IMG_4218-copy

Dystopian TV Shows and Films: An Introduction

Dystopian settings have been a staple of speculative and science fiction for over a century. While Jules Verne was penning his tales of great feats of engineering, incredible new worlds, and the future of human expression and technology, H.G. Wells envisioned bleak scenarios of alien takeovers, the division of the human race, the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, and the dangers of genetic modification. A few decades later, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell wrote stories of oppression and destruction set in postwar, tyrannical regimes. High school students may not have appreciated their teachers’ efforts to introduce them to these cautionary tales, but as the apocalypse obsession gains steam, doubled with an uprising of dystopian and postapocalyptic TV shows and movies, one wonders what the demand for and popularity of these stories indicate about the American and British states of mind, and why science fiction in particular has largely shifted in the past twenty-odd years from triumphant tales of resistance to invasion (“Independence Day,” the latter two “Alien” films) and exploration of new worlds and species (“ET,” “Contact”), to despairing stories of crumbling societies (“V for Vendetta”), overwhelming paradigm shifts (“Children of Men”, “Minority Report”), and incredible biological (“28 Days Later”) and environmental destruction “(“Waterworld”). While not all of these films involve a major event of destruction, they all involve a complete change in the fundamental nature of the world, and, often, the revelation of underlying truths, which is the etymological meaning of “apocalypse” and the purpose of most speculative fiction.

As Rapturists secure post-Rapture arrangements for their pets, 2012 enthusiasts piddle away their savings in anticipation of the end times, and extremist conspiracy theorists stock their fallout shelters, anxiety about the apocalypse, whether or not it is followed by dystopia, makes for hot news, yet isn’t limited to the “nutjobs.” The popularity of what we might call “downfall news,” such as the now infamous Miami face-eating attack, and the constant stream of horrible stories involving rapes and murders, is plainly demonstrated even in sources as mundane as Yahoo!’s “Top Emailed Stories” feed. The fictional apocalypse and the chronicles of the days thereafter have broad appeal: children’s movies, “Wall-E” and the “Ice Age” franchise’s increasingly apocalyptic content, blockbusters like “2012” and “Battle: Los Angeles,” science fiction drama-thrillers such as “Gattaca” and “Daybreakers,” the endless stream of zombie apocalypse entertainment, the Katniss novels, and TV shows such as “Revolution,” “FlashForward,” “Terra Nova,” and “The Walking Dead.” Even the past season of “Dexter” and the current season of “Glee” involve characters who are Rapture-obsessed.

I would suggest that this prevailing interest stems not only from an urge to caution in an age where widespread environmental degradation and the threat of nuclear warfare are a part of the global reality, but an sense of disenchantment and isolation and the desire to experience a unity of humankind, even if through traumatic events. I have heard many critics complain that post-apocalyptic entertainment focuses on the trials of a small group of people, especially if they are all white/related/rich/etc., but this is done not only for production realities, but as a reflection of the viewer’s primary frame of reference…”What would I do? What connects me to this event?” In the end, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world needs to be accessible to the pre-apocalyptic, not-utopian viewer: a sense of cynic detachment can only be resolved through the catharsis of moral certainty and confident survival attained through this genre of fiction.

IMG_4218-copy

Intellectual Discussion, Smart Entertainment…Dead and Gone?

Check out this stirring article on the death of theatregoing culture and the rise of new media. A couple of excerpts.

Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it’s a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture.

One could argue that, in our era of consumer capitalism, films have been revealed as manufactured commodities rather than works of art, and people root for certain film franchises or producers or studios in the same way they root for Apple over Samsung, GM over Ford, or the Red Sox over the Yankees.

IMG_4218-copy

Videoblog: “Prima Donna”

Here it is… the final cut of Prima Donna, for which I designed and built costumes, did on-set makeup, and decorated the set alongside production designer Josh Warden. Filmed in Tampa, FL, we didn’t get the sun we wanted but the lush woods around Lutz look great. In case you can’t tell by the wear-and-tear on costumes and makeup, it was pretty darn hot. Still, I think everything turned out very well.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/33943775 w=400&h=225]

Prima Donna (2011) from Laurie Thomas on Vimeo.

IMG_4218-copy

Bros before hos…so fros before ros.

Much was said about the bromance in “I Love You, Man,” released in 2009. There have been “buddy cop” movies for years, but they focused on comical pairings playing on racial and class stereotypes. Similarly, movies featuring groups of male friends have typically focused on those guys’ sexual and other adventures (e.g. “American Pie,” “Clerks”). Few movies actually explored the development and minutiae of male friendship, despite scores of movies exploring female friendships, so “I Love You, Man” was somewhat of a landmark as well as an endearing film. In the film, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd, playing against type) is a “girlfriend guy” who’s never really been into testosterone rituals typical of the “guy world.” Rather, he’s inclined to chat with female coworkers and invest time and energy in cooking and fencing rather than binging and playing football. He’s also painfully socially awkward around other men. Frustrated that he’ll be without a best man at his wedding, he goes on a friend hunt, and although the writers draw amusing parallels between this and the frustrations of dating, his search is taken seriously enough that we the audience are forced to consider our own experiences with friendship. As we watch Peter evaluate the people he hangs out with, we see the reasons they’re wrong for him as clearly as we see the reasons the random dates of the protagonists in romantic comedies are wrong for them. Clearly, we are normally so focused on the trials of dating, we forget about the perhaps more important and more painful work that both blooming and enduring friendships require. “I Love You, Man” makes us turn the mirror on our friendships and wonder why we agonize about making this one “The One,” but let friendships just happen and take them for granted when we have them. Why don’t we evaluate our friendships for compatibility and health as we do our potential mates?

So why do we settle for friends in our own lives? Friendship should be natural and rich, just like the relationships we seek. The moment we meet Sydney Fife (the always amazing Jason Segel) and see his interaction with Peter, we know they’re perfect for each other. It’s not just a (b)romantic comedy cliché—in our own lives we’ve all met people with whom we hit it off right away, while other friends we have to evaluate and second-guess in every second of conversation. A bad friendship is just like a bad relationship: You fight more than you get along, discussions are artificial and one-sided, and you aren’t quite sure you can trust them not to hurt you. Everyone should ask themselves about everyone they spend time with, “Why is this person in my life?” I appreciate “I Love You, Man” for showing what true friendship is. Sydney accepts Peter for who he is, and doesn’t cut him down or punish him for his shortcomings (“I still want to hang out, despite that joke”), and doesn’t measure him for what he can provide him, unlike Jon Favreau’s character Barry, who dislikes Peter simply because he isn’t interested in poker and beer. Sydney encourages Peter to believe in himself and acknowledges his strengths and talents while still offering suggestions for improvement. Any friendship or relationship should enrich one’s life, bring one’s most positive aspects to the surface, and give one a safe outlet for self-expression through companionship.

On the other side of things, and a rather alarming reflection of the current attitudes towards female friendship, is a film released in 2008, “The House Bunny.” While intended to be a cute movie about growing up and girl power, the movie has but one message: Female friendships are conducted superficially and are based on material changes in one’s life. A far cry from excellent films about female friendship such as “Thelma and Louise,” “The House Bunny” follows the story of Shelley, a former Playboy bunny who becomes house mother to a group of socially awkward, ugly Zetas. While Peter is socially awkward around other men, he is a good-looking, intelligent, and successful real estate agent and talented musician, and doesn’t need to be saved by some champion of popularity. By contrast, the Zetas are all defective in some way, whether it’s with extreme geekiness, personal hygiene, androgynous appearance, or handicap, and it takes flighty and pampered but good-hearted Shelley to increase their confidence and make them “winners.” The movie pretends it’s championing confidence, not makeovers, but the two are equated, and worse, the friendships among the Zetas and Shelley is based upon this. Shelley is their friend because she makes them beautiful and gets them dates. She doesn’t bring out their better selves, she raises their self-esteem by applying to them her own standards of beauty and dating.

In a world of various celebrity “frenemies” and feuds among famous women, and with increasing awareness of female bullying, it is clear that female friendship needs attention. Now I don’t intend to imply that male friendship is doing well while female friendship is suffering. But the prevalence of female, as compared to male, friendship as a topic of movies and TV shows, doesn’t mean that female friendship is healthy, either. “Girlfriends” are consistently portrayed as involving discussion of fashion, boys, and beauty, and friendships between women of different “levels” in these domains are rarely portrayed. We more often see the swan taking the ugly duckling under her wing, than we do two birds of a different feather just enjoying a friendship.

“The House Bunny” demonstrates very clearly the unhealthy notions of self-worth bred by popularity contests in grade school—a process that never really goes away for men or women. I believe this is why friendships are often treated as things to collect and then dispose of; in school, children are ridiculed if they have “only a few friends,” while the “popular” kids are liked by everyone and thus are spoken of as though they are idols. Countless teen movies have expounded upon this idea, and countless movies regularly use the stereotypes and rules of grade school to cast characters and derive plots. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint Peter as the geeky outsider who doesn’t get along with the “real boys,” or even as the sensitive male of ambiguous sexuality. Peter is a real character, while Emma Stone’s Natalie in “The House Bunny” is a shade, a two-dimensional representation of the geek girl who can’t get guys with her own merit. Shelley may be ignorant of this fact, but the screenwriters certainly were not.

What I hope is that popular culture doesn’t reflect social reality as neatly as it represents it. I hope that most friendships aren’t conducted so superficially, or held onto or let go for selfish reasons. I myself and people close to me have experienced bullying, taunts of “you don’t have any friends,” and general meanness from people we thought were friends, and have had friendships dropped as soon as the “benefits” of friendship were no longer clear. Most of this has come from women. I encourage everyone to consider and choose their friendships carefully, and to invest in people who make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves, rather than people we have to strive to please. The bottom line is, if you feel inadequate around a person, it’s because they’re making you feel that way. Ultimately you are responsible for your self-esteem, but if you feel like the battle to increase your sense of self-worth is more challenging than it should be around your friend, they’re not being your friend. So I hope that we’ll continue to see films like “I Love You, Man,” that explore, demonstrate, and inspire true friendship, between men, between women, and—here would be the next landmark—between a man and a woman.

IMG_4218-copy

My Life As a Zombie Extra

“I’m going to be a zombie!” I excitedly told my friends last January. “Huh?” was their usual response. Once I’d gotten the email, I sped to Facebook and trumpeted it for the world (at least as represented by my online friends) to hear. Funny how many people added, “Congratulations” after the “huh,” as though becoming undead was a desirable thing.

A lot of people hadn’t yet heard about the filming of a new zombie parody movie here in Valdosta. Word spread quickly, even though the whole thing, from extras auditions to wrap, was pretty covert. The rumored locations for filming were at Wild Adventures and a couple of undisclosed locations in town. Star Woody Harrelson made his presence known, though, even showing up at my favorite bar, Charley-Os (unfortunately I was not there that night). Oddly enough, I wasn’t as excited by the star power, but more at the sheer delight of (a) being on a movie set and (b) getting to run around and act crazy. Being a zombie extra was a free pass for normally frowned-upon behavior. Plus, it was like Halloween had come early!

I spent six nights, some going until 7 in the morning, on-set, running, stumbling, staggering, lurching, and bleeding. Believe me, it wasn’t glamorous. Extras don’t have personal assistants who bring you custom-made salads and extra rutabaga when you want it (Harrelson is on the “raw” diet). Also, since you’re basically part of the scenery, you get to stand there while thousands of light adjustments are made, cups of coffee are poured, and makeup touchups are done. It was February when we were filming, by the way. And zombies don’t really need parkas. Also, the zombie makeup we all looked forward to was comprised of concentrated coffee, soy sauce, and red goo. Not pleasant especially when it’s cold. They made it up to us, though, with a king’s feast of hot food every night. We got to eat like stars, even after being herded around like cattle or left standing in the cold for an hour. Plus, our makeup was done by professionals whose hands had touched major stars. My artist, Lee Grimes, had worked with Christina Ricci and Michael C. Hall. Senior history/anthropology/women’s studies major Samantha Bryant says, “I loved sitting there and getting stuff poured on me or getting airbrushed in trailers by [a] real make up artist. I was the kid [who] bought a gallon of fake blood every Halloween and drenched myself in it.” (Believe me, that was the case. One night they took two spray bottles of blood to my face, Old West-style.)

But let’s get to the good stuff. Besides the meager but much-needed monetary compensation, what made being a zombie worth it? Let’s hear from the crowd: sophomore theatre major Jessalin Smith says, “[I]t was fun to watch what goes on behind and in front of the cameras in the set of a movie.”Admittedly, most of what happens on-set isn’t really visible because of the huge scale of operations. But you do get a sense of the rhythm and process of filmmaking, and of course it’s fun to bump into the actors (the stunt zombies were pretty interesting too). Sophomore theatre major Isaac Huntington says, “The best part of filming was probably getting up close with the stars.” Most of us got pretty close by Harrelson and co-stars Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin (who smiled at me!), and Jesse Eisenberg. Sam remembers, “A bunch of us huddled together and discussed what we’d say to Woody Harrelson if we got the chance. I shrugged . . .‘Natural Born Killers’ had been great but I’d never watched ‘Cheers’ and was afraid to bring up ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ so I decided to keep my mouth shut and smile. [Then] I heard someone say “Hey. What’s up?”. . . I spun to greet them with a large smile and hearty ‘Hello.’ I was met with Woody Harrelson, cowboy hat and all. Fear set in and my smile contorted to an awful look of shock and fear. Add that to the zombie makeup and well…. He reared back just as shocked as I was and I quickly scampered off.”

There was also a certain prestige and intrigue to life as an extra. We all got asked what we had seen on-set, what the stars were like, what we knew about the movie, could we show pictures. Of course, it was in our contract to not talk about the movie (like in “Fight Club”) or take pictures of our makeup. Whether the leaks of certain events (e.g. the Hummer crashing into the lake) were intentional or not, I do not know. Even extras were as fooled by rumors (e.g. Matthew McConaughey being a zombie) as the general Valdosta population. Smith says, “The crew was very closed mouthed about the plot and scenes, and when the extras weren’t filming, we were put into a ‘holding room’ where we weren’t allowed to see the rest of the movie being filmed.” Despite all that, being on a secret set gave us extras a certain privilege, and being a zombie automatically made us cool: “I’ve become some strange celebrity amongst my family members,” says Bryant.

Now the film’s release is upon us, and unfortunately for us former extras, most of the secrets are out. We’ve all seen the trailers, and Valdosta natives can point out Wild Adventures scenes, and on occasion their friends and acquaintances (two people I know are in the trailer for a second). Most people hope to have a glimpse of themselves or their friends on-screen. I myself got to run right in front of the camera several times, and I’m wearing bright pink and purple, so here’s hoping. Even if we don’t make the cut, we still get to be cool. And as Bryant says, eventually “annoy my friends with the pause button when the movie reaches DVD.”

Originally published in Oct. 1 issue of the VSU Spectator.