Monday, October 16, 2017

Indie queen


I discovered Grace Rex's short film "This Is She" while browsing Vimeo's horror/thriller category. That's ironic considering how Rex herself described the film to me in a recent email exchange. "I am surprised when people refer to 'This is She' as a horror film," she wrote. "I think of it as a quiet, non-narrative film that has some psychological themes and uses practical effects to create visual representations of those ideas." The rising indie director, writer, and actress tweeted at me after I wrote about "This Is She." In our email "interview," I asked Rex about her creative process in relation to "This Is She," her bittersweet short "Be Good," and what she's working on now. I've reproduced the exchange below, edited for clarity.

Red Blue Green: What projects are you working on now that you’re excited about? And what can you tell me about them? (e.g., "High & Dry")

Grace Rex: "High & Dry" is a new British sitcom for UK's Channel 4. It concerns five people who wash up on a desert island after a plane crash. We filmed on an uninhabited beach in the Seychelles. I got to meet some amazing giant tortoises. They're huge and very friendly and you can tell they know a lot of stuff about life that we do not know. I still think about them. I think about my four lovely British co-stars, but mostly I think about the tortoises. The sunsets were also incredible.

In terms of my own work, I'm making a short film right now called "Others." It's a series of eight non-narrative vignettes. Each one concerns a different person in an everyday moment who is connected by an umbilical cord to an irreverent being. We just launched our Kickstarter! Can I plug that? I'm gonna plug that. Folks can watch the whole first of the eight vignettes in the project video.



RBG: How consciously did you incorporate horror elements in "This Is She"? Are you interested in horror as an actor, writer, and/or director?

GR: I like some horror movies but I'm not knowledgeable enough about the genre to consider myself a true fan. However, I've been watching a lot of horror movies lately because my partner is a big fan and cinephile, and it's October, so ... I'm getting a good scoop! ... My new project also has some elements that could be described as body horror, so I realize there's something of a pattern there! I'm mostly scared of what's hiding in the recesses of my mind. I find that totally terrifying. Does that count as horror?

RBG:
What compelled you to make "This Is She"?

GR: I was going through a difficult time several years ago and felt surrounded by grief for the first time in my charmed life. I couldn't hide from my feelings. They felt like a presence in the room, and I started to think about what the visual representation of that feeling might look like. I was also reading a book by a Jungian analyst at the time who wrote about how trauma presents a unique opportunity to deal with some ugly business in the unconscious that presents itself in times of crisis. 

This author believes that you get to kind of greet your true and messy self when things get rough, and if you're brave enough to look at what's been hiding inside of you and integrate it, you can come out the other side with your feet more firmly on the ground. I grew up with such a strong moral compass, a deeply rooted understanding of good and bad, and a lot of shame about being imperfect. This written theory shifts that understanding because it values honesty over perfection. It's an affirming and empowering viewpoint for me.

RBG: How did you develop the concept? In general, what is your creative process like?

GR: Tarik Karam directed the movie and was instrumental in developing its look and tone. He came on board early in the writing process, and I would work on the script and share drafts with him. We went back and forth with notes until we were ready to film. 

I haven't made enough work to say I have a defined process; it's developing all the time. I will say that, as a director, I am enjoying making lookbooks and finding reference images from other films and photographers. Creating a written narrative around my intentions helps me define what I want a movie to look and feel like.

RBG: Did you have a metaphor in mind when creating the blob in "This Is She"? What kinds of interpretations and reactions have people shared with you about it and the film as a whole?

GR: The ambiguity of the metaphor is intentional. I like hearing other people's interpretations. I hope it functions a bit like a shabby Rorschach test: In telling us what the thing means, people are sharing something about themselves, and I think that's a wonderful way to connect with people. 

Some folks have said the spots represent depression and anxiety, or loss of a loved one. The mother of a good friend told me it reminded her of an article she read about prisoners of war personifying the walls of their cells after being isolated for long periods of time. Some people think it's a mold problem and are grossed out. It's all gravy!

RBG: Did you make up the "red balloon" game for "Be Good," or is that something you knew about and/or played before?

GR: Yeah, I made it up. I was thinking about how people play games sometimes so they have a structure in which to bridge intimacy. Truth or dare is the first example that comes to mind. I gather that, most of the time, when someone suggests truth or dare, it's because they're looking for an opportunity to share or engage in an act of vulnerability. It's hard to talk about scary things, and neither of the characters in that scene in "Be Good" wants to talk about what's on their minds, even though they need to, so the game gives them a way to engage in a more honest conversation.

RBG: How do you figure out how and where (in the story) to end a short? I'd be interested in hearing specifically how you made those decisions for "This Is She" and "Be Good."

GR: This is a good question. I don't know! With both movies, finding the ending was difficult. Just leaving a viewer with a cohesive experience is difficult in a short film. You have so little time to help people care about the images you're making. There are some narrative shorts that I love because they have a great twist in there and they end with a bang. There are others that leave you with this whole, visceral feeling afterward, even when nothing is resolved. I think finding an ending that feels right is a totally intuitive process!

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Wonder Woman" and loving your enemy

Much has been made of the ways in which "Wonder Woman" is different from male-centered comic-book movies. For example, director Patty Jenkins goes out of her way not to sexually objectify the movie's many female characters, and the effort pays off: It really does feel like a flick the Amazons would sign off on. Yet in addition to the fierce female warriors, Diana's emphasis on peacekeeping, and the aforementioned lack of gratuitous T&A (check out the Amazons' practical outfits!), I noticed something else about "WW" that seemed like a marked departure from the usual superhero testosterone-fests: the recognition that even our enemies are still human beings.

The moment whizzes by fast. Diana is trying to convince Capt. Steve Trevor that Ares, the god of war, is behind all of the hideous violence that WWI has wrought. Yes, she's been fighting on the Allied side against the Germans, from the moment that Steve landed on the shores of Themyscira through the bombastic, CGI-heavy climax. But her belief that Ares is the real culprit, not the German army, supports a logic one doesn't often witness in Marvel or DC films: If Ares is defeated, the Germans, too, will be liberated from the awful burden of their own bellicosity.

In the realm of progressive politics, particularly the branch dedicating to fighting oppressive systems, it's long been understood that neither the oppressor nor the oppressed group ultimately benefits from an oppressive dynamic. Sure, it sucks to make 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, but men aren't stronger, better people because they benefit from injustice. If anything, our sexist system makes good relationships between men and women more difficult to maintain than they would otherwise be, as women feel (understandable) resentment and men experience (equally understandable) guilt. Yes, there are shorter-term, material gains to be had when you're in the oppressor's seat, but it coarsens your soul if you don't commit to dismantling it, and that's too steep a price to pay.

"WW" doesn't delve into the intricacies of interlocking oppressions, but Diana's comment clearly underscores the film's overall message about war: It's bad for everyone. Victories that result in a bunch of stuff being blown up aren't glorious or triumphant; they are, at best, a necessary evil. (It's worth noting that the Marvel movies, and especially the "Avengers" films, have at least acknowledged the collateral damage -- to people and buildings -- that superhero smackdowns tend to produce.)

Germans might well be the most loathed white people in Hollywood period pieces. Think of the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies, or the Nazis in any movie, or indeed the amoral general and mad scientist in "WW" itself. Yet Jenkins' movie tries to see the bigger picture, in a way that some might consider more typically feminine than masculine. At the end of the day, only the most sociopathic bullies want this gruesome war, and it's worth fighting for the freedom of the many, and remembering in the process that peace-loving people will always outnumber the most devout warmongers.

Hope for men


This marvelous video essay from Pop Culture Detective explores the unconventional masculine identity of Newt Scamander, the highly sensitive and empathetic protagonist of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." Its conclusion is one I wholeheartedly agree with: Depictions of male role models of this type are far too rare in contemporary pop culture.

At the same time, "The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander" gives me hope that despite the cruel ogre in the White House at present, my son may have more worthwhile male role models than just immediate family members as he grows up. I was fortunate enough to have a nurturing, thoughtful, and sensitive father, but not every little boy is so lucky. Here's hoping Newt is just the first of many new heroes of his ilk to get blockbuster-scale exposure in the years to come.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Bullies

Josephine Livingstone's excellent review of "It" for the New Republic wisely zeroes in on the theme of trauma, which the film explores throughout its two-hours-plus running time. Livingstone notes: "Children are the powerless recipients of generation[al] trauma, the violence and perversion which haunt any human settlement, but which are denied and therefore left unaddressed." While she is right to point up the story's powerful parallels between supernatural and human-caused trauma, I'd go further and focus on a very specific kind of trauma: bullying.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the interdimensional being who likes to prey on children when they're at their most afraid, is a bully of legendary proportions. But underneath, or alongside, the Losers' terrifying battle with Pennywise are some less otherworldly trials that, in the moment, may feel just as harrowing. Ben has to endure the violent predations of Derry's premier pack of bullies, one of whom, Henry, carves the letter "H" into Ben's ample belly, as if marking his territory, or branding a bull. Fortunately, Ben escapes before Henry can form the other four letters with his knife.

Mike, one of Derry's few black residents, has to cope with bullying at home from his grandfather. The old man insists that Mike take up the family business, which requires him to stun sheep with a captive bolt pistol prior to their slaughter -- a nasty business that reliably leaves Mike queasy and drenched in sweat. He also has to put up with the same band of bullies who harass Ben and the other Losers, but who tell Mike to get outta town with a savagely racist flair. Never mind that Mike's family has lived there for generations -- the implication is clear: Black people will never belong in Derry, no matter how deep their roots. (Though Chosen Jacobs, who plays Mike, doesn't get as much screen time as the other Losers, I hope his adult stand-in has more to do in director Andy Muschietti's follow-up.) Derry is a small town, and one quickly gets the sense that if you're unlucky enough to become the target of bullies, there's almost literally nowhere to hide.

That's especially, horribly true for Beverly Marsh, whose father calls her "his girl," and not in a sweet, caring way. Worse, he becomes highly territorial upon discovering that she has same-age male friends. For me, Beverly's story of resilience, and eventual self-liberation, in the face of bullying was the film's most compelling. "It" reminds us chillingly -- and necessarily, in this age of the neo-Nazi next door -- that evil isn't out there somewhere. No, evil lives beneath, within, and among us, in our history and present, in our perceived safe spaces, in broad daylight.

In the film's opening scene, evil comes out of the dark and snatches little Georgie away from a perfectly normal street in a normal town on a normal day. As we were reminded so painfully by the recent shooting at Freeman High School, bullying has invaded our schools and our online lives. For some children dealt a particularly awful hand, it waits for them also at home each day, in the place that's supposed to be the safest of all. In "It," newcomer Sophia Lillis gives a wonderful performance as Beverly, capturing her strength, wit, and beauty as well as the fear and desperation she feels under her abusive father's roof. Many fans have advocated for Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain as the grown-up Beverly, and either would be a fine choice. When it matters most, Beverly summons her inner resources and is fearless. Her righteous vengeance is a sight to behold.

I was bullied as a kid. It's no picnic. Stephen King's work often deals with the horrors and consequences of bullying, perhaps most memorably in "Carrie." But "It" takes a broader view of the subject. Where "Carrie" provides a detailed exploration of one girl's response to severe bullying, on the part of both her insane mother and her cruel classmates, "It" examines many types of bullying -- including the harsh treatment Henry, himself a bully, gets from his father, who seems to delight in humiliating and demeaning him. I appreciate it when movie bullies aren't one-dimensional monsters (so to speak). Plenty of children who do unkind things to their weaker, gentler peers have been victims themselves -- bully-victims, as they're called in the counseling literature.

In a way, Henry, a classic bully-victim, is at the center of the film. He represents the link between cause and effect; he is a living embodiment of the uncomfortable fact that evils of the past don't stay buried, that suffering is intergenerational and persistent, not static and ahistorical. I haven't read the novel that inspired "It," though I'd like to do so before Muschietti's sequel comes out. But after seeing the topic of bullying treated more thoughtfully, and with more empathy, in "It" than it often is in pop culture, I look forward to seeing how Muschietti, his screenwriters, and another terrific cast explore the longer-term, and even lifelong, effects of childhood bullying.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Anne with an E" is Intense with a capital I


The new adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables" (a Netflix/CBC co-production) makes a case for the classic children's story, set on scenic Prince Edward Island, as one of Canada's great national narratives. Emotionally raw, in ways reminiscent of Cary Fukunaga's stellar 2011 "Jane Eyre," "Anne with an E" doesn't sugarcoat the abuse and trauma Anne suffers at the hands of the foster family she lived with (and worked for) before coming to stay with the awkward, emotionally constipated Cuthbert siblings. It also doesn't downplay the wrenching uncertainty of being a foster child, which too often means feeling like a person no one wants. If ever I've seen a compelling moral argument in favor of adoption, this show is it.

As suggested by the show's theme song, the gorgeous "Ahead by a Century" (by Canadian band the Tragically Hip), Anne is a de facto feminist in the frickin' 1870s, at which point the word feminism may not have existed. However, "Anne with an E" isn't just about exposing the horrors of the foster system or celebrating rebellion against rigid gender roles. It's also about the importance of the emotional self. The Cuthberts request a boy to help the aging Matthew work the farm. When they're sent Anne instead, Marilla sees her as a purely emotional creature, incapable of concrete usefulness, despite Marilla's own, obvious gender nonconformity. Anne, being Anne, cheekily points out Marilla's nontraditional femininity to Marilla in an effort to avoid getting shipped back to the foster home. 

Matthew senses early what it takes Marilla longer to recognize: Even if Anne were a physically weak little wisp of a girl, there's something to be said for opening one's life up to the wildness -- the uncontrolled emotionality -- of a child. To see such a modern idea expressed through this adaptation of a 109-year-old piece of literature is thrilling indeed.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Yet another reminder of why I love pop culture


I was recently introduced to "Rick and Morty," an adult-oriented animated show that most geeks worth their PS4s discovered years ago. I don't need to add yet another glowing review, or detailed analysis, to an internet swimming with both. However, one of the show's most-discussed moments reminded me, quite compellingly, why I love pop culture so much. So I figured I'd write about that.

At the end of an episode titled "Auto Erotic Assimilation," in which Rick visits an old flame who turns out to be a body-snatching hive mind, the mad scientist retreats, heartbroken, to his garage-based lab. (If you haven't seen this episode, get thee to Hulu and watch it right now! And then come back here and read the rest of this post.) He removes a small, blobby alien from cryogenic deep freeze and insta-thaws it. The little creature is clearly distressed, as it likely was the instant he froze it to begin with. In a rare, and unexpectedly moving, show of compassion, Rick gently pets the poor creature.

It quickly becomes apparent that he's soothing it because he's about to zap it out of existence with one of his laser-y contraptions. After doing so, he sets the machine up to zap him -- but before it can, he slumps onto his desk. The killer beam barely misses his head. As he sleeps off yet another hangover, night turns to day, and we see Rick's son-in-law, Jerry, merrily weed-whacking the driveway just outside the garage, without a care in the world.

The tonal shift of this scene from the madcap, raunchy antics that preceded it is remarkable. The sad, beautiful song "Do You Feel It?" by Seattle indie band Chaos Chaos soundtracks the entire scene, and it perfectly complements the existentialism and emotionality on display. Wordlessly, this stunning scene humanizes Rick, helping us empathize with his loss of love and the frustration he feels as a genius surrounded by lesser minds. It also shows that he isn't simply a madman with zero regard for the welfare of other living things.

Part of what makes the scene great is the ambiguity baked into it: Did Rick mean to save his own life, or did he simply pass out before the laser energized? Did he unfreeze and kill the creature to "set it free" (rather than continuing to keep it cooped up like a lab rat)? Did he kill it because he planned to end his own life as well and wouldn't be around to take care of it?

Whatever his motivation, his tenderness toward the seemingly simple being adds depth to the character of Rick and to the show as a whole. This scene makes it obvious that Rick and Morty's interdimensional adventures, while often wacky and fun, come at a price, at least for Rick. It turns out that dating outside your species, galaxy, and reality isn't any easier than sticking to OkCupid. And being possibly the smartest human ever isn't all wine and roses.

I love how pop culture, at its best, can draw us in, get an emotional hold on us, and then upend our expectations, taking us somewhere, emotionally and otherwise, we never thought we'd go. The ending of "Auto Erotic Assimilation" blindsides you in the best way. Even within the context of a show about infinite parallel realities, this masterful scene knocks us off-balance and makes us wonder what kind of show it is, exactly, that we're growing increasingly attached to.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"Adore" captures the blissful ache of infatuation


Even though "Adore" was released as a single in 2016, the EP it ended up on, Amy Shark's "Night Thinker," didn't come out until 2017. And until this year, the Spokane area's premier indie rock station, KPND, wasn't playing it. So I'm tempted to consider it my favorite song of this year thus far. Back in 2016, after all, most of the people who fell in love with Shark's spare, sharp lyrics and achingly expressive music were her fellow Australians. Now we in the Northern Hemisphere get our shot.

"Adore" begins with three fraught guitar chords, then adds Shark's bruised-sounding voice, supported by a simple beat and subtle backing vocals. The song builds in urgency and vulnerability, all the while maintaining a loping, mid-tempo feel. The first three lines capture something vital about the desperation that accompanies a serious crush:
I'm just gonna stand with my bag hanging off my left arm
I'm just gonna walk home kicking stones at parked cars
But I had a great night, 'cause you kept rubbing against my arm
In a quick but emotionally rich three minutes, Shark communicates volumes about romantic attraction that may or may not be requited. Eleven years ago, I wrote for Seattle Weekly about the agonies and, well, further agonies of the unrequited crush. It's a universal theme, but it's the rare song that honestly describes the torturous state of wanting someone who doesn't want you back.

In "Adore," Shark certainly shows both the overflowing passion ("I want the entire street out of town just so I can be alone with you") and combative spirit  ("Watch me watch him talk to girls / I'm known as a right-hand slugger / Anybody else wanna touch my lover?") of someone who isn't entirely secure in her bond with the object of her desire. That's part of what makes the song so great: Obsession has a mighty undertow, a dark pull that can make otherwise reasonable people do unreasonable things. No unrequited-crush song worth its salt tries to pretty up the ugly side of asymmetrical attraction.

This gorgeous, pained love song would be a terrific fit for "13 Reasons Why," a show similarly concerned with infatuation that exists in tension with darkness. 2017 is far from over, but I'm not sure anyone is going to top "Adore" for raw emotional power.