April 30, 2009

Representing your minority as a filmmaker

As I have said before, I go to film school. It has been my observation here that filmmakers of any minority persuasion, be it race, sexuality, gender, whatever, make films about that particular minority. Black students make films about black people. Gay men make films about gay men. Women make films about women. And so on. Looking to a wider scope of filmmaking, this also seems to hold in the professional world. Spike Lee makes films about black people. Gus Van Sant makes films about gay people. Sofia Coppola makes films about women. The probable reason, whether conscious or subconscious, is to give these minority groups greater representation, and also to show what you know best. But is that really the way to go?

This notion of representing your own minority in filmmaking has been on my mind lately. As you may know from an earlier post, I recently completed a short film about Jesus Christ in high school. The key fact there is that I am a woman who wrote and directed a film about a teenage boy. Knowing there are many grants, festivals and categories of festivals devoted to female filmmakers, where people seemingly throw heaping piles of money at you for having a cooter and making a movie, I thought I had it made in the shade. Since some of those suckers cost a lot of money to enter, I started going on these organizations' websites to see what kind of films had won in the past. And I realized that I didn't stand a chance.

What I found is that in an effort to foster equality, these organizations have been unintentionally exclusive to minority filmmakers depicting stories outside their minority. Every winner for these women's festivals or categories seemed to be about lesbian mothers with breast cancer or something equally Lifetime-y. My college hosted its own film festival in LA that offered a cash prize for female-directed projects, and I entered, but sure enough the finalists were both lesbians who made movies about lesbians. There was one student contest that had categories for women, Asians, blacks and Latinos, and the winners of each category in past years seemed to be ones that dealt with issues of that minority head-on. I think there has been a confusion and convergence of what should be two different issues: encouraging minority filmmakers, and encouraging minority stories. Those are not one and the same.

I understand and completely agree that minorities of all kinds are under-represented on screen. But instead of having people from those groups feel solely responsible for the duty of representing their kind, what if we switched it all up? Certain gay male directors, for instance, have proved themselves hugely adept at depicting women's stories (i.e. Cukor, Almodovar), as have white directors with certain stories of racial minorities. Perhaps this is because the outsider view brings in an objective and fresh perspective that someone who belongs to that group is too shortsighted to see. Often when filmmakers push themselves outside of their own kind, they produce their best films. To cite the above examples: arguably Spike Lee's two most critically successful films (with the exception of Malcolm X, for which most of the reviews attribute the film's quality to Denzel Washington) are Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour, the former of which deals with a whole spectrum of races with equal consideration and weight and the latter of which is virtually all white people. Gus Van Sant's most critically and commercially successful film was Good Will Hunting, about a bunch of East Coast straight dudes as opposed to West Coast gay dudes. Sofia Coppola, who admittedly has only made three films, was most successful on all accounts with Lost in Translation, which has a rich portrait of a male character where her other films were more female-centric.

Another thing to consider is that working outside your group gets more people interested in you and your work, which means that if you revert back to tales of your group, you have a wider audience. If Good Will Hunting hadn't happened, would Milk have been anything more than a blip on the gay cinema scene? If it hadn't been for Do the Right Thing, would Spike Lee just have been another Tyler Perry catering exclusively to niche audiences? (And as for Sofia Coppola, well, her dad is Francis Ford, so that doesn't really count.)

So this is why, as a female filmmaker, I don't feel obligated to tell only women's stories. A good story is a good story, no matter what kind of person or people it's about, and I shouldn't owe anything to women to represent them.

What do you think? Do minority filmmakers owe it to their communities to represent them? Do filmmakers push themselves and produce better work when they move outside their minority?

April 15, 2009

Is this actually a movie? #4

I am not going to preface this with anything other than the fact that it is truly not a parody or joke of any kind.

Christians, you gotta raise the bar.

I should really get into the religious entertainment racket, because you can seemingly pass off ANYTHING as a movie. I'm not trying to knock Christians or their beliefs, but for whatever reason they seem to pardon improbable stories, bad acting, horrible writing, cheesy effects, and any other crime against the cinema if the movie has a religious message. But it's not like your only source of religious films is this absurd ghetto - just check out the "religion" section of the Vatican's list of best films. Not all of them are classics like Ben-Hur or The Passion of Joan of Arc, but all of the films listed are at least trying.

You know a movie's bad when comments are disabled on YouTube, and when the following is including in the movie's IMDB FAQ:

Q: Is this film satire, a spoof of something, or some type of joke?
A: No, this is an actual movie which has a religious plot and message.

This movie is allegedly out in theaters now, if you want it to see it and thus have no respect for yourself.

April 6, 2009

Great expectations

No, this post is not about the Dickens novel or any of its adaptations (also I did just see the 1946 David Lean film version). It's about the preconceived notion you have going into a film, and what happens when that is shattered.

This was the subject of some controversy recently between myself and my boyfriend. He claimed that I always cling too tightly to the expectations I have going into a film. To clarify, the expectations I'm referring to are the ones created primarily by the advertising campaign, and have little to do with quality (i.e. "this movie is going to be awesome!"), but rather what the film is going to deliver at a basic level (i.e. "this movie is a raucous comedy" or "this movie is a character-driven drama"). Discrepancies of quality - either being pleasantly surprised by a film or disappointed - happen all the time, but I would say it is rare that a film's promotion sells something completely different.

We had just seen Adventureland, which is the new film from Greg Mottola, director of Superbad. I was expecting something along the lines of Superbad, since that was pretty much how the new film was being sold to me (and on the whole, why should I doubt a trailer?). Instead of being a foul-mouthed, sex-driven outrageous comedy with a heart of gold, however, Adventureland was a mushy coming-of-age romantic drama. Huh?

When I voiced my disappointment, my boyfriend couldn't believe it. He loved the film and said that when it becomes apparent that a movie is branching off radically from what I expected, I should be able to adjust and appreciate it for what it is. I wondered why I was unable to do that.

This made me think back to a couple of times that this has happened to me before - most notably, with Barton Fink and In Bruges. The back of the DVD case for Barton Fink, for reasons unknown, paints the film as a sort of zany Hollywood parody. It is, but it's not. It's also a dark, surreal, and disturbing mystery. Being completely unprepared for this, it left a really bad taste in my mouth. When I revisited it a year or two later, I absolutely loved it. In Bruges is a similar case. Its marketing campaign was insanely baffling in that it depicted a sort of European Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, a comedic Belgian crime caper. That couldn't be further from the truth - while it has a few moments of morbidly dark humor, it's mostly a moody, profound meditation on life and death. Again, that left me feeling really weird afterward because I wasn't ready for it. I haven't seen it again since that, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it's a really good movie in its own right.

So what went wrong with Adventureland? Was it really just this discrepancy?

The more I thought about it, the more I could think of reasons it didn't work as a film - structurally, character-wise, etc. - whereas after seeing Barton Fink and In Bruges I kept coming up with things that did work. But also, I couldn't shake the feeling that I would have preferred to have seen the film the trailer was selling. The rich environment of suburban teen malaise in a 1980s theme park seemed like a potential goldmine for the kind of humor seen in Superbad, but what actually unfolded just came off as watered down and neutered. With Barton Fink and In Bruges, I didn't really find myself actually longing for what I had been promised, just readjusting.

So maybe expectations do matter. But I can move past them - unless the film never lives up to its trailer or campaign in quality regardless of what direction it takes, and then it just merges with general disappointment.

What do you think? How do expectations of genre, quality or anything else figure into your moviegoing experiences?