Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Top 30 films of 2016 (the year we will never recover from).

The word for this accursed year seems to be gotterdamerung. Google it if you aren't familiar. The parade-rainers amongst us get an erotic rush from reminding us that every year contains death and tragedy, and that in the end 2016 is just another number (years are artificial things anyway, right?). I don't think that offers consolation to anyone (which is what makes it so annoying). I will say that in my 5 and 40 years I have rarely seen such steady procession of deaths in a 12 month period. These aren't just passings that hurt, these are passings that signal an end. An end of an era. An end of a movement. An end of an attitude or way of looking at the world that liberated legions.

And without belaboring a point already explored on this blog, American liberal democracy appears to be one of the casualties of the year; or at the very least the end of the ability for America to reasonably pretend it was a shining city on a hill above all others.

This year took so much from us all. But one of the few areas where 2016 was not a prolonged trauma was the cinema it offered. Nostalgia has its own powerful hold on people but anyone insisting movies just aren't as good as they used to be is not paying attention (or needs to venture further than the nearest multiplex at the nearest mall).

The middle years of a decade are often the most interesting. The prior decade has loosened its hold, the one to come is still too distant to loom large. This is the point at which a decade defines itself. It is also I think the moment when the films based on a decade's public dialogue(s) hatch. This year we saw some stunning works that take on many issues, but in my mind the best films grappled with the twin headed beast of identity & economics. Intertwined though they are, the events of the last year have set the stage for a battle royale on the left between camps that believe one is more important than the other. I predict that in years to come we will see some great work come out of this particular debate. Let's hope the debate yields more than great cinema.

As 2017 grimly approaches like a prison sentence, let us hope, if we can still stand to hope for anything, that the loss of so many greats portends that another dynamic era is on the horizon. I'm not saying that living under a fascist dictatorship will be good for film, but rebirth cannot occur without a season of death preceding it.

1. Moonlight - USA - d: Barry Jenkins
2. Paterson - France/Germany/USA - d: Jim Jarmusch
3. Cameraperson - USA - d: Kirsten Johnson
4. Toni Erdmann - Germany/Austria/Romania - d: Maren Ade
5. O.J.: Made in America - USA - d: Ezra Edelman
6. 13th - USA - d: Ava DuVernay
7. Silence - USA/Taiwan/Mexico - d: Martin Scorsese
8. I, Daniel Blake -UK/France/Belgium - d:Ken Loach
9. I Am Not Your Negro - USA/France - d: Raoul Peck
10. Certain Women - USA - d: Kelly Reichardt

11. High-Rise - UK - d: Ben Wheatley
12. Jackie - USA/Chile/France - d: Pablo Larrain
13. The Lobster - Greece/Ireland/UK - d: Yorgos Lanthimos
14. Hell or High Water - USA - d: David Mackenzie
15. Elle - France - d: Paul Verhoeven
16. American Honey - UK/USA - d: Andrea Arnold
17. Love & Friendship - Ireland/France/Netherlands - d: Whit Stillman
18. Kubo & the Two Strings - USA - d: Travis Knight
19. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - USA - d: Gareth Edwards
20. Arrival - USA - d: Denis Villeneuve

21. Loving - USA/UK - d: Jeff Nichols
22. The Fits - USA - d: Anna Rose Holmer
23. La La Land - USA - d: Damien Chazelle
24. No Home Movie - France/Belgium - d: Chantal Akerman
25. Fences - USA - d: Denzel Washington
26. My Golden Days - France - d: Arnaud Desplechin
27. Chevalier - Greece - d: Athina Rachel Tsangari
28. Manchester by the Sea - USA - d: Kenneth Lonergan
29. Sunset Song - UK - d: Terence Davies
30. Weiner - USA - d: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg

Honorable Mentions: Eye in the Sky, The Invitation, DePalma, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Me, Wiener-Dog, Deadpool, Green Room, Everybody Wants Some!, Hello My Name is Doris, Knight of Cups

Best Performances, in order
1. Isabelle Huppert - Elle
2. Sally Field - Hello, My Name is Doris
3. Lily Gladstone - Certain Women
4. Sandra Huller - Toni Erdmann
5. Naomie Harris - Moonlight
6. Hayley Squires - I, Daniel Blake
7. Kate Beckinsale - Love & Friendship 
8. Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea
9. Natalie Portman - Jackie
10. Viola Davis - Fences
11. Sasha Lane - American Honey
12. Ellen Burstyn - Wiener-Dog
13. Ruth Negga - Loving
14. Royalty Hightower - The Fits

1. Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
2. Denzel Washington - Fences
3. Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
4. Trevante Rhodes - Moonlight
5. Peter Simonischek - Toni Erdmann
6. Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water
7. Ben Foster - Hell or High Water
8. Joel Edgerton - Loving
9. Lucas Hedges - Manchester by the Sea
10. Shia LaBeouf - American Honey
11. Issey Ogata - Silence
12. Tom Bennett - Love & Friendship
13. Patrick Stewart - Green Room
14. Ryan Reynolds - Deadpool

Acting Purple Heart goes to Aja Naomi King who managed to create a complete human being in Nate Parker's disastrous Birth of a Nation, a film concerned with her character's suffering only as a plot point.

The Nestor Almendros Color Cinematography Award: James Laxton for his beautiful work on Moonlight.
Runner-up: I actually recognized Bradford Young's camerawork on Arrival before I saw his name in the credits. He is becoming a true cinematographic auteur.

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Tony Gilroy, the man who saved Rogue One from being a debacle. Let's hear it for experience over just being the hot new thing.
Runner-up: Dan Trachtenberg for his taut work on 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The Samson Raphaelson Screenwriting Award: Whit Stillman for his adaptation of Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan (which became Love & Friendship) & Taylor Sheridan for his original screenplay for Hell or High Water.

The William Cameron Menzies Production Design Award: Mark Tildesley for his work on High-Rise, a film that beautifully captured the entropy that leads to Brexit and Trump. Not since Verhoeven's Total Recall has Brutalism has served a film so well.

The Theodora van Runkle Costume Design Award: Madeline Fontaine for her work on Jackie.
Runner-up: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh for Love & Friendship.

The Masaru Sato Composing Award: Mica Levi for her expressive work on Jackie. She's pretty much my favorite new film composer.
Runner-up: Sqürl (a group comprised of Jim Jarmusch, Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback) for their work on Paterson.
Best use of existing music: the jaw-dropping use of Antonin Dvorak's exuberant New World Symphony in O.J.: Made in America for the verdict sequence.

The Margaret Booth Editing Award: Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws for their stunning work on Cameraperson. The documentary is clearly about witnessing and recording but the power often comes from how those images are juxtaposed. I think that's referred to as cinema.

The Alan Splet Sound Design Award: to the sound department of Silence.

The David O. Selznick Producing Award: no award this year.

Best Revival of the Year: the complete Frederick Wiseman retrospective at Cinefamily. Only the first leg of the retrospective played this year (they're breaking his filmography up into chronological sections and playing one section a year over the next few years) and it really stunned me. I had only heard about Wiseman's work before this year but seeing it left a profound impression on me and confirmed him in my mind his status as one of our greatest living filmmakers.

The Grant Tinker Television Award: Black Mirror has done what many shows inspired by Rod Serling have failed at. It gives us a peak into dystopias just within our grasp and is at once ahead of its time and of it. This year feels like we're all trapped in one of its episodes. Special mention to the "San Junipero" and "Nosedive" episodes of season three.
Runners-up: Atlanta, Fleabag, Search Party, Horace & Pete, The Get Down, The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Westworld, Marvel's Luke Cage, Game of Thrones, Insecure

Comeback of the year: 35mm film stock (although to be honest the best looking films of the year were shot digitally).

Special Mention for a 2015 film seen after 1/1/2016: Jafar Panahi's Taxi is simple, gorgeous and contains multitudes. He continues to be the great real life story of artistic triumph over state idiocy and we in America will need to follow his brave lead in the years to come. No filmmaker anywhere can throw in the towel when Panahi perseveres and fights for us all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Magneto Was Right": Recalibrating the Comic Book Movie for the Trump Age

"Maybe an asshole is what we need!" I heard variations of this sentiment throughout the utterly dispiriting, anomic 2016 presidential election cycle. This was the rationale of a segment of the population who had come to view themselves as an embattled minority. It also explains why this voting bloc convinced themselves that a man who emblazons his name on skyscrapers was the savior they'd been waiting for.

I won't pretend that the outcome of this election was easily foreseen. I was as wrong about this election as I've ever been about anything and I am not alone. But hindsight is 20/20, and one of the indicators that we were in for a Trump victory are the comic book movies of 2016.

I've pointed out many times to friends, colleagues, and students that the 2016 crop of CBM featured an interesting trend. This was the year of the anti-hero and also the year of heroes fighting heroes. "Maybe an asshole is what we need" could've been the tagline for Deadpool or Suicide Squad. This was the year where supervillains got a chance to act heroic or erased the line between hero and villain altogether.

It might be a stretch to say that Batman v Superman also presaged a Trump win but nevertheless the argument can be made. Superman, both an immigrant alien and a member of the media (two of Trump's favorite betes noires), is portrayed by Zack Snyder as cold, self-centered, and not at all living up to the values of truth, justice, and the American Way. And worse than all of that, he's smug about his own omnipotence and imperviousness. In short, Superman is a stand-in for one of those coastal elites that have been ruining a once proud nation (the Last Son of Krypton is a well-documented metaphor for Jewishness so there's that too). And of course, you can almost understand Trump supporters if you attempt to see Trump as a Bruce Wayne figure: a man of wealth who is using his vast resources to help the common man (we might also pin Trump's success on comic books that all too often equate wealth with heroism). It's certainly clear that Trump's fans see his defeat of Hillary Clinton as a satisfying humbling of someone thought to be unbeatable, just like Superman, incredulous as a mere mortal blocks his punch.

The President of the United States is a fixture of the comic book movie and makes many appearances in comic books. As a kid I remember reading a Superboy comic where he stopped by the White House to give JFK a pager to summon the lad of steel whenever he needed to. Of course, superheroes and presidents are natural allies. Both are our protectors. They reflect the best of our values and the potential we all have to become great leaders and serve our fellow man. Or at least that held true until two weeks ago.

Whether you revile Trump or applaud his victory, one thing that cannot be denied is that he is a break with every thing that has come before in the Oval Office. There have been crooks and charlatans atop the executive branch before, but none have so proudly embraced their shadow self like the next president. As his follower said "maybe an asshole is what we need". We shall see.

[Side note: in January 2009 Marvel published a Spider-Man comic in which Peter Parker, covering the Obama inauguration for the Daily Bugle, has to don his tights and save the president-elect from a supervillain. The bad guy, Chameleon, shape shifts into Obama and Spidey has to figure out which one is the real Obama and which is the imposter. Fascinating.]

One thing that's clear is that the comic book movie will have to adjust for this new kind of president. Already the implications of the Trump election cast a harsh and unfavorable light on some of the best comic book movies of the post-Iron Man era. I keep thinking about Heath Ledger's Joker whose idee fixe is that "good people" will become monsters with the slightest nudge. Batman disagrees and Nolan does too. As the Trump era dawns and we watch Americans perform the Nazi salute, dismiss bigotry as trivial and generally give themselves over to their reptile brain, The Dark Knight feels like a lie. Of course the nameless self-righteous prick would've detonated the bomb on the prison ferry. I don't even think anyone would stop him today. Ledger's Joker would view this election cycle with the glee of a child waking up on Christmas morning.

One cannot discuss comic book heroes and the presidency without mentioning the jaw-dropping "Secret Empire" Captain America storyline of 1974. You can read about it here, but to summarize writer Steve Englehart had Cap take on President Richard Nixon and bring him down. Cap is so disgusted with what America has become at the end of the tale he drops the Captain America mantle and becomes "Nomad" (a man without a country), a character without any patriotic/nationalist identification.

Unlike his movie counterpart, the Cap of the comic books came out of the ice in 1964 to a nation still grieving a slain president. He also watched his beloved homeland nearly rend itself asunder over race and imperialism. Englehart and other writers shrewdly knew Cap couldn't become a fossilized avatar of a nation's best intentions. They turned Captain America instead into the nagging conscience of a superpower. That take on Captain America has been adopted by the recent spate of Marvel-based films known to aficianados as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Though he's never come face to face with the president (played by William Sadler in Iron Man 3 and Agents of SHIELD), Captain America has spent much of his trilogy defying the will of corrupt organs of the state. The trilogy takes on a prescience as a lead up to a Trump presidency. It begins in America's great test (World War II, a time presumably when -according to Trump- America was great) before jumping to a modern day where the mythology of Captain America: The First Avenger has been used to hide a cancer that becomes exposed in the sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In this year's Captain America: Civil War our hero once again becomes an outlaw when he disobeys what he sees as governmental overreach. And now Cap's point, (that you cannot cede too much power to the state because if you like the leader today, what about the next one) is driven home by Trump's ascendancy. If you doubt that Steve Rogers would refuse to answer to President Trump, take a look at Chris Evans' Twitter feed. His passionate plea for basic decency could be written by Cap himself.

Part of me almost needs to see the fictional American avatar slug out Trump as he once did another nation's dictator, but the Captain America trilogy has already warned us of a worst case Trump scenario. The other comic book franchise obsessed with government overreach is the X-Men series. The second X-Men film began with a teleporting mutant nearly assassinating the president and subsequent films have featured the head of state, including Tricky Dick himself.

I've thought a lot about the X-Men since Trump won. He shamelessly vilified different minority groups and has touched off a tidal wave of bigoted bile in our country. Once, when we were a more gentle nation we had to create metaphors for the kind of hate that can be seen in earnest on social media today. Mutants (characters born with their superpowers who sometimes have an unusual appearance that marks them for mob violence) were a stand-in for all these despised groups that once again many Americans feel safe to deride openly.

Trump pretty much validates the entire ideology of the X-Men's great antagonist, Magneto. A child of the Shoah, he uses his vast powers to protect mutantkind from the kind of bigotry Trump has trafficked in. Magneto knows war between humans and mutants is inevitable and has vowed to meet it head on. "Never again", indeed. In an interview Sir Ian McKellen once shared that Black males had become his biggest fans since he took on the role of Magneto. His character has been positioned as the Malcolm X to the X-Men's MLK, and the fact that there's truth in his worldview has made him one of Marvel's most compelling villains. Since Trump's election, I've thought of this t-shirt and considered buying it.

We could really use a great X-Men film now. Specifically one where the antagonist is anti-mutant hysteria itself. Sadly the current custodians of the property are lost in the past, have forsaken the present and have thereby betrayed what made the X-Men essential reading for so many of us who grew up feeling different from those around us. The X-Men should be a bulwark against Trumpism.

So where do comic book movies go from here? Do they comment on Trump's break with traditional leadership and American values? Interestingly the MCU won't have to deal with this question for some time as the storyline is set to take the films out of America and bring to the narrative an extraterrestrial warlord seeking omnipotence. It is interesting that two of the MCU's grand gestures to diversity, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are set to shoot in the next two years. The push to get these heroes on screen now seems at odds with the times and more's the pity.

I suspect the producers at Marvel are relieved they can steer clear of the Oval Office for some time and focus on deep space, the multiverse, or Wakanda instead. The presidency was once a part of the superhero genre, but it will be take some time to see how Trump handles the office for that to become true again. Some brave soul may try to have their fictional hero take on the next president. If Trump succeeds (not even sure what that means but let's say he delivers a booming economy, keeps us out of war, and doesn't strip too many civil liberties away) perhaps the superhero will drift towards him. But if he isn't a success, if it turns out that in fact an asshole is never what you need, then we may need the superhero to remind us of those values lost in the name of moral shortcuts and political gamesmanship.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again"

There's not one machismo, there are many types. There are people who like to brag about their ability to eat spicy food. There are people that love to inform you that sitting for an 8 hour movie is no big deal. You name it, there's someone bragging about their insouciance and subtly shaming you for your lack of it. One of the more noxious and obnoxious forms of this is shock machismo. This is when something terrible happens and the first response is to shrug with heavy eyelids.

Of course, shock machismo is just an adolescent pose. It is an attempt to control chaos, to tell it you are still in charge even when that's clearly untrue. And in some quarters we have seen a tiny bit of shock machismo in action with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.

Even typing those words sends a wave of nausea through my body. I suppose it would be comforting to not allow myself to be horrified by this. For some that resistance takes the form of shock machismo ("What'd you expect from AmeriKKKa?"), for others it takes the form of normalization ("I know Trump destroyed every value we claim to hold dear in this country to win but it's time to give him the benefit of the doubt."). To give one's self over to the apocalyptic horror of this election is harrowing. I suppose I should be patient with people trying to not look this particular Medusa in the face. But I am not.

Whether Trump institutes a fascist dictatorship like something out of an 80's dystopian sci-fi movie directed by a British commercial director or turns out to be an ineffectual bumbler, we have lost something we will never reclaim. We have lost the ability to say that in America truth matters. We have lost the ability to say that in America basic human decency matters. We have lost the ability to look at ourselves as different from the backwards nations we have deemed cruel and inferior. We have lost the ability to say that competence and qualification matter more than identity and celebrity. And these losses should haunt us all for the rest of our lives.

But how do we make sense of this so we can ward off the paralysis that comes along with facing the abyss? That will takes us a long time to do. And even though very smart people have already isolated some of the key factors in this historic election it fails to make this event seem like anything more than a nightmare that should never have happened.

The beauty of history is how it puts everything into perspective. Nothing that happens has never happened before. It doesn't ease the pain of a calamity, but it at least offers an important reminder that life will go on. There are many obvious historic precedents for the Trump election. The first is Reconstruction and Redemption. After the American Civil War, the federal government attempted to make good on its promises of full citizenship to the formerly enslaved. That progress was real until the southern whites, who viewed themselves as redeemers of the south and not despoilers of liberty, stopped that progress and put Jim Crow in place for a century.

The 1990s were another time when minority groups made great strides only to have that answered with the George W. Bush era. Whenever we see equality coming to America's minorities, backlash follows. And for me, the first time I saw that happen was when I was 8 years old.

On July 12, 1979 in Chicago, radio DJ Steve Dahl hosted an unusual event. In the interval of a White Sox doubleheader, Dahl organized a ceremonious burning of disco records. Dahl hated disco and branded himself the general of an "anti-disco army" (he showed up to the record burning in military regalia). The deal was you'd be admitted to the game for only one dollar if you brought a disco record to be thrown on the pile. Dahl and the White Sox organization feared the night would be a flop. Their fears were unfounded. The crowd was so large Comiskey Park hit capacity and an estimated 20,000 were unable to be admitted to the park.

If you google "Disco Demolition Night" you can read the accounts and see the photos of what happened. Once Dahl started literally blowing up heaps of disco records, his mostly white male army lost control of themselves and a full scale riot ensued. The second game planned that night had to be forfeited. People were dismayed by this gleeful act of incivility on the hallowed grounds of America's pastime but Dahl was unrepentant and reveled in his achievement.

I was 8 when this happened and nowhere near Chicago. But what I remember is seeing this in the news and thinking "how could anyone hate dance music that much?" But of course, this wasn't about music. It was about culture. It was an act of white male cultural reclamation against a musical movement that threatened their dominion.

It doesn't matter how you personally feel about disco. It had detractors from many quarters (some producers of soul music rejected disco as a white bastardization of Black music). But the facts are these: disco brought the races together, offered female vocalists a position of power, and threatened norms of gender and sexuality. It was in short the musical analog of all the social liberation happening in the glorious 1970s; a decade when Blacks, Latinos, women and gays made a bid for the mainstream.

And within a year of Disco Demolition Night, it had all evaporated. The targeted music scene collapsed. Disco was never going to have a long life but Dahl's spectacle certainly legitimized and accelerated the backlash. It told the guy who never could dance and found disco alienating that he wasn't alone. And he was emboldened. So disco fell. Shortly after that Ronald Reagan was elected president. This ushered in an era of swaggering conservatism where the strides made by the women, the gays, the Blacks and the Latinos were almost erased.

And here we are, once again. In truth I've wondered more than once during the Obama era when that "Disco Sucks" moment would arrive. I even began to think that maybe we wouldn't see a grand backlash from conservative white America. But Tuesday it came, led incongruously by a man known to frequent Studio 54 with his gay Jewish mentor on several occasions.

So what do we take away from this? First we take that backlash is almost the natural order. For the democratic candidate to prevail would have gone against persistent trends. It could have happened, but I think many including myself underestimated how much a Clinton victory would've upended historic pattern (I don't mean that she was a woman- though there is that). This defeat should not be read as proof that liberalism cannot succeed, but more that America tends to act as a pendulum between left and right especially when identity politics are thrown in.

For me one of the most maddening aspects of the Monday morning quarterbacking is all the handwringing over the Democratic party's perceived failure to woo the white working class. Imagine on July 13, 1979 a group of disco producers and club DJs looking at Dahl's spectacle and asking themselves "maybe we should've thought more about rock fans when we made disco." That seems absurd, right? I know many will find this to be a hyperextended analogy but this is what I think of when I hear that the Dems failed the white working class (and can we also remind ourselves that said white working class abandoned the Dems for the GOP after the Dems decided to secure civil rights for non-whites- how does one woo someone back who is offended by equality?). Every political party has to concern itself with outreach, but the notion that the Trumpist white proletariat would ever see anything that spoke to them in the Democratic nominees is delusional and an unproductive avenue of discussion. They could no more support a Dem than Dahl's soldiers could trade in Rush for Chic.

If you think I'm being dangerously dismissive or glib let me remind you that the Democratic candidate got more votes and her electoral college shortfall could've been more easily avoided if stopping fascism was more important to some lefties than rejecting so-called "neoliberalism".

Finally, the most important lesson to take from Disco Demolition Night is that its success was limited. Yes, disco disappeared, but while they were blowing up records in Chicago they were scratching records in New York City. Hip Hop, not quite as disturbing to rock fans perhaps but a musical idiom that would one day overthrow rock's cultural primacy nonetheless, was already hatching. And somewhere in Chicago as Dahl and his anti-disco army rioted was a Black gay DJ the world would come to know as Frankie Knuckles who later fathered house music which he called "disco's revenge."

In other words, the door to progress seemed to have been shut and bolted in 1980 with the ascendance of Reagan, but it was only for a time. Disco Demolition Night didn't kill disco forever. Reagan didn't prevent the election of Obama. The murder of Harvey Milk didn't prevent Transparent from winning Emmys. Backlash doesn't last forever. It only puts some drag on forward momentum, it cannot completely reverse it.

This election is a catastrophe. There is no softening or sugarcoating it. People are going to suffer and some will die because (white) America chose a leader who made fascist overtures his remedy for what ails us. But history teaches us that this is part of the eternal cycle of history. The pendulum will not stay in one place forever.

It reminds me of the ending of Bernardo Bertolucci's delirious Marxist epic 1900. After the peasants celebrate the fall of fascism and the victory of the proletariat, the film ends with communist Olmo and padrone Alfredo (played by Depardieu and DeNiro) as old men scuffling like little boys. The greatness of Bertolucci was in recognizing that the film, despite its earnest belief in a workers' revolution, could not end with a pageant of proletarian victory. No it ends with the peasant and the landowner locked in eternal combat which is as much comic as tragic. And so it goes for the left and right in America. We will never have a progressive utopia. We will have progressive eras that give way to backlash before they are restored. Whether that fact is depressing or encouraging is a matter of perspective, or perhaps, an act of will.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Goodbye, Vine (a eulogy for an app in 6 paragraphs)

Goodbye, Vine. It was short run but that seems appropriate. It may make us uncomfortable but the apps in our phones are shaping us in a profound way. They're shaping how we think, what we think about and the way we see the world. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. It's been barely 4 years since the app was released but it has had tremendous impact even as it clearly spent the second half of that life span in decline. 

One of the things that marks digital filmmaking is the lifting of restrictions in shot duration. In the analog days you knew a take had to end sooner than later because eventually the magazine would run out of film (the time varied depending on the format). Beyond that film was frankly too expensive to regularly push the length of a shot to the limit. But along came digital video and suddenly the limits were gone. You could film an entire feature in one take digitally (from Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark to last year's Victoria from Germany).

But Vine put a strict limit on you. Six seconds. Perfect for an attention deficit afflicted populace to be sure but also an incredible challenge for the Vinemaker. Many rose to the challenge and mastered the medium. Of the many "Vine stars", a phrase both whimsical and ominous, most achieved that notoriety through comedy. Six seconds is also roughly the time span of our most elementary jokes and these Vinemakers understood that deeply. Moreover the looping of these videos became a formal restriction that many turned into a virtue. How many times was the one-two punch of an abrupt end smashing into the beginning what made a Vine funny?

Of course it ain't a successful app unless porn becomes an issue. Unbeknownst to many, Vine was quickly awash in DIY pornography. Much of that "adult" content was posted by the young, including minors, who have been so shaped by the omnipresence of Internet porn they leaped into this breach with barely a thought. Eventually Vine (which was purchased by Twitter- another app with a decidedly laissez-faire attitude to porn- before it was launched not dissimilar to Facebook's purchase of Vine's rival Instagram) had to clean up its act and purge the elicit material. Or at least most of it. But what will become of all this homegrown smut let loose in cyberspace? It will no doubt live on past the app itself. 

Beyond porn and comedy, Vine also became a tool for social justice. In Hong Kong, America, or anyplace where the people stood up against the powers that be, Vine was there too. Black Lives Matter luminary Deray McKesson spoke this morning on how Vine's limitations forced the Vinemaker to be very judicious with what they shot so that the essential moment of a protest would be captured. I'm sure that trained the protestors how to keep focused and be concise. Valuable lessons. 

But when I look at my own Vine account, I see something else. I see my son (the one who doesn't mind being filmed). And as I scroll down my Vines it becomes a Benjamin Button movie: he ages backwards from the little boy I see now to a toddler to a baby taking his first steps. I get emotional looking at my Vine account and I cannot say that about any of my other social media accounts on other platforms. More than the other apps Vine was about time: it froze one moment into eternity, erased long intervals, and it allowed you to travel back to things like a living digital memory. It was serious. It was funny. It was pervy. It was us. Goodbye, Vine.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards a New Black Masculinity: Obama, Luke Cage, Nate Parker and Chiron.

The joke has returned. I’m speaking specifically of the Obama Joke. If you watch Black standup comedy you probably know what I’m getting at. Though it may not get the respect it deserves, standup is always a fascinating peek into a group’s collective unconscious. At its best, it verbalizes unspoken knowledge a culture carries silently in its gut. And in November 2008, once the shock of Obama’s election had been processed into acceptance that history had been forever altered before our eyes, you heard a certain joke all the time. 

It went like this: now that Obama had been elected, we would soon see “the Real Obama”, the authentic Black man that the junior senator from Illinois had been skillfully hiding from (white) America on his year long odyssey to the Oval Office. This was not the stuff of great comedy. It was low-hanging fruit. It was instantly hacky. But more and more comics took their turn at this particular piñata as November became December and the inauguration approached. 

I can’t remember specific jokes but they ran along the lines that his speech and mien would become more recognizably Black now that he’d secured power. It was as if Obama’s election was such a seismic event the first response was to cast Obama in the part of the wiley trickster who had put one over on America. It was an understandable reaction. And yet it is a little unsettling when we view these jokes as a foreshadow of the far more sinister birtherism to come. In other words, some Black people questioned the veracity of Obama’s identity first, then a type of white person did it too in a far less playful manner. But in the end these were both flawed ways to reckon with this man who had changed history.

President Obama has always been viewed as some sort of Trojan Horse. But now, with less than 100 days left in his presidency, none of that came to pass. The Obama that ran for office, the Obama that wrote two beautifully written books, the Obama that made people believe in hope again, was the Obama we got. 

But just as birtherism has proved impossible to kill, the Obama Joke too has come back to life. In Cedric the Entertainer’s new Netflix special Live from the Ville he makes jokes about Obama quitting “like that Black lady on the news” after dealing with Republican obstruction for years. Cedric dives deep back to that 2008 bit saying Obama “won’t put on a suit on that last day, he gon’ walk to that helicopter in pair of Jordan flip flops…a wave cap on”. The Entertainer goes on to acknowledge that Obama’s near-Vulcan demeanor enabled him to succeed at such a public, high pressure job (and separates him from African-Americans of a more choleric disposition) but then points out when Obama's patience is short “every now and then that Negro shows up and we see it first.” He wraps up the bit by likening Obama to a thug (citing Obama’s kill list as president) despite his calm manner.

There is a lot to parse out about the Obama presidency but his impact on Black masculinity is fascinating. Blacks and whites alike are still recalibrating what a powerful Black man looks and sounds like and some old ideas die hard. This presidency has been transformational and the final year of it has been a tumultuous one. 

2016 has taken so much from us all. But perhaps we can view the year in a new way. Rather than looking at it as a year of loss and collapse, it might be better to view it as one of transformation and a prelude to rebirth. As the year draws to a close, this is what seems to be unfolding. And no aspect of this is more clear than the way 2016 has affected our ideas about Black masculinity. 

At the beginning of this month, something else collapsed: Netflix. The streaming service was literally crashed on the first of October. The cause was clear: Luke Cage had come to Netflix. The third of their original series based on Marvel Comics properties, Luke Cage focuses on one of Marvel’s singular creations. Created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., and George Tuska, Luke Cage was Marvel’s transparent bid to capitalize on the Blaxploitation movement of American film. Cage was a Black hero but he was not Marvel’s first. That distinction belongs to Black Panther, who turned 50 this year (debuting three months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party). In 1969 came Marvel’s first Black American hero, Falcon. 

But Cage was a significant break from what had come before. He was not an aristocrat from an exotic land, nor was he a social worker from the Black middle class (this was Falcon’s original origin before later being retconned). Cage was an ex-convict, given powers by an experiment gone awry in a hellish prison. It is important to note that Cage was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison, but he was a Harlem gang member who had committed crimes in the past. 

A word about those powers: Luke Cage undergoes a painful transformation that makes his skin and bones virtually unbreakable and grants him super-strength (his might is dwarfed by the physical strength of Iron Man or Thor, but still far stronger than a normal human being). Luke Cage becomes bulletproof. It should be noted that neither Black Panther nor Falcon had been endowed with super powers. The former, like Captain America, was at the peak of human strength and speed but not superhuman. And aside from a connection to his falcon Redwing, the Falcon had no powers at all (his flying rig was originally created in Wakanda, the technological titan ruled by Black Panther).

The idea of a bulletproof Black man in comics obviously came directly from the violence directed at Black bodies in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is uncanny that Cage finally makes it to our screens after decades of failed attempts at a time where again the violent murders of Black men are a weekly part of our news. But the creators of Luke Cage did one more thing to distinguish him from other Black heroes: they made him decidedly working class and fairly apolitical. Cage was a “hero for hire”. This put him squarely in the Blaxploitation tradition which in turn had been influenced by American hard-boiled detective fiction. Luke Cage didn’t even bother with a nom de guerre like Falcon and Black Panther. He was simply Luke Cage (though that name was an alias) and he used his powers to get paid, not out of altruism. 

For these three reasons, Cage occupies a special place in the hearts of Black comic book nerds, especially men. The reaction I get when I wear my Luke Cage t-shirt from Black men is pretty striking. My Black Panther t-shirt does not elicit the same response. Cage is a Black everyman and has become a totem of Black masculinity like no other character in comics. His origin smacks of Malcolm X but rather than set out to change the world after his jailhouse transmutation, Cage sets out to survive in a cruel and harsh world and that struggle connected with his readers. 

As the 70s progressed Cage became Power Man and was a given a partner, a hero similarly created to capitalize on another genre of film popular in the early 70s with African-Americans. But his mission stayed the same. “Hero for Hire” became plural but Cage never became a corny do-gooder. 

His signature yellow disco shirt, tiara and hot pants hung on into the 1980s until Cage was given a new look. His head was now shaved, the disco shirt became a t-shirt and only his heavy metallic gauntlets survived. He now had a look that fit his workingman persona. This is the look Mike Colter’s portrayal of Cage in the Netflix series is based on. 

Colter’s Cage first appeared a year ago in Jessica Jones as a supporting character and love interest for the similarly powered titular heroine. One oft-repeated line is that the Cage featured in Jessica Jones is superior to the Cage featured in his own series. I don’t agree but I get where that comes from. The Cage in Jessica Jones is more in line with the comic books. He’s an everyman who rejects costumed adventuring as foolishness (even though he lives in a city saved by such action). But when Cheo Hodari Coker (showrunner for Luke Cage) takes over the character from Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Cage does shift a bit. 

In Luke Cage, he has fled Hell’s Kitchen after the events in Jessica Jones and gone uptown to Harlem. The show makes some changes to the character’s established origin. He is no longer a Harlem native. He is an avid student of Black culture and history. And while he is still an ex-convict he is also now an ex-cop instead of an ex-gang member. That last one is big. It takes away some of Luke Cage’s street cred and makes him a figure of the establishment similar to Black Panther and Falcon, albeit a fallen one.

I think the possible reasons why might have something to do with Coker’s approach to the character. Luke Cage features a postlapsarian view of Black culture. While the show lovingly showcases Harlem and its history, it also takes the position that for all the gloriousness of Black culture in America, we fell from grace. The drug epidemic and attendant nihilism of the 1980s have left scars on us and the show deals with that. 

And though Hip Hop is central to Luke Cage he is not presented as blinged out and street as some of his more recent incarnations. Instead he’s old school and timeless; a man of the moment who is shaped profoundly by the past. In Coker’s hands, Cage becomes a metaphor for Black people as a whole striving to use awesome power in a positive way so that we can live up to the expectations of the giants who paved the way for us. 

Some read this as “respectability politics”. Luke’s refusal to swear or use the “N-word” (in a format where that is a possibility) clashes with the edgy Cage of our youth. But what is the point of a hero who doesn’t in some ways inspire fans to be their best selves? Coker has refashioned Cage for the Obama-era without violating the character’s core. And he also gives us a Luke Cage who values women not just as objects of desire but also as allies. This Luke Cage offers us a new progressive form of Black masculinity, one that values collaboration, community and seeks to rebuild more than destroy. The counterpoint offered by his adversary, deemed too soft and sensitive as a boy, shaped by a toxic masculinity that makes him a man willing to level a building to kill one person, is striking.

On the heels of Luke Cage came a theatrical release also purporting to tell the story of a Black hero. Actor Nate Parker took the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by storm with his passion project which he called in a breathtaking act of subversion The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in this look at the life of Nat Turner who led a violent slave revolt in 1831 that shook the slave states to their cores. Parker, a Virginia native like Turner, viewed this film in the same light that Turner viewed his plans for rebellion: as a divine mission. Leading up to the film’s debut, Parker spoke of this as more than a film. He chose Fox Searchlight as a distributor in part because he wanted the film to be a big screen experience. He also got Fox Searchlight to create teaching guides and plan a tour of colleges as a condition of the sale. Like Coker, Parker was taking Nat Turner and fashioning him into the hero he believed we need. 

But, of course, things didn’t go as Parker planned. 

Parker’s 2001 rape charge (for the record he was acquitted though he did have sex with the victim that he maintained was consensual) supplanted the film itself. Suddenly the conversation Parker wanted to have had become something else and his attempts to address the charge only added fuel to the fire. The word “boycott” entered the conversation. 

Though I respect the decision to do so, I chose not to boycott. In my view, Birth of a Nation is a failure and a curious one at that. Never mind that it is mediocre, that it modeled itself after Braveheart when it should’ve aimed higher. The unpardonable sin is that Birth of a Nation seeks to turn Nat Turner into a Marvel hero. It fabricates a rape as if slavery wasn’t sufficient motivation. It reduces women to suffering motivators rather than giving them agency (something called “fridging” in comic books which Nate Parker has clearly never heard of).  But most intriguing is how thoroughly retrograde Parker seems to be from the choices he has made and the hero he has created.

It has never been clear to me what Parker’s aim is beyond making Nat Turner a more recognizable figure. Does the film have anything to say for the post-Obama era? What directives are we to take from seeing a violent resistance to the horrors of white supremacy? Perhaps Parker had intended to speak to this more directly before his past overtook him.

I don’t use “retrograde” to insult Parker. I use it to refer to his point of view which seems rooted in a bygone era. I don’t know Parker’s exact age but the ideas he espouses through word and deed seem to belong to a much older man. Even his choice to turn down Netflix’s much bigger offer for Fox Searchlight reflects someone thinking in an outmoded way. Or perhaps it suggests personal ambition was more of a motivation than simply bringing Turner’s story to the public (Netflix would’ve put the movie in every living room in America but it would have also ended any hopes for an Oscar). 

Similarly, Parker’s view of a Black male hero is of another time. I suppose Parker wanted to make Turner into a classical hero not unlike a man Mel Gibson or John Wayne might play but it missed an opportunity to either create an alternative to those Western models or critique the ways in which the oppressed can come to resemble their oppressor in the act of rejecting that oppression. 

But all such nuance is ignored. Parker refuses to show the brutality his army dealt to whites in a way that is frankly an act of artistic cowardice. Showing the brutalization of white people in equally unflinching terms is necessary in a film that lingers on how whites brutalized their slaves. But that’s messy. That’s disturbing. And that’s not what Parker wants you to feel. Exhibit A: the use of John Williams-style choral singing on the soundtrack clashes with the brutality of Nate’s first kill. But the score more than editing or camera, is often the clearest window into the soul of a director and Parker wants you to see this murder as not tragically inevitable but ennobling. I could accept that if the subsequent murders were handled more frankly. 

Parker’s Turner dies surrounded by a scornful horde (an uncanny foreshadow of Parker’s public excoriation prior to the film’s release) but the director wants you to know he didn’t die in vain even though the rebellion failed. Parker allowed Nat Turner to settle a few personal scores before the gallows. He accepts death beatifically. Now that the film has failed and Parker’s reputation is in ruins one can’t help wondering if the hero narrative he’s constructed has sustained him through this ordeal or if it has caused him to reflect on how he might have handled things in another way. 

Parker famously said he refused to play a gay man because “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons” and “to preserve the Black man…you will never see me take a gay role.” Nat Turner took an eclipse as a divine signal to lead his rebellion and Nate Parker should similarly view the auspicious arrival of Moonlight as an omen to rethink his outdated homophobic nonsense. 

Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight focuses on three moments in the life of Chiron, a Black gay boy growing up in Miami’s Liberty City. We see Chiron at turning point moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he tries to come to terms with the abuse, homophobia and toxic masculinity he’s grown up with. The film has set records in its first weekend of release for per screen average (meaning even though it is only playing on a handful of screens it is making a ton of money). I saw it Friday night at a screening that had to be moved to the Cinerama Dome to accommodate the demand. 

Moonlight, without a ton of paid ballyhoo from a studio, is the film Parker wanted Birth of a Nation to be. It has comes to the screen with a sizable audience hungry for it, who have been waiting to see it for most of their lives. And Moonlight is revolutionary in ways that Birth of a Nation is not. We’ve seen Black men stand up and violently resist oppression. Not a lot, but we have seen it. But we’ve rarely seen a film about intimacy between Black men. We’ve rarely seen a film show how toxic masculinity can destroy Black men as quickly as racist oppression. We’ve rarely seen a film where the great act of masculine courage is not acting out violently, it is learning to feel worthy of love. 

What’s so striking about Moonlight is that for the first half of the film, Chiron’s queerness is more or less beside the point. He could be straight and still suffer the same soul crushing oppression and emotional brutality and it would be no less deleterious. But he is gay and the film will force many to question what being gay looks like and what it means. Chiron responds to his oppression by fashioning himself into the very picture of Black masculinity. The actor who plays him as an adult looks every bit the superhero and could easily play Luke Cage or Black Panther. But that kind of manhood, the kind that Nate Parker seems to think is so precious and sacrosanct is not Chiron’s salvation. It is an imperfect solution that the culture he’s grown up in has led him towards. 

These are trying times but they’re also remarkable and exciting times. We are once again on the verge of making history at the ballot box. We are seeing some amazing strides toward social justice taking place. And we have lost many dear figures along the way (namely Prince, who violated codes of Black masculinity when he felt like it and on his own terms setting a whole generation free in the process).  Taking it all in we see that all of this loss only portends that a new era is coming. In the Hindu faith, Shiva is the destroyer deity; but in Shaivism, Shiva is the creator, destroyer, and regenerator. 

I see that pattern in this year. I see this pattern with the receptions of both Birth of a Nation and Moonlight. And I see aspects of that in how Black masculinity has unfolded in the Obama era. He has changed forever what a Black man can be and what a Black man can believe. He shows us that being a feminist, supporting marriage equality for LGBT people and being photographed with a tiara does nothing to diminish your masculinity. And if it does, leave it behind this year and allow something else to replace. 

If you’re brave enough, of course. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spike Lee's 10 Worst Female Characters (along with a consideration of his best female characters, from October 2009)

The following originally began as a series of tweets in the fall of 2009. It was then collected and published by Shadow and Act but with the publication changing hands the article has gone missing. I've retrieved it from a message board and posted it below. This seems an especially apt time to revisit the countdown with the news that filming is currently underway on a remake of Mr. Lee's groundbreaking, epoch-defining debut She's Gotta Have It as a series for Netflix. I cannot wait to see what Lee does when he comes to retell a story from 30 years ago, especially with regard to his female characters and how they are written and executed.

And now, the countdown:

At number 10, I am going with Betty Shabazz, portrayed by Angela Bassett in Spike’s 1992 magnum opus Malcolm X. Here’s why: Malcolm is a perpetual student, an eternal protegee. I think his wife should have played a far bigger role in his evolution. Yes Betty gets the one knock down drag out scene, but beyond that she is just the Good Wife and nothing more. I owe a debt to @ChrisMacDen who recently tweeted about this. He knew Dr. Shabazz, and said she deserved better than she got in Malcolm X. I love Spike, but women have always been his Achilles Heel. Betty Shabazz (the character) is one sad example of that.

Spike’s women are either, duplicitous, martyrs, or beside the point. He also falls into the madonna/whore dichotomy far too often. And what’s interesting is that from the very beginning he has been dogged by charges of misogyny/sexism. One huge caveat to all of this is Crooklyn.

Largely written by his sister Joie (and Cinque Lee), this film features many great female characters: Troy, Joie’s stand-in, is easily the greatest Spike Lee heroine ever. She was played by Zelda Harris, who (sadly) could not find roles worthy of her debut. Crooklyn also features the great Alfre Woodard as Carolyn, Troy’s formidable doomed mother. And Aunt Song (played by the late Frances Foster) is one of my favorite supporting characters. But take away Crooklyn and it is hard to find many rounded, complex women who aren’t traitors, whores, or beatific martyrs.

For the ninth worst female character in Spike Lee’s oeuvre, I pick Clarke Betancourt, played by Cynda Williams in 1990’s Mo’Better Blues.

Clarke, an ambitious jazz chanteuse, is a great example of the ‘don’t trust women’ ethos Spike espouses in so many films. She is one point of a love triangle, and in that arrangement she also comes to be the whore to Joie Lee’s madonna. 

Indigo "saves" Bleek, thereby fulfilling her madonna destiny, whereas Clarke sleeps with Bleek’s rival, presumably to further her career. Clarke isn’t evil. She’s just limited due to Spike’s indifference. She cares when Bleek is injured. But there isn’t much to her that is, except for ambition and self-regard. Her refusal to become a martyr is, I think judged harshly by the film. 

[More than once, you will here me say “it’s a shame she didn’t go on to do more” when discussing these roles & actresses.]

I pick Sloane Hopkins, played by Jada Pinkett Smith in Bamboozled. 

Sloane starts off well. She seems to be bright, capable, and a go-getter. She is the assistant to Pierre Delacroix, a hapless TV executive. But Sloane is sorta baffling. When Pierre hatches a plan, she’s in on it, then spends the rest of the film acting as though she isn’t. 

Also Spike (and this I think is most telling) has Pierre (her boss), call her pet names at work. What is this, Mad Men? Spike really blew a great opportunity in Bamboozled to craft a relationship between equals. Instead he reveals very late that they had sex. 

Worse yet, Sloane had denied that such a thing had ever happened, which makes her seem like a liar and someone willing to screw for success (a sadly recurring trope in Spike's films). She isn’t a misogynistic caricature. But the way she’s treated by the film speaks volumes on how Spike sabotages his women characters. 

That’s the shame; almost all of these women in Spike’s films represent missed opportunities.

At number 7, we have 2 characters who I believe are inextricably linked. From Malcolm X, the combine of Laura (Theresa Randle) & Sophia (Kate Vernon). This gets us into dicey territory. Immediately some will say these characters are from the autobiography; therefore we can’t blame Spike. One of the tenets of the Auteur Theory is that even if the director is adapting the material s/he is still in effect taking ownership of it. In other words, Spike may not have created Laura, Sophia, or Betty Shabazz, but his handling of them is still revealing.

Laura is the ‘good girl’ who young Malcolm rebuffs in favor of the ‘bad girl’ Sophia thanks to the siren call of interracial sexy time. In the book, X said he always blamed himself for good girl Laura’s subsequent descent into wickedness. So here, we have yet another madonna-whore dynamic, except here, the madonna becomes a whore, quite literally. And as Sophia is last seen as a reformed bourgeois hausfrau, the whore becomes a madonna, albeit a phony one. And also, there’s an ancillary nature to the characters. They are there for no other reason but to serve the story. A big problem in movies where women characters are concerned. Spike’s character Shorty feels far more rounded and less schematic than either Laura or Sophia.

Then there’s the matter of interracial relationships. In his early work, Spike takes a dim view of them, and that colors (sorry) things. In his early work, interracial relationships were ALWAYS a sign of moral turpitude. So it is impossible for Malcolm & Sophia to really have a layered relationship, or for Sophia to be a complex character. 

In Jungle Fever, Snipes and Sciorra more or less staged a revolt. They acted against Spike's vision of Flipper & Angie’s affair. Angie Tucci, Sciorra’s character in JF, may be one of Spike BEST women characters, ironically. But Sciorra had to fight for her character. Angie isn’t perfect. But she has nuance. And she was (almost) Flipper’s equal in the story, not just there to further the narrative. The shot of Angie returning home, defeated, heartbroken, is one of the saddest images in Spike’s filmography. It’s hard to not to feel like she’s being punished not just by society/family, but by the filmmaker, in the end. It has been documented widely that a formative incident in Spike's life was the one-two punch of having his mother die & having his dad move a white woman in too soon afterwards. This brought us the many martyred moms in his cinema (twice played by Lonette McKee), his daddy issues, and his antipathy to the swirl.

So Laura & Sophia really get at his big issues: madonna-whore, women as bystanders, and white women as symbols of corruption. 

Having outlined some of Spike’s hang-ups with women, let me mention another pair of recurring tropes: The Jezebel & The Sapphire. Both are negative female archetypes that we see more than once in Spike’s work. For those that didn’t major in Black Studies, Sapphire connotes a perpetually angry, castrating, mean black woman. Sapphire was originally a character in Amos N’ Andy. Academics then extended her name to the archetype. I’m sure the poet/author of Push (Precious) adopted that as her sobriquet because of the name’s connotation. I’ll mention a Sapphire and a Jezebel as we continue our countdown.

Number 6 in the Spike’s worst list: Tina, from Do The Right Thing, as played by Rosie Perez. Tina is a Sapphire, really. She isn’t horrible. Just underdeveloped. She has every right to be difficult, but I don’t think the director empathizes with her. So she becomes shrill. Enough said on Tina.

Fatima Goodrich, Kerry Washington in She Hate Me, one of Spike’s worst films. Fatima, is a deceiver (the protagonist catches her in bed with another woman), mercenary, and wholly unsympathetic. She’s a Jezebel. Worse yet, Fatima strikes one as a bit too much the product of Spike’s over-heated erotic imagination. Male writers often hatch female characters from their carnal desires, but a major character needs a little more to her than that. James Ellroy clearly fashions his women from his raging id, but they get to be their own person too. Fatima speaks to the flaws of the film; it’s a chaotic, unfocused mess which will always be Exhibit A when Spike is tried for self-indulgence.

Renata, played by Valentina Cervi, in Miracle At St. Anna. She’s another one of those underwritten betrayers. Renata is a comely Italian woman who lives in a village ravaged by WWII. She becomes the objet d’amour of two of the African-American soldiers. Without any real set-up she kinda betrays the good one for the bad one. And she’s particularly brazen about it. It is a very strange plot twist. It reduces her character from being a fully formed person to just a pawn of the plot.

Once again, Spike seems to be espousing the “don’t trust ‘em” ethos. I don’t buy that it’s just a matter of poor plotting. This is too consistent to just be happenstance. And yes, Spike didn’t create Renata himself, but the Auteur Theory tells us that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t write it himself.

Mary D’Annunzio, played by Anna Paquin in 25th Hour. She’s a singularly unlikeable young Jezebel with a dash of Lolita thrown in. Mary is the character I believe Natalie Portman was initially slated to play in 25th Hour before she quit. Mary is selfish, not particularly moral, and a vulgarian. She is just the hot young piece meant to tempt her teacher. It’s hard to find a woman in the Spike Lee oeuvre who has no redeeming value or complexity on the level of Ms. D’Annunzio.

For No. 2: LaLa Bonilla, played by the sublime Rosario Dawson in He Got Game. LaLa is the teen girlfriend of Jesus Shuttlesworth, the best high school B-ball player in the US. She has an agenda. LaLa is two-faced, deceitful and mercenary (sound familiar?). She two-times Jesus, and she tries to manipulate him into picking a college - (correction) signing w/ an agent that will give her a cut which she seems to feel she’s entitled to as Jesus’ girlfriend. LaLa isn’t even a particularly skilled manipulator. She’s a caricature of the gold-digging ghetto girl. A half-assed Cleopatra. Spike kinda sorta atoned for LaLa four years later when he cast Dawson in 25th Hour as Naturelle Rivera, Monty Brogan’s (Ed Norton) girlfriend. Naturelle has nuance and complexity. The film creates tension as to whether or not Naturelle betrayed Monty, which is almost like Spike copping to the fact that he’d gone to that well way too many times. And yes, I agree w/ all who say an inept femme fatale is more misogynist & worse than a skilled one. So Naturelle cancels out LaLa, but still, LaLa is number 2.

Number 1 has to be Opal Gilstrap (played by Raye Dowell) in She’s Gotta Have It, doesn’t it? Opal is a friend of the sexually liberated (but deeply hetero) Nola Darling. Opal is a lesbian. You see where this is going? Opal hates men. She seems to have one thing on her mind: getting Nola in bed. When Nola is sick, Opal comes to nurse her…& come on to her. So Opal is nothing but a stereotype of the rapacious lesbian trying to recruit. Nothing more to the character. Opal is particularly galling since she appeared in his first film. His Achille’s Heel revealed himself immediately. Spike was called on it. He has admitted that the character was ill-conceived and that she’s one of the many things he’d change about SGHI. It’s unfortunate that from the beginning, an artist so consumed with righting wrongs of representation got off to such a start. 

A word about Girl 6. Interesting mess, but I think Theresa Randle gives, what should’ve been a star-making performance. Judy, or Girl 6, is one of his better, more rounded female leads. The film is such a mess that Randle’s work has been forgotten. Too bad. 

I have a lot of respect for Spike. But we have to look at things in the cold harsh light of truth, not through the gauzy filter of admiration. Hopefully, this list will motivate some of you to take a 1st or 2nd look at his films.

Since this was originally written we've had (just in terms of his fiction output) Red Hook Summer, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and his controversial Chiraq. People bristled at the sexual politics of the most recent film. But for my money Lysistrata (played by Teyonah Parris) might hint at a new hopeful era of Lee heroine. Yes, she uses sex as a way to manipulate men, but she is no Jezebel and she is no Sapphire. She is no madonna and Lee does not regard her as a whore either. I hope this indicates a new chapter for Spike Lee with regards to his female characters but only time will tell.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Withdrawing SEPULVEDA: an apology, a reflection and a Valentine's note.

This morning I emailed Jim Mendiola, the accomplished filmmaker who also runs CineFestival in San Antonio, to inform him that though we'd accepted his invitation to world premiere our new feature Sepulveda there we'd in fact have to withdraw the film. This was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make as a filmmaker. And like all difficult decisions it has offered me a valuable chance to self-evaluate.

It pained us to pull out of CineFestival so close to our premiere, but after a very, very important consultation with someone who loves the film, we came to the conclusion that while we have a good film, we need more time to develop it into an even better film. At present, Sepulveda is 105 minutes long. That's a brisk running time by most standards. But given the unconventional storyline and structure, we came to the conclusion that the film would play even better if it were pared down even further.

I am not a young filmmaker. I'm middle-aged and it's been almost 22 years since I started film school. I don't have unlimited arrows in my quiver. In fact, every time I draw back my bow string at this point, I have to make it count. I would not have made this decision 10 years ago. Then I'd have plowed ahead figuring that the film's imperfections were part of what made it unique. I'd have figured that the people who get the film would be untroubled by its technical flaws or running time.

But as Tony Bennett memorably says in the documentary Amy, "Life will teach you things, if you let it." We've already worked hard on Sepulveda. Thanks to crowdfunding, we are the beneficiaries of the generosity of many friends and family. To honor that generosity, it's incumbent on us to make the best film we can make. And while Sepulveda has gotten positive notes, we think there's more work to do.

Jim Mendiola was gracious and understanding in his reply and I thank him for that. We hope to have Sepulveda play CineFestival in the future. Thanks also to all the words of encouragement that came after we announced the film's invitation.

To be clear, this was my mistake. Jena, my wife and co-director, always felt that the film could've stood more editing but I assured her we had something solid and that the film was done. I was wrong. This has been a chronic issue with me, rushing through work not to be done with it but in the belief that the act of rushing forces one to work at a heightened level and brings out the creativity in a furious tsunami. It's a punk rock notion. And it's past time I let it go.

We wrapped production on Sepulveda just 6 months ago. That's a very short postproduction that frankly isn't long enough even with as able a collaborator as my wife. Digital technology and computers allow for an accelerated pace in post, but that's not always a good thing. Editing, it has been widely stated, requires intervals of rest and reflection. I didn't allow much time for that. Shooting in the summer puts us right up against festival deadlines. And while it may go against my impatient nature it is better to spend a year in post than take a film out before its time.

Have I always been this way? I suppose I have. Am I more impatient with the knowledge that there is very likely now more life behind me than ahead of me? Possibly. A lot is riding on this simple little film for me personally. You don't get a second chance to debut a film (okay, not actually true but premiering a new cut is not a luxury afforded to all filmmakers).

I don't know today whether Sepulveda will hit the big screen in 2016 or 2017. But I do know that whenever it does it will be the absolute best film we can make. I figure if that's the case, everything else will take care of itself.

Finally I want to praise my collaborator in cinema and in life. Without my wife, the film wouldn't be as good as it is. I've wisely taken her counsel and already reaped the benefits. I hope she'll pardon me if occasionally I forget how valuable her insight is. She's made me a better man, and she's made me a better filmmaker. I will continue to strive to be worthy of her faith in me.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How Fanboys Have Gained The World But (Begun) To Lose Their Souls

[Five years ago I wrote this review of Tron: Legacy (2010) for Shadow & Act. I noticed that it no longer appears to be available and I thought I'd post it here. It's a little bit prescient about the direction of fanboy/geek culture.] 

Ever since the 2008 Comic-Con, the Fanboy Universe has been waiting with bated breath for the follow-up to Steve Lisberger’s Tron, a groundbreaking science-fiction adventure released by Disney 28 years ago. Considered the first shot fired in the digital cinema revolution, Tron has carved out a singular space in the genre. Now that the revolution Tron began has changed cinema, the time seems perfect to revisit the world of the film with an eye towards birthing a new franchise.

And that’s what Disney has done. The new film, entitled Tron: Legacy will doubtlessly reap a fortune from both the aging nerds who saw the first one and the new generation brought up on gaming. It is also poised to launch more films and become another blockbuster franchise.

Already, some have complained that the original Tron  has now gone into that Black Hole Disney is fond of hurling its properties into so as to create a demand for the next DVD edition. But I think there’s more than that at work. The new Tron  is no mere sequel to the earlier film. It is a complete re-imagining, and one gets the impression Disney would prefer that you NOT know about the original.  This reason, among many others, makes Tron: Legacy an intriguing film to consider as the shape of things to come even as it delivers yet another variation of Joseph Campbell’s generic mythology to the public.

Joseph Kosinski is the director. This is his first feature. That might strike you as odd considering how much is riding on this film’s success for Disney. But Kosinski has had a storied career in advertising, directing slick and memorable ads like the “Mad World” commercial for the game Gears of War.  He also holds a degree in architecture from Columbia University. I think Kosinski is to this age what film school brats were to the 70’s. If a (feature) first-timer directing a blockbuster is strange now it won’t be in the years to come.

So how did he do? Tron: Legacy is a triumph of design and can be downright jaw-dropping at times. The action is constant, the slow-motion-punctuated “Ain’t It Cool?” moments largely deliver. After the halfway point, the film begins to lose energy, and in the end, it feels much longer than its 127 minute running time would suggest. Lisberger’s film also had pacing problems. The more things change…

The story centers on the 27 year-old son of visionary computer guru Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, then and now), who went missing seven years after the events of Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son, apparently spends his time practicing capoeira, base-jumping and parkour rather than run his father’s empire. His surrogate father Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, then and now) gives Sam a nudge to visit the old man’s now-abandoned arcade, which results in Sam being whisked away to The Grid, that world within the computers established in the first film long before cyberspace was a household term.

Where the original took its cues from Star Wars, the new film adds The Matrix into the mix. Sam becomes a Neo, reeling from the discovery of a world he is destined to change. He meets that world’s overlord, Clu, a program that physically resembles his long-lost younger father. When Clu removes his menacing black helmet, revealing the digitally younged-up countenance of Jeff Bridges, Sam is shocked. But Clu tells him “I’m not your father, Sam”, a sly reference to and tweaking of the climactic moment in Empire Strikes Back.

Sam engages in amped up new versions of the gladiatorial games seen in the first (that Jai Alai game doesn’t make the cut) only to be rescued by this tale’s Trinity (Olivia Wilde playing Quorra) and delivered to his old man, now in Morpheus/Alec Guiness-Obi-Wan mode in a remote home reminiscent of aging Dave Bowman’s flat from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The rest is pretty standard a-chosen-one-will-defeat-a-dark-lord territory. It’s the production design that’s the star of Tron: Legacy, not the plot. Darren Gilford (production designer) creates a radically different Grid. Now it looks like a futuristic but recognizably urban megalopolis, not the wholly alien landscape from the earlier film.  It feels like the first time a sci-fi film has tried to create a world on this scale (a la Blade Runner)  for some time (lately sci-fi prefers to present a normal looking environment where the gadgets are the only indication you’re not in the real world).

The costumes and art direction are all state-of-the-art future cool. I kept thinking how much they’ll love this film in Japan as I watched it. And this is where the contrast between Tron and Tron: Legacy is so striking. The digital filmmaking revolution isn’t the only revolution that’s happened since 1982. There’s also been a Fanboy Revolution, wherein the genre fare that was once marginalized (even in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars) has now conquered the culture. And with that dominion comes the need to be cool.

Tron was NOT cool. Tron, with its actors wearing helmets like special ed students and spandex was so uncool it was endearing.  And all that uncool has been erased from the sequel. Even the flashbacks have been stylistically retconned so that when we see the younger Flynn in the grid he looks nothing like he did in the old film. Like a self-important, successful adult who hides his dorky high school picture out of shame, Tron has adopted an aesthetic at odds with the original but reflective of the way Fanboy Culture has re-branded itself.

That is, I believe part of the reason why Disney has de-rezzed the DVD of the Lisberger film. That is why Sean Bailey, producer of Tron: Legacy says it is “technically a stand-alone film.”

But if nerd/geek culture is to become cool, isn’t it bound to lose something essential in the process? Compare Kevin Flynn to Sam Flynn. Kevin (in ’82) was an unabashed geek who lived in his own arcade and hung out with pimply, uncool teenagers. He was a goof and an oddball. Not Sam Flynn. Sam is from the Young Bruce Wayne School of Loner Richboys Who Like Extreme Sports. He’s a daredevil. He can fight. This is the new nerd-hero? Sam Flynn was the guy in ’82 who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Tron. Now he is at the center of that world.

Clu is also a great metaphor for the shift that’s occurred. Just as geek culture has conquered the culture at large, Clu himself (once a benign avatar for Flynn) has now become drunk with power and swagger. He’s got something to prove, and dominating two worlds is how he aims to prove it. This isn’t new, Clu is another villain in the tradition of Lucifer himself, but this villain addressing his army made me think of a would-be geek tyrant addressing the costumed hoards at Comic-Con, telling them that their geekitude entitled them to rule the world.

Another sign of this shift: Tron  was made by actual computer experts and is far more meticulously nerdy and based on computer technology than Tron: Legacy. The new film bastardizes nerdiness and cuts out the techspeak for a 21st century audience that should be more receptive to it.

The saddest casualty of this revolution is femininity. Cindy Morgan played Dr. Lora Baines in the original, a bespectacled female scientist that once dated Kevin but has moved on to the more adult Alan. The three of them formed the core of Tron  as Leia, Luke, & Han did for that other franchise. Just as the eponymous warrior was Alan’s program in The Grid, Lora was represented by Yori there. The triangle in our world also occurred in The Grid.

Lora, present in the final scene of Tron, along with a triumphant Flynn and Alan on the roof of a skyscraper is totally erased from Tron: Legacy. She isn’t in it, and she isn’t even mentioned. Yori is similarly absent from The Grid.

Fans did protest. I’m told there’s a Facebook group advocating for her. The filmmakers’ choice to leave Lora/Yori out is yet another stunning example of the rampant gynophobia this emboldened fanboy culture has manifested. Even Sam’s mother is neither explained or identified. As with this year’s loathsome Kick-Ass, women have no place in a film unless they’re young, and/or hot, and can fight.

Yes, we do have Quorra, and she is an important character. But compare her to Lora in the first film. Lora was attractive, but modestly so. She was the kind of woman that actually dated guys who like Tron. And she was a scientist, an equal to the men in the film. Now she’s been supplanted by a total fantasy woman. Not much is “real” about Quorra. And she’s not the equal of Sam as Lora was (except in the fighting department). She’s child-like. She wants to be taught about the world by someone smart (every fanboy’s fantasy). Lora is the girl our successful, self-important hypothetical guy took the to the prom, but Quorra is his trophy wife. What this says about the fanboy audience is not encouraging if feminism is something you care about. In that respect, Tron: Legacy is a major step backwards.

As the action goes on and on and the world of The Grid begins to become less captivating it is Jeff Bridges that keeps it interesting. Bridges is an Oscar-winner now, and he’s at that point in his career where his persona is an inextricable part of whatever role he’s playing. This Kevin Flynn is different from the earlier incarnation. The difference can be summed up in two words: The Dude. Bridges peppers Flynn with a zen master ease and the occasional “man” in his dialogue. An audience member even muttered “The Dude abides” behind me. This didn’t distract or detract from the film, it gave the film a humor and humanity that is otherwise sorely lacking from Kosinski’s beautiful but sterile landscape.

Ultimately, that demo trailer from 2 years ago may have been better suited to Kosinski’s skill set than a feature film. But Tron: Legacy will prosper and the Fanboy Revolution will continue and like Clu, look for more worlds to conquer.