Category Archives: film

Protected: It Takes the Village

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The radical power of doing your own thing.

There are many, many things to love about being a member of the Department of Media and Communication, but one of my very favorite perks is the Department’s relationship with the Philadelphia Film Society and the Philadelphia Film Festival, which was held this year in October, and Arcadia students and faculty had the opportunity to see loads of great films there. I wasn’t able to catch as many films there as I’d wanted, but I did get to see some great ones: THE SESSIONS, STEP UP TO THE PLATE, the short THE PROCESSION, HOLY MOTORS and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. But perhaps my favorite experience at the festival this year was seeing GAYBY, the lovely little comedy written and directed by Jonathan Lisecki.

Part of what makes GAYBY so charming is how deceptively simple its premise is. Jenn wants to get pregnant, can’t afford fertility treatments or in vitro procedures, so she asks her college best friend Matt to impregnate her the old fashioned way. Matt is gay, hijinks ensue, you can fill in the blanks from there. Except you can’t, exactly–the film is able to avoid and often subvert those well-worn conventions from all of those television sitcoms that have toyed with the scenario since the mid 1990s. It’s not fine cinema, and it’s not trying to be. It’s just a clever and fun movie.

In addition to writing and directing, Lisecki is hilarious as Nelson in GAYBY

Lisecki first made Gayby as a short film (which is where I first heard of it–it won Best Short at the 2010 Philly Film Fest). By 2011 production had begun on the Gayby full-length feature, which premiered at South by Southwest in March 2012, and picked up an Honorable Mention Audience Award for American Independent Film at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

I enjoyed the film itself, but what has kept me thinking about GAYBY for the last month is the process by which the film itself got made. Lisecki told The New York Times that part of his motivation for making the film was his own frustration with the acting parts available for gay men: “I went through a five-year period where I auditioned for these absurdly caricatured versions of the gay best friend,” he told Mekado Murphy in October, “And I thought if this is all I’m going to be allowed to do in this industry, then I have to go create my own work.” But he wasn’t alone in making the film, of course.

As I watched the film’s end credits roll, I noticed a special thanks message to Kickstarter backers, so during the Q&A with Lisecki after the film I asked him about his experience with the crowd-funding service. Lisecki had nothing but positive things to say about the experience–he was able to raise over 16000 to help fund post-production–but what he said about it was somewhat surprising. What was most valuable, he said, was not the people making economic investments in the film, but emotional investments in the film–feeling a sense of ownership of the project, talking about it with their friends, posting about it on social media, and so on. In other words, building a following, a community of support, and a structure of belief around the project was as important as raising the money itself.

The idea of building your own structures through which you could follow your interests that Lesnicki emphasized resonated with my own experience.  In high school I killed time with friends by endlessly working on scripting, filming, and editing a movie with nothing but a full-size VHS camcorder. I also built a website, took tons of photographs and wrote cruddy poetry. None of these things were “good,” but they were fun to work on, and the experience helped me in projects I worked on later.

Then, in college, I discovered the Mr. Roboto Project in Pittsburgh, which transformed my life. I remember the first time I walked into the Roboto space, for a benefit show that a high school friend had organized. I had been going to punk/hardcore shows in VFW halls and church basements for a while, but Roboto was different. VFW halls, naturally, had their own idiosyncratic rules about how you might use their space. But Roboto was ours–it was owned and operated by kids in Pittsburgh, and if you wanted to join, all you had to do was put in your twenty bucks. You weren’t at the whims of a landlord or a show promoter. You could promote your own show or host a zine exchange, have a discussion group or screen a film. You could make decisions on how the space was run. Instead of just being a consumer of things, you could experience the power and pleasure of DIY. Like Ian Mackaye recently told Mother Jones, “if you ask for permission, the answer is always no. So I developed a practice of just doing things.”

This is not just possible in dingy underground music venues.  A few years ago I was listening to an interview with Judd Apatow on a podcast called The Sound of Young America (now called Bullseye), and was struck by the story of how he broke into the comedy world:

I just love the idea of a teenaged Judd Apatow calling up the Screen Actors Guild and hunting down Weird Al for an interview for his rinky-dink high school radio show.

This, it seems to me, is not all that different from the story of how The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein broke into the world of high-level political commentary. Getting a column in The Washington Post is traditionally the result of high level connections, whether through money or elite Ivy League education. Klein is certainly well-educated–he attended both UC Santa Cruz and UCLA as an undergraduate–but he was not hand-picked for success. When he applied for a position in the campus newspaper, he was turned down. So he began blogging, first on his own and then with other prominent “netroots” figures.

It’s also not all that different from the story of Tavi Gevinson, the young woman who went from fashion blogging at 13 to founding Rookie magazine at age 15. She is now a prominent figure in global fashion, appearing in the pages of The New York Times, at fashion shows, and on television shows like Project Runway. This article in Rookie is a good example of the magazine’s style and attitude.

What do these people have in common? They did not wait to get a job in the industry that they were interested in to start working in that industry. And they didn’t start that work thinking it would immediately turn into something professional–it just helped them build their skills, make connections, and develop their own confidence. Like Apatow says, his high school radio show was “comedy college.”

In my own job as a college professor, I try to make clear to my students that while I am there to help them develop their skills, expand their knowledge, challenge them and build their confidence, I am not going to be enough. No teacher could be. If you are training to be a basketball player, you need to listen to coaches, study opponents, and understand both basketball techniques and tactics. But you can’t just watch film and do drills. You also have to play basketball. So it is the same for my students, who want to be filmmakers, or writers, or designers, or public relations professionals. They need to study, they need to work on their technique. But they also just need to do stuff.

This is why the most rewarding thing I’ve done as a teacher has been advising the students at Loco Magazine.  While I do my very best to advise, support, and counsel those students regarding the process of pitching stories, making the most of the online format of the magazine, and promoting their work on social media, the work those students do is entirely of their design. They pitch the stories, make assignments, rigorously edit (with double-blind review!), design and promote the project. This means considerable risk–every issue could be really bad. And since every issue is online, with their names attached to it, it could be embarrassing for a long, long time. But instead, because of these students ability and commitment, they’ve built what I believe to be the best student publication on campus. And they’ve done it entirely on their own.

There is a radical power to sticking your neck out and doing the stuff you want to do. Even if that work is not as good as you wish it could be, the very fact of making your own film, or starting your own radio program, or founding a magazine reinforces a belief that the things you create can be meaningful–that you yourself are meaningful and important and powerful. That is as crucial as any essay, any project, or any mark on a transcript. This is the opportunity we can offer here at Arcadia, and I sincerely hope all of our students will take it.

Protected: Fifties Nostalgia, Hollywood Soundtracks

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Protected: The Same Old Songs? The Invention of Oldies in Reagan-Era Hollywood

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Blue Valentine: Some Feelings Not Suitable for Minors


Stop them before they smooch again!

If you have heard anything at all about Blue Valentine, you’ve likely heard about its controversial NC-17 rating. The film’s rating had film blogs abuzz when the rating was issued a few months ago, particularly after it was announced that the rating would be appealed by the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company (UPDATE: the rating was eventually overturned). Indeed, when the film played on the first full night of the 2010 Philadelphia Film Festival, the question of whether the rating was or was not deserved dominated discussions before and after the film’s screening.

This is a shame, because Blue Valentine deserves discussion on its own merits. The film, which juxtaposes the first exhilarating days of a relationship with the excruciating death throes of a marriage a handful of years later, benefits from tremendous performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams,who have established themselves as actors with talent and discretion. The film’s creative team shows remarkable command and control, technically (in its use of non-linear editing and handheld camera) as well as narratively (never providing its audience an “easy out”). Beyond its formal qualities, the production history of Blue Valentine provides an interesting model for independent film production in the contemporary film industry: the script won a grant competition financed by the Chrysler Corporation in 2007 before debuting in competition at Sundance in 2010. Of all the films I saw at the Philadelphia Film Festival, or all the quality films I’ve seen this year, this is, without question, the best, and most interesting.

With that said, the reality is that the controversy over the film’s rating has completely taken over the film’s buzz (and provided The Weinstein Co with some free publicity in the process.) The usual complaints against the MPAA’s arcane and opaque ratings processes have circulated, noting that Blue Valentine‘s sex scenes pale in comparison to representations of sex and violence that frequently grace screens in mall multiplexes. Matthew Thrift’s take is representative of these discussions:

It’s an honest (albeit hardly graphic) representation that garnered the film an NC-17 certificate in the US by the MPAA, it would seem that they’ve no problem with us seeing ever increasing instances of extreme screen violence but two consenting adults having sex in anything more than candle-lit timidity has them fearing for our safety as a society.

As Thrift rightly points out, the sex in Blue Valentine is hardly explicit. It features no “full frontal nudity,” as the saying goes – Gosling’s rear end is shown once, and Williams breasts are exposed only fleetingly. Considered against R-rated sex comedies or thrillers, the film appears quite tame. It seems to me, however, that it is not what we see in Blue Valentine’s traumatic sex scenes that the MPAA has deemed unsuitable for minors. Rather, it is what we feel, and particularly the feelings the film prompts about sex, that the MPAA has cast as inappropriate for viewers under the age of seventeen.

It is really only the film’s final “sex scene” that deviates from standard Hollywood practice. Dean and Cindy, in an effort to escape the pain of their marriage’s inevitable collapse, spend the night in a tacky hotel. Dean wants to have sex with Cindy, but Cindy doesn’t want to have sex with him. Very quickly, it becomes clear that this situation will end badly–Cindy acquiesces not because she’s threatened by Dean in any direct way, but rather as a coping mechanism (there are moments in the film that suggest that Cindy’s father abused her during childhood, which would account for her emotional detachment in this scene). Dean, for his part, can tell she has shut down emotionally and stops–embarrassed and hurt that she has effectively offered her body, but nothing more. The ensuing argument between the two is incredibly sad, but it is also grounded in the best intentions of two characters trying to keep some semblance of “family” in their lives.  It is beyond dispute that Dean and Cindy did, in fact, love each other at one point, and even by the end there still is love in their relationship. Blue Valentine is the story of star-crossed lovers in which the stars win and the lovers lose. In other words, the film punctures a notion of romantic love that can overcome all odds, and instead shows a world in which things like “classed notions of success” and “gendered codes of behavior” have soul-crushingly real effects…and affects.

What interests me about Blue Valentine‘s rating controversy is not pointing out the obvious inanity/insanity of Hollywood’s rating system, but thinking through what Blue Valentine‘s rating might tell us about the relationship between adolescence, sexuality and affect in contemporary American culture. It is, after all, only young people who are explicitly barred from seeing the film with an NC-17 rating, and it is in the name of protecting young people that most commercial cinemas will not screen NC-17 films. Young people, who maintain a privileged position in our commercial media landscape, are at the center of nearly all representations of love and sex in commercial media. So what does it mean for American society to “protect” young people from the feelings regarding love and sex that Blue Valentine evokes?

It seems revealing that on September 24,  a little more than three weeks before the MPAA handed Blue Valentine its NC-17 rating, Columbia’s The Virginity Hit got a wide release in mall multiplexes nationwide. Taking its cues from Superbad, American Pie, Porky’s and numerous other entrants in the get-laid-or-die-tryin’ formula sweepstakes, the film tells the charming story of real nice guy Matt (Matt Bennett) his fat lunkhead friend (Zack Pearlman), and their conspiracy to secretly videotape Matt’s first sexual experience with his high-school sweetheart Nicole (Nicole Weaver).

After he suspects that Nicole has betrayed him by sleeping with a college guy, Matt is heartbroken. In retaliation, he and Zack plan to distribute the video virally in order to “punish” Nicole’s betrayal.  When that plan fails, Matt tries to have sex with Zack’s little sister, a graduate student doing sociological research on adolescent sexual behavior (uhh…what?), and finally, a prostitute. These efforts, of course, all fail until Matt learns something or other about what’s really important, clearing the moral terrain for him to have sex with Nicole. What a happy ending! For the totally sweet bros of The Virginity Hit, sex is not their manifest destiny as red-blooded American boys. It is also currency in their social system, a service to be purchased and rendered, and a product for them to produce, package, and distribute for their own personal gain–a notion, it must be said, that is not the invention of The Virginity Hit but rather the standard script for most representations of sex in popular culture, from Axe Body Spray advertisements to Sex and the City.

I’d argue that this episode illustrates that American attempts to shield young people  from the kinds of emotional and psychological discomfort represented in Blue Valentine results in a society in which love and sex can only be viewed as a product to be not only consumed, but also packaged and distributed in exchange for capital (cultural or otherwise.) It is hardly a groundbreaking claim to argue that Hollywood commodifies sex–what I find interesting in this case is the explicit banning of “worthless” sex, of sex that provides neither pleasure nor power. The consequences for a society in which representations of sex that prompt uncomfortable feelings–despair, regret, guilt, or rejection– are considered inappropriate for minors, but representations of sex that unproblematically present it as a commodity–manufactured, distributed, consumed and valued through market processes–are the standard are both real and dramatic. Three days before The Virginity Hit premiered, a first year student at Rutgers University secretly recorded his roommate engaged in sexual behaviors and broadcast them to his peers. Of course, the ensuing tragedy cannot in any way be put in a causal relationship with any film, narrative, or ratings board decision. However, we can consider how media representations of love and sex that elide the possibility for pain, grief, or loss structure our understanding of human sexuality, and limit our capacity to feel at all.