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Beauty and the Beast as a Feminist Tale

It bothers me so much when people say that Beauty and the Beast is about Stockholm Syndrome. It is about a girl’s love for her father and being able to look beyond appearances — and about how amazing books are. The Beast has lessons to give too. He is a symbol of self-loathing toxic masculinity who then discovers what true masculinity, bravery, and selflessness involve.

Read the original post on Medium.

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Chamber Horror: A New Film Subgenre

Chamber theatre is a style of theatrical production in which there is typically little to no set (and any set pieces are moved by performers as part of the show), and the emphasis is on the text and character development rather than on theatrics and special effects. One of the best known examples is the chamber drama 12 Angry Men, in which all of the action occurs within a single room where jurors deliberate over a man’s fate. Naturally, this format evolved into film, where small-scale, low-budget films emphasized dialogue and character dynamics — usually, tension and conflict—over big and showy cinema.
Small-scale and low-budget? Sounds perfect for horror filmmakers! I jest, of course… there are some high-budget chamber horror films, as I’ll discuss below. Yet the chamber style empowers the horror genre to tap into its philosophical roots: what does it mean to be human? what does it mean to be good … or evil?

Read my analysis of chamber horror films on Medium.

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TV’s Quirkiest Villains

We all look to Disney movies for the villains we love to hate, such as Hades or Scar, and we’ve been blown away by some of TV’s complex antagonists, such as The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy or half the characters in Game of Thrones. Yet some of the best TV villains are the ones who aren’t particularly tortured or ambiguous, but the ones who are clearly bad news, but adorable anyways.

Read my list on Medium.

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Does the Media Control Our Minds?

Science fiction has long explored, and warned of, our obsession with media and its power to control our thoughts. As propaganda efforts successfully encouraged complacency among citizens of Nazi-led Germany, as countless Americans today willfully consume fake news, these concerns seem justified. Even Black Mirror has done its part to control our behavior, making some of us (ahem) sit for hours to finish the episode “Bandersnatch.” It appears that we’re simply unwitting sheep dragged along by the crook of mass media.

But does propaganda really motivate people to do things they wouldn’t normally do? Can people really not tell the difference between reality television and reality? Do violent video games cause shooting sprees? Can someone be programmed with a musical trigger to assassinate someone? Are we being controlled by social media?

Let’s find out.

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Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.

 

Related: Activist Filmmaking

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Public and Visual Anthropology (Research Update)

Snapshots of upcoming guest lecture for a section of the Sex Roles in Cross-Cultural Comparison course at the University of Florida:

The problems with women and Hollywood include massive underrepresentation (TV, however is ahead of the curve, and certainly the better for the likes of Fey and Rhimes), a body-image obsession that pigeonholes actresses and largely limits positive roles to “sexy” roles, the assumption that movies need to be drafted for and marketed to each sex, and poorer odds for women to move into executive positions, financially or creatively.

Some films count on a female vote and aren’t ashamed to show it. Consider the fuzzy yellow trailer for “The Help” featuring witticisms by the black leads and a plucky score (a far cry from the actual tone of the film), or the sexy, glittery trailers for “Magic Mike” and “Sex and the City 2”; others are projected to attract men but include images of shirtless men in their trailers, presumably to encourage the wives and girlfriends to come along. Obviously, the equation of female moviegoers’ interest with their desires for friendship  with women and sex with men is as problematic as the equation of female actors’ and filmmakers’ success according to their perpetuation of female stereotypes of personality and social worth. Either way, there are significant economic and psychological impacts on those women who love film. They are neither as uniform in their approach nor singular in their interests nor small in number as andocentric Hollywood would suggest.

Edit: See the final presentation.

See also my essay on institutional sexism and feminism over at Confluey, and my prezi on violent female characters.

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The Impossible: How Important Is Ethnicity in “True Story” Films? (LINK)

The Oscar-nominated The Impossible has received a lot of flak for casting white British actors in the story of a Spanish family who experienced the 2004 tsunami while on vacation in Thailand. Accusations of racism, disinterest, and simply lack of trying have been hurled at the (Spanish) production team. According to this article on HuffPost,

Though perhaps seemingly a bit harsh, the real answer might not be that far off. When asked by the Spanish daily El Mundo about the reason why he didn’t cast Spanish actors for his film, Bayona admits it all came down to one factor: money.

“I would have loved to tell this story with Spanish actors. We tried, but it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors. The first version of the screenplay was written in Spanish and then we realized that 80% of the dialogue was also in English. So it was natural that we chose European actors who speak English. But, without revealing the nationality of the protagonists. This is not a film of nationality, race or social class. All that was swept by the wave,” the director said.

Once again we see the conflict between marketing needs and cultural realism. Is the film dishonest or harmful for using white actors, in particular British actors, considering that the tsunami affected areas formerly part of the British Empire? How different would the film have been if Spanish actors had been cast? Is it possibly to successfully promote a film in an international market using unknown (read:non-white) actors? I would note that The Life of Pi did not turn its main character white.

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The Role of Competition in American Movies (LINK)

This short essay on Sociological Images discusses a trope in American film. As a capitalistic society, one would expect themes of competition and conquest to dominate our culture. Interesting, isn’t it, how the predestined fate of the tragic hero has been supplanted by the possibility for absolution, based upon social conquest?

 In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.  But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems.

via The Role of Competition in American Movies » Sociological Images.

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Activist Filmmaking

The Amazon rainforest, the sweaty locale of many films, both entertainment and documentary, has many connotations: mystical, dangerous, exotic, native, prehistoric, medicinal, potent, endangered. It is constructed, often as an important area of concern to ecologists and anthropologists, in both news and entertainment media. Some examples of the latter, like Anaconda, have little to offer to society beyond cheap entertainment; others, like Fern Gully, are blatantly pro-environmentalism and conservation (“hippie propaganda,” as one of my more cynical friends puts it). The Amazon certainly deserves special consideration and protection: it is not only a garden of extreme biodiversity, but an important medical and bioregulatory source, and, of course, the home of many peoples.

The Amazon’s size and wealth has called itself to the attention of both those who would exploit it and those who would exoticize it. A prime subject for the curious ethnographer, the Amazonian natives live off the land, showing great mastery of their complex environment, and moreover have shown remarkable political interest and talent. Terence Turner is hardly the only ethnographer to explore the latter; in the early 1990s Joe Kane lived among the Huaorani in Ecuador, and gave voice to one named Moi, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with Kane to speak for the Huaorani whose homes had been devastated by oil development and spills. (Incidentally, Moi also visited my university by request of my professor, who had met him through a colleague.)

The documentation of the problems of damming, deforestation, oil extraction, poaching, and drug trafficking in the Amazon has been shared by anthropologists, biologists, human rights activists, and journalists; yet this essential information, while well-distributed, seems to have not yet supplanted the dual exoticization of and disengagenement from the Amazon. From informal observation of my conversation partners, even people who identify as “eco” or “concerned” aren’t aware of much going in the Amazon besides “deforestation” and “it’s big.”

Although the eco-minded family movies of the 90s and early 00s (Fern Gully, Free Willy, Finding Nemo, to name just a few) have given way to disaster and apocalyptic movies with an ecological twist (The Core, The Day After Tomorrow), the impact of either type of film is something to consider. The label of “hippie propaganda” might not be inaccurate (and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a bad thing).

From a post by Turner:

[I]n a march in Brasilia on April 12 [2010] that targeted all the government ministries implicated in approving the plan for Belo Monte [a new dam in the Kayapo’s region], and called for the cancellation of the project […] they were joined by James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, and members of the cast of the film.

There are clear parallels between the battle of the fictional indigenous people against the attempt by a giant corporation to extract precious minerals from their planet, modeled on the Amazon rain forest, and the struggle of the inhabitants of the Xingú valley against the damming of their rivers to generate power, much of which is intended for the production of minerals such as aluminum for export. In both cases, the collateral damage of the extractive projects threatens to destroy the ecosystem and way of life of the native people, and in both cases, they resist.

Cameron visited the site of the planned Belo Monte dam, and some of the indigenous villages that it would affect, in March of this year, and was so struck by the similarities in their situation with that of the Navi of his film that he committed himself to support their movement against the dams. His return to Brazil with members of the cast on April 12, 2010, to take part in the march in Brasilia, was a public affirmation of his support for their cause. Sigourney Weaver, of the Avatar cast, later led a similar march in New York against the Xingú dams.

One might dismiss the stars’ involvement in such causes as mere face time, an attempt to shine their images, but that Cameron borrowed from generic struggles of the Amazonian people, and then found his (very heavy-handed) eco-propaganda film validated to the point that he was moved to further action, is a very nice conflation of life and art. Avatar, once linked with a real-world corollary, moved from an alien fantasy to a de-exoticized pseudo-documentary (a similar treatment was more intentionally given to District 9, a human rights parable and pseudo-documentary of South African apartheid, wearing the skin of a sci-fi flick).

Cameron’s involvement, as well as Weaver’s, can only help the cause, even if it cannot stop Belo Monte (the construction of which was just reinstated by the Brazilian Supreme Court). As for would-be eco-propagandists, a good rule is to get as close to the real-world while being as unreal as possible, because I’m guessing it sometimes takes talking animals and giant blue people to get people out of their head.

Cross-posted on Confluey.

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The Internet vs. the Studios in the Success and Marketability of Movies

In the golden age of Hollywood, movie producers were largely responsible for obtaining funding and personnel for productions; within the confines of the studio system and without a big-name producer (or a member of the United Artists), a screenplay would rarely be realized into a movie. From the mid-1940s to the present, the output of independent filmmakers has increased tremendously, and the dissolution of the studio system allowed more people to break into the industry; films produced independently could even be distributed by a major studio.

Sadly, the same thing has not happened for television. There, producers are still largely responsible for creative output; a pilot script must be pitched to network executives, if not coming from within the company, and production remains in the company’s hands. Worse, a show’s success is largely determined by Nielsen ratings, an increasingly flawed measure of consumption (and, implicit in sustained numbers, enjoyment).

Naturally, with the rise of video publishing websites and social networks, there are a number of Web shows that are independently produced and distributed. Some, like “The Guild,” are highly acclaimed and well-suited to their medium.

There have been a few experiments in crossover: in 2008, during the writers’ strike, producer Joss Whedon went indie with “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” After streaming as a web mini-series, the show was distributed by iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and eventually on DVD through Amazon.com and New Video Group. This summer, the show was picked up for rerelease on the The CW network. Despite high consumption online and in DVD sales, the rating for the broadcast, on Oct. 9, 2012, was a paltry 566,000 viewers. While it may be said that fans of the show already had digital or hard copies and didn’t need to tune in, it’s more likely that “Dr. Horrible” was simply more suited to viral distribution. It does raise questions about the marketability of network TV shows in the reverse direction.

Or for that matter, of studio projects to viewers before their production. Acclaimed director David Fincher is attempting to recruit the media-hungry Internet masses to an avenue traditionally not open to the public: funding a movie production. Unable to get studio backing for an adaptation of The Goon and unable to fund it himself, Fincher has turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource the funds:

So far the project has just shy of 2,500 backers raising about $162,000 with 19 days left to raise the funds. In response to the question of why Fincher does not just fund it himself, Miller said: “Hollywood is filled with the ‘vanity projects’ of successful movie stars and producers. It really is not as easy to get a film made no matter who you are.”

If Fincher succeeds, the line between the studio-made and the homegrown will be irreversibility blurred. TV, however, remains firmly stratified.