Tuesday, October 26, 2010
My recent entries at Chud:
Nicole Kidman: Wrongfully Maligned
I salute you, Jackass 3D!
Cut Your Teeth Already! Part One
Cut Your Teeth Already! Part Two
Monday, May 10, 2010
The Magical Negro is a powerful figure in American fiction. He’s had a constant presence in cinema and television from the beginning. From little Ms. Temple’s dear friend Bojangles to the honkies’ saving grace Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile, the Magical Negro has been featured as one of the more prominent stereotypes in our media. Author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, however, outlines the problem: It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. This disguised denigration has been protested and lambasted, notably by African-American filmmaker Spike Lee, and has seen less prominence in the public forum. But it did not leave without finding a replacement: the Sassy Gay Friend.
The Sassy Gay Friend is a perfect heir to the throne as a minority striving for acceptance by secretly subordinating itself. Okorafor-Mbachu identifies what he calls the “5 Points of the Magical Negro” as the following most common attributes:
- He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
- He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
- He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
- He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
- He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
Each of theses 5 attributes can be found within the Sassy Gay Friend with little modification other than replacing each minority and majority with its proper parallel. Modeled after Okorafor-Mbachu’s own points, the “5 Points of the Sassy Gay Friend” would be as follows:
- He or she is a homosexual, possibly bisexual, in a story about predominantly heterosexual characters.
- He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the straight protagonist, who is his or her close friend. He or she acts as the protagonist’s confidant.
- He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the straight protagonist.
- He or she is intelligent, witty, campy or all of the above. He or she is identified by these archetypal traits as opposed to developed characterizations.
- He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. He or she often literally has magical powers, or powers and abilities the heterosexual characters do not and cannot possess.
Each stereotype has its prejudiced parallels. While the Magical Negro would be pigeonholed into a working class or poverty level circumstance (point number 3) the Sassy Gay Friend will be found privileged in a stereotypically gay profession: designer, decorator, artist of some type, etc. Each mystical character will come from society’s stereotype of where they should be: the black man below the white; the gay man ironically distanced and culturally above the straight.
Homosexual characters in television and film are increasing as the years pass. This would be a positive step forward if it weren’t for the fact that the majority of these characters are relegated to being the Sassy Gay Friend. The character is used for comedic effect, is secondary to the heterosexual characters, and is used seriously only when advice, solace or comfort is needed. Take, for example, Rupert Everett’s character in the Julia Roberts romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding. He is a perfect example of the Sassy Gay Friend stereotype. The character is Julia Roberts’ confidant. He is there only when needed as a wise sage figure, or as a deus ex machina. He exists solely to guide the straight protagonist safely through her journey using nothing but witty repartee, the occasional bon mot and well-coiffed hair.
Or, look at the recent ABC sitcom Modern Family. Praised for its portrayal of a functional, loving homosexual couple, Modern Family often finds itself guilty of utilizing the stereotype of the Sassy Gay Friend. It makes the mistake already cited from Okorafor-Mbachu of appearing to empower the homosexual while truly subordinating it. The straight couples carry the largest dramatic weight on the show, whereas the homosexual couple is relegated to comedic relief. An undercurrent of “how can two stereotypical homosexual men fulfill the gender roles of a traditional heterosexual couple?” weakens any attempt at dramatic weight for the homosexual couple. This dichotomy allows for much humor, but very little progress for the homosexual. These are characters defined solely by their sexuality – and not just their sexuality alone – but their sexuality as a stereotype. While heterosexual characters may have varied interests and hobbies, the gay characters’ interests and hobbies are limited to “being gay.” While Finn on Glee may enjoy singing and football and Rachel is Jewish, loves musical theatre and being a diva; Kurt will always just be “the gay kid.”
The use of the Sassy Gay Friend places the homosexual at a safe distance from both the heterosexual character and the heterosexual viewer. Because the Sassy Gay Friend is there solely for entertainment and sage advice when needed, it allows the heterosexual to be left unharmed by the gayness of the Sassy Gay Friend. Rather than understanding the homosexual, the heterosexual viewer is able to point to the Sassy Gay Friend and say “I want one of those,” much like one would say about a new pair of Ferragamo shoes. A shopping decision surely made at the behest of your new gay best friend, who is great at helping you shop.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The world is chock-full of erroneous information passing itself off as fact. Sometimes these facts are so incredibly poorly gathered or misrepresented that they more than merit examination and correction. So here I am with a new feature: Spurious Claims, where I can debunk certain items of falsified information according to my desires.
Today I feature an article found in BYU's The Daily Universe about the film 500 Days of Summer entitled "Indie films find success in mainstreem" (sic) by Rebekah DeMordaunt. I won't reprint the article here, but you can find it in its entirety here. I will simply print the point that I would like to counter and follow with my statements. I will start by listing issues I have that are based on fact, and then any issues of opinion.
• Issue number 1: The headline is "Indie films find success in mainstreem." (sic) If you can't spell-check your own headline, especially a major word that backs up your entire argument, why should I take anything you say seriously? Why should I trust you as a competent writer?
• Issue number 2: DeMordaunt says ". . . with the advent of digital cinematography, independent films are competing in the box office with the big studio productions—and, in some cases, they’re winning . . . '(500) Days of Summer' is a prime example." In fact, Rebekah, it is not a prime example. Of independent films finding a following larger than the art-house crew? Yes, it's prime. As an independent film winning against the big studio productions? In no way is it a prime example. Let's look at the numbers. At the writing of this blog the current box office of the film is $30,189,124. That is in no competition with the big-boys of the summer. 30 million is nothing compared to the current 400 and some-odd million of Transformers 2. Sure, it has earned back its 7.5 million dollar budget, but 30 million is no competition for summer tentpole films. In fact, 30 million is a big win for this independent film, but that figure attached to a summer film from a big studio would be considered a massive flop. DeMordaunt continues by saying "the movie’s popularity quickly skyrocketed and is currently showing in theaters across the country, including Provo." This statement is true, but a poor argument for winning against large-budget studio films. The film opened its widest release the weekend of August 14, playing in 1,048 theaters. Take that number and compare it with a large studio picture. Transformers 2 opened in over 4,000 theaters, as well as the latest film in the Harry Potter franchise and the latest Pixar and Dreamworks films. Going to the widest in a quarter of the theaters of its competitors does not show strong competition. If it were currently grossing more than a quarter of the grosses of its competition it would be laudable, but as it stands all the numbers and facts show that DeMordaunt's statement is unfounded and based on either opinion or conjecture as opposed to fact.
• Issue number 3: DeMordaunt uses the following quote by Chris Wyatt to support her point: “Independent films . . . don’t have to appeal to every man, woman and child in America; they only have to appeal to a certain niche audience or unique audience. They have the ability to speak to a small group of people, to speak with a very specific voice, and to talk about things that only a small segment of the population talk about . . .” Using a quote about how independent films can cater to small niche audiences is not a good argument as to why independent films are finding a large, mainstream audience. In fact, it's completely counterproductive to that little friend I like to call logic.
• Issue number 4: DeMordaunt closes with the statement: "Other independent films currently showing that have created a buzz in the mainstream include 'Adam,' 'Paper Heart,' and 'Food, Inc.'” All of these films are actually creating no buzz in the mainstream. They are films, however that recently played or opened in the local independent cinemas in Utah, hence why DeMordaunt may feel as if they are indeed making their mark. "Food, Inc." actually opened a week before "(500) Days of Summer" but has grossed only $4,238,694 to date. "Adam," opening two weeks after "(500) Days of Summer" has grossed a mere $2,033,298 and "Paper Heart" the most recent of the mentioned films opened mid-August with a current $1,159,967 gross. The widest released of these films, "Adam" peaked with 177 theaters. This in no way indicates mainstream buzz.
Now let's play into some of my opinion-based arguments against this ridiculous article.
• Issue number 5: DeMordaunt swoons, "The movie, which at the surface seems like a basic 'boy meets girl' story, dares to defy common industry practice by actually showing the realities of romance and love." Sorry to burst your bubble, there, Bekah, but it is a basic "boy meets girl story." It may dress up in hipper clothes from urban outfitters and name-drop musicians that most people supposedly don't know, but underneath the hip veneer, it truly is as basic as can be. In fact, if it weren't for 2 or 3 well-used (and rarely-used, I may add) cinematic conventions, "(500) days of Summer" would be no different than any Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughn/Cameron Diaz/Matthew McConaughey romcom. Unless, of course there is something different in their onscreen relationship than what we see in traditional romantic comedies that merits the idea that it defies "common industry practice by actually showing the realities of romance and love." But there isn't. Their relationship is just as manufactured and stale (more so, to tell the truth) as any relationship in which we would find Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Therefore the only plausible explanation to this sentiment is due to the fact that Summer and Tom don't end up together. The "realities of romance and love" displayed in this film are no more or less cliche than any other basic "How to Lose a Guy Who's Just Not That Into Your Ghosts of Girlfriends' Failure to Launch a Two Weeks Notice of Music and Lyrics" except that the title couple does not end up together. Each member of the couple's story ends happily and tritely - don't worry, kids! - but just not together. By this logic does DeMordaunt think that the "reality of romance and love" equates separation and heartbreak? I doubt it, though the prospect is amusing. What I imagine, though, is she is one of the many to think that because it does not end with the traditional Hollywood happy denouement it is inherently unique. That idea is laughable. Long before Tom brooded for umpteen days over the loss of Summer, Ilsa got onto the plane leaving Rick alone. Humphrey Bogart lost the girl long before Tom did. "The Philadelphia Story," one film in the long line of influences for modern-day romantic comedies (starting with "It Happened one Night") features a love triangle between Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and John Howard. They can't all end up with her, can they? One of the biggest filmmaking influences on the film is "Annie Hall," Woody Allen's 1977 masterpiece - get this for unique, kids! - that makes known from the beginning the relationship will end, where the 4th wall is repeatedly broken, features an animated sequence and many more unique ideas you can also find in "(500) Days of Summer!" Tonally, "(500) Days of Summer" attempts to crib much from "The Graduate," but fails in creating something so rich and nuanced, leaving us with a feeling of a low-rent "Garden State." (another major thematic influence)
• Issue number 6: DeMordaunt says "The characters seem more real, the dialogue more convincing . . ." My sweet Becky (can I call you Becky?) do you not yet understand that just because it doesn't end like we expect it to, it doesn't make things more real? Actually, because of this desire to play to Chris Wyatt's aforementioned "niche audience" the characters and dialogue both suffer from a lack of realism. Summer as a character is a blank. She is given quirks instead of nuance or dimensions. Tom is head-over-heels in love with her, but the audience is never given a glimpse as to why. She remains a distant cypher the entire film, thus the relationship that drives the film seems as hollow and unimportant as she is. As for the dialogue, the filmmakers knew their niche audience very well. The dialogue reflects this knowledge. It is tailored towards identification and attraction towards a specific demographic and thus it strays far from realistic and into a hyper-stylized speech. The dialogue is just as stylized as any Tarantino Talk-a-thon or Mamet-ian Verbal Thriller, but simply filled with iconic references to subjects that the target audience will understand. It is far from realistic. Take into consideration as well moments where the film tries to disengage itself from its established stylistic vernacular to attempt traditional movie verbal histrionics. For example: Tom's monologue ending with him quitting his job becomes a terribly maudlin and awkward sequence, betraying the films previously established language for a complete reversal. Speaking of believable characters, as well as the status of "unique" bestowed upon the film, let us note that Summer is a fantasy character - one of the most prevalent fantasy characters in modern cinema since hobbits. She is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or MPDG for short, a term coined by The AV Club's Nathan Rabin, signifying a character that is "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." (Read more of MPDGs here and the original use of the phrase here) Her shallow characterization and her blatant existence as such a stereotype further distances the film and the characters from the realm of "realism."
• Issue number 7: DeMordaunt solidifies the group-think agreement of the profundity, uniqueness and greatness of the film by including quotes to affirm her position from Joe-the-Plumber everyman-types. The article states, "Kelli Rich, a BYU student from Houston, Texas, said she liked “(500) Days of Summer” because it was unique." Really, Kelli? Rich continues saying “I thought it was a different twist on a romantic comedy because as I was watching it I wasn’t able to guess what was happening within the first 10 minutes. I thought it was an interesting way to portray that type of story.” REALLY, KELLI? You couldn't guess what was happening in the first 10 minutes? Even when the narrator tells you exactly what is going to happen? Really? DeMordaunt includes a quote from BYU sophomore Ben Zabriskie, a guy with whom I would apparently never be friends or with whom I'd want to "chillax" based on his following quote: “Independent films are often times more creative with music and can worry less about fitting into the mainstream.” Ok, here, Benji, look-see: "(500) Days of Summer" was manufactured with an audience in mind. Said audience loved the moment in "Garden State" where Zach Braff's life is forever changed by an introduction to The Shins. Hence "(500) Days of Summer" includes the same type of scene but only with The Smiths. First of all - THE FREAKING SMITHS? Are they really that underground? Is Morrissey really that unknown? Did the 80s never happen? The Smiths are not some obscure unknown band: THEY'RE THE EFFING SMITHS. You like the creativity with music? Then watch a movie that features actual creativity with music, not simple references meant to wink at the intended audience. Try anything by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino or "The Graduate" by Mike Nichols. There you'll see actual creativity with music in filmmaking. In "(500) Days of Summer" all you'll find are cleverly picked song choices, and a good soundtrack does not a good movie make. The fact of the matter, though, is that the intended audience eats it up. The flannel-clad row of adultolescents sporting skinny jeans in the row in front of me would wink and nod at each other - maybe even a sly elbow to the ribs - with every mention of The Smiths, or when Tom wears a Joy Division t-shirt. "This one's for us!" they seem to say. That type of filmmaking is not any more creative or unique than standard Hollywood fare. It is simply manufactured and marketed for a different audience. Finally, Becksters, dearie, did we not already establish that it's not a good idea to use a quote contradicting your opinion that independent films are finding power in the mainstream? Then WHY OH WHY do you use Benjie's quote? It ends with him musing on how independent films need not "worry . . . about fitting into the mainstream" I thought we'd moved past this!
In closing, I must state that I don't know why I reacted so harshly or even with such vitriol to this article. But I did. I feel my points are justified. I also feel that one should not write or speak without reflection, examination of factual data and perhaps proofreading. Opinion pieces should stay in the editorial pages and non-editorial pieces should feature more fact than opinion. If speaking on the successes of modern independent film in the mainstream, why not discuss Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," an independent film that opened in 6 theaters, but eventually widened to nearly 3,000. It grossed over $140,000,000 and won the Academy Award for best picture. Rebekah DeMordaunt, that is an independent film that competes with studio-made films. Please take note. Why not discuss that success, though? Oh yes, I forgot. An op-ed piece on "Slumdog Millionaire" won't get you asked out by the cute boy in the keffiyah, but "(500) Days of Summer" definitely catches the eye of our friend in the thick, black-framed glasses.