We’d talked about getting married what felt like pretty early. Like less than a month after we said our first “I love you”s. However, it never seemed like the right time to propose because we either had no money or I just felt like I wasn’t in a great place in life to get engaged. As time dragged on and Karen grew understandably impatient, I realized I couldn’t wait. But what to do for the proposal?
I couldn’t do anything normal because I have this horrible psychological affliction that doesn’t let me do anything normal, but Karen did want the proposal to still be surprising and romantic. I couldn’t just propose at a special place, because all of the places important to us are fairly public and that squigs me out. We didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t do anything elaborate. Or could I?
In September of 2016, I made a list of every TV show and movie Karen and I had watched that was even vaguely important to us. I started collecting clips from that assorted media and tagging them with keywords like “Kiss,” “Flight,” or “Dance.” Months went by and the clips accumulated. It was slow going as I could only work on it when Karen was asleep or wasn’t home. I narrowed down the list further and further, skimming through hundreds of minutes of footage. I had to hide the fact I was rewatching all of our shows/movies, constantly watching myself to make sure I didn’t make too many Steven Universe references or remember too many details about the plot of Heathers.
Several months later, in early April, I’d finally crossed that last title off of that ultimate heavily revised list. I checked my hard-drive and there was over 1000 clips in there. I was amazed, annoyed, and confused. How had I so blindly accumulated all this material? No wonder it took me so long, I thought I’d just been slow. How was I going to take these 1000 clips and turn any of it into a cohesive video, let alone an appropriate proposal? Well it wasn’t easy and it took about a month and dozens of drafts to complete. Maybe at some point I’ll make a post on what I learned while doing it.
On May 4th, the night in question, I rearranged the furniture in the apartment, set up a projector and screen, and heavily decorated with candles and lights. After we’d called our friends and family, I published the video on facebook, expecting people to think it was cute, but ultimately shrug it off. It is a video very specifically tailored to 1-2 people after all. Instead, the response was massively positive. A few close friends and family members messaged me that it’d made them cry. I was struck with this response, but obviously happy (it gave me the confidence to even label this article romantic in the first place).
It’s not perfect. Far from it. Yet somewhere in that mess of clips, in that tsunami of tones and genres, is our relationship. It’s funny yet dark, romantic yet cynical, classic yet quirky, childish yet mature. It’s impressive yet flawed. We’re all of those things and not quite them at the same time. And that’s what makes it the best proposal I could ever make. That’s what makes it perfect.
This is the conclusion of my interview with Eve Studnicka, where we really get into my favorite parts of the discussion. If you haven’t checked out part one, please do so HERE. I’ve included both part two and the entirety of the audio version. There’s some great additional bits of conversation in there, so give it a listen.
So you talked about being a film critic, and I’ve read little bits and pieces about you watching films in your basement on your CRT or, of course, perusing Netflix. I’m wondering what you think the effect Netflix has had on our generation of filmmakers and film thinkers.
I kinda come at that from a different angle than most because I was using Netflix (this is very hipster of me) back before it got cool, when it was just DVDs or nothing. There was nothing more exciting than getting that email notification that your DVD is shipping tomorrow and you’re going to get this movie, that you’re dying to see, in your mailbox. Being in this small town that only had a movie store with VHS’ of blockbusters and classics, I didn’t even know anything else existed. I didn’t know there was any such thing as foreign film, art-house, surrealism, dark comedy, or anything other than Disney. I just didn’t watch that many movies because they weren’t interesting to me until I discovered that Netflix had this wealth of literally everything in the fucking world. So I started watching shit like Triplets of Belleville, Delicatessen, and Dr. Strangelove, realizing that there was this whole other world out there that was so immediately available to me. I stopped really watching movies when I started making them, because I realized I didn’t have time. I felt really unproductive when I was watching movies or reading or doing those things that people who write and make films do to expand their minds and understanding of what has been created before them.
I think it’s similar now in the sense that storytelling is always going to be important to people and if it can be incredibly accessible that’s always going to be a positive thing. We can pick apart the arguments of “the screen is too small,” “You can pause it and you get up to make dinner which interrupts the viewing process because we have too short of attention spans,” maybe “it’s on YouTube and that delegitimizes it” or something, but I think that’s all bullshit. I used to not, I used to be purist and think that if a movie wasn’t shot on film and projected on a screen that was the size of a wall it wasn’t worth anything. Now I’m starting to see that all of this is starting to create a broader dialogue about storytelling. You’re able to watch something and all of your friends are able to watch it too. You can talk about it and it can actually affect your life rather than sitting in isolation in your basement watching and thinking about weird movies that nobody else has ever seen. That does have its value, it’s how I got interested in film, but in terms of more contemporary viewing styles, I think there’s a lot of value in streaming.
I was volunteering at the Sun Foundation, that place I made the movie about, and this girl and I were talking about books (she was a student and I was a TA). When I asked “What’s your favorite book?” she said “Twilight” and I was like “Aw son, why do you like Twilight?” (I’ve never read it albeit, so I have nothing to base it on other than the popular consensus of people I respect thinking it’s bullshit). She looked at me and she said “Well I like it because I can talk about it with my friends cause they’ve all read it,” and that’s a great argument. You can be the most profound, educated motherfucker in the world, running around waving Don Quixote around your head, but you’re alone. There are very few people these days who you can sit down and have a conversation about that book with and isn’t that really what storytelling’s all about, that connection? So even though Twilight might not be the most profound literary experience we’re going to have, at least young people are reading and talking to each other about what they’ve read.
You were mentioning you don’t watch films anymore, which is where a lot of people these days get their influences from, so where do you get ideas and inspiration from, if not film?
From the people around me, the stories they tell, and the lives they lead. I know some just remarkable, fascinating people. As a documentary filmmaker, to see these stories that exist in the world around you is something that sort of comes naturally, at least to me. It’s not because I’m seeing the world as a film and as source material, but because I’m just so passionately curious about the things that exist in our day-to-day lives and the universal truths that come from the mundane, or seemingly mundane, lives of people and the nuances of how they perceive the world, how they interact with people, and their personalities. I think maybe that comes from just being so lonely for so long, not being around humans, and not having that interaction. It’s striking to me what we all go through. So yeah I think that’s my inspiration both for film work and especially for festival work, that’s what I really care about.
Why don’t you elaborate on festival work, is there some sort of creative side to that?
Oh fuck yeah. I’ve been involved with Driftless for six years. I became the Operations Director last year and the Festival Director this year, so it’s only been two years that I’ve been kind of on the executive end of things. The first four years I was a volunteer and I was a festival coordinator, doing organizational work that was giving me insight into how the festival ran and operated. In Chicago I’ve worked for the Midwest Independent Film Festival as their Director of Submissions and I’m currently working with CIMMFest, the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival as their Senior Submissions Manager. I love this work. I think it’s amazing, because it’s all Midwestern; it’s all building these platforms and spaces for media arts to survive and become empowered in this region.
There’s this idea that you have to be exported to be successful, that you have to go to New York or LA to be successful in your industry and really all that does is put you not where the jobs are but where everyone who wants a job goes. It throws you into this artistic bureaucracy that really sucks out the soul and humanity of storytelling and of creative work, turning it into a commodified rat race. It’s really a shame. It makes people disillusioned. People put a lot of stock in that, like that’s what you have to go through, you have to fight through that to be successful, but I don’t think that’s what it’s all about. I think it’s about building those places where they should exist and where they do exist, which is here.
Here there isn’t so much money that all decision making is tied to dollar bills. You’re able to be ballsy here, to be fearless, and to take risks, because there’s less at stake and we’re still laboring under this Midwestern idea that we’re all in this together. We have that blue collar mentality that it’s about hard work, community, and support. I think that’s really what’s conducive to great art. I think we’re a hidden treasure, that we’re growing, and I love being involved in groups that are making that happen like CIMMFest and like Driftless.
What does your job as Festival Director actually entail?
As a festival director, I’m in charge of programming. So I curate the line-up, I look through other festival’s programs and I find films that would be appropriate for our festival. I organize and coordinate the team which is: our Operations Director, Development Director, Social Media Coordinator, and the Associate Director who’s also our Graphic Designer. I have to do a lot of PR, outreach, and marketing strategy development. I work with our Operations Director to figure out what the budget is and how we can spend that money effectively. I work really closely with our Development Director to create fundraising initiatives and build up community partnerships so that we can be successful and sustainable. The Graphic Designer and I make sure we have good branding and that the website is up to date (he’s wonderful). This whole team, it’s just such a delight to work with them. But yeah, making sure we have the content, organizing filmmaker lodging and transportation, getting all the press releases written, and doing a lot of copyediting. In general, overseeing all the operations of the festival and making sure it runs smoothly. It’s a lot of different things, making sure they all work together, and I love it. I totally, totally love it.
Oh yeah! So it’s being organized by Michelle Yates and Susan Kerns, who are both Columbia professors. I’m also the president of the Women + Film Club, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. Susan and I, and a lot of other people, have sporadically talking about the necessity for a place where women can become empowered by the showcasing of their work. In the film industry, obviously, women are incredibly underrepresented and treated unfairly in a lot of ways. It’s an effort to create and build strength in a community that promotes visibility and legitimacy. So to have a festival, which I believe is taking place mid-April, that is largely women-produced or feminist work and has an emphasis on that, is an amazing thing for us to have here and something that has a lot of potential.
I’m excited. So you’re the president of the Women + Film Club, then this is something that really matters to you?
Oh fuck yeah man, I’m a woman and I’m in film. I’m a feminist and I think it’s atrocious how women have been marginalized in the film world. It happens at the distribution level, because you see pretty equal levels of men and women entering the festival circuit, but when films get picked up for distribution, these companies see women as too much of a risk. They are under this impression, which is completely false, that men will listen to men and women will listen to men and so it’s much more valuable for them to invest in men. They think those projects are the ones that are going to be more successful, which is totally false logic. It’s really sad to see an absence of 50% of this country’s story on screen and being told in a legit way.
I’m curious as to your philosophy towards body image in media or culture in general? Is there anything you think can be done to improve it?
I think that what is given to us in terms of the ideal that we should strive for is incredibly unrealistic and damaging. I know this because I was not exposed to any kind of nudity at all until I started shooting burlesque and growing up with that in mind I hated my body, I thought I was really disgusting. I thought “Shit, this is not what anybody is supposed to look like.” Do you mean nudity in real life or nudity in media?
In real life. I saw it on screen, but when you see naked women in movies they’re typically of a certain body type. I went to my first burlesque show over a year and a half ago and I was kind of expecting Dida Von Teese perfect shapely hourglass figures and I saw this complete spectrum of bodies. All of them had stretch marks, weird boobs, and body parts that jiggled and moved or that were not tight and toned, but they were all so incredibly exquisite and beautiful. Part of that was because they were being presented in a sexually empowered way and you don’t see sexuality and body flaws in the same sentence in our culture a whole lot. So that was when it started changing for me. When you spend so much time around naked women you start to realize, shit, there is nothing normal. Nothing is normal, nothing is abnormal, everyone is completely customized to who they are and what they look like.
I think the best thing I ever heard about body image was from this burlesque dancer who teaches a class on body image. You go into a room, everyone gets naked, and they just have a conversation, not about body image, it could be about body image or it could be about whatever you want. It’s just about being present, not being clothed, and exploring what that space feels like. She said that her philosophy, which I completely share, is we put so much emphasis on our body’s aesthetic appeal. Beauty is wonderful, important, and something we all enjoy, but my body can taste chocolate, walk for miles on end, have orgasms, lift heavy things, give people hugs, and it is capable of so many things other than just being visually appealing. If you really start thinking in those terms, it changes your perspective completely.
This was fantastic. Thank you very much for your time.
Yeah man, thank you. It was great to talk to you.
This was a lot of fun to do, I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. If you liked what you read, then absolutely check out Eve’s site, facebook, and instagram! If you wish, you can find me on facebook and twitter! Also, if you have an interesting project you’d like to talk about or a cool person like Eve you think I should interview, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
One perfect day in November- comfortably cold, cloudy, and with wind that made any long-coated pedestrian look like a noir detective- I sat down for a three hour conversation with Eve Studnicka. Up till then we’d said about a dozen words to each other total, but had been orbiting around one another for a year and a half (it feels like so much longer). Through shared classes and acquaintances we “knew” each other, but didn’t know each other.
I’m not a particularly social person, but the idea of resolving this awkward secondhand acquaintanceship for the sake of content seemed even less viable than normal. From my seat two rows behind and six seats to the right, Eve always seemed like a protagonist amongst side characters. Her personality, charisma, even fashion sense just suggested that we were merely players in her story and that after our class she’d go off on another weekly adventure with her formulaically diverse group of friends.
Nonetheless, I summoned the courage to invite her and she, without second thought, accepted. Not wanting to be left in the dark, asking questions that could easily be googled, I did just that. Through my research I found out that she wrote for her local paper as a film critic at the age of 14, that she’d made three documentaries (more including shorts), and a whole score of information that altered our dynamic from acquaintanceship to stalker/stalkee. (Don’t be a stalker like me, but check out her website!)
Even after sitting down and putting a person to the personality, I can’t quite shake my protaganist-esque impression of her. Her inexplicable and inspirational nature makes it hard for me to cut the interview any more than I have. Unsure of what makes her interesting to listen to, I fear leaving it out. Hopefully after reading/listening to this interview, you’ll understand better than I do. Enjoy!
Yeah, I grew up in a town named Chillicothe. It’s outside Peoria and it’s one of those places where there’s 17 churches, a McDonalds, and that’s about all you get.
But before that you lived in the city of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which plays a big part in your life at this point. You just wrapped the Driftless Film Festival there, how did that go?
It went fantastic! So in addition to documentary filmmaking, which is something that I’m really passionate about, my primary focus is film festival administration and event co-ordination. I’m the Festival Director of the Driftless Film Festival, this is our sixth year and it was amazing. We had a wonderful turnout. We had people coming up from Chicago, who I didn’t even know, who’d just heard about the festival and wanted to explore the region. There were young people coming in from universities and in general we had a much more diverse audience, which I think is due to the programming. We had more edgy programming this year than we did previously and I think that was conducive to a younger audience.
It just went super well. We had a bunch of after-parties that were non-traditional. We had a burlesque show and we had a young duo of bluegrass singers called the Driftless Sisters come in. Both those shows were packed so we were really happy with how it went this year. I’m kinda blissed out right now.
I think that the concept of Driftless, a film festival in the middle of Wisconsin, was interesting but finding out more about Mineral Point as a community was really fascinating because it’s this small culture of artsy people in, frankly, the middle of nowhere. You don’t expect that kind of community in Wisconsin or the Midwest in general.
Yeah, you’re totally right. It’s a small arts community, there’s about 50 working artists in this town of 2000 people in the hills of southwest Wisconsin. It’s totally unexpected. It’s a rural farming area so you kind of anticipate this culture of right-wing conservatives, but really it’s this town that was founded by immigrants and gradually became a really sustainable artist community over the last 70 years. My parents were both artists there, so this idea of successful arts platforms in the Midwest is sort of ingrained in me and especially them being something that’s a little bit different and offbeat from the mainstream stuff coming out of New York, LA, or other prolific art communities. So how does a city like Mineral Point actually survive? It doesn’t seem like that kind of community in the middle of the Midwest would have enough of a draw to sustain itself.
Well I think as Midwesterners we’re bored. It’s very difficult to travel, because travelling costs money, and we have families and things that we need to tend to, so going to seek out art in these other regions isn’t possible in a lot of cases. So to have something in your backyard is amazing, it’s a hidden gem.
A little bit of the history is that during the Depression the WPA was tearing down all these old Cornish stone miners’ cottages that were considered beautiful architecture in the town. There was a gay couple that came into town and started purchasing up these buildings for really cheap and restoring them to their original condition, which became a really successful venture. Artists started seeing that there were all these buildings that were cheap and aesthetically pleasing, which were the perfect place for them to create work, build studios, and to work with their hands to build an environment that was inspiring for them. A lot of those people are still in town today and it’s wonderful to connect with them. I’ve known them my whole life and I’m kinda smitten.
Well I would hope so, you did a documentary on the town after all. So your parents were both artists, how did that influence the way that you grew up and did they particularly drive you to pursue filmmaking?
That’s a whole can of worms. My mom was a potter and my dad was an abstract muralist and painter so they were kinda from two different camps. My mom did more functional art, beautiful pieces but they had functionality to them. My dad was more on the fringe and doing these huge abstract stretch canvases in barns that he had to cut down to even get out of the doorway, really pushing the envelope. Then they had kids. They had me and then my sister when I was three, which was the year we moved out of Mineral Point. As working artists it’s really difficult to sustain a family, but my dad was also an engineer and a mechanic at the time, so he went back to school and got a job at Caterpillar as a mechanical engineer.
Both my parents stopped doing art when we moved to Illinois, but that focus on the importance of art and having it in my life was an underlying current for my upbringing and it gave me that artistic mindset, that open-mindedness about the world. That was all there, but being kind of deprived of being around art in general, I think that pushed me towards seeking it out on my own. There was a long period before I started exploring film that I was just very depressed, lonely, and at odds with myself and the world because there was none of that vibrancy of creative endeavors to make me feel validated or feel like I was doing anything with my life. So the paradigm you grew up with is that artistic achievement is the best kind of achievement?
Well I think it’s more achievement that pushes you, pushes other people, and that involves collaboration. Achievements that involve mental, physical, and emotional things that frighten you, are interesting to you, or are engaging to you. That’s the best kind of achievement and that happens to be, for me at least, in creative work.
Interesting. So you were talking about being depressed and lonely and I know that for a time you were homeschooled, so how did entering back into the public school system affect your mind or your artistic development?
I never went back to public school actually. What happened is that I started out in public school and then I went to a Montessori school and then after I aged out of the Montessori school my parents decided to homeschool me. That was 6th grade. Being homeschooled was a total journey.
It was a total fucking journey because I started out in Montessori being a very, for lack of a better term, popular person. I was eccentric and weird, and the oldest person in the school. I had this great friend group and it was just this great social experience. Then I became homeschooled and I was very detached from my social group. This was before I had a cell phone, before Facebook was really a thing, and I didn’t have email. So I had no way to get in touch with all these people I met in Montassori, and obviously I’m in 6th grade so I don’t have a car. It was limiting and for the first three years my parents didn’t really know.
My mom was the one who was educating me and my dad would work during the day and then help out at night. She didn’t know anything about teaching and homeschooling; she just had the bravery to do this on her own because she knew this would be beneficial for me. I was a horrible child. I was absolutely atrocious to her for the first three years because I was lonely, insecure, and going through puberty. I didn’t have anybody to talk to about this; nobody who was my own age could be that necessary sounding board for people going through that kind of thing, so I felt really alone. My mom would try to get me involved with groups in the area like 4H or Girl Scouts and that was not my cup of tea but really that’s all that was provided in Central Illinois. Probably around 8th grade I started writing for the local paper as a film critic and that was the turning point, when I started feeling like there was something I was doing in my life that was worthwhile.
It’s really hard to be self-motivated when you don’t feel like the work you are doing is making any impact on anybody, but at that point: when you have a deadline, when you’re being held accountable by somebody else, when you’re trying to impress an audience, when you’re trying to share what information you’ve gleaned from whatever it is you’re studying and watching and learning about; that’s when you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. That’s when the depression starts to alleviate and that’s when things become a little bit brighter. Through that I found the confidence to start doing more production work, I got involved in an art organization in town, and everything just blossomed from there. So yeah there was a very definitive partition between shitty homeschooling experience and the best educational experience I ever could have had and I would never go back and change that for anything. I think being homeschooled is one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Was there any awkwardness getting back into social circles with people or maybe even coming to college and getting back to a full on educational environment?
No, I was so starved for that kind of interaction, so it was easy. It just sort of happened, but I was worried about that. I didn’t know what an academic environment was like that wasn’t in my bedroom. So for a few semesters in high school I took a couple college classes to just make sure I wasn’t going to have a fucking breakdown and be like “Oh my god I’m in a classroom and I don’t know how to handle myself,” which did not happen. I did really well. Coming to Chicago and Columbia, it was like the world just exploded. It was like everything I could have possibly wanted my life to be just started happening. There were all these people, these creative minds, who had done things I’d had only thought of doing or never even thought of. There’s this validation that comes from seeing the things that you want to do being done by people who are doing them well. It was… tremendous. So why did you choose Columbia?
Man, it is so difficult to explain what I felt when I came to Columbia. It was this inexplicable energy that you aren’t going to get from any pamphlet or brochure or pitch. It was this vibrancy, maybe it was being in downtown Chicago, maybe it the staff and faculty, but I felt like it was a place where I could make my own rules, where I could customize my learning experience to what I needed. I could push myself as far as I wanted, have the resources to do so, and seek out opportunities on my own terms. I could make connections with people who genuinely gave a shit about me, not just because it was their job, and that’s exactly what happened. I can not imagine myself going to any other school because, just from the faculty I know, I could scroll through my phone at 4am if anything serious happened and call upon any number of people to help me.
It’s that sense that college education is not just academic, it’s a transitional period in your life. You are going from childhood to adulthood and it’s complicated, difficult, and scary. I think that a lot of professors I’ve met at Columbia, everyone that I’ve had classes with or that I’ve put myself in constant communication with, understand that and know that it’s not just their job to help me with assignments or information, but to support me as a whole person in my endeavors, inside or outside the classroom, and in my challenges and struggles as a human being. I don’t know if other colleges do that, but I’m very grateful to have found that here.
Wow the way you make it sound, I actually want to go to Columbia. I want to talk about the most recent short you did “Night Smokers of Chicago,” because while I haven’t seen it, it sounds really good, especially after researching it. Essentially you just went around at night, talked to people outside of bars and clubs, and they got surprisingly personal, probably because they were drunk.
Yeah, they got personal because… well there’s something that happens when you’re out late at night, possibly a little intoxicated, but mostly really tired and probably alone. We did talk to a lot of people who were just alone. I think the thing is that you’re a little bit delirious, regardless of any substances or anything at that time of night. You’re tired, your walls are down a bit, and you want to be affirmed by somebody. I think that’s a necessity, a need that’s present in all of us all the time, but we try to cover it up and we try to make it less apparent because we want to be self-sufficient, we want to look strong. That need is to get the validation that comes from telling one’s story to someone who’s receptive, interested, and not obligated to give a shit. I think that’s why people were so willing to be open with us. I did not expect that. I did not know any of that shit before we started shooting. It was a total surprise to hear these stories from people who were just wandering around. I would go up to them and I would say “Hey can I ask you a really personal question while we shove this camera in your face” and everyone, except maybe a handful of people, said yes.
You obviously didn’t expect the response that you got, so what was the idea going into filming this?
I was sitting in the bathtub when I was 16 and I thought “Gosh, the title ‘The Night Smokers of Chicago’ would be really cool to have in a film. I should that.” Then I never did anything with it until I got into a Documentary Projects class. It was at that moment that I realized “Oh shit, I have to make a documentary.” I hadn’t made a documentary in a while, I had mostly been producing Michael Flynn’s art-house/grindhouse/fiction/horror shorts that I had a blast doing, but none of it was really my vision. That title came back to me and it seemed like a really straight-forward process that was going to be challenging in all the ways I needed to be challenged, but not so complicated that it was intimidating. I just kinda went with it from there, assembled the best crew in the whole fucking universe, and just had a blast making this film.
When you are going about a project, what is it you’re trying to do per say? What are you trying to get from your subjects or from the film in general?
I don’t feel like I’m really a documentary filmmaker, because I don’t feel like that’s the focal point of my life. I do love it a lot, and now that I’m doing it more I’m starting to think more about what my intent is as a filmmaker. I think that the intent is to provide a space for people to tell their stories authentically, and that space is for people who typically might not have that opportunity otherwise. I feel like this is a through-line through all the stuff I’ve worked on, but I’m really fascinated by the idea of The Island of Lost Toys. The outsider, the underground space, the places where people who aren’t accepted by the mainstream feel comfortable, accepted, and loved. The interesting nuances of their lives, not in that superficial/sensationalist way, but in the sense that there is a lot of universal truth that can come from people whose experiences lend themselves to vulnerability more than this façade we all assume because we want to make our lives accepted by the world we live in… if that makes any sense.
It totally does. You also do burlesque photography, and I’m bringing this up because I think it relates to your aforementioned need to capture moments of humanity.
Yeah, I like to capture moments of humanity that are not widely accepted as being valuable and you see that a lot in burlesque. It’s a visibility of bodies that is more honest and empowering than what the typical view of bodies is in this culture, which are commodified and very polished images of what humans are “supposed to look like.” You see this in marketing, you see this in media, but you don’t see what people actually look like and that’s a challenge, I’m sure, for a lot of people who go into burlesque. It’s bearing themselves as reality in this world that accepts something else as a beauty standard. I think it’s really humbling to be able to take pictures of those moments where people are exposing themselves and being empowered, creating art and being passionate about what they do, being subversive and defying the system that tells them that this is not beautiful. I’m really honored to do that because I think there’s a tender space in a lot of instances.
To continue on this humanity thread, I saw a small quote talking about your documentary on Mineral Point, Of Some Fair Place, and how you were preserving the stories of the people there. Is preservation of stories/humanity important to you when doing documentary?
Oh gosh, not while I’m doing it, but in retrospect? Yeah. I don’t like losing people, losing things, and even the idea of loss, as inevitable as it is. I find value in so much of the world that is temporary that maybe there is some assurance I get from knowing that because I’ve created something they exist in they’re fossilized forever and I can avoid that sense of loss. Shit man, that was profound.
The ever-churning stew of outrage surrounding many feminists issues is, frankly, quite exhausting. For me at least. It’s hard to listen to the same arguments over and over, applied to only slightly changed situations. Will it ever end? No, at least not for a while. Neither reformists nor revolutionaries have made much progress in the past decade, mostly due to the loss of a clear definition of what exactly feminism is. The internet, post-modernism, and continued in-fighting from the last century have made determining even what can and can’t be considered a victory impossible. It’s hard to fight towards a goal when nobody can agree what the goal is.
Regardless of the specific goal, I personally wouldn’t mind a complete overhaul of the system, but it’s hard to imagine non-violently achieving that without reforming the system first. Our cultural and societal structures as they are can’t withstand such rapid change, but perhaps in a world with equal-pay, measures against discrimination, etc… we could. Yet, when I look at raging hurricane of clashing opinions that is the internet, I lost faith that even small cultural changes can be achieved.
My faith aside, change is inevitable. As a society we’ve never been prone to moving backwards. Over the last three centuries, no group has less rights than they did even the decade previous. That’s just how progress works. As generations live and die their ideologies shift, changing from iteration to iteration to match the changing tides of thought. So it’s safe to assume that the next generation, overall, will be less racist, sexist, or classist than the previous one. If this isn’t the work of the parents, who, for the sake of argument, maintain their beliefs, then what? Well… culture. What you pick up from school, your friends, your church, your mailman, that strange uncle: these are the people and institutions whose opinions influence your own thoughts.
There’s one specific cultural educator I left out: media. That’s because media’s power has quickly grown in the past few decades to be one of, if not the most, influential factor for a developing mind. Despite the potential dangers, I’m somewhat comforted by this, because even if we feminists achieve no political or social victories in the next few decades, we can and will influence media. It seems clear, to me at least, that the growing representation of homosexuality in television and film (as little of it as there is) vastly affected, even subconsciously, the attitude of our culture towards gay marriage and contributed to its legalization. I remember seeing Modern Family when it aired, which would have been late middle school/early high-school for me, and it eased a lot of the discomfort I had with homosexuality, simply because I had no experience with it beforehand.
So this is a call to all media-makers out there: it’s up to you to change our culture for the better; to teach children, or even adults, how to be more accepting of those around them and to familiarize them with said groups so that any fear they have can’t possibly be of the unknown. Call it a back-up plan, that even if we don’t achieve any progress through actual social efforts, we can ensure a better future through “cultural bombardment,” as I like to call it. We need more shows like Steven Universe, and lots of them, because they do make a difference. Maybe not immediately, but in the coming decades as the kids who watched them grow up to be, hopefully, better people for it.
I’m not saying this is easy, in fact it’s extremely hard, but it can be done. If enough artists create enough equality-driven TV shows and movies, or just simply introduce characters LGBT/colored/any minority into whatever project they’re doing, this stuff will slip through. The industry may be run by old white dudes, but they can’t possibly police everything. This may be naive and idealistic of me to propose, but that’s okay. We don’t need this to be an all-out cultural movement or a trending hashtag. We just need creators to be aware of the impacts of their actions and the possibility, the inevitability, that through their art they can change the world one person at a time.
Let’s say you saw The Ring and The Grudge and you thought they were alright, but upon checking out Ring and Ju-On you found them way more interesting. Well, now that you’ve seen the two J-horror films everyone knows, where do you go from here? Well young J-Horror neophyte, let me draw you a road map of twelve films to continue your journey.
Audition, 1999, Dir. Takashi Miike
A widower and father, Aoyama, is lonely, and in an attempt to solve this problem, his director friend and him hold an audition. For a film, yes, but mostly so that he can scout out a girlfriend. He succeeds, becoming fascinated by one quiet young woman clad in white. The two quickly fall in love, but her dark secrets threaten to ruin this fairy tale romance. A slow build, but with an unforgettable climax.
Battle Royale, 2000, Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
A delinquent class is chosen by their abused teacher to participate in the yearly Battle Royale, a government program in which they’re stranded on an island and have three days to kill each other until there’s one student left. Alliances are formed and friendships are broken, but the return of previous winners leads to even more chaos. Fascinating premise with a solid execution.
Dark Water, 2002, Dir. Hideo Nakata
By the director of Ring, a single mother in the midst of a nasty divorce moves into a run-down apartment building with her daughter. They’re plagued by constant dripping water and the recurring presence of a mysterious handbag. Is there more to this than meets the eye or is the mother herself coming undone? Quiet and atmospheric, Dark Water may not deliver scares, but it lurk in your darkest thoughts for days.
Hausu, 1977, Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi
A favorite of mine. Six girls travel to one of their aunt’s house for vacation. But after decades of living alone, is the aunt still the same woman she was? Psychedelic, hilarious, and fascinating all at the same time, Hausu is well worth your time.
Ichi the Killer, 2001, Dir. Takashi Miike
Depraved hitman Kakihara is out for revenge when his mob’s boss is taken out by a mysterious assassin. Slipping between darkly humorous and deeply depraved, Ichi is a hard film to watch, at the very least for how extreme it is. If you can get through it though, it’s quite the memorable experience.
Onibaba, 1964, Dir. Kaneto Shindo
Japanese horror for the longest time were more supernatural dramas than horror films. Onibaba is one of the best of these entries. Two women are forced to survive in the wake of a terrible war, but they come at odds when the younger one starts sleeping with a returned warrior. The older takes revenge by donning the horrific mask of a fallen samurai and terrorizing the couple. Atmospheric and stylized like a Noir film, it leaves you with the same satisfaction a good campfire ghost story does.
Pulse, 2001, Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
A poltergeist sent through the internet? That’s what seems to be happening to the friends of two college students, but as the disappearances escalate, it becomes clear that a far more sinister force is pushing itself into our world. It spirals out of control at the end, but it is an unique and interesting spiral nonetheless.
Seance, 2000, Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
A psychic trying to get recognition gets pulled into a kidnapping investigation, only to discover her husband may have accidentally become involved himself. More Hitchcock-ian than anything, Seance delivers little scares and all suspense.
Suicide Club, 2001, Dir. Sion Sono
After 54 school girls kill themselves by jumping in front of a subway train, an investigation is launched into the website that seems to be predicting these suicides and the large rolls of skin found at the scene of the crime. Chaotic and messy, but weirdly engaging, Suicide Club doesn’t quite get its message across, but the subtext is does have will keep you thinking.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 1989, Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto
Perhaps the only film that Tetsuo can be compared to is David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which is either an extremely good thing or incredibly bad thing, depending on who you are. The plot is nonsensical, but seems to be about some weird machine alien virus thing taking over a businessman. As the narrative becomes more clear, it also becomes equally more horrifying. Surreal to a fault, this film is not for the weak of temperament, or heart.
Tomie, 1999, Dir. Ataru Oikawa
Tsukiko’s old classmates keep dying. Ever since the death of Tomie, nine of them have died or gone insane. Tsukiko herself is recovering from amnesia, but that isn’t helped by the interrogating or her increasingly distant boyfriend. For a dead girl, Tomie sure is causing a lot of trouble. More art film than horror film, Tomie still nails a fantastic atmosphere, even if it favors imagery over logic.
Uzumaki, 2000, Dir. Higuchinsky
Based on Tomie author Junji Ito’s manga, Uzumaki is a condensed telling of the downfall of a small town. A small town that is taken over not by killers, zombies, or even ghosts, but by spirals. A Lovecraft-ian concept, but executed in a multitude of ways that are sure to raise both eyebrows and heart rates.
Any titles you think should be on this list? Seen these films and want to exclaim how amazing and/or terrible they are? Sound off in the comments below!
From girls with big eyes and multi-color hair to fans who dress up in elaborate costumes, anime can seem like an impenetrable fortress of weirdness. However, don’t let that impression fool you into thinking anime is just for geeky teens and creepy basement dwellers. There are genuinely good anime that are comparable to the best of American entertainment. Even if you don’t become a hardcore fan, there are quite a few movies or shows that you might enjoy. Here are an assortment of movies that will definitely get you (at least partially) into anime!
In Hollywood, there aren’t many directors who specialize in tragic romance. In the anime industry there’s only one: Makoto Shinkai. He has a certain obsession with relationships being torn apart, so much so that it’s the focal point of every work he’s made. The Garden of Words is the most optimistic of his movies, but in no way has a happy ending. It is the shortest movie on this list, clocking in at 45 minutes. Though what The Garden of Words lacks in length, it makes up for in beauty. It’s incredibly gorgeous, so detailed and colorful that it practically transcends reality. This beautiful hyper-reality amplifies the emotions involved, leaving even the most stone-cold viewer a little teary-eyed.
What to watch next: The Wind Rises, Five Centimeters per Second
Out of all the movies on this list, Summer Wars is the biggest crowd-pleaser. It’s the movie you watch with your kids (be they 8 or 18) or, conversely, the movie you watch with your parents. It’s well made and entertaining, a genre piece and yet accessible. Summer Wars’ best scenes, its emotional core, rest in the family drama, but its action scenes are still exciting. It pulls you in with sci-fi intrigue, holds you there with a beautiful family dynamic, and rewards you for your time with an over-the-top, yet worthy, climax.
What to watch next: Wolf Children, Porco Rosso
In four movies and a TV series, Satoshi Kon pushed the boundaries of storytelling by fully exploiting the unique abilities of animation. His remarkable works are known for bending reality, but despite this he manages to be a remarkably humanistic director. Even if you’re not sure where or when you are in the story, you’ll always connect with who you’re watching. Millennium Actress is the best blend of the two, finding a near-perfect balance between mind-bending and heart-breaking.
What to watch next: Tokyo Godfathers, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Like any culture, Japan has its own history of legends and beliefs. Part of anime’s appeal is the foreignness of it- it’s something you can’t get in America. Most anime are somewhat Western influenced, but there are many works that stick to very Eastern stories and ideas. Typical Western Tolkien-esque fantasy gets tiring, but the story and style of Spirited Away can provide a refreshing break. If a peek into the style of Japan’s unusual legends and fantasies intrigues you or your kids, then this is a great place to start.
What to watch next: Princess Mononoke, Mushi-Shi
Anime fandom in the US grew mostly out of the sci-fi community and with good reason: most of what was created was sci-fi or fantasy. Decades later, anime has more genre diversity, but there is still a backlog of great sci-fi and fantasy works. The king of all sci-fi anime is easily Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece set a new benchmark for animation when it came out, being the most expensive anime movie up to that point. Akira‘s cyberpunk style is certain of its time, but the visuals are still breathtaking and the story engaging to this day.
What to watch next: Ghost in the Shell, Arcadia of My Youth
Finding good children’s media is rather hard, and finding good children’s media that’s tolerable for adults is even harder. Disney movies may be the most beloved kids movies here, but in Japan the movies of choice are Studio Ghibil’s. My Neighbor Totoro is one of their movies that is more distinctly for kids, however its fantasy images are so heavily steeped in childish wonder that adults are sure to be charmed too. (Don’t let the trailer fool you, there is an english dub)
What to watch next: Kiki’s Delivery Service, Welcome to the Space Show
Japan is weird. We all know this. Our country’s weird too, but Japan is that special variety of weird. In anime there is no limitation to what can be shown and therefore no limit to potential weirdness. Redline is a simple paint-by-numbers racing movie story-wise. Everything else, from the characters to the world to the animation itself is very weird. However, this is, in no way shape or form, a bad thing. Rather, this weirdness fuels the movie, projecting it forward with all the speed and intensity a racing movie should. If you can get past the unusual design of Redline, you have quite the unique experience ahead of you.
What to watch next: Gurren Lagann, Space Dandy
Clear-cut bad guys and good guys. Big stakes and bigger action scenes. Battles across the globe, be it in the air, sea, or land. All these elements are key to creating a certain spirit of adventure that’s rare in cinema today. You feel like a kid again when you experience the blood-pumping thrills of movies like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and even Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The Castle of Cagliostro has adventure galore, with car chases, counterfeiting, and condemnable counts! Its goofy, yet swashbuckling, gentleman thief hero, Lupin the Third, has an established franchise behind him, but this movie boils things down enough that anyone can enjoy it. It has a special blend of wonder and excitement that is sure to bring a goofy smile to your face.
What to watch next: Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Steamboy
There are many movies on this list that qualify as great dramas, but Wings of Honneamise particularly excels in this genre. The filmmakers carefully craft a familiar sci-fi world to tell a very human story about space exploration. Wings of Honneamise is less story-driven and more a character piece about a reluctant astronaut who doubts the reasons for going into space. If it were live action, it would probably star Dustin Hoffman and definitely sweep the Oscars. Like a lot of the movies on this list, there’s far more to this Wings of Honneamise than its genre elements.
What to watch next: Grave of the Fireflies, Patlabor/Patlabor 2
Anime used to be known as extreme, far more violent than Western animation ever dared to be. This reputation has long since expired, as nowadays anime is better characterized as lots of cute girls in high school. Although, for those who love some fun and bloody action, Ninja Scroll will always be in our hearts. The struggle of a samurai to stop eight powerful demon ninjas may seem generic, but mixed in with unhealthy doses of sex and violence degrades into some of the finest pulpy schlock in anime. Certain to satisfy the most blood-thirsty horror hound or action addict.
What to watch next: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Hellsing Ultimate
I think we’ve covered a sufficient variety of tastes, so hopefully you’ve found one to your liking. Let me know in the comments below what you thought or if you have any suggestions of your own. Happy viewing!
Our journey through cinematic super-hero-dom begins appropriately with Superman (1978). Superman the character kicked off super-hero comics and the success of Superman the movie proved that comic book films could be a viable investment, although this wasn’t acted on until a decade after the fact. Being so far removed from our other entries means that it’s distinct, but still familiar. It’s a relic of a different era, one where red curtains unfolded both in front of the screen and in it. The tradition of Cecil B. Demille stepping out to set the stage is in this case replaced with a kid reading an issue of Action Comics. Superman had the unique task of elevating comic books to a serious and convincing cinematic level – for the first time. Batman (1989) and its followers didn’t have to do this. This task rests solely on the shoulders of Superman and, by extension, director Richard Donner. The film itself isn’t just a relic, but Donner makes it about them as well. The advertising campaign for Superman boasted that “You will believe a man can fly,” and indeed Donner tries his hardest to convince you of this. He contrasts the wholesome 1940s character against the far more chaotic 1970s. He doesn’t force these two worlds into a confrontation, but rather merely acknowledges the campiness of the hero in order to make you accept him as “reality.” Seeing Superman wave to an afro-touting disco dude and stop down-to-earth crime like tube-sock-wearing bank robbers and a high-rise-scaling cat burglar is entertaining, sure, but what really sells the film as something more than just “the funny pages” is the man in the bright red, blue, and yellow suit himself: Christopher Reeve.
I grew up with the Reeve Superman movies. I used to run around in a Superman cape at my Grandma’s house, with Superman IV: Quest for Peace playing in the background for the 700th time. When the Hollywood Video down the street from us closed, the sole thing I bought from their soon-to-be-discarded stock was an old VHS of Superman. While Tim Daly is iconic and Brandon Routh looks the part, Christopher Reeve is my Superman. His grin as he swoops through the air to the sounds of John Williams score is Superman to me. That’s the character in a nutshell.
What Reeve brings to the role, and what makes it work, is ultimately the same aspects that make the film itself work. There’s this undeniable charm and instinctual genuinity that emanates from him at all times. Chuckles are elicited as he bumbles through the Daily Planet’s office, but we can see the layers of Kent’s facade. He may be over-playing the nice guy, but he genuinely wants to be one as well, which makes the constant pushback against him all the more heartbreaking. When he dons his cape a lot of the personality and humanity of Clark Kent is lost, but with a smile Reeve makes you understand that Superman isn’t supposed to be human, he’s an icon.
The film reflects these qualities as well, with Donner pouring charisma and honesty into each part of the film. Donner knows it’s campy material, but instead of playing up that camp like the 60s Batman series, he presents it to you straight, merely asking you to play along. The film deserves this investment, and Donner tries his hardest to reward you. The beginning section on Krypton could have been played off as cheesy sci-fi, thrown in for five minutes before moving on to “the good stuff.” However, Donner holds you in this world, subtly implying its politics, technology, and society. It’s taken seriously, and this validity is also given to the very situation that Jor-El and Lara are in: sending their son to another world to avoid his death. The two bounce points off each other: Jor-El insisting that at least he will survive, Lara lamenting his inevitable loneliness. This somber moment is powerful and gives their death, along with the planet’s destruction, the weight it deserves.
It’s easy for writers to get carried away with how alien Superman is, but at the core of his origin is an anchor of humanity: his childhood in Smallville. The rather light-hearted and seemingly pointless scenes of Clark’s daily life weigh heavily on the rest of the film for they are our reminder that Clark Kent is Superman, not the other way around. The alien world of endless ice and snow is a far cry from Kansas, but the endless fields of crops serve the same purpose. It isolates Clark, protects him, and makes his relationships with his family and friends all the more important. These relationships are tested and ultimately shattered when Jonathan Kent dies, but not before passing on some wisdom that alludes to just how great a father he was. In grief we transition from the isolation of Smallville to the literal isolation of the Fortress of Solitude. Here Clark goes through that essential transition to adulthood, with both Jonathan and Jor-El as his guiding voices.
This isolation is broken, and not quietly, as we finally swoop into Metropolis, bombarded by the crowds of people, the honking cars, and the fast pace of not just the city, but the people therein. We’re re-introduced to Clark as well as the rest of the iconic cast and for me this ten minutes is a rare treat to watch or, more precisely, listen to. Donner steps back and lets the actors and the script take over, as the clear and concise writing gets across to us who the characters are and what they’re like with all the ease of a comic, but without the cheesy over-explanatory dialogue. It’s the kind of character writing that deals in archetypes, not cliches or stereotypes. A rare thing indeed.
An hour in, the slow burn is rewarded, for the introduction of Superman is careful, intentional, and marvelous. For Superman, the things he does during this debut night aren’t particularly spectacular when you consider the source material. So Donner focuses on the everyday people instead, emphasizing their wonder and amazement. These scenes breach into corniness occasionally, but the disbelief and stunned attitude these characters have reflects how most of us would react, albeit nowadays with a phone in our hands.
The film must have an actual conflict though, and thus Lex Luthor kicks his real estate scam into action. It’s in the interactions of him and his two goons that we feel the oppressions of campiness. Gene Hackman does a brilliant Luthor, yes, but he’s weighed down by the scripts emphasis on him berating the mistakes of the buffoon Otis. Going back to Donner’s compromises, this is the big one. These were not the days where people would just accept mutants fighting each other or a man in an iron suit fighting aliens, after all Star Wars had come out just a year earlier. So Donner makes Superman comedic, and more obviously so than the witty dialogue that persists through the rest of the film. This does succeed at making the film more accessible, especially for kids, but it leaves the last act lacking the weight the rest of the film has.
In fact the whole climax lacks punch until Lois Lane’s car gets trapped in an avalanche. Superman finds her dead and Reeve’s performance during this scene is interesting. This is an important lesson for Clark to learn- that he can’t save everyone, even those he loves. His rage at himself and at the world comes across clearly and legitimately, but his scream of anger does seem over the top.
The ending is infamously the largest logical fallacy in the plot that Superman has. It’s, of course, impossible to turn back time by changing the earth’s rotation. Regardless of the visual representation, Superman has gone back through time in the comics and considering this film came out just 10 short years after his adventures with Streaky the Super-Cat, I’d say it could be a lot worse. In fact this ending is thematically interesting. Superman is in mid-flight when the voices of his fathers pop into his head, Jor-El repeating over and over that it is forbidden and Pa Kent affirming that Clark is here for a greater purpose. Clark pushes on, turns back time, and saves Lois. This is a selfish act, the only one. The one moment where Clark uses his powers for himself, not for others. This isn’t simply courting Lois Lane, this is actually changing the world. Because he can. And he wants to. Just this once. It’s one final confirmation that Superman may be from another planet, but he is human. He can be blinded by love. He can disobey his parents. Just like the rest of us.
For me, 45 years removed, Superman is still one of the best super-hero movies ever made. Perhaps it’s the fact that standards hadn’t been “set” for adapting this material, allowing for the kind of experimentation that proliferated the 1970s and created several great films like this one. Donner takes the source material seriously and presents it earnestly. He seeks not to overwhelm you with spectacle, but to convince you to believe in what small spectacle there is and, paramountly, believe in its hero. Any six year old can walk out of a super-hero film in love with said hero, but it takes a real special film to do the same for adults. Perhaps it’s because Donner and Reeve don’t emphasize that Superman is a hero, rather they let you fill in the blanks as he earns that title. Perhaps it’s because of the love of the audience that emits not just from Donner’s film, but from Reeve’s Superman. Whatever the reason, you can be sure that while Superman may say goodbye with a salute and a wink, he’ll be back whenever we need him most.
Fear Itself is the feature length debut of Aaron Mirtes, budding independent director. Based off his award-winning horror short “The Clown Statue,” the film’s kickstarter page cites the plot as:
“Emma, a college student with a crippling fear of clowns, must come face to face with her worst fear when a clown that has been terrorizing the town promises to kill her. This clown gives a balloon to each his victims with the exact time and date he’s going to kill them written on it. After receiving one herself, Emma realizes that she has two days left to live, and must fight against the clock to find a way to survive.”
With a trailer already up on the page, one’s sure to ask why they need money at all? As with many productions, anything can go wrong. A large fire forced one of their locations to be unaccessible, which means everyone had to pack up and go home. In order to go back and finish the remaining 10% and add in new scenes, the Fear Itself crew needs your help.
So why, of all indy films asking for money, am I spotlighting this film? Why, of all indy films, should you fund this one? Besides the fact I think we need more killer clown movies, Aaron is an acquaintance of mine. At school together, he demonstrated a certain vision and intelligence when it came to filmmaking I’ve yet to see in someone I’ve worked with since. Listening to the interview I did with him for Cinema Cynique, you can pick up on this as well. With The Babadook and It Follows ushering in a new era of putting the art back in horror, it’s not hard to see Aaron Mirtes and Fear Itself fitting comfortably into the new generation of horror films and filmmakers.
I’ve gone on record several times condemning the horror genre and its filmmakers for recycling and regurgitating the same stories, tropes, and characters. To me, it’s a no brainer to support an original and fresh project. To invest in Fear Itself is not just to invest in the film, but in the future career of Mirtes and all the interesting and entertaining films he is sure to bring us.
This is an incomplete essay I wrote for class. The last paragraph was written for this posting, but the rest is intact. Also before we get into the article, check out my new facebook page where I’ll be posting all my reviews, sharing related articles, and asking questions that will be incorporated into new editorials!
The iconography of the superhero is important to our culture, modern myths that exist in the back of our subconscious as relics of childhood. They’re fundamental in the creation of morals in children as well as exposing them to reading and literature. Born on the cusp of World War II, superheroes and their stories has evolved from simple parables of good and evil to complex or convoluted universes and epics tying together every theme and gimmick within science fiction and fantasy. Due to each character being handled by dozens to hundreds of creators, their mythos isn’t clear cut, but within the ambiguity can remain a core, a “gist” that each child picks up instinctively. Superman is the warm protective boy scout, Batman is the dark avenger of crime (and occasionally protector of the weak), Captain America is the stranger in a strange land, here to remind us of our past, and Spider-man is the journey to and through adulthood twisted by tragedy. To take these heroes, ultimately the sums of the decades of parts, and accurately translate them to screen is truly no easy task. Comics demand participation, forcing you to fill in not only the gaps in continuity, but gaps in action due to the format of serialized pictorial storytelling (McCloud). Cinema fills in the gaps for you and asks a lot less of you in terms of participation, but asks more of you in terms of suspending disbelief since cinema is a far more “realistic” medium than comics.
This paradox of realism and faithfulness to the source material has plagued comic book films since the beginning. In the 20th century films took a variety of approaches, from the incredibly faithful 1978 Superman, to the intentionally distant 1989 Batman. In the early 2000s starting with X-Men there was an attempt to be fairly faithful to the comics, if not in content then in tone. Starting with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and brought to the forefront with Iron Man, superhero films started feeling less like their comic counterparts. Iron Man and The Dark Knight made 2008 the turning point in superhero films. Iron Man’s gross of over $300 million would set in motion the rest of the Marvel films to come, and The Dark Knight’s box office and critical success would bring superhero films to the forefront.
Now the fact that these two specific films mark the turning point is an important fact. The Dark Knight is perhaps the least “comic booky” comic book film ever made, passing over the melodrama for a battle of ideologies, and avoiding super-weapons for regular acts of domestic terrorism. Iron Man is far more standard in its story, but thanks partially to its star, Robert Downey Jr., and its director, Jon Favreau, Iron Man feels drastically different from its comic book counterpart. The Iron Man comics were occasionally jokey, yes, but for the most part they were standard comic book fare and took itself seriously in the process. Iron Man is a light and fun film, with its Tony Stark being a wisecracking smartass who makes the film with his charismatic performance. The setting is updated so that Stark is captured in the Middle East and his enemy is a terrorist group. He spends most of the movie developing the suit and he finds himself clashing with the military on his first outing. The film remains fairly down to earth in this way, until the final act where Obadiah Stane puts on his super-suit and dukes it out with Iron Man. Just when it seems like the film will end on a standard note, Tony Stark reveals he’s Iron Man, breaking away from the longstanding secret identity he had in the comics. None of the Avengers have secret identities in fact, which is highly unusual considering how much of a cornerstone of the genre it is. Iron Man felt different from the previous comic book films, mostly because it was severely lacking in cheesiness, and more importantly it had a distinct style and tone to it that was different to its source material, much like Nolan’s Batman films did. It did all this without pissing off the fans and appealing to the mainstream audience.
With those origins established, let’s look back at the films that helped shape the current superhero film. First up is Thor, a daring venture brought to life by Shakespeare-enthusiast Kenneth Branagh. The film by all means shouldn’t exist, after all Thor has always been a character steeped in so much high fantasy and mythology that translation to the screen seems impossible, let alone in a majorly Christian country. Branagh and the slew of writers managed to take a few core themes: family, humility, love, and make the film about that over the hierarchy of Asgard or the religious details of how Yggdrasil works. The film grossed $181 million domestically and proved that concept has little bearing on success.
Cut to The Avengers, the culmination of Marvel’s efforts to that point and the pay-off for the “gamble” that they and Disney made. It’s highly unlikely that audiences wouldn’t have went to an Avengers movie with the four years of anticipation they had, but it was still daring nonetheless. The skillful directing and writing of Joss Whedon, whose previous work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly made him a suitable choice to handle the team dynamic, made the film above par in character writing and dialogue even if the story was a little lacking. Avengers carried the same balance of humor and action that the Iron Man series had and took the different tones of all the previous films and amalgamated them into one. After The Avengers both the look and the tone of the subsequent films would be far more similar, especially in their marketing.
The following year saw success on DC’s part with the release of Man of Steel. Successful at the box office despite its dislike from critics, Man of Steel applied the aesthetic and tonal style of Nolan’s trilogy to the mythos of Superman. The result created a massive divide between fans, but it made money nonetheless, providing DC with the foothold in the market they needed to compete with Marvel to at least some degree. The darkening of Superman, a fairly light character in his other adaptations, gave a clear indication that superheroes on the screen wouldn’t even need to follow the spirit of the original. Between Man of Steel and The Avengers, the massively destructive climax battle has now become a staple of the subgenre, but that’ll be addressed later.
As Adorno cites, all pop culture is standardized product of the cultural industry, and superhero films are now the epitome of this. With the industrial pressures and audience enthusiasm, superhero movies are are hardly art, for they now resemble commodities far more. This process of standardization has been ongoing, but in retrospect it was inevitable.
What made these characters interesting was how unique they are, and their teaming up is supposed to be a mash-up of distinctly different superheroes working together despite their differences. In the homogenized world of the Marvel cinematic universe and the upcoming DC cinematic universe, these characters own films are barely different from each other, let alone the characters themselves.
The cinematic superhero is no longer the superhero we grew up on. The cinematic superhero no longer emphasizes morals above all else, no matter what those morals may be. The cinematic superhero is far less hero and far more super. In the turning point in the latest superhero trend, superhero films changed from being that of tight comic adaptations with the themes therein intact and more about an action film with capes and masks. The super hero became less of an individual who looks over us and more the last man standing. Reflected in Iron Man, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, not only has this representation become more popular in use, but naturally box office as well. The ideological and moral ramifications of the hero have been stripped away from them in exchange for making them rock stars for us to worship and wish we were rather than the acknowledge the struggle of being.
The turning point in the success/popularity of superhero films was 2008’s Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. Clear separation from character starts with RD’s charming and sarcastic portrayal of Tony Stark. His one-liners never end, even as his character “grows.” At the end of the film, he is still the playboy billionaire with a drinking problem, but now he wants to help people at the same time, presumably to stroke his own ego. The relatively honest and serious origins in the cave are quickly swept aside for the sequence of Tony tinkering with the suit and finally having a blast flying around. Followed around by a soundtrack by AC/DC as well as extras doting on him at every turn, Tony Stark is a celebrity and his decision at the end of the film makes Iron Man a celebrity. As half-hearted as his secret identity was in the comics, it still provided him some degree of protection, if not from villains, then from the press. This Tony Stark forgoes this and in Iron Man 2, we see the fruits of this with bikini clad Iron-girls and auditorium of cheering fans.
In The Dark Knight, Batman wannabes walk the streets, literally fanboys of acting out their own fantasies. Bruce Wayne acts similarly to Tony Stark, parading around the upper class. In the comics we rarely see Bruce Wayne, and if we do it’s for some charity event, while in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight he enjoys certain splendours of upper class life in between his caped escapades.
In The Amazing Spider-man 2, the villain Electro’s origin is changed so that he’s a crazed fanboy of Spider-man’s. In The Avengers, the film ends on a note of people’s reactions, most positive, but they’re debated like celebrities. Captain America: The First Avenger has Cap first acting as a stage performer, the same tool of propaganda he was in real life.
A fundamental part of being a hero is surviving what’s thrown at you, but that comes secondary. This is perhaps most notably explained by looking at Man of Steel. The film’s destruction has been well-studied by scholars, particularly as a response to 9/11, however in context to the large battles in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier it becomes clear that massive amounts of destruction are par for the course, Man of Steel’s is merely the most excessive. There’s something entrancing about the last (wo)man standing and standing relatively unscathed in the crater that remains of Metropolis, Superman certainly fits that description. This glorification of perseverance in the face of ultimate destruction can be tied to 9/11 the same way the perseverance in the face of ultimate destruction that is kaiju in Japanese films can be tied to Hiroshima.
Another component that goes hand in hand with this is the emphasis of stopping the bad guy, and the lack of emphasis on saving people. Avengers precariously walks this line, but barely pulls it off mostly due to the large cast being able to multitask and the previous experience writer/director Joss Whedon has working with hero teams. Man of Steel ignores the people, as does Iron Man 2.
Guardians of the Galaxy may be the most recent example of all these trends appearing in one film, a sign of things to come, especially since this film was immensely popular. The team engage in mostly comical and charming banter, pompously parading around the universe. The soundtrack, which is extraordinarily utilized, iconizes them the say way the soundtrack in a Scorsese film would. In the climactic battle, thousands of Nova Corps members, essentially policemen, die, but little more than a single tear is given to them. The city is claimed to be evacuated, but shots of screaming civilians say otherwise. The heroes are too busy having a dance off to care though.
One merely needs to look at the latest chart of superhero films to see that there is no art behind this commerce. Like Madden video games, one or two will come out each year with little changes to message, theme, or even story. Even if one or two films manage to step outside the norm, it doesn’t matter. It’ll be one in a sea of many. Perhaps what has been said above is obvious, and yet each Marvel movie comes out and gets all the attention in the world. When film critics dare to argue against a superhero film, they are sent death threats. We as a culture are obsessed, and unfortunately we are obsessed with the equivalent of an ikea couch.
Cultural Studies essay I did a while back and totally forgot about. It’s a topic I’d like to go back to.
It’s hard to ignore horror movies, particularly around October, but nowadays there aren’t classic franchises in theaters we’ve all heard of, like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. There have been only two large horror franchises in the past decade: Saw and Paranormal Activity. Saw is very much a progression of the natural trends of the horror genre and isn’t that appealing to a mainstream audience, but Paranormal Activity is widely known by most and is completely different then most horror before it. It’s what’s called a “found footage” movie, or a movie that is compiled from “discovered footage” supposedly recorded by our protagonists. It’s a relatively new format and one completely different from most horror. Why is it that this format emerged and why is it so popular? Looking at the society we live in today, it’s clear that found footage emerged to compete with the “hyper-realism” of events like 9/11 and the amateur, but still authentic, internet videos we’ve become used to.
To understand why trends in horror occur, one must look at the society in which they were created to see what fears the people had. In the 1950s we were still reflecting on World War II and the use of the atomic bomb. We in America were terrified of the destructive power we had harnessed and feared the potential of science because of it. Thus the science fiction monster movies were born. Through miracles of science some creature would be created, unearthed, or mutated into some giant monster that would destroy a few cities before we could stop it. At the same time the McCarthy trials were going on and the country was in the midst of the Red Scare. While this fear of outsiders is epitomized in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it can also be seen in any alien invasion film like The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds (Wilson).
The 1960s were a time of rapidly changing values due to sexual, social, and drug liberation. We began to fear ourselves, uncertain of where the future would lead us and the War in Vietnam only added to the pressure. We saw films like Psycho, which was shockingly violent for the time, that showed us that the kind Mama’s boy Norman Bates was actually an insane killer. Night of the Living Dead is a film thats had many interpretations but it’s radically new story in a way reflects many of the tensions at the time by cooping up a variety of people (including a black man) inside a house with a deadly alien force trying to get in (Wilson). Sound like quite the metaphor of America to me.
If we flash forward to the 1990s we see that our culture’s fascination with serial killers reaching a climax through films like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. The ‘90s were unusual in that there was (relatively) little going on in the world for us to be afraid of. The economy was sound and we weren’t wrapped up in a big war since the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course social issues were still there, but they were extensions of previous issues so there was little new to make horror out of. Thus we saw a rise in high concept horror and meta-horror, which played on the horror genre itself to get a reaction out of us. While there were successful entries like scream, the increasing pandering toward the teenage audience left horror dull and lifeless.
In the 2000s horror got its punch back, coinciding with one incredibly horrific event. 9/11 made everyone in America essentially wake up and realize that any day the world could come to an end. Horror films since then have struggled to have the impact that a real life horror like that had. It’s tried to do this in several ways, one being found footage, which can recreate “realism” unlike any horror film and in a film like Cloverfield or Chronicle can even play on our society’s memories of that day. Playing off a more broad feeling of “the end of the world,” zombie films like 28 Days Later exploded in popularity(Wilson). Another way horror tried to be more effective is through increased violence. Filmmakers felt they needed greater violence to make an impact and they succeeded, sparking a debate that only recently has died down.
The other landmark event that occurred in the ‘00s was the popularization of the internet and more relevantly, Youtube. The debut of Youtube in 2005 has had an obvious effect on the current generation. Now you can find clips of anything and everything. From crazy stunts, to “hauntings,” to actual murder. Thanks to the internet our generation has seen it all. However, due to the spread of information, everyone has seen the same things and this has given us a weird fascination with finding rare things in the corners of the internet that nobody has heard about. Creepypastas and other internet urban legends are a manifestation of this, punishing digital explorers the same way classic legends abuse those who venture into the woods.
Found footage as a genre has its origins in documentary filmmaking, as that is the format it’s trying to mimic. Some of the earliest found footage movies stirred up major controversy because they created situations that one couldn’t get with a normal documentary. The most notable early found footage movie was Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which had many people convinced it was real. An Italian film about documentary crew who go to the amazon to research cannibal tribes before getting eaten themselves, Cannibal Holocaust was banned in over 50 countries. After an article in a magazine accused the movie of being a “snuff film” where the actors actually died, Ruggero Deodato, the director, was forced to appear in Italian court with the actors to prove that they weren’t in fact dead and explain how he pulled off certain effects. Every found footage film since then has to varying extents tried to mimic the realism that Cannibal Holocaust pulled off a little too well (Jensen).
Found footage remained relatively unused until in 1999 when a small independent film called The Blair Witch Project was released by Artisan pictures to an unsuspecting public. One of the first movies to be marketed using the internet, the Blair Witch website featured fake interviews and police reports, playing off the aforementioned internet exploration to attract audiences. People were still convinced that it was real walking out of the theaters, despite actors being listed in the credits (Jensen). Found footage became widely used in independent film after this, but nothing ever hit the mainstream the same way that Blair Witch did, until 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Unlike Blair Witch there were no false claims that Paranormal Activity was a real movie outside of the typical confusion from misinformed people, however Paranormal Activity did bring massive success to found footage and was one of the first rental hits at a new service called Redbox. The ability for mass distribution through the internet and services like Netflix and Redbox has allowed for the flood of independent movies inspired by Paranormal Activity to get attention from audiences and keep the genre going.
Found footage films are unique by definition, defying standard cinematic conventions for the sake of realism. How close they are to real life or to a “real” documentary actually varies, as most documentaries are usually more carefully shot and edited then the typical found footage movie (Frappier). There are more similarities to home videos and youtube vlogs then actual documentaries, by nature of us following the protagonists around be they running or not. We’re so used to seeing amateurly shot videos thanks to these formats that we now interpret that as “real” over essentially anything else, making the way most found footage films are shot actually more effective.
We have a growing obsession with movies being “real.” This can be seen through many trends in culture but mostly in our media, which strives for immersion in order to be effective. One of the most popular comedy franchises of the past decade was Jack-ass, which had not plot or story, but was rather just footage of guys doing stupid stunts. The audience can find it funnier than the average comedy because we “know” it’s real.
In action movies there’s been the rise of “Chaos Cinema” where the film tries to disorient and over-stimulate the audience to get them excited. In a film like Transformers the action scenes are characterized by an overactive soundtrack, quick cuts and angles that limit your point of view. While one might think that limiting point-of-view would be counter-intuitive to film, our tolerance to online videos where we can’t see everything allows us to accept that we can’t understand what’s going on. I’d also argue that we’re increasingly becoming literate in amateur video, allowing us to interpret what’s going on in more chaotically shot movies better.
There are almost no movies that come out these days without some form of CGI to them. This is partially because CGI and special effects in general are heavily emphasized in society. With superhero movies you’ll hear about how good the CGI was, or at least you’ll hear how bad it was if it was poor quality. Cinema has become more of a spectacle as of late and that’s partially because we like things to look good and realistic. There are nominees to the Best Picture category of The Academy Awards almost every year solely because a film’s effects were really good.
Reality TV, while its rise can be traced to several other influences, is as effective as it is because it feels “real.” The characters on the show are supposedly real people and since it’s shot poorly, we believe it. There are several shows like The Office and Modern Family that try to mimic this, creating a documentary-like feel to their show that’s never actually acknowledged by the characters, but makes us feel like the show is more real nonetheless.
Another extension of Reality TV is the “Ghost-hunting show” which has become extremely popular over the past couple years. It’s a safer, but even more realistic form of the found footage movie, where the viewer can genuinely believe in what they see because so little happens in the shows. The use of handheld cameras to capture the small little unexplainable events feels real and intrigues us. Our own struggle with mortality post-9/11 has lead to a fascination with the afterlife and by extension ghosts.
By limiting our perspective as a viewer to just the camera/main character, instead of the omniscient third person camera, we become completely immersed in the events unfolding. Cinema has been trying to achieve this immersion since its inception and is now succeeding thanks to the proliferation of point-of-view shots, tracking shots that follow the character, and a closely related technique of what’s called “Shaky-cam” or using handheld cameras to film simple dialogue or action scenes so it feels (again) more like a documentary (Frappier).
Found footage horror is extremely appealing to both studios and independent filmmakers. The Blair Witch Project was made for about $500,000-$700,000 and grossed $248 million. Paranormal Activity was purchased by Paramount Pictures for $350,000 and made $193 million (Jensen). Studios have always used horror movies as big money makers, but found footage allows for even less cost with similar or greater returns. Since Paranormal Activity there have been releases of found footage movies every year, with varying degrees of success, but few bombs. Like most trends in movies, the studios will milk it until it dies.
Before the studio fixed up the film, Blair Witch only cost around $20,000 to $25,000 to make and Paranormal Activity only cost around $15,000 even with re-shoots. They were both small independent films that were then picked up by studios and made enormous amounts of money. The idea of using so little to get so much is incredibly appealing to independent filmmakers and so the flood of found footage films were born. With the advent of digital technologies, not only can anyone make a found footage movie, but the premise is more logical. In a world where everyone has a phone or camera for taking pictures and news shows use whatever footage people have shot, it makes sense now for found footage movies to exist over even two decades ago when this technology was a lot more expensive and uncommon (Frappier).
Computers and smartphones have put our entire world behind a screen. All of our interactions with friends, our jobs, our bank accounts, our calendar, and even the world around us are in the context of a screen. So for us to be frightened by something behind that screen, like an average horror movie, is challenging. It can be done, but it won’t have that punch because we all know it isn’t real. Jaws wouldn’t scare people into never going swimming if it came out today, and the story of a few kids in the woods being chased by a ghost would never either. That is until you make that screen one with the audience, so they’re not watching a bunch of characters like a god, they are one of the characters. That’s what found footage has to offer if done right and why people are so enamoured with it. It allows us an experience beyond the screen, despite being nothing more than the same shadows of reality any movie is.
Found footage is a format that has limits, butcan be done incredibly well. It’s become quite popular in recent years and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It’s cheap to produce and makes high profits for studios, it’s an immersive and realistic form of cinema, and it’s both an expression of our fears and a way to stimulate us properly in modern society. While audiences may get sick of it, there will occasionally come along a movie like Chronicle that will breath life into the genre. However, I believe that the real innovations will come in the very medium that helped create this sub-genre: online video. Video series like Marble Hornets are sure to terrify people in new and interesting ways, but engaging us more by being hidden in the depths of Youtube, which forces us to seek out the horror and, ultimately, reap what we sow.
Frappier, Rob. “Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?”Screen Rant. Screen Rant LLC, 2012. Web. 1 May 2014.
Jensen, Thor. “Found Footage Film History.” UGO.com. IGN Entertainment, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014.
Tudor, Andrew. “WHY HORROR? THE PECULIAR PLEASURES OF A POPULAR GENRE.” (n.d.): n. pag. Kapti College Database. Routledge, 17 Aug. 2010. Web. 1 May 2014.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Film History.” Horror Film History. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.