Tuesday, November 23, 2010

White Men Are the Best at Everything: Mapping the Birthplaces of the Directors of American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time

My original map is on Google. You can link to it by clicking here.

In 1997 the American Film Institute issued its first list of the top 100 films of all time entitled “100 years… 100 movies.” This was to commemorate the first 100 years of the existence of motion pictures – 1896 – 1996 (Why these dates, I am unsure. Most scholars go back and forth between 1894 and 1895 for the start of the motion pictures). In 2007 this list was revised and republished. Both lists were created from the input of 1,500 “…leaders from the film community (me, not being one of them). Gone from the second list were films like The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer which had characters performing in blackface and, though, technically significant to the history of cinema, were wrought with controversy surrounding their content. Added were films like Do The Right Thing and The Sixth Sense which seemingly added diversity to the list due to the fact that their directors – Spike Lee and M. Night Shaymalan – are men of color. The purpose in mapping where the directors of AFI’s 100 greatest films of all time were born along with a poster of their acclaimed film(s) is an attempt to show that while the new top 100 list attempted to expand the range of films and filmmakers incorporated into it, that the perception of excellence in motion picture production is still from a very white European-American male perspective. Thus, the list reinforces the idea that American films are the best films in the world and the only visual stories that matter to the cinema canon are feature-length fictional narratives.

This is not to say that mapping the locales of the director’s births did not provide any surprises. I was surprised that so many of the directors were European by birth. I was also surprised to find that legendary Hollywood directors Billy Wilder and Frank Capra were not born in America, but rather Italy and Poland. Capra immigrated to the United States around the age of four while Wilder came to the United States after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and took over the film studio where he was working. When clicking through the map the juxtaposition of images of these very iconic American stories – like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – with Europe is interesting and jarring at the same time.

Also surprising was that John Ford, who is so well known for his Westerns, was originally from Maine. Spike Lee, who is known so much for his urban stories set in New York City, was actually born in Atlanta. What this showed me is that you do not need to be from a certain place or necessarily embody a positionality similar to the characters in your film to tell stories that resonate with audiences and critics alike.

However, with that revelation came the issues of all the things that are missing from the list and from the map. First, there are no female directors on the list. There are no documentaries or experimental films. None of the films are non-feature length. None of the films are foreign produced or in a language beside English. All were made within the studio system in Hollywood. This seemed quite odd to me until I looked at the voting criteria on Wikipedia:
  • Feature length: Narrative format typically over 60 minutes long
  • American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production from the United States
  • Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media
  • Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals
  • Popularity Over Time: Includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals
  • Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements
  • Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance
The reason why I used Wikipedia as a source was that this information was not available on the American Film Institute’s website. Buried in the text on the AFI website is the fact that they were only considering the top 100 American films, but the tagline on the webpage simply says “AFI reveals the 100 greatest movies of all time” which continues the deception that this list might encompass more than just American fare. Also not mentioned is the fact that the leaders of the film community were only given a list of 400 nominated films to choose from. Who chose those films and if they used the same criteria listed above in their selection process is unknown.

This exploration and visualization really helped me to think about the naturalization process that is such a big part of the cinema history canon. The fact that AFI failed to prominently mention that they were only considering American feature narratives for their top 100 list is telling of the different ways in which other modes of cinematic production are othered in critical discourse. For instance, at the Oscars there are categories for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, but the grand prize – Best Picture – lacks any qualifiers. A more appropriate name for the award might be Best English-Language Fictional Feature. Additionally, the inclusion of the work of several European born directors – Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, etc. – shows whose creative input we value in the American studio system. In fact, only four directors on the list – M. Night Shyamalan (India), Peter Jackson (New Zealand), James Cameron (Canada), and Norman Jewison (Canada) – were born outside of the United States or Europe.

Primarily, I think the map brings up fascinating points about immigration; who we allow into our country to pursue the "American Dream." Aside from Capra and Wilder there were several other directors on the list that immigrated to the United States. While the rhetoric surrounding immigration is very anti-Latin America at the moment, because they will "steal our jobs," it is telling that we've allowed multiple white European film directors to immigrate and to hold one the most exclusive jobs in the country and then revered their work as the crowning achievement of what can be achieved in their profession. It says a lot about what we value in American society.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Battle: Outsourced the Movie versus Outsourced the TV Show

I love Thursday nights. Sadly, it is because almost every show that I regularly follow is on on Thursday nights - Bones, 30 Rock, The Office, Community, and Project Runway. I watch enough TV on Thursday nights to almost last me a week (Aside from How I Met Your Mother on Mondays. I love that too). So I was interested to see a new television show this season in my NBC Thursday night line-up that, on the surface, seemed very out of the ordinary for American television - Outsourced.

In Outsourced Todd, a mid-level manager for an American novelty outfitter, finds out that his job has been outsourced to India and he must go and train the new workers and his future replacement if he ever wants to move up high enough in the company that he can return to America and the safety of corporate headquarters. The premise for the show wasn't new to me. I had seen Outsourced the movie several years prior. However, the more I watch Outsourced the television show, the more I can see the subtle differences between its depiction of the friction between Indian culture and American culture and the culture clash in the movie version.

Anita, from Feminist Frequency, once told me that she liked the television show Farscape because the main character, John Crichton, an American astronaut, magically tumbles through the galaxy into an unknown world and instead of going by the tried and true formula of white-men-are-the-best-at-everything and letting John show the aliens how to run their section of the universe, John Crichton quickly realizes that he knows nothing. Everyday is a learning experience and every episode let the different characters rotate who would "know best" - not just letting Daddy John take the credit all the time for continuously saving the day.

The same idea is true of Outsourced the movie. Movie Todd finds himself in the middle of nowhere India (specifically, Gharapuri) trying to navigate local customs. He unknowingly offends most of the Indians he meets - including a particularly memorable sequence where he discovers why Indians think it is dirty to eat with you left hand. However, like many journeys, Movie Todd comes to learn more about himself as he learns more about the customs and traditions of India. Over the course of the movie he finds himself more estranged from the person he was and, vicariously, America; since the person that he was also sold gaudy American trinkets.

Instead of the sticks, TV Todd is stuck in the middle of Mumbai, a bustling metropolis. He too is middle management for an American novelties corporation. However, unlike Movie Todd who learns about himself through experiencing India, TV Todd is constantly correcting and instructing the people that work for him about American culture. Changing the journey that Movie Todd went through into more of a story of how white-men-are-the-best-at-everything and American culture is the best culture.

The shift from focusing on Indian culture in the movie to American culture and customs in the television show sounds small, but is actually quite profound. For instance, in Outsourced the movie Todd accidentally walks into the middle of the annual Holi celebration without knowing what it is.

At the end of this scene Purohit, Movie Todd's replacement manager, discusses how much he loved Holi as a child. While Movie Todd reminisces about how much he loved Halloween as a child. However, the emphasis in this scene is on the celebration of Holi, not an insistence that Movie Todd expose Purohit and his other workers to American customs like Halloween.

TV Todd has no problem prioritizing American customs over Indian ones. In the "Balloween" episode TV Todd throws a traditional American Halloween party. In it all the Indian characters are ridiculed in one way or another - Manmeet, the wannabe ladies man, dresses as a chick magnet, but is too afraid to talk to the hot Australian girl who finds his costume appealing. Gupta dresses as a "respectable US businessman" not realizing that he's dressed as a pimp. Asha comes dressed as Cleopatra only to be scolded for revealing too much skin when she's in the process of arraigning her marriage. Holi is never mentioned. And all the characters on the show embrace Halloween as if it was the latest and greatest thing. They even choose to dress up as American icons like Michael Jackson and Native Americans.

Not to say that Outsourced the television show is completely without its moments of hope. For instance, at the Halloween party Rajiv, the TV manager-in-training, dresses up as TV Todd and momentarily gets to mock him and, vicariously, Americans: "Is this safe to eat? Where's football? Where can I get that toilet paper with the lotion in it?" Thus, for a split second, we, the audience, are able to see what Indians find strange about our culture.

In the episode "Truly, Madly, Pradeeply" several of the characters, including fellow American, Charlie, become momentarily addicted to paan - an Indian version of chewing tobacco. This exchange also seemed less about the domination of American culture over Indian culture. I was happy to see a little but of screen time devoted to a non-American custom even if the storyline involved one of the other white American characters on the show. But these moments are fleeting. The paan aspect of the episode was a subplot and the Rajiv mockery of TV Todd was even shorter.

This is not to say that Outsourced the movie isn't without its problems as well. In both the film and the television show there is an attraction between Todd and the character of Asha. In both cases Asha is in the process of an arraigned marriage. Both versions of Todd still fall for Asha and pursue her to different degrees. It is as if because Asha's marriage is going to be arraigned by her parents that it does not carry the same weight as a "love match" marriage (the term used in the movie for a non-arraigned marriage). Therefore making her still single in the eyes of her lovelorn American boss Todd.

It will be interesting to see in the coming months if Outsourced the television show is able to gain speed and expand its moments of cultural sensitivity. As a viewer, the most interesting interactions to me are the ones that are completely foreign - the paan subplot for instance - and the ones that are the least interesting are the the cliched moments that I've seen over and over again in media. For instance, when the truly pathetic character of Tonya, a white Australian call center manager, throws herself at TV Todd in lewd and uninteresting ways. I can only hope that the television show continues to develop away from tried and true formulas and shows us something interesting. After all, it is a television show starring mostly an Indian/Indian-American cast on prime time network television. It is already revolutionary on paper. Now let's see it become revolutionary in content.

Outsourced the television show airs on NBC on Thursdays at 9:30pm.
Outsourced the movie is available to stream on Netflix.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Things I Love: Seth Aaron Henderson

I am lucky lady. My job revolves around being creative. I make movies. However, regardless of how lucky I feel to be a filmmaker, sometimes I need to do something else. Thus, I sew. I am not a good seamstress by any means; the tool that I use most is probably my seam ripper. Therefore I am easily fascinated by those who have more skill than I. Thus, I love Project Runway. In season seven this love was focused on one designer in particular - Seth Aaron Henderson.

The funny thing is that it had little to do with his work. Truthfully, I would never wear most of clothes. They just aren't me. Grunge rock star I am not.

The reason why I love Seath Aaron Henderson is that he is a straight, married man with teenage kids who still wants to be a fashion designer.

In Tough Guise Jackson Katz talks about how masculinity (and femininity to a point) are all about fitting into these really rigid boxes that do nothing but to keep us confined and from fully actualizing as human beings.

Truth be told I don't know many men who can sew even though sewing is an important life skill. I don't mean that you have to be able to churn out couture, but everyone puts premature holes in clothes from time to time and it is a great skill to be able to fix those. Thus, I applaud Seth Aaron Henderson for not only rocking the runway with his punk/military/goth look, but being a straight man who is living outside the gender conforming box.

However, there is a flip side to this sew-tastic story. We live in a culture that is male dominated, male identified, and male centered. Does having a straight man win at a reality contest in a traditionally female-centered discipline really help to break down our rigid gender constructions? Or is is just another example of how white (straight) men are the best at everything... including sewing? It is an interesting dichotomy. Is this really progress? Or is it just another male takeover? I, personally, can't decide. So I put this quagmire out to the masses. I am going to go back to ripping out seams.

Pictures from:
Also mentioned:

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Men: If You Change Your Name, Your Wife Will Cheat

When I got married I told my husband I loved him, but I wasn't really into changing my name. Why? There are lots of reasons - Ruth Gregory is the name that I have always been called; Ruth Gregory is my grandmother's (married) name and she is who I am named after; Ruth Gregory is what I am professionally known as; Ruth Gregory is who I am. And while changing my last name doesn't mean that I cease to exist and have to start over personally and professionally, it felt like that, and that was enough for me to stick with my maiden name despite all the flack I have gotten and continue to get for it.

Last weekend I finally gave in and went to see Hot Tub Time Machine. I gave in because multiple people had told me that the film had a soul beneath the silliness and that it was worth the price of admission. And so I went. And it was fun. But there was one thing that irked me deeply about the film and it wasn't even central to the story. Thus, I feel the need to blog about it. This will have spoilers.

In Hot Tub Time Machine one of the friends Nick Webber, played by Craig Robinson of "The Office", is a happily married, but totally emasculated, man. He has, essentially, given up everything to be with the woman that he loves; his music career and his friends (to an extent). He has also at the beginning of the film, duh, dun, duh! hyphenated his last name. And boy, do his "friends" give him crap for that.

On top of it all, he's found out that the love of his life, his wife, Courtney, has cheated on him. So all his sacrifice seems to be for nothing.

Through the magic of hot tub time travel Nick is able to change his present by altering the past. In this new present, he is a man in charge of his life. He has his friends back, he is a successful music producer, he is still married to the woman he loves, Courtney, and his name is no longer hyphenated. He is just Nick Webber.

Now, I don't judge women or men who hyphenate or change their names for whatever reason, but Hot Tub Time Machine sure as heck does. See in the new and improved future Nick's wife has not cheated on him. She is still madly in love with him and his re-asserted masculinity. Also, the guy she cheated on him with in the alternate reality is now his secretary. Take that!

Thus, the writers and director of Hot Tub Time Machine are judging the Courtney's of the world (and I feel, me, by extension) by putting out the message to the men of the world that if you love a strong woman who wants you to change your name, that this will lead to totally emasculation that she will eventually tire of, and, thus, she will eventually sleep with a "Tyrese-looking fella" who, I can only assume, dominated her in the way that men are supposed to dominate women.

So men, be aware. If you change your name, your wife will cheat.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Seriously? A "Red Dawn" Remake?

In the years I call "Grad School Part 1" I wrote a paper about how the teen films of the 1980s were full of anti-communist propaganda. My point was based off Susan Jefford's book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. In her piece Jeffords talks about how masculinity in Hollywood films of the 1980s was unusually macho - think Rambo, Rocky, Arnold Schwarzenegger's work, the Die Hard franchise, Top Gun, etc. - and that these films were a direct response to the political climate of the time. In the 1980s there was a cultural backlash going on against what was seen as the "soft" 1970s; where president Jimmy Carter was seen praying with the families of hostage victims in Iran instead of kicking some ass. Ronald Reagan himself was seen as somewhat of a cowboy figure, riding in on his horse to save the day. Sounds familiar...

In the midst of all this macho manliness came the ultimate Boy Scout wet dream of a film Red Dawn (1984). In it every communist nation (beside China) invades the U.S. and it is up to a bunch of high schoolers who have magically escaped to the mountains in the nick of time to save us. They fight using the skills they have inherited from fishing and camping with their fathers against the evil commie invaders. The Wolverines, as they call themselves, pissed off at the invasion of their country launch guerrilla warfare on their invaders; including creating improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s) and going on suicide bombing missions when it looks like there is no hope. Sound familiar....

While there are some interesting real-world parallels going on here, the end result was one heck of a cheesy teen flick.

So why we feel to re-make Red Dawn is beyond me. And why Hollywood has decided that China is now the only invading country is way, way beyond me. In the first Red Dawn China is the only country that doesn't participate in the massive US takeover. It is because in the real 1980s we had good trade relations with China. Interestingly, we still have good trade relations with China. So what would motivate them to invade us now? Even in a fictional sense? Well, as my colleague Kris stated, "Maybe they want all their money back." It is possible. We do owe them more than 770 billion dollars. So, in some ways, I hope that the new Red Dawn addresses this issue. Otherwise, it will just be another 1980s remake that should have never been rehashed.

Although I am not a fan of Rob Schneider, I would much rather see the film based on this fake film preview from Funnyordie.com!

Sunday, March 28, 2010


I have always been interested in Vin Diesel. This is despite hating (with a passion) The Fast and the Furious... all of them. And wondering why anyone would ever think that the script to xXx was anything more than a waste of paper. I think underneath the bad one-liners I could see that he could act and after watching his debut film, Multi-Facial, I am now certain that Boiler Room wasn't just a fluke.

Multi-Facial is about a multi-racial actor auditioning for parts in New York City. The film was based upon Vin Diesel's own experiences as a multi-racial actor going to casting calls. In it casting director after casting director tells Vin he's talented, but he isn't right for the part. However, you can see that he has a deep dedication to his craft through the variety of parts he can play convincingly... everything from a chauvinistic Italian Guido to a rapper. And yes, he raps in it.

The film accepted into the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. Eventually, it caught the eye of Steven Spielberg who cast Vin in Saving Private Ryan. There is some blissful irony that a short film about how multi-racial actors can't seem to get parts since they don't fit into anyone's racial preconceptions was the film that got Vin Diesel his big break.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fat Actresses

Re: Just Wondering: Can we please give the Gabourey Sidibe body scrutiny a rest?

During the 2010 Oscars I was preoccupied with the possibility that Kathryn Bigelow would be the first woman to win Best Director. However, a close second on my radar was Gabourey Sidibe. I love her persona and unabashed self-confidence. When asked by E! how she felt in her dress she said: "Hot!" And not in a please get me a fan sort of way; no she thought she looked good. In a sea of Hollywood starlets who are trying to stay in the 0 - 2 size range, she still felt smokin'. Gabourey rules.

Now the article linked to above discusses how the scrutiny of Gabourey's size is the sole reason why she won't be a success in Hollywood according to the media. And how the media needs to tone it down. True. Howard Stern needs to stuff a sock in it, but the article is horribly short-sighted on the issue of women and weight in Hollywood.

In the early '00s I did my stint as a page at a major Hollywood studio. My outfit made me look a lot like Kenneth from 30 Rock and was 99% polyester; lots of fun to wear in the Southern California sun. One of the best parts of being the lowliest of the low on a studio lot is that you can go almost anywhere and no one will care that you are there. Hence, how I was able to survive working minimum wage in Los Angeles, by helping myself to every craft service table I was near. When I wasn't liberating Luna bars I was checking out the celebrities who were working on the lot. The one thing that startled me about actors and actresses in person is that their heads looked abnormally large in comparison to their bodies. We called them lollipops and they were everywhere. Aside from having abnormally large heads, it wasn't hard to see that the ladies of the silver screen are way too skinny. I also saw more protruding collar bones in my 8 months in Los Angeles than I've seen in the time since.

In recent years we've been trying to tell ourselves that a new type of woman is becoming more successful in mainstream media; a bigger woman, a real-looking woman. However, I don't believe that it is true. I am not saying this because I love to look at the scary skinny Hollywood actresses or models who subside on water and cigarettes, but because we are fooling ourselves into believing that there has been a massive cultural shift away from the super-skinny actress. For instance, Gabourey's story is so similar to another actress who burst onto the scene a couple of years ago - Nikki Blonsky - but then faded into oblivion.

"I'm not saying it's correct, but it's a simple fact that [Gabourey] will have to lose a lot of weight if she wants to keep getting parts," a casting director told Popeater. "The same thing happened to Nikki Blonsky from 'Hairspray.' Everyone said how great she was, and she hasn't worked since."


While some critics of the critics have said that Gabourey has already gotten her revenge by landing a reoccurring part on an upcoming Showtime series, I have to disagree that this indicates any sort of equity or larger cultural shift. For a comparison, let's look at the Best Actress nominees from last couple of years and see what they are up to:

Marion Cotillard – co-starred in Nine with Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress Penelope Cruz. Has several forthcoming pictures including a new Woody Allen project.
Cate Blanchett – multiple high-profile film projects coming up including Robin Hood and the Hobbit.
Julie Christie – Hollywood legend who just starred in New York, I Love You. However, has no projects in development (according to IMDB).
Laura Linney – Has a couple of films in production. Also starred post-Oscar nomination as Abigail Adams in the acclaimed mini-series John Adams.
Ellen Page – couldn't be busier. Has several film projects in the works. Also starred in one of my favorite 2009 films - Whip It.

Kate Winslet – has several projects in the works including a t.v. version of the film noir classic Mildred Pierce.
Anne Hathaway
– has 7! films in development and two in post-production.
Angelina Jolie – multiple film projects on their way including Salt. A film where she replaced Tom Cruise(!) as the lead character.
Melissa Leo – has worked on several high-profile independent films since her nomination. Will also be working on Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet.
Meryl Streep – has received the most Academy Award nominations of any person ever when she was nominated once again in 2010 for the 16th time!

While cable T.V. has been churning out some interesting shows in the past decade and half, it still doesn't have the luster that high-profile film gigs do. To prove point about how we have a long way to go to reach size equity in media let's look at the forthcoming projects of Carey Mulligan, who is newer to the Hollywood scene and was also nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 2010 for her role in An Education. Forthcoming she is co-starring in Wall Street 2 which is directed by Oliver Stone. Also in the works is a re-make of My Fair Lady where she gets to play the role of Eliza Dolittle. Aside from those two projects she has two others in development.

If culturally we'd really reach a point of equity in Hollywood then Gabourey Sidibe and Nikki Blonsky would be co-starring in a film where their weight is not an issue and they still get to live happily ever after or, at least, go on a crazy adventure where men are not the focus of their mission. I hate to be the pessimist, but we have a long way to go before we reach that level of equity. For some intangible reason there is a belief that no one would watch this movie. However, I would like to say that I would put my $10 down to watch a film like this opening night. I look forward to finally seeing something a little different on opening night than the same ol' lollipop kid.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow Becomes the First Woman to Win the Best Director Oscar!

And it only took 82 years.

I cried like I had won an Oscar when Barbara Streisand simply said, "It is time..." and Kathryn Bigelow was announced as the first female to ever win the Best Director Oscar. I can only hope that this is the beginning of a larger female presence behind the camera in Hollywood. May the "Celluloid Ceiling" continue to crack to allow space for a wider variety of voices behind the camera. Lots of love going out to all my female filmmaking sisters on this glorious evening!

Kathryn Bigelow speaks backstage about winning the Best Director Oscar and, yes, she finally addresses the gender question. I must say I totally agree with her answer!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sex, Abelism, and the 80s: "Children of a Lesser God"

The 1980s were awesome in America. Or, at least, that is how I remember them. Granted, my vision of life and media was pretty narrow at the time. I was focused on how I could be more like She-Ra and Wonder Women and why the Skeksis in Jim Henson's film The Dark Crystal (1982) were so scary. Yep. I am a child of the 80s.

Recently I decided to watch Children of a Lesser God (1986). It was too adult for me when it came out in the mid-1980s and, realistically, I wouldn't have enjoyed it any way since I would have been totally grossed out by all the sex. Like. Totally. As an adult who doesn't believe in cooties any longer (most days) must admit that I found the film really interesting in terms of how it attempted to transform the image of the disabled from their usual villainous position as the cinematic other to something that is much more empathetic. Emmanuel Levy commented about Children of a Lesser God:

Not only Matlin benefited exposure-wise from the film: it did a lot of good for deaf actors and actresses in general. The hope of deaf actors and actresses at that time was that they could start getting parts in films that were not necessarily about being deaf people. The triumph of Marlee Matlin at that time, as well as others like Phyllis Frelich (who won a Tony award in the original play of Children of a Lesser God) and Howie Seagro were boosts for the National Theater for the Deaf, which had been fighting many years for such a breakthrough. Children of a Lesser God marked a breakthrough time for deaf actors.

However, that does not mean that the film was still not problematic.

Roger Ebert had an interesting comment about the way in which Children of a Lesser God was constructed to get around the fact that one of the characters, the deaf woman Sarah (played by Marlee Matlin), does not speak for most of the film:

The movie uses a strategy that works well - if you accept the basic premise, which is that everything said on the screen must be heard on the soundtrack. Marlee Matlin, who plays the deaf woman, signs all of her dialogue, and William Hurt, who plays the teacher, then repeats it aloud, as if to himself. "I like to hear the sound of my own voice," he says at one point, and indeed he does such a smooth and natural job of translation that the strategy works.

But think for a minute: Hurt can hear and can read sign language; Marlin's cannot hear or (she claims) read lips, and can only communicate by signing. In many movies about two major characters, there are scenes from two points of view. In "Children of a Lesser God," the scenes between the two of them are from Hurt's point of view, and none of them are played without sound.

I'm not suggesting silent scenes where we have to guess what the sign language means. But how about a few silent scenes in which the signs are translated by subtitles, giving us something of the same experience that deaf people have (they see the signs, and then the subtitles, so to speak, are supplied by their intelligence).

The feeling of seeing Hurt and not hearing him, of looking out at him from a silent world, would have underlined the true subject of this movie, which is communication between two people who speak differently.

By telling the whole story from Hurt's point of view, the movie makes the woman into the stubborn object, the challenge, the problem, which is the very process it wants to object to.

Regardless of how the film is remember - as a "breakthrough" for deaf actors or just another example of how women are perceived as stubborn - it is interesting to note that deaf characters in main roles have all but disappeared from popular cinema. Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) and The Family Stone (2005) featured secondary characters who were deaf, but aside from that there has not been much in the way of Hollywood films that feature deaf main characters. Even Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, has been relegated to mostly TV guest spots after her Oscar-winning turn as Sara in Children of a Lesser God. It as if the inclusion of hearing-impaired character has fallen on the deaf ears of Hollywood producers.

* Ebert, Roger. "Children of a Lesser God"

* Levy, Emanuel. "Children of a Lesser God"

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Things I Love: Mae West

I love Mae West. She says all the things I could never say and does it with such panache I can't help but swell with admiration.

Mae West started out on in vaudeville and eventually moved to Broadway and where she became notorious for her raunchy style. She even wrote and starred in a play simply titled "SEX!" which also landed her in jail for obscenity in 1920s New York. However, it was the controversy that she created as a part of her sexy persona that peaked interest in her from the Hollywood studios. She eventually signed a contract to make films for Paramount Pictures. It was the 1930s, the Depression, and Paramount was facing bankruptcy. However, Mae's box office draw almost single-handily (partial credit also goes to the Marx Brothers) saved the studio from complete collapse.

Aside from being an actress, Mae West wrote most of her own stuff and was proud of it. Director George Raft commented that "She stole everything but the cameras." In honor of her witty dialogue I have copied and pasted some of her more memorable one-liners here. Oh, may I only be this witty one day!

A dame that knows the ropes isn't likely to get tied up.

A hard man is good to find.

A man in the house is worth two in the street.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.

Cultivate your curves - they may be dangerous but they won't be avoided.

Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can't figure out what from.

He's the kind of man a woman would have to marry to get rid of.

I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.

I believe that it's better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.

I didn't discover curves; I only uncovered them.

I enjoyed the courtroom as just another stage but not so amusing as Broadway.

I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.

I only have 'yes' men around me. Who needs 'no' men?

I only like two kinds of men, domestic and imported.

I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.

I'm a woman of very few words, but lots of action.

I'm no model lady. A model's just an imitation of the real thing.

I've been in more laps than a napkin.

It's not the men in my life that count, it's the life in my men.

Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.

To err is human, but it feels divine.

Virtue has its own reward, but no sale at the box office.

When I'm good I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.

When women go wrong, men go right after them.

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.

Eventually the Hollywood Production Code censors ran Mae out of town with their puritan ideals. However, she made a comeback at the age of 85 in a film called Sextette (1978). In it she sways and sasses a host of men including Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Tony Curtis, Timothy Dalton, and Alice Cooper(!). May we all be as lucky as Mae one day!

Oops... I Didn't Know We Couldn't Talk About Gender, Kathryn Bigelow

With the Oscars just mere weeks away I finally just got the chance to watch The Hurt Locker (2009). Shameful, I know. But it was released with a squeak last summer and I wasn't listening. And let me say that it is so powerful I had to pause and take a break before the climax because I was too into the story and was feeling ill as a result. That, my friends, is powerful filmmaking. It literally made my gut wrench.

Despite Katheryn Bigelow being just the fourth woman in the history of the Oscars to just be nominated for Best Director she is reluctant, at best, to talk about her status as a woman in a man's world.

"I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is, and I really think it's to explore and push the medium," Bigelow says. "It's not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions."

It is hard for me to sit back as a fellow female director (albeit on a much, much smaller scale) and listen to her not talk about the possibility that she could be the first woman to ever take home the Best Director Oscar. I want her to join up with the feminist army and laud her accomplishments. However, then I read about instances like this:

At the Q & A after a screening of The Hurt Locker at AFI Dallas, moderator Gary Cogill commented that his favorite book about the Iraq war was written by a woman (The Long Road Home by Martha Raddatz) and then asked Bigelow a question that essentially amounted to, “Isn’t weird that The Hurt Locker is so good, since you’re a girl?” Bigelow deflected the question, but the issue came up again when an audience member who introduced herself as a member of Women in Film gushed that it’s “almost miraculous” that Bigelow has “embedded” herself in the making of “big boys movies.” This is when I decided it was time to leave; as I made my way out, I heard Bigelow respond that he choice of material is chiefly “instinctual” and not motivated by a desire to step where she supposedly doesn’t belong by virtue of chromosomal difference.

Ah. Audience Q and A sessions. I swear - the bigger the director, the stupider the questions get. With queries like these no wonder Bigelow is deflecting the comments and queries about her gender.

However, issues of her gender abound in the way the the film and her directorial skills are reported upon in other ways:

Just before dawn one July morning, Kathryn Bigelow was setting up a shot for The Hurt Locker in the Jordanian desert. The movie follows an Explosive Ordnance Disposal bomb technician, one of the hundred or so soldiers in Iraq who dismantle roadside IEDs planted by insurgents. For the scene, the tech and two of his co--workers would detonate a bomb in the middle of the desert, and Bigelow wanted to shoot them from atop a high sand dune. This meant that the crew had to tote all their gear to the top of a hill in the brutal summer heat. "There were a lot of macho guys on the set, British SAS, not to mention all these young, studly actors, and all those guys were falling by the wayside," says Mark Boal, who wrote and co-produced The Hurt Locker. "I'm not walking this hill, no way in hell. I drive past one of the crew who's literally puking on the side of the road. People are dying on this hill. I drive up, and Kathryn is already at the top. She's beaten everyone up there."

In the great tradition of tough-guy filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living crafters of male-bonding genre films. It may seem an odd fit, as the beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent 57 year-old woman was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute with a background in painting; she's hardly the eye-patch-wearing, cigar-chomping type like her Hollywood predecessors.

Critics can't seem to get over the idea that a female director could devote herself to making adrenaline-charged films that owe more to Ridley Scott than Nora Ephron. They rhapsodize, in high academic prose, about the role of guns as phallic symbols in Blue Steel, a thriller about a female cop; or the homoeroticism of Point Break; or the androgynous female figures in Near Dark, a hybrid Western/vampire movie. At the same time, it's hard to believe that Bigelow would dedicate her oeuvre to genres that are typically made by, for and about men, and not have a few thoughts on the subject.

True. And while I want to hear Kathryn Bigelow acknowledge that she is a woman in no woman's land I completely understand her reluctance. After all, her directing skills are the result of years of working hard on her craft and have nothing to do with what is between her legs.

It is also interesting to note that the same rhetoric is not applied to male directors who have made careers making "women's films". In fact, Douglas Sirk, the man credited with initiating the "women's picture" genre was never seen as subversive or treading where he didn't belong when he made such classics as Imitation of Life (1959) and All that Heaven Allows (1955). In Bright Lights Film Journal Sirk's place as a male director of women's pictures is only questioned due to the questionable nature of the genre:

While the "action" movie had long had its defenders as poor man's Hemingway, most of Sirk's best-known films were "woman's pictures," a genre regarded by male critics as the domain of that mythical incarnation of bad taste, the "shop girl," and even (especially?) disowned by feminists.

As a feminist, I disagree. I thoroughly enjoy Douglas Sirk's body of work. But I digress...

George Cukor, another man who directed "women's pictures" was called:

...legendary 'women's director'; noted for The Women (1939) - a melodramatic comedy based on the hit play by Clare Boothe Luce with an all-female cast (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine, among others) - a group of catty, back-biting, competitive, and richly-spoiled high-society women, although its tagline tauts: "It's All About Men!"; while seeking divorces in Reno, women learn of other affairs and infidelities and are forced to make tough decisions.

Despite my decrees that Kathryn Bigelow should flaunt her femaleness all over Hollywood I hope that when all is said and done and she becomes the first woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar (Pretty please!) that she is remember much like the quote above of George Cukor - legendary. After all, she is a director with an impressive resume that spans genre and decades. For heaven's sake - she directed Keanu Reeves to the point of believability in Point Break and I am pretty sure that most would agree that isn't easy! As a proud feminist filmmaker I channel Aretha Franklin when I say that all I want is R-E-S-P-E-C-T for my work and I get the feeling that is what Kathryn Bigelow wants too. At the end of the day we just want to be remembered as "legendary" for mastering our craft, not just because we were women. Oooooohhhhh. A little respect.

Quotes from:
* Kathryn Bigelow: Road Warrior
* "THE HURT LOCKER & Kathryn Bigelow's Girl Problem"
* Interview: Kathryn Bigelow on THE HURT LOCKER
* Imitations of Lifelessness: Sirk's Ironic Tearjearker
* Melodrama Films

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


This morning Kathryn Bigelow became the fourth woman in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for her work on the film The Hurt Locker.

Over the weekend she was the first woman to win the Director's Guild of America (DGA) award for directing. This award is seen as highly indicative of who will will the Oscar. I can only hope.

I wish her luck on her journey. I will be rooting for her from my Oscar party in Seattle with a whole bunch of other female filmmakers!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Cinematic Other: Dominatrix

For the past couple of days my husband and I have been watching the mini-series Tin Man which originally aired on Syfy. It is a retelling of the classic Wizard of Oz. Many of the players are the same, Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and wizard. However, each has been retooled to appeal to a modern audience; including the wicked witch, now known simply as "sorceress".

In the original film version of the Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West looked like this:
She represented many of the things that I feared as a child - old people, ugly women, long fingernails, warts, disfigurement, and aliens (who are also green). And that is exactly what the cinematic other is supposed to be. The cinematic other is a concept by which we inscribe our cultural fears onto the evil or othered characters in film. These attributes shift with time, but are always from a white, heterosexual, middle-class/upper-class, male position since they are the ones who control American (and global) media. Thus, women, children, homosexuals, foriegners, old people, immigrants, people of color, etc. etc. are generally cast as the "other" or villain in Hollywood films.

Now the sorceress in Tin Man looks a little different from her predecessor:Yep. She's been dominatrixed up for the 21st century. Indeed, even E's Kristen Dos Santos picked up on it in her write-up "Tin Man: Welcome to the O.Z., Bitch!" (C'mon Kristen, do you have to use the B-word?):
Kathleen Robertson's Azkadellia manages to be exquisitely beautiful without sacrificing any of the terrifying that Margaret Hamilton pulled off so well. Think Darth Vader in an S&M corset. Seriously—keep an eye on her cleavage, because this miniseries has some majorly good boob acting.
And it is true Kathleen Robertson's boobs do get to act in this incantation of the Wizard of Oz. Seriously, I wish I was joking.

Aside from Tin Man, the dominatrix as the evil character has been popping up all over the place the last couple of years.

Sienna Miller got to don the vinyl and heels in G.I. Joe to play the villainous Baroness.

Cate Blanchett's character in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is a Russian dominatrix (she is caring a crop whip on her hip, but never rides a horse in the film). Her stereotypical depiction of Russian womanhood actually offended the communist party so much they tried to have the film banned in Russia.Then there is the Disney version of the dominatrix from Enchanted. Now while I can watch Tin Man as an adult and roll my eyes every time I see Kathleen Robertston strapped into another corset, Enchanted was made by Disney for a youthful audience who probably have not studied how film reflects, but more importantly, influences our culture. Thus, they begin to absorb the message that sexual deviance (meaning anything but missionary, monogamous sex with your husband or wife) is evil. Undoubtedly, children's films are usually the most evil when it comes to how they code their villains with all the attributes that are culturally unacceptable to the conservative white men who dominate film production. I will go into this in more in another post since there is so much more to be discussed, but in the meantime think about all the Disney villains you've ever seen and who they culturally represent. Crazy, isn't it.

It is easy to see that with the return of the dominatrix as the cinematic other in recent Hollywood films and television shows that patriarchal fear of kinky sex and powerful women has not diminished one bit (I must confess that I actually have a lot of respect for anyone who can don high heels, wear an outfit completely made out of vinyl and do anything but sweat). Male fear is also now heightened in Tin Man to show how mystical, magical, and confusing boobs are to the male population. So I conclude this post with this ominous message - don't make us mad otherwise we ladies will unleash the full power of our cleavage on society and it won't be pretty. Just think Fembots from Austin Powers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Race, Social Responsibility, and D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms"

This week my colleague Kris (aka WonderYak) and I are talking about D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1918) and its interesting and, possibly, progressive portrayal of race.

R: I wasn't really sure what to expect before I sat down to watch this movie. Birth of a Nation is so racist in its portrayal of "savage" African-Americans that prowled the South after the Civil War looking for young white women to corrupt. It really bugs me. However, in Broken Blossoms, I thought that D.W. Griffith's portrayal of Chinese immigrants was much more sympathetic. Still problematic, but nothing like Birth...

K: I completely agree! In fact, so did many of my students -- almost all who wrote about Broken Blossoms (their other choice was Chaplin's Gold Rush) commented on how it felt like Griffith's penance for Birth... The fact that the villain is a white male, and that almost all white people are portrayed as conniving or cruel or boorish, nearly makes up for the stereotypes that Richard Barthelmess perpetrates as the "Yellow-Faced" Cheng Huan (overly squinted eyes, hunched back, shuffled walk, etc.).

Even Huan's one vice, opium addiction, is portrayed not as something of his own fault, but something forced upon him by Western civilization.

Then there's the fact that the entire narrative is designed to lampoon Western values in general -- "The Orient" is an entirely peaceful, beautiful place in Griffith's recreation; the West is vile and dank. The "chink" comes to spread peace, but even in his earliest attempts (with the "Jackies" at port) he is trampled, both literally and figuratively.

Is Griffith himself trying to claim that he is merely a product of his own broken society?

R: That is an interesting point. D.W. Griffith is from the South and had relatives that fought for the South in the Civil War. Does this excuse his stereotyping of newly-freed African-Americans in Birth... then? And do you think that he could have made a Broken Blossoms-esc film with the same amount of cultural empathy based around the story of an African immigrant?

K: This is all speculative, of course, but I feel Griffith could have made any film he wanted, really. His cinematic creativity was only bound by the narratives he chose to film.

We discussed the idea of "excusing" artists in class. The two main questions I posed were, "can one separate an artist from his or her work?" and "does a filmmaker have a responsibility to be socially conscientious?"

I'd personally say "yes" to the former and "no" to the latter. While I deplore the racism that Griffith perpetrated in his work, I can safely say that I admire his skill and respect his additions to cinematic language. I'd also come to his general defense and say that he had a right to express whatever views he wanted. I think I mentioned this to you, but I am thankful that, for instance, The Westboro Baptist Church exists. What they say makes me want to vomit; but if they weren't allowed to say it, how long would it be before I weren't allowed to say what I felt?

"Does a filmmaker have a responsibility to be socially conscientious?"

A discussion cropped up today w/r/t Buster Keaton's The General. One student was terribly offended by the fact that Keaton used the Civil War as a backdrop for what is essentially a slapstick comedy. "Why," he argued, "use such a terrible event in our history as a playground for antics?" I rebutted that it is because of the shared history, the almost culturally universal understanding of events like War, that they are ripe fodder for art: there is no need for a backstory. It's just there. And then, with Comedy, you get the wonderful underline of tragedy. As love stories are best told against the specter of death, great Comedy is best told in the shallow waters of tragedy.

The same goes for Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds -- yes, he makes light of WWII, but it's only because he used WWII that the film functions. Or Benigni's Life is Beautiful, another film that came up today, with equally contentious debate.

Did Keaton or Tarantino or Benigni act irresponsibly?

Filmmakers, and artists in general, only have a few responsibilities (if one can call them that): to entertain (in the classical, escapist definition of the word); to push boundaries; and/or to inform.

And by push boundaries, I don't mean be purposefully offensive...I just mean try to create something new (or, more specifically, tell us something in a new way). Make it funnier, or more exciting, or sexier, or more scintillating, or more pornographic, or more violent, or emotional, or beautiful, etc., than the last work.

And by entertain, I really just mean create a world the audience can escape to. It might be terribly unpleasant (ala Mysterious Skin) or wondrous (ala Avatar), as long as it's compelling.

So, long midnight ramble made short, Griffith does all of those three things with Birth... therefore, can he really be blamed for the work he created? Does he need to be excused?

And he also did those three things in Broken Blossoms, but with the added bonus of being significantly less offensive (though not entirely).

R: I agree and disagree. I don't believe that artists should censor themselves, but I do believe that they should be conscious of the art that they produce and its impact on society. For instance, if we take Birth of Nation, D.W. Griffith may have just wanted to show a sympathetic portrayal of what happened in the South after the Civil War because he had family that lived through that time and it was, by all accounts, a very difficult period in American history. However, his valorous portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan at that point in history inspired the actual Klan in the 1910s to use the film as a recruitment tool. They used the film to sway new members up until the 1990s by some accounts. His intentions for Birth... may have been very different from the impact that it had on the public, but its impact was widespread and devastating to African-Americans in this country. The film inspired people to commit heinous hate crimes in the name of racial purity.

The other thing that we do in Cultural Studies is look for systematic representations. It is interesting that your student brought up how the backdrop of The General is the South during the Civil War. While there were two sides fighting during the actual war we don't have a lot of filmic representations of the North, but we have a fair amount of the South, epic films at that: Cold Mountain, Gone With the Wind, Raintree County, etc. In fact, going from memory I couldn't think of any film that was from the perspective of the North, but then was reminded that Glory was about the first African-American unit in combat. So if we think about how much we want to empathize with the South in film there is something there that says a lot about our culture and what we value. If you compare this to films about World War II you do not have empathetic portrayals of the Nazi's, unless, like in Valkyre, they are trying to kill Hitler.

On the other hand, if we look at Broken Blossoms and its portrayal of a completely high "Yellow Man", it is harder for me to think of other celluloid characters that are Chinese drug addicts. Now if he magically knew some sort of martial arts then he might fit into a cliched representation that is actively working to warp the popular consciousness of the film-going public. Singularly, "bad" representations of people are not harmful. It is when they are systematic that you have this cultural absorption of grains of "truth" from their repetition. And this isn't on a conscious level. I could go on and on about this, but if interested readers might want to check out my posts on "The Cinematic Other: Dominatrix" and "'Avatar' and How White Men Are the Best at Everything".

The one thing that is systematic about his character is that he is actually a white actor in "Yellowface". This is systematic: Katherine Hepburn did it in Dragon Seed (1944) and Mickey Rooney did it (horribly) in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) amongst others. This also fits into the idea that White Men (and women) Are the Best at Everything, even playing cultural minorities. There is a really great article about this on Racebending.com.

Since there is no way we could ever wrap up this conversation I figured that we might put on our teacher hats and maybe list what questions we would pose to students regarding Broken Blossoms, race, and the social responsibility of artists/filmmakers:
• Do filmmakers/artists have a responsibility to make socially conscious work?
• Can you separate the intent of a film/filmmaker versus the impact of that film on society?
• Can you separate an artist's personal ideology/life from his or her work? (Think Roman Polanski.)
• Is it ever appropriate to use Yellowface/Blackface in a film?
* Is there a "caste" system in film? Meaning do darker colored minorities get treated worse than their lighter-skinned peers?

Other Resources:
Slaying the Dragon. Dir: Deborah Gee. 1988.
"Yellowface: A Story in Pictures" from Racebending.com

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Things I Love: "Female Agents"

I love Les Femmes de L'Ombre (Female Agents). I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival several years ago and cried my way through the opening sequence; war films tend to get the better of me as I think about the real life death and destruction that they are based upon. However, this particular sequence made me tear up for completely different reasons - it was a series of still images from World War II showing women in uniform serving their countries. Yep, I cry when I see images of women in power. It is so unusual on celluloid that it brings out a lot of emotion in me. Strange, I know. But we all have the things that make us descend into waterworks without control.

In Female Agents Sophie Marceau plays Louise Defontaines. The character of Louise is based on the real life of Lisé Marie Jeanette de Baissac Villaneur, a French female agent in the French resistance during World War II. While the screenplay has been sauced up for dramatic effect, Lisé had a dramatic effect on the success of the resistance and Allies before the D-Day invasion. In the film she is the reason for Allied success at Normandy beach as she races with other female spies to keep information about the D-Day invasion a secret from the Germans. In the film she and her crew get to shoot machine guns (cool), blow up buildings (cooler), work in a team of women without getting catty (seriously, it is possible), and generally make the German commander on their tail miserable. At the same time, the women show compassion for one another and fear in the face of danger ultimately making the film a fabulous mix of action and true emotion. The film also stars Julie Depardieu, the daughter of Gérard Depardieu, so it passes the requirement that all French films are held to - that they contain at least one Depardieu.

Now, unlike Avatar, where women ultimately bow to the power that the white male main character has over them, the women in Female Agents do no such thing. When things get rough they band together. When things get even rougher they think of a new plan. There are men in the story, including Louise's brother Claude, but the women and men stand on equal ground and, ultimately, it is up to the women and just the women to save the day.

While I worry that even with my vagueness has given too many spoilers away, I know that not many of you in the U.S. will ever even see this movie. I am not trying to say there is some sort of conspiracy, but there is - Female Agents is only available on PAL (European format) DVDs. However, those of you with the ability to play PAL in the Seattle area (aka you have a computer with a DVD-ROM) can pick it up at Scarecrow video and watch it in all its glory. Its unavailability everywhere else does make me wonder why? why?! WHY! Why is it not available in the U.S.? Do distributors think we do not want war films based on real life events and people? There are so many of those - Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Band of Brothers, The Great Escape, Pearl Harbor, The English Patient, Patton, etc. etc. Do distributors think that we do not want films that re-invision World War II? Can't be that - the masses turned out for Inglorious Basterds this past summer. Hey, but I see a trend in these films! They are all about men and their forays into the field during war. The women, at best, get to be strangled by psychopathic German officers who are based on real people, but most of the time they are just nurses. While nurses do play a vital part in wartime situations isn't it about time that we show images of women in combat gettin' it done. And not like Courage Under Fire where Meg Ryan fights and, just like so many films with women with any sort of agency in them, dies. I mean really gettin' it done. Like being in the mix and living to tell the tale, exerting their full emotional and physical power, and doin' it like we know we can. Seriously. Someone make this film.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Plato is So Gay

"Wow. Those are some gay undertones," states my husband, Geoff, during the first planetarium scene in Rebel Without A Cause. Geoff is not a filmmaker, has never taken a film class, and generally avoids reading too much into media. However, even he is not convinced that Plato is, as he is described by others, just "the youthful innocent."

Quickly Googling for Plato+Gay+"Rebel Without A Cause" produces a myriad of results. Seems Geoff isn't the only one picking up on Plato's vibes. Roger Ebert had this to say about Plato's reaction to the planetarium presentation in Rebel Without A Cause:
"What does he know about man alone?" It is clear now but may have been less visible in 1955 that Plato is gay and has a crush on Jim; at the planetarium, he touches his shoulder caressingly. After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully.

No one brought up the question of Plato's sexuality at "An Afternoon with Stewart Stern" where I, and several lucky others, got to listen to stories of old Hollywood and talk with the screenwriter of Rebel Without A Cause - Stewart Stern. However, Stern did elude to Nicholas Ray having an interest in men. And that Stern was "so naive" about these things when he first started working in the film industry. Indeed, one blogger even went farther with the suggestive sexuality in the film stating:
Sal Mineo—so affecting as the essentially fatherless outcast Plato—later commented that he had portrayed the first gay teenager on film. There are little clues: the photograph of Alan Ladd taped to his locker door, his longing looks at Jim Stark, his disguised declaration of love in the abandoned mansion. Ray was aware of Dean’s bisexuality and encouraged the actor to use it in certain scenes. Dean instructed Mineo, “Look at me the way I look at Natalie,” for their intimate scene in the Getty mansion. It had to be subtle. A Production Code officer had written in a memo to Jack L. Warner on March 22, “It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” In real life Mineo was gay, and it is even rumored that he and Ray (who was bisexual) also had a tryst while filming Rebel.
While those of us who have seen the documentary or read the book The Celluloid Closet don't find any of this particularly shocking, the thing that still bothers me about homosexuality in mainstream film, latent or "out", is how much we like to punish the characters for their alleged transgressions. Here is a quick synopsis of mainstream Hollywood films that have come out in the last twenty years, been acclaimed by the masses and critics, featuring gay, bisexual, transgendered or otherwise "out" main characters and their celluloid fates:
  • The Crying Game. Dir: Neil Jordan. 1992. This one is hard to explain, but trust me when I say that this one does not end on a complete happy note. Dead and depressed.
  • Philadelphia. Dir: Jonathan Demme. 1993. Tom Hanks plays a gay attorney with AIDS who eventually succumbs to his disease. Dead.
  • Boys Don't Cry. Dir: Kimberly Pierce. 1999. Hillary Swank won an Oscar for playing a transgendered man who is shot and killed by his former friends once they learn his secret. Dead.
  • Far From Heaven. Dir: Todd Haynes. 2002. Dennis Qauid finally leaves his wife after revealing that he is gay only to be isolated, alone, and depressed in this contemporary re-make of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Depressed.
  • The Hours. Dir: Stephen Daldry. 2002. This film featured several contemporary "out" characters. One was stuck in a loveless relationship. The other threw himself to his death instead of allowing AIDS to take him. Dead and depressed.
  • Monster. Dir: Patty Jenkins. 2003. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen Wournos, a real-life lesbian/prostitute/serial killer, who is eventually tried and convicted for her crimes and sentence to death by lethal injection. Dead.
  • Brokeback Mountain. Dir: Ang Lee. 2005. Jake Gyllenhaal uttered the classic line "I can't quit you" to Heath Ledger in this story of two cowboys who fall in love with each other. However, eventually Jake Gyllenhaal is viciously murdered by men who learn his secret. Dead and depressed.
  • Transamerica. Dir: Duncan Tucker 2005. Felicity Huffman was robbed of the Oscar for her portrayal of a man transitioning to become a woman and the complications it brings with the discovery that she fathered a child. Alive and pretty much happy!
  • Milk. Dir: Gus Van Sant. 2008. Based on the real story of Harvey Milk who, like his fictional and real peers, is assassinated. Dead.
While there are cult favorites and independent films like But I am a Cheerleader (Dir: Jaime Babbit. 1999) and Kissing Jessica Stein (Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. 2001) that break taboos and allow for more positive gay, bisexual, and transgendered main characters it is almost unheard of in a mainstream or co-opted (small film that gets a lot of Oscar attention) Hollywood films. In fact, the only film that I could think of that has come out in the last twenty years, received mainstream critical and audience acceptance, and featured a character that did not die or end up completely emotionally devastated by the end of the film was Transamerica. This, to me, very clearly articulates an issue with how we feel culturally about LGBTQ men and women in our society - that they do not deserve happiness and acceptance like the heterosexual population. And while their presence has increased and "come out of the closet" since Rebel Without A Cause was released in 1955 they are still meeting the same fate as Plato time and time again - death. This is troubling. I challenge filmmakers large and small to think of better ways to deal with sexualities that break the heteronormativity mold than this disturbing trend of death, depression, and/or emotional destruction. In the meantime I will revel in the campy brilliance of But I am a Cheerleader.

Mad love to Lane, who, one night on a slow film set, helped to create the list of modern films and the fates of their main LGBTQ characters while simultaneously doing a handstand.

Rebel Without A Father

Stewart Stern is full of stories of old Hollywood. He is the nephew of Adolf Zukor, one of the pioneers of Paramount pictures, and cousins with the Loews family that used to control MGM. He told one story about sitting down on a couch at a party in Los Angeles and chatting up a bored Marilyn Monroe then told us about how after "Jimmy" Dean died he (and others close to him) felt haunted by his ghost. He described the Tiffany arboretum that was a part of the Loews mansion in Long Island that also served as inspiration for the mansion at the end of Rebel Without a Cause. He spoke of how his house guest, Beatrice Lillie, was so funny that he had to fake taking a trip to Palm Springs to escape her company because her jokes were so distracting to his work. Where did end up? The Chateau Marmot where he hung out with Dennis Hopper and eventually wrote the script for Rebel after meeting director Nicholas Ray. At 88 he is one of the few people left with such strong ties to old Hollywood. So when I raised my hand to ask my one question at the Northwest Film Forum presentation of "An Afternoon with Stewart Stern" screening I just really hoped that he didn't hit me with his cane, because it would have been like Marlon Brando (who he traveled through Asia with) and the rest of old Hollywood popping me one for making trouble and that would have been a little hard to handle for this film buff.

In America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies the authors use Rebel Without a Cause as an example of how film in the 1950s was full of images of masculinity in crisis: "The lingering effects of World War II and the new corporate economics of the 1950s were changing the social understanding of masculinity" (274). I had heard other readings of this film, but never that it was about a crisis in masculinity that was spurned by the effects of World War II. So, when spending an afternoon with the writer of the film I had to ask the question: "Do you believe that Rebel Without A Cause represents a 'crisis in masculinity' that was culturally present in 1950s America?"

After taking a long pause he replied, "Well, before World War II you always brought women corsages if you were taking them out on a date. After the war you didn't do that any more."

I have never heard someone describe shifting gender roles in such an eloquent way.

Stern stated said that the fathers in the film were influenced by the monotony that the 1950s man encountered as working life and gender roles shifted in the wake of World War II. He said, "They felt like drones. They went to work. They might play cards once a week. But that was it." One audience member put the blame on the masculine crisis on the Rosie-the-Riveter women who, after working the factories while the men were off fighting, continued to challenge gender roles after the end of the war. However, Stern was not so quick to judge stating that after World War II, "Fathers were loosing ground." He also admitted that there was little emotional support for the men returning from combat and that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a part of society, but not dealt with in a public forum. This undercurrent of emotion from wartime experiences were causing men to display feelings that, before the war, were traditionally "bottled up" and masculinity started to crack under the psychological pressure.

The display of masculinity in crisis embodied in Rebel in the character of Jim's father Frank Stark, played by Jim Backus. In one scene Frank drops a tray of food that he is taking his wife as Jim, James Dean's character, walks up the stairs. Frank is dressed in a gray suit with a flowery apron on which allegedly belongs to his wife. Jim is horrified to see his father on the floor and yells at him "Don't!" When Frank looks confused as to what Jim is referring to, Jim slinks off to his room upset at his father's emasculation at the hands of his overbearing mother. In fact, Stern hinted that the cold bottle of milk that Jim drinks throughout the film upon returning home is supposed to represent his mother - cold, ineffectual.

In fact, Jim's entire rebellion can be traced back to his feelings towards his "inadequate" father. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, Jim tells the juvenile detective that "She eats him alive and he just takes it." And later: "If he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy, and she'd stop picking on him." Hinting that want he wants out of his father is the traditional role model of violent patriarchy and, in fact, that his mother might like that. In fact, the detective puts Jim into his place after he takes a swing, asserting his own place as an appropriate male role model through physical combat. Towards the end of the film, since Jim does not respect his father as a role model, he returns to the police station to try and find the detective to share his problems with. However, he is let down when he finds out that the detective is not there.

Stern said that to do background research to write the film, he spent several months shadowing a real juvenile detective. Much of the background for the main characters - Jim, Judy, and Plato - came out of this experience. In fact, Stern actually noted in his journal that one of the real-life inspirations was "In his mind searching for a father image..." But it was something that he could not find. True, neither Jim, Judy, or Plato could find the type of father figure that they wanted so they created their own family briefly in the abandoned mansion. So while the film is called Rebel Without A Cause, the truth is that the characters are actually rebelling against the oldest reason in the book - their fathers - and the fear of changing masculinity that they represent to 1950s America.