Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring Film Screening Announcement

The Winona State University English Department, Mass Communication Department, Political Science Department, and Sounds of Cinema are sponsoring a public screening of the documentary PoliWood on April 11th, 2012. The event will be held at 7:00pm in the Science Lab Auditorium on the Winona State University campus. The screening is free and open to the public. A panel discussion featuring Winona State faculty will follow.

Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Good Morning, Vietnam, You Don't Know Jack), PoliWood examines the overlap of politics, entertainment, and celebrity. Shot during the 2008 presidential campaign, the documentary follows members of the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan organization of entertainers, as they visit the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Along the way, the film explores the ways in which entertainment and celebrity culture have shaped contemporary politics and what that means for the future of democracy.

See this page for more information about the film and subscribe and share the Facebook event page.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Racism, Fandom, and 'The Hunger Games'

The website Jezebel features two pieces about race and the new film The Hunger Games. The first covers Twitter reactions from some fans of the book who are disappointed to find that some of their favorite characters were played by actors of color. The second piece goes into the descriptions of the characters in Suzanne Collins' books, pointing out that the author had in fact described a number of characters as being non-white. The writers at Jezebel take time to ridicule the overt racism of these Twitter posts (as they should) but that is easy to rebuke. What are more interesting and important to learn from the posts are what these viewers expected to see and what their reactions tell us.

First, pay attention to the phrasing of a comment like “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie” [sic] and the use of hash tags like “sticktothebookDUDE.” It’s clear from the reporting in the second Jezebel piece that Rue is dark skinned in the book, so the tweets are wrong about that. But let’s assume for a moment that the character was white or that Collins had not specified her skin tone or ethnicity. Should casting a performer of color matter? The Marvel comic book character Nick Fury was portrayed as white in the comics but he is played by African American actor Samuel L. Jackson in recent Marvel pictures including 2012’s The Avengers. Based on Jackson’s performance and the way these films have dealt with the character, the ethnicity of the actor playing Fury seems irrelevant to the character’s story. And the same is true of Rue; there is nothing about her ethnicity that makes it a defining element of her character, at least as she is portrayed in the film.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean race does not matter in the movies. Clearly race (and social context) matters for the plot and characters of a film like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or the 2005 remake Guess Who? And race plainly mattered to the Twitter users who were bothered that certain characters of The Hunger Games were portrayed by minority actors. But there is a distinction to be made between race mattering to the story and race mattering to the audience. The fact that some of The Hunger Games readers were surprised and upset to see an African American actress in the role exposes some underlying attitudes.

As Frederick Gooding discussed in my recent interview with him, audiences, and especially white viewers, have been conditioned to assume that characters are white as a default. This is especially true of characters in heroic roles. That assumption was upset by the presence of African American actress Amandla Stenberg as Rue. The image on the screen departed from the mental image these viewers had upon reading the book and race was clearly such an issue for them that, to paraphrase a few tweets, it ruined the picture for them or kept the viewer from feeling empathy for the character. The fierce reaction to the presence of an African American actress betrays the extent to which this conditioning has taken hold.

What the Twitter reaction also reveals is a fundamental difference between reading a book and watching a film. What we have here are readers who were clearly invested in the book and yet either did not pick up on the descriptions in Collins’ book or ignored them. Literature allows for that in a way that cinema does not; readers are able to imagine characters and locations and modify a book’s descriptions to fulfill the fantasy in our mind’s eye. This is why books are almost always described as better than a movie adaptation. In this case, readers were able to ignore uncomfortable or challenging racial depictions in a book by filtering them out, so much so that their memory of the book does not resemble what the author actually wrote.

I want to move this on to a point about fandom. The racial component of the Twitter posts tends of obfuscate other issues but there is another aspect to this and that is the outrage at changes initiated by screenwriters in adapting The Hunger Games from the page to the screen. I think this presents considerable problems for filmmakers and directly impacts the films we get in the local theater.
We are living in a time in which studios are under pressure to make big blockbuster films from established franchises as opposed to creative risks on smaller, original pictures. These blockbuster films are often adapted from properties that have a considerable fan base; that fan base guarantees a built-in audience, which is the reason the projects are green-lit in the first place. At the same time, fans have considerable influence on the products being made and studios and filmmakers actively court the fans in their marketing strategies.

This leads to a situation in which filmmakers are creatively restrained. Adaptations of books, comics, and toy lines are expected to follow the established texts or mythology to the letter and any deviation is hyperbolically compared to a sexual assault on the fan’s childhood. But many great films adapted from novels took tremendous liberties from their source material. Psycho, The Godfather, The Shining, and Jaws were adapted from bestselling novels but omitted or changed critical elements of the books in order for the filmmakers to produce their own vision. If these films were made today, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg would be inundated with hate mail accusing them of ruining the book and studios would likely step in and stop them from making those changes in the first place.

There is a connection between fan-boy outrage and the racial comments on Twitter. Many authors do not specify the race of the characters in their books and screenplays unless it matters to the story. And because audiences are conditioned to think of characters as white unless otherwise specified, Hollywood is disposed to cast white actors to keep adaptations as close as possible to the fan’s conception of the characters and stories. This perpetuates, as Gooding puts it, a cycle of blamelessness in which Hollywood studios continue to provide default-white characters, which audiences consume and have their assumptions reinforced, and thereby incentive studios to continue providing the same ethnically homogenous casts.

But this cycle does not just apply to racial representation. It applies to the kinds of stories that are told and the way films are made. That’s why the marquee at the local theater is filled with prequels, sequels, remakes, and reboots and the rare “original” feature is indistinguishable from every other Hollywood tent pole release. A case in point would be the recent release of John Carter, a film in which every character and set piece vaguely recalls other pictures. But Hollywood is just giving us what they think we want and filmmakers are kept from exercising their creativity by studio executives who fear the wrath of fans.

The real shame isn’t just that large segments of the population aren’t represented in motion pictures; it’s that filmmakers are prevented from thinking about old or established narratives in new terms or providing the audience with challenging or creative pictures. It’s texts that shake us up—and to an extent The Hunger Games does—that have a chance at really breaking through the cycle of malaise.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Frederick Gooding Interview Available

The interview with Frederick Gooding featured on today's show is now available for download on the Features page of the website.

For more information about Gooding's work, visit The Minority Reporter.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Interview with Frederick Gooding

On Sunday, March 25th, Sounds of Cinema will feature an interview with Frederick Gooding, the editor of The Minority Reporter and author of You Mean There's Race in My Movie? The Complete Guide to Understanding Race in Mainstream Hollywood. In the interview Gooding discusses the way race is depicted in film and the factors that contribute to minority marginalization.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

'Countdown to Zero' at Winona State

Winona State University's Global Zero Chapter will show the documentary Countdown to Zero at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 22, in the Science Laboratory Center auditorium.

Countdown to Zero traces the history of the atomic bomb from its origins to the present state of affairs: nine nations possessing nuclear weapons capabilities with others racing to join them, with the world held in a delicate balance that could be shattered by an act of terrorism, failed diplomacy, or a simple accident. The film features an array of international statesmen, including Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf and Tony Blair.

Tickets can be reserved on the Global Zero Ticket Information website.

This event is free for students and $3 for community members. Free pizza and soda will be served around 5:30 p.m. with presentation of ticket. Ice cream will be served after the movie.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Race and Film Speaker at Winona State

On Wednesday, March 21, 2012, Winona State University will feature a presentation by Frederick Gooding titled "You Mean There's Race and Other Ism's in My Movie?" The presentation will be held in East Hall of Kryzsko Commons at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public.

This event is sponsored by Winona State's Inclusion and Diversity Office, International Services Office, Diversity Club, Southeast Technical College, and Anoka Ramsey Community College.

You can find out more about Gooding and his presentation here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I'm (Not) With Stupid - A Rant About Comedy

Project X is the latest film in the trend of men-behaving-badly sex comedies that Hollywood studios have been churning out over the past few years. In the film, a trio of teenagers throws an epic party that spins out of control. When I reviewed Project X on Sounds of Cinema my judgment of the film was harsh, and deservedly so, but this film deserves some extra commentary. The picture makes plain some underlying attitudes and trends that have been dominating the comedy genre and those trends need to addressed.

Let me start by making clear that I am not coming at this from some puritanical perspective. I am not condemning Project X because it deals with sexuality, nor am I condemning the Dionysian debauchery of the film. On the contrary, I think we need more sex in the movies but filmmakers need to find ways of dealing with sexuality in a more honest and sophisticated way. Few mainstream films have dealt with the actual breadth of sexual appetites and too many pictures fall back on romantic tropes, portray sexuality as a poisonous taboo, or just go the lazy route of female objectification. We need more films like Shame, The Last Picture Show, or even Chasing Amy that will deal honestly with emerging sexual mores and their implications for individual experiences and for human relationships.

My primary complaint about Project X isn’t about sex or even the film’s homophobia and misogyny, although the filmmakers regard for women and for masculinity is horrific. The complaint isn’t even really about this particular film. Project X is awful but it represents the end point of a pernicious trend in the comedy genre that extends back over a decade.

In the late 1990s Trey Parker and Matt Stone created South Park, an enormously successful television show that is still running on Comedy Central. Predictably, the show was attacked by socially conservative commentators for its use of foul language and other risqué material. What those critics ignored or could not see was that South Park was among the first and most important examples of the age of satire that we are now living in. Although the humor on South Park depended upon gross out gags there was also a satirical genius at the heart of it. Films and television programs that followed, like Sacha Barron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show and Borat, used a similar appeal. Although characters would sometimes make homophobic, racist, and sexist remarks, audiences laughed at the characters making those remarks, not with them. That is a subtle distinction but an important one.

Throughout the 2000’s motion picture comedies started emphasizing bawdier humor. The forerunners were Scary Movie and the first three American Pie films, which were more sexually explicit than other comedies released at that time. This was followed a few years later by Judd Apatow and his protégés releasing a string of hit sex comedies including The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad. Whatever their other flaws, these films attempted and often succeeded in dealing with the sexual behaviors and ideals of the millennial generation. Like American Pie, the films were more explicit but there was also a good heartedness to them and although the characters sometimes demonstrated misogynist or homophobic tendencies, it was usually portrayed as part of their adult adolescence and the characters learned to grow out of it in the course of the film.

Following the enormous success of Apatow’s sex comedies and edgier satirical pictures and television shows, filmmakers started pushing the threshold of the R-rating. That’s understandable since, as George Carlin once said, the comedian’s job is to figure out where the social line is and deliberately cross it. But in the pursuit of topping one another in outrageousness, filmmakers lost the ability to distinguish between laughing at stupidity from laughing with stupidity. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Hall Pass made no illusion about relying on homophobic humor.Beerfest, Sex and the City 2, and The Hangover Part II invited us to laugh with Americans acting like imperialist asses in foreign countries. And College and The Change-Up expected us to cheer on misogynists. To those who would suggest that I am being oversensitive or politically correct, I would reply that it is part of the comedian’s job to attack the powerful and the sacred. To pick on the oppressed or vulnerable through misogyny and homophobia is not to be a comedian, it’s to be a bully.

And that is the pernicious change that has occurred in the comedy genre. Like the horror genre, comedy has a counter cultural disposition. It challenges the audience by pointing out the absurdities of life. Writers like Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Joseph Heller wrote about the issues of their day but put a comic spin on starvation, racism, and war. Stand up performers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor pointed out the absurdities of daily life and language by making audiences laugh about it. Films like Dr. Strangelove, Life of Brian, and Thank You For Smoking made a joke of nuclear war, religious fanaticism, and political corruption. Granted, these are edgier examples and plenty of comedy is much tamer. But the point is that a lot of great comedy is anti-establishment or at least challenges and ridicules the stupidity of society.

That is not true anymore, at least not in the comedies that Hollywood has put increasing focus on. The genre has been overtaken by the “bros,” a particularly wretched class of human being whose sense of self-worth is defined by a narrow conception of masculinity. The masculinity of the “bro” is outwardly confident but inwardly fragile, and he constantly puts on an assertive front while fretting over his failure to live up to an impossible masculine standard, and derides women or homosexuals to compensate. The “bro’s” role models are found on reality television shows like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor and his patron saint is Donald Trump, the master of the inflated ego. A pawn of consumer culture, the “bro” is completely absorbed in the mindless acquisition of status symbols like cars and designer clothes, and women are just another accessory. He is characterized above all by an undeserved sense of entitlement, expecting everyone to recognize his mastery for no reason in particular. It is this attitude that has defined comedy over the past few years.

To illustrate the shift, consider the notorious “frat boy scene” in Borat. In the film, Borat spends time with a group of young men who make racist and sexist declarations. The point of the scene is that we laugh at these idiots and mock their attitudes and ideas. Compare that to comedies like Project X and its ilk, which reverse this scene and invite us to laugh with the characters and share high fives with them as they brag about their sexual conquests and cultural superiority. The valorization of the “bro” characters in recent comedies, and the way in which those attitudes are vindicated and rewarded in the films, is the triumph of “bro” values over the very instrument that was designed to ridicule them.

In Project X this cooption reaches a climax as the parasitic “bro” values literally destroy their host. This film pulls together the misogyny, homophobia, and stupidity that have been the hallmark of recent comedy films but it also strips away any pretension of irony. From the opening, the characters speak in sexist and homophobic terms. Their behavior matches their vocabulary but so does the film’s style, which resembles reality porn more than a mainstream motion picture. (Incidentally, one of Project X’s lead actors was a porn performer.) As the film nears its conclusion, the predominantly white, upper class partiers destroy the house and the neighborhood in which they are gathered. This demolition of a wealthy, privileged suburb by the very spoiled brats who inhabit it is a fitting finale to the most recent comedy trends and an inevitable conclusion of the attitude of entitlement.  

As I watched Project X, I hoped that the filmmakers would redeem themselves by pulling the rug out from under the audience by literally destroying everything, including the characters. It would be a brilliant turnabout and indict the stupidity embodied by the “bro” philosophy. But my hopes turned to disappointment and later to disgust as it became clear that the filmmakers did not have the fortitude or the insight to take such a route and instead went completely the other way, congratulating the main characters on their party and the destruction it caused.

Project X is a cinematic monument to stupidity but it might also be a defining film of this period of time. Its “bro” values are shared by trends in popular music and reality television and the picture represents the logical endpoint that the comedy genre has been working toward. Although it is unlikely to be the final film in this trend, Project X is one of the clearest examples of where we are and where we are headed, as the comedy genre continues to devolve into a twenty-first century minstrel show and the culture gradually surrenders to self-destructive narcissism.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

'Lake of Fire' Essay Revisited

Almost a year ago I sponsored a public screening of Lake of Fire, a documentary about the abortion debate. Here is the trailer:

After the screening I wrote an essay about the film. With the recent resurgence of interest in the abortion issue, I encourage you to take another look at the film and the essay. Here is an excerpt:
Lake of Fire also suggests something amiss about the pro-abortion side of the debate. Most of the pro-abortion speakers come across as rational and calm and speak from seated positions with academic props like books and chalkboards behind them. These images of calmness and rationality contrast with the visceral sights and sounds of the abortion clinic in which the remains of aborted fetuses are shown. While reactions to this footage may be dismissed as entirely pathos-baiting, in the context of the film this footage occurs alongside admissions of ignorance by the pro-abortion advocates, such as Alan Dershowitz who claims that he saw his own unborn child as a person but did not see someone else’s fetus as possessing the same personhood. This is consistent with the general absence of a definitive answer from the pro-abortion advocates, who consistently admit that they don’t know when life begins or what the moral or legal status of a fetus is or ought to be. That creates a vacuum in the marketplace of ideas in which the anti-abortion campaign presents moral absolutism against the relativism (or nihilism) of the pro-abortion argument. In the panoramic view that Lake of Fire offers, a cynic could describe the debate as waged between insane religionists who claim certainty and rational academics who do not claim to know anything. Neither side is particularly comforting.
Read the rest of the essay here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ben Wardinski on Sounds of Cinema

Ben Wardinski returns to co-host this weekend's edition of Sounds of Cinema. Ben and Nathan will take a look at the upcoming releases in 2012 and include music from Alien and The Dark Knight.