenario cooked up by Jesse, one that asks Céline to imagine her 82-year-old self looking back on this moment and reflecting on the choices she made. It’s a moment that reminds us about the fragility of life and the contingency of all the choices we make. It also made me want to revisit these characters again and again for as long as Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke are around to make movies.

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James Franco Tries Crowdfunding

James Franco is now following in the footsteps of Zach Braff by experimenting with crowdfunding for a new project in which he is involved: a trilogy of movies based on his short story collection, Palo Alto, by a group of young filmmakers. Franco is seeking to raise $500,000, a hefty sum for a group of unknown directors, so it will be interesting to see how successful Franco will be in using his star image to get audiences to back this project.

There are a couple of notable features about Franco’s fundraising campaign. First, unlike Braff, the Veronica Mars team, and a number of other high-profile filmmakers, Franco has opted to use IndieGoGo a crowdfunding service that allows the fundraisers to keep the money they raise, even if they don’t achieve their monetary goals. So, Franco’s students are likely guaranteed to receive significant backing, even if they don’t raise the full half million. As a result, there may be less pressure on people to invest in the project given that they may not view their contribution as directly needed.

Second, Franco has explicitly promised to donate any profits from the films to Art of Elysium, a non-profit organization that encourages entertainers to visit sick children in the hospital, so even if Franco may be using his star image to attract attention to this project, he may not profit directly from the results.

I’m unfamiliar with Franco’s short story collection, so I’m not sure how they’ll work cinematically–an issue that I’m guessing may affect other contributors as well. But it’s interesting to see a star use his image to promote a project in which he is not the primary artistic force.

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The Imploding Blockbuster Roundtable

The media studies blog Antenna has posted a roundtable on Spielberg and Lucas’s recent comments about the imminent “implosion” of the Hollywood blockbuster model featuring comments from a range of media scholars, including Thomas Schatz, Alisa Perren, R. Colin Tait, Brenda Austin-Smith, and myself.

I’m not sure I have much to add to my comments here or on the Antenna blog, but I found Alisa’s observations (and Brad Schauer’s response) about the “generational” aspects of Spielberg and Lucas’s speculations to be helpful. Alisa points out that Spielberg and Lucas are reacting this way in part because they are finally being adversely affected by the blockbuster model, while pointing to Jason Bailey’s reminder that it is profoundly hypocritical for the two men most responsible for this model to be complaining about it now (especially given how much they have profited from it).

Bryan Bishop of The Verge implies that Lucas may have offered a slightly more optimistic interpretation of the current trends in distribution, pointing out that Lucas remarked that online distribution offered content that is “usually more interesting than what you’re going to see in the movie theater. And you can get it whenever you want, and it’s going to be niche-marketed, which means you can really take chances and do things if you can figure out there’s a small group of people that will kind of react to it,” while adding that such a film can be successful (and that a filmmaker can make a living) if you have a relatively small audience of even one million people or so.

Both filmmakers still seem most wistful about the speed with which movies cycle out of theaters and into other formats, with Spielberg lamenting that movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. stayed in theaters for about a year, while now, movies are “in hotels two weeks after they hit theaters.” But that has been part of an evolution that has been taking place over the last decade or so with the rise of the megaplex theaters  that depend on keeping theaters seats filled week after week. Movies that have been out on the big screen for a month probably aren’t going to do that.

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Hollywood Imploding

I was revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s widely-discussed “State of Cinema” address from the San Francisco International Film Festival when I came across today’s news that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas–speaking at an event at USC–stated that the Hollywood studio system would “implode.” Given that Spielberg and Lucas were speaking at the opening of USC’s Interactive Media Building (where students would theoretically be preparing themselves for careers in the entertainment industry), their comments seem even more ominous. Like Soderbergh, the two star directors describe a distribution culture that is both on the verge of collapse and closed off to innovative storytelling. But while this Hollywood narrative of collapse invites quite a bit of buzz–articles about Spielberg and Lucas’s talk have been circulating widely on Twitter and Facebook–it’s also a story with a number of holes in it.

First, Spielberg asserts that “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Such claims are tempting, especially when looking at the tepid results of films like the Will Smith vehicle After Earth, but these box-office bombs are often balanced with low-risk successes such as The Purge, which has made $43 million so far on a budget of $3 million (not to mention all of the countless Paranormal Activity sequels). Thus, suggesting that studios “would rather” focus solely on making big-budget films misses the mark considerably.

Spielberg and Lucas, echoing Soderbergh’s earlier comments, imply that personal projects will now inevitable wind up being distributed online or on television. Soderbergh, who has in the past placed microbudgeted films on the big screen, reported that he released his HBO biopic, Behind the Candelabra, via HBO because it was seen as too much of a financial risk to distribute theatrically, while Spielberg similarly stated that Lincoln was “this close” (imagine thumb and index finger inches apart) to being distributed through the cable channel. Implicit in these comments is the idea that TV (or streaming) offers an inferior experience to film, even though both directors have worked in both media throughout their careers. There is something mournful in their comments (not unlike those from Soderbergh).

That said, in the post-DVD, on-demand era, such claims about theatrical distribution have been circulating for a while. Mark Gill was making similar warnings back in 2008. But even with Gill’s dire descriptions of indie distributors shutting down or paring back on buying new titles, what’s happening now is far from a collapse. Instead, what we are witnessing is what amounts to a realignment and reworking of traditional business models. Scott Macauley captures this in his report on the 2013 Cannes Film Market, where he points out the lack of consensus around today’s distribution marketplace. Most notably, he observes that VOD is working best in the United States, that China continues to be a “difficult” market, and that older audiences still hold tremendous appeal for the art-house circuit thanks to the success of films like Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But what’s most perplexing from my oint of view is the discussion of (1) the future of moviegoing and (2) the culture of videogames. In terms of moviegoing, Lucas makes what seems like a remarkably odd prediction, suggesting that movie theaters will morph into a Broadway model, where individual films will premiere with $50-100 tickets and will linger in theaters for over a year. Given some of the incentives for theatrical churn (more movies=more opportunities for ticket sales, big screen movies must quickly “compete with” pirated versions), this idea seems counterintuitive at best. While I can imagine event screenings, even of big budget releases (say, Iron Man 4, in which Robert Downey and the gang do a live Q&A with theaters across the globe), these event screenings depend on scarcity models, not on long-term access. Once the film has been in thousands of theaters for several weeks, scarcity is no longer a selling point.

Their points about video games are just as odd. Spielberg argued–somewhat oddly–that video games had failed to create any characters with which the player could feel “empathy.” Lucas echoed this claim by suggesting that the next revolutionary video game would be one aimed at girls and that would mix action with an “empathetic” character making it the “Titanic of video games.” While I’m not an avid gamer, empathy in games seems to be beside the point. That’s not to suggest that a game can’t be used to tell a powerful story, but their accounts of gaming seem to discount (or outright ignore) many of the pleasures–especially the social aspects of online, multiplayer games–of gaming. Games don’t have to offer a choice between “actual relationships” and “shooting people.”

There is little question that the industry is changing. Tentpole films do serve as a major focus for the studios. Although the theaters were showing art house projects by Polanski, Ozon, Kore-Eda, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, and Payne (among others), the mise-en-scene of Cannes itself was dominated by large banners promoting hollywood blockbusters. Entire hotel walls were covered by posters for The Lone Ranger, The Great Gatsby, and The Hunger Games. But it’s also clear that the festival’s Competition films still mattered. They drove the discussion at Cannes, and whether we encounter these movies on the big screen, on cable, or on our laptops, they will still generate conversation, and distinct artists will still work to ensure that their voices are heard.

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