Moonlight, Get Out, & Colossal back to back help me breathe a bit easier; or, Colossal – A woman makes a decision that does not involve choosing which man will “save” her

The other day I looked at a high school social studies textbook that had the U.S. Capitol on the cover. The sight of the Capitol dome made my eyes well with tears. I know that America was not actually founded on the ideals highlighted in the Declaration of Independence, but that is why they’re ideals. But now, as I observe, at the highest levels of government, attacks against the civil liberties of those who are most vulnerable, the sight of a supposed symbol of freedom disappoints me. But the scariest reality is that a lot of people support this push backward in the name of their own “protection” (or what they perceive as protection), even if that idea of “protection” comes at the expense of minority groups and those with the least historical privilege. It seems that these people want a return to the times when those like them felt the most “comfort” in their feelings of superiority.

I know it sounds like a losing battle to wish so much based on representation in a film, but movies aren’t just movies. They tell us who we are, and they inform who we are. And they can seep into our consciousness when we do not notice.

I love that I live in a world in which Moonlight exists. The emergence of Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins, Academy Award® winner for Best Motion Picture of the Year [Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner]; Best Adapted Screenplay [Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney]; and Best Supporting Actor [Mahershala Ali]) has brought me hope during a discouraging time. That a film so unprecedented exists shows me an example of a place where progress has not stopped, and I hope the film’s success continues to educate, open minds, and support not only full equality but also a change in attitudes between ordinary citizens because we need more than “tolerance.” Just look around. Tolerance doesn’t last. We need evolved open-mindedness. We need education.

Then with Get Out (2017, writ. and dir. Jordan Peele), I again felt seen and listened to. If you are used to seeing yourself reflected in the media in truthful ways, you cannot understand the feeling, at a time when you need it the most, although that time is well overdue, of seeing two monumental achievements virtually back to back that speak to your experiences and reach both popular and critical acclaim. I feel like I can breathe a bit easier and walk with a bit more assurance. There is absolutely no doubt that these films have started conversations, but those conversations need to explore the right questions and actually reach the right people.

If you are someone who doesn’t automatically understand what I mean when I say that Moonlight and Get Out actually help me breathe with more ease, try to imagine how I felt when I saw Colossal and realized that it is a film that I had been waiting for and a film that we as a culture are starving for? On the surface, it appears to include a story that we see in most films—the tired love triangle involving a woman who thinks she has to choose between two men, one from her past and one from her present. Both men promise her a future of “happiness.” But what actually happens in Colossal is what men (in real life and in movies) take for granted. To enjoy, free of projected guilt, the freedom to choose one of two love interests, to choose one other than the two vying for your attention, not to choose one at all, or simply to make the decision on your OWN time and not adhere to an ultimatum forced on you is to be, historically, in the male position. And it is certainly a freedom overwhelmingly enjoyed by men in movies. Colossal (2017, writ. and dir. Nacho Vigalondo) gives us a satisfying view of a woman who does not take on the burden of taking care of a man who seeks her to cover up his faults or use her as a punching bag. Even if the men who want Gloria’s (Anne Hathaway) future were awesome people with no disturbing psychological hangups, that wouldn’t change the fact that we don’t deserve to give away our freedom of choice out of “obligation.” These “obligations” are disproportionately assigned to women to haul around.

As is true in reality, all three characters need saving. And—as in reality–people like to think that a relationship can “fix” them. A relationship entered into for that reason can’t be a healthy one. As Oprah always says—“Jerry Maguire was just a movie”—don’t look for someone to “complete” you. The choice Gloria makes is not a gimmick or a mere obstacle that will eventually  bring us back to tired clichés we see all the time. It is an overdue call that I hope will help men wake up. Men who think they exist to validate women, or that their opinion matters more than women’s opinions, or that they can use the word “bitch” to “put a woman in her place” are, indeed, asleep. We cannot afford for them to stay asleep.

Despite so much that is wrong, I, someone who treasures the magic and power of movies, feel fortunate that we have these films that, taken together, separately, and in combinations, impart intersectional messages that we need—desperately.

 

 

 

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Brave New Jersey – trapped (in a good way)

I love movies that have a limited or confining setting–films that take place during a single day, more or less in or around a single house, in one room, or in one space, to name a few examples. Think August: Osage County or Carnage or, of course, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–and yes, those were plays first. And no, I am not one of those people who criticizes films because the film sticks to that “confined” setting and complains that they are “a play filmed as a movie.”

I also have this same feeling for movies that are set in small towns. Both situations force me to focus on the “small” space (depth over breadth). This, consequently, allows me to focus more on the psychological realism of the characters. And often the physical space itself has a character of its own. Think about episode of The Twilight Zone with that town with only one inhabitant after everyone except one man disappears, or several other episodes of that series. Or, better yet, think of the emptied town in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

For Brave New Jersey, director Jody Lambert found a tiny, abandoned town in Tennessee and brings people to it; so, unlike in Keats’s frozen-in-time “cold pastoral,” Lambert accomplishes something unlikely but not impossible. His discovery had the ingredients to create a confined setting in which to put a typical, because so eccentric, group of townspeople, some of whom feel trapped in the word that I so enjoy watching from my seat. And because they are faced with once-in-a-lifetime, “life-threatening” circumstances (ones we know from actual history), emotions are heightened and people become more of who they are (because that is what happens in those situations). Tony Hale (2-time Emmy® winner for HBO’s Veep) is perfect as Clark Hill, a man trying to break out of an emotional entanglement of his own in addition to the more immediate crisis that comes up.

Brave New Jersey (writ. Michael Dowling and Jody Lambert, dir. of photography Corey Walter) is charming and funny, and it takes place within the small physical space I love to be placed into. There is even a literal path that leads into and out of it (but we don’t see what is on the other side). The film shows the absurdity of people (both in an amusing way and in a depressing way that frustrates me about life). Comparing who we were before to who we are after we calm down from whatever fear made our primal survival instincts come through is the real story. “Becoming more of who you are” means different things to different people, and you don’t necessarily want to be someone who is the most of who you are only during times when you are sensitized at a rare and unusually intense level.

Release dates beyond the film festivals that have provided screenings are currently up in the air, but you should definitely keep an eye out. Follow the film on Twitter.

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Dayveon is included in “all of us”

In his 2010 TED talk, “A Call to Men” (also the name of the organization of which he is co-founder, A Call To Men), Tony Porter speaks about the dangerous “man box” that restricts boys and men from being fully human:

“I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating — no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger — and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects. I’ve later come to know that to be the collective socialization of men, better known as the ‘man box.’ See this man box has in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”

Just as we need voices like Tony Porter’s, we need a continuous stream of stories like Dayveon (first-time feat. film dir. Amman Abbasi; writ. Amman Abbasi and Steven Reneau). The film tells the story of Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), a young man struggling with the death of his older brother. The landscape is a poor, rural Arkansas. This is a quiet film, a type of film I love that allows me to focus on the characters and the setting in a deep, pointed way with no distractions. The quiet rural land in Dayveon reflects the lack of opportunity and the absence of hope that drive Dayveon into a gang and toward what, in his restrictive “man box,” would make him powerful and immune to the fate of victimhood. Symbols like a menacing swarm of bees are ominous like the continuous anxiety of falling deeper into poverty and the relentless grief that results from losing people to death and from losing dreams of financial, physical, emotional, or psychological security.

African American men make up the cast, along with Dayveon’s sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), who is raising him. She encourages her partner, Brian (Dontrell Bright), to spend time with Dayveon, and he attempts to take on the role of a caring male role model for Dayveon. Brian expresses tenderness toward Dayveon that beautifully blows apart the man box. Blackmon does an exceptional job in both his private moments and in his public moments. In both situations, even while not speaking, he expresses volumes with his face and in how he moves through his room, explores the areas surrounding where he lives, and engages in nonverbal communication with his friend, Brayden (Kordell Johnson). This brilliantly displays the strength of what can be expressed through quietness.

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Sundance Institute

In terms of spoken lines, for me the best is a scene we need so much more of. Sitting in a living room, a group of men express their frustrations and disappointments with life–never being able to get ahead, not being able to pay the bills, always feeling the bitterest feeling of defeat because whenever there is a sense of progress there is a setback that knocks them back down as if to remind them that people like them are not allowed to have success that leads to any type of security. They smoke together and express their feelings. They are vulnerable in front of their male friends. The man box disappears in these moments, and they provide a perspective on the actions of those who we see engage in gang activity, violence, and crime.

How Dayveon himself survives involves a direct battle between the lure of the gang and the encouragement from his sister and Brian, who want a better life for him. I have seen boys and men transform before my eyes, and not in a way that has meant a safe, healthy life. There is a point at which those in that situation pick a road to take, and that choice influences everything from how they speak to how they dress to how they carry themselves to, of course, how they view the world. But we all have aspirations and emotions and the need to express and share what is inside of us. The man box prevents men and boys from engaging in those normal, human activities. Dayveon reminds those who may forget that men (and African American men, too) are included in “all of us.” This film can remind men who forget that they are included. We need to eliminate the man box because it is a human need to be fully human.

Revisit – The Mask You Live In, The Hunting Ground

Watch Porter’s TED talk:

The Pulitzer at 100 / Score: A Film Music Documentary

Awards and film scores can be elusive. With any prestigious award steeped in tradition, there is a discussion about the greats who never won. Timing is also tricky. If only that movie or that novel had not been released in such a “strong year.” But wouldn’t one want to be included as a peer in a strong year as opposed to a weak one? Winners of these awards sometimes live in disbelief that they reached the pinnacle because it still does not seem real or because they reached it while others have not.

Film scores are elusive because, as Score: A Film Music Documentary (official site) reminds us, while we may notice they are there, we do not notice just how powerful they are in shaping our movie experiences. We are unaware of how they creep in and come at us from all sides and angles and predict our reactions before even we know what we will think or feel. Scoring a film is an art with so much to it than we realize, and first-time documentary film director Matt Schrader takes us behind the scenes to give us a glimpse at how it is done. Actors, directors, and screenwriters are not the only ones who anxiously watch moviegoers’ expressions as they sit in theaters and experience movies. Musicians who work at matching the action with the score are, again, so vitally influential that we do not even realize the extent of their impact. Score: A Film Music Documentary goes a long way in encouraging an understanding of this work, yet it will also leave you with a reminder that there will always be that element that can only be described as the magic of film.

Official Poster  https://www.facebook.com/ScoreMovie/

As a student of Academy Awards history, I was excited to see The Pulitzer at 100 to learn about the history of another award of the highest level. But even more precious was hearing the winners themselves–winners from the various fields the Pulitzer recognizes–talk about their work and also what it meant and still means to have received the honor (sometimes more than once).

I must say my favorite interview was Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1998). The way she described writing and her experience of winning intrigued me; her passion and, well, her way with words made me want to keep writing. Michael Cunningham, oh yes. He won the fiction award in 1998 for The Hours. (Read this novel immediately.) I also highly recommend his novel A Home at the End of the World (1990). The movie adaptation of The Hours (2002) is my favorite film, and you should listen to Cunningham’s commentary on the DVD. (The movie adaptation of A Home at the End of the World [2004] leaves too much to be desired for me to suggest it for viewing. The film goes off track at what I think is too powerful a place to be ignored.)

Released at the 100th anniversary of the award, The Pulitzer at 100′s timing is impeccable, and during the question and answer period after the screening, director (Academy Award® winner for Strangers No More [2010]) Kirk Simon reminded me why I admire documentary filmmakers so much. They have an idea, they have passion for that idea, they pull all the pieces together, and they work hard, many times with just themselves–the filmmaker–and a small crew. They get in and educate us and bring us their careful consideration of a subject, and we are better for it. Paula Vogel made me want to keep writing, and seeing the diversity of extraordinary talent from journalism (the Joseph Pulitzer biographical narrative is top-notch in the film), letters, drama, and music made me proud to be a writer and a person who values the art of storytelling.

I love documentaries. They bring the elusive to the forefront–but I still marvel at the magic of film.

Get Out – for the right reasons

At the theater after my initial reflections on the immensely important work of Get Out, directed and written by Jordan Peele, my first thought was that I hope it is popular for the right reasons. While clearly there are people who are aware of what this film means and knowledgeable about why it is–again I use the word “important”–after my friend and film scholar Mary Dalton (I always rise up and listen closer when she uses that word), I also know that it is making a lot of money and a lot of people are seeing it, especially young people. So my hope is that it is popular for the right reasons with every single person who views it.

This is a movie from the perspective of a young African American man. And it is about how we experience life in a white world–in other words, how we experience everyday life in America. The film portrays the strangeness of the experience of feeling like you are on display. Being asked to speak on behalf of “all African Americans,” dealing with life as an African American football player who your “fans” see as not human but as an animal they would deem useless if you could no longer entertain with beyond-human physical talent (listen to this story from Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger), and otherwise having people treat you as an exotic when you are simply living your life are not even reaching half the iceberg. This strangeness of navigating life in America is exactly what Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) experiences. The outer layer of forced attempts at false normalcy that cannot be contained for very long is what gaslights so many of us into believing that we are the ones who are misconstruing situations when we are not and have never been the problem.

The world of Get Out is the result of the inability of many white people to deal with their deep-rooted feelings of uneasiness around us, and the racist leanings they cannot or do not acknowledge. The longer those notions go unchecked the worse they become. Do not ignore the extremity of the plot line and dismiss it as fiction. What happens is more real than most are willing to admit. Because it can be dismissed as “mere fiction,” what happens takes forms that seem less treacherous and less dangerous, but it is treacherous and dangerous. There are events in the film that are symbolic but also very literal in the mind games and the gaslighting and the devaluing and underestimation of the abilities, hopes, aspirations, and very humanity of African Americans. And it is all rooted in what is termed the original sin of this country. We see the teachery and danger in American life in the ways African American people and immigrants and anyone deemed the “other” are treated. But those not directly affected (and many who are affected) must open their eyes to see it. I hope Get Out is popular for the right reasons for every single person who sees it. If it is, it has opened many, many eyes. It is a masterful film, and its existence makes the landscape so much better and more real.

I feel as I did when I saw Moonlight in the respect that this is a story and a concept that was so overdue. We need to see life from the eyes of African Americans, and the stories need to be truthful.

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director Jordan Peele with artwork inspired by the motion picture http://www.getoutfilm.com/gallery/

Kedi – love and care without expectation

 

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director Ceyda Torun (hurriyetdailynews via kedifilm.com)

I have an aunt and a grandmother who feed stray cats who come and go as they please. Does it take a special empathy to take care of an animal? I think it takes a special empathy and a special love to take care of anyone or anything when there is no benefit of a return, whether that be some sort of pay back in terms of credit for good works or guaranteed companionship–when there is no point at which the caregiver demands a certain sustained, prescribed thankfulness or compensation.

Kedi, from first-time feature film director Ceyda Torun, gives us the picture of street cats who make their lives in the city of Istanbul and shows us the people who take care of them. Cameras follow the cats on their level as the felines go about their daily tasks while going on adventures, protecting their young, guarding their territory, and spending a little time with the various caregivers who protect them whenever they come around, feed them, and love them no matter where they are. Seeing Istanbul from the cats’ perspectives is satisfying, as is hearing the featured Istanbulites describe their feelings for the cats and the importance the animals embody in the communities they inhabit.

I was fascinated by everything short of anthropomorphism (by which I am not amused) in how the film shows us the cats’ individual personalities in close-up. A man in the film remarks, “People who don’t love animals can’t love people either.” There is a lot to be said about love between people and between people and animals in terms of culture, environment, and identity, but I tend to agree, in general, with that sentiment. While my interest waned a little more than halfway through this documentary feature, I am glad I saw and learned about an aspect of a culture that might have otherwise gone unhighlighted.

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official poster (kedifilm.com)