February 13, 2017

The Lobster and Cults of Singular Thinking

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz run for their lives in The Lobster.

It’s become easier with each passing week to understand dystopian films. Elected officials make statements that would seem hilarious if they weren’t so frightening. This is especially true when it comes to basic ideas of identity and respect for differences. When a candidate thrives under a message of bigotry and ignorance, it indicts all of us. This moment also gives close-minded thinkers the belief that they can speak freely with intolerant views. These issues all connect to the absurd world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, particularly ideas on romantic relationships. The strict rules of that society don’t seem as far-fetched when you consider them while under a potentially authoritarian leader.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay from Lanthimos (Dogtooth) and Efthymis Filippou depicts The Hotel — the world’s worst singles retreat. Residents like David (Colin Farrell) have 45 days to find love or will become an animal of their choosing. He chooses a lobster (hence the title), which doesn’t seem like the best idea. There are many rules to follow at The Hotel, including the partner you choose. You can’t just lie and say that you love another person. A specific personality or physical trait has to match the other person. It’s eventually clear that these rules do not just apply to The Hotel. They are a core aspect of The City on the whole. Even the animals must find companions or risk extinction. The entire society thrives on coupling.

This premise is absurd on its surface, and it appears more outlandish because everyone plays it straight. No one but David even gets a character name in the credits. Ben Whishaw’s character is known as Limping Man, though you could also call him “Man Who Smashes His Nose to Get the Girl”. The set-up works as a comedy, and there are plenty of funny moments. It also clicks as an indictment of our culture, and that idea has only grown for me with each passing day. I’m married but can remember the days of probing questions from relatives about girlfriends and marriage. Loners are regarded with suspicion, and relationships that differ from the norm receive scrutiny. Fear of anything out of the ordinary remains a common trend in society.

What makes The Lobster more than a comment on marriage is the way it presents The Loners out in the woods. A lesser film would depict that group as free-thinking rebels like Denis Leary’s gang in Demolition Man. Instead, they also have restricted views and employ brutal punishments to offenders. People who flirt can face the “red kiss”, and I don’t even want to consider what the “red intercourse” punishment would be. Lea Seydoux plays the Loner Leader with a stone-cold detachment, and she enforces the strict rules without compassion. The Loners seem even worse than The Hotel because their choices defy our expectations.

The connective tissue between the Loners and The Hotel is the cult of singular thinking. This lack of nuance hits home when you consider the frustrations of our current political divide. It’s all or nothing, with little in between the sides. When David and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) fall in love, the response from the Loner Leader is quiet but vicious. She can justify the move with the rules, but it’s really just a cruel act. This type of logic is dangerous, particularly when it goes to people in power. Others will fall in line just to avoid a similar fate.

The Lobster works as a comedy and includes wonderfully odd moments, especially at The Hotel. John C. Reilly fits right at home in this setting. The romantic interactions are painfully awkward as characters look for any way they connect. If a couple starts to struggle, you can always give them a kid to change the landscape. It’s such a nihilistic look at relationships! The only true romance happens by chance, but there are few opportunities for long-term happiness. A society built on restrictions will stamp out anything that veers from the model. Lanthimos reminds us to stay vigilant against normalizing these rules; they can only lead to our destruction.

The Lobster is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended.

January 30, 2017

Hidden Figures and the Joy of Movies

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer star in Hidden Figures.

It’s a scary time with horrible news lurking around every corner. Here in the U.S, the Trump administration is revealing terrible plans on a daily basis. There are many ways to combat these policies, including protests, calls to senators and representatives, and personal interactions. Where does art fall into the mix? It’s easy to dismiss movies as less essential during serious times like our current era. That is true in a certain way; there’s a lot more to do than just watch films. On the other hand, even prominent commercial releases can play an important role. They bring us together and can spotlight voices that are pushed to the background too often.

A perfect example is Hidden Figures, which arrived in theaters as just the right time earlier this month. The crowd-pleasing film tells a story that few of us know about the early days of the space program. It also provides three standout roles for African-American women that are far too rare. This isn’t a case where a white guy dominates the story and becomes the central figure. Instead, it’s the incredible work from Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer that takes center stage. All three give award-worthy performances as strong, intelligent women that worked behind the scenes at NASA during the Mercury program.

Cynics might dismiss this film as a conventional story that just makes audiences feel better about themselves, but that isn’t a fair assessment. Instead, it clicks because we’re on board with the characters from the start. It’s fun to just hang out with this trio even when they aren’t solving problems at NASA. That’s no easy feat. Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) aren’t just symbols of overcoming an oppressive system. They come alive on the screen as fully fledged characters with real hopes and dreams. It’s a joy to spend two hours with them and see their ultimate success.

Jackson’s big speech before a Virginia judge (Frank Hoyt Taylor) is a good example. The only way she can enter NASA’s engineer program is to take certain night classes, but they’re only at an all-white school. Jackson’s speech is pure Hollywood, but it still works because Monae injects such feeling into it. The way that she sells the judge on being “first” is brilliant and makes the scene crackle. Director Theodore Melfi brings the camera in close to focus just on the faces of Monae and Taylor; he makes it a personal moment between two people. Monae owns this scene and reveals (along with Moonlight) her impending stardom.

This human connection is at the heart of why Hidden Figures shines for such a wide audience. The crowd in my theater included kids, adults, and grandparents from diverse backgrounds, and there was huge applause at the end. I could tell it was connecting with most of us, including my seven-year-old daughter. The best Hollywood filmmaking feels effortless, and that airy feeling is all over this movie. Henson is the centerpiece as Johnson, and she endures a lot from the condescending white guys in her Space Task Group. It never feels like too much cruelty, however. The script from Melfi and Allison Schroeder strikes the right balance in showing the hardships while still delivering an inspiring story.

Henson delivers what is easily one of my favorite performances of 2016. Johnson is brilliant and knows she’s smarter than her co-workers yet follows the rules of that environment. Her gruff boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) understands her value but will only do so much. He fails to recognize her daily strife of running across campus to the bathroom until she breaks down. Costner’s hero moment in tearing down the sign doesn’t feel earned for him, but it draws a fist pump because it’s a victory for Johnson. Henson charms us from the start, and we’re definitely on her side. When a possible romance starts with Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), we won’t accept him until she does.

It's convincing to see the institutional racism that each woman faces every day. The rules are written to keep Jackson from becoming an engineer, and people treat it like a fact of life. Johnson must drink from a separate coffee pot, use a different bathroom, and dodge other hurdles. The sexism from her all-male co-workers on Harrison's team is accepted as normal. Some of them mean well, but that accomplishes little under a rigged system. There's no margin for error for Johnson in this group.

Spencer earned an Oscar nomination last week for Best Supporting Actress, and she deserves the acclaim. She wonderfully underplays Vaughn’s intelligence and understanding of the office landscape. Vaughn recognizes the dangers of the IBM computers to their roles but sees the opportunities in mastering it. Her changing interactions with the stuffy Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) reveal her growing power. By using her mind and understanding the technology, Vaughn subverts a system designed to keep her down. Her heroic scene in leading the women of the West Campus to their new jobs is thrilling and quite a change from the cold NASA hallways.

I did not expect Hidden Figures to receive a Best Picture nomination because it’s such a crowd pleaser. There’s joy emanating from the screen, and the audience keys on that excitement. Certain beats are predictable, but that doesn’t mean they fail. Even relaxing moments like watching the three stars dance remain engaging. Each lead gets her chance to shine. With a modest $25 million budget, it’s also the type of film that’s become less common from the big studios. In looking for the big payday, they often miss the importance of telling new stories that connect with a general audience. See this film, and make sure you take your daughters with you.

January 12, 2017

52 Films by Women and a Broader Perspective

Ava DuVernay's debut film I Will Follow deserves a lot more attention.

This past summer, I lost my job and was out of work for several months. It was a rough year for a lot of reasons, but we were able to rebound and are doing well today. I mention this experience not to garner sympathy; I know that many others had it much worse. I’m a 40-year-old white guy, so our system is in place to benefit me. It’s been that way for too long, and our current landscape could get much worse. I hate to be cynical but do not see positive signs when I consider who’s leading this country. We're in the middle of the last gasp of a patriarchal structure that needs a major overhaul.

I live in Missouri, a state that has moved further to the right in recent elections. I’ve called my senators and representatives, but those efforts can only accomplish so much. I’m a film fan and manage this site, so I do have control over this small pocket of the Internet. During the past year, many film bloggers and other cinephiles participated in the 52 Films by Women project. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to join up and do the same. I may talk a good game, but my viewing habits still veer way too much towards movies by white guys. It’s time to fix those trends.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Changing what movies I see may seem like a trivial move, but it’s a concrete way to gain a broader perspective beyond the world of movies. I support liberal causes and vote for progressive candidates, yet it’s easy to fall into typical patterns. The Hollywood system continues to give male directors a huge edge in access to major projects. Other behind-the-scenes roles are also dominated by men. Courtesy of Melissa Silverstein of Women in Hollywood, here are some painful statistics from a recent Celluloid Ceiling Study about 2016 representation:

  • Women accounted for just 7% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, down 2% from 2015.
  • Only 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers were women.
  • Just 3% of composers on the top 250 films were women.
  • A stunning 35% of films employed 0 or 1 woman in key roles.

I knew there was a serious problem, but these numbers are even worse than I expected. In particular, the small percentage of directors remains embarrassing for the industry. There’s still a perception that women can’t direct blockbusters; a glance at the men behind the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars films is an easy way to start. I’m hopeful that Patty Jenkins will help to change that perception with Wonder Woman this year. From top to bottom, we must use our dollars and voice to support movies from women or risk seeing few changes to the formula.

Michelle Williams stars in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women.

A Personal Change

It’s easy for me to look at the numbers and decry the sexism that keeps them so low. That accomplishes little and is actually hypocritical given my own recent history. I may have supported Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and Ava DuVernay’s 13th in recent months, but those examples are anecdotal. The trends aren’t any better for me when I retrieve the overall numbers. Here’s a sobering look at my movie viewing habits in the past three years.

  • 2016 – 101 films watched, 7 directed by women (6.9%)
  • 2015 – 101 films watched, 8 directed by women (7.9%)
  • 2014 – 129 films watched, 13 directed by women (10.1%)

Back in 2013, I made a similar conscious effort to see films directed by women and watched six in a marathon. Even so, my numbers from that year were not much better. I saw 136 films and still only watched nine directed by women (6.6%). Are you sensing a pattern here? This should help explain why I’m pushing myself further in 2017. I understand the issue but haven’t made any significant increases in my viewing habits. This trend needs to change.

It has some slow points, but Chantal Akerman's South is definitely worth seeing.

A Promising Start

During the first two weeks of January, I’m on track and have watched two interesting films. The first was DuVernay’s I Will Follow, her first dramatic feature. It’s a low budget affair that clicks because we care so much about the characters. Salli Richardson-Whitfield shines in the lead role as a woman grieving the death of her aunt. I’m not familiar with Richardson-Whitfield's other work and will definitely be on the lookout for her. It’s a quiet story yet connects with me because the characters feel real. I could empathize with all of them even when they’re struggling.

My second film was Chantal Akerman’s documentary South (Sud), which depicts the Texas town of Jasper following the murder of James Byrd. I’m sad to admit this was my first Akerman film. There are long stretches of time where Akerman just shoots the town and lands around it. Despite the beauty on display, there are moments that become a little tedious. The film stays afloat due to conversations with various citizens about the area’s racist history and the brutal killing. There are no easy answers to the problems, especially when economic struggles come into play. I definitely need to see a lot more of Akerman’s filmography.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of this project. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to everything that’s possible. Given the awful political climate led by our president-elect, it’s easy to feel powerless. Changing my viewing habits is one way that I can make a small difference in how I perceive the world. I’m also planning to blog about these films whenever possible and look for ways to support them commercially. It’s one thing to talk about supporting female directors on social media and this blog. The real work comes on the business side. Money talks, particularly with conservative studio leaders. They need to see the commercial value in supporting diverse voices. It’s less idealistic but the most important move to change the game.

After losing my job last summer, I was calm for most of the time. There was just an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. That sensation has been present lately, particularly when I read the news. Horrifying decisions and statements are coming from our leaders, and it’s easy to throw up our hands. There’s still a lot for me to learn, and it’s time to do something positive. I’ve put together a watchlist on Letterboxd of films directed by women that I should see. I’ve also organized a Letterboxd diary where I’ll add each selection for this project as I watch it. If you have any recommendations of films to see, I’d love to hear them.

Learn more about the 52 Films by Women project at the Women in Film site. You can also see what others are doing on Twitter at #52filmsbywomen