Film – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 TIFF 2015 Report Wed, 23 Sep 2015 17:27:35 +0000 IMG_0867Originally known as the “Festival of Festivals,” the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) celebrated its 40th anniversary between September 10th and 20th. The ten-day annual festival is a bustling, temporal, and often chaotic experience of navigating particular festival procedures, cultures, and cityscapes. The festival space encompasses a variety of operations and attracts well over 400,000 participants who descend upon Canada’s media capital to watch movies and talk business. Similar to other major international film festivals, TIFF serves as a microcosm for understanding contemporary media industries where activities span production, distribution, and exhibition as well as reflect the evolving nature of film festivals.

A couple of things are distinct about TIFF. First, the festival opened a permanent space known as the TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010. Located in a centrally coveted Toronto neighborhood, the expansive facility serves as the organization’s headquarters and heart of the festival but also as a center for archival research, media education, and cultural events throughout the year. Second, TIFF is a public festival open to anyone and everyone without a formalized film market as is the case with its peer festival of Berlin or Hong Kong. The majority of attendees are the general public with only a small percentage holding industry credentials. On the one hand, essentially anyone can go online or to a theater venue to buy tickets for any film featured in one of the sixteen film series. On the other hand, access is still a major factor. For films with significant buzz or bigger stars, tickets may sell out quickly for any of the two to three public screenings. Yet, audience members can “rush” a screening an hour or more prior to the start time to purchase any available tickets. Industry credentials provide another layer of access and are available to professionals including buyers, sellers, filmmakers, producers, and more recently scholars. Access to an industry badge reveals a more multi-faceted view of festival activities beyond public screenings and red carpet premieres. Industry passes allow entry to closed press and industry screenings as well as a separate industry conference with a week of panels discussing the current state of the film business.


Finally, TIFF is classified as a non-competitive festival. Film selections are not categorized as “In Competition” nor does it offer competitive prizes awarded by a high profile jury in the case of Cannes, Berlin, or Sundance.[1] The major award emerging from TIFF is the People’s Choice Award. General attendees vote over the ten-day period by dropping a film ticket of their choice into a voting box gathered by festival volunteers. The Irish-Canadian co-production Room (2015, dir. Larry Abrahamson) won the 2015 People’s Choice Award. Some festival films often exchange or parlay premiere coverage and critical reception into a Hollywood award season run from industry guild awards to the Academy Awards. Upon the announcement of Room‘s People’s Choice win, Deadline Hollywood and The Hollywood Reporter began speculating about the film’s Oscar prospects. The capital or value garnered from a film’s TIFF positioning and subsequent promotional campaign may unfold over time through a subsequent industry award season performance to a successful theatrical and/or home entertainment release. In other words, the lifespan of a film’s financial, cultural, and industrial impact only begins in Toronto.

Room press conference
Beyond its impact on the local economy, urban redevelopment, and Canadian film industry, one of TIFF’s function is to position and launch recent film premieres of large-scale Hollywood studio productions like Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon or Scott Cooper’s Black Mass featuring Johnny Depp. TIFF also programs and supports a number of international art house fare and first-time filmmakers including Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang or Simon Fitzmaurice’s My Name is Emily, respectively. As a media industries scholar who primarily utilizes fieldwork, industry interviews, and participant observation, I was struck by the varied networks of promotional activities during the event. I ground this initial discussion in a rich tradition of film festival studies that incorporates ethnography and insider positionality to explore film festival dynamics. Particularly, using the case of Room, I was able to trace the film’s circulation and promotional activities across the festival’s short period by attending a number of events from the initial press conference encompassing around 40 journalists to a press screening full of critics, journalists, buyers, and so on. Each festival space operates by its own distinct rules and culture yet is bound by a similar trajectory of promotion and spin. The tightly controlled press conference Q&A featuring the director, screenwriter/author, and central cast was structured differently and offered a unique tone from the largely casual morning press screening or highly ritualized public premiere and celebratory Q&A afterwards with director and cast.


In addition to my own investment in exploring an on-the-ground methodology, I had a pedagogical opportunity to experience the festival alongside a group of my Oakland University undergraduate students. My colleague Brendan Kredell and I spent the past year organizing a student trip to TIFF to correspond with a team-taught course on film festivals that we are teaching during the fall 2015 semester. A group of 18 students, comprised of junior and senior Cinema Studies students from our university, attended screenings, industry conference panels, red carpet events, and OU-organized master classes. Since there are over 400 films screened each year at TIFF, each student curated or created their own experience shaped largely by the chosen film series, panels, and events they attended. As part of our film festivals course, the students conducted their own fieldwork keeping research notebooks, posting daily blog entries, shooting footage for a short documentary, and participating in a class podcast. The trip served as a pilot program combining an interactive festival experience with creative production projects, film criticism, industry research, and professionalization opportunities.

By combining my interest and investment in the media industries as a teacher-scholar, Toronto International Film Festival offered a number of opportunities to examine festival structures, film cultures, reception activities, cultural geographies, and industry dynamics for myself, my colleague, and our students. As the Toronto-based event evolves each year, so does the scholarly and pedagogical project. For example, the festival introduced a series this year called Primetime featuring television dramas. While the relationship between television and film festival is not a new one, it does signal a shift in TIFF’s structural organization and how it may be reimagining its brand. As TIFF evolves to reflect the changing nature of the media industries, it provides a temporal learning experience and experiment for exploring the complexities and dynamics of global media as well as expanding our classroom beyond the walls of the university.

[1] A new film series—Platform—was introduced this year and featured a dozen “best of international cinema” selections bound outside of any country quotas. In celebration of the festival’s anniversary, a jury was chosen to judge the Toronto Platform Prize for best film in this category. As I learned from a conversation with my colleague Brendan Kredell, the international film festival body FIAPF grants TIFF a special “non-competitive” status unlike peer competitive festivals Cannes and Berlin.


Notes from the Telluride Film Festival Sun, 13 Sep 2015 13:00:34 +0000 poster

Post by Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona

A film festival is an individual experience. For Tucsonans, the Telluride Film Festival begins with a long day’s drive from 2,500 feet to 10,000 feet elevation through canyons, chaparral, forest, wildflowers, rock formations, up into the San Juan Mountains. Once in town, in rain-sun-snow, we walk among the nine screening venues, seminars in the park, conversations in the courthouse, and a Vimeo suite playing found footage documentaries by Adam Curtis, a 2015 Silver Medallion awardee.

The Telluride fest is put on by a staff of more than 800, mostly volunteers. Only a few venues exist as fixed seat theaters. A school gymnasium is converted into a state-of-the-art screening venue with comfortable raked seats, 35mm, 70mm and even 3D capability. The Werner Herzog with its 650 ruby red seats and curtained walls is an ice hockey rink. One of the smaller houses, Le Pierre, is a climbing gym now decorated with huge images of old 35mm film cans celebrating long-time Telluride fest curator Pierre Rissient. The Chuck Jones evokes his Martian cartoons. The Galaxy décor is a trip to the moon and beyond. The ingenuity of Telluride’s venues never fails to astound.

Telluride is a welcoming and friendly festival. And there are always surprises. During the intermission between the two parts of Die Niebelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924, 275 minutes plus intermission)–Siegfried and Kreimheld’s Revenge–the fest offered filmgoers complimentary beer and brats, freshly grilled on the patio outside the Herzog. Before the screening of the restored art deco L’inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924), curator Serge Bromberg took a photo of the audience to send to the daughter of the woman who played the peasant. The daughter was born nine months after the film was made. The Alloy Orchestra performed its original score live, voicing chanteuse Claire Lescot (Georgette Leblanc) with the delicate treble of a hand saw.

This inventive environment is casual and easy-going. Telluride is not a market and there are no paparazzi. Films and filmmakers are not ballyhooed in advance or at the fest. There are Telluride regulars–Alexander Payne, Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Peter Sellars, Serge Bromberg, Laura Linney, Pierre Rissient–and well-known film creatives with new releases. This year, one could run into Idris Elba, Meryl Streep, Tom Noonan, Rooney Mara, Danny Boyle, and more.

There are several types of passes. Some include the opening night feed on the main street and the Labor Day picnic in the park. The food is tasty and there are vegan and vegetarian options. It is possible to have a great fest without a pass, as there are free screenings (passholders usually have priority), outdoor screenings at the Abel Gance, book and poster signings, and open seminars. I get the curated Cinephile pass with access to Telluride’s impressive film history dimension as well as independent and foreign films. On Labor Day, after the picnic, the Cinephile passholder has access to the more mainstream films.


My Cinephile pass will color this report. The only new release-with-stars that I saw was Carol, Todd Haynes’ splendid 1950s lesbian drama. The film evoked not only the look of the 1950s (somewhere I have the bracelet that Cate Blanchett is wearing!) with nods to Ross Hunter-Douglas Sirk melodrama, but also the feel of 1950s lesbian fiction. It is a great pleasure to see a luscious mainstream film with the gold standard projection and screening space that is a hallmark of the Telluride Film Fest. We might have seen Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle), but chose instead to experience curator/archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai’s experimental pilgrimage, Picture (2015, 68 minutes) with its two pages of film theory as an introduction and live performance by Alloy Orchestra.

Our three favorite current films were Taxi from Iran, Ixcanul from Guatemala, and Siti from Indonesia. Taxi (Jafar Panahi) was the film most often screened at the fest. In his inspired and inspiring introduction, festival director Peter Sellars situated Taxi at the cusp of freedom and restriction. Panahi is under house arrest and forbidden from making films for 20 years, yet he made Taxi. Panahi could not travel to Berlin to receive the Golden Bear yet the government congratulated him on the award. Taxi is experimental documentary, political commentary, and joyous comic encounters.


The dramatic and realist story in Ixcanul (Jayra Bustamente) is based on the life of the actress playing Maria in the film. The Mayan peasant lifestyle on a coffee plantation on the side of a volcano is so beautifully realized that audiences were astounded to learn that Maria’s father is played by a dentist. Maria’s mother, the heart of the film, is a woman of incredible mental, emotional, physical, and intellectual strength. She is played by a Mayan peasant who joined an acting troupe after she became widowed. This film held us in rapt attention. Later, we learned the production story behind the film.

Festival director Pierre Rissient brought Siti (Eddie Cayhono) and the short Cinema (Eric Khoo, Singapore). Cinema tells the story of a low-budget horror film production decades later as the now elderly crew gathers in a sound stage. Siti is a film about a young single mother, working in a karaoke to raise funds to pay off the debt of her invalid husband. The film weaves throughout a subtle motif of the sea.

One consistent characteristic of the Telluride fest is the opportunity to see films that are rarely screened and otherwise not available. This year’s guest director, novelist Rachel Kushner, brought rarely seen films by Jean Eustache (France), Ted Kotcheff (Australia), Robert Frank (Switzerland), Francesco Rosi (Italy), and a program with short films by Jean Renoir, Agnès Varda, and Jean-Luc Godard.

There was a strong political cinema strand. Participant Media received the annual Special Medallion that “celebrates a hero of cinema” and Adam Curtis received a Silver Medallion tribute. Curtis makes docs culled from archival footage shot by BBC journalists. From terabytes of footage covering Afghanistan, Bitter Lake (2015) traces the rise of ISIS from its roots in a post-WWII meeting between the dying Franklin Roosevelt and the Saudi Arabian monarch. The fest screened Participant Media 2015 films Spotlight, Beasts of No Nation, and He Named Me Malala.


A special Telluride treat is “Retour de Flamme” (saved from the flames of nitrate) with cinema raconteur, restoration artist, and showman Serge Bromberg. This is typically a one-off show at the old Sheridan Opera House (230 seats), so get in line early. Bromberg tells the story of the discovery of missing footage, shows clips from the various extant prints, and illustrates the restoration process. This year we were treated to a Chaplin short, a Keaton short, and the world premiere of the restored Laurel and Hardy monumental rollicking pie fight in Battle of the Century (1928). Props to Laurel and Hardy for giving the biggest laugh at the end to an unidentified woman’s hilarious slapstick performance.

There is much more film at Telluride than this report covers. As the weekend proceeded, people talk about what they liked and didn’t like. It is interesting how different the Telluride experience can be. In the recent jockeying for “world premiere” stature by the Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride seems quite content to “world premiere” slapstick comedy and restored films from history. Cinephile passholders are very happy.


Report from GeekyCon, Orlando, July 30-August 2: The Challenges of Rebranding a Feminist Con Wed, 05 Aug 2015 13:26:38 +0000 geekycon2015

Post by Allison McCracken and Jennifer Kelly, DePaul University

This summer, we have been presenting our research regarding the ways that many small, niche fan conventions have constructed feminine/feminist and queer safe spaces for young women and queer youth, providing alternatives to larger, more corporate cons that are dominated by white men and often lacking in the intense sense of community fostered by the smaller cons. The cons we analyzed were DashCon, GeekGirlCon, and LeakyCon. Of these cons, LeakyCon was the biggest (at 5,000). At the end of last year’s con, its organizers announced a brand change from “LeakyCon” (which began as a Harry Potter-themed con, but had become multi-fandom) to “GeekyCon.” It was clear from last year’s LeakyCon that more obvious corporate sponsorship and alliances were developing (particularly with Tumblr, whose signage dominated the main hall last year), and in our recent conference presentations, we wondered how this change in branding might affect the kind of feminist community feeling of previous LeakyCons.

Tumblr at LeakyCon2c 2014

The answer is, quite a lot. This GeekyCon was notably conflicted in a number of ways, the result, we think, of its organizers’ attempts to address feminist concerns within the larger fandom world and maintain a sense of safe and “positive” community space while, at the same time, also expanding its brand to include more commercial content by showcasing white, male panelists and performers (presumably cis and straight) and attracting audience members who reflected these same identity characteristics. The tensions between commerce and community, avowed feminism and queer inclusion in a con environment more inviting to men and boys, and a focus on “positivity” while lacking diverse representation among guests and attendees resulted in con that, despite some laudable progressive actions, generally felt lacking in the critical edge, community feeling, and affective resonance of past LeakyCons.

LeakyCon’s organizers, mostly women who are all self-identified feminists, have long taken a leading role in con inclusivity and participant safety. This year, GeekyCon took steps to validate its many transgender, genderqueer, and/or non-binary identified attendees, including providing gender-neutral bathrooms for the first time. In addition, transgender participants were actively involved in many con panels, not only those related to LGBTQ issues. The body positivity panel notably included a fat body positive activist for the first time. In addition, the con’s well-known policy against sexual harassment was affirmed and expanded this year through the con’s inclusion and support of the newly-formed “Uplift” organization. Uplift was founded last year by three female college students to combat sexual abuse in online communities and in direct response to a series of recent testimonials by many young women of such abuse by male performers in the Doctor Who and Harry Potter fandoms. Finally, GeekyCon has also become one of the sponsors of the “Positive Fandom” movement that focuses on creating safe and constructive fan spaces.

GeekyCon SponsorsSuch welcome developments at GeekyCon, however, were often overshadowed and at times undermined by the con’s more commercial turn and its reduced female voices and participants, particularly in the big mainstage events. Panels were sponsored by corporations such as Wattpad, PenguinTeen, and Tumblr; although these commercial groups are reflective of and popular with GeekyCon’s participants (indeed, their representatives identify as fangirls and feminists), their increased presence in “safe” venues at times undercut the sense of intimacy and community GeekyCon has long fostered. For example, one popular group meet up during the con’s first session began with a message from a Wattpad representative.

More troubling was the commercial branding of GeekyCon with an adaptation of Missy Elliott’s song “Get Ur Freak On” called instead “Get Your Geek On,” which was performed both in promotional materials and during the con’s opening ceremonies and other events by majority white, largely male participants (the one black male could not help but seem like a token). This kind of cultural appropriation at a con already lacking in racial diversity was disconcerting, and the song’s dance club feel was also out of step with GeekyCon’s audience, who affiliate themselves more with pop and Broadway musical genres and aesthetics. GeekyCon is not lacking for songwriters among its performers; a more organic theme song would better encourage community building and affective response, which was notably lacking.

We can simply take away your stress and offer you a very interesting option – think of ‘do my essay for me online’ and get it done by professional writers. What do you think of it?

This sense of the con being literally out of tune with its audience was most obvious in its first-time use of an outside DJ at the annual Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball. Instead of focusing on current pop songs and fan favorites, the DJ offered often undanceable club music that this audience didn’t know. The ball’s finale also skipped the annual tribute to the staff that has been an important affective moment of community in past years. There were many complaining fan tweets during the ball about the music and, as a result, less participation and emotional involvement overall.

In addition, although organization leaders used the term “positive fandom” in relation to safe space, there was a distinct disconnect between their use of the term and panel presenters generally, who defined “positivity” primarily as a lack of negativity. This shift resulted in silencing rather than enabling the kind of social critique that has characterized past cons and was particularly detrimental in relation to the marked increase in white, presumably cis and straight men at this con. Therefore, the invocation of “positive fandom” often rang hollow because it primarily came from people who inhabit a position of privilege (it is easier to be positive when you are not under attack) and was often accompanied by their professed unwillingness to speak about issues such as rape/racism in fan texts because they “don’t have the authority” to do so. Thus, the con’s focus on “positivity” and lack of diversity often worked in tandem to enable the marginalization of representational and community concerns vitally important to these fans.

Although GeekyCon’s organizers never planned to be primarily a female space, they have embraced and benefited from the “girl power” ethos. Certainly, we have always found the con’s radical potential linked to its privileging of women and queer people. Although GeekyCon is currently experiencing the understandable growing pains of rebranding, we very much hope it won’t lose those elements that have made it such a valuable feminist space.


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“Any God Worth Believing in Sends You Dudes in Thongs When in Need”: Exploring Women’s Pleasure in Magic Mike XXL Fri, 17 Jul 2015 13:30:39 +0000 Magic Mike XXL adds new iconography to the intersectionally raced, gendered, and very classed pleasures found within the women's film through its attention to the centrality of women's sexual desires vis-à-vis the deployment of male bodies who serve to maintain that pleasure.]]> Post by Kristen Warner (University of Alabama) and Chelsea Bullock (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Facts about Magic Mike XXL: While there is a narrative structure, the exposition moves at the speed of light and is primarily embedded in passing conversation between two key transition scenes. There’s neither a dramatic beat nor realistic stakes. XXL is, as the character Richie (Joe Manganiello) repeatedly asserts, “the last ride.”

Yet if that is so, and the film is truly that simple,  what makes Magic Mike XXL one of the most fun and pleasurable films we have watched in years? You may think it was just the male bodies on screen body-rolling and enacting acrobatics that often defy gravity.

You would be partially correct.

But there’s more to it because men dancing in sexual manners on-screen, while certainly titillating, is not enough to mark a film like this as a wholly pleasurable experience. Instead, consider the premise that the male cast of XXL exist for two purposes: 1) their (homosocial) relationships with each other and 2) their sole determination to entertain at the pleasure of the women whose paths they cross. The men of XXL are not martyrs or altruistic saints; they are, however, representations of men women can imagine exist–agents activated solely for their pleasure.

What’s more is that these men vacillate between gently approaching and explicitly ravaging the desires of the women in the film, but always with an earnest conviction that honors rather than belittles those to-be-looked-at desires.

Bomer 2


Consider the scene in which Ken (Matt Bomer) joins in the chorus of women coaxing the middle-aged, white southern mama to contribute details about her marriage within the “cone of silence.” In a moment of vulnerability, she acquiesces and says that she and her husband haven’t had sex with the lights on, ever. Now embarrassed, she marshalls a happy memory of their favorite song, Bryan Adams’s “Heaven.” Ken responds with gentle empathy and breaks into an acapella solo of the song while holding her as she rests her head on his shoulder, indulging herself in this very public, yet, very intimate moment. It’s cheesy and undoubtedly draws cynicism alongside delight, but it’s representative of how the film never–for even a moment–allows irony or shame to mar an uncomplicated celebration of women’s pleasure.



Or consider the wedding (Lord have mercy that man in a tuxedo) performance at the aptly named “Stripper Convention” that ends with the bride strapped into a sex sling and Richie fully dominating the space around her. A palpable sexual energy emanates through the deft command he has over his body and the dynamic way in which he fills the stage, orbiting around the woman in the sling, as Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” reinforces the intense lust Richie has for his bride. Richie performs an aggressive kind of dominance but his focus is constantly on his beloved, his commitment to her pleasure unwavering.

These moments may seem a small matter but think about how rare women’s pleasure is instigated, indulged, or permitted in film or television. That women in XXL have the (welcomed) opportunity to stare–to gaze–at these men’s bodies without shame, mockery, or judgment is not something often seen or considered in mediated texts. The reverse, we know, is all too true.

So what does it mean when cinematographer Peter Andrews (a.k.a., Steven Soderbergh) frequently lenses central character Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) in shots with so little headroom that the majority of his face is cut out of the frame, allowing us to gaze only at his mouth?


‘Magic Mike XXL’ by Warner Bros. Pictures.

And what does it mean when the main cast visit Domina, a male entertainer establishment housed in a moss-covered plantation in Savannah, owned and operated by a Black woman named Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith) who services the pleasures of southern Black women of all shades, sizes, and ages with a steady stream of Black male bodies who also welcome being looked at?

And what does it mean that when the smart and cynical young white woman Zoe (Amber Heard) who more than likely stands in for a significant portion of the film’s audience–those girls dragged by friends to giggle at half naked men gyrating to Ginuwine’s “Pony”– feels down in the dumps about her “not so wise” life decisions that all Mike desires is to see her (and maybe us) get her/our smile back? [*]

The sincerity of these performances is a significant part of what we found remarkable about this film. As Kristen already argued, XXL makes it clear that writing characters with dimension and cultural specificity doesn’t have to be overwrought or difficult. Similarly, XXL offers a frame for and an articulation of women’s pleasure and desire that doesn’t diminish, degrade, or mock. The film is inherently playful, but that play smartly avoids defaulting to well-worn representations of women’s pleasures built upon their trivialization (we see you, The Bachelorette). XXL is what it looks like when grown-ass men pay real close attention, take grown-ass women at their word as fully engaged and sophisticated sexual beings, and consider women’s smiles as illustrations of satisfaction and pleasure rather than as a service to which they–as men or entertainers–are entitled.

Ultimately, what we saw in XXL were possibilities of adding new iconography to the existing lexicon to the way we as women media scholars discuss the intersectionally raced, gendered, and very classed pleasures found within the women’s film. In this instance, it is visible through its attention to the centrality of women’s sexual desires vis-à-vis the deployment of male bodies in the service of maintaining that pleasure. In the words of Rome, “It’s not bro time; it’s show time.” In XXL, the bros are always sincerely delighted to perform for women’s pleasure.


[*] And not in some creepy, patriarchal, “show me a smile cause you’re pretty when you smile” manner either. XXL resists a patriarchal position because the desire for smiles is not about reciprocity or a centering of male pleasure and desire. It’s about taking pleasure (whether Mike or Zoe) in women’s embrace of their own desires.


The Road Western: The Mad Max Series and its Latest Installment, Fury Road Fri, 19 Jun 2015 14:00:48 +0000 Mad Max series continues to be a cult classic, in part because it re-appropriates the western and the road movie and redeploys them to create an environmentally catastrophic vision of a future that we could create.]]> Post by Colleen Glenn, College of Charleston

The Road Warrior (1981), the second of George Miller’s Mad Max series, opens with a voiceover (The Feral Kid) explaining how a global war for fuel-toppled nations and decimated the earth, leaving only an empty wasteland, where survivors compete for precious resources in a life-or-death struggle. “Footage” depicts talking-head politicians, images of the massive war (uncannily familiar, as they resemble images from WWII), and, finally, the result: total anarchy, in which gangs terrorize the highways, killing innocent “civilians” for fuel. The sequence ends with an image of the film’s hero, Max (Mel Gibson), standing alone on the empty road in his boots and black leathers, larger-than-life in the boy’s memory. The latest installment of the series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), employs a voiceover at the film’s opening as well, but this time the voice belongs to Max (Tom Hardy), haunted by his dead daughter, as he explains the one remaining goal after the collapse of civilization: survival. Like Mad Max (1979) and The Road Warrior, Fury Road returns the franchise to the road and to its drivers, reinvigorating the cult series with forceful energy, spectacular chases, and breath-taking imagery.[i]

The Road Warrior (1981)

The Road Warrior (1981)

Though it’s a sci-fi-fantasy series set in the future, Miller’s films draw heavily upon conventions and motifs of the Hollywood western and the road movie, grounding the post-apocalyptic fantasy-nightmare plot in the familiar mythos of the American frontier, yet complicating and updating it in significant ways. It is that graceful melding of the past, present, and future—even in the low budget, sometimes-clunky original movies—that gives the imaginative Mad Max franchise its continuous import and allure.

Mad Max as Western

Much like the western cowboy hero, Max is a loner, a man with a violent past, who travels alone and acts according to his own moral compass, which eventually guides him to help the community of settlers who cannot adequately defend themselves. The series also employs the aesthetics and stage of the open frontier (noticeably bleaker in the Australian-made Max movies); villains who desire all of the resources for themselves (as in Shane (1953), complete with adoring boy); and the sense that it is in this open, unsettled space that our collective future will be determined. In Beyond Thunderdome (1985), the western motifs become paramount—and problematic—as Max encounters a sleazy, corrupt settlement and naïve, helpless tribal characters that resemble Native Americans/Aboriginals, with headdresses, spears, and mohawks.

Interestingly, the Mad Max movies have more in common with spaghetti westerns than Hollywood westerns. Far more cynical than Hollywood westerns, spaghetti westerns, primarily made by European directors in the 1960s and ’70s, are laden with irony and with quirky characters; feature tough-as-nails, anti-social anti-heroes (Max is even introduced as “The Man with No Name” in Thunderdome, a clear reference to Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone westerns); and tend to be highly violent, with endings that resist full resolution. The Mad Max series fits this rubric, with its nearly silent, stoic stars, oil rigs that turn out to be filled with sand, graphic displays of violence, and ambiguous conclusions that necessitate sequels. Like the spaghetti western, then, Miller’s series both borrows from and undermines its genre, in this case, the road film, toppling its ideology and offering a drastically bleaker vision of what the road represents.

Mad Max as Road Movie

In the Hollywood road movie, a direct descendant of the western, the open road substitutes for the American frontier. Like the West, the road in such films and texts (Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise, On the Road) promises opportunity, freedom, and renewal, though it rarely delivers on these promises. Traditional road films typically begin with a tremendous sense of excitement and energy as the drivers take the road (cue Steppenwolf), but end in horrific displays of death and destruction as the road becomes a site of danger or runs out altogether. Although the horrific destruction at the end of these American films may belie a sense of anxiety regarding unfettered freedom, the road does lead somewhere, and its travelers usually evolve along the way.[ii]

In the Mad Max series, however, the road appears more circular than linear, leading nowhere in particular, or sometimes right back to where it started, begging the question as to what purpose the journey—and the great death toll along the way—served. Stretching through a desert wasteland where few destinations remain in the post-apocalyptic landscape, the road in these films functions less as a path and more as a nihilistic, never-ending battlefield, where survivors of the global war compete for precious natural resources and the war boys gladly sacrifice their lives for the glory of Valhalla/God. In Miller’s first film, Mad Max, the road battles are even more gruesome, as a sociopathic biker gang (taking a page from Brando’s gang in The Wild One (1950)), kills and rapes along the highway for no other purpose than amusement.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Whereas in Hollywood road movies, the drivers run into danger when they get off the road (typically in the form of ignorant, dangerous rednecks, i.e., people who have not traveled enough), in the Mad Max films, as seen in the thrilling, grisly chase sequences, the protagonists are most vulnerable while on the road. But as there is nothing valuable off the road, the road remains the only impossible possibility, and the sense of the road as connecting places dissipates into an understanding of the earth as a nearly monolithic desert. In Fury Road, after discovering the Green Place is no longer habitable, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), taking Max’s advice, turns the rig around, retracing the hard-slogged steps to return to The Citadel, their original point of departure. Such pessimistic portrayals of the road across the series dismantle the Hollywood road film’s mythos of possibility, infusing the genre with grim, contemporary concerns regarding the downward spiral of environmental abuse and potential global annihilation.[iii]

Just as Miller’s first three films referenced the 1970s fuel crisis and predicted a global war for oil, Fury Road bears unmistakable allusions to the ongoing war in the Middle East, where the West is engaged in an interminable battle for influence—and fuel—against extremists waging a holy war. The road as battlefield rather than frontier alters not only the purpose of the journey, but also its travelers, who are more accurately warriors in Miller’s road films than drivers. Indeed, Aunty Emity (Tina Turner) calls Max a “soldier” at the end of Thunderdome (recall Max is a rogue Special-Ops cop in the first film). The series offers a gendered account of warfare and the roles men, women, and children play in warzones; updating this, Fury Road takes the feminist characters from the previous films and creates the strongest female warrior of the series yet, Furiosa, who, is equal to or even dominant to Max. The films also portray consequences of warfare, not just in the wasted landscape and the high body count, but also in the many orphaned children that populate the series, and in Fury Road, the female sex workers.

Praising Fury Road, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker recently claimed that the original series doesn’t hold up.[iv] But I don’t agree: while Thunderdome undeniably strayed too far from the formula, his comment overlooks the first two films, especially The Road Warrior, which remains, even after the latest installment, perhaps the strongest of the series because of its masterful pacing. Recognizing Road Warrior‘s superiority to the other two, Fury Road‘s creators stuck closest to it, keeping the dialogue to a minimum and adding beautifully stark scenery and a helpful explanation of the war boys’ devotion to their tyrannical leader and his cause. The series continues to be a cult classic not only because of its apocalyptic sci-fi scenario and delightfully campy aesthetics, but also because the series re-appropriates two strong generic traditions, the western and the road movie, and redeploys them to create an environmentally catastrophic vision of the future that we—and our shortsighted ideologies—could create.

[i] Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) took an unfortunate turn off the road, setting most of its story in settlements, and only resumes the compelling energy of the series during the final chase sequence.

[ii] For an in-depth analysis of the road movie and its evolution over time, see David Laderman’s Driving Visions (Austin: U of Texas P, 2002) and Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, The Road Movie Book (New York: Routledge UP, 1997).

[iii] Certainly, other road films, notably Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Paris, Texas (1984), portray the road as lacking hope, rather than promising it, but Miller’s series contains more specific, contemporary political allusions.

[iv] Anthony Lane, “High Gear: Mad Max: Fury Road,” The New Yorker, May 25, 2015,


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“They Repackaged It”: Technofuturism in Tomorrowland Mon, 01 Jun 2015 13:27:28 +0000 tomorrowland-movie1

Post by Li Cornfeld, McGill University

In an early action sequence of Tomorrowland, the new fantasy film from Disney, quirky proprietors of a Texas junk shop called Blast From the Past open fire with technologies of the future. The shopkeepers Ursula Gernsback (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo Gernsback (Keegan-Michael Key) wield glowing guns whose candy colored sparks rip through the ceiling; defeated, their bodies spontaneously combust. The murderous merchants were “AA units,” or “audio-animatronics,” explains a mysterious young girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy), moments after rescuing their intended victim (Britt Robertson) from the blast. Then she twists a screwdriver into a blue port on her own shoulder; Athena, too, is a robot. Futuristic technology might destroy the world, warns Tomorrowland, but it can also save it. In a return to Disney’s mid-century technofuturism, the movie implores audiences to choose optimism.

Tomorrowland’s resident optimist, a variant of Dorothy in Oz, is neither a good robot nor a bad robot; she’s Casey Newton, from Florida. With the help of Athena, and Athena’s old pal Frank, a jaded recluse played by George Clooney, Casey (Robertson) journeys to the otherworldly Tomorrowland, an alternate dimension colonized by an elite group of humans during the last century to foster accelerated advances in science and technology. Decades ago, for example, Tomorrowland discovered particles that permit a voyeuristic form of time travel; Hugh Laurie’s villainous Governor Nix sneers that on Earth, “physicists are still arguing over whether or not they exist.” A chance to glimpse technology of an immanent future, of course, was the promise of the original Tomorrowland, Disneyland’s futurist region from which the movie takes its name.


When the first Tomorrowland opened in 1955, its signature attraction, the TWA Moonliner, promoted the future by inviting tourists to participate in an imagined moon landing. (The Tomorrowland movie signals its investment in this midcentury vision of the future when it frames the dismantling of a NASA launching pad as the end of futurity.) A decade later, Tomorrowland acquired The General Electric Carousel of Progress, a 1964 World’s Fair attraction that took audiences on a tour of domestic life throughout the 20th century, culminating in a future of ease and leisure afforded by technological development. The Tomorrowland movie, whose earliest scenes take place at the 1964 World’s Fair, sets the atmosphere with the Carousel of Progress theme song, There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman, in a lovingly compiled memoir, recall that they wrote the song about Walt Disney himself, whom they describe as “an optimistic futurist,” dedicated to building a future that was “great, big, and beautiful.”

Tomorrowland bemoans the loss of that vision. Director Brad Bird, who co-wrote the script with Damon Lindelof, avoids self-conscious corporate references, and so while the mythologized spirit of Walt Disney pervades the movie, the man himself goes unmentioned. (“Audio-animatronics,” a Disney coinage, is perhaps oblique enough a reference to warrant inclusion.) When Frank speaks wistfully of his 1960’s childhood, before the future became “scary,” and when Nix charges that the people of earth “didn’t fear their demise—they repackaged it,” Bird surely intends to level the critique at what he perceives as a global culture of fear and resignation. Still, bracketing dubious nostalgia for the Cold War as an era without a politics of fear, we might consider how Disney’s own corporate history indexes a departure from space age optimism.


Disney expanded its investment in fantasy futuristic landscapes with the launch of EPCOT, a theme park adjacent to Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, in 1982. Modeled on the industrial futurism of a world’s fair, and centered around a domed “Spaceship Earth” that showcases communications technology “from the stone age to the information age,” EPCOT celebrated the same technofuturism that girded the development of the original Tomorrowland. Yet this second Orlando theme park also crystalized Disney’s abandonment of its earlier, ambitious vision: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was originally conceived as an industrial-residential community that would revolutionize America. (The futurist settlement of the Tomorrowland movie, with its gleaming central tower and elevated transportation systems, takes its design cues from the original EPCOT plans.) Opening EPCOT as a theme park, Disney committed itself to the creation of fantasy futures rather than to their realization. (“It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up,” laments Tomorrowland.)

By the mid-1990’s, Disney reversed its orientation to the future altogether: it reinvented Tomorrowland as “the future that never was,” a retro-futurist celebration of historical visions of “tomorrow” that failed to emerge. In an editorial that deemed the change “profound for a company whose founder was one of postwar America’s great popularizers of technology,” the New York Times worried that “as technology has entered lives, it has departed from many imaginations.” Curiously, the Tomorrowland movie likewise fails to fully imagine its own technofuturism. For all its exhortations to picture a better future, the movie never reveals much of what’s behind Tomorrowland’s shiny façade. Its most developed conception of Tomorrowland’s technological capabilities – also its most playful – are the audio-animatronic robots who make their way to Earth.

Audio-animatronics, too, have a long Disney history. Disney engineers began experimenting with lifelike robots in the mid-1940s, and by 1955, audio-animatronic animals populated Disneyland. Humanoid audio-animatronics made their debut at the 1964 World’s Fair, where Disney assured fairgoers “a final result so lifelike that you might find it hard to believe.” Even Disney detractor Richard Schickel would remark on the “astonishing fidelity” of the Fair’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Today, Disney promotional copy touts its remaining World’s Fair audio-animatronics as employing “Disney’s latest animation technology of the time,” an indication that, following the company’s midcentury robotic enthusiasm, audio-animatronics garnered little further attention—at least, until this summer’s release of Tomorrowland. When the movie pins its optimism on the development of fresh units of AA’s who will revitalize Tomorrowland, Disney casts its newest vision of the future in the mold of its own past.


American Sniper: Silence and Fury Thu, 12 Mar 2015 14:00:29 +0000 Post by Debra Ramsay, Research Associate, Technologies of Memory Project, Glasgow University

Following is the second installment in the series of fortnightly blogs “From Nottingham and Beyond,” featuring contributions from faculty in the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media and our alumni working in higher education or media industries in the U.K. and abroad. This week’s contributor, Debra Ramsey, completed her PhD in the department in 2012.

American sniper poster 2

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014) ends in silence.  No music plays over the last few moments of the film, or through the final credits.  When I saw the film in my local cinema just outside of London, the audience was also silent and remained in their seats for an unusually long time until slowly rising and filing for the exits.  There was remarkably little chatter as they did so.  I know that I didn’t speak until after we left the cinema, because I was trying to work out how I felt about the film.  I can’t be sure, of course, that others in the audience were similarly conflicted, but a brief survey of Twitter shows that the Staines Vue audience the night that I saw the film was not the only one to leave in silence:

Tweets1aYet the film is the center of a noisy and impassioned public debate in the U.S., a debate shaking loose opinions not only on Chris Kyle, the American Navy Seal on whose real-life experiences in the second Gulf War the film is based, and the conflict itself, but on the nature of warfare in general, the U.S. military, and even more broadly, American national identity and foreign policy.  American Sniper, according to Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell, is even more divisive than the war itself was for Americans.

In Iraq, the film also provoked controversy.  Fares Hilal, owner of the only multi-screen cinema in Baghdad, reluctantly pulled American Sniper from his screens after only a week, following complaints from Iraq’s Ministry of Culture that the film “insults” Iraqis.  Yet in an interview cited in The Washington Post, Hilal notes that “a lot of people wanted to see this film.”  Descriptions of at least one screening in which Iraqi audience members screamed “Shoot him!  He has an IED, don’t wait for permission!” as Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) hesitates before shooting a child who presents a possible threat to a U.S. patrol, and accounts of others who protested so vehemently at the same scene that they were forcibly removed from the theater provide some indication of the film’s ability to provoke contradictory responses.  U.K. audiences are in general more restrained and in my experience do not shout things at the screen, but the film polarized opinions here too.  Some argue that American Sniper is an “even-handed and thoroughly absorbing look at a morally ambiguous modern conflict,” while others see it as “dull” and lacking complexity.

What interests me about the “noise” that surrounds American Sniper internationally is what it reveals about the role of films and filmmakers in general, and of war films in particular, in today’s mediascape.  Following Seth Rogen’s tweet that the film reminded him of Stolz der Nation (Pride of the Nation), the film-within-a-film of a German sniper in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), the idea of American Sniper as “propaganda” surfaces frequently in discussions of the film.

Similar to Rogen, war correspondent Chris Hedges compares American Sniper to the “big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era” and calls it “a piece of propaganda, a tawdry commercial for the crimes of empire.”[1]  Descriptions of the film as “dangerous propaganda,” “pro-war propaganda” responsible for “brainwashing” Americans into waging war, and “recruitment propaganda for culture-war extremists” circulate in tweets, blogs and forums, where the general consensus appears to be that the box-office figures and the film’s current status as the most-pirated film not only in the U.S. but in a hundred other countries provide evidence of the film’s effectiveness in disseminating its propaganda message.  Those who see the film in this way identify a hatred of Iraqis in particular, and of Muslims in general, as central to that message, and frequently offer up these four tweets, originally collected in a screenshot posted by Rania Khalek, as evidence:



References to Nazi propaganda are revealing, because implicit in such critiques of American Sniper is a perspective of film reminiscent of that during World War II, a time when mass media were emerging as powerful phenomena, accompanied by the belief in their persuasive power over a mass audience.  To use a metaphor from the film itself, critiques that view American Sniper as militaristic propaganda also view the audience of the film as sheep, easily swayed and led into war and hatred.  Examined carefully, these tweets do not provide compelling evidence of American Sniper’s ability to influence and shape individual opinion, but are more suggestive of how the film is appropriated by those who feel it represents their existing ideological and political perspectives.  Unlike in Nazi Germany, these audience members are free to choose from a range of ideologies and political parties represented in myriad ways across a spectrum of media, which, arguably, makes their choice of hatred and bigotry even more abhorrent.

In contrast to those who say the film is propagating a specific political perspective of the war, there are those who maintain that it is not political enough and that it creates a view of war as narrow as that seen through a sniper scope.   Eastwood’s decision to adopt Kyle’s “philosophy” and perspective on “defending the country and defending the guys who are defending the country” means that the film does not engage with the reasons for the U.S. military presence in Iraq.  For some commentators, the film avoids discussing the forces that “put Kyle and his high-powered rifle on rooftops in Iraq and asked him to shoot women and children” and instead presents an “unnecessary” distortion of the “truth.”  Whereas Eastwood and scriptwriter Jason Hall felt their responsibility lay with representing Kyle and telling his story “right,” implicit in the critiques that accuse the film of distorting history is the idea that filmmakers have a moral obligation to interrogate the causes of the Iraq war.  There is no doubt that the war in Iraq is contentious, but the issue here is whether filmmakers have a duty to engage with that controversy, and if by not doing so they somehow lead viewers (and the sheep metaphor is apt here too) astray.  Surely dictating what truths about the war should be represented is precisely what leads to propaganda in the first place?  Luckily for the sheep, the popular press around the world stepped in to deliver the “truth” in various forms: the “truth” behind whether Chris Kyle “really” was a hero or not, the things that the film gets “wrong,” and the “true story” of Kyle’s life.  No discussion has focused on the responsibilities of these outlets, or on the possibility that the truths presented here are as filtered via media as the version of the war represented in the film.

The only way to tell a “true” war story, according to Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, is to keep telling it.[2]  Whether you feel that American Sniper is propaganda or that it fails to engage with ideological issues (and weeks after seeing the film, I still have not made my mind up about it), there can be no doubt that it reveals film’s power to catalyze debate.  Despite the recurrent theme in critiques of the film of the audience as sheep, because of American Sniper, many people through a range of different media across the world now analyze and discuss the Iraq war.  In other words, they are telling their own war stories.  And in that retelling, with all its ugliness, its fury, its passion and its spaces of silence, perhaps we can move closer to understanding the complexity of the “truths” of the conflict.


[1] Rogen has since denied comparing the film to Nazi propaganda, and maintains that he was simply comparing two films with similar plots, not making a political point.

[2] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (London: Flamingo, 1991), p. 80.


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Drive-Ins, and the Stubborn Usefulness of Film Nostalgia Tue, 11 Nov 2014 15:00:11 +0000 drive in theater

Interstellar (2014) made its well-known debut last weekend. In Chicago, the film (yes, we can still call it that) screened in its “intended” format of 70mm at the Navy Pier IMAX. Its appearance there and at other such venues was predictably celebrated by old school cinephiles as yet another defiant declaration of celluloid’s continuing value in a culture of cinema that has increasingly done away with the old medium. Meanwhile, just across the border in the nearby state of Wisconsin, the so-called “end of film” was also marked that same weekend by a very different, less celebrated, event—the closing of the Keno Drive-In in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for the season, and most likely, permanently. In many ways, this was a more apt snapshot of film today—as well as the value in fighting for it—than Christopher Nolan’s high-profile blockbuster.

The arrival of Interstellar did little more than reiterate that celluloid’s use going forward will largely be as a high-end, niche phenomenon (confined to museums more than IMAX). And the rhetoric around film’s aesthetic superiority, frankly, obscures as many important questions in the digital age as highlights (a debate which will continue being pointless given the endlessly shifting technology). But the closing of the Keno—one of hundreds closing down in the last month or so across the United States—is more representative of the digital transition’s impact on the economics of film. Like many independent theatres, drive-ins often cannot afford the expense of converting from older 35mm projectors to digital ones (to say nothing of imminent maintenance costs)—an issue the studios and several major chains have forced by going almost exclusively to distributing movies as Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs).

Honda-Project-Drive-in-Logo“Of the 366 Drive-in theatres left in the United States,” Variety reported in 2012, “only a handful have converted to digital projection; another 10% are expected to convert before this summer.” Last year, this led to “Project Drive-In,” a campaign funding by Honda to provide the funds necessarily for digital conversion to the rare few drive-ins that won a nationwide voting contest (a drive-in in nearby McHenry, Illinois, was one such lucky recipient).

The Keno wasn’t nearly as fortunate—though its situation is admittedly somewhat different. While the operators of the drive-in were willing to cover costs, the shift to DCP is forcing the issue of land repurposing (including the persistent rumor of a certain “Big Box” retail mega-store). The repurposing means that The Keno is a business which risks having a projector—but no screen.

Still the value of the many closing Kenos of the world are worth exploring further—and beyond just the reassuring nostalgia offered by loving tributes such as the Going Attractions (2013) documentary. The digital conversion reveals at least one darker truth underlying the too-often-utopic rhetoric of digital cinema—innovation is not making things “easier” or “cheaper” for most people involved in the many aspects of the movie business today. Studios save considerable expenses on distribution costs, of course. Lisa Dombrowski highlighted how the “digital [conversion] will produce an 80 per cent savings on direct releasing costs [. . .] (a digital print costs between $100 and $300, while a 35mm print averages $1200 to $2000 more).”

Yet these savings have not “trickled down” to the smaller theatres dependent on 35mm—or to the audiences that pay an increasing premium on all tickets. The same can be said of independent filmmakers and others who may benefit from short-term savings in production and distribution, but will also find it increasingly difficult to get recognized or obtain a livable wage. In short, as with all market shifts in the age of late capitalism, this is simply an unsustainable long-term, financial situation.

So, it’s easy enough to look at the rampant nostalgia today surrounding the drive-in’s imminent demise—where all but a small handful will soon be Wal-Marts—and dismiss it as little more than a wistful longing for a bygone era of Americana that’s neither here nor there. Indeed, that does seem to be the city of Kenosha’s “brand,” as it were—a former auto town, with its historic Women’s Professional Baseball League-era stadium, its four museums in a twelve-block radius, its boxcar diner, its countless drive-in restaurants, or its still functioning Streetcar system. But there is also value in how the nostalgia for New Deal liberalism can be less about returning to the past, and more about using that utopic sense of history to shape something better, something more viable, still to come.


New York Film Festival 2014, Part Four: The Reel Deal Wed, 15 Oct 2014 14:30:22 +0000 Foxcatcher, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and Clouds of Sils Maria.]]> NYFF-52-thumbnailBennett Miller likes to use newspaper stories as the jumping off point for his movies because, as he said at his press conference, journalism compresses important events for easy, quick comprehension and that tempts him to pry them open and reveal how incomprehensible they really are. He does just that in Foxcatcher, his fictionalized version of the troubled relationship between Olympic wrestling champion David Shultz and John Dupont, who opened up his very deep pockets during the 1980s to support the Olympic team. A similar desire is present in two other Main Slate films at NYFF 2014: Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a documentary made by Nick Broomfield, about a serial killer in South Central Los Angeles; and Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Oliver Assayas, a completely fictional feature about an actress preparing for a new role in more ways than one. There is a kind of genius in these films, each of which is a different adventure in storytelling. This year’s NYFF finished at the top of its game.

Foxcatcher takes its name from Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania, owned by the Dupont family, the location of Bennett Miller’s stunning tale of masculinity at the edge, childhood deprivation, and the disastrous magnification of personal instability by untold wealth. From the outset, surface appearances tease thought. The film opens on a man in a seedy gym doing battle with a leather object of humanoid shape. Who is he? What is the meaning of his fierce and desperate determination? What is the nature of his relationship with a man who soon takes the place of the dummy? What sport is involved here? Is it a sport? Is this a sports movie?

carell foxcatcher2The men in question are brothers, Mark and David Shultz, in order of appearance, and the questions inspired by this initial encounter correctly predict there will be many more generated by every encounter in the film. It doesn’t take long to discover that this is a story about Olympic wrestlers, but it is like no sports movie that has ever been made. The typical cinematic treatment of contact sports follows the linear pattern of the boxing movies of the 1930s-1950s which mandates that a champion-in-the-making triumph over some kind of pretty clear peril. Screenwriting 101. By contrast, Foxcatcher, with its slow, graceful, accumulation of the pieces of its collage, unfolds to reveal the separate, various, and never entirely clear, underlying motivations of Mark and David Shultz, and John Eleuthere Dupont, in their collective determination to bring home Olympic gold. When the final shot fades, the big picture of the events that transpire, which I will not reveal in the hope that you will come to this amazing film with fresh eyes, remains a morass of idealism, emotional disturbance, and uncontrolled love and rage.

The cast is flawless. Channing Tatum, as Mark Shultz, fills the screen with the almost unbearable vulnerability of a slow thinking, physically powerful man who will always remain the neglected child he was. Mark Ruffalo, as David Shultz, a product of the same neglect, radiates the hard won warmth and competence of a man who inexplicably retained his capacity to give and receive love despite his virtual abandonment by his parents. Magically, the two actors convey the viscerality of these wrestlers in two different keys, like a pair of musical motifs threading a complex score. But it is Steve Carell, an actor synonymous with light comedy, who turns in the performance of the year, and of his life to date, as John Dupont, the quietly twisted heir to a family fortune that is about as old as the United States itself. Dupont’s body language bespeaks a man who craves but fails to achieve a “manly” physical existence. His every appearance in the film—and he is on screen often—would be extremely funny if it weren’t so savagely threatening simply because Dupont clearly has no idea who he is underneath his platitudinous old money American optimism that if you enter a competition confidently, you will win. In many ways, he is one of the most desolate characters ever to appear onscreen.

As is evident, Foxcatcher is dominated by men, and yet the presence of Dupont’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), and David Shultz’s wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller) are indispensable to any understanding of what is roiling beneath the surface. This is particularly true of Jean Dupont. Redgrave appears in three brief scenes and says very little in any of them, but the tenor of her powerful presence makes you feel that she is the wordless explanation, if one could only read it, of what has made her son the way he is. Similarly, somehow we come away feeling that we have witnessed not only personal histories, but the history of the United States, a bellwether for the future—unless there is something we can glean from these tormented souls that will help us to do better.

GrimSleeperNew1Equally pregnant with subtext is Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a model of ethnographic documentary, reflecting Broomfield’s training by documentarian Colin Young at the National Film School in Great Britain to be respectful when venturing onto the territory of groups wary of outsiders. Investigating the twenty-five year career of mass murderer Lonnie Franklin Jr., Broomfield was challenged to find a way to gain the trust of one of the most understandably mistrustful areas of the city. He came into South Central Los Angeles with his camera at the end of Franklin’s long rampage that the police did nothing to stop and his investigation makes clear that the department was monumentally lax because it had simply written off the black population. Ask the women of The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders. The police dismissed their concerns saying in so many words that the “Grim Sleeper’s” victims were “only hookers.” (Their slang term for black-on-black crime was NHI, No Humans Involved.) Yet if the police had bothered to ask almost anyone who lived on Franklin’s street, they would have had abundant evidence to stop him in the early years of his rampage.

Broomfield found the evidence within a period of weeks. Shooting the documentary without a script, he let the facts determine the film’s structure, and as facts emerge the attitudes of the people of South Central begin to change visibly toward Broomfield’s questions. Discovering that someone actually cares about what is going on, three men who began by vigorously defending Franklin request follow-up interviews to confide highly incriminating information about him. Even more important, Broomfield gains the trust of Pam, a woman who had been an independent (pimpless) street prostitute for many years and was able to encourage the people she knew to talk candidly on camera.

The revelation of Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and its subtext, is not police malfeasance, however, but the dignity of so many invisible, all but dispossessed Americans. The dignity with which they discuss their lives and the lives of the people around them is shattering. They exhibit far less tendency to denial and self-deception than many of the fortunate, highly visible Americans we see daily on the news. As the case against Franklin becomes more and more substantial, we increasingly understand the irony and resilience with which his neighbors fight to maintain their self-respect while the legal system drags its feet. It is impossible to watch unmoved. I have heard, with disgust, some privileged Americans voice the opinion that such people are better off dead. Broomfield’s film only strengthens my belief that they have no self respect. They love only their affluence, not the human essence that is the sole point of pride of the people to whom Broomfield introduces us.

1e750a89febd0e1494394fcc892b70f5Finally, we turn to Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, an incandescent portrait of aging, creativity and the complex interplay of motives among women. Did you know that there is a valley in the Swiss Alps, over which the clouds roll in the shape of a serpent every morning? This is the key image in Assayas’ film, but like everything else in it, the metaphor will not reveal itself effortlessly to you. And I won’t either. You have to work.

The story is simple. Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a highly intelligent actress at the peak of her career, is traveling with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart—yes, THE Kristen Stewart, who, it turns out, can really act) to accept an award on behalf of the reclusive playwright who penned the play that twenty years previously made her a star. En route, she receives news of his death and soon after gets an intriguing offer.

Her breakout role long ago was as Sigrid, a conniving vixen who seduces her boss, Helena, a mature woman unsure of what approaching old age holds for her, in an “All About Eve” ploy to replace her. Maria is now asked to star in a new production of the play, but in the role of Helena. Assayas, Binoche, Stewart, and Chloe Moretz, as Jo-Ann Ellis the “wild child” Hollywood actress who will play Sigrid in the new production, brilliantly weave the threads of desire, ambition, artistry, and anxiety that intertwine in the subtext under these events.

Who, we begin to wonder, is manipulating whom, as Maria struggles to enter into the emotions of a character who is roughly in the same daunting position she faces in her own life? It seems that all the power is on the side of the young women, and that Maria is now living the victimization of Helena. But possibly not. There are indications that, all appearances to the contrary, Maria is masterfully drawing the young women into her web, in order to use them off-stage to find her on-stage character. The final twist, however, is that no matter how well she parries the competition, the implacable truth of approaching old age remains. Maria cannot escape THAT through art. This is a wondrous film that will not get nearly enough distribution, even in art houses. Catch it while you can; you’ll be missing a small masterpiece if you don’t.

Same time, next year at NYFF 2015? AntennaCinemaJournal-300x1191

This post is part of an ongoing partnership between Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media
Cinema Journal.


No Place Like Home? Women on the “Outside” in Hindi Cinema Tue, 14 Oct 2014 14:30:22 +0000 The wave of recent blockbuster releases with women-oriented themes in Hindi cinema share a common fixation with condemning exploitative patriarchal structures and the boundaries of marriage and motherhood for women in the home. At target here, ironically, is the Indian middle-class family, historically the intended audience for Hindi cinema and the institution that has most preoccupied the social and nationalist agendas of popular film.

However, films like Highway (dir. Imtiaz Ali, 2014) and Queen (dir. Vikas Bahl, 2014) share more than a rejection of domestic roles for women. They problematize the interior space of the home as a place both dangerous and oppressive while valorizing the outside/public as an emancipating space for performing women’s agency. While superficially this yields little surprise, it acquires added resonance in the context of India’s current position in the global media spotlight on women’s safety and sexual violence. The Delhi gang rape in 2012 has come to iconicize women’s struggles for gender equality, independence, and livelihood as women enter the public sphere in growing numbers in India. The gravity of the situation is indicated by statistics; a 2013 nationwide poll conducted by India Today International reports that 54% of Indian women do not feel safe going out alone (4 February 2013, 25). In a heavily mediatized political scenario where the increasing visibility of women outside the home is the core pivot of debate about social change, these films dispute the “outside” as a predatory arena for women while necessarily interacting with this discourse. Each film begins with the alienation of its female protagonists and their imminent peril when venturing beyond the home. In Highway, the protagonist Veera is gruesomely kidnapped by a group of men on a late-evening ride with her fiancé in a transparent reference to the incidents of the Delhi rape. In Queen, the eponymous character is rejected by her fiancé after a florid courtship that parodies the idealized tropes of heterosexual romance in Hindi cinema. Her delusions of love shattered, she takes advantage of an already-purchased honeymoon vacation only to find herself traumatized and alone in Paris – whose foreign streets are initially terrifying.

Ultimately these narratives come full circle by placing their characters on a trajectory of self-discovery that allows them to realize their own subjectivity – within limits. In both films the protagonists alternate between a circumscribed set of representational possibilities for women in Hindi cinema. At once victims of their circumstances, each heroine is notable for her naivety that is as much a source of pathos as a mode of vicarious pleasure. In Highway, we witness the heroine express her feelings for the first time in the company of her captors, who (as it turns out) are concerned only with ransom and not her sexual vulnerability. This irony is exacerbated by the whimsical attitude that emerges as she “adapts” to her situation, engaging a romantic bond with the gang’s leader to the point that she refuses to escape when granted the opportunity. In the process she reveals her sexual abuse since childhood by an uncle at home that sets up a meaningful contrast between the open landscapes, mobility and psychological freedom she experiences on her journey and the forbidding domain of middle-class domestic patriarchy. The latter turns out to be more egregious than the kidnappers’ otherwise overt act of repressive violence.

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This conflict between interior and exterior is equally pronounced in Queen as the character is empowered to act independently for the very first time – and as far away from home as possible, where the suffocating expectations of marriage and family life seem to overwhelm any sense of agency. Like Veera in Highway, Queen’s disarming innocence enables her to navigate transgressive situations in a way that is minimally threatening to conventional moral constraints on women’s sexuality, even as the audience remains cued in to various implicit pleasures. Queen stumbles onto Amsterdam’s red light district, shares a hostel bedroom with three boys, gets drunk and attends rock concerts while emerging with her chastity and sense of wide-eyed wonder unscathed. Even the prospects of a same-sex romance with a beautiful and openly erotic friend fully elude her. Her experiences in the foreign, urban settings of Paris and Amsterdam represent allegorically the challenges and liberties women face on the “outside” in a newly globalized India with expanding opportunities for personal fulfillment. Significantly, both films conclude on a similar note, featuring solitary shots of each woman outdoors and on her own that suggest an open-ended future unmoored by conjugal romance and family obligation. Not only is the “outside” safe, it is also the primary outlet for women to transform their lives.

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The Hindi film industry clearly has a heavy stake in political debates over women’s public safety, bearing the brunt of popular accusation over the objectification of women’s bodies onscreen. Highway and Queen resist women’s visual presence – and sexuality – as a social liability. This is enforced by each text’s conscious use of the dance sequence as an act of self-liberation (rather than sexual spectacle) for their characters. Each contains scenes of the protagonists dancing defiantly for their own pleasure that obstructs the representation of women’s bodies as complicit objects of a prurient gaze. Spontaneous, carefree and mockingly seductive, the women use their bodies as an index of personal expression and not sexual availability.

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However, what is most telling about these two films are the processes of displacement the narratives use to deflect an authentic engagement with the issue of women’s rights. The trials and redemptions these characters face are individual, not political, and are mitigated by the standard coming-of-age plotlines and melodramatic devices of commercial storytelling, with family and romance remaining obligatory entry points for considering women’s agency. From media profiling of gender-based violence and discrimination to the active participation of women in the civic sphere, the intersecting realities of women on the “outside” in India are not so easily polarized as Veera and Queen’s victories of independence.