Month: November 2009
Writing about a movie like Precious (2009, Lee Daniels) is fraught with difficulties and opportunities for saying the wrong thing. As a social problem film, based on Sapphire’s novel Push, Precious attempts to illuminate, with as much visceral charge as possible, the struggles of one African American teenager to escape soul crushing poverty. The film thrusts its “reality” in the viewer’s face like a dare, effectively asking us “Can you watch this? Can you stomach this?”
For example, early in the film we see Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) washing dishes in the dim, depressing kitchen of the New York City apartment she shares with her somewhat one-dimensionally villainous mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). In the background of the frame Mary barks questions at her daughter, the glow of the television screen reflected on her angry face. But we remain in the foreground of the shot, with Precious, as she measures her words, almost swallowing them, knowing that any response she offers will be the wrong one. Suddenly, violence explodes the frame as Mary hurls a heavy object at her daughter’s head, knocking her to the ground. It a shocking moment that immediately cuts to a flashback of Precious being raped by her father. The filmmaker clearly wants to place the viewer in Precious’ point of view: we hear the sickening, rhythmic pulse of the creaking mattress, the crying of a baby (the product of previous sexual abuses), and the grunting of her father, who whispers to his daughter as he defiles her. It is a truly horrifying scene.
When life becomes too intense for Precious, as it does in this scene, she imagines herself in fantasy worlds where she is a glamorous star, and thankfully, the viewer gets to go along with her (who would want to stay in that rape scene?). It is a testament to Sidibe’s acting skills that she is able to create such a vivid distinction between the woman she is in her fantasies and the woman she is in real life; one persona beams, struts and asks you to look and admire, while the other shrinks inward and demands that you look away.
Although Precious swerves perilously close to the “poverty porn” found in last year’s critical darling, Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle), I think it was able to avoid most of the pitfalls of its “children in peril” predecessor. While Slumdog seemed to revel in its moments of high tragedy — the blinding of a young boy with hot acid, the violent raiding of a slum village, the prostitution of little girls — Precious exposes us to the horrors of its protagonist’s life but only in small bursts. Furthermore, the message of Slumdog seemed to be that “Poverty sucks but it will prepare you to later win a lot money in a game show, to be followed by a really fun Bollywood number in a train station with the woman of your dreams, so don’t feel too bad about it. ” Or maybe I just misread the film?
By contrast, Precious had a more ambiguous ending. After (rightfully) refusing to allow her mother back into her life (a scene that generated a round of applause at my screening), we see Precious emerge on the streets of New York, with her two children. Precious is still poor, still only reading at an 8th grade level, still the product of (double) incest, still HIV positive, still a single mother, but she is smiling. And the non-diegetic music sounds almost triumphant. But this is no choreographed Bollywood number. The audience does not exit the theater feeling “Phew! I’m glad it all worked out in the end.” Rather, as the credits rolled I felt that I had heard one woman’s story, that this story was still unfolding somewhere, and that she still had much to do.
Thus, I was relieved to find that Precious was not nearly as exploitative as I thought it would be (though many critics disagree), but this does not sum up my experience of the film. While I sat in my chair, horrified and saddened by the images on the screen, something very different was happening in that sold out movie theater. People were laughing. A lot.
For example, one of the film’s most (at least for me) emotionally powerful scenes is where Mary (Mo’Nique) finally admits to her culpability in the repeated raping of her daughter (and yes, Mo’Nique truly deserves all the buzz she has been getting for this role). I don’t think we are intended to empathize with Mary in this scene, but we do gain some insight into how her home became a nightmare of rape and anger and jealousy. It is difficult for Mary to vocalize these horrible things and the weight of this confession causes her to blubber and sputter. I cried during this scene but most of the people in the theater were laughing. It was a curious moment for me because I wondered if these people were just hard-hearted cynics or if maybe I was just a sap.
When I got home that night I began to search online to see if this phenomenon had happened anywhere else and was surprised to see that it had (go here, here and here ). So what to make of this laughter? I have a few ideas:
1. The Mo’Nique Factor
As I mentioned, Mo’Nique was really wonderful and convincing in this role. But, as we all know, Mo’Nique is first and foremost a comedienne. And fans of her work, who would be lured to the film, curious to see this actress in a new role, possibly found it difficult to take her seriously.
2. People were Uncomfortable
It is awkward to watch images of rape and child abuse in any setting, but in a crowded theater it becomes even more awkward. And given that Precious was punctuated with fantasy images and moments of genuine comic relief, I think laughter may have been a natural response during those moments of stunned silence, when the images onscreen were simply too horrifying to process.
3. The Tyler Perry Factor
Precious is not a Tyler Perry film, but he did co-produce it (along with Oprah Winfrey) and his name was linked with the film in the media blitz leading up to its release ( also here and here). Other Perry-directed films, like The Family that Preys (2009) and Madea’s Family Reunion (2002), mix broad comedy with moments of real tragedy. Therefore, any audience members drawn into the theaters based on Tyler’s brand name may have been expecting to laugh.
4. It Really Is Poverty Porn
Initially I was a bit disturbed by the audience’s response to this film. How could they laugh at such tragedy? But after mulling it over for a few days I started wonder if maybe I was the one who was responding inappropriately to Precious. Maybe this audience, which was 70% African American, was laughing, not at the tragedy of Precious’ life, but at the audacity of Hollywood and its attempts, once again, to make African American life into a horror show. Armond White, whose scathing review has been quoted all over the internet, writes that:
Precious raises ghosts of ethnic fear and exoticism just like Birth of a Nation. Precious and her mother (Mo’Nique) share a Harlem hovel so stereotypical it could be a Klansman’s fantasy. It also suggests an outsider’s romantic view of the political wretchedness and despair associated with the blues. Critics willingly infer there’s black life essence in Precious’ anti-life tale. And the same high-dudgeon tsk-tsking of Hurricane Katrina commentators is also apparent in the movie’s praise. Pundits who bemoan the awful conditions that have not improved for America’s unfortunate are reminded that they are still on top.
While I think White engages in a bit of a hyperbole in his review (Little Man [2006, Keenan Ivory Wayans] is a better film? Really?), he does make a good point: does Precious merely assuage liberal guilt over the persistance of the profound class and racial divides in this country by allowing the haves to weep over the fates of the have-nots? Perhaps the laughter of those around me was a way of rejecting or resisting this Hollywood offering, of refusing to cry over images that are calculated to make us do just that?
So to sum up this contradictory post: my experience of Precious left me feeling confused (and even ashamed) about my relationship with the film image and about the role that film can and should play in the depiction of social problems. Can a film about a suffering individual ever avoid being conflated with an entire social group? Can these films ever not be poverty porn? What is the value in putting these images on the big screen?
I would love to hear your thoughts about this film and your experiences watching it the theaters.
As discussed in previous posts, I am teaching “Topics in Film Aesthetics” this semester, with a focus on what is known as “trash cinema.” For those unfamiliar with this term, trash cinema refers to films thathave been relegated to the borders of the mainstream because of their small budgets, inept style, offensive subject matter, and/or shocking political perspectives. All semester long my students have watched marginalized films like The Sex Perils of Paulette (1965, Doris Wishman) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965, Mike Kuchar), interrogating and debating their style, subject matter, and ideology. Why are these films considered to be “bad” movies and what do we have to gain by studying them?
We also spent much of the semester discussing how and why certain films (The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975, Jim Sharman], El Topo [1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky]) were able to achieve cult status as midnight movies and what drives audiences to perform elaborate rituals at film screenings. In keeping with these discussions, the class project was to host, promote and run a screening of a contemporary cult film, the notoriously awful The Room (2003, Tommy Wiseau). Since my students had read so much about midnight movies and the great lengths that theater exhibitors would go to draw in potential ticket buyers (known as “ballyhoo”), my hope was that the class would put some of those lessons into practice.
Early in the semester the class broke themselves up into working groups: promotions, advertising, booking the venue, etc. The advertising group was responsible for designing flyers, posters and ad copy for the promotions group to implement. Although money is tight in my department, my chair was kind enough to allow us limitless copies for our flyers and $50 for two large posters (I limited my role in this project to obtaining funds for the $100 screening license and for adveritising materials):
Once posters and flyers were created, it was time for the promotions group to start spreading the word. In addition to putting flyers up around campus and doing a word of mouth campaign, they started up a Facebook group for the event and convinced a writer for the campus newspaper, The East Carolinian, to mention the screening in an article about campus happenings.
Nevertheless, as the night of the screening approached I was a little nervous: I had not seen many flyers up around campus and I was beginning to doubt the class’ enthusiasm for the project. To make matters worse, the screening was held on a rainy night (ECU students are relcutant to do anything unless it’s 70 degrees outside and precipitation free) when District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp) was playing for free in the same building as part of the Student Activities Board’s fall film series. Finally, our event was booked in a difficult to locate area of the student union. It therefore made sense when barely 50 seats were taken 10 minutes before the start of the event.
I could tell that my students were also starting to get nervous — part of their grade would be based on how many people they could entice into the theater (after all, a theater exhibitor who couldn’t fill seats would lose his/her business). With a few minutes to spare, audience members began to appear in droves, wet from the rain but ready for a good time. By the time we started the film, we had at least 200 attendees:
Most of the people entering the theater took a bag of props to throw at the screen including: plastic spoons (whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears in the mise en scene), chocolates (during a supposed-to-be-erotic scene involving a box of chocolates), and footballs (several scenes feature the male characters tossing around a football, presumably because this is what Wiseau assumes American men do to bond with each other):
I told the students that in addition to gathering a large crowd they needed to foster a participatory screening environment. A silent audience was simply not acceptable. To encourage participation, audience members were handed a photocopied list of rituals selected by the class:
“SPOON!” – Nearly all the artwork in the film features spoons. When they appear in the shot, yell “Spoon!” and fling yours at the screen.
“DENNY!” – Used to herald the arrival/departure of the tragic kidult. “Hi & Bye” is encouraged.
“SHOOT HER!” – Yelled during Lisa’s couch conversation with her mother. The throbbing neck is the cue. Also acceptable, “QUAID, GET TO THE REACTOR!”
“BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN!” – Useful after any comment made in regards to a female character. Considered a dig at the film’s casual misogyny.
“FOCUS! UNFOCUS!” – Frequent shots slip in and out of focus and it is customary to yell “FOCUS” when it gets blurry. Feel free to yell “UNFOCUS!” during the gratuitous sex scenes.
“FIANCE/FIANCEE” – This term is never uttered, instead Johnny or Lisa refer to one another as their future wife/husband. That is the cue to scream “Fiancé & Fiancée”
“ALCATRAZ” – Yell this during scenes framed with bars & during establishing shots of the famous island prison. Also encouraged, “WELCOME TO THE ROCK!” (Connery-esque only)
“GO! GO! GO! GO!” – Used to cheer on tracking shots of the bridge. Celebrate when it makes it all the way across, voice your disappointment when it doesn’t.
“EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK” (Full House theme) – Sung during establishing shot of the San Francisco homes that look eerily similar.
“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE THEME” – Hummed during the phone tapping scene.
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU!” – Yelled when characters appear on screen that are out of place or unknown. (Happens more than you think)
“YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” – Johnny channels his inner James Dean near the conclusion of the film. Yell along, louder the better.
While this is only a small list of ways to get involved, feel free to interject your own thoughts throughout the screening or join in with audience members who aren’t seeing the film for the first time. All we ask is for you to be safe and respect those around you. Enjoy!
The evening also opened with a brief introduction to the film and its colorful production history. Our Master of Ceremonies encouraged the audience to participate and demonstrated a few of the rituals for the audience.
These tactics seemed to work because almost as soon as the film began, with its useless, extended establishing shots of San Francisco, the crowd was yelling at the screen. They followed the suggested rituals (with “Because you’re a woman!” and “Denny!” being two crowd favorites) but also lots of ad-libbing.
Note: Not from our screening.
When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) mixes Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) a cocktail of what appears to be 1/2 scotch and 1/2 vodka, someone behind me declared “I call it…scotchka!” [note: I just discovered that this particular line is already a Room ritual]. And whenever a character commented on how “beautiful” Lisa was, several audience members would yell “LIAR!” In fact, the room was rarely silent; people booed, groaned, clapped and heckled throughout the screening.
Note: Not from our screening.
I was hoping that the students would have come up with some more inventive advertising tactics, especially given the time we spent discussing how classical exploitation films like Mom and Dad (1945, William Beaudine) were advertised and promoted. Ultimately though, the class screening of The Room lived up to my expectations. The crowd was rowdy and interactive and everyone seemed to have a great time. Most importantly, I think my students had a great opportunity to experience firsthand what they had only been able to read about.
As soon as I heard that ABC was remaking V, the classic 1980s miniseries/television series about extraterrestrials coming to Earth, my mind was flooded with long dormant memories of the original series. Growing up with an older brother who had a taste for the macabre, I was exposed to a lot of popular culture that was not entirely age-appropriate — Stephen King novels, Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero), The Dead Milkmen — basically anything with “dead” in the title. And so it should not be too surprising that I watched V, in its various televisual manifestations (miniseries, television series), at the tender age of 7 or 8.
I must have repressed most of my memories of the show because I could only conjure up flashes of images: a beautiful woman eating a rodent, a “Visitor” peeling back his faux human skin to reveal lizard skin below, and a super cheesy 80s era rendering of the inside of a “high tech” mothership. Lucky for me, the internet was more than happy to confirm these hazy visions.
The rodent eating:
This scene is truly laughable now but I’m pretty sure I choked on my Oreos when I watched this as a kid.
I think the special effects here are still pretty effective. They were so effective, in fact, that the series made me suspicious of everyone I knew. If anyone could be a V under their natural looking human skin, then what about Mom? Was she a V? What about Dad? I kept a close eye on the hamster cage just in case.
And something that I don’t remember at all but which is hilarious:
Start watching around the 2:10 mark.
Of course, the 2009 remake of V has far superior special effects. For example, when the mothership arrives in New York City a few minutes into the pilot episode we first see its metal body reflected in the windows of a generic office building. It is a beautiful, chilling moment. Anything that arrives that way cannot be good.
And of course the V’s lizard skins are far more … is realistic the word I’m looking for here? I’ll put it this way: although I figured out that Dale (Alan Tudyk) was an undercover V about 5 minutes after meeting his character, I still let out an involuntary shriek when Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell) pulled back his human skin during a violent showdown.
In terms of themes, the 2009 series has shifted away (at least in the first two episodes that have aired) from the overt Nazi allegory of the original (and no, I did not catch the references to Jewish resistance groups and Fascism and Hitler Youth when I was 7. I was in it for the rodent eating). While V is still playing with some of these themes — for example, the Peace Ambassadors are given blazers reminiscent of SS uniforms and the Vs make generous use of propaganda — there seems to be more of a push to see the Visitors as an allegory of modern terrorism. Only these terrorists have discovered that it is far easier to achieve your objectives if you study your targets, use their language and customs and offer them peace, all while plotting how to gobble them up.
One interpretation I am not willing to swallow (excuse the pun) is that the new V is an allegory for the Obama administration and its politics (also here and on many, many other sites and blogs). The scene in which Anna (Morena Baccarin), the beautiful, calm leader of the Vs, offers Earth a form of “universal health care,” is deftly intercut with a scene in which an underground resistance movement is slaughtered by a band of vicious Vs. Certainly such editing techniques make the promise of universal health care appear sinister, as a kind of bait and switch for more nefarious doings. But I read this much discussed moment less as a dig at the President and more as a topical reference that would resonate with audiences. In other words, given the way our health care debates have been going, universal health care only seems possible in the world of science fiction.
And yes, Anna and her fellow Vs are attractive, charismatic, and popular with “the kids,” just like Obama was/is. But isn’t this the case with most successful leaders (both the good and the evil)? If Anna were ugly and devoid of personality then broadcasting her visage over 29 major cities would not be the best way to convince the world to cooperate with the Vs. I am sure that right wing bloggers and pundits will continue to see the program as further evidence that the Obama administration will bring about the destruction of humanity, but this will not keep me from watching the show.
Quick thoughts on the cast:
1. Throughout the pilot episode I kept asking my husband “Who is that guy?” every time Ryan Nichols appeared on screen. “I know that guy!” Then as the second episode started (we watched them back to back) and the name “Morris Chestnut” appeared on the screen. Since his acting debut in Boyz N the Hood (1991, John Singleton) Chestnut has appeared sporadically on the big (The Inkwell [1994, Matty Rich]) and small (Bones) screen, but I hope his leading role in V will ensure more steady work. The man looks fantastic!
2. I am really hoping that Rekha Sharma, who plays FBI agent Sarita Malik, turns out to be an undercover V since she was also one of the “final five” Cylons on Battlestar Galactica (another wonderful, contemporary remake of a somewhat cheesy sci fi program).
3. Elizabeth Mitchell. You are truly kick ass. That is all.
So are you digging V? is it better than the original so far? And does ABC hate Obama?
For those of you who are regular readers of this blog (hi Mom!), you may have noticed that my posting has dropped somewhat over the last few weeks. This is due to the mid-semester crunch as well as some other writing deadlines I had to meet.
One of these deadlines was for the wonderful site Flow TV, “a critical forum on television and media culture published by the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Flow’s mission is to provide a space where the public can discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media.”
If you’d like to read my article on BET’s reality show, Baldwin Hills, it went live today and can be accessed through the link below:
I was not able to watch the Mad Men finale on Sunday night because I was simply too tired to stay awake for it. The problem with writing a Mad Men finale recap late is that you might as well not write it at all. By now all of the die hard Mad Men fans have already gorged themselves on recaps and reviews of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” And after reading some particularly insightful pieces ( for example James Poniewozik’s review on Time.com), I wonder how much I have to add.
But the thing about Mad Men is that it almost begs you to write about it. So gorged or not my friends, I hope you have some room for dessert:
1. The Divorce
If any TV couple should get a divorce, it’s Don and Betty Draper. In addition to lying to his wife for the last ten years about his family, his past and his real name, Don has systemically cheated on his wife. “Cheat” doesn’t even really encompass Don’s behavior over the last 3 seasons — he has pursued extramarital affairs with a persistency and zeal unmatched by even Three’s Company‘s Larry Dallas.
And while Betty’s transgressions were less severe, she did have sex with a stranger in a bar bathroom and nurtured an emotional relationship with Henry Francis (who I do not trust AT ALL). As Don chides, “All along you’ve been building a life raft.” Oh Betty.
Don and Betty should break up and yet, watching them go through the various motions of the TV couple divorce — meeting with a lawyer, having “the talk” with their children — I couldn’t help but feel very sad. Indeed, when Don crawled into bed with Sally, who slept in Grandpa Gene’s old pull out cot to be closer to her exiled Daddy (even though, as she states, “Gene’s room is creepy”), I was overwhelmed with emotion. There was hardly room for the two of them in that creaky little bed, but in he crawled, still wearing his suit. Don’s children seem to be his only link to his emotions — to the real person (is he called “Dick Whitman”?) under the Don Draper veneer — and so I see this divorce primarily as Don’s loss, rather than Betty’s. Though my guess is that Season 4 will reveal the toll that divorce is taking on Betty.
I love Joan. Who doesn’t love Joan? And the moment that Don, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper and Lane Pryce began to plot how they might abscond from Sterling Cooper with their accounts and files in tact I turned to my husband and said “Joan! They’re going to get Joan!” And when Joan returned she was once again wearing her iconic pen around her neck — a symbol of her power and independence that had been absent from her ample bosom for most of the season. Welcome back pen and welcome back Joan!
I imagine that if you tried to hug Peggy Olsen she would be one of those people who stiffen and then pat you uncomfortably on the back. Peggy is not sentimental but, paradoxically, she is a successful copywriter because she understands sentiment all too well. Don even tells Peggy — in an attempt to woo her into joining his new firm — that she alone understands that “something terrible has happened” (which I took to mean “Peggy, you understand that people are fundamentally sad and you know how to exploit that sadness in order to sell them consumer goods”).
In this episode Peggy finally seemed to recognize her own worth as a copywriter and as an asset to Don. She initially tells Don to shove it when he tries to strong-arm her into leaving Sterling Cooper, making it clear that she is not like the other women in Don’s life. If he wants her, he’ll need to spill his guts. And when he shows up at her apartment, hat in hand, Peggy weeps. Sure, they were discussing work, but they were also discussing their complicated relationship. When Peggy asks Don if he will stop speaking to her if she refuses his offer, he counters, “No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.” “Damn that Don Draper’s smooth!” was my husband’s reply to this. But I think Don was being sincere. Peggy is more than just a great copywriter to Don — they are each other’s double and Don finally admits that out loud in this episode. I hope their relationship is explored more in Season 4.
4. The Lighting
With its superb cast, nuanced writing and slow burn narratives, it is easy to overlook Mad Men‘s understated formal style. This season — and especially in this finale — I have been captivated by the show’s Rembrandt lighting. For example, after Roger and Don convince Pete Campbell to leave Sterling Cooper they head to a bar to commiserate and plot their next move. The set is soaked in shadows, with pockets of brightness here and there. This lighting style is reminiscent of The Sopranos, which also used chiaroscuro lighting to depict a homosocial milieu. In this mix of light and darkness men discuss the things that (they think) they need to keep from their women: their sexual dalliances, their (dirty) business, their feelings.
This is also the lighting that is frequently used in the flashback sequences to Don’s childhood. In the finale Don’s father is killed in the darkness of the stables, with father and son alone in the shadows.
5. The Music
Many recaps have already compared this finale to a heist movie (also here and here), with Don, Roger and Bert assembling a team of the Sterling Cooper’s finest in order to steal the dying company’s riches. Roger was firing off zingers like George Clooney and everyone looked like they were having a grand old time. This mood was enhanced by the jaunty music used throughout the episode. Is it my imagination or does this series rarely employ non-diegetic music during an episode (saving it instead for the finale scene/closing credits)? I found myself really noticing the music during these scenes, as if the show was winking at us, letting us know that this heist storyline was all campy fun. This music noticably disappears in the scenes with Betty and in Don’s flashbacks to his childhood, which are highly tragic.
Overall I found the Season 3 finale to be immensely satisfying — the perfect cap to a wonderful, nuanced, slow burn (NOT SLOW!) season. I can’t to see what Season 4 holds in store…