Why I Write | A Manifesto

I haven’t been writing much lately. Strike that. I have been writing. Emails. Tweets. Shopping lists. My job in social media requires that I write about 1500 words of content a day – I fire out aphorisms and axioms, trade in puns and something passing for wit, and publish reams of writing for an audience of over a million people with the click of a return key.

But it’s anonymous, and though not meaningless, it’s weightless when compared with the long-form, lyrical and lasting type of writing to which I aspire. It doesn’t carry the gravitas I crave, or the recognition that bylines and names on book spines bring with them.

Creatively, I feel spent. I’ve barely strung a sentence together in months. Good intentions have become best-laid plans and projects undertaken sit unfinished and gathering whatever the digital equivalent of dust is.

So this a reminder of why I write. Why I want to write. What I seek when I write. What I hope to accomplish with it.

The writing stalemate has occurred because I have found and erected barriers. I have found the time, but not known where to begin. I have perpetuated deceptions that writing ought to be devoured and digested and dissected or commissioned and requested to be completed. That writing without a purpose, or an endgame isn’t writing at all.

So this manifesto is an indulgence. It’s just for me. It’s going to be unapologetic and an unforgivable exercise in navel-gazing. And perhaps because I’m publishing it on my blog and promoting it on social media, it’s self-defeating and hypocritical.

But right now, in this moment, I’m writing it to write again. I’m writing it for me. 

***

For a few months now, I’ve been looking for permission and payment, rather than revelling in the process and pleasure of writing. I have been pitching and peddling. Squeezing ideas into captivating titles and condensing the sheer wilderness of writing – its limitlessness, go-anywhere-ness, its John-Cusack-holding-a-boombox-atop-his-head-say-anything-ness – into a cage, a count and the conciliation of contribution. And I have taken rejections as an excuse not to.

They’re not letting me. I don’t have anything to write.

That has put pin in pen many times.

But writing doesn’t always have to be a contribution. It shouldn’t have to make up a larger tapestry, or a thematic exploration. It can be an expression of a fleeting thought. It can exist in the here and now and be just because.

It’s thrilling to see words you have written accepted and published by someone else. You’ve been admitted to a club, you have a surpassed a gatekeeper. You are good enough. This time. I write for acceptance and accomplishment and attention. Sometimes. I write because I can. Because I can do it well. And people say so. But people also say no, so it can’t be the only reason. Writing exists well before its destination, so you have to find a reason to go on that journey.

***

I write because I think. I write to exist. Because it matters to me, perhaps more than it should, to be remembered. I write because sometimes it pours out of me like hot coffee from a cafetiere and because in those moments I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Writing is both salve and chasm.

In this wearisome and whelming age, writing is curative. It is a slowing down and pausing to think. It’s the breath you take between each stroke swam.

I was reading an article in The Times written by Laura Freeman on literature as meditation. She writes,

We live in a mindful age where meditation is promised as the cure to all our Insta-ills….The problem is not that we are exhausted by a rushing world. Many of us are under-stimulated by days spent poring over emails and Excel, and then over-stimulated by nights full of twittering screens. What we lack isn’t silence, it’s sustenance. Something for starved imaginations to feast on.”

To read good writing is a joy unparalleled. It is an Eden. A quieting of aches and afflictions. A broadening of mind. A burrow of warmth and safety. A sublime expanse of scenery from the comfort of a sofa. It’s shaking your head in astonishment and nodding in agreement.  

I write to be that good. To give back what I’ve taken.

I write because writers are my heroes. (Call that a God-complex or ‘big dick energy’ but it’s the truth). I write because its my aspiration to be an inspiration.

I write because on the invite list to my fantasy dinner party there would be Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Annie Proulx, Maggie Nelson, Richard Yates, Sarah Manguso, Nora Ephron, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Simone De Beauvoir, Daniel Woodrell, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Moss.

I write to be invited to fantasy dinner parties.

I write to be seen and heard.

My writing says, in between all its jammed in adjectives and compound sentences,  I am here, I am alive.

***

But within writing lies the possibility to be misunderstood. To be heard and not listened to. To be seen, but ill-framed. To be judged. And harshly so. To be rendered more invisible by having written in the first place. Writing can create a fissure, a cleft, a canyon. It can put colour to an idea, but if you think something is blue and someone else reads it as green, writing can be divisive.

There is beauty in that. Writing is chromatic and contradictory and if we all saw things the same way wouldn’t life be boring? Etc etc.

But there is risk in writing. It’s like saying I love you for the first time. It’s a feeling inside of you that needs to come out, that only in verbalising and iterating and claiming can it feel true and only in the saying of it can you expect reciprocation. Silent I love yous are always regretted. There is joy in being declarative and decisive. Only then can you hear the words I feel that too. I think that too. I love you too. And yet…

And yet and yet and yet and yet

This is a chorus that threatens to drown out many dreams. In between every verse of victory, in doing something you feel proud of, there is this.

And yet, it could go wrong. And yet, they might not feel the same.

The I love you can linger in the air, unreturned and the silence of being unloved in that moment is bruising, deafening, squalid.

Writing that is misread feels the same.

In many academic essays I had the phrase I’m not sure what you are trying to say here scrawled in red next to a brutally dense and ambitious paragraph that contained so much but probably said very little. And yet every time I saw it I felt sick. I felt like crying.

I write for clarity. And I had been ambiguous. Or at least, and I often felt this at university, I had expressed something in the way I wanted to, but not in the way it was meant to be written. Meant as in according to marking guidelines and academic architecture. Rubrics and frameworks and and fretworks I had failed to exist within and comply with.

There is a profile in The New York Times that recently came out, written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the frankly, phenomenal Jonathan Franzen.

“He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world…Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.

And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five….people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. “

Writing can skate a thin line. Writing is both salve and chasm.

***

I write to give purpose and structure to a day. To put reins on an imagination that has only ever known how to run wild. It soothes the sensation that a wordless day, albeit a lived one, is a wasted day.

“How was your day?”, my housemate (and so much more, this label is a callous précis of her true function to my sanity) always remembers to ask.

“Good. I got some writing done” comes the all too scarce reply.

But that’s my definition of good. Of productive. Of fulfilling. I am content with a day that produces a handful of sentences, a cluster of prose that contains within in it the power to placate. I write to humour myself. To be able to tell myself I did something honest and worthwhile. Whether it becomes that remains to be seen.

My writing is a work in a progress. Just as I am. But it’s the only construction I want to devote myself to (right now). It is my Sagrada Família.

I write to learn. I write to self-improve.

Therein lies the issue with writing – it’s a lonely pursuit. And a selfish one. You can write to be read and you can write for an audience – therein lies its nobility and magnanimity – but its presumptive to be writing that way.

I currently do not have the privilege (though I possess a lot of others) of assuming that my work will be read, so to write for those reasons is futile.

I write for myself. I have to.

And so it’s self-centred. An exercise in narcissism. I spend hours a day forming thoughts and thinking they’re special enough to be documented. What a life the writer’s life is! You lock yourself away, retreat, scarper from family suppers and make excuses not attend social gatherings because you have to write. And it’s a discipline. To commit to it is to turn down other adventures and pleasures. To devote yourself to you and the words you want to say. You can’t be a writer without having written something.

This is a quandary that plagues me. I can’t call myself a writer. Perhaps I should. But it feels disingenuous.

What have you written? People would ask.

I wouldn’t be able to name something they had read. So although I don’t write to be read, you have to be read to be a writer. At least that’s how it feels. Those are the rules of the game.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t write to be writer. That’s the ambition. But in the meantime, whilst it doesn’t compel a salary and serves only as a side-hustle, I write to tell stories. In order to live. I write to live my best life.

***

I write because it’s my jam. And bread and butter (though we established not in the monetary meaning; it brings all the insides together.) It’s chicken soup in the miserable midst of a cold or a cup of tea on the top of a snow-capped mountain. It’s the first robin spotted on the cusp of winter. It’s a pair of jeans that slide on like a dream and caress your hips but don’t gape at the waist. It’s getting a text back you’ve been pining for. It’s a new kitten. It’s blowing out candles on a birthday cake to the symphony of gathered friends commemorating you. It’s feeling the sun on your back as if thawing your spine. It’s falling asleep in a park and having nowhere to be. It’s waking up in the morning to absence of alarm. It’s a bowling strike. It’s a penalty scored. It’s a home run. It’s an impetuous, top-of-your-lungs-windows-down-sing-song in the car. It’s the first lick of an ice cream, the smoothness a surprise for your tongue. It’s making the last train home, panting with irrepressible relief that your legs had the strength to see you through. It’s the cat with the hearts in his eyes emoji. It’s a gifted book with a note written on the first page.

It’s being told I love you too.

It is nourishment and reprieve. It is both palliative and restorative.

I write because it’s hard and they say anything worth doing is.

I write because it makes me happy.

***

“I write to give my life a form, a narrative, a chronology; and, for good measure, I seal loose ends with cadenced prose and add glitter where I know things were quite lusterless. I write to reach out to the real world, though I know that I write to stay away from a world that is still too real and never as provisional or ambivalent as I’d like it to be.”

55772ac69399217d87faa2de3222ae39.jpg– André Aciman, The New York Times

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. “

– Susan Sontag, The New York Times

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

– Joan Didion, The New York Times

“Groping through the dark is, in large part, what writing consists of anyway. Working through and feeling around the shadows of an idea. Getting pricked. Cursing purity. Threshing out. Scuffing up and peeling away. Feral rearranging. Letting form ferment. Letting form pass through you…Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases.”

– Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood

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The Second Coming: Why women filmmakers struggle to get their second features made

N.B. This is a raw, unedited and extended version of an essay originally published in Another Gaze.

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The main point of contention in the much-deliberated issue of gender representation across the cinematic landscape isn’t the existence of the woman director. Certainly, they constitute a paltry percentage of the filmmaking enterprise – in 2016, just 7% of the top 250 films were directed by a woman – (I take umbrage with ‘top’ and the fact that our economic measurement of a film’s success is a gendered and patriarchal system, not designed to serve the female population. More on which later) – nevertheless, they are there. Behold: Varda and DuVernay, Coppola and Campion, Reichardt and Ramsay, Scherfig and Shelton, Holland and Hansen-Løve. (I’ve excluded their first names à la Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese, with the same ritualistic reverence we use to refer to male directors).

The central issue is that their visibility and ascendancy continues to be hampered by outmoded systems of thought surrounding the capabilities of women directors and the commercial viability of the films they create. This is most apparent when said woman director is cultivating her second film: the time between her debut and sophomore films is recurrently longer, and one assumes more onerous, than that of her male directing counterparts.

When looking at the dramatic feature programming of recent Sundance Film Festivals, it becomes clear that this is down to more than just coincidence. It’s an insidious bias that threatens to derail female filmmakers that have already had to fight hard enough to have their voices heard. A nerve-centre for new talent, Sundance is continually above the industry standard when it comes to programming and premiering the work of women directors. In reference to the 2018 edition of the festival, a recent blog post of theirs reported

‘Of the 122 feature films premiering at Sundance, 37% are directed by women, markedly ahead of the mainstream industry.’

Notably, this figure is still below gender parity. Despite its progressive ethos, Sundance is indicative of a wider industry trend that requires women directors to prove themselves innumerably before gaining the same level of trust and opportunities bestowed upon their male peers. Women consistently have to fight harder to have their second feature made, even following an initial success. Men are less likely to suffer this fate.

Colin Trevorrow, whose debut feature Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at Sundance in 2012, went on to direct the $1.67 billion grossing Jurassic World a mere three years laterand Marc Webb, who premiered 500 Days of Summer at the 2009 Sundance Festival and three years later was helming the $758 million grossing The Amazing Spider-Man, are the poster boys for this proclivity. This rarely happens to women. The closest comparison is to Patty Jenkins whose record-breaking Wonder Woman took the world by storm last year.But her feature debut was in 2003, nearly a decade and a half earlier, with Monster. In fact, last year The Hollywood Reporter published a statistic, as discovered by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, that 80% of women directors made just 1 film in 10 years.

Spotlighting two directors who experienced enormous acclaim at this year’s Sundance; Sara Colangelo with The Kindergarten Teacher and Desiree Akhavan with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it becomes startlingly transparent how deep-seated and many-tentacled our bias towards women is.

***

Little Accidents tells the story of a coal mining town and the secrets it harbours. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo (another trend: women directors are far more likely to have penned the material they direct in what is perhaps a circumnavigation of sparser employment opportunities), this sombre, slow-burning drama (shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) opened at Sundance 2014 to hype galore. Coverage in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Variety, IndieWire, Paste Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter followed, with the latter even predicting that her “compelling debut bodes very well for Colangelo”. Yet, a second feature did not materialise. Another filmmaker that had their directorial debut premier at Sundance in 2014 was Damian Chazelle, who name is undoubtedly more familiar. After Whiplash, he near-conquered the Oscars with La La Land, where he scooped Best Director, though memorably not Best Picture, and is currently filming a biopic about Neil Armstrong. One could surmise that Chazelle is more talented and thus more deserving of the opportunities he’s been given. But this isn’t a fluke: it’s an archetype.

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In the 2014 US Dramatic Competition program, there were twelve male directors to four women directors. Of the women directors who debuted films, Maya Forbes with Infinitely Polar Bear, Mona Fastvold with The Sleepwalker, and Kate Barker-Froyland with Song One, only Forbes has gone on to direct her second feature, a little-known comedy called The Polka King. But Jeff Baena, who debuted Life After Beth, has since gone on to direct Joshy and The Little Hours, whilst Joe Swanberg, whose Happy Christmas was his follow-up to the mumblecore sensation Drinking Buddies, has gone on to direct Digging For Fire, Win It All and the Netflix series Easy. And of course, I’ve mentioned what happened to Damian Chazelle.

***

The New York Times published an article in 2017 exploring the aftermath of Sundance for its hotly-tipped directorial darlings, not all of whom can score headline-making distribution deals and Oscar buzz, and who instead face an employment wasteland. Sara Colangelo is one of the directors featured in the piece, in which the ratio of women to men is 2:1. Describing the struggle that is finding continuous work in the film industry, Colangelo reveals she has since directed corporate videos, and after Little Accidents picked up an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Screenplay, landed “a few writer-for-hire jobs, polishing other people’s work”. Colangelo remarks that she saw many other Sundance alumni advance, the majority of whom were men.

It could be that the genre and terrain of Colangelo’s Little Accidents is what stalled the continuation of her career. At times relentlessly downbeat, though always tender, it tackles poverty, tragedy and hopelessness in Rust Belt America. The same kind of gothic, gloomy Americana that pulsated throughout Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (who coincidentally returned to Sundance 2018 with Leave No Trace, after an eight-year hiatus) and doesn’t usually tend to draw crowds. However, when men tackle this topic it doesn’t appear to be a barrier to future employment. Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, both solemn and sensitive in their depictions of small-town America, has gone on to direct Black Mass and the recently released Hostiles. David Lowery beguiled Sundance with his slow-burn outlaw drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in 2013. By 2016 he was directing the multi-million dollar family film Pete’s Dragon, and in 2017 he returned with the critically-acclaimed A Ghost Story. He’s recently finished production on his next feature, starring the founder of Sundance himself, Robert Redford, and is attached to direct Disney’s live-action remake of Peter Pan. His quiet, gritty, backwater drama didn’t stymie his success at all.

Is it that women experience genre, as well as gender bias? In daring to enter a forbidden realm of bruised masculinity, dangerous machinery and economic austerity, Colangelo took on a traditionally male subject matter. In a 2016 British Film Institute study on ‘Genre and Classification’, box office revenues were broken down by genre to classify which are the most popular. Of the 16 defined genres, action, animation and sci-fi elicited the most revenue, and in 14 of the categories the top performing titles were directed by men. Typically films about superheroes, wars, riots, conflict, sporting legends, scientific exploration, historical events and biographical dramas are the terrain of male directors (making this year’s Mudbound and Detroit all the more special), whilst women are confined to more emotional, internal narratives. In making a gothic-crime-drama-thriller hybrid, Sara Colangelo deviated from the industry’s expectations of what a woman-directed film looks like, and thus made herself and her film hard to categorise.

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Categorisation is also an issue that affected Desiree Akhavan, writer, director and star of 2015’s Appropriate Behaviour (which premiered the same year as Little Accidents in Sundance’s ‘Next’ strand)and the US Grand Jury Prize-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, at this year’s Sundance. Even though Appropriate Behaviour is a dramedy exploring female sexuality and identity, and therefore well within the sphere of suitable material for a woman director, the reception of Akhavan’s film can be seen as indicative of a tendency to situate women in relation to other women filmmakers, to compare and label them, instating something like a ‘one at a time’ rule. Appropriate Behaviour offers a candid portrait of sex and relationships and following Akhavan’s guest-role in Girls, the press repeatedly referred to her as “the next Lena Dunham”.

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Speaking in conversation with BAFTA after the film’s release, Akhavan affirmed “No one ever looks at Alex Ross Perry and says ‘Oh look, another Noah Baumbach’.” Men are allowed to be unicorns, whereas women are seen as copycats, simulacra of women directors past. If her second feature were to bear a passing resemblance to something else currently in development by another woman director who is also making raunchy comedies, you can imagine the blowback. Yet there’s barely an eyelid bat when Bennett Miller and Douglas McGrath make Capote biopics within a year of each other. Last year an article in IndieWire proclaimed that Akhavan avoided “the second-film slump” by charting her own path and turning down the conventional, sub-par parodies that Hollywood were sending her. She admits,

“I could have made a second feature much earlier, it just would have sucked and I wouldn’t have made a third one…I was being sent scripts that were really big-budget, shittier versions of the film I had already made.”

The problem with this type of thinking is that it perpetuates the idea that Hollywood isn’t for women: that the only way to achieve cinematic success is to chisel a new path to it. This is not a requirement for male directors. It recalls the way we tell women to avert predatory glances and behaviours, without reproaching the patriarchy and its structures for producing this type of behaviour in the first place. It puts the onus on those with less power to force the hands of those with it.

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Getting your first feature made is hard enough: it requires persistence, persuasiveness, and a production company willing to take you on. But women directors must repeatedly jump through the ‘first feature’ hurdle, whereas for male directors one directorial outing is enough to bolster the confidence and secure the funding of financiers and executive producers.

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When production companies are looking for writers and directors to champion, they’re taking a chance on somebody that they must prove to financiers and investors to be worthwhile. The project must be quantified. And in order to do that, they look at a person’s credits and often, how much money their films recouped at the box office. Women, statistically more likely to direct lower budget films, are immediately disadvantaged by this fiscally-focused operation. Consequently, women directors are suggested for fewer projects. When they come to make their films the same pattern is repeated in the securing of distribution: once again a team of buyers and marketers assess whether the film will make them any money. A research study published by the Sundance Institute in 2015 outlined that movies with a woman director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than woman-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach. And so the vicious circle of invisibility continues.

This point is made illustratively and defiantly by Brit Marling, herself a Sundance alumni, in an essay for The Atlantic on ‘Weinstein and the Economics of Consent’. It comes down to this: “Men hold most of the world’s wealth” and that results in women seeking approval and finance from predominantly male gatekeepers who inherently believe woman-directed pictures don’t make money and are therefore a gamble, a risk, a no-go.

Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher has no less than 47 people credited as executive, associate or co-producers, demonstrative of the technical and financial Tetris required for this project to come together. And more often than not, woman-directed projects are born of women producers, who make it their life’s work to advocate and spotlight underrepresented voices. Celine Rattray who is one of the producers of The Kindergarten Teacher, has also produced Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright, and executive produced Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. And whilst there are more women producers than directors working today, (of the top 100 grossing films of 2017 women represented 8% of directors and 24% of producers), the percentage is still significantly below equivalence. If directors are relying on their support and sanction for employment, the trickle-down effect is clear.

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Stephen Follows published a comprehensive report of gender inequality in the UK film industry in 2016, and concluded that gender imbalance is primarily due to an unconscious bias. There’s a detrimental expectation that woman-directed films will underperform, both in terms of popularity and profitability. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway recently admitted her own unconscious bias against director Lone Scherfig on the set of One Day. In Vanity Fair she confessed:

“I am to this day scared that the reason I didn’t trust her the way I trust other directors is because she’s a woman….I’m so scared that I treated her with internalized misogyny…or I was resisting her on some level.”

It’s not just Anne. As a culture with a critical eye, we seem to focus on a woman’s shortcomings and consider them definitive, in a way that we don’t when it comes to assessing a man’s work. Alice Lowe, the director/writer/actress behind last year’s Prevenge, hypothesised in a conversation with Another Gaze, that “people are waiting for women directors to slip up. Whereas when a male director makes a dud it’s like, ‘Oh well, I’m really excited about what he’s going to do next!’” Society has conditioned us to believe that women do not belong behind the camera and the undoing of this harmful stereotype is still in its embryonic stages.

The pressure on women directors is intense and I am just as guilty of harbouring this double-standard. Upon hearing the results of the Sundance awards, I felt relieved. Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the US Grand Jury Prize, whilst Sara Colangelo took home the Directing Award. These women had prevailed! They had proved themselves once more! It was a glimmer of hope, a signal that their careers might stretch far beyond a second feature. Perhaps even a third or fourth or fifth! Men are allowed to be mediocre, but in order to succeed women have to be consistently brilliant. And because of this ludicrous expectation, whenever a woman’s debut feature doesn’t top every best film list, or triumph in the ratings, or get nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (à la Greta Gerwig – although one is wholly deserved), the clamour and endorsement around her subsides. We think very little of the fact that we might not hear from her again for another five years, and that something about that inequity isn’t deeply, deeply wrong.

***

Remakes are popular subjects for filmmaking because there is a precedent for their success. Women filmmakers are still in the process of creating their precedents. Historically and economically they are at a disadvantage, and a risk-averse industry doesn’t tend to put their eggs in a basket woven out of new or ‘untested’ material. And then, even when they have been tested, their success is deemed a fluke, unlikely to be repeated, unable to be counted upon. Ultimately, women directors need representation, legitimacy and capitalisation. The longer the industry lauds their debuts without creating a structure or framework that sustains their employment, the longer it will continue to fail at redressing the gender imbalance. Creating new conventions that make women filmmakers a fixed part of the industry, not anomalies, tokens, or precariously mounted emblems of a change to come, is the key to establishing a cinema of equality.

And Best Supporting Actress goes to…a woman of colour. Hollywood’s diversity problem as reflected by this awards season

As the red carpet is rolled out, and awards season rolls around once more, the question on everyone’s lips is will #OscarsSoWhite become a thing of the past? Has Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ initiative to make the Academy of voters more inclusive worked? Or will they be doomed to repeat the hegemonic mistakes of 2016? 

It doesn’t look that way. Already IndieWire have reported that several films boasting racially diverse casts and crews are battling it out for Oscar inclusion and will inevitably disrupt the status quo. However, before we wax lyrical about Hollywood’s newfound commitment to diversity, there’s another worrying trend that has caught my attention….

As campaigns gain momentum and various nominations are revealed – both the Golden Globes and the SAGs were announced this week – one thing particularly struck me. If you take a look at the four main acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), across the predominant awards announced or decided thus far (Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice, Indie Spirit Awards; the Oscars have yet to be announced), diversity is far less of an issue in the Supporting arena than it is in the Leading one.

The main Best Actor contenders this year are as follows:

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea 
  • Joel Edgerton – Loving
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Tom Hanks – Sully
  • Denzel Washington – Fences
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington is also a bit of a misnomer because he’s transcended the typical risk-aversiveness to black actors by securing a status of bankability.

The main Best Actress contenders this year are as follows:

  • Amy Adams – Arrival
  • Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Emily Blunt – The Girl on the Train (an SAG anomaly, not really a contender, to put it, well, bluntly).
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Represented across these two categories you have 2 people of colour out of 15, so roughly 13%.

The main Best Supporting Actor contenders are: 

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges –  Hell or High Water
  • Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon  – Nocturnal Animals
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
  • Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins

And finally, for Best Supporting Actress we have: 

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Whereas in the supporting category you have 6 out of 15, where the percentage increases to 40%. This trend is particularly prominent in the Best Supporting Actress category, where out of 7 contenders, 4 are black women.

If we were to rewind and take a whistle-stop tour of the Academy Awards from it’s inception, this trend is repeatedly confirmed. That is, that women of colour are far more likely to be nominated, and to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar than they are a Leading Actress one.

And even then, the odds are unfavourably stacked.

Hattie MacDaniel was the first black woman to win Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. It then took 51 years until the next: Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990. Another 16 years passed before Jennifer Hudson took home the gong for Dreamgirls.

To keep things recent, if we look at the period between 2000 and 2016, there’s been a comparative flurry of wins and nominations for women of colour in this category:

  • Lupita N’yongo won in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave
  • Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for The Help
  • Mo’Nique won in 2009 for Precious
  • In 2008, both Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button respectively.
  • Ruby Dee was nominated in 2007 for American Gangster
  • Jennifer Hudson won in 2006 for Dreamgirls
  • Sophie Okonedo was nominated in 2004 for Hotel Rwanda
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated in 2003 for House of Sand and Fog
  • Queen Latifah was nominated in 2002 for Chicago

Whereas in the Leading Actress category Halle Berry remains the first and only woman of colour to have accepted the award, for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2001.

There have been a handful of nominations through the same period:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated in 2012 for Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Viola Davis was nominated for The Help in 2011
  • Gabourey Sidibe nominated for Precious in 2009
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated in 2004 for Maria Full of Grace
  • Salma Hayek was nominated for Frida in 2002.

But the success rate is paltry when compared with Supporting Actress. Indeed, black actresses are 5 times more likely to win Best Supporting, than Best Leading Actress. And if that doesn’t hit home hard enough, a brilliant chart released by TIME last year visualises the scarcity of nominations at the Oscars for actors of colour. It’s a veritable sea of whiteness (or in this case yellow dots, which stand for white actors nominated).

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And this year looks to be no different. Despite attention being given to Ruth Negga for her performance in Loving, as well as the ensemble casts of Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, odds are on Natalie Portman or Emma Stone to walk away with the Oscar.

The SAG nominations released on Wednesday saw three women of colour nominated in the supporting role category; Naomie Harris as a crack addicted mother in Moonlight is joined by two other black actresses (Fences‘ Viola Davis and Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer), marking the first time women of colour have been nominated in the majority.

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N.B. Entertainment Weekly incorrectly reported that this also happened at the 15th SAG Awards in 2009 where Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Penelope Cruz were all nominated, alongside Kate Winslet and Amy Adams. However Cruz is Spanish and therefore considered White, not Hispanic.

It’s a highly competitive category, but my money’s on Davis, Harris or Williams to win, once again placing the chances of a woman of colour securing a highly prestigious award with Best Supporting, rather than Leading. Which might seem like the epitome of a #FirstWorldProblem. ‘Oh no, you get to wear a beautiful dress and Hollywood applauds you whilst you pick up a shiny gold man and thank everyone you know in front of the entire world. Poor you’. Right? Except this trend speaks to a wider issue within the industry, and that’s the vitiation or peripheralization of women of colour in film.

So why is that? It can’t be coincidence that ethnic female actresses are more likely to get nominated in the supporting category. And you’d be right. It’s not coincidental. At risk of sounding like the chorus of Greased Lightning, it’s epidemic, systematic, bureaucratic and quite frankly racist. The issue is far more deep-rooted than governing bodies such as HFPA, AMPAAS and SAG-AFTRA are simply more willing to recognise women of colour in supporting than leading roles. It’s that the leading roles don’t exist in the first place for them to be recognised.

Viola Davis has spoken out about the relegation of black actresses to marginalised roles. She believes that there’s “a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles” which young white actresses can look up to. “You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls.”

Indeed, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University report examined the 100 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2015, noting the ethnic and gender makeup of 2,500 characters. Executive director Dr Martha M Lauzen found that women made up just 22% of key players, up from 12 per cent in 2014. The proportion of female characters was the highest since records began in 2002, when the previous best figure of 18% was posted.

The same upwards trend wasn’t discovered for female actors of colour, however. The survey found their representation in top Hollywood films was largely unchanged compared with 2014: 27% of leading female characters and 13% of all female characters were identified as being from ethnic-minority backgrounds in this year’s report.

If the representation isn’t there, then the critical reception and subsequent awards recognition simply can’t be.

As a report for The Economist delineates,

For most of the past 15 years, the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins…. The view behind the scenes is perhaps more revealing. Blacks really are much more under-represented in the director’s chair, where they account for 6% of directors of the top 600 films, according to the Annenberg study. Black women are nearly nonexistent there (two of the 600, Ava DuVernay being one).

If consumers want their films to reflect the society in which they live—as they do their parliaments and executive boards—it is these areas that must see improvement.

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However, the representational issue is largely an economic one.

Studios, ultimately, hold the financial power to greenlight which movies get made and which don’t, and sadly they’re the crux of the issue when it comes to Hollywood’s homogeneity problem. Because believe it or not, most of the Hollywood’s top dogs and studio executives are white men. If you want to click through a depressingly honest slide-show that evidences this fact, be my guest. And in a very insightful breakdown of who has ‘greenlighting power’, The Wrap illuminates the fact that aside from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, the top leaders of the 10 biggest movie studios in the world are white. And two are women. (Though this was published in 2013, so the dynamics might have shifted slightly…but you can guess where the majority still remains).

Martha Lauzen agrees that we’ll “see greater diversity on-screen when we see greater diversity behind the scenes”.  It’s a problem that needs solving from the inside out. But herein lies the obstacle. Studios don’t like when there’s not a precedent for something. They like reliability. They like established fan bases. They love franchises.  And there isn’t a precedent for all-black movies with a plethora of roles for women of colour, because this be America y’all and if the election of Trump taught us anything it’s that the US is profoundly sexist and racist, and so the likelihood of those kinds of movies getting made isn’t just slim, it’s anorexic.

The average production budget of a studio film is between $50M and $100M, on top of which there are marketing costs, which is a hella zeroes. Hence why studios are overwhelmingly reluctant and hesitant when it comes to backing films, especially when they’re new and innovative and don’t possess that all-important template for success. Hence why they prefer to pump their money into Transformers 9 and Mission Impossible 7.

Don Cheadle spoke candidly to Robbie Collin for The Telegraph in promotion of his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, in which he laid bare the realities of film financing and the risk-averse (read: mainstream, read: white) nature of the industry;

Problem one was finding people to fund an unusual jazz biopic with a black lead character. As Cheadle says, “Everyone but everyone wanted to be the second person to say yes.” In the end, he had to chip in an undisclosed sum himself.

“It was a chunk,” he says, wadding up the last word like papier-mâché in his mouth. “Biggest investment of my life, no question”.

Similarly, Viola Davis and Tom Hanks in their ‘Actors on Actors’ interview for Variety confirm that a racially diverse cast, or indeed a predominantly black cast, does not yet equal ‘commercial success’ in Hollywood and as ever, ethics comes second to economics. (Now would be the point I’d trot out my Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery to win the American Civil War, not because he was a moral crusader argument, but that’s another essay).

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“I’m used to playing housewives and maids and crack-heads…if it is a black movie, at best it’s a biopic”, says Davis on Hollywood’s diversity problem. Writers, casting directors and studios are still confined to stereotypes, generalisations and broad-strokes when it comes to characters of ethnic backgrounds. The nuances and realities are simply not there.

Hanks goes on to confirm “a film has to play overseas to make its investment back…it becomes a barrier to [diversity]”.

This filters back to the Oscars, because, you guessed it, those campaigns cost money. Earlier this year, AdWeek reported that according to conservative estimates, anywhere from $3 million to more than $10 million is invested to lobby academy voters on behalf of the Best Picture nominees alone”. Ultimately, this means that films being distributed by bigger studios (Paramount, the Weinstein Co., Universal) are more likely to get their players in the game, because they have the cash to splash. Certainly independent studios and outfits are starting to penetrate that elite circle and films with smaller budgets are increasingly earning wider audiences, as proved at the 2016 Oscars when Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, A24’s Room and Open Road’s Spotlight landed a combined 13 Academy Award nominations. But, look at the casts of those films – not a single one contains a minor role, let alone a leading one for women of colour.

The obstacles to racial equality in cinema are monumental and whilst this means we must celebrate every nomination a female actress from an ethnic background achieves, we must also be careful to vindicate this year as a ‘sea-change’. It might be a turning point, but it’s only a starting point.

Without trying to minimise the achievement that is earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination, we shouldn’t consider this ‘job done’ and think that one year where an awards season is more reflective of diverse talent pool signifies the end point for this conversation. Just because there’s no hashtag, doesn’t mean the debate has died. Women of colour are capable of more than supporting, and enabling their white co-stars. They should be elevated to the title of leading actress wherever possible and given the platform and support that increases their visibility, both during awards season and in general. They have stories of their own to tell, and the film industry needs to do better at sourcing, producing and green-lighting those stories.

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So yes, based on last year, awards season has become a picture of progressiveness. But that wasn’t exactly difficult. The Oscars literally left a blank, stark white canvas beckoning to be coloured. The issue here is that recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category is still a marginalisation of sorts. For women in general, who are more often than not circumscribed by ancillary characters. And for women of colour, who are still usurped by the ruling class, who must watch as their white female peers get nominated once again for Leading Actress, whilst they settle for the next best thing. Sure, Best Supporting Actress is a pretty fancy consolation prize. But bottom bunk is still bottom bunk.

The 2016 US Election

No doubt you’ve read masses of think-pieces, polemics and rallying war-cries over the past couple of days in reaction to the news that Donald Trump is to become the 45th President of the United States. I can’t promise to add anything new to the debate, but here are my thoughts regardless…

Bleary, and somewhat teary-eyed on Wednesday morning, I, like most of the world, digested the result of the US election. Republican candidate Donald Trump had surpassed expectation and secured the necessary 270 electoral votes required to make him President-elect, beating Democratic nominee, and predicted winner Hillary Clinton. After a farcical, grotesque and malicious campaign, this was the outcome many of us had dreaded most. It did not make the past 18 months worthwhile. It did not allow us to breathe a collective sigh of relief, comforted by the fact that logic and decency had prevailed. Instead, it inspired fear in the hearts of those whom have been the target of his bigoted rhetoric, those who have been appalled and frightened by his misogynist behaviour and those who saw in him the worst of humankind.

It inspired fear in the hearts of those whom have been the target of his bigoted rhetoric

Donald Trump is greed and ignorance and prejudice combined and now we must look to him as the voice of reason and guidance. I’m not one for melodrama, but this is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. Here’s why:

Watching Hillary Clinton’s unbelievably composed and gracious concession speech on Wednesday afternoon really brought home the sadness of this election. Not just because Trump wasn’t defeated, but because Hillary wasn’t elected, and therefore her career has been ended prematurely.

I haven’t always been her biggest fan, and somewhat erred on the side of Bernie Sanders during the race to choose a Democratic candidate. His left-leaning policies felt like an extension, and progression of Obama’s legacy, and his grassroots campaign seemed to be the spark that was needed to revitalise American politics. What’s more, his tough and informed climate change agenda – viewing it as very much an existential crisis that needs to be tackled – felt genuine rather than strategic. As a senator for Vermont he’s sponsored bills to promote clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, and end fossil fuel subsidies. Both candidates had their flaws – Sanders’ experience in the foreign policy arena was lacking, and his ability to discuss the issue never extended beyond articulating a belief in military restraint. Furthermore, his statement that organisations such as Planned Parenthood formed part of the establishment he was so vehemently attacking felt troublesome. But he seemed like a candidate much more likely to ignite aggressive change.

Hillary, likewise, had her foibles. I thought her foreign policy stance to be too aggressive, her relationship with Wall Street unsettling, and the whole email scandal, well, an overblown misstep. And goodness knows she’s made errors in judgement – we all have, hers have just happened on a bigger stage –  from supporting welfare reform to voting for the Iraq war. However it can’t be denied that Hillary was an incredibly experienced candidate, and a candidate of whom I came to be increasingly supportive of, and blown away by. 

Hillary could have been a conduit for change… The idea that that opportunity to make history has been fluffed is unforgivable.

Her position as Secretary of State in the Obama administration solidified her pragmatism and her preparedness to work as a global strategist and to find viable solutions to international problems. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of her being an ardent feminist. Hillary was a candidate who was willing to have conversations about abortion, equal pay and women’s rights, and someone who understood the sheer urgency of that dialogue. She was a voice for those who have been hitherto under-represented, disqualified and patronised. She could’ve been a conduit for change, and a milestone for the gender equality movement. The idea that that opportunity to make history has been fluffed is unforgivable.

Ultimately she had SO much more to give; possessive of a skill-set and a perspective that now won’t be put to use, or at least to use in the highest position of political power. And frankly, it’s disgusting and horrendous that a man without that experience, who has bulldozed his way to candidacy with money and delusions and scare-mongering tactics has proved the successor.

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Before the result, I believed that if Hillary lost, she’d have to disappear for the shame of it. Her political career would be in ruins, and tail between her legs, she’d be forced to retreat somewhere remote and live out the rest of her days as a red-faced recluse. I cringe at how horrible this assumption is. It hasn’t been especially embarrassing for any of the male nominees who concede to their opponent. It’s simply par for the course. Hell even Al Gore survived. If anything, it’s more necessary than ever to see her continued presence in politics and campaigning for the causes she believes in. Not only because she’s a hugely inspirational agent for change, but because it reminds us of the injustice that happened and how terribly misguided America was to bestow their nation’s path for the next four years in Trump’s grabby hands.

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On a political level, as well as a personal one, the election was an abject failure, with the Electoral College once again rearing its ugly head, and proving itself the archaic institution that it is.

At best, the American voting system is a massively flawed one, masquerading as a democracy. At worst, it’s an insidious beast that fuels the wants of the few at the expense of the many. Via this system, a country purporting to uphold the highest democratic values, enabling freedoms, rights and opportunity for all, has elected a man whose opinions are flagrantly antithetical to these tenets. Essentially the Electoral College is a sieve, where people who have been systematically and historically ignored and disenfranchised – African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, the LGBT community, women – continue to be sifted out of relevancy.

At best, the American voting system is a massively flawed one, masquerading as a democracy.

If you were watching the election on Tuesday night you would’ve heard the term ‘battleground’ or ‘swing’ state, defining that particular state as hotly-contested and decisive, possessive of the power to win or lose the election for a candidate. Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Iowa are the ‘Big 4’, with the former two being where the result has been decided in the last few elections. In simplistic terms, that means that 46 other states are considered of lesser importance. Indeed, when Clinton won Oregon, we effectively shrugged our shoulders because it ‘didn’t matter’. Imagining living in a state where your vote is irrelevant to the outcome of the election. The Electoral College system facilitates that injustice.

It’s also just plain ridiculous. Imagine playing a best of three game of football. The Blues vs. The Reds. In the first match, the Blues win 7 – 2. In the second match, the Reds win 2 – 1. And in the final deciding match the Reds secure a victory by the skin of their teeth by scoring a goal in the 90th minute, making it 1 – 0. Sure, they won the majority of the matches, but cumulatively the Blues scored more goals; 8, to the Reds’ 4. That’s double the amount of goals, and yet they’re deemed the losers. It kind of doesn’t seem fair. That’s the Electoral College for you.

Irrespective of the margin of victory, the electoral votes amount to the same. So it doesn’t matter if Clinton took New York or California by a landslide, but lost Pennsylvania by a fraction. If you lose a state, however marginally, with a defining amount of votes, such as Florida’s 29, you’ll stand to lose the election. Case in point, Al Gore acquired roughly 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 election. But Bush became President. That’s like the whole population of Tucson, Arizona being told that their votes don’t matter. Why? He managed to secure Florida’s electoral votes by a mere, paltry margin of 537.

Just as the Electoral College used to serve the interests of slave and landowners, so it has continued to bow to the whims of a southern, white, male (and female) elite. Nothing speaks to an outmoded, inherently biased and unrepresentative system more than the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.

What’s more worrying is how successfully the Republicans have gumshoed their way into power, now controlling both the House and the Senate, and therefore how quickly they might be able to push through regressive and potentially destructive legislation. At a bare minimum, the Republicans are going to halt progress in such areas as health care, climate change, immigration, economic inequality and unemployment, having already laid out their intentions to repeal and unravel much of the Obama administration’s accomplishments. The worst part is that Obama’s legacy – however patchy it is perceived to be – is going to be rounded off by the very person who undermined his right to the Presidency by initiating the birther movement. A bitter pill indeed.

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I’m not American. So there lies an argument that perhaps I’m taking this all too seriously. I couldn’t vote. I didn’t have a direct hand in the outcome of the election. I won’t feel the worst impact of the corrosive legislation a Republican government are likely to pass. However the reason for mine, and many other non-US people’s tears, are entirely justified. The United States is still one of – if not the, most powerful country in the world. It’s vast population, economy and influence marks it out as an instigator of change and a standard against which other countries are held up. Obama, and lest we forget Michelle, are a formidable duo. Together, they have shaken up the status quo and re-energised what it means to look and act like a President and First Lady. They are dignified, humorous, intelligent, poised, generous, level-headed and first and foremost, they are role models. They take their jobs very seriously, and they’ve proven very good at them. Barack and Michelle are about productivity rather than provocation, and their time in the White House has operated on a basis of inclusivity, access and advancement, however incremental it may have been. The deficit that’s going to felt in their absence is titanic. America is going to look weaker, more foolish and significantly less cool without the Obamas in the White House. It’s hard to believe that the rest of the world won’t falter slightly as result.

That’s the other thing that deeply perturbs me about Trump’s election; the complete U-turn he and his moronic persona represents. Hillary was often characterised as the ‘safe’ pair of hands, the person whom knew what she was doing and who – despite being a bit ‘vanilla’ – would effectively function as Obama’s third term. The Obama administration propelled the US out to sea with the promise of reaching an island, perhaps not a paradise, but an enticing destination nevertheless. Trump’s triumph has destroyed that ship entirely, and left America marooned, without a lifeboat in sight. It’s unsurprising that the Democrat party and their supporters are in a state of mourning.

Nothing speaks to an outmoded, inherently biased and unrepresentative system more than the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.

Donald Trump is the kind of person that wouldn’t do his homework, or his revision, and would only get the grade by cheating on the exam, or as his wife Melania is want to do, copying someone else’s answers. He’s the kind of person that won’t put in the time to understand the key issues, or weigh up his options. And it’s hard to imagine that he’ll spend any time speaking to lesser-heard communities about their predicaments and priorities. He is cavalier and worse than careless, he is callous. The only people he cares for are those like him, and it’s pretty obvious to state that America, and by extension, the world, is made up of a much, much larger and more diverse demographic than the one he represents.

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If nothing else, the result of the election is incredibly alienating. It’s never a good feeling to have your beliefs refuted, and now three times this year (the general election, Brexit and now the US election) that for which I have voted, or stood up for, has not been reflected in the wider political landscape. The causes that I hold closest to my heart – feminism, environmentalism, socialism – do not match up with those in power.  And I’m someone with very minimal experience of being a minority. I can’t imagine the despair and deprivation felt by those who have been so severely and repugnantly marginalised by Trump’s agenda.

There are a myriad more reasons I could give, in even greater, more granular detail for why a Trump presidency is one of the most devastating things to happen in my lifetime. The likelihood of our entering a period of cultural, social and economic backwardness, if not insanity, seems alarmingly conceivable. His plan for tax cuts and tariffs on imported goods alone could precipitate global economic insecurity, and I hardly want to give thought to the path towards planetary destruction he could set us on with his belief that climate change is “a Chinese hoax”.

In this atmosphere of discontent, many have spoken of the need to galvanise and organise. To speak out louder than ever before for what we care about. We can only hope that this becomes a teachable moment, rather than a trend or a continued downward spiral. And to use an old, but ever more relevant phrase, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.

Seeing Friday Night Lights with fresh eyes and a full heart

This year saw the 10-year-anniversary since cult-favourite Friday Night Lights debuted on NBC. As a fairly new devotee, I investigate what about the show sees its appeal endure…

The great thing about streaming platforms – and to be honest, box sets before them –  is that TV shows are gifted with a longer shelf life; preserved in ‘recommended picks’ for a new generation of episodic dalliances or fiercely loyal fans.

Stories and characters once banished to the past can live beyond the era in which they aired, ripe for rediscovery and newfound appreciation. Shows that I grew up around and oft heard mentioned during dinnertime discussions; The Shield, 24, Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, I have been able to pluck from nostalgia and finally understand.

I remember my parents trying to describe 24 to me. “You watch someone for an hour in real-time, so that each series makes up a whole day in their life” my mother vaguely summarised, perhaps trying to shield me from the terrorist sub-plots and gung-ho tactics of Jack Bauer. I mistook it for some kind of warped documentary, or a perverse realisation of The Sims. “So you watch them go to the bathroom? When do they sleep?”, I naively inquired. In retrospect, I can almost hear my parents smirking with superiority.

That naiveté extended to my rebuff of Friday Night Lights. Originally airing for 5 seasons between 2006 and 2011, during my prime pre-university years, I was of an age – considered mature – where I would’ve been allowed to join my parents in watching it. But I turned my nose up at the idea of high-school football, heated rivalries and sports jargon.

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“You watch One Tree Hill” my Dad protested, willing me to get on-board, “that’s about basketball”. True OTH had bestowed me with knowledge of what a point guard and a layup were, but “its about SO MUCH MORE than basketball” I retorted. I see now why my argument fell on deaf ears. Friday Night Lights far outstrips One Tree Hill in the reputation department, and is most definitely about so much more than high-school football.

It’s not the football games or the tantalisingly close victories that I stick around for. It’s the phenomenally well-written characters. And Taylor Kitsch’s smile.

It’s a paean to identity, morality and family. It’s about romance and first love and making mistakes. It’s about compromise and marriage and making more mistakes. And with a perhaps unrivalled earnestness it tackles the universal theme of following your dreams.

And so the love affair has begun. We spent all weekend together, and I still can’t get enough. I think about Friday Night Lights constantly, especially when we’re apart and I flirted obscenely with the notion of purchasing a Dillon Panthers t-shirt off Amazon the other day.

But why? How has this sometimes corny, slightly outdated show about small-town rituals and sporting obsession exerted a python-like grip on my attention and monopolised every spare hour since I met with the pilot?

The Guardian asserted that “its appeal lies in its optimism”. The Dillon Panthers are the underdogs from the get-go. Written off early in the State Championships, you’re rooting for them to overcome obstacles (paralysis, race, class, tornadoes, rivalry, corruption) all the way to the ten-yard line. But if I’m being honest, it’s not the football games or the tantalisingly close victories that I stick around for. It’s the phenomenally well-written characters. And Taylor Kitsch’s smile.

Across the 35 episodes I’ve watched thus far, the thing that continually astounds me is how well-drawn the individual narrative arcs are and how invested in each story I am. It would be easy for FNL to become the Eric and Tami show; Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are electrically good as Mr & Mrs Coach Taylor. But FNL routinely manages to span and interweave several storylines, without it ever feeling like characters (or at least those we really care about) are being short-shrifted or for want of a better word, benched.

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The fact that it excavates past surfaces, and gets to know characters like Riggins’ brother Billy, Saracen’s best friend Landry or Smash’s mother Corrina is testament to the fact that it’s not just the football team and the cheerleaders that get to bask in the spotlight. The show cares about the town as whole and each individual’s role within it. From the pilot onwards we’ve been introduced to the menagerie of Dillon residents whose affiliations to football range from supportive to exploitative. Characters from multifarious backgrounds with manifold intentions exist in Dillon, and FNL doesn’t evince a preference for any type.

Sure, there have been hiccups. Let’s not mention the Landry/Tyra murder debacle, a plotline conceived out of network pressure to amp up the drama, and subsequently the ratings. Or the ill-thought out romantic asides to keep characters treading water (RIP Carlotta and Jackie, victims to circumstance and lazy penmanship).

But the show excels when it sticks to what it does best. And that’s the little things. The frustrations of marriage, and the awkwardness of school corridor encounters with your ex. Julie Taylor’s embarrassment at having her Mum work at her school (something I know only too well), and having ‘the chat’ with her Dad (something I was thankfully spared). When Eric flies off the handle at Tami’s sister for taping over one of his games, the 90s kid in me broke into a rueful grin of remembrance. I’m sure many-a married couple can take solace in Eric and Tami’s sometimes strained, but always loving, back and forth.

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What’s more it doesn’t confine its characters to stereotypes. Who can forget the tragedy-tinged pilot that sees star quarterback Jason Street paralysed after an ill-advised tackle? Convention would dictate that his status is validated with glory on the pitch, but in a show determined to set itself apart, that validation must be discovered elsewhere. It’s a bold move and it was only the beginning.

Church-going cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), with her shiny brown hair and perfectly plucked eyebrows is perhaps the closest thing you’ll get to cookie-cutter on this show and even she has her moments of tenacity and rebellion. FNL playfully, and continually subverts the boilerplate identities that high-schoolers are meant to fit into. QB1 Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is painfully shy and cares more about his ailing grandma than partying on weekends. (Who else felt a bit sick when he experimented with open relationships and kissed two girls in one episode?! So not cool Saracen). Drunken, womanising fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is part douchebag, part nicest guy on the planet. I’m surprised I haven’t gone into an arrhythmia the amount of times my heart melted at his gestures of kindness and protection.

It’s harder to like other characters. Not everyone on this show is a hero, nor should they be. Smash Williams and Buddy Garrity spring to mind, both of whom teeter on the brink of obnoxiousness on several occasions. But the writers clearly possess an affection for their characters and rather than consigning them to a certain fate, they take the time to make you reassess your judgments. For all of Smash’s locker-room smack talk and juiced up bravado, it pains him to disappoint his single mother (brought to life brilliantly by Liz Mikel), and there’s a glimmer of sensitivity in his dealings with bipolar girlfriend Waverley. Similarly, Buddy Garrity gets his moment of sympathy when, having been kicked out of his house for extra-marital indiscretions, he takes an ex-convict under his wing.

It can’t be said that every appearance is depicted with such refinement. There’s the occasional aggressive thug or opposing team offender that recalls convention, but where it matters, these characters are packed to the rafters with nuances, flaws and redeeming features.

Take for instance, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki). The kind of blonde, lithe beauty who might as well be wearing a tiara, because she has ‘homecoming queen’ written all over her. But both the writers, and Tyra, know she has more to offer than that.

In season 1, she’s working at a diner on the eve of a Dillon Panthers game, pouring coffee and explaining the tiresome ceremonies that plague her football-infatuated town to a cute customer. “Just a bunch of overheated jocks too dumb to know they have no future, fighting over a game that has no meaning, in a town from which there is no escape,” Tyra mutters. This isn’t a girl you’ll find at a pep rally anytime soon.

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It’s in these exchanges that FNL explodes commonly-held perceptions. It allows its characters to dream big, to exist beyond the boundaries that a small-town in Texas might impose. Which is true of FNL itself. The show refuses to liken itself to fellow high-school dramas and evokes classic Greek tragedies more than it does the melodrama of other cable shows.

The greatest thing about FNL is that every pass, every victory, every moment of triumph feels hard-earned. Dillon is a town tempered by struggle and the joy of watching this show is seeing the characters make it out the other side. The persistence and confidence instilled in these players by Coach Taylor, and in the students by Tami, is a lesson that we could all do to learn.  

As summarised in a Grantland piece:

In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of [the US] seemed most in doubt.

And though that optimism never extended to commercial ratings, Friday Night Lights has found a home in the hearts of many. Thank goodness – like Jason Street did Lyla Garrity – I gave it a second chance.

From sofa bear to gym bunny…

Our youth is a mixed bag of highs and lows. For all the frivolity, uninhibited by responsibility, there can be some game-changing, path-setting moments; those that flare up in the back of your mind, tinged with a flavour of regret, embarrassment and general awkwardness. Moments that make you glad not to have to do it all again. The moment you’re categorised as ‘cool or ‘uncool’ is one that particularly comes to mind; ‘the sorting hat’ IRL equivalent. It might come on the first day of school, or somewhat later. It might come from the peers that label you ‘geeky’ or ‘nerdy’, or the teachers that perceive you as hard-working or hard work. What’s certain is that our years of maturation undoubtedly come with the acquisition of stereotypes and expectations.

Personally, I was a geek and therefore not sporty or popular. The latter two sort of came hand-in-hand and any demonstration of academic ability was pooed-pooed as being the ultimate signifier of your inherent repellence. On rare occasions, you were both. That is sporty and academic, in which case you were treated as a demi-God, a blessing I experienced vicariously through one of my best friends. And these labels don’t mean you don’t participate. I was on the hockey team, played badminton outside of school and took regular dancing lessons. I could play sport, but I never excelled at it, and because I am perfectionist and require praise like a plant does water, it became a source of vexation for me. Reading, writing, crafting and essaying always came easier to me, and therefore indoor, sedentary skills became that which I honed.

Some of those stereotypes and confinements were unravelled at university. It’s a culture which moves along much more fluid lines, where I could glissade with relative ease from the student newspaper to dancing competitions to think tanks to acting and back again, and without anyone so much as commenting on my unsuitability for said activities. But it takes more than three years of abundant freedom and opportunity to extinguish such ingrained identifiers.

The fact that sport was more a source of humiliation (changing-rooms particularly haunt me as a place where snide remarks and dirty looks were able to fester) than of triumph had taken its toll on my confidence in myself, and of my confidence in my body.

triIt took signing up for a triathlon to reverse that. As soon as I moved to London I knew I wanted to ‘get fit’. There would be a plethora of classes in which to partake and the bittersweet anonymity of the city could in this case be a blessing. Unlike the university gym where you risked bumping into one-night stands or frenemies with a red, puffy face and your skin glistening with sweat, in London you could just get on with it amid a sea of strangers doing the same. But I needed an end game; a Kilimanjaro to climb. The kind of  ‘oh fuck’ challenge that would motivate and frighten me in equal measure as its deadline loomed ever closer. That’s where the triathlon makes its entrance. It seemed as arduous as a marathon (maybe less so), without the chore and bore of all that running, so I signed up and haven’t shut up about it since.

I can sense your hesitation. ‘Getting on with it’ is a lot easier said than done. How exactly does one go from sofa bear to gym bunny? How does one prepare for a triathlon? I suffer from something called one-track-mindedness which means that as soon as I have a binding deadline or goal in place, I will reliably motor towards it. And I’m not going to lie, it requires hella’ time and dedication. You’ve got to clock in those hours. Sometimes that means getting up at 6am, or squeezing in a session after a 12-hour day at work. Sell it to yourself in whatever package works. I rather enjoy the invigoration of a run before work, or the solitude of a late-night dip in the pool. It’s stating the obvious to say there’ll be days when you point blank won’t be in the mood. There are days when your duvet will win its battle with the alarm. But if you can push through that initial groan-inducing reluctance, beyond the end-of-the-day, one-coffee-too-many sluggishness, I promise you it will get easier. It’ll become routine and you’ll start to feel worse when you don’t go.

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Embracing the vanity.

My other tip? Embrace the vanity. In the sea of gym selfies and ab-spiration pics that dominate Instagram, it could be easy to land on the cynical side of the fence and declare this a symptom of a self-obsessed society. But in terms of providing motivation for sticking to a fitness regime, I’d say looking good is up there as No.1. Yes fitness is about more than appearance. It’s about pushing your body to its limit, getting strong, staying healthy – physically and mentally – yet the reason most people take up regular exercise is to sculpt, tone and hone their physicality. To look hotter than they did the year before. And where’s the shame in that?

Part of my ‘fitness journey’ (I’ll understand if you feel compelled to roll your eyes) has been about shedding embarrassment. Whether that’s in the changing rooms when women of all ages, shapes and sizes are happy to de-robe in your presence, or standing in front of a mirror and taking a photo of yourself without prefacing it with ‘just taking a cheeky selfie’, I feel much more likely to shrug than shudder in these circumstances than I would’ve 9 months ago.

It’s a very British trait to blush and squirm in the face of nakedness. I couldn’t ever imagine parading around with the level of unashamedness that Ryan Gosling displays in Crazy, Stupid, Love. But I’m taking baby steps. And going to the gym has helped me to shed more than my clothes. (Which I admit I still do mostly in the private changing rooms). I feel less plagued by self-doubt and body hang-ups and I’m also less prone to stereotyping. And that’s not to say that I’ve molded myself into the Victoria’s Secret-cum-Kayla-Itsines template.

Going to the gym isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) the pastime of a particular sort of person. The gym is full of differing body types; from the overweight and seriously ripped to individuals missing limbs or suffering from disabilities. Just because I was never ‘sporty’ at school and I’ve certainly never ticked the ‘athletic’ checkbox in those questionnaires that force you to assess your figure and subsequently label it doesn’t mean I’m ripe for exclusion. In school, you’re forever judged on your ability – graded, tested, compared, rated. In the real world – at least in this case – you’re your own judge. You can do it if you say you can.

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Getting ready for my first numbered run in March.

So I say embrace the vanity. Look at yourself in the mirror as you lift weights and squat, even if you’re just supposedly ‘checking your form’. Look at yourself in the mirror after you’ve gone for a run and see how those calf muscles are coming along. Take a look and learn to enjoy what you see. This doesn’t have to be about publicising your newfound confidence. I’m not suggesting you adopt Kim Kardashian levels of self-promotion. But if it means you’re more happy to be in front of a camera should the opportunity arise then that’s something worth celebrating.

And of course, the by-product to all of this self-obsession and self-improvement is that I can now write ‘Ran 10K in under 50 minutes’ on my list of achievements. That I can comfortably cycle for 60 minutes and plank for 3 (not so comfortable). Not all bodies are naturally gifted in displays of athleticism, but that doesn’t negate them from being capable. It will take practice and discipline and more sweat you ever thought yourself capable of secreting. But beneath all those labels, jibes and niggles there’s an untapped strength in us all. And hopefully come August 6th, I’ll swim, cycle and run beyond any expectations – sporting or otherwise – I had for myself.

 

If you’d like to sponsor this particularly bunny, you can do so via my JustGiving page!

I’m fundraising for WWF-UK here.

And I’m fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Society here.

What is a New York movie?

An exploration of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour.

In film criticism, the term ‘a definitive [insert genre] movie’ is frequently bandied about, placing its subject on a pedestal because it exemplifies the very best of it’s type; thereafter held up as a litmus test for all its successors to borrow from and be inspired by.

New York is a city so iconic, cinematic and beloved that it has become a genre itself. To set a film there is to immediately bring to mind such classics as Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Naked City, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – so on and so forth.

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a recent example of a film that has been lauded as “a modern New York classic” (The Playlist), whilst Little White Lies called Appropriate Behaviour “an original and charismatically honest New York comedy”. But what is a New York movie? Can a city so multifarious and dynamic ever be pinned down?

I took it upon myself to explore  what it means to make a film in the most illustrious concrete jungle.

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In City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination, Wheeler Winston Dixon argues that,

New York has a hold on our imagination because it is so compact, so violent, so energetic, so full of possibilities, a place where neighbourhoods change from one street to the next and strangers can become intimate friends or deadly enemies on the slightest of whims. (p. 243)

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone. By accepting the impossibility of creating a definitive vision of New York, it becomes a place where you are free to project your own vision.

In his maker’s statement, Alex Ross Perry explains that Listen Up Philip reflects “what [his] New York looks like, and it is one I seldom see depicted with any honesty in cinema….Listen Up Philip is a summation of all I’ve observed, lived through, laughed at, narrowly avoided and absently longed for during my time in New York”.

Similarly, in a behind-the-scenes interview with her producer Cecilia Frugieule, Desiree Akhavan states that she wants her film “to reflect [her] morals and [her] tastes”, thus Appropriate Behaviour’s rendering of New York is very specific to her.

A native New Yorker herself, Akhavan argues that too many movies about the Big Apple are “like a love letter – and I feel like the love letter I want to write points out all the flaws and is like, ‘I love you, despite all those flaws’”.

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Both films are set in and around Brooklyn, using locations in Dumbo, Park Slope, Red Hook and Bushwick. Of the locations he chose, Alex Ross Perry, in the director’s commentary says he wanted to capture “a New York that isn’t identifiable or modern”, whereas Akhavan has deliberately chosen, played up to and satirised a very recognisable and hipster Brooklyn.

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone.

As Shirin tries desperately to win her ex-girlfriend Maxine back, we watch her manoeuvre the absurdities of life in Brooklyn. Though her new roommates in Brooklyn are tattooed artists who met at Occupy Chelsea and she encounters a hair model named Tibet, this is a feat most notably achieved in the sequences where Shirin teaches 5 year olds (the likes of which are called Kujo and Blanche) how to make movies: “I could lock them in a room with a half-eaten apple and a tic tac and come back to The Mona Lisa”.

Speaking of this satirical tone, Akhavan says “Each neighbourhood [in Brooklyn] changes identities so quickly that jumping through them is like trying on personalities for size sometimes…I was writing from what I knew. I knew what it was like to come of age in those particular neighbourhoods — in Bed-Stuy or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill…. So it was about figuring out where was the right location for the character [Shirin] to undergo whatever experience she had.”

For both filmmakers then, Brooklyn is a way to film New York from an outsider’s perspective. As Perry remarks in his commentary, the only time his protagonist Philip ventures into Manhattan is to interact with his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and whilst there he marches frantically and avoids eye contact with everybody. “It is ugly. And loud. It’s always moving, and I never feel still long enough to hold a thought”. Contrary to popular depictions, New York actually seems to stifle Philip’s creativity and he feels the he needs to escape the city.

Listen Up Philip expertly highlights the general alienation of living in a vast, sometimes hostile city like New York, with the film’s narrator (Eric Bogosian) pointing us towards the loneliness and vapidity of a creative hub, where an individual is surrounded by similar people all the time. Conversely, though Akhavan deals in alienation, hers is more inward. Shirin feels alienated from her own culture and history because sexually she identifies with something so antithetical to it.

Perry and Akhavan are both concerned with filming a New York that depicts their own personal experience. Philip Friedman, as played with incisive wit and acidity by Jason Schwartzman, is a distinctly male, academic, middle-class and Jewish representation of New York, whereas Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is Persian, bisexual and female. These two characters embody the spectrum of lenses through which the New York experience can be filtered.

Whilst Appropriate Behaviour’s exploration of Persian bisexuality is strikingly original, there are moments that ring familiar. Akhavan herself describes the film as “a Lesbian Annie Hall from the perspective of Annie… if she’d been a closeted Persian Bisexual” and admits that she “grew up watching Woody Allen…There’s a sequence when they’re at the bookstore where we stole, or paid homage to a shot in Annie Hall. We were very aware of the references we were making and I wanted to make a real conscious reference to that film”.

Perhaps the seminal filmmaker associated with New York, Woody Allen became a zeitgeist for the pressures and peculiarities of modern living and urban romance. As seen in the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah & Her Sisters, Allen’s films are ultimately concerned with his characters’ failure to find happiness in the metropolis.

It’s a theme both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour reference without ever succumbing to stereotype or convention, and their respective directors cite Woody Allen as having a direct, and indirect influence on the tone and texture of their respective films. It’s present in the intertextuality, self-reflexivity and intellect of their narratives, as well as their stylistic choices.

Perry admits to being inspired by – and in some cases – directly lifting certain iconic camera movements and shots from Allen’s movies. As The Playlist notes, “Perry borrows from several influences to make something unique and idiosyncratic, so he’s also a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson, and so on”.

However, Perry’s New York is also more intimate and intrusive than Allen’s, predominantly using close-ups where Allen preferred long and medium range shots. As iterated in a review by The New Yorker, Perry’s is

“A big and exuberantly gaudy directorial performance that’s delivered in a modest and intimate format, and greatly aided by the remarkable images of Sean Price Williams, whose darting, agile camera work, often apparently with telephoto lenses, achieves a blend of intimacy and distance, of perception and opacity reminiscent of the camerawork in the films of John Cassavetes”.

The frenetic and spontaneous camerawork used in Listen Up Philip perfectly captures the energy of the city; at times chaotic and disorienting, but never boring, a sensibility accentuated by the use of jazz. The jazz-inflected score is something that has recently been seen in another New York set movie; Birdman, which coincidentally also explores notions of art, ego, success and sustaining relevance in an ever-changing landscape.

Shot on super 16mm film, the aesthetic of Listen Up Philip is warm, saturated and autumnal, an artistic choice that seems at odds with Philip’s caustic persona on-screen, but which creates a heightened paean for a bygone era, vividly reminiscent of the 80s classic When Harry Met Sally or indeed the muted greys and browns of Annie Hall.

Appropriate Behaviour has a much grittier feel. DoP Chris Teague, whose CV also includes the New York set Obvious Child – discussed Desiree’s influences in Filmmaker Magazine, citing the oeuvre of Noah Baumbach. “Appropriate Behaviour’s a little bit rough around the edges, [and was filmed] almost entirely handheld… it feels very loose”. This quality corresponds with the messy, ‘making it up as you go along’ aesthetic of Listen Up Philip and perhaps reflects an attitude to life so commonly observed in recent representations of New York and its millennial inhabitants.

Ultimately, New York epitomises the myth of the American Dream, and the illusion that opportunity and ambition will inevitably collide to fertilise success. Contemporary portrayals speak to an experience more cynical and fraught with anxiety than the glamour and romance oft associated with the city. One just had to look at Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Girls to see that feeling adrift is the main concern for New Yorkers in our era.

Both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour – though very different in tone and humour – navigate the tribulations of being heartbroken, aimless and frustrated, with themes of isolation, belonging, exclusion and possibility at their core. They offer us perspectives of New York that feed into these familiar themes, but in altogether original and necessary voices.

To watch Listen Up Philip, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.

To watch Appropriate Behaviour, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.