Fan-Made: Case Studies Inside Film Cultures, from Tarantino to Point Break

Early on in my academic study of film history and theory, I realized that the best way to understand the impact that the Movies have on our lives, to investigate these “popular entertainments,” is to watch what is and once was popular. I’ve seen a great number of films that never interested me as a filmgoer (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3), but I feel a professional obligation to see them nevertheless. This doesn’t mean that I see everything. (Who has the time, anyway?) For instance, I draw the line at certain kinds of horror movies, like torture porn or possession flicks. Limits. We all have our limits.

But when I examine popular films (by which I mean unequivocal blockbusters or cult classics), whether I am a self-professed fan or not, I tap into another world. Or at least I try. I want to know all the angles: all the controversies, all the gripes, all the pleasures that audiences have and share with one another. I have to see what all the fuss is about.

There was a lot of fuss about the Movies in 2015. Even though comic book superhero movies, studio tentpoles based on YA literature, and reboots of long-dormant franchises still dominated the box office this year, as they almost always do, to paraphrase New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the major studios pulled off the unthinkable: they gave us stuff that we largely wanted and liked, and thank god their original flicks with mid-size budgets did well, too. Maybe this means that film isn’t dying.

Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started in Fifty Shades of Grey. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As I actively participated in the hullabaloo surrounding the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), the whole world of fandom was thrown into sharp relief. “Fan-made,” which generally connotes those cultural products that are made by amateurs, created in the spirit of or in homage to well known works, suddenly landed on a much bigger stage, with more money attached, in 2015. Now, I’m not suggesting that J.J. Abrams isn’t a professional—even if I do think he’s famous for aping Spielberg and for re-imagining other creators’ properties. He tried his best with Star Trek; he improved upon George Lucas. I also do not mean to diminish Taylor-Johnson’s talents; she elevated her source material (the poorly imagined fan-fiction/erotica drivel written by E.L. James) by focusing on the ridiculousness of what ultimately amounted to no more than the protracted business negotiations of a sexual contract between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson won’t be returning for the next installments, and Universal has allowed James, who objected to Taylor-Johnson’s choices, to pass her husband, Niall Leonard, control over the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley, 2017).

However, while we’re on the topic of credibility, it is worth mentioning again that Trevorrow only had a low-budget romantic comedy to his name (Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) before Spielberg handed him the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise and World‘s estimated $150 million budget. He foundered a few times while promoting his monstrosity, unable to convince us that the relationship between onscreen leads Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t reek of sexism and that the reason women are not called upon to direct giant studio tentpoles is because they simply don’t want to. And to top it all off, Trevorrow delivered a cynical CGI-laden horror show, without any of the thrills, wonder, or charm of the 1993 original. Can you tell that I am a huge Jurassic Park fan?

Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together in Jurassic World? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It is well established that I am not a fan of Star Wars. But I knew that I was going to see the biggest film of the year in the theater. For a while, I just didn’t know when. Originally, I decided that I would wait a couple of weeks, allow the crowds to thin out. Then I decided that, in order to fully immerse myself in the fan culture, I had to see it opening weekend. I had my heart set on seeing filmgoers dressed as their favorite characters, maybe even turned away because they forgot to read the theater’s weapons policy and misguidedly brought that plastic lightsaber from home. I attended a sold-out show on the Sunday morning of its opening weekend. There were no Chewbaccas or Luke Skywalkers in the audience. Hell, we didn’t even have to stand in line before entering the auditorium. There were no hoots or hollers when the film franchise’s logo flashed across the screen. But I had tears in my eyes then, because I knew that I was sharing an experience with a larger, more enthusiastic community of film fans, even if they weren’t sitting in that darkened room with me. (They went at 8 pm Thursday night, right?) All in all, though, it was kind of like seeing any other movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is predicated on the idea that familiarity will sell. That is, it will fill nostalgic hearts and minds and also sell a shit ton of toys. I also understand that most diehard fans of the epic space fantasy series resent mastermind George Lucas’s three prequels, not only for introducing the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks but also for boring audiences to tears. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the last two prequels, inelegantly referred to as Episodes II and III.) So it seems only logical that a Star Wars superfan like J.J. Abrams would be able to bring back for his fellow fans what I imagine is the wonder and excitement of the early films. As I like to say, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise, but that isn’t saying much.” It is a loving pastiche of the original trilogy, only it is well made. Its racially and sexually diverse cast is new and more than welcome, especially since the unequivocal lead is a resourceful young woman named Rey, who, throughout her (mis)adventures with former Storm-Trooper Finn, father figure Han Solo, and furry sidekick Chewbacca, gradually learns the source of all her magical abilities. (It’s the Force, duh.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be the ultimate fan movie experience that everyone wanted this year or any year, for that matter (just look at how its box-office haul continues to grow and grow, beating all kinds of records), but it left me with nothing more than a newfound interest in why it is so important and life-defining to so many people.

OK, I didn't go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.
OK, I didn’t go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.

Instead, I received the superfan experience that I had hoped to witness at Star Wars while attending a special presentation of The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Though I initially balked at the price for a ticket to the film’s limited Roadshow Edition ($20!), I reasoned that the promise of receiving a souvenir program and watching the shadow and light show of actual celluloid—and of a rare, large format, no less—unspooling through a projector had enough value for me. Well, that, and because I wanted to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest. His cinema of indulgence, as I like to think of it, is an acquired taste, but I love how he wears his ecstatic cinephilia on his sleeve. In the case of what is billed as “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino,” this indulgence extends to amplifying the moviegoing experience for spectators to a new extreme, even for him.

Previously, Tarantino and best friend Robert Rodriguez put on a Grindhouse program in 2007, double billing their unapologetically trashy B-movies Death Proof and Planet Terror, respectively. Just as with Grindhouse, the auteur and his co-conspirators (historically, the Weinstein brothers Bob and Harvey) have injected a film history lesson about bygone exhibition practices back into contemporary pop culture, reminding today’s audiences that going to the Movies used to be a special, spectacular event. The limited Roadshow Edition of The Hateful Eight, complete with an instrumental overture, twelve-minute intermission, a handful of minutes not included on the digital prints of the film, and, not to mention, an earlier release date, subverts current film presentation trends such as surcharging tickets for movies screened in 3D and IMAX formats. You could even make the argument that the real star of the picture was the tangible film itself. Theaters had to be retrofitted with the right technology to screen 70mm, and transporting the heavy reels of film also proved a herculean task (the film is three hours long, mind you). Just read Adam Witmer’s account of what it is like to run the unfamiliar platter system of the 70mm projector at movie theaters in Los Angeles, with Tarantino sitting in the audience, to boot. It is mighty thrilling stuff.

Two of The Hateful Eight, being... hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Two of The Hateful Eight, being… hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

I enjoyed The Hateful Eight as a film story, right up until the end, anyway. But what I will most appreciate about it is the experience that I had going to the Movies on this occasion. Unlike at Star Wars, I had to wait in line to be let into the theater showing The Hateful Eight. Before the presentation began, I watched loving couples, movie nerd guys, and families with teenage or young adult children snap photos of themselves holding up the souvenir program. It was clear that I was a part of something big, something made for fans of Tarantino and for fans of cinema. I was glad that I had plunked down the $20 to attend a film event that hadn’t been replicated in fifty years. Would I do it again? Well, not every film gets or deserves this treatment, so that’s a moot point.

The plethora of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings of popular films—or, in the case of The Hateful Eight, the reconstruction of 1950s and 60s film exhibition practices—not only allowed fan culture to come to the fore in 2015, it damn near took control of our moviegoing habits. They were everywhere, and more are even coming to the small screens. Netflix will drop all episodes of its original series Fuller House next month, and fans of the family sitcom have already proposed new (sinister) ways of looking at the story of DJ Tanner raising her own kids with the help of friends and family in San Francisco. Twin Peaks is not definitely returning, this time to the cable channel Showtime. These TV shows help prove that “fan-made” doesn’t just mean a low budget, quirky reinterpretation of known properties by pop culture consumers. It also means “for the fans.”

Returning to the realm of the Big Screen, I found myself going to movies this year that I never would have imagined wanting to see if not for the perception that they would be special opportunities for me to participate in fan culture. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was one of them, but so was Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Now, maybe it was because I had begun to appreciate the action film in all of its tense glory through repeated and ecstatic viewings of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)—more on that in part four—that I had wanted to see what one of my favorite film critics, Bilge Ebiri, had dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.”

If I had ever seen the three original films by George Miller—1979’s Mad Max, 1981’s Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—I didn’t remember them. They mostly resonated with me through their influence on my childhood favorites Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) and Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993). In any case, I loved Fury Road. All at once, it was a recycling bin filled with iconography from every corner of cinema, refashioning elements of the modern vampire myth and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in the process, but it also felt so incredibly fresh. I had never seen a setting like that, simultaneously warm and inviting but also austere and unforgiving. Still, before its release, I never could have predicted that Fury Road, a frenetic road war movie with a preponderance of supposed practical effects and real stuntwork, would go on to top so many critics associations’ lists of the best films from 2015, including that of the National Board of Review. And a nomination for Best Picture? Who would have thunk it, indeed?

Donnie accepts that he's a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Donnie accepts that he’s a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not one for sports movies. I rented Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015) out of boredom and quickly lost interest. However, I rushed at the chance to see Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) in the theater, finding it my economic, political, and social obligation to support minority filmmakers. It didn’t matter that the only Rocky movie I had ever seen was the fourth installment in the franchise. On second thought, it probably helped that I had seen Drago bludgeon Apollo Creed to death in the ring in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). For Creed is about a young black boxer’s coming to terms with his identity as the illegitimate son of the late world heavyweight champion. Aside from the stellar performances—especially by lead Michael B. Jordan—and an amazing single take that approximates what a real-life boxing match is like, I loved the call-backs to the original film, snippets that I recognized because I am a pop culture junkie and know Rocky iconography without ever having seen the movie. I loved the early scene where Adonis “Donnie” Johnson shadowboxes his father, taking Rocky’s place in one of their bouts, footage of which Donnie projects onto a wall, streaming the video from YouTube. Later, his running through the street while neighborhood kids on bikes roll alongside him reminded me of Rocky’s triumphal climb up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What an exhilarating cinematic moment; it may have been like what film audiences experienced in 1976. I don’t remember how enthusiastic the crowd was when I saw Creed, but I couldn’t stop grinning from how well co-writer/director Coogler had rebooted, remade, and re-imagined a cultural touchstone that had run out of gas in recent years, how he had made it relevant to today’s audiences. With every day bringing us news of another unarmed African American being gunned down by excessive police force, Creed is a celebration of a strong black body, a multifaceted character with a complex inner life. In other words, it is a reminder that Black Lives Matter and are full of underestimated and untapped potential. Shame the Academy couldn’t see it.

But not everything produced with a strong fanbase in mind succeeded financially or critically. No one really cared to see Terminator: Genysis (Alan Taylor, 2015), probably turned off by its confusing story. Is it a sequel, a prequel, or what? And the remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic about a group of bank robbers who spend most days catching some waves off the Los Angeles coast, Point Break, crashed and burned. Like many people who grew up loving the campy original, I was at first hostile to the idea that Warner Bros. was going to distribute a remake of my beloved romance between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. But I learned that it is possible to appreciate both versions. In fact, it is possible to watch them both at the same time.

Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Having seen the trailer a couple of times, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers (including director/cinematographer Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) had made a case for a new Point Break in 2015. It’s a Point Break set within the world of extreme sports, a picture about the forces of nature and economic inequality. In this version, Johnny Utah is an FBI cadet who, based on his previous experience as a poly-athlete (I’d never heard that term before!) hypothesizes that a series of crimes performed through gravity-defying stunts on separate continents are all the work of the same daring team. They’re chasing what he calls the Osaki Eight, a series of physically demanding stunts that bring one closer to Nature. In other words, this legendary philosophy (the progenitor of it died while attempting his third challenge) is kind of like The Force: it is meant to do good. But the group, led by Bodhi (who else?), commits criminal acts in order to give back, including hijacking millions of dollars being transported by a plane. Releasing the bills miles high to the Mexican villagers below, they also accomplish their goal of strategically falling through the sky and opening their parachutes inside a cave, effectively going from above to below the earth’s surface in one fell swoop. This is not your childhood’s Point Break. In addition to highlighting what was wrong with the original (the surfer gang wasn’t a band of Robin Hoods), the film is a showcase for the striking photography of beautiful natural landscapes and the real stunts performed by professional athletes that are littered throughout.

C'mon, Bodhi, why don't you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna... Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
C’mon, Bodhi, why don’t you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna… Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I watched the new Point Break with the original, so ingrained in my memory, playing at the same time in the back of my mind. I could giddily anticipate some gestures and exchanges, such as the moment when Utah fires his gun into the air in a blaze of bullets after just having it trained on Bodhi, thereby allowing his friend/object of desire to get away before the feds arrive. I was the only one in the theater who yelped when she saw James Le Gros cameo as an FBI director (Roach lives!). Despite these call-backs to the original, I can assure you that this Point Break is its own campy thing. It is less a remake and more a re-imagining. And I couldn’t help thinking that an early scene set in a dilapidated Parisian train station (if memory serves) is the closest either film comes to shooting a love scene between the men. Here, Bodhi and his gang hang out, fighting each other for no apparent reason. Although couched as a test of Utah’s character and mettle, the fisticuffs between he and Bodhi signal a love and brutalism that binds them together. I just hope that in twenty-four years, if they even wait that long to remake Point Break, Bodhi and Utah consummate this desire to turn the other into himself. To fuck, as it were.

Fargo Season Two
Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (center) confronts Gerhardt scion Dodd in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

However, the most immersive and rewarding fan experience that I had in 2015—and which carried into 2016—didn’t even involve going to the movie theater. I became obsessed with the FX original series Fargo, created by Noah Hawley and inspired by the 1996 film of the same name written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I initially eschewed the first season of the mock true crime anthology series because Billy Bob Thornton starred. I hold a grudge against the man for having won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the year that John Hodge’s script for Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was nominated in the same category. (More on that film in part four.) However, I had read that the show was amazing, and when I spotted the first season on DVD at my public library, I snatched up the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about Fargo.

Set in 2006, it follows Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman in a stunning debut), a sheriff’s deputy in a small Minnesota town who is the only one who can see what is really going on: perennial schlemiel Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, putting on his best north Midwestern accent) is in cahoots with the mysterious assassin Lorne Malvo (a charismatic Thornton). Malvo’s not-quite-solicited murder of Lester’s high school bully sets off a dangerous and absurd chain of events, transforming Lester from a mild-mannered underachiever into a successful insurance salesman with a murderous streak. A suitcase buried in the snow even figures prominently in a second narrative thread concerning Malvo’s manipulation of a grocery store king (Oliver Platt) who hired him to find his blackmailer. That reminds me: I really ought to check out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014).

Anyway, I fell under Fargo’s spell immediately. I devoured episodes, reveling in the show’s intricate plotting, nuanced performances, and references not just to the Coens’ film but their whole cinematic universe. I finished in time to watch the second season as it aired, but I waited until my DVR had recorded all ten episodes before diving in. I wanted to go at my own (delayed but faster) pace.

For the second outing, Noah Hawley and his new writer’s room set the story in 1979, during the so-called Sioux Falls Massacre, which Molly’s retired sheriff of a father (Keith Carradine) referenced on a regular basis throughout season one. Going in, I already knew that at least two characters would survive: Molly, now played as a young girl by Raven Stewart, and her father Lou (played as a young state trooper by Patrick Wilson). All bets were off regarding everyone and everything else. The second season is more ambitious in style, story, and setting, incorporating a Midwestern turf war between a German-American crime family in Fargo, the Gerhardts, and a bigger, more streamlined operation in Kansas City that wishes to absorb the former’s drugs distribution business. Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a Minnesota beautician with a dream, accidentally runs over the youngest brother of the Gerhardt clan while he (Kieran Culkin, who knows a thing or two about family dynasties himself) tries to flee the scene of his triple homicide inside a remote diner. Peggy enlists the help of her dim-witted but well-meaning husband, the apprentice butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons), to get rid of Rye Gerhardt’s body. A call-back to the memorable woodchipper scene in the film Fargo ensues, as Ed disposes of Rye’s body the only way he knows how: with a meat grinder.

 

Fargo meat grinder
Ed prepares Rye Gerhardt for the woodchipper meat grinder in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

Although the characters and storylines are different between the film and each season of the TV show, a cottage industry exists in which viewers spot references to the film in the new series. Originally, this activity maddened Adam Sternbergh, novelist and contributing editor of New York magazine, whose favorite film is Fargo. Writing for Vulture, he recounts the process of coming to terms with the TV show, whose announcement in 2014 made him feel “something between doubt and existential despair,” by being “able to let go and watch the show in the spirit in which it perhaps was always meant to be watched.” The widening of the show’s scope in season two to include references to the larger Coen “mythology” has influenced Sternbergh to see Fargo as “the ultimate tribute” to the filmmakers, continuing:

The show accepts as a given that the Coens haven’t just created a distinctive visual style, or a stable of recognizable character types, or a set of consistent thematic concerns: They’ve created all those things, with such richness and abundance that their films now qualify as a genre unto themselves. The Coens may have started out making noirs, or Westerns, or comedies, but now they indisputably make Coen Brothers films. Their work has become a stand-alone genre that exists to be referenced, caricatured, borrowed, even shamelessly strip-mined. And it’s rich enough to inspire not just a spinoff, but an expertly executed ongoing televisual homage.

My favorite reference in season two to the Coen Brothers’ filmography comes at the end of the seventh episode. With the eldest Gerhardt brother in his possession, Ed Blumquist phones low-level KC mob enforcer Mike Milligan (a transfixing Bokeem Woodbine) to make a deal: he’ll give him Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) in exchange for help in getting the Gerhardts off his back. The song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” made famous by the Dude’s dream sequence in The Big Lebowski (1998), plays out the scene before the end credits roll. But rather than lift Mickey Newbury’s original 1967 track from the film, Hawley and Co. do something extra geeky: they put on an anachronistic funky cover of the song by the pop-synth band White Denim. I’d never heard of this musical group before, but I can only imagine that they probably first heard the song as I did in 1998: while watching The Big Lebowski. In this way, Hawley and his collaborators have taken their Coen fandom to new intertextual heights. Like White Denim, Hawley and his colleagues have taken a text (almost) exclusively associated with the Coen Brothers film genre, to use Sternbergh’s taxonomy, and created something new. Placing the cover of the song inside the playful homage that is Fargo the TV series emphasizes the fan culture from which both the cover song and the TV program were born and which they continue to stimulate.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

Advertisements

Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hated Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.

I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.

Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence in Sunshine. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.

Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.
Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.

Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.

On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):

… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)

I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.

Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.

In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.

In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

Quick Edit: Spare Parts Builds Something Special

Viewed May 15, 2015

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m not one for inspirational teacher/coach movies. For starters, these films usually revolve around a coach searching for redemption, beginning with Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986). As the Ur-text of this kind of film, Hoosiers popularized the subgenre. Other notable entries in the canon include The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992), Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993), We Are Marshall (McG, 2006), and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006). There are some exceptions to the trope of the white male savior coach, though: Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000), starring Denzel Washington, who later went on to direct himself as an inspirational college professor in The Great Debaters (2007), and Coach Carter (Thomas Carter, 2005) both cast African-American actors as the students’ tough but fair role models. Even though a sports backdrop predominates in this field, there are films that are about teachers effecting change in the classroom, some more successfully than others. Thanks to Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), we all learned to quote Walt Whitman and seize the day. The Emperor’s Club (Michael Hoffman, 2002), also set at a tony boarding school, is a bit of an outlier, for it exposes how an honorable classics teacher failed to impart the importance of living a life with integrity on one of his most difficult students. Then, of course, there are the two most recognizable woman-centered inspirational teacher films: Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995) and its apparent remake Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese, 2007). Remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”?

Spare Parts movie posterHowever, I’d like to recommend a new and welcome entry in the subgenre: this year’s Spare Parts, directed by Sean McNamara and written by Elissa Matsueda. (Did you think I was going to say McFarland, USA?) Based on Joshua Davis’s 2005 WIRED magazine article, “La Vida Robot,” it tells the story of four Mexican-American teenagers living in Phoenix who, with a little guidance from their teacher, enter a prestigious underwater engineering competition and blow everyone away with their expertly designed ROV (remote-operated vehicle), constructed for only $800—a tenth of their competitors’ average operating budget. Fronted by funnyman George Lopez, Spare Parts resembles Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988) in that a Mexican-American teacher guides the at-risk students in developing practical STEM-related skills. However, Spare Parts also recalls Race the Sun (Charles T. Kanganis, 1996) and October Sky (Joe Johnston, 1999), simply because of its emphasis on the students’ coming-of-age while learning to work as a team to build mechanical vehicles or rockets. (It is also worth mentioning that in Spare Parts’s closest antecedents, the inspiring teachers were both women.)

Here, the real-life robotics club mentors Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi, both science teachers at Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix, combine to form Dr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), an engineer who has difficulty keeping a job longer than three months due to some emotional trauma that he experienced years ago (I won’t spoil what it is, though you can probably already guess). Desperate, he takes a long-term substitute-teaching job, and the persistent Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), a member of the local ROTC, convinces him to sponsor the school’s robotics club. Having been denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces based on his undocumented immigration status, Oscar believes competing in the underwater robotics competition is his ticket to college. Rounding out the group are Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), the bullied brainiac; Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián), the trouble-making mechanics-whizz; and Luis Aranda (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II), the muscle. Mild-to-major spoilers follow.

Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

I didn’t understand much about the technical aspects of their project, but it doesn’t matter. Spare Parts is a winning underdog story because of its characters, whose development eschews caricature and stereotypes. Each member of the group has his own set of challenges that make for compelling drama, especially since there aren’t many films about the lived experiences of undocumented child immigrants. Oscar is so ashamed that his path to serving in the US Armed Forces hasn’t panned out that he keeps his rejection from the program and his participation in the club secrets from his mother (Alessandra Rosaldo). When she learns the truth from Oscar’s math teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei), she confronts Oscar and rightfully points out that, even if the competition grants him opportunities in engineering, no company will hire him without his “papers.” Throughout the film, Oscar lives in fear that the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will detain and deport him and his family. After receiving a tip from the recruiter, he avoids returning to his family’s house, afraid that he will never be able to go home again. He also breaks up with his girlfriend, Karla (Alexis PenaVega), believing that his undocumented status is a burden, an impediment to their living peacefully.

Cristian appears to be the only man in his house, and he longs to attend a father-son science program with Dr. Cameron. It’s heartbreaking when Dr. Cameron declines, unsure of himself as a father figure. The greatest obstacle to Cristian achieving success, however, is poverty. His family is dirt poor, and he lives alone in an unheated shed outside of the family’s trailer. We do not glimpse his living situation until halfway through the film, because the home lives of Oscar and Lorenzo take precedence.

As the older brother of a budding juvenile delinquent born in the United States, it is Lorenzo’s responsibility, per his stern father’s request, to always look out for Ramiro (Ray Aguayo) or to take the blame for any of Ramiro’s misdeeds. The message that Señor Santillan (Esai Morales) is sending to his son is that his own life doesn’t matter—he’s not meant for anything else. The father would rather have Lorenzo deported—separated from the family—than an American-born son with a police record. Dr. Cameron steps in to mediate the conflict growing between Lorenzo and his father after Lorenzo stops Ramiro from robbing a convenience store. When he hears of what has happened, Señor Santillan only cares if Ramiro was arrested (he wasn’t) and resents that Dr. Cameron tried to meddle in his family’s affairs. Like Oscar, Lorenzo must now fend for himself, in fear of deportation (cops or ICE agents saw him leave the scene of the attempted crime) and kicked out of the house for not looking after Ramiro properly. Why Señor Santillan never thinks that it is his responsibility to keep his son out of trouble is beyond me, and why doesn’t Ramiro ever consider that his actions have severe consequences on his father and brother?

Luis, the only US citizen of the four, is the least developed character. A gentle giant, the rest of the group admittedly uses his stature and strength to lift and set down their 100-pound rover into the pool. Luis struggles to understand how people perceive him. He asks his mother if he is stupid or just quiet, and she answers that only he can reveal who he is. Her encouraging riddle flummoxes him, but it is apparent that the group project and the competition’s requirement that all members present on the technology that they used to make their ROV certainly lift Luis’s confidence, thereby proving to himself and everyone else that he is a capable team member.

Spare Parts is smart and poignant, dramatizing certain elements of the true story for socio-political effect. For example, while Cristian and Lorenzo design the proof-of-concept model using the spare parts found in Dr. Cameron’s science lab, Oscar sets out to raise money for critical missing pieces. He solicits funds from local businesses and banks and is repeatedly turned down. Upon witnessing the ease with which servicemen receive a loan, Oscar astutely pulls his uniform out of the closet and successfully obtains $100 to help with the project. This demonstrates that, given individual prejudice and institutionalized racism, sometimes people of color are not taken seriously, as citizens deserving of respect, unless he or she is in uniform. Later in the film, the team drives to a motel where they can test the rover in the pool. But before they begin, fun hijinks ensue as they push Dr. Cameron into the pool. Eventually everyone is in the water, splashing away, being the kids that they really don’t have the privilege of being at home. While no character’s life situation is representative of every undocumented immigrant who arrived in this country as a child, Spare Parts effectively draws out the inherent drama of their situations in order to instill empathy in the audience.

It should be no surprise that Spare Parts is also very funny, given George Lopez’s headlining presence. Once the team arrives in Santa Barbara for the competition, where they enter the college-level contest (Dr. Cameron thinks that if they lose, it’ll be a greater accomplishment to come in last among the likes of MIT and Stanford), they discover that their waterproof case leaks and resolve to find a quick, absorbent solution. Lorenzo suggests using tampons, and watching him build up the courage to ask a woman in the grocery store for help in choosing the right one (no applicator!) is hilarious. According to Davis’s article, this really happened, despite its seeming provenance from a teenage sex comedy.

In fact, Spare Parts ends triumphantly, but not without suspense. Like I said, I don’t really understand all of their techno-speak, but watching them complete the rover’s underwater obstacle course was a nail-biting ordeal. The team impresses the judges with their oral presentation, self-evident mastery of the material, and innovative and spendthrift design. I don’t want to spoil everything for you, so I urge you to check out the film. It may have taken some liberties with the original story, but as an inspirational teacher/coach movie, Spare Parts blazes a new trail and winningly focuses on the realistic trials and tribulations of the students.

Reading Role Models by My Role Model, John Waters

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge personal library to prove it. However, the shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve yet to read, for the rate at which I purchase books far outpaces the speed at which I read them. To make matters—well, not worse but different—I’ve also gotten back into the habit of borrowing books from the library. Newly transplanted to Kansas City and without being able to run through the breadth and depth of my own book collection, I have used the splendid public library here to both acquaint me with my new city and to keep my reading eyes and imagination busy.

Role ModelsNow add my ears to the list, too. Recently, I listened to an audiobook for the first time. Ironically, it was a recording of a paperback that sits in my room back home: Role Models by cult filmmaker and artist John Waters. My siblings and I have been fans of the Baltimore-based director since we were kids, having grown up watching Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) repeatedly. Although my extremely permissive parents probably would have had no problem with our watching his infamous classic Pink Flamingos (1972), I waited until I was ready, in college, to partake in the mondo-trashiness of Divine’s diegetic exploits to secure her place as the world’s “filthiest person alive.” Around the same time, about ten years ago, my sister and I were the first in line to attend a comedic performance by John Waters on campus. I can’t remember everything that he covered that night, but I do remember that that is how I learned of his interest in attending local court trials. And that he is not a fan of blossoms. I still like to quote him, mimicking his cadence and emphasizing the pauses and “S” sounds that he makes: “Limits. We all have our limits.” My beloved button pin, which cheekily states, “Reading is sexy,” inexplicably confounds a lot of people, but I paraphrase something that Waters said that night to explain what I mean by wearing it: “You should never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read.”

John Waters has been an idol of mine for decades now, and I am so glad that I listened to Role Models, his memoir about the multiple individuals, in and out of the spotlight (however big), who have inspired him. I’m certain that I would have heard his distinctive voice in my head while reading it myself, but there is nothing like listening to him actually tell these hilarious and often heart-warming stories about perversion and subversion. The experience, which I shared with my sister in the car, largely as we drove the three hours to Omaha and back, was the closest I will probably ever come to feeling as if John and I really are best friends.

Role Models is divided into ten chapters, each tackling a different subject or topic. He touches on everyone from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to Leslie Van Houten and Tennessee Williams. In researching the book, he even met the first three aforementioned people, among others. The seventh chapter, “Little Richard, Happy at Last,” recounts John’s early fascination with the influential R&B singer and the disappointing experience he had while interviewing his idol for Playboy magazine in 1987. The “screaming, flamboyant black man” whose voice had so shocked John’s parents in 1957 when he stole, blasted, and danced along to Little Richard’s latest record in the living room unfortunately turned out to be a royal pain in the ass (183). Since Little Richard was the inspiration behind John’s signature pencil moustache, I was surprised that he waited to introduce this idol so late in the book. But his experience having a candid conversation with Little Richard, who wanted approval over whatever John was going to write about him, posed a hard lesson.

John wonders, “But are there some role models you should never meet?” (184). Expressing that sentiment, so early in a book called Role Models, would have been such a bummer in the first chapter—even if Little Richard was instrumental in helping John define his identity. As a child growing up, John had always wanted to be Little Richard, to “somehow climb into [his] body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to [John’s] own, and switch identities with him” (183-4). John’s cautionary tale is exactly why I don’t follow my favorite celebrities on Twitter or other social media networks. I would rather remain blissfully unaware of the stupid or offensive things that they tweet or post to Instagram. However—and this is what I love about John, he’s so forgiving of people’s faults—he still idolizes Little Richard, “the undisputed king in my book” (197).

John Waters, my hero.
John Waters, my hero.

Role Models is also about the fashion, art, books, and pornography that have inspired John and brought joy into his life. In my favorite chapter, “Outsider Porn,” John meets one of his favorite pornographers, a man who literally lives in a pigpen, with rats, dogs, and chickens, to boot. Bobby has fallen on hard times; after selling the rights to his videotapes a long time ago, he doesn’t know how his porn videos, featuring heterosexual Marines masturbating and/or receiving fellatio from Bobby himself, are distributed today. Listening to John describe his discomfort in Bobby’s indoor/outdoor house is a riot, but he is also sympathetic to Bobby’s plight, desiring to take him out to dinner to a nice restaurant. John says that Bobby “is a great artist but doesn’t know it,” and that his video work and hundreds of artfully composed Polaroids of his Marine conquests belong in contemporary art galleries (201). That’s probably the only way I would ever see them. “Outsider Porn” isn’t just hilarious and somewhat upsetting (I wish Bobby’s situation wasn’t so dire); it’s also pretty hot. Listening to John describe several characteristic scenes from Bobby’s porn, without being able to actually see it, certainly invites you to use your imagination in the most fantastic sense. It’s no different than reading really graphic erotic literature.

John Waters hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. Since writing and directing A Dirty Shame in 2004, he’s been busy with a number of other projects: touring with his one-man comedy show (which was later turned into a documentary, This Filthy World, in 2006); putting on a comprehensive multimedia art show (I caught Change of Life at the Orange County Museum of Art in December 2005); watching Hairspray, his most commercial film, transform into a Broadway musical and later a film starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; hosting a tongue-in-cheek legal drama ’Til Death Do Us Part on Court TV from 2006 to 2007; and writing two memoirs, 2010’s Role Models and last year’s Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Given John’s background, it should come as no surprise that Role Models isn’t a conventional memoir. While he does mention some of his collaborators throughout (chiefly Divine and Pat Moran, his longtime casting director and associate producer), he holds off on telling any salacious stories about Johnny Depp, who starred in 1990’s Cry-Baby. Role Models isn’t so much about John’s working life—or his personal one, for that matter. Although you do learn that he has “roommates”: pieces of his extraordinary contemporary art collection that are strewn across his Baltimore home and his New York apartment. I don’t care that John didn’t elucidate his filmmaking practices. I would rather hear him recount a particularly perverted airline passenger’s horrifying antics on an international flight that John wasn’t aboard himself. Just to hear him say “turd” over and over is a dream.

Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters's mouth by Greg Gorman.
Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters’s mouth by Greg Gorman.

Opening the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” John laments, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy” (273). It’s true: “cult filmmaker” isn’t enough to identify him, and this is what makes John so special to me. Unlike other auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, John isn’t just known for his films. He expresses his personality and sensibility in other art forms, and as a diehard fan, Role Models delivers, because it perfectly encapsulates the Pope of Trash’s worldview. Also in “Cult Leader,” John preaches about “a filth movement for the next century,” imagining that readers can choose to join his crusade against those who decry bad taste as the end of civilization (274). What an empowering message, because, once you get past his faux-insistence that you change your name or go topless in public, all he is really saying is that you should let your freak flag fly. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or dictate what you can and cannot do. Growing up with a fixed diet of John Waters movies and still wanting nothing more than to be best friends with the man, I have really taken this advice to heart.

Listening to Role Models, though, inspired me to reflect on other people whom I idolize. It’s been a long time since I was so obsessed with a celebrity that I purchased every magazine he or she appeared in. At ten, I was obsessed with the rock band Bush, and I recall lifting hundreds of issues of Tower Records’ free in-store magazine in order to mail copies to other fans dispersed around the world (this was before the Internet was readily available). I can still sing along to songs on Sixteen Stone, but I no longer think of Gavin Rossdale as my future husband. I was also a card-carrying member of the Christian Bale fan-club as a child, but now I waver in my enthusiasm for his acting. (I can’t wait to rent Exodus: Gods and Kings on DVD and laugh at it.) However, in almost twenty years, my passion for all things Trainspotting has never dissipated. Sure, I donated my copy of Ewan McGregor’s unauthorized biography a long time ago (it wasn’t well written), but I’m never getting rid of my rare Trainspotting movie poster, the one where Begbie has his hand in his pants. John would approve.

I’m not so sure that listening to audiobooks will ever replace my reading of tangible hard copies. I don’t spend much time commuting in the car or on the bus, where reading is nauseatingly impossible. My sister and I started listening to a piece of historical fiction, which spans thirteen compact discs and over sixteen hours of audio. It wouldn’t take me that long to read it, and my mind too easily wanders while listening to the actress read the story. But I know that listening to John Waters’s Carsick while on the road with my sister would be ideal.

Long Take: Unraveling the Psychosexual Trauma of It Follows

Viewed March 28, 2015

It Follows movie posterI had never heard of the indie horror film It Follows until I spotted its poster hanging in the hallway of a local art-house cinema here in Kansas City, announcing its imminent showcase. Using familiar iconography of American teenage rebellion, the minimalist printed advertisement poses two attractive young people in the midst of a backseat tryst in a classic car parked in the middle of the woods. A smoky footlight from within illuminates the interior of the car parked on this Lovers’ Lane. Without a tagline, the poster for It Follows relies on a quote from The Dissolve to entice spectators: “One of the Most Striking American Horror Films in Years,” which isn’t quite the same as saying it is the most striking American horror film in years. However, the beguiling film title is the viewer’s most helpful guide to interpreting the poster scene (and, by extension, the film it represents): what is “It?” Could “It” be me, as I look at this intimate moment between two people? The voyeuristic film poster perfectly encapsulates the dueling yet complementary senses of dread and yearning that the 2014 film, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, instills in the audience.

Given the film’s strong word-of-mouth marketing campaign and sizable box office gross, distributors RADiUS-TWC scrapped plans to release the film via video-on-demand and instead rushed it to more theaters around the country. Even though I routinely eschew horror films (unless there are vampires; don’t ask why!), I determined that I had better see this thing, to judge for myself how “striking” it is. I couldn’t see It Follows at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport now; when the film’s distribution widened ahead of the theater’s advertised opening day, Tivoli put on alternate programming instead. Wishing video-on-demand was still an option, I entered into an agreement at an AMC multiplex, voluntarily giving away control, allowing myself to be scared out of my mind. After all, if New York film critic and self-proclaimed “horror-movie freak” David Edelstein could barely handle It Follows, how was I ever going to walk away un-traumatized? Apparently, the film had frightened him so much that he left with a “so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread.” Yikes.

And here is where I must insert my common refrain: there be spoilers ahead. But if you are like me and avoid torture porn, slasher movies, and possession flicks, then you should know—if you’re even considering seeing It Follows—that the film is not scary! That’s right: to my pleasant surprise, It Follows isn’t scary in the least. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any jump scares (there are a few) or that the plotting doesn’t create and alleviate some violent tension. The sole “hideously gory image” that Edelstein can’t wipe from his memory arrives early, but it is no more traumatizing to look at than any of the so-called elegant murderous tableaux featured on the network drama Hannibal. (I admit: I watch that, but never before or after eating and only during daylight hours.)

By now, you probably know the premise of It Follows. A pretty but nice girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), has sex with a quiet but nice boy, Hugh (Jake Weary). Afterwards, he chloroforms her face, and she wakes up in her underwear, bound in a wheelchair. In an abandoned parking garage somewhere in the suburbs of Detroit, Hugh explains to her that, through intercourse, he has just passed a “thing” onto her, a monster that only she can see and that will take different forms, usually people she knows and loves. It will never stop haunting her, Hugh warns Jay (and by extension, the audience). It will follow her everywhere on foot, but she mustn’t let it kill her. If she succumbs to its evil force, then it will come after him.

Hugh (Jake Weary) is on the lookout for what follows, just after sexually transmitting the haunting onto Jay (Maika Monroe). Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Hugh (Jake Weary) is on the lookout for what follows, just after sexually transmitting the haunting onto Jay (Maika Monroe). Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

In the introduction to the interview she conducted with David Robert Mitchell, Flavorwire writer Alison Nastasi hints at the parallels that Jay’s newfound diagnosis shares with venereal disease (prognosis: not good!). She writes, “Jay’s sexually transmitted haunting evokes the film’s theme of the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” (emphasis mine). In other words, despite coming of age well after the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the subsequent “safe sex” movement of the 1990s, teenagers today approach sex with some trepidation regarding infection. But in the film, the teenagers don’t so much internalize the idea that intercourse is more than just physically and emotionally laying yourself bare. Instead, sex is a means of, to borrow Nastasi’s words, “surrendering a part of yourself to someone else” whose sexual history weighs heavily on your own. The “interconnectivity” inherent in the sexual act renders Jay vulnerable to the aftereffects of one of Hugh’s earlier assignations and winds up controlling her destiny. Despite the support that she receives from her sister and friends, the visions of stalkers are too much for Jay to bear, and the burden of having to pass on this “sexually transmitted haunting” constitutes not only cruel and unusual punishment for all involved but also her only means of escape from imminent death.

But what does it all add up to? While Mitchell is open to various interpretations of what It Follows means, in talking with Nastasi, he resolutely denies that viewers should walk out of the theater believing that Jay’s “sexually transmitted haunting,” to use that phrase again, is a result of her sexuality. He also disagrees with the notion that the film purports a “sex-negative” message, specifically about women losing something during the act and that they should therefore be afraid of sex. Jay is not being punished for sleeping with someone, and casual sex isn’t something to fear. Watching the movie, I purposefully looked beyond the STI connection and about midway through decided that It Follows is about the collision of the real and the imaginary and how convincing someone of your truth binds you both together. I thought that what Jay suffers from isn’t a real physical threat but rather the psychological torment that Hugh first puts into her head. Can she trust him? Is this “thing” real? Will anyone believe that she is not crazy?

Young adults commonly struggle to make sense of the world and their place within it. What do I want to be when I grow up? Will my best friend and I always be close? How can I be cool? I don’t want to be anything like my parents! One of the elements I like best about It Follows is the companionship that Jay enjoys with Kelly (Jay’s sister, played by Lili Sepe), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Eventually, a classmate and former high school paramour, played by a young Johnny Depp lookalike named Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins the crew. They all trust that Jay is seeing some pretty disturbing visions and that she isn’t crazy. Their teenage clique demonstrates that even if they cannot see or identify with the viral bullying that Jay endures, they can relate to it and desire to put a stop to it. In this way, It Follows turns the average teenager’s general desire to fit in (and the complementary fear of rejection) on its head. Jay’s supernatural condition infects everyone around her, thereby producing a cohesive social unit that doesn’t label her an outcast or social pariah. This is the silver lining to “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety,” as Nastasi labels the film’s overarching theme. In the end, the group relies on Jay’s vision to extinguish the monster once and for all.

In trying to locate Hugh and learn more of his secrets, Jay and her friends snoop around an abandoned house that he'd given her as his address. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
In trying to locate Hugh and learn more of his secrets, Jay and her friends snoop around an abandoned house that he’d given her as his address. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It Follows does showcase the interplay between Jay’s supernatural condition and the awkwardness of teenagehood in some poignant ways. Paul is in love with Jay, his best friend’s older sister. Years ago, they shared each other’s first kiss. When Paul finds out that Jay slept with Greg in order to pass on the haunting, he behaves somewhat like a petulant child. Why Greg? Paul wants to know. Because Jay thought that Greg could handle it. For days, Greg is unfazed, insisting that the monster has yet to visit him. Its absence leads him to believe that it is all in Jay’s mind. What happens next in the film rendered incorrect my observation about the slippage between what is real and what is imagined. One night, Jay watches a zombie-like stalker in the shape of Greg break into Greg’s house across the street. Jay realizes that her transmission, however successful, hasn’t freed her from the visions. So she runs across the street to warn him. Once in the house, it takes the form of Greg’s mother (Leisa Pulido), naked but for an untied silk robe, and pounds on Greg’s door. Jay yells for him to stay locked in his room. He doesn’t heed Jay’s warning, and for the first time the film audience catches a glimpse of what happens when the monster kills someone in the chain: it literally fucks the victim to death, their skin gelling together. That’s when it dawned on me that It Follows is simply about the fear of death—by incest.

In an interview with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, writer-director David Robert Mitchell discusses many of the film’s plot twists and turns. I think he’s being particularly cagey about why the monster takes the form of the victim’s loved ones, limiting his remarks to just the following: “So why did I make it the mom, other than just saying it was one of the more fucked-up things that I could think of? [Laughs.] It’s also that within the film, we’re sort of avoiding the influence of the adult world, and so I thought it was interesting to only enter into that space through the trope of the monster.” Without revealing much, this quote pinpoints exactly what the film is about: the anxiety over growing up and becoming an adult, and the film story uses incest as a metaphor for the teenagers to confront their own mortality, by becoming “one” with their parent.

Whereas my sister sees the teenagers’ mission to extinguish the monster on their own (that is, without adult supervision) as evidence of their self-sufficiency, I view it as an expression of the horror genre’s conventions. In these films, parents often don’t interact much with their teenagers—unless they are part of the problem. Just look at The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy 1973) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), two seminal entries in the genre. In the former, orgiastic villagers use their children to lure a virginal fool to their Hebridean island in order to sacrifice him as part of their pagan May Day celebration. The titular nightmare(s) in the latter film also refer to a slippage between the real and the imaginary, and the adults are similarly of little use to solve the teens’ horrific ordeal. The adults’ attempt to murder Freddy Krueger, who now stalks the teens’ dreams, is the reason for their children’s torment today. It Follows even recalls the work of cult director David Lynch, specifically Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-91), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Writing for Slate, and without elaborating on the specifics, Mark Binelli claims that “Mitchell is clearly indebted to Blue Velvet,” probably because teenagers also investigate the psychosexual crimes of the adults in that voyeuristic picture. The highly influential Twin Peaks presents a more apt comparison; Leland Palmer killed his daughter but claims to have been possessed throughout his life by a demon, which led him to rape and murder her. The “influence of the adult world,” to use Mitchell’s phrase, is certainly something to avoid in these films and TV series, but since we only catch glimpses of the adults in It Follows, what makes them so sinister that copulation with your parent is deadly?

If the hallmark of teenage rebellion is not wanting to be anything like your parents, then, according to Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical theory, the Oedipal and Electra complexes should be the death of you. It Follows realizes this destiny for those who contract the sexually transmitted haunting, but Mitchell goes one step further. Rather than merely promoting the fear of incest as the victim’s undoing, he combines these metaphors for psychosexual conflict with another Freudian theory: the interplay between the sexual and death instincts. While the former drives the individual to seek (sexual) pleasure and live life to the fullest, the latter binds the individual in a series of repetitious traumas that subconsciously influence the individual to seek solace in the space before his or her birth. In other words, life is about negotiating the libido and the death drive, which underpins the unconscious desire of the individual to cease to exist. In It Follows, the sexually transmitted haunting forces the infected to face his or her fear of death through violent confrontation with a monster that resembles the literal beginning of the victim’s being. For example, Greg’s pursuit of pleasure (his sexual instinct or libido) ends as his death drive brings him back to the place before he existed, in his mother’s loins. If the chain of victims haunted by the monster represents a series of repeated traumas, then the monster’s killing one victim and then going after another illustrates our inability to escape the death drive.

In the film's prologue, Annie (Bailey Spry) is on the run from the monster in her house. Her unseen dad (Loren Bass) seems involved in her psychosexual trauma. Image courtesy of RADiUS/TWC.
In the film’s prologue, Annie (Bailey Spry) is on the run from the monster in her house. Her unseen dad (Loren Bass) seems somehow involved in her psychosexual trauma. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Evidence that It Follows is an exploration of (Neo-)Freudian psychoanalytical theory abounds throughout the picture. In fact, one of the most ominous aspects of the film’s prologue, shot in an extended long take, foreshadows what is to come. A young woman named Annie (Bailey Spry) runs out of her house dressed in a rather grown-up lingerie ensemble and high heels. Her father (Loren Bass) calls out to her as she circles around the stationary camera several times, afraid of whatever is in the house. The audience never sees what haunts her, so her father is the sole person (or even thing) that we can associate with the house. If you didn’t know the premise of the film, you might think that there is a history of sexual abuse between Annie and her father. She eventually gets into a car and drives far away to a secluded lakefront. She calls home and, fearing that the monster will soon reach her, insists that she loves her dad. Although we do not know who or what defiled and contorted Annie’s body (this is the gory image critic David Edelstein couldn’t erase from his memory), I think it is safe to assume that the monster probably took the form of her father in that unseen moment.

Jay's first vision appears while she's in the middle of a class at a community college. Find below the reverse shot of what Jay sees. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Jay’s first vision appears while she’s in the middle of a class at a community college. Find below the reverse shot of what Jay sees. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Once Jay contracts the haunting, the fear of sexual misconduct with her loved ones becomes more obvious. In conversation with Kyle Buchanan, Mitchell comments on the first form that Jay’s iteration of the monster takes: “And I think what you’re saying is true, it’s about the contrast of this [old] woman in its location [the campus of Jay’s community college]. Instantly, you realize that something is not quite right. And people are not paying attention to her, although in any other situation, they would be.” I recognized the old woman in her nightgown as the old woman from a photograph on the wall that Jay studies earlier in the film. The implication is that this woman is Jay’s grandmother. When Mitchell refers in the same interview to his method of keeping a distance between what the protagonists see from their perspective on the ground and what may be haunting Jay from any other vantage point, I believe he is referring specifically to the moment when Jay sees an old naked man standing atop her roof. Even though Mitchell and co. didn’t put on a longer lens to capture the menace’s visage in more detail, I still recognized that he is probably Jay’s grandfather, from the same photo.

The reverse shot captures the first vision Jay has, while in class at a community college. The old woman, I argue, is her dead grandmother. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
The reverse shot captures the first vision Jay has, while in class at a community college. The old woman, I argue, is her dead grandmother. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Although the monster assumes more unfamiliar personages, including a young peeping tom from next door and an extraordinarily tall man (whom I couldn’t place), a majority of its reflections are familiar. When Jay and her friends track Hugh down and visit him at his real address, his mother answers the door, her wide smile in deep contrast to the emotionless face she had on while coming after Hugh (real name Jeff), completely naked, in the parking garage following his successful transmission of the haunting onto Jay. Furthermore, the violent climax at an indoor community pool not only resembles the end of Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), it further illustrates my argument. The group (minus Greg, of course) plugs in various household appliances, hoping to use Jay to lure the monster into the pool so that they may electrocute it. Mitchell admits to Buchanan that the group’s plan is “the stupidest plan ever!” Paul has brought a gun and depends on Jay’s description of where it is in order to shoot it. Yara gets injured in the process, but it eventually falls into the pool, attempting to drown Jay. She gets away and watches as the pool fills up with blood. Crucially, however, throughout the whole scene the monster appears to Jay as her absent father, whom I also previously glimpsed in a family photograph. Besides wanting to keep these familiar connections as opaque as possible, I don’t understand why Jay, especially in this scene, never calls out whom it resembles. For that matter, after so many close calls, she never tells anyone whose appearance the monster adopts. Either I am completely off base as to why the monster threatens to kill the teenagers while in the form of their parents, or Mitchell is just one cagey guy.

Jay peers into the community pool to see if she and her friends successfully killed the monster. He's no longer there. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Jay peers into the community pool to see if she and her friends successfully killed the monster. He’s no longer there. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Despite the bloodbath, Jay and her friends are not out of the woods. Inexplicably, Jay sleeps with Paul. It Follows is not funny, but Paul’s asking Jay if she feels any different after they have sex cleverly corrupts the trope of (teenage) virginity. Next we see Paul troll for a prostitute. Meanwhile, Jay curls up on her bed in a familiar fetal position, her mother (Debbie Williams, whose face is never in focus—if it is even in the frame—throughout the film) stroking her naked back. This may be the most haunting image of It Follows. It demonstrates that the threat of death, expressed through her parent’s sexual menace, is ever near and ever present. The final shot of Jay and Paul, holding hands while walking down the street, may hint that the person following them in the distance is also haunting them. In this way, “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” is defeated: these friends have become lovers and can now face the monster/death together. Although the film ends on an ambiguous but still upbeat note (in spite of everything that has happened, anyway), the image of Jay’s mother suggestively touching her daughter is creepier and more foreboding than the couple’s maybe-stalker.


Below is the lyric video for “From the Night,” the first song off the 2014 album No One is Lost by Stars. The Canadian band’s dreamy soundscapes complement the electronic synth score by Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace), which borrows heavily from the horror-film themes of the 1970s and 80s, such as Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). More than that, the newest record by the prolific band, which I only recently got into thanks to a live studio-session they performed on the CBC radio show Q, thematically and stylistically dovetails with one of It Follows’ themes: the average teenager’s desire to fit in and have fun. The cover of the album, which you can glimpse in the video, showcases a similar youthful yearning for connection and social acceptance that It Follows deconstructs. Most notably, listen to the lyrics after the bridge (at the 3.40 mark in the video). They could be telling Jay and Paul’s story.

To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).

Who is Laura Lamont?

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesEmma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures charts the transformation of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, into one of the starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Using Jennifer Jones’s biography as a springboard, Straub writes of a woman who juggles multiple identities throughout her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, and actress. In fact, the book is divided into twelve chapters whose titles encapsulate the roles she plays. Opening the novel in 1929, “Cherry,” at once suggesting the ripe potential of her later life’s work and the lost grandeur of Chekhov’s last play, details the special circumstances of her childhood spent behind the scenes and on the floorboards of her parents’ barn-house theater. Nine years pass between the suicide of Elsa’s older, beloved and beautiful sister Hildy and her escape from Door County with stranger-cum-costar-cum-husband Gordon Pitts. Within a few years after their arrival in Los Angeles, Gordon signs a contract to be a bit player at Gardner Brothers, and Elsa’s own acting ambitions take a backseat to her familial responsibilities. In the second chapter, “Laura Lamont,” studio executive (and Gordon’s boss) Irving Green flirts with Elsa at a wrap party and rechristens her “Laura Lamont,” telling her that, provided she loses thirty pounds once she gives birth to her (second) child, she is pretty enough to be a star. And so our heroine now sets her mind on becoming the star she always wanted to be.

Straub is a deft storyteller, and structuring her fictional biography according to the highlights of Laura Lamont’s life and career excises the fat of the more uneventful, prosaic moments of a character’s story. However, after reading all 304 pages of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, the titular protagonist still remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps this is intentional. We read as Elsa/Laura struggles to define herself, mainly as her new glamorous identity fails to wipe the slate clean. She can’t face up to her mother, who resents Elsa for leaving Door County, seemingly forgetting who she is. Laura is haunted by past traumas, such as her sister’s suicide, and, years after she has divorced Gordon and married the studio’s number two, Irving Green, her first husband becomes a drunkard, a drug addict, a costly thorn in her side. The role that she chooses to most define her is that of mother. More pages are devoted to Laura’s dedication to and admiration of her three children: Clara and Florence, from her first marriage, and Irving Jr. This isn’t objectionable, of course, but as a film scholar and historian, I was more interested in how Straub represented Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub's Laura Lamont.
Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont.

Just as it is unreasonable for a film critic to judge a motion picture against the film s/he would like to have seen, it is not fair of me to judge Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures as lacking an in-depth exposé of Hollywood goings-on from the perspective of one star—or cog in the machine. Besides, as Straub told Jacki Lyden in 2012 on NPR’s All Things Considered, “I made sure to stay away actually from Jennifer Jones’ biography ’cause I didn’t want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.” However, just as I really enjoyed Farran Smith Nehme’s engagement with the archival preservation of forgotten silent films in her recent novel Missing Reels, the characterizations of Hollywood and its myriad players in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures really delighted me. For example, when Laura starts at Gardner Brothers, whose company name recalls that of the real-life Warner Bros. but whose physical location more accurately resembles that of Paramount, she begins cutting a rug in a string of comedies with her red-haired friend Ginger Hedges. Years later, after Ginger becomes a big star in comedy, rival studio Triumph Pictures poaches her, and she later goes on to head the studio while producing and starring on a successful television sitcom with her husband. It should come as no surprise that Lucille Ball inspired the character Ginger. Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones’s first husband, does not end up as ignobly as Gordon Pitts does. At least the real-life actor, who also died young, can claim an illustrious career with the likes of BataanStrangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.

The Song of BernadetteWhen the hardcover’s opening book-flap describes Irving Green as Laura’s “great love,” I recognized that the character must be a stand-in for David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones’s second husband. Selznick produced such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and The Portrait of Jennie, the last two of which starred his wife Jones (neé Phylis Lee Isley). Before striking out on his own, Selznick worked at MGM, Paramount, and RKO. While the novel does not present Irving as an independent producer like Selznick, it does show that his decision to put Laura in more serious roles, in romantic, historical epics, eventually nabs her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jennifer Jones won her first and only Oscar right out of the gate, for her leading role in The Song of Bernadette. In crafting Laura Lamont’s backstory, Straub cleverly keeps the religious theme of Jones’s film when she writes that Laura won for her performance as a nun in Farewell, My Sister, a film whose script somewhat imitates her relationship with Hildy. Unfortunately, I found the description of Laura and Irving’s relationship lacking in intensity. Although married for years, before his untimely death from a prolonged heart-related illness, I never really understood the lovers’ mutual fascination. Irving is repeatedly described as short, slight, balding, and regrettably, Jewish, as if that is enough to characterize someone. Sure, power is an aphrodisiac, but outside of his unexamined devotion to Laura and her children, I fail to see how he is appealing. He isn’t given any thought-provoking dialogue or much to do at all, really. He mainly just sweeps her off her feet, seeing someone else in Elsa Emerson, a brunette rather than a blonde. Laura herself is a bit of a simpleton, especially when it comes to interacting with her growing children. And Laura’s relationship with her young black maid, Harriet, reads too much like one Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh had with Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel on-screen. Since we glimpse Laura mostly in her private life, it is difficult for me to imagine the character as a glamorous starlet. She mainly just upholds the Grand Narrative of the Hollywood Dream Factory: she did as she was told, read her lines, and was happy if the bosses were happy.

Coming off the heels of her beloved father’s death, Irving’s death further pushes Laura into decline. Deep in debt, she abuses anti-anxiety medication, falls into an intractable despair, and eventually attempts suicide. She gradually makes a full recovery and adjusts to a new life out of the limelight. Chapter eleven, “The Shopgirl,” recalls silent film star Louise Brooks’s biography rather than Jennifer Jones’s: the former actress died in 1985, destitute and purportedly a salesgirl in a department store. Meanwhile, in 1975 and now a grandmother, Laura supports herself as a shop assistant for dressmaker-to-the-stars Edna (clearly inspired by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was also the model for the scene-stealing Edna Mode in The Incredibles). The novel ends where it began: in the theater. In 1980, the newly rediscovered Laura Lamont makes her Broadway debut in The Royal Family, the same play that she performed with Gordon Pitts before they married and skedaddled to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom shining in their eyes. I can’t deny that the final scene is poignant. Her children reunite in New York to see Laura on opening night, but when I closed the book on her life, I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted more from it.

The Contemporary Action Flick, the Woman’s Film & Coming of Age in a Dystopia

Divergent movie posterAside from their immediate availability, I tend to rent movies from the public library that I would never pay to see otherwise. On Wednesday, I picked up Thor: The Dark World and Divergent. I barely paid attention to what I now jokingly call Thor 2: Even Longer Hair; it was loud, stupid, and too complicated to follow while reading the New York Times. Despite its silly and childish sense of humor, the film took itself way too seriously. The same could be said of Divergent, which is the first in a series (big surprise!) of adaptations of the popular YA novels penned by Veronica Roth. However, Divergent pleasantly defied my low expectations. Once I got past the ridiculous premise, that in the undistinguished future, society is divided into five different factions in order to keep the peace, I got sucked into its dystopian world. Apparently a war some time in the past devastated the entire planet. We have no idea what in particular precipitated near total annihilation the world over; all we see is a dilapidated Chicago surrounded by an electrified fence stories high.

Given its generic provenance and overlapping themes about violence and children, Divergent is most often compared to that other YA juggernaut The Hunger Games. Years ago, I didn’t take too kindly to the first in that film series, writing that its unsubtle satire of our obsessive fascination with celebrity, competition, and violence could only really please the film’s built-in fanbase: enthusiastic readers of the novels. But catching Divergent–for free–was already on my subconscious agenda because I had just read an article by NYT film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis about the changing representations of young women and girls in cinema, a survey view of contemporary trends that compliments Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent piece about “badass” female characters in film today. Hornaday doesn’t mention Divergent, but Scott writes that protagonist Tris Prior is like Katniss Everdeen, her sister in arms, “a fighter against corrupt authority.” Since I am most interested in representations of women and femininity in all kinds of films, I knew that it would probably be worth my while to check out Divergent.

I have no idea what it is like as a novel; I have no desire to read the books, but I must admit that Divergent, as directed by Neil Burger and adapted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones), makes for quite a thrilling movie, a modern action flick with a feminist bent. It combines the trappings of a poignant coming-of-age story with those of a sophisticated political thriller. At least more sophisticated than it had any right to be.

View of Divergent's derelict Chicago cityscape. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
View of Divergent‘s derelict Chicago cityscape. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice Prior, a teen born into the selfless faction of society. The film begins on the eve of her aptitude test, which should either decide if she is indeed Abnegation material or if she would better fit in with the scholars of Erudite, the honest folks of Candor, the hippies of Amity, or the daredevils of Dauntless. It drives me crazy that Roth didn’t use parallelism when naming her fictitious factions, opting for nouns (Abnegation, Candor, Amity) and adjectives (Erudite, Dauntless). Rather conveniently, on the day that both she and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) choose their future careers, if you will, Beatrice has the option of choosing any faction to belong to. The scene, played out in a symposium-like setting with leadership from all factions present and parents sitting in the audience with the kids they may or may not lose to a whole new family, certainly dramatizes the closest real-life equivalent: choosing your college (major). Much to their parents’ surprise, Caleb elects to be Erudite, Beatrice Dauntless. But you knew that was coming from the way she watched the Dauntless teens arrive at the Choosing Ceremony, a look on her face that said, “I wish I could jump out of a speeding train and run all the way to the door!”

This is where Beatrice’s journey really begins. Choosing a faction other than the one she was born into means that she can never go home, and if she shouldn’t make the cut at Dauntless, the leaders will throw her out onto the street, where she will remain homeless, factionless, pitiful, and despised. On her first day of college, if you will, Beatrice changes her name to Tris (it sounds more futuristic, sportier), makes friends with Christina of Candor (Zoe Kravitz), and surprises everyone, especially herself, when she volunteers to jump off a building before the other “initiates.” “Initiates” is just another word for “pledges,” for the first hour or so mainly concerns the brutal training (hazing?) that the new recruits must undergo in order to join the co-ed fraternity. It goes without saying that Tris rises from the lowest performing to the top of the class, helped in so small part by her boot camp instructor named Four, a taciturn but sensitive Mr. Pamuk (Theo James). Thankfully, the filmmakers milk the sexual tension between them for most of the film; we’re never certain until the third act that Tris, and by extension, we, can trust him with her secret: the results of her aptitude test were inconclusive. In other words, Tris shows qualities from the Erudite, selfless, and Dauntless. Yes, don’t we all feel better knowing that the young woman we’re rooting for isn’t defined by just one trait? Isn’t that the whole reason the author invented this world?

Tris takes the leap to self-discovery. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Tris takes the leap to self-discovery. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Regardless, Divergent works as a film because its visuals are quite striking, beginning with the aptitude test. Injected with a serum that will induce hallucinations (only the first of its kind, you soon find out), Beatrice imagines herself in a hall of mirrors, the confrontation with her fractured identity very much actualized in her mind–and for the film audience. She stares down a fierce dog (Dauntless) until she tricks her mind into thinking it is only a docile puppy (Erudite) and tries to protect a little girl from the angry canine (Abnegation). The hallucinations seamlessly meld together in the edit, thereby heightening their lucid dream-like quality but at the same time lending her fears real power. The same goes for the second part of Tris’s initiation, after hand-to-hand combat and weapons training: the psychological torture/endurance test in which Four injects her with a serum that makes her hallucinate all of her fears and how she might use methods inherent to Dauntless members to overcome said phobias. In these fevered dreams, her world turns upside down, inside out. The escape from one nightmare just leads to the next before she wakes herself up. Four, conveniently equipped with technology that allows him to see what she was visualizing in her brain, quickly determines that, for instance, her method for escaping from the glass cube filling up with water (just tapping on the glass) isn’t something that would ever occur to a Dauntless MacGyver. It’s also what makes her better than someone who is merely Dauntless.

Furthermore, the production design is impressive and visually stunning. Tris’s descent into the Dauntless world is played out on an Expressionist stage. The exaggerated scale of buildings is like something out of a criminal underworld picture, or perhaps one about a motorcycle rebel gang. Or The Lost Boys (black leather and other stretchy, breathable fabrics dominate the Dauntless wardrobe). There is also a fair amount of shadowplay. The Dauntless’s environs contrast with those of the Erudite, whose architecture looks like its been designed by Buckminster Fuller, thereby undermining their claims to being factual or at least transparent in their research. Although the people in Abnegation live in concrete houses, their simple yet modern design recalls contemporary pre-fab homes or affordable housing blocks of the 1960s. In other words, modest and indistinguishable. Isn’t it remarkable, though, that Millennium Park doesn’t make an appearance in Divergent (but a Navy Pier-in-ruin does)?

View of Abnegation Village from the street. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
View of Abnegation Village from the street. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Divergent probably wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for Woodley’s strong, sympathetic performance. She is convincing as a rebellious teen who, once she leaves her family and faction, has nothing but her own strength and wits to rely on. Although her parents support Caleb and Beatrice in their potentially life-changing decisions, vowing to love them regardless of which faction they choose, Beatrice’s desire to break free from the world of Abnegation is a quiet rebellion against her parents. As the film’s political conspiracy gradually comes to light, Tris is the only one brave and capable enough to defy the New World Order that Kate Winslet’s character, Jeanine, represents. As the leader of the Erudite, Jeanine undermines the Abnegation-led government (of which Beatrice’s parents are a part), stirring up rumors that the selfless leaders are hypocrites who beat their children. Jeanine interprets this hypocrisy as a flaw in Human Nature, which also explains her genocidal plan to turn the Dauntless into a mindless army (again, with the help of some serum injected into the neck!) that will obey her orders to kill everyone in Abnegation. She isn’t a fan of Divergents, either, since they cannot be easily controlled. In this way, Tris’s rebellious spirit is presented as an aberration of Human Nature (believe me, the way Jeanine talks about it, it deserves capitalization). Her coming-of-age story doesn’t just converge with the unraveling of widespread corruption in faction leadership; exposing Jeanine and putting a stop to her coup d’etat almost becomes her coming of age’s reason for being.

Fish eye view from inside Erudite Headquarters. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Fish eye view from inside the shady Erudite Headquarters. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Almost. Remember, she’s still in “college,” and Divergent checks off a number of campus-living cliches: the “initiates'”original delight when learning dorms are co-ed and their subsequent squeamishness when they find out they’ll have absolutely no privacy, her aforementioned crush on an upperclassman/mentor who shows her the ropes (Four), and her impulsive decision to get a tattoo. At least the imprint of three black birds ascending from her collarbone isn’t a tramp stamp, but isn’t it a little too close to the revolutionary symbol central to The Hunger Games?

Divergent is, in my opinion, extremely violent, what with the brutal but narrative-driven fight scenes, attempted rape and/or murder of Tris by jealous male “pledges,” and the fact that her mother and father are killed within minutes of the other while trying to protect their children. It is also conspicuously bloodless thanks to its PG-13 rating. Most importantly, its scariest moments are presented as thrilling out-of-body experiences for Tris. In addition to the serum-induced hallucinations, she literally jumps into her journey towards self-discovery; if her leaping off a speeding L train onto the roof of a building doesn’t convince, her jump from the roof into the derelict building below sure does. However, I was completely bowled over and scared out of my rational mind when she zip-lined from a skyscraper on one side of Chicago to the Dauntless HQ down below, clear on the other side of town. This scene presents a very romantic conceptualization of her burgeoning identity not only as a Dauntless individual but also as an autonomous subject in general. Even if Tris is one “kick ass” heroine that film critics wish there were more of on screen these days, I can’t relate to her desire for what amounts to a militaristic life. But I do long for physical and emotional transcendence, like the one she experiences in the air. For her soaring through the sky shows her–and us, by extension–what she is capable of achieving and how that makes her feel. It’s my favorite scene in the film; it’s a bold statement about girlhood. And, dare I say, a superheroic one?

By way of conclusion, let’s discuss Tris’s sexual awakening. You knew it was coming. She’s in “college,” after all. Her first sexual experience arguably takes place when, in an effort to protect and train Tris, Four invites her into his own fearscape (it’s no match for her). The injection of the hallucination-causing serum acts as an exchange of fluids, and I immediately thought of the virtual sex scene in Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993) when Four and Tris plugged themselves into the computer, interacting (I mean, touching) through scenes visualized in their minds. Interestingly, and undoubtedly owing to the predominantly female audience, it is Four’s body that is put on display, revealed as a landscape that Tris discovers with her eyes and fingertips. She asks to see the expansive tattoo all over his back. The moment he takes off his shirt is meant to make audiences swoon, but it also uncovers that Four is Divergent, too. For his tattoo design incorporates the symbols for all five factions.

Four's body on display. Tris sees what makes him Divergent. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Four’s body on display. Tris sees what makes him Divergent. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Although taken seriously as a suppression of her sexual desires, Tris’s decision to forgo her first real sexual encounter occurs so quickly that I originally misinterpreted it as one in which she does indeed have sex with Four off-screen. Her choice not to have sex (yet) is presented as no big deal, because she has no anxiety over Four’s feelings towards her. Curiously, though, at her final exam in which she must maneuver her own fearscape like a true Dauntless member, she envisions a betrayal of trust on Four’s part. That is, she quashes his attempt to rape her by kicking him in the groin. I was stunned to see date rape represented in this PG-13 action flick, but I love its context of female empowerment. The worst part of Divergent, vis-a-vis Tris’s self-actualization, is when, in the final scene as she and her friends escape the city on the L train, she says that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Understandable, given that she has no faction and no family, but it’s a shame that it’s her (male) love interest who reassures her that she is someone because he knows who she is. Two steps forward, three steps back for strong young women in film.