Stop Filming Us: Interrogating and Inverting the Western Gaze

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Stop Filming Us, a new documentary film by Joris Postema, opens at Film Forum in New York City on May 14, 2021, in theater and in virtual cinema. For more information click here.

The issue of cultural appropriation has been debated hotly and frequently in recent years—in literature, film, television, and visual arts. I’ve personally been in and around this debate for decades, and on some level it gets old and ceases to be productive or even interesting. 

Still, I am a proponent of continuing the conversation when it leads us away from oversimplistic policing of who is “allowed” to portray what, and instead enables us to Get Real about it.  In my experience—as writer, educator, and film programmer—white makers (well-meaning, self-proclaimed progressives) in all media are generally unsure, uncomfortable, and at times, yes, fragile, when writing, filming, portraying BIPOC characters and cultures.  A kind of consciousness-raising has been achieved, and this is good. Even so, if our main accomplishment is putting white makers “on notice,” and creating an eggshells creative environment, I’m not sure we’ve progressed all that much.  

The new documentary Stop Filming Us, by Dutch filmmaker Joris Postema, breathes a bit of fresh air into the stale, stiff debate.  In this age of post-post-post modernism, there is perhaps something earnestly old-fashioned—to a younger generation of cinephiles and post-colonial scholars—about the meta-documentary pivot that Postema makes in crafting his exploration of unconscious Western framing, aka the “Western gaze.” In the case of Stop Filming Us, however, the pivot feels timely and necessary in that Postema uses the meta-mode to demonstrate another earnest yet powerful documentary approach—that of engaging his subjects explicitly, and with humility, to interrogate his own problematic perspectives.

The Millions: What was the idea/vision of your original film—before the artists and your local crew began engaging you in questions about “the Western gaze” and Western imaging of Africans?

Joris Postema: I think the film idea started with the difference I experienced when I was in Goma [in the Democratic Republic of Congo] the first two times. The first time under the wing of a Dutch NGO, I slept in a guarded compound with a personal panic button next to my bed. I could only film out of the back of a van, and they didn’t allow me to walk on the street by myself. The second time I went with Ganza Buroko [one of the film’s subjects, the film’s Congolese producer] and Yolé!Africa [a community organization], and all of a sudden I could film on the street, sleep in a normal hotel, walk across the street and have a beer in a bar. Goma hadn’t changed significantly in the meantime, so it was my perception that changed. In the first Goma I felt like I was in a war zone; in the second Goma people got up, had a cup of coffee, and went to work. I was fascinated by this difference and decided to make a film about that. 

During my first research trip, many things happened that I thought would have been great little scenes. But Ganza and other people were—all the time—correcting me if I did something insensitive or just plain stupid. One time, for example, I asked him if I could wear flip flops to an important meeting, and Ganza just answered, “Would you go in flip flops in The Netherlands?” And of course I wouldn’t. I realized that all these examples—however small they were sometimes—told a bigger story, one of privilege and power inequality, and that I wanted to tell this story. So I decided to stop doing research, started filming, and let the film evolve more organically, with major influence of the crew so I could tell this story of power inequality and privilege by showing it.  Ultimately the film questions my position as a filmmaker and asks the question of who gets to tell which story.

TM: One of the most fascinating/challenging discussions in the film is when you film a man being beaten on the street. Ganza and your cameraman TD Jack Muhindo question why you filmed it, then go on to describe their own relationship to such an event, i.e. for them, it’s not so unusual.  Did that encounter make you think differently about violence in Africa in general? In Goma specifically?  How so?  

JP: This scene made me reflect on so many things. If someone would ask me to show my city (Amsterdam), two places I certainly wouldn’t show are the red light district and the coffee shops where you can buy weed—what Amsterdam is famous for. I hardly ever go there and they have been shown enough, so I would choose other places to show. Mugabo Baritegera [another of the film’s subjects, a photographer] wanted to show a side of Goma people in the West rarely see, that of people laughing and living their lives, with plenty of fish and vegetables on the market, the beautiful lake, the little boy skating on the streets. And then suddenly this fight breaks out and I almost unknowingly take my phone and film it. I guess because it shocked me, but also because this is the image I’m used to when it comes to Northeastern Congo in Western media. So immediately this stereotype of violence is affirmed.

And later, we have a conversation about that day, and Ganza
makes this point that violence was brought to Congo by colonizers. Of course
there was violence before that time and I’m not an expert on this matter, but
the corporal punishments the Belgians carried out must have been ingrained in
the people in Congo. So when we look at it now from a European point of view it
might seem barbaric, but as Ganza points out, it’s us Europeans who taught
them. 

TM: One of the things
that is revealed in the film is the inequity of the funding infrastructure for
African filmmakers to tell their own story.  Tell us a little more about
this financial system that perpetuates Western dominance in image making and
documentary filmmaking?

JP: I can only speak for the Dutch system of funding for documentary films. There are two major funding parties: NPO Fund (public broadcasters funding) and the Dutch Film Fund. In general, the accountability (and thus control) needs to be in Dutch hands. So in that way, it makes no difference if you are Congolese or German; Dutch funding is not available. Of course, it’s fantastic that the Dutch government subsidizes films, and does so without any say or control. Dutch filmmakers are free to make films about any topic or subject they want, even if that means being critical of the Dutch government itself. That’s a huge privilege of course. Bernadette Vivuya [another subject of the film, a young filmmaker] doesn’t have access to these kinds of funds in Goma: she needs to fund her own films by making films for foreign NGO’s (often telling stories diametrically opposed to the stories she wants to tell herself) or by institutes like Institut Francais or funding from Europe or the U.S. Often are there all kinds of requirements, ranging from a limited choice of subjects to downright influence concerning the content of the film. 

So there should be some kind of funding system, I think, that
transfers funds to filmmakers in countries where these funds do not exist. But
that’s more difficult than it appears. Because who will judge the film plans?
If these people come from any European country they will have a Western gaze,
and see things from their perspective. And who will decide that a film is good,
that the filmmaker succeeded? The solution might be that the selection process
be done in the countries where the funds are applied for. So not only should Western
countries transfer funding money, but also transfer control over the selection
and creative processes. 

That will take some time I guess, but it is changing slowly.  

TM: Will you continue to make films in Africa and/or
other non-Western places?  If not, why not?  If so, how will you
approach your work differently going forward?

JP: I might make another film somewhere in Africa or Asia, and if I do, I would seek cooperation with filmmakers there. Since the funding system in The Netherlands puts responsibility for a film in Dutch hands, I would have to find a way around this, in order to share responsibility and control. 

When Stop Filming Us was
screening in Goma last summer, the audience asked for the footage so they would
be able to make their own version of the film. Since film funding in Goma is
practically non-existent, we applied together with Ganza for some funds in The
Netherlands.  We’ve almost secured the funding; so, I’m very happy that
there will (very probably) be a Congolese version of the film! A film over
which the Congolese director has full control. That I think is crucial; and for
a next film I would have to find a way to do the same. 

TM: The possibility of a locally produced version of Stop Filming Us is very intriguing.  Any idea who would direct it, and when do you think they might get started on it?

JP: Ganza is in charge of this project. He has asked
Bernadette to direct it. The funding is almost in place, so I think they will
start anytime soon, and I guess it will take a few months. So, hopefully
sometime in autumn.

TM: Stop Filming Us is your fourth
feature documentary.  What drives you as a filmmaker?  How do you
know when you have a subject—and an approach to a subject—that is worth
pursuing and investing into a full-length film?

JP: It starts with fascination. I read or see something that intrigues me or that I don’t understand. For example, the difference of perception of Goma that I experienced the two times I visited. Or the contradiction I felt between apparent calm, everyday life in Kigali, Rwanda, and the stories people told me about the mistrust they still had. When this happens, I dig a little bit further to try and understand. Often that’s where it ends, but sometimes I get even more fascinated and then I start thinking about how I could make a film about it. At that point I believe I have a subject and that it’s just a matter of finding the right way to tell it. So, I don’t really think about all the difficulties of finding a broadcaster (as is the usual first step in The Netherlands) and getting it funded, but instead dive as deep into the story as I possibly can. Together with the producer, we develop a film plan. That can be done quickly, in a few months but it can also take a long time, sometimes even years. But the idea is that when we start shooting, the basic idea of the film is so ingrained in my system that whatever happens during a day of shooting—even when everything turns out different than expected—I can still capture what I need to tell the story.

TM: How do you see Stop Filming Us contributing to the global conversation about Black Lives that intensified last summer when George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota?  In what ways do you see European and African racial power dynamics resonating with those in America, and in what ways do you see them as divergent/distinct?  Is there something in that lineage of colonialism that you think would be useful for American audiences to reflect on or learn more about?

JP:  I do hope Stop Filming Us contributes to the conversation we also have in The Netherlands—and which intensified after the murder of George Floyd—about institutional racism. I have done quite a lot of Q&As over the last year, and there is always a lot of discussion about this, so I hope I can conclude from that that the film does contribute to this conversation.

But really this is an almost impossible question to answer for me,
as I don’t know a lot about racial power dynamics in America. I don’t
think I can say anything meaningful, since it would be silly to talk about
things I am not that familiar with.

TM: How do you think Bernadette, Ganza, TD Jack, the two photographers Mugabo Baritegera and Ley Uwera, and the Yole!Africa community were impacted by the experience of engaging with you and your filmmaking?

JP: This is a question that should be asked to them, of course. But what they told me, or what they said in interviews, is that, in general, they were happy that some issues were raised in the film that normally aren’t raised in films made in the region. Though they were still critical as you can see at the end of the film.

I don’t think the film had a lot of impact on the people at
Yolé as they are very politically active, intelligent people who understand the
concept of decolonization a whole lot better than I do. And Bernadette’s
film—the one she pitches at Institut Francais [in the film]—is still not
financed for example. What I’m trying to say is that the impact on my community was probably a lot bigger.
As the Congolese audience concludes at the end of the film, it was made for Western
audiences, that’s where there should be impact.

TM: What sorts of
responses have you gotten to the film—from Africans who’ve seen it, and/or from
other filmmakers, both African and Western?

JP: Some people think it’s the worst film ever made; for others it’s an eye-opening film that changes the way they think about development aid or stereotypes, for example. The main concern from a few African filmmakers I spoke to is that some stereotypes are reproduced—the rebel leader with his child soldiers, or the refugee camp scene, for example. And even though I believe I put those scenes in the film for good reasons—to show a context of underlying mechanisms—the danger is that by reproducing these stereotypes, Dutch audiences will just see their image of Congo confirmed. After doing quite a lot of debates and Q&As for the film in The Netherlands and other European countries, that doesn’t seem to be the case, I’m happy (and relieved) to say.

I guess the way people see the film also depends a lot on their knowledge of colonial history. People who are well aware of the legacy of power inequalities and privilege probably think the film is telling a story they already know. For people who are not as aware, I think the film can offer all kinds of insights.

Obsession, Collection, and Connection: On Pixar’s ‘Soul’ and Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses

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A chunk of bagel. The crust of a slice of pizza, pale as a sliver of fingernail. A spool of blue thread. A yellow subway card with cobalt lettering. A red lollipop, unwrapped and glistening as though still wet. And, finally: a single helicopter seed from a molting maple, veined and translucent, like an earlobe in sunlight.

These are just a few of the endearingly New York mementos accumulated by the protagonists of Disney Pixar’s latest animated feature, Soul. On the evening I watched Soul, the concept of collection was on my mind: I had just finished Jazmina Barrera’s haunting hybrid On Lighthouses, translated by Christina MacSweeney last year for Two Lines Press. Throughout the petite sky-blue book, Barrera pursues her obsession with lighthouses through time and space and the annals of literature until her fixation begins to accumulate matter and heft, a kind of reverse entropy, becoming a collection of objects and experiences—and, finally, six experimental essays. In fact, Barrera wonders if obsession couldn’t be considered “a form of mental collecting,” a “fervent yet controlled passion.”

Soul also concerns itself with the consequences of passion and obsession: the movie follows a middle-aged jazz musician named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who has to make his way back to his body to live out his dream of performing in a successful gig after a near-death experience sends his soul into a metaphysical realm called “The Great Beyond.” There, Gardner becomes convinced that without finding success in music his life will have amounted to nothing. Essentially a fugitive from death, he teams up with an incorrigible soul known only by their number, 22 (Tina Fey), who hopes to avoid life on earth altogether. But after a mishap lands the pair in Manhattan, 22 begins to gather a collection of artifacts—the bagel, the pizza crust, the subway card—that challenges both characters’ presuppositions about what makes life worthwhile.

The writing I love to read often attempts to illustrate or explain an obsession of the writer: Maggie Nelson’s affair with blue, Leslie Jamison’s preoccupation with empathy, Nabokov’s passion for lepidopterology, Tommy Pico’s collection of junk. Writing that takes a pin and drives it through obsession’s abdomen, splaying it open like one of Nabokov’s butterfly specimens. Perhaps, as a result, I often worry that in my own writing I don’t care enough about one thing. A brief list of contenders might include: dark chocolate, vintage outerwear, cats, my mother, my mother’s mother, coffee, flirting, ketchup, romantic relationships between former So You Think You Can Dance contestants, stained glass windows, and the city of St. Louis. Oh—and ginkgo leaves, like the ones that blanketed the street outside my apartment, released from the tree in a single cold snap, as heavy and sudden as stage curtains.

I would hesitate if you asked me whether my life would be worth living without books, but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced—or pursued—a devotion as potent as Barrera’s lighthouses or Gardner’s jazz.

To Barrera, the obsessive practice of collecting is capacious and contradictory: it’s love and escapism both; it’s a ritual act, a devotion, but it’s also a constant exercise in failure, a bid for possession and conservation that will always reduce rather than encapsulate. As with the practice of collection, the lighthouse itself is a contradiction: an isolated object (and an object that isolates, as the lone keeper inside is forbidden from leaving, in case the signal is obstructed or extinguished in his absence), yet one whose purpose is to guide others and keep them safe. The edifice both contains and projects; it stands on tiptoe on the precipice between land and sea, simultaneously alive and dead, static and roving, light and dark. The lighthouse, like the surrender to obsession itself, occasions both inspiration and madness.

According to Soul, when people lose themselves too deeply in this somnambulistic, spellbound state, they become Lost Souls, monstrous figures who wander the shadowy metaphysical plains choked in a tower of fine black sand. Barrera, for one, lives alone inside the tower of her obsession (and the physical tower of her apartment building, whose windows face a brick wall). She describes her longing to merge with the lighthouse; she craves the cold solidity of stone, the peace that comes with numbness. And yet—she can’t extinguish her own light, her drive to connect. She admits that she finds lighthouses so attractive because “they combine that disdain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others.”

As the tension in Soul builds, Gardner experiences a similar internal tug-of-war. He declares that his “spark,” the unique source of inspiration that offers each young soul their ticket to earthly life, is and has always been playing music himself; however, after he impresses at the show he calls his “big break,” he’s left feeling just as unfulfilled.

Gardner assumes that a soul’s spark must represent one’s “purpose.” The lesson as Gardner interprets it is this: in order to have a fulfilling and productive life, you have to find your calling. It isn’t until after the show, when he rediscovers 22’s collection of keepsakes in his suit pocket, that he begins to reassess. The collection is an exercise in synecdoche: the half-eaten bagel represents 22’s first connection with music, when they earnestly tear off a chunk of bread to tip a busker in the subway; the lollipop is a stand-in for a gregarious barber, who shows 22 that it’s possible to find joy in listening to other people’s stories; the spool of thread is an extension of Gardner’s mother, who uses it to tailor his late father’s suit in a display of unconditional love. The only artifact culled from a moment of solitude is the single helicopter seed that flaps, lepidopterous and alive, into 22’s open palm.

It’s a breath of beauty, of rapture—coins of afternoon light stippling the stone, autumn leaves blushing the sidewalk like rose petals—and of serendipity. The moment’s privacy, brevity, and rarity—snatched in the midst of a frenetic quest through a swarming city—punctuates the film like the delicate peal of an orchestral triangle. Plucked from its context, we might give an involuntary awestruck sigh at the somersaulting seed, as I did, but it’s the noise and congestion surrounding it that makes this moment chime.

Every so often, I receive contextless snapshots of fallen ginkgo leaves from friends and acquaintances and even friends of acquaintances. I’ve never been lucky enough to witness what poet Howard Nemerov termed “the consent”—the moment in which a “signal from the stars” compels a stand of ginkgo trees “to strike their leaves, to down their leaves” in a synchronous, celestial surrender—but these missives feel fortuitous in their own way, little gifts helicoptering from the heavens into my hands.

I save every single photo. My obsession becomes collection that becomes conversation, and it makes me glow to think that, because of me, someone stopped and looked. Is this vanity, or simply a communal joy?

Why do we enjoy reading about the obsessions of others? I’ve come to believe it’s at least partly because we want evidence that we have more care left to give. Not only that we can love more, farther, wider, but also drill deeper, dig a well, and fill it all the way up. (Barrera describes her attraction to the idea of the lighthouse as a well turned inside-out, each other’s inverse: a pit of dark, a tower of light.)

22’s collection, by contrast, is far from singular—it’s a hodgepodge of flotsam and jetsam that encapsulates the thrill of human connection and the beauty, the rapture, the meaningfulness that hides in the mundane. And yet Barrera’s collection, too, reminds us that obsession can only fulfill us so long as it exists in conversation with the outside world. On Lighthouses ends not because Barrera’s obsession abates, but because she chooses to allow the collection to remain incomplete. She realizes that she must return her gaze from the sea to the land, or else risk becoming a lost soul herself: “Falling in love with a beauty that at moments seems too much like death.” While she’s reluctant to relinquish her hold on nothingness for “the bustle, irreverence, and noise of dry land”—just as 22 initially hopes to “skip life” and all its attending disappointments—Barrera concedes that while oblivion will always be there, waiting, “The other is ephemeral. It must be appreciated while it lasts.”

I read a review of Soul for Roger Ebert in which the critic jabs, “The film’s message could be summed up as, ‘Don’t get so hung up on ambition that you forget to stop and smell the flowers.’ A birthday card could’ve told you that.” Though the movie is certainly flawed, I disagree with this particular take: a card from CVS could tell you that and many other platitudes, but good art proves them. What Soul and On Lighthouses both prove to us is that a personal obsession, even a passion or a calling, can’t necessarily supplant the fulfillment we derive from sharing knowledge, stories, and discovery with other people. And even when it does, perhaps it shouldn’t. As the writer Kyoko Mori observed in a recent essay for Conjunctions, “Solitude only makes sense when we’re connected to the world around us: we can’t be apart unless we can be a part of.”

As a nonfiction writer, it’s tempting to collect thoughts, images, quotes, scents, contradictions, conversations, and questions not for the joy of the collecting, but in the hopes that the whole will someday amount to more than the sum of its parts. It can begin to seem as though nothing about living is distinct from writing. But while Pixar’s Lost Souls become trapped in their obsessions through their consummation, I’ve always felt far more adrift when I can’t bring myself to write. I misplace my faith in the particular; I stop noticing things. I retreat from my family and community. Writer’s “block” doesn’t just obstruct my creativity; when I succumb, it barricades me from the rest of my life.

Both Soul and On Lighthouses articulate the desire to be swept away on a current of inspiration, but they also warn us against losing ourselves inside our passions when we find them. In the end, each represents the act of collecting as a reminder of what makes life worth living: not the flood of feeling that gives rise to obsession, or the solitary thrill of possessing its object, but the messiness and spontaneity of being a part of.

Maybe it’s alright for my collection to look less like Barrera’s and a little more like 22’s: a square of my mother’s favorite chocolate, studded with rubies of freeze-dried raspberry; a coffee bean from the café down the street from my St. Louis apartment, where the bathroom walls were plastered in old board games; a yellow ginkgo leaf, dried and pasted to the front of a birthday card by a boy I loved. Our collections remain incomplete by necessity, not in the sense of ‘deficient’ but that of ‘ongoing.’ We continue gathering moments of beauty, awe, communion. We amass a whole grotto of tiny wonders; together, we help each other see them.

Image credit: Unsplash/Joanna Kosinska.

On the Oldest Road: U.S. 1, Robert Kramer, the Buick, and Me

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Six Sidewalks to the Moon

In early 1981, while Ronald Reagan was getting settled in at the White House, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter and drove my lipstick-red-and-black 1954 Buick to the top of Maine. When I got to Fort Kent, which looks out across the St. John River at the deep forests of Canada, I made a U-turn and began the 2,446-mile drive down the length of highway U.S. 1, a journey that would deposit me and my Buick six months later at “The End of the Rainbow,” as the sign proclaims in Key West, Fla., where the road runs into the sea.

Seven years later, as Reagan’s presidency was winding to a close, the avant-garde filmmaker Robert Kramer retraced my tire tracks in the company of his friend Paul McInnis, known as Doc, who had spent the previous 10 years practicing medicine in Africa. Though Kramer, Doc, and I literally covered the same ground, and though we seem to have been driven by similar compulsions, we produced two works that could hardly be more different. One of the few things they have in common, it turns out, is their shared fatal flaw.

Kramer’s trip resulted in Route One/USA, a four-hour documentary that’s almost as exhilarating and exhausting as the long drive down America’s oldest road. My trip resulted in a 348-page nonfiction manuscript that attracted the interest of a New York literary agent but failed to sell. The typescript then crawled into a box in my closet, where it slept for nearly 40 years—until I heard that Film at Lincoln Center was streaming Route One, with a wider virtual video release coming soon. Watching Kramer’s movie for the first time, I realized our projects formed mismatched bookends to the Gipper’s presidency.

Like Kramer’s best-known works—Ice, The Edge, Milestones, and Doc’s Kingdom—the unscripted Route One is a willful repudiation of conventional filmmaking. His early work won praise from aficionados of experimental film but failed to attract a wide American audience. Frustrated, Kramer moved to France in 1980, where he was highly esteemed and able to win funding for new politically tinged projects.

With money in hand, the expat decided to come back home in the late 1980s and go “looking for America,” as he put it in an interview. Like John Steinbeck, Robert Frank, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and countless others before and since, Kramer decided there’s no better place to go looking than the open road, that endless blank slate where it’s possible to connect with the essential American impulses—disaffection, curiosity, the itch to move on, and the perverse habit of despoiling the natural world in the pursuit of so-called progress and convenience. I hit the road in 1981 for similar but slightly different reasons. After cranking out newspaper copy for the previous five years, I was dissatisfied with my daily contributions to what I had come to think of as “the conventional wisdom,” the media’s canned view of American life that obeyed one unbendable commandment—Thou Shalt Not Offend—and had to be delivered in language an eighth grader could understand. I itched to write longer and deeper stories about people who were not considered newsworthy, and I decided the open road would be the best place to find them.

With so many roads to choose from, why did Kramer and I settle on U.S. 1? I have a hunch he was attracted to the tidy narrative arc the road provided—to my ears, “from Canada to Key West” sounds like it was made for a movie poster. My attraction was a bit more complicated. The road runs “from frost belt to sun belt,” as I wrote in my book’s introduction, “through some of the wooliest wilderness and grubbiest ghettoes known to mankind.” But just as important as its variety, this road offered the kind of historical serendipity that has always been irresistible to me. My Buick rolled off the assembly line in April of 1954, a few weeks before Vice President Richard Nixon unveiled President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to build a nationwide network of “interstate” highways. It was to be the most ambitious public works project in human history, an achievement of such magnitude that it sent bland bald Ike into an uncharacteristic fit of poetry. As he put it in his memoirs: “The amount of concrete poured to form these roadways would build 80 Hoover Dams or six sidewalks to the moon. To build them, bulldozers and shovels would move enough dirt and rock to bury all of Connecticut two feet deep.” Cars of the ’50s like my Buick, with its mammiferous chrome bumpers and fire-breathing V-8 engine and two-tone paint job, had outgrown America’s patchwork roads, including U.S. 1, which follows one of the three original Post Roads that connected New York and Boston during colonial times and would become the most heavily travelled road in the world by the 1930s. This disconnect between the cars of the ’50s and the pre-interstate roads they travelled on was intriguing to me, and it was captured with acid precision by Richard Yates in his masterpiece Revolutionary Road. Yates’s 1950s suburbanites had many misgivings—about their marriages, their jobs, their kids, and their “foolishly misplaced” homes. “Their automobiles didn’t look right either,” Yates wrote, “unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that fed from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road…”

Yates had found his metaphor for postwar America in his fictional Route Twelve. Kramer and I found our own 1980s surrogate: the real Route One.

America’s Lust for the Hideous

For all their differences, Kramer’s movie and my book do have some overlap. Both works set up shop in the margins of American life, where the malcontents, the paranoids, and the fever dreamers dwell, apart from the mainstream operators who wind up on the front page and the six o’clock news. Kramer filmed Doc talking to a gallery of these marginalized people, including a coven of witches, abortion clinic protesters, newlyweds, Penobscot Native Americans, supporters of the televangelist Pat Robertson, Haitian immigrants, soldiers, a rabid minister, refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, and a journalist investigating murders connected to white supremacists. Doc doesn’t so much interview these subjects as he tries to make them comfortable enough to open up, and he’s good at it. Like all skilled reporters, he’s curious and nonjudgmental. Though they do visit some postcard places—Walden Pond, for one, and the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, which features the Jayne Mansfield death car—Doc and Kramer stick mostly to unremarkable spots, such as housing projects, soup kitchens, army bases, and wedding chapels. Hovering over the trip like a fog is the scourge of AIDS and the Reagan administration’s dilatory response to it. The result of all this is a fragmented mosaic rather than a coherent portrait of a nation. The overall mood is one of melancholy.

My trip took place just before the AIDS scourge descended, but the people I met were not unlike the ones Kramer encountered: an itinerant Boston stripper working the back-road bars in Maine, a former NHL hockey star in the twilight of his career, people living uneasily in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear reactor, a Vietnam vet who actually missed the war, a Guardian Angel organizer in a Providence housing project, a gaggle of sozzled prosecutors at a convention of North Carolina district attorneys, the rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, the stock-car king Richard Petty, a Vietnamese refugee, a tattoo artist, a newspaper publisher, an immigrant activist in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Rather than melancholy, I sensed a pervasive mood of drift. After enduring the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Iranian hostage crisis, most of the people I met felt unmoored, hungry for something they could believe in and cling to. Which went a long way toward explaining why sunny Ronald Reagan had just won the presidency in a landslide.

One of the highlights of my trip was a long hot day in Edgefield, S.C., hometown of segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, where 2,000 activists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, gathered at Strom Thurmond High School to rally against Thurmond’s proposal to let certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expire. Most of the white townsfolk I talked to were not thrilled to have a couple thousand black people descend on their sleepy town on a Sunday morning and turn it into the wrong kind of national news.

After Jesse Jackson warmed up the crowd at the high school, I decided to skip the four-mile march into town. As I drove slowly past the long line of singing, chanting marchers, I realized they were outnumbered by cops—in marked cars, unmarked cars, a hovering helicopter. When I passed the marchers and accelerated toward town, the cops pulled me over and swarmed around the Buick, rifling through my trunk looking for weapons, grilling me about what I was doing in town, why I had a collection of out-of-state license plates, where I was going. After they let me go on my way, I would write: “They were just doing their job. No matter how many quiet years have passed, these men have not forgotten the blood and the ugliness that can spill out of afternoons like this.” The encounter with the cops was unnerving, but it was the exception that proved the rule. More times than I could count, my Buick was an ice-breaker and conversation starter, an entrée to worlds that would otherwise have been closed to me, an enabler of small grace notes. One of them happened on the afternoon I reached New York City. As I wrote:
You know you’ve crossed into the Bronx when you start noticing cars with no tires parked on their roofs. At a red light, a Chrysler Imperial glides up beside me. A girl is sitting on the front seat beside her father – grandfather? – slurping an ice cream cone. The man leans over and calls out: “That Buick a fifty-four or a fifty-five?”
 Fifty-four.”
“We use to have a fifty-six.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
He laughs. The girl, unfazed, slurps her ice cream. The man says, “That Buick’s worth a lotta money.”
“You haven’t driven it.”
More laughter. The girl looks over at me – not at the car, at Me – to see what her grandfather could possibly be so excited about. She goes right back to her ice cream cone. The light changes and immediately horns start blaring behind us. This is New York City, all right. The man takes one last long look at the Buick and waves goodbye and punches his Imperial down Boston Road.
By the time Kramer and I made our trips, of course, I-95 had turned U.S. 1 into a string of traffic lights through forgotten backwaters and the occasional big city, an afterthought, a scarred and unloved service road. I can’t speak for Kramer, but this was part of the point for me—to travel on 1954’s idea of a major highway while steering clear of the crushing monotony of the interstates. Surely there would be flecks of local color, maybe even archaeological relics from Yates’s roadside palaces dedicated to KING KONE MOBILGAS SHOPORAMA EAT. Other writers have had the same idea. In 1960 John Steinbeck climbed into a retrofitted pickup with a poodle named Charley and set out “in search of America,” driving a 10,000-mile counterclockwise loop around the edges of the lower 48 states, avoiding Ike’s new interstates as much as possible. “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside,” Steinbeck wrote. “No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” And in 1982, the year after my trip, William Least Heat-Moon published a bestseller called Blue Highways, his account of a trip around the lower 48 states. Heat-Moon’s mix of reportage and historical vignettes was guided by his determination to stick to back roads and shun interstates, cities, and fast food. While neither of us discovered any roadside stands selling squash juice, our very different trips did have a fleeting moment of connection. “I knew U.S. 1, stretching from the Canadian border to Key West, was capable of putting a man in an institution,” Heat-Moon wrote as he drove out of Maine toward Boston on my chosen road. “The highway was still a nightmare vision of the twentieth century, a four-lane representing (as Mencken put it) ‘the American lust for the hideous, the delight in ugliness for its own sake.’”

When I read those words, I knew I had chosen my route well.

The End of the Rainbow

Which brings us, finally, to the fatal flaw shared by Kramer’s movie and my book. The flaw is that road trips like ours are, by definition, built on the need for constant motion, which tends to result in a string of snapshots rather than deep dives into people’s lives. Indeed, one of Kramer’s stylistic tics is to string together a series of still photographs—a river gorge, the rings in a tree stump, dock ropes, a sunset—usually shown over dirge-like cello music. Establishing a mood of melancholy takes precedence over developing a narrative arc or a coherent view of the people Kramer meets. “Route One never explains itself,” as J. Hoberman wrote recently in The New York Times. “One thing simply follows another.”

It occurs to me only now that maybe Kramer was trying to make the point that there’s no time for patience in America, this land of restless, hopped-up go-getters who are always looking ahead to the next big score. My book didn’t try to make such a point. My urge to keep moving was partly motivated by economics—I needed to make it to Key West before I ran out of gas money—but mainly I was eager to see what waited around the next curve in the road. After my trip I found myself wondering if staying in one place might have yielded richer results, the way David Simon and Edward Burns spent a year observing the drug bazaar at the intersection of Monroe and Fayette Streets in West Baltimore in The Corner, or the way Richard Price dug like a dogged anthropologist into the lives of a cocaine-dealing crew in a New Jersey housing project in Clockers.

In a final irony, Kramer and I had one last thing in common: neither of us bought into Ronald Reagan’s Morning-in-America, feel-good, trickle-down horseshit. We had no way of knowing that our trips bookended the presidency that was the beginning of the nation’s seismic shift to the right, the beginning of the four-decade campaign to limit voting and abortion rights, to reduce environmental regulations, to free corporations and their lords to grow astronomically rich at the expense of the lower and middle classes. That shift from democracy to plutocracy is just now being understood and dissected in such books as Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. America, in Andersen’s telling, has come down to this: “everybody for themselves, everything’s for sale, greed is good, the rich get richer, buyer beware, unfairness can’t be helped, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers.”

The seismic shift began amid a national mood of melancholy and a sense of drift, the smoky things Kramer and I did our best to chronicle on our trips down U.S. 1. The shift hasn’t slowed down since, and it has, finally, landed America in the mess it’s in today: the rich getting richer, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers: the end of the rainbow.

Normal Was a Myth: On ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

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1.Sometime in the late 1980s, I found my family’s VHS copy of The Shining in the basement, and pushed play. The turquoise-colored opening credits rolled up the screen in silence. I knew there was supposed to be sound—I’d watched parts of the movie before on TV—but in this old recording, the yellow Volkswagen Beetle drove along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park with only the cassette’s soft fuzz as soundtrack. 

Then, a minute or so into the film, sound pierced the tape—just as the camera shifted from behind the car and drifted left off the mountain road’s shoulder, over a tree-lined cliff that overlooks St. Mary Lake. It had been so quiet in the basement that it was like I’d discovered noise again. 

Years later, I can still hear that moment of sound’s sudden return; it has infected me. I felt it when my soccer coach sped our team’s van along Pike’s Peak Highway, and I imagined us careening into the air. I feel it whenever I drive up a long hill—the worry that my car’s tires will lift off the ground and I will drift away. In those moments, anxiety has little concern for logic.

It feels a lot like disorientation—a total loss of control.

2.The Shining always leaves me tired. It might be that its hallways and rooms invite our eyes to ride the perspective, to become one with the film. The claim of Kubrick aficionados that the Overlook Hotel’s layout is spatially impossible—fully interior rooms with exterior windows, like the manager’s office—helps explain its overwhelming sense of disorientation.

I felt much the same way for most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new Netflix film by Charlie Kaufman—especially the overlong scenes in the car. A “young woman” (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to visit his parents; it will be her first time meeting them, and she’s skeptical there will be a second time. Irish actress Buckley is known to American audiences for her appearance in the Chernobyl series, but the best precedent for this new story is her wild performance in the 2017 film Beast—Buckley shows that she’s the perfect choice to portray a character who has lost her sense of reality.

The young woman thinks that Jake is nice enough, but she’s bored with the relationship. We hear her thoughts—and sometimes Jake seems to also hear them—but we never learn her name. Sometimes their sentences tangle and overlap, and we start to suspect that it’s more than mere coincidence. 

Time is malleable in the film, but even within Kaufman’s blurred reality, the road scene pushes the viewer to a point of frustration. I admire when filmmakers linger long enough to court annoyance, and in Kaufman’s case, it is for good reason. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and rejections of linear narrative. One of the most linear movie tropes of all—a couple moving straight down a long road—is the perfect entrypoint toward this subversion.

When the couple finally arrives at Jake’s childhood home, his mother (Toni Collette) is frantically waving at them from the window—but when they enter the house, she takes a long time to come downstairs. She and Jake’s father (David Thewlis) are hilarious and unhinged; Jake is embarrassed, and his girlfriend is confused. Things are just normal enough—the silly stories of Jake’s youth, the doting mother, the aloof father—but Kaufman turns them toward darkness. The surreal within the painfully domestic creates an eerie sense of distortion and disorientation. 

I watched Kaufman’s film after midnight in August—prime setting to settle into a strange story. Back in the early days of the pandemic, I thought the most powerful and relevant horror would be zombie films: lumbering, virulent husks of our past selves. But I think we’re past the point of initial shock of the health crisis, and at the curious moment where the most appropriate horror might be one of disorientation. Put simply, maybe things will never get back to normal because normal was a myth.

After the couple leaves the house, there’s another road trip scene—and somehow it feels even longer than the first. The second half of the film descends into the fully surreal while also settling into horror—one especially creepy scene happens at a late-night visit to a roadside ice cream parlor—before becoming fantastical (think somewhere between Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros). The ending won’t quite work for everyone, but that’s probably the point. Kaufman finished this film well before the pandemic, but sometimes coincidence becomes context. I’m Thinking of Ending Things couldn’t have arrived at a better time—either we try to fit together the film’s dizzying puzzle, or we accept that its fractures feel especially true.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersMy Chernobyl

Does Robert Towne’s ‘Chinatown’ Oscar Need an Asterisk?

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The advance obituary is an odd little literary mongrel. If it involves an interview, there is a tacit understanding between the interviewer and the subject that the substance of the interview, like the story of the subject’s life, won’t see print until the subject has had the decency to drop dead.

Most subjects take this in stride, part of the price of being a noteworthy person. For instance, when I interviewed Keith Botsford, a longtime friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, for a planned New York Times obit, he was cordial, forthcoming, witty. The man was a born storyteller, and he was obviously delighted to be given one last chance to tell the story of his life in his own way. Four years after that interview, Botsford died at 90, and the obituary ran last summer.

I had a very different experience when I got assigned to write the advance obit of Robert Towne, now 85, the screenwriter who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Chinatown in 1975. When I called Towne’s agent in Los Angeles to ask if he could arrange a telephone interview, the man was aghast. “That’s so morbid!” he said. “I would never ask Robert to agree to be interviewed for his own obituary. What are you thinking?” As I hung up the phone, I was thinking that people in Lala Land are all soft in the head. I wrote the obit without ever talking to Towne.

Towne also declined to be interviewed for Sam Wasson’s absorbing new book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. The book is built on the premise that Chinatown is more than one of the greatest American movies ever made; it was the pinnacle of an era that was about to vanish, the so-called New Hollywood, when directors took over the industry and put out a blizzard of brilliant, idiosyncratic movies before the suits regained control and started cooking up the tedious blockbusters, franchises, and special-effects comic book yarns that audiences are still being fed today.

To make his case, Wasson gets into the minds of the four men who shaped Chinatown: director Roman Polanski, still reeling from the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson gang; male lead Jack Nicholson, stepping into his first starring role; legendary producer Robert Evans; and Towne, whose Oscar win for Chinatown was sandwiched between nominations for his scripts of The Last Detail and Shampoo. Nicholson also declined to be interviewed by Wasson, as did the female lead, Faye Dunaway, after asking how much “participation”—money—was in it for her and learning the answer was zero.

These rebuffs didn’t derail Wasson. He interviewed Polanski and Evans extensively, along with a small army of friends, lovers, enemies, collaborators, ex-wives, and children of his four principals. He freely dipped into the seemingly bottomless well of Hollywood biographies, memoirs, and celebrity interviews. The result is a rich, knowing portrait of the making of a single movie that manages to pull back and give a wide-focus view of an entire industry at a peak moment, just before the deluge. Wasson writes beautiful sentences (along with a few purplish ones), and he is an astute chronicler of Los Angeles and its weather and flora, its social strata and geography and history and light. While struggling with his Chinatown script, Towne revisits his boyhood hometown, the blue-collar fishing port of San Pedro, and finds it largely unchanged. Wasson writes:
The brick buildings of Beacon Street, Whispering Joe’s and Shanghai Red’s, the tattoo parlors, the ferry to Terminal Island. He stood listening at the waterfront, where as a boy he’d watched the tuna fishermen set off to sea and, as a young man one summer, set off with them. He watched his childhood home on Sixth Street and revisited his earliest memory, sitting in the backyard by the paint-splattered Philco radio, listening to Seabiscuit win yet another race.
Yes, when it comes to portraying the textures of Los Angeles and its major industry, Wasson is in a league with Nathanael West, Bruce Weber, David Thomson, and Joan Didion.

Much as I loved Wasson’s portraits and his accounts of the battles on both sides of the camera during the making of Chinatown, the book’s most startling revelation was about what happened before the cameras started to roll. My earlier research of Towne’s life for that advance obituary had alerted me to the extensive rewriting Polanski contributed to the script, most notably the ending. As written by Towne, the femme fatale, played by Dunaway, shoots her incestuous father, played by John Huston, and regains custody of their daughter. A happy ending, sort of, as evil is punished. Polanski, a survivor of the Holocaust with fresh memories of his wife’s horrific murder, needed something darker. After director and screenwriter fought like a couple of tomcats over the proposed revisions, Polanski’s version wound up on the screen: on a night street in Chinatown, a cop shoots Dunaway through the head as she tries to flee with her daughter, and the father makes off with the fruit of his incest. Evil goes unpunished. Much darker, and much better.

Wasson tops that story with the stunning revelation that Edward Taylor, a former college roommate and frequent collaborator of Towne’s, contributed extensively to the Chinatown script long before Polanski started putting his fingerprints on it. “Towne referred to Taylor as ‘my editor,’” Wasson writes, “but rarely spoke of his existence to anyone in Hollywood.”

Then this:
As in any partnership, the attribution of creative input remains an inexact science…and considering that most creative partnerships, like (Ben) Hecht’s and (Charles) Lederer’s, are properly credited on screen, there is rarely any need to investigate the question of authorship. It is openly shared. But in the case of Edward Taylor, whose intimate and ongoing involvement in the conceptualization and production of Towne’s screenplays, whose cache of Chinatown notes—stacks of legal pads filled with Taylor’s original scenes, plans for restructuring subsequent drafts, long swaths of dialogue, character sketches, synopses of projected material, and more—and whose in-person and on-phone discussions with Towne on a sometimes daily basis reveal him to be a generative intelligence, invited not merely to respond to the work as an editor would, but to participate in the creation and evolution of a script moment by moment from the project’s inception, reveal Taylor’s influence to be no different from that of any other co-creator—save for one thing: Towne held the veto power.
This open secret among the people close to Towne and Taylor led many of them to ask the inevitable question: why didn’t Taylor insist on a screenwriting credit, and the money that would flow with it? When Taylor’s stepdaughter implored him, “What are you doing? You can’t not get credit. It’s not fair and it’s not accurate,” he replied: “That’s not important. What’s important is my friendship with Robert.”

Wasson is left to speculate what was behind Taylor’s selfless, undying allegiance to his friend. Was it because Towne had rushed Taylor to the hospital when Taylor’s appendix burst, probably saving his life? Was it because Towne helped him through the aftermath of a former girlfriend’s suicide? Or because Towne arranged an abortion for another girlfriend? Or was it that fame and fortune simply didn’t matter to bookish Edward Taylor?

If there was an answer, it went to the grave with Taylor, who died on Feb. 12, 2013. For his part, Polanski had no interest in fighting Towne for a credit for his contributions to the screenplay. “Not my style,” Polanski told Wasson.

Though Wasson was unable to locate the motivation behind his book’s big reveal, The Big Goodbye yields abundant pleasures. Wasson takes us inside the minds of people as they struggle and fight and cooperate to make a movie masterpiece. We watch Chinatown’s production designer, Richard Sylbert, as he scouts locations, trying to find echoes of vanished 1930s Los Angeles, before the big migration and the freeways and the smog. Like Polanski, Sylbert is a perfectionist, no detail too small to merit his attention. We learn that Sylbert, who won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, hand-selected every book on George’s shelves for that movie. Such care produced a seamless visual structure in all of his work, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge.

Sylbert’s sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert, Chinatown’s costume designer, was equally obsessive. And it didn’t stop with how she dressed the cast. “I used to even think about what was in their pockets,” she said. “There are those people who have one key. There are those people who have three keys. There are those people who have five keys. They’re different and they come from different places.”

“To Polanski,” Wasson writes, “there were no minutiae.” And so we watch him trying to coax an ant across supine Jack Nicholson’s face, and yanking an unruly hair out of Faye Dunaway’s scalp (shrieking ensued), and obsessing over camera movements and lighting.

Some of this has been told before, notably in Peter Biskind’s superb Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind posits that the New Hollywood began with 1969’s Easy Rider and ended with 1980’s Raging Bull, which puts his chronology modestly at odds with Wasson’s. “In retrospect,” Wasson writes, “1974 represents the final flowering of a film garden passionately tended by liberated studio executives and an unspoken agreement between audiences and filmmakers.” No matter. Both writers agree on Biskind’s obituary of that scorching golden age: “The fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.”

And now, 45 years after the slaughter, we learn that Robert Towne’s Oscar needs an asterisk.

If You Haven’t Seen ‘Billions’ Yet, You Should

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1.The Showtime series Billions finished its fourth season last month. I’ve been watching since the 2016 premiere, but I’ve been a staff writer for The Millions since 2009, so…there was no way that, in my household, we wouldn’t be referring to the show as THE Billions. The Millions founder C. Max Magee said in an interview a few years ago, “I thought the site should be about all the millions of uncountable interesting things out there.” In good keeping, and despite recent news that could easily turn you off a show about the wheelings and dealings of the one percent (i.e. the indictment of billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffery Epstein on charges of sex trafficking of minors), I’m here to count Billions among such interesting things, and to encourage you to do so as well.
In broad strokes, the show is about two warring groups: absurdly rich venture capitalists and the public officials hell-bent on taking them down. Chief among these tribes are rags-to-riches venture capitalist ace Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis; and U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a Yalie, son of a Yalie, and Brooklyn Heights townhouse-dweller, played by Paul Giamatti. Tempering the testosterone are some tough ladies: Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who somewhat absurdly also works for Axe as consiglieri (i.e. a high-paid, high-heeled performance coach/guru); and Lara (Malin Akerman), Bobby’s fair-haired high school sweetheart from their blue-collar ’hood whose kill-or-be-killed instincts are as merciless as her husband’s. The symmetry is complete with lieutenants and foot soldiers. On the Axe Capital side, there’s Mike “Wags” Wagner (the brilliant David Constabile, previously of The Wire and Breaking Bad) as Bobby’s right hand and court jester, along with a couple of fixer/heavy types, and a gaggle of front-line traders. And on the bureaucratic-politico side are Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), an ambitious boy scout; and Assistant District Attorney Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad).
During season one, I found myself defending the series to my bookish friends: why would I—novelist, Asian American female, middle class and cash poor—care about any of these one-percenters, or find their relentless pissing contests entertaining or compelling? How did co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien manage to hook me? I wasn’t sure, but I worried the reasons might be less than honorable. When season two came around, I tuned in faithfully, but kept my growing fandom to myself.
2.By the end of season two, Chuck and Axe have called on every resource and strategy to destroy each other. It’s a fierce game of chess, each player anticipating moves, besting the other’s intricate calculations. No one is off limits—friends, family, bystanders—when it comes to conscripting pawns and patsies. “It’s no different than emergency triage after a mass casualty event,” says one unsuspecting victim, a doctor who aids Axe in executing nefarious deeds, then lands in prison after missing one of Chuck’s Machiavellian moves. “You save who you can and force the fate of the rest out of your mind.”
Both Chuck and Axe rack up high-stakes wins and losses, the most important of which, we come to understand, are not financial. These men want to conquer; each covets the crown of potency, the scepter of cunning. Ascension—up and up, more and more—drives them at times into the heat of recklessness; yet each claims the cost-benefit “worth it.” In the meantime, Wendy—the de facto highest of high stakes for both men—somehow maintains both her autonomy and her neutrality, even while struggling to serve two masters (or, as the Governor character says, “having the two actually serve you”). Lara, on the other hand, loses her taste for the game (and for Bobby) and quits while she’s ahead, taking the children with her.
The wards of each team valiantly, a little buffoonishly, go to battle on behalf of their leaders, eager for the victory they will share if they demonstrate radical loyalty. The formula, despite the rarefied scenario, thus materializes as familiar. Think Jimmy McNulty and Avon Barksdale; the DEA and Walter White; the FBI and Tony Soprano. The formula works: we care equally about the good guys as we do the bad guys, as it becomes harder and harder to tell them apart and as each character shape-shifts according to the moral conflict/survival imperative du jour.

3.But there’s more to Billions than the least common denominators of the prestige drama: Over time, Billions has demonstrated a robust adaptability—the creative energy of a live organism evolving with our times. It could be argued that the series found its footing and got better. Or maybe I’m giving the writers too much credit? TV-land professionals in the know might say the focus groups spoke, the advertisers named their target audiences, and—in an interestingly meta sort of way—these interests were heeded.
In any case, in season three, the simplicity of dueling primal energies—the head-to-head white-maleness of the show’s power struggle—deconstructs and complicates. We saw shades of it in season two with the arrival at Axe Capital of Taylor Mason (played by the mesmerizing Asia Kate Dillon), a petite, doe-eyed mathematics prodigy, who also happens to be gender non-binary. Taylor’s increasing role in the company—their rise in the hierarchy based on virtuosic merit—coupled with the surprisingly elegant reconciliation of the Chuck-Wendy-Axe triangle in the season finale, effectively gives depth to characterizations that had been on the cusp of cartoonish. In other words, Taylor brings a non-binary presence explicitly into the scenario, demanding that both the characters and the viewer shift from easy contrasts and dualities to more nuanced personalities and conflicts. But Taylor doesn’t function simply as a token character with a ghettoized storyline. Rather, the entire world of the series makes this shift as well.
For example, the central triangle strained credulity in season one: how the hell does Wendy go to work every day to Axe, who butters her bread extravagantly and trusts her more than anyone, only to come home at night to Chuck, who has spent every minute of his day trying to destroy Axe? By the end of season two, though, we begin to recognize these multiple vectors of intimacy and loyalty as a grown-up treatment of partnerships of various kinds. Each character lives and loves and works simultaneously in more than one register, driven by and toward a complex set of desires, instincts, and values. In the midst of power wars, Wendy and Chuck each do what they have to do, aware of the impact on the other while also adhering to their own imperatives and ambitions. Every episode, for me, thus became a kind of fascinating profile of a modern, complicated monogamy between ambitious people. In the final scene of the season two finale, after Chuck has succeeded in toppling Axe, Wendy and Chuck meet on the steps of their house at the end of the day and look each other in the eye: Wendy’s look says, Well played, while Chuck’s says, I’m sorry, and thank you, and boy I’m tired. They walk together into the house.
In season three, the major frame-shift that happens is in some ways classic, but also of a piece with the series playing faster and looser with facile dualities: Axe and Chuck, having found in each other a worthy nemesis, now find they have common interests. Out of necessity, and braced by sufficient respect, they join forces—to both save Wendy from multiple catastrophes and to undermine mutual foes. This solid if reluctant alliance continues into season four, as the battle map is again redrawn, troops realign across the board, and Axe and Taylor—now the rebellious, prodigal protégé—draw and aim their weapons at each other.
4.So with season four now concluded, I will once again speak forth my praise. Billions has come into its own as a progressive contemporary drama set in an utterly unprogressive world. As Daniel K. Isaac, who plays one of Axe’s loyal soldiers said in an interview with Nancy, “it’s—you know—it’s middle-aged white guys and, like, suits [who are] like, “Yo, Billions! Love that show, man.” (Isaac is Korean American and gay.) This, in my opinion, is among the most interesting things out there in TV. We see more people of color, women, and queer people in positions of hard and soft power than in most actual financial institutions and corporations—let alone mainstream movies and TV. More importantly, we see them develop and act as whole human beings: While Isaac is a secondary player, for example, be sure to see him in season three’s episode 10, “Redemption”—a breakout moment if ever there was one.
Taylor and Wendy in particular steal the show in the fourth season, as each maneuvers through intense moral decisions that call into question competing desires and core values. For Taylor, the conflicts are rooted in their identities as an idealistic millennial and organizational leader more than (or at least as much as) a gender non-conforming person. Wendy’s central moral dilemma centers around her ethics as a medical professional and loyalties as a spousal partner more than as a woman per se. In other words, the characters are neither essentialized nor tokenized, and we viewers can immerse in an evolved, integrated world where it isn’t “a thing” for a woman or a gender non-binary person to both wield power in a man’s world and manifest intersectional human complexity. Both characters are flawed—Taylor’s somewhat ironic attachment to precision and measurement feels precariously rigid, and Wendy’s penchant for saving and being saved by powerful men is at times unsettling. Thus, even as these two find themselves facing off, on some level they recognize each other’s vulnerabilities and root for each other to find footing in their power roles.
Overall the series has evolved to concern itself seriously with the relationships between power and moral codes, self-preservation of the individual and the good of the whole. The gray areas feel genuinely gray, the writing at once nuanced and sharply entertaining, and the stakes meaningful: loyalty, friendship, vocation, integrity, self-knowledge. Many of the characters are self-made, and so we can recognize—if not excuse—the primal survival-of-the-fittest drive that undergirds much of the “bro” energy among the Axe pack. At the same time, a millennial character like Taylor brings to the fore a compelling alternative philosophy to the rags-to-riches figure: “A new kind of organization,” they say, when wooing a coworker to jump Axe’s ship and come with them to their startup. “Top down but not imperious or impetuous. Integrated.”
All along, Taylor’s moral center has been piquing our interest and admiration, poking holes in the 35- to 50-something white-male zeitgeist:

I think you’re trying to bully me, and a bully is devastated when you try to stand up to him. —Season three, Taylor calling a bluff at a blackjack table
The individual sacrificing their self for the whole can be the most beautiful thing there is. But not if it’s done under duress or for the wrong reasons. —Season three, Taylor to a colleague who is being asked by Axe to lie under oath
There are things they were comfortable with at Axe Cap that we will never do here [at Mason Cap]…they turned us all into Starship Troopers, sent us to Klendathu and some of us got our brains eaten. And it wasn’t until the end of our time in that we realized we were the bad guys all along. It’s not like that here. —Season four, Taylor to their new team, largely poached from Axe

Taylor is thoroughly, methodically moral: The reasons always matter, the means as much as the ends. They believe deeply that one can be both successful and good. Contrast this with their mentor, Bobby, who says things like, “I felt guilty once…When you do something that puts yourself back in charge, remind yourself that you are not less but more powerful for what you’ve come through, that’s when you’ll feel better,” and his mother who says to him, “Maybe I shoulda told you not to talk like that when you were a kid…you woulda had a little voice inside your head that told you not to. Do you have that voice…at all?” Bobby isn’t a villain, or if he is, it’s in the Don Draper mold—despicable and admirable in equal measure. But he is a white male, rags-to-riches or not—someone to whom the Russian oligarch Grigor Andalov (played fabulously and insanely by the inimitable John Malkovich) can say about Taylor, “But she is your property, not mine.” It is the only moment a character intentionally uses the “she” pronoun in reference to Taylor, and the effect is brilliantly chilling.
Many of you may already be die-hard Billions fans. If not—if it seems too one-percenty, or too bro-ey, or too ridiculous (all of which it is, to some degree, don’t get me wrong)—I still say give it a try: As Taylor would say, the reasons matter, so don’t miss out for the wrong ones.

Feelin’ Good: What ‘Green Book’ Got Wrong and ‘Period’ Gets Right

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1.
We’re back to this. Or, more accurately, we never left it. Who is “allowed” to tell what story? Back in 2016, when the novelist Lionel Shriver delivered an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival wearing a sombrero, a heated debate ensued about cultural appropriation. Shriver is white and wore the sombrero as a dig at students of color at Bowdoin who’d taken issue with a tequila-themed party where students donned miniature sombreros. Shriver said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”

Both “supposed to” and “allowed” miss the point rather spectacularly (not to mention Shriver’s omission that the miniature sombreros in question were vaunted on Instagram). Many have written/spoken about this in the years since Brisbane, myself included. Shriver’s and others’ fear-mongering pivot to the so-called tyranny of political correctness diverts attention from poorly executed portrayals of a culture or character of color, pointing instead to oversensitivity and intellectual inferiority when anyone questions the moral and/or aesthetic quality of these portrayals. In the end, I’ve found that the debate comes down to something rather ugly: a battle over who’s really being oversensitive and intellectually simple-minded.

With the controversy over Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar win, it’s tempting to say, Here we go again. The director, Peter Farrelly, is white, as is screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Vallelonga, on whom the main white character is based. The film has had a polarizing effect, with fans lauding its feel-good interracial friendship as the message of hope we need, and detractors criticizing its reduction of racism to a matter of moderately wonky individual attitudes requiring a few key adjustments—nothing a little quality time with an exceptional black man like the composer and pianist Don Shirley can’t fix. Further fueling the controversy is the fact that Shirley’s family spoke out strongly against inaccuracies in Shirley’s portrayal.

2.
But are we back to Brisbane? I think yes and no. Green Book evidences for me a different problem that’s emerged in recent years—both before and after Shriver-gate: white storytellers, recognizing that white-centricism is under scrutiny, rarely now write stories featuring all-white characters. In other words, the market for stories about white people who have no intersections or collisions with people of color has narrowed. While this may be a positive evolution generally speaking, a result is that the instinct to “just add color,” a thinly layered splash here or there, has pervaded many books and films.

Case in point: I recently served on a literary awards committee and was required to read some 60 to 70 debut novels. A significant number of books by white authors either took place in non-white countries and/or featured non-white primary or secondary characters. Most of these novels did not impress me: I found it was not difficult to distinguish between a story about significant relationships between people of different races and a story to which an author had “added color.” In some cases one could almost feel the anxiety motivating the story’s setup—I’ve got to have nonwhite characters—along with the inadequate if well-intentioned response—and here they are!

A crucial question is, why have you “got to?” I’ll defer (as I’ve done previously in interviews and conversations) to Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, who points us to the fundamental element of motive: whatever is driving your inclination to write or investigate outside of your own culture or experience—anxiety or curiosity, commercial or moral interests, guilt or authentic engagement with power dynamics, savior complex or humility—it will show. The other thing that shows is the creator’s actual lived human relationships to/with the culture and/or character being depicted. To paraphrase the writer Danielle Evans, who tweeted eloquently on this subject in the aftermath of Brisbane, if you are white, who are the people of color in your life, and what is the quality/nature of those relationships? Start there, before imagining you can write well in this vein.

3.
No one but Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley will ever know the true nature of their relationship. Which is why, in my opinion, Green Book is not the story of “a true friendship,” as advertised. Rather it’s the story of a white working-class family man’s exposure to a new (new to him) sort of black person—erudite, fastidious, a genius musical talent. Don Shirley is so unlike the black people that Tony knows that he is both surprised and miffed when whites in the South physically and verbally harass Shirley and enforce racial segregation. Tony’s oddball role as Shirley’s driver and de facto bodyguard during his concert tour through the deep south becomes a personal journey of reorienting his passive racism—the racism of Italian-American cultural provincialism—toward a more noble awareness of the indignities black Americans face and his obligation to act in the face of such indignities.

A film about “a true friendship” would have co-protagonists. Green Book has a lead and a supporting role. Here I disagree with Octavia Spencer’s assessment of the Don Shirley that Green Book presents—not a “person of color with agency” (per her statement as to why she executive produced the film) but rather a differently objectified figure. A non-stereotype, yet still an underdeveloped, alt-version of the “magical negro,” and mainly a vehicle for loveable, plain-spoken Tony to confront blind spots and work out, in attitude and action, his individual moral development.

The specifics of Don Shirley’s family’s objections to the depiction—as estranged from his family, a lone and pathologized figure—are thus utterly relevant: Why is Shirley embarking on this tour of the deep south if, as one of his trio’s musicians says, he doesn’t have to? What does he really want from his driver, and why does he pursue Tony of all people? The complexities of Shirley’s context, background, and motivations are unexplored and distractingly thin. All we know—all that matters in the film—is that Shirley becomes dependent on Tony to save him, repeatedly, in brutal and humiliating situations. The “friendship,” from Shirley’s side, thus becomes based on gratitude (granted, Tony is also grateful, for Shirley’s assistance in writing love letters to his wife; but the exchange is hardly one of equal stakes). At the very end of the film, Shirley’s gratitude reaches its climax when Tony and his loving Italian-American family “save” Shirley from his loneliness on Christmas eve: They welcome him to the family dinner, doing the heroic work of refraining from racial slurs and everything.

In short: Green Book is a white-framed story, by and about white people, that gives white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves in relation to white-on-black racism, and to which some interesting color has been added. The fact that Mahershela Ali brings his virtuosic talent to playing the colorful character adds gravitas and an illusion of depth and complexity.

In my initial considerations of the film, I intended to interrogate in a broader sense the “feel-good” value of art and entertainment—to propose that it’s natural to want to feel good, but that we need to weigh that desire against the consequences of comfy passivity. Now, I’m actually hoping anyone who felt good at the end of Green Book (I’m looking at you, Academy, along with millions of moviegoers who “liked” Green Book, in their hearts and on social media) will interrogate that they felt good—about a film that calls itself a “true” friendship story when, in fact, it “protagonizes” the white character and makes a prop of the black character, thus shrinking systemic racism into a tiny individualized package. What’s more, Green Book manages to both propose an over-simplified solution to racism, i.e., adjustments to personal prejudice, and distance the majority of white people from even that bit of work by virtue of its 1962 deep south setting: oh those bigots, weren’t they awful?.

But enough about Green Book. 

4.
For comparison, let’s look at the winning film for Best Documentary Short, Period. End of Sentence, through a similar lens. Who made the film, what is the frame, who are the protagonists, what is supposed to “feel good” and why?

Frankly, when Melissa Berton, a white woman who co-produced Period—a 26-minute documentary about the taboo and health risks around menstruation in rural India—stepped up to the mic on stage at the Oscars and exclaimed,
This film began because high school students here, and our great partners at Action India, wanted to make a difference, a human rights difference—
my skepticism antenna went up. Behind Berton stood four of those high school students (now college students)—white women who graduated from the Oakwood School, a private school in North Hollywood with a $40,000 annual price tag. Who will be portrayed as leading actors here, and who the supporting roles, I wondered.

In 2013, girls from Oakwood involved with Girls Learn International, with Berton as their faculty advisor, attended the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women and became aware that the majority of females in rural India had no access to sanitary napkins and thus suffered embarrassment, ostracization, and health risks while managing blood flow. Also, many girls dropped out of school shortly after they began menstruating. The Oakwood girls were appalled and wanted to “do something.” At the same time, they’d learned about a social entrepreneur in India named Arunachalam Muruganantham, who’d invented a sanitary-napkin making machine that could be operated by village women themselves. Berton and the Oakwood students raised money for the machine, materials, and—because they wanted their project to reach beyond the village itself—a documentary film. Working with the grassroots feminist organization Action India, they identified a village—Kathikhera, in northern India—where the machine could be put to use.

The optics at the Oscars and in relation to Berton and Oakwood concerned me, in large part due to memories of the 2005 Oscars, when British photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels—about Briski’s project of teaching photography to daughters of sex workers in Calcutta’s red-light district and trying to place the girls in European boarding schools—won for Best Documentary. The controversy around that film—its making, its aftermath, and its success—are best summed up by feminist/queer theorist and English professor Frann Michel, who wrote in 2005:
“Born Into Brothels” might seem to suggest that the residents of Sonagachi are without resources or collective organization, and that escape from the neighborhood is the only possibility for saving the children. In the film, Briski even describes the children as “doomed” in their home environment.
Michel goes on to detail the longstanding local activist efforts—establishing significant social, education, and health services—of the sex workers themselves, notable Indian artists, academics, and government officials, and local NGOs. And she concludes:
[T]o the extent that the film implies that Briski worked alone, without the assistance of local activists, it overestimates the powers of the crusading individual.

Moreover, the film’s emphasis on “good”—that is, boarding school—education exacerbates its focus on individual rather than communal solutions. Even if all eight of the children profiled in the film had been “rescued” by such education, the lives of other Sonagachi residents would not be improved… “Born Into Brothels” is a powerful film in its ability to tug at the heartstrings of westerners. But to the extent it suggests that the only solutions lie in individual outsiders rescuing individual children, it presents a misleading story and indeed an unnecessarily despairing picture of possibilities for change.
It would seem that the next generation of documentary filmmakers (and socially engaged white American girls) learned something from the conversation generated by Brothels’ success—a conversation that existed long before Brothels but came to the fore in 2005.  The Oakwood girls partnered with a 40-year-old local organization—the aforementioned Action India—and recognized that lasting change would only happen if the women of Kathikhera took ownership of the project and its development—making, packaging, and selling the sanitary napkins, and braving difficult conversations about what they are doing and why.
They don’t just want to donate money and buy the girls a pad machine. They want to go there. They want to speak with the women… They want to install this machine and make sure that we’re giving the power entirely to them to create these pads and to become empowered and independent.
Enter Rayka Zehtabchi (her words above), an Iranian American and recent USC film school graduate, who directed Period. When it came time to bring on a filmmaker, a film industry veteran and Oakwood parent named Garrett Schiff contacted cinematographer/editor Sam Davis, who in turn recommended Zehtabchi, his close friend and USC classmate. It would seem then a fortuitous accident that not only is Zehtabchi female (Schiff was explicit in expressing this requirement) but also a person of color. In a short video for the 2015 Kickstarter campaign for her narrative short Mataran—about an Iranian mother deciding whether to pardon, or approve capital punishment for, her son’s murderer—Zehtabchi said this:
I’m an Iranian American, and I’m very much aware of the Western viewpoint on Iran.  A lot of the negativity that is associated with that comes as a result of the political situation in Iran [which] has the second highest rate of executions in the world, behind China. And their method of execution is hanging.
While, by her own admission, Zehtabchi knew nothing about menstrual hygiene or cultural taboos around menstruation in India, she did know that acute awareness of “the Western viewpoint” (from a non-Western viewpoint) was crucial to any project made by Westerners about a non-Western culture. Specifically, Zehtabchi understood that certain non-Western cultural practices (in this case, the taboo around menstruation and managing periods with unsanitary cloths) would incite in Westerners a negative response—repulsion, condemnation, pity; and it was crucial that the film depict these realities and their contexts through the subjects’ points-of-view, not the Western gaze.

Period is also executive produced by Indian film industry veteran Guneet Monga, with interviews assistance from one of her company’s junior producers, Mandakini Kakar, and Action India. Whoever initiated these recruitment efforts, which would crucially determine who was “in the room” as key aspects of the project developed, should be commended.

And here in an interview from MoveableFeast, Zehtabshi, explains precisely why:
Before going to India, there was this idea of making a totally different film about the group of high school girls in Los Angeles who are starting this whole movement and working with a group of women in India [to] help start this sanitary pad business. Melissa Berton…got all the high school girls involved in this whole mission and got us communicating with…the inventor of the pad machine…when I went to India…to start shooting, the machine [had been] installed and it became very clear that the focus and the center of the story was specifically the women in this one village because it was so powerful to see how much this one machine was affecting all the people…
And once again we are back to white framing as default; primary and supporting roles; and the power and privilege to “protagonize.” Whose idea was it to make the girls the main characters?  To whom did it become “very clear” that the village women should instead be the focus? Were there some who needed convincing or enlightening? Who was in the room when that conversation occurred, and would this shift have been possible without Zehtabchi, Monga, Action India, etc. as prominent voices? We may never know the answers to these questions, but I dare say I have a reasonable idea; even as I hope I’m more wrong than right.

5.
Maybe in the end I am indeed interrogating the vital implications of “feel-good” when it comes to films engaging with social issues. As Americans, what we have historically and continually failed to recognize is the feel-good power of humility. There is an important distinction, for would-be liberal do-gooders, between self-congratulation—Look what we did! Isn’t it inspiring?—and self-evolution—Look at what the rest of the world has to teach us. The hard pill for many to swallow is that, in 2019, white Westerners with the best of progressive politics and intentions are as susceptible to the pitfall of privileged protagonizing as are 1960s bigots of yore, or even MAGA Trumpians. [Side note: while a comprehensive analysis of another 2019 Oscar contender for best short documentary, Lifeboat, is not the focus here, I encourage you to watch it for yourself and examine the ways in which the esteemed, experienced director hews uncomfortably close to white-savior/huddled masses tropes and images in this film about the global refugee crisis.]

I appreciate Zehtabchi’s artistic talents, but without her evident essential humility, her talents and good intentions could easily, unwittingly effect more harm than good. When asked in an interview with Ms. Magazine, “What was the most shocking or surprising thing that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?” Zehtabchi said:
I think it really taught me a lot about myself. I grew up sort of thinking I was always mature and worldly in a lot of ways. And I think I realized when I went to India—when I was exposed to this whole issue—that I really don’t know anything about the world…
A foregrounded humility is especially crucial as Period’s influence on mainstream conversations about global issues for women and girls increases. “The Pad Project”—the nonprofit that grew out of the Oakwood student’s efforts—promotes their mission with the tagline, A period should end a sentence—not a girl’s education. It’s a catchy, motivating slogan that elicits applause and makes us all feel good; but in fact the relationship between lack of menstrual hygiene and dropping out of school is more associative and anecdotal than rigorously evidenced. And this distinction matters. In an interview with NPR, researcher Marni Sommer said that hard research has yet to be funded or conducted on menstrual hygiene’s impact on education; in small focus groups, girls around the world identified menstruation as “‘one of many issues that makes engaging in and participating regularly in school problematic.” This, surmises the NPR reporter, is “a far cry from proving that the barriers to menstrual hygiene are causing educational harm.” Likely, multiple converging factors end a girl’s education and make managing periods difficult—including, for example, lack of running water to wash your hands and toilets with privacy locks on the doors. Says Sommer, “The studies out there are not looking at toilets…no one finds toilets sexy,” and the suggestion that a pad-making project will solve the problem worries her.

A final frustration with the tagline is the implication that addressing menstrual hygiene is urgent only insofar as it impacts education. Sommer feels strongly that being able to hygienically and unashamedly manage your period is a human right: “We shouldn’t have to justify that girls are deserving of an environment where they can just meet their basic bodily needs.”

6.
No one is suggesting the film shouldn’t have been made or that it hasn’t had a net positive influence. “The benefit of this movie,” says Sommer, “is that it opens the conversation.” And again, here, I appreciate Zehtabchi’s humility: the filmmaker herself, as far as I’ve seen, has not touted the tagline, and instead said of the film’s value:
it’s always been a wonderful conversation starter and we have a lot of interest from schools and universities and organizations that would love to eventually screen the film. That was the goal of the whole project in the first place—let’s start conversations about periods.
In this vein, I am happy to protagonize the girls, The Pad Project, the faculty advisor, the filmmaker, the producers, the parents who contributed money, everyone involved: Look at what they did: they started a conversation about a complex, ongoing issue. And yet, first and foremost, look at the women and girls of Kathikhera—Sneha, Rekha, Preeti, Shushma, Roksana, Preeti, Gouri, Shabana, Sulekha, Ajeya, Suman, Shashi, Usha, Sushila, Anita—protagonists in their own stories, their families, their communities, their economies, their complex and evolving lives—from whom the rest of us have much to learn.

Does Size Matter? A Conversation with Three Filmmakers

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the size of art—specifically short forms across the genres. In literature, compression and brevity—aesthetic experiences as “bursts” of meaning, capsules of experience—have always excited me: The writers I most admire all work masterfully in the short form. Every word, every phrase, every image counts; every moment does “triple duty” in working to resonate layers of meaning.

As writers, we are always immersing ourselves in other art forms for nourishment. For me, film in particular has been a mainstay. As both viewer and fellow storyteller, I learn enormously from films—about narrative structure, emotional texture, visual and aural detail, dialogue, characterization, et alia. Here at The Millions, you’ll be hearing more from me about film and TV, starting with this conversation with three accomplished filmmakers—a documentarian, an animator, and a fictionist—about the short form.

The Millions: As both makers and viewers of short films, what do you think the short form can do better/more compellingly than (or perhaps just differently from) the long form?

Cecilia Aldarondo: Great shorts are these little gems that can sometimes make their mark on us precisely because of their concision. As maker and viewer, I am attracted to shorts because they enable us to dip our toes into an idea without having the burden of too much elaboration. As a filmmaker, I can treat a short like a game. There’s a low-stakes lightness to the process. With a feature, the pressures of fundraising and distribution can really tax the creative process. With a short, I don’t even have to worry if anyone sees it. I feel the luxury of experimentation. I also like to treat shorts as opportunities for collaboration—I can say to a busy friend, hey, let’s make this thing over a weekend or a week or whatever, and this low-pressure situation enables me to remember that art-making is supposed to involve play, failure, and elasticity, and how rewarding it can be to be new at something.

Sometimes, though, I do find the short form too slight, or too simple, for me to really tackle something. One of the current documentaries I’m making—a feature exploring the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico—began as a short film. Very quickly I realized that I couldn’t do justice to the seismic nature of this disaster in a short form. It just didn’t work; the short was cacophonous and didn’t hang together. I also think sometimes filmmakers are more susceptible to triteness in a short; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of shorts fall back on cheap tropes that reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. I actually think it can be harder to be original in a short.

George Griffin: “Does Size Matter?” What is it, this short form, besides length?

My position is temperamental: I worship the letter, analogous to the drawing, the frame, the most elemental piece of motion picture film. Look at the letter G. It contains hints of an unjoined circle, itself hinged by a straight line. It exists alone, on a plinth, glanced at or holding my focus while I wander around it, close up or from across the room. Maybe it’s a clean Swiss font, or there are scratchy marks, drop shadows, curlicues. I draw it a certain way, maybe after numerous stylistic revisions, erasures, alternating colors.

Letters build words, which could arrange themselves into sentences, often leading to paragraphs clumped atop each other into stories. And that’s it. I can’t see anything longer through the fog: too far away. Well, not quite. Just as a longer form can contain more than one story, there can be a dialectic of story and counter-story. I have made both cartoons and what I’ve called “anti-cartoons,” and on two occasions have combined them into a single, somewhat longer film.

Just as early cartoons often arose from comic strips, perhaps the size/length issue will continue to be affected by the graphic novel. And maybe the cliché “poetic,” so often used to describe short film, can evolve into a real dialogue.

TM: George, how then do you think about “story?”  There is certainly a sense of narrative in your more recent films “You’re Outta Here” and “It Pains Me to Say This.” Do you tend to begin with characters and narrative, or does image or shape or color come first?  Is it different with each film?

GG: Since the ’80s, when I lost interest in “self-referential” art, I’ve returned to cartoons (even abstractions) which are drenched in narrative or at least memoirish detritus. “Outta Here” was a commissioned film/music video, for the singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather. I think it came out of her confusion/anger over a break-up. Maybe relief too. So, maybe a story can grow out of deep feelings; nothing new there, nor is humorizing the pain.

Another recent film, “Coal Creek,” has two stories loosely woven together. One is a fanciful documentary about John Kasper, a follower of Ezra Pound who left his bookshop in the West Village to fight against school integration in the ’50s. The other is a memoir of my liberal teenage years growing up near the specific school that Kasper targeted in Tennessee. The only on-camera narrator is the school’s janitor who had bravely walked to the all-white school as a kid. He says, “I saw Kasper. Oh, he looked a little like you!” My research also led to Kasper’s black girlfriend whom he had left behind 60 years before (she didn’t want to be part of the film). Imagine, “Coal Creek” could have been a mixed-form, anti-doc feature, not a 10-minute short.

Julian Kim: Where feature-length films invite people to a world, I think short films invite people to an idea. A short film is like a parable. It packages a simple message that is intended to inspire, provoke, reproach, and move those who watch it. But also, it gives room for the viewers to create their own narrative. Much of what is unspoken—backstory, setting, relationships, motivation—is completely up to the viewer to create. My favorite type of short films are the ones where the story lives on even after the credits roll. When the images flash before you as you lay yourself to sleep, you try to digest what you have watched. There’s an appeal in telling a story with a blank canvas for each viewer to contribute to and finish on their own.

TM:  Julian, who are some of your short-film filmmaking inspirations?

JK: I really enjoyed Martin Rosete’s “Voice Over.” Even though it has been about 5 years since I first saw it, the visuals and concept still resonate. Rosete did an amazing job utilizing one small incident and creatively expanding it into something so large and engaging.

I also found Andrew Ahn’s “Dol” inspiring. I love how he captures Korean-American culture without explicitly spelling it out. He subtly presents us the pain and internal conflicts experienced by the character. The story lingered with me for quite some time.

TM: As filmmakers, you all have a distinct set of economic/pragmatic factors to consider: One needs significantly—often prohibitively—more resources to make a feature-length film. That said, if resources were not a consideration, would you still make short films? Why/why not?

CA: Yes, I think so. The constraints on filmmaking aren’t always monetary—sometimes our biggest hurdles are creative. The stakes are higher with a feature not just because of the money involved, or the stakeholders we might have to answer to, but because of the time, energy, and risk we’ve expended to make it. Features take years, shorts can be made in days. Of course, some shorts require painstaking effort; brevity isn’t always the best measure of the risk, commitment, or suffering a project may ask of us. But in general, I feel that I will likely turn to shorts whenever I want to play or learn something new.

One catch that nobody tells you: It takes just as much work—sometimes more—to distribute a short. The festival applications are the same, the deliverables are the same. It can be a huge amount of work to get a short seen.

GG: I am not forced to make short animated films because of external pressures like economics. It isn’t a pragmatic choice. Again, it’s temperament, perhaps inherent, held aloft by reactions (both negative and positive) from other people. I can’t resist mocking the “why” question by answering, “why not?”

JK: My motivation as a filmmaker is to tell stories that can uplift our community and society. I am first and foremost a storyteller. Short films or feature-length films are just various sizes of a blank canvas.  I believe certain art pieces call for a bigger canvas to be on full display; confident, loud, and tall. On the other hand, certain pieces call for a more-humble canvas—intimate and personal.

It’s hard to pick either/or.  But if budget was not an issue, I’d definitely be motivated to make more short films, because it challenges me as a creative person to constantly think of a new world, a new narrative, and a new message. Short films push me to be more fluid as a storyteller.

TM: Julian, tell us a little about your Flushing Web Series and your recent short film  “Call Taxi”— both your artistic vision, and how you approached distribution/audience building.

JK: My collaborator Peter S. Lee and I started the Flushing Web Series because we wanted to highlight stories that were hidden in our community. While Flushing, Queens, has gained a reputation for diverse food offerings, it was still under-appreciated and overlooked as a major producer of culture and art. Our mission was to tell authentic and relatable stories. Through sharing with the public what growing up in Flushing was like, we were able to define our own identities both as Asian-Americans and as filmmakers.

“Call Taxi” was birthed after a tearful heart-to-heart conversation I had with Peter. I had shared with him my struggles as a son of immigrant parents who were growing old and physically weak. At the end of their “career” of dry cleaning, they had no real retirement plan. Their real retirement plan was to lean on me and I would have to dutifully take on that burden. I felt it unfair, but knowing my parents would not take a cent from me, I was simultaneously met with so much regret.

We posted our series on YouTube because of the breadth and reach of the YouTube community. It was the best way to get viewers. The response was overwhelming, and the community “liked” it and shared it. I remember even the older generations sending links to our film via text to other family members overseas. We were both thrilled and humbled that people were able to connect with the film, and that it stirred up conversations about their respective experiences upon watching it.

TM:  The Millions is a literary site, so here’s a genre-comparison question for you all: The short story is sometimes considered the highest form, associated with perfection of craft; other times it’s treated as the industry stepchild. Is there a similar ambivalence for the short film in your genre? Do you think this has changed/is changing?

Also, true or false: You can buy short story collections and read short stories in magazines; you can download singles from iTunes; you can enjoy/purchase small paintings. It seems harder to find/enjoy a short film as a consumable unit of art in its own right. If you agree, why do you think this is?

CA: I don’t think I can answer this question about a film’s aesthetic value without reminding myself that no matter how radical or formally bold they profess to be, at the end of the day films (like all culture) are commodities, subject to the vagaries of capitalism. Right now the internet is dramatically changing the landscape for shorts and often privileging shorter runtimes over longer ones. The voracious screen culture we live in—and the rapidly shrinking attention spans that come with it—prizes brevity. Traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast have all radically expanded the number of short documentaries they produce and acquire. Some documentarians I know welcome this shift and have found themselves making more shorts than before because of it.

But this explosion of content has come with no regulation or standards. Filmmakers are regularly being asked to hand over their films for next to nothing—or nothing at all in exchange for “a wide audience.” There’s no transparency about what filmmakers are actually being paid, and this shift is further contributing to already rampant freelancer precarity. On top of this, media outlets frequently expect filmmakers to surrender creative control, and I feel that I’m constantly resisting the transformation of documentary into mere “content.” These changes have steadily diminished the question of craft, to the point that it seems scarily at risk of extinction.  (One major exception to these trends is Field of Vision and Firelight Media’s  “Our 100 Days” series, which commissioned a documentary I directed last year called “Picket Line.” FoV funds shorts with real budgets, and ensures directors have final cut of their films.)

TM: In the literary world too these days we often say it’s easier to get published, but harder to get paid. Is there any chance this is a positive change, or maybe zero sum—if artists are no longer linking creation with paycheck? We lose time (as we earn money otherwise), and cultural respect (people stop expecting to pay for art); but the capitalist commodification is problematic too, isn’t it?

CA: The union organizer in me is having a moment right now. I’m definitely not saying we should always be monetizing our work (that’s the other dark side to this era, in which we are all becoming brands). I’ve had some incredibly frustrating run-ins with mercenary artists who turn everything into a financial transaction. It’s awful. I’m constantly trying to circumvent the economics, in fact. I love nothing more than to barter favors with friends I like to work with—you scratch my artist’s back, I scratch yours. But the reality is that most creative people lack the ability to make art for its own sake. This is especially true for working-class filmmakers, and filmmakers of color. It’s an incredible privilege to make work without thinking about one’s bills. Part of what I’ve observed is that many organizations will use this “art for art’s sake” rhetoric to justify asking financially vulnerable artists to make work, give time, teach, mentor, all for free. We’re experiencing an unprecedented casualization of creative labor, and that makes me want to hold the line on making sure people who need to get paid get paid.

GG: It’s much harder to find individual or even collections of short films. Maybe we aren’t aware of the many genres of short forms produced by “content providers” that tumble chaotically, incessantly, out of our devices: movie trailers, music videos, advertising and public service spots, pleas for political support, YouTube videos of funny pets. Yes, most viewers see the short film as a stepping stone to feature films, a kind of proving ground, grudgingly honored at the star-studded Oscar awards ceremony. (There is a perennial rumor that the category will be exiled to the technical awards dinner.)

Compared to other short forms, including painting and sculpture, which can be read/viewed/reviewed at one’s own speed, continuously or episodically, all films, short and long, must be viewed exactly as projected on a bright screen in a darkened room. These involuntary, pre-determined conditions are both a strength (exciting tempo, spectacle, illusion, propaganda) and a weakness (boredom), abetted by the sonic envelope of music, lyrics, dialogue, or silence.

Compared to mass entertainment (including gaming), short films live in a cultural niche found in international festivals specializing in documentary, animation, identity affirmation, narrative, even preceding feature films at the local art cinema. Also check out retail sites, museum programs, and public library media sections.

TM: Literary writers too often express that reading literature has become a rarified, niche activity, and serial television is where would-be readers now immerse themselves in complex story and character. George, do you think there is an analogy for short films? You mention gaming: Is this a place where creative talent is finding its audience and industry? Are there other short-film filmmakers you admire who are finding their way into more mainstream outlets?

GG: The world of gaming, television, and serial streaming entertainment is too far off my map to be of much help to this discussion. I do like the dialogue and art direction of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” yet could never see the characters as really animated; they are already cartoons. Certain animators have moved from shorts to features through the conventional route: directing, animation supervising, designing, storyboarding, all as part of a studio team financed within a mass-market context. The other “road not (often) taken” involves a narrower, more personal, formally experimental journey. The most successful example is Bill Plympton, whose main strength is roughly penciled grotesquerie, wildly irreverent humor, often delivered in short doses. Nina Paley’s mastery of line and character in motion was bound together with the music of Annette Hanshaw in “Sita Sings the Blues.” And Signe Baumann’s “Rocks in My Pockets” described her, and her family’s, history of depression, rendered in a dead-pan pictorial design and monotonous, uninflected narration, all quite informative and mordantly hilarious. All three artists have funded their projects through crowd-sourcing, and as they don’t have (to my knowledge) major distribution, the audience is unfortunately limited to festivals and perhaps specialized tours and cinemas. Baumann’s subject enabled her to find audiences among therapeutic networks: patients, academics, and practitioners. Her current feature project is focused on marriage.

Finding a cinematic analogy to the novel is less likely among animators than live-action/narrative filmmakers. But when we throw in mixtures including documentary, widely-used (and misused) techniques like rotoscoping, glued together with compositing, then one never knows…There are surely many more animators who have brought their features to the festival circuit and moved to wider audiences. Critics like Amid Amidi and historian-artists like John Canemaker would have a deeper, more up-to-date view.

JK: Short films were always considered unprofitable because distribution for them was hard…until the Internet happened! The way we view “films” is changing. We are now in a world where 15-second vertical stories are the way we consume storytelling. I feel like the people of the new generation are on YouTube more than they are in theaters. They watch gamers stream, rather than watch a sketch comedy show. For a traditionalist like myself, I find it unfortunate that an increase in viewership is directly related to a mere strong thumbnail and a compelling first six seconds. It ruins the artistic merit of filmmaking, where pacing is so important. However, I’m sure there is a different side to that, especially to those who embrace this new wave. I think there is a demand for short films in this current market, but I personally do not see most content as the highest form of filmmaking.

I believe great short films as a consumable unit of art exist out there, but I agree that it is harder to find them. I do think content on the web is created specifically to capture the ephemeral attention of the audience so it’s hard to find a calming or powerful short film beyond all the noise of makeup tutorials, vine compilations, and music covers.

TM: Julian, tell us about a great short film you’ve been inspired by, and also how you discovered and encountered it.

JK: Some years ago, I fell upon “Kung Fury” and “POWER/RANGERS” on YouTube and was amazed by the sheer production scale. I also enjoy light-hearted and easily consumable content produced by Wong Fu Productions and Jubilee Projects. Much like how you can find a great novel or good read by spending significant time in a library, taking the time to browse YouTube increases the probability of encountering good video content.

TM: I’ll end with a question—for Cecilia—about a “happy medium” form. Tell us about your documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart”—about your uncle, a gay man who died of AIDS amidst the disapproval and denials of your Catholic Puerto Rican family—which played on PBS’s POV. What is the nature of this middle length—analogous to the novella, perhaps?

CA:  “Memories”’s theatrical length was 72 minutes long—already lean for a documentary feature. For the TV broadcast, POV asked us to cut the film down to exactly 53 minutes, or what’s known as a broadcast hour. This is another instance of industry forces rubbing up against creative impulse. I had zero desire to cut the film down, but since it was my one shot at a TV broadcast, I basically closed my eyes, handed the film to my editor, and said, “Do your worst.” She’s such a damn good editor that the broadcast hour worked—but in my opinion, we sacrificed breathing room and lyricism. For a film about loss and memory, this is really significant. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that’s the Faustian bargain a lot of filmmakers make, but my film is a lean and lyrical 72 minutes—and it’s on iTunes!

Image Credit: Unsplash/John Moeses Bauan.

Who Gets to Change? Representation in ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’

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The crowd erupted Oscar night when Frances McDormand took the stage for Best Actress and announced, “I’m hyperventilating a little bit so pick me up if I fall over because I’ve got some things to say.” It was classic McDormand for those who’ve followed her since her other Oscar performance in Fargo: A little 30’s screwball comedy, wide eyes and manic gestures, that can drop into a tell-it-to-you-straight tone. She went on to call out the industry and asked actors to consider an inclusion rider, a contract clause that would pressure a movie to hire more diverse casts and crews.

Her new film, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, nominated for Best Picture, also aspires to tell you something straight, the rage of a small-town mother. Mildred Hayes’s teenage daughter was raped and killed; in response, she rents three billboards that call out the sheriff for failing to solve the case. Reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable. Rotten Tomatoes’s “top critics” gave it a 94 percent “fresh” rating. One, Alexandra MacAaron of Women’s Voices for Change, said, “The movie is one of the angriest films in recent memory. Yet it has moments of unlikely (yet hilarious) comedy and sincere tenderness, along with acts of nearly unwatchable violence.”

It’s the violence off stage that drives the rage. When the movie opens, McDormand’s daughter is already dead. Now, we have the freshness of a woman in a role usually reserved for grieving, vengeful fathers like Liam Neeson (there’ve been so many men in the role there’s a listicle). Unlike them, McDormand doesn’t have a clear target for revenge, since the killer may’ve been a drifter passing through. She does have the police to bother, comically portrayed by two likable actors, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. In fact, much of the movie is shot in a darkly comic tone that differs from the dread of classic revenge-flicks like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. It’s this tone that characterizes all of director Martin McDonagh’s movies. It worked to brilliant effect in his first, In Bruges, where the comic tenor is shattered by bouts of intense violence. Three Billboards so successfully combines that keep-you-off-balance tone with a great cast (indie favorite John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage) that it seems to have masked its racial problems to the critics.

Nineteen years ago, another Oscar contender, The Green Mile (also starring Rockwell as a racist redneck), was critically praised despite its plot reliance on the Magical Negro trope. (Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for his portrayal).  Three Billboards doesn’t feature a valiant black character whose role is to teach the white protagonist—in fact, there are disturbingly no black characters featured for a movie focusing on racism. We see McDormand interacting with her black co-worker, played by Amanda Warren, in a way that suggests friendship. But we aren’t shown what that looks like beyond one scene that establishes she has the proverbial “black friend,” another trope, and assures us McDormand is cool and, for all her crass talk, humane. Soon, she hears that Rockwell’s character has thrown her friend in jail for McDormand starting trouble. Like Mitch McConnell, he doesn’t realize that she will persist.

We don’t see Amanda Warren’s character again until the end when she is released and back hugging McDormand. The other black characters also play limited roles: Darrell Britt-Gibson is Jerome, the young billboard-hanger yelled at by Rockwell’s character to make sure we know he’s the racist cop. Britt-Gibson returns to knock at McDormand’s door after the billboards are later torched. He, too, is around to show McDormand is loved by black people: He happens to have more posters they can all put back up together. Two other black characters in non-speaking roles pop in and out, Eleanor T. Threatt as a nurse and Wallace Sexton as an uncredited paramedic.

It’s never clear how McDormand has earned the love of all the people of color in town. Some “fat Mexican guy” gives the ad man’s girlfriend $5,000 to keep the billboards up. Again, this happens offstage. We never meet the man or learn why he is so generous. The suggestion is that McDormand is a surrogate for whatever implied injustices have been done to the brown people of the community, casting her as a white savior. The great Clarke Peters (The Wire) is wasted in the final half as the new Chief of Police. In his few minutes on screen, he does his role: He fires the racist deputy. The right thing has been done and now Rockwell’s character can face redemption.

Humanity. Justice. These are the roles, the symbols, the black characters play. Had Martin McDonagh attended a VONA writing workshop (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation), or the other too-few spaces that center the experience of writers of color, he couldn’t have avoided basic authorial questions like: What characters have plot arcs? That is, who gets to change? That is the heart of storytelling, the essence of humanity. To deny characters this degrades their role to functionality. In many cases, that’s fine; that’s what secondary characters do. Watson is there to tell Sherlock Holmes’s story. But even Watson was respected with a backstory and screen time.

So who gets to change? The two white people, like the ones English director Martin McDonagh saw from a bus window over 30 years ago. The angry white, the poor and racist. While touring America, McDonagh passed through Vidor, Texas, and saw three rough, handwritten signs erected by James Fulton: “Vidor police botched up the case;” “Waiting for confession;” “The could happen to you!” In 1991, Fulton’s daughter was found strangled in what was made to look like a car accident. Fulton, now 86, still believes her husband is the killer and that the Vidor police didn’t do their job. So, he put up the signs. “It was this raging, painful message calling out the cops about a crime,” McDonagh said. “The title came from the concept and the concept came from that image, which stayed in my mind for years. What kind of pain would lead someone to do that? It takes a lot of guts—and anger.”

If McDonagh had stopped and talked to the people of Vidor he would’ve discovered the guts it took to live there. The majority of lives that have been changed in Vidor are black, not white. Located in southeast Texas, the area has long been known as Klan territory. As recently as 2006, a white resident felt comfortable telling a reporter he wished blacks and whites were still separated. Another said, “”I don’t mind being friends with them, talking and stuff like that, but as far as mingling and eating with them, all that kind of stuff, that’s where I draw the line.” So many black families have left that the city has put up its own billboard with the close-up of a little black girl in hopes of showing tolerance and bringing people back.

Just up the road in Jasper, 49-year-old James Byrd was notoriously murdered in 1998 after being dragged behind a truck by Lawrence Brewer, a former “Exalted Cyclops.” The incident led to the passage of a 2009 hate bill. Brewer was not nearly as congenial as Sam Rockwell, whose character’s history of beating a black prisoner, again, takes place offstage and is never explored. Would we feel the same way at his redemption if we’d viewed him committing the act? Or if his pistol whipping of the ad man was a person of color and not a whiny white teenager? As NPR journalist Gene Demby tweeted, “you can say that it’s not supposed to be about the black characters, which: okay, but McDonagh also didn’t have to write the cop as a racist. He could’ve just wrote him as a generic asshole. But since he did write him that way, then we should talk about how he treated that idea.”

Three Billboards does suggest that education and love, as we see between McDormand and Rockwell at its conclusion, is the redemptive key. Scholars like Prof. Ibram X. Kendi suggest otherwise: Self-interest drives racist thought and racist thought grows out of discriminatory policies and structures. Despite Rockwell’s torturing of a black man, we see his gosh-shucks police chief tell him in a letter that he’s a decent person, and that he has the makings of a detective if he can get out of his own way. Who wouldn’t agree with the comic-wisdom of Woody Harrelson’s folksy voiceover? Critic Francine Prose did in The New York Review of Books, calling the character “a profoundly decent, intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious man.” Only the ignorant, poor, and angry–like Rockwell’s character–can be racist, not his middle-class boss caught up in the legal system. There are echoes here of how pundits explained the presidential election as white working-class anger despite evidence that the white and wealthy overwhelming gave the victory to Donald Trump.

The heart of the problem lies in McDonagh’s directorial choices. The few critics, predominantly people of color, who found his movie manipulative (here, here, and here) and historically tone deaf agree this is our generation’s Crash: where white characters learn a lesson on the backs of black people. The sexual violence, the rape of McDormand’s daughter, is equally problematic, though not mentioned even in passing in The New York Times review. After all, who could question a grieving mother? But as The Independent’s Amrou Al-Kadhi asks, “Why is it that even when telling the stories of women, conflict is centered round the white male struggle?” The use of rape as a plot point joins a growing trend that has hit a fevered pitch, with Game of Thrones the main culprit. “In 2017, rape on screen almost feels passé: it’s the suggestion that comes up when you’re stuck for a story arc on a slow afternoon in the writers’ room,” The Guardian’s Zoe Williams writes.

It’s obvious McDonagh wants you squirming in your seat—and in In Bruges it worked. (Though it’s interesting to note that not all critics agreed, including the ones who felt he used Irish characters, and Irish state funding, to his own purpose.) But crossing the ocean has been problematic for the English-born director. He is also a playwright, and in his first American play he employed the same shock value he used on his working-class Irish characters in previous plays. In A Behanding in Spokane, Christopher Walken plays a man who’s surreally lost his hand and has searched for it for 27 years. When he finds one, it’s not his but the black actor Anthony Mackie’s, whose character of “Toby” is “played like a character that would be ripped to shreds on social media if he graced a film or television screen in this day and age.” The effect on the reviewer-of-color: “It nauseated me.”

Rape, gender, race–McDonagh’s thrown it all in. He even added a literary touch. Look closely when McDormand’s character is buying the billboards; the ad man is reading Flannery O’Connor. Clearly this is an homage, and we should expect violence to lead to an emotional lesson, maybe grace. McDonagh brings his many talents to the film–making someone laugh at violence is a difficult thing to do–and was helped along by strong performances, most notable, of course, that of Frances McDormand. Who doesn’t want to watch a brilliant actress stomp around dressed like Rosie the Riveter giving overt racists hell? (We’re never told why she dresses like that; she works in a gift shop.) It’s as if the image, like the billboards McDonagh saw passing through Texas, were too enticing to bother with the film’s many flaws around race. Was it laziness? Ignorance? Why did all those that reviewed it found it praiseworthy? These are not questions from the P.C. Police but meat-and-potato storytelling considerations, though McDonagh thinks differently. “I can’t happily defend [the movie] at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe.”

To return to McDormand’s admirable speech: A clue to why this movie was made comes after she announces, “I’ve got some things to say,” exciting the crowd. She thanks the director, humorously adding, “We are a bunch of hooligans and anarchists, but we do clean up nice.” It’s in this vein of anarchism that I think we find a closer explanation for McDonagh’s movies, the work of a provocateur. Why not throw the kitchen sink of hot-button issues at viewers and see how they respond? Sensationalism as a tool for story chaos. Unlike Flannery O’Connor, who knew the South and cared about her characters, McDonagh’s movies are more interested in emotional pyrotechnics, leaving the heavy lifting of character development to its actors who are very good. And if no one asks questions that any VONA workshop might about core issues of representation, we’re destined to see more Oscar nominees like Three Billboards, Crash, and The Green Mile perpetuating the treating of people of color like props—and more positive reviews. It might not matter if McDormand’s call for inclusion riders comes about. Five black actors were in the film about racism that won her an Oscar. We barely saw them.

Shakespearean Echoes: Game of Thrones as History Play

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Beneath all the well-worn fantasy tropes and flashy special effects — the CGI dragons, the armies of evil ice zombies, the clichéd Christ allegories about magical heroes coming back from the dead — at its heart Game of Thrones is really just a giant mashup of European history. Twenty-five million or so rabid fans are certainly looking forward to watching computer-generated dragons torch equally pixelated ice demons in the new season that starts this Sunday on HBO, but the biggest thrills in Game of Thrones arguably come from seeing real-world history recreated onscreen in the guise of a fractured fairytale. Like Homer’s mythical reimagining of the Greek past or Sir Walter Scott’s best-selling historical novels in the 19th century, HBO has come to dominate the 21st-century cultural landscape by producing the most spectacular history lesson on TV.

The historical parallels in Game of Thrones are almost too easy to pick out. (Unless you’re looking for non-Western history; then you’re mostly stuck with flat racist stereotypes. More on that in a bit.) The continent of Westeros, where the show’s main action takes place, is shaped like Britain and Ireland, and the massive ice wall that keeps out the Wildling barbarians from the North just so happens to be at the exact same spot where the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Celtic tribes. Similarly, the civil war at the center of Game of Thrones mimics the 15th-century War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster fought a bitter internecine battle for the English throne — in Westeros, the Lancasters go by Lannister. The Ironborn raiders, who sail around in longships, are stand-ins for the Vikings, while the Free Cities on the continent of Essos represent the Italian city-states, right down to the island-city of Braavos, which is duly filmed in Venice. And the Valyrian Empire, which was famous for its engineering feats and military power, has crumbled into a pile of elegantly twisted ruins reminiscent of ancient Rome.

It isn’t just the real-world history behind Westeros that draws in fans, though. The made-up history within the show, much more than the dragons and ice zombies, is what drives the story forward. The plot hinges on big revelations about the personal histories of individual characters (who are Jon Snow’s parents?) and the larger political history of Westeros (who is plotting with Varys to restore the Targaryen Dynasty to the Iron Throne?). Readers of the original books by George R.R. Martin will appreciate just how critical the fictional history of Westeros is to the epic war the story depicts. Martin delights in taking long, world-building digressions to explain the minutiae of Westerosi history, from ancient patterns of human migration to the tangled lineages of important noble families, the source of all present-day conflicts. With a less agile and inventive writer, this would be a mind-numbing drag on the narrative, but in Martin’s lively prose, the history lessons can be even more entertaining than the fight scenes.

The classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn says that Martin writes with “Herodotean gusto”: Martin describes the wonders of the Westerosi landscape and the wars between its peoples in the same exuberant and exorbitantly detailed style as the (partly) factual travelogue, conveniently called the Histories, in which the ancient Greek Herodotus invented the genre of history-writing in the 5th century BCE. But Game of Thrones is better seen as a 21st-century echo of William Shakespeare. Martin’s plots borrow heavily from Shakespeare’s English history plays and the late-medieval time period they portray. More importantly, both Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation have a distinctly Shakespearean view of how history works and why it matters.

When King Robert dies in season one, it sets off a war of succession between his friends, brothers, bastards, and opportunistic lesser lords that might as well be the War of the Roses. Shakespeare, of course, wrote eight or so plays about the War of the Roses and its backstory, starting chronologically with Richard II — in which Henry Bolingbroke usurps the throne from Richard II and names himself King Henry IV — and tracking the complicated fallout from Henry’s rebellion in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, & 3, and Richard III. (You thought Hollywood was obsessed with sequels.) Both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones use the War of the Roses to explore how rulers seize and justify their power. In Richard II, when Henry usurps the crown through raw military force, he also makes sure that Richard II legally abdicates the throne and names Henry as his heir. In Game of Thrones, Cersei tears up King Robert’s will, bribes the city guards to help make her the Queen Regent, and forces the legal regent Ned Stark to publicly confess to treason. In these fictional recreations of factual events, both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones turn English political history into a tutorial on the workings of constitutional government. It’s political science 101, with dragons.

Importantly, Shakespeare shows us the big-picture political clashes of English history from the viewpoints of individual characters — that’s why there are so many soliloquies in his plays, times when a single character onstage shares his or her hidden thoughts with the audience. In Henry IV Part 1, for instance, Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when it’s time to fight a war to protect his father’s kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective soldier. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when his father orders him to defend the kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective . (He also channels John Falstaff, the charismatic, ingenious outsider of Henry IV Part 1: Tyrion faces social stigma as a dwarf, where Falstaff is mocked for his “fat-witted” enormity.) Game of Thrones, like Shakespeare’s play, uses an outcast with a brilliant mind, a sharp tongue, a taste for wine, and a non-normative body to explore what makes a good leader and what obligations we owe to our family and country.

Take a final example, this one directly from Martin’s books. When the rebels overthrow the Targaryen Dynasty, they kill the king’s two small children, Rhaenys and Aegon. But Aegon, it turns out, may have survived — or at least a young man who claims to be Aegon arrives in Westeros with an army to retake his father’s throne. This mimics the bizarre real-life tale of Perkin Warbeck, a twenty-something pretender to the English crown who claimed that he was one of the two young princes famously murdered in the Tower of London by their usurping uncle Richard III. Perkin Warbeck crossed the English Channel to Kent in 1495, supported by nobles from Scotland and mainland Europe, and led a series of armed revolts before he was finally captured and hanged in 1499. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford wrote a play called Perkin Warbeck that tells this story in order to ask a fundamental question: what makes the king the rightful king? If you remember Varys and Tyrion’s drunken banter about what makes a good ruler on their road trip in season five (not to mention countless other characters’ disquisitions on the nature of power), you know that’s the big question at the heart of Game of Thrones too.

In his history plays, Shakespeare reimagines the English past in order to ask, again and again, what makes the king the king. Is the rightful ruler chosen by God, or determined by laws and constitutions written by human beings? Is the ruler simply the person with the most money and military power, or should the ruler be the person with the best record of actually getting things done? Game of Thrones uses European history for the same reason: to stage a debate about how leaders gain and lose the legitimate right to rule.

Martin’s books and HBO’s show give a dazzling array of different answers to that question. For Cersei, the answer is raw power — swords create legitimacy, and she refuses even to pretend to care about her subjects. For her son Tommen, the answer is religion: the backing of the Faith conveys political legitimacy. For Stannis Baratheon, the answer is law and blood, the laws of succession that determine who should wear the crown when each king dies. For Jon Snow, the answer is that a good ruler should be elected and should have the right intentions and high moral principles. Jon’s followers, of course, end up killing him because he follows his principles. Then again, Jon also gets resurrected like Christ.

Daenerys is the most interesting case. She experiments repeatedly with how to legitimate her rule, from blood (her father was the king) to marriage (her husband was the Khal) to divine right (she appears to be the magically anointed savior of the world) to moral principles (she frees the slaves) to pragmatic success as a ruler (she spends multiple seasons bogged down in Meereen trying to improve her subjects’ lives). Her career as a queen is like a laboratory where Martin tries out the different styles of leadership represented in Roman and English history.

Daenerys’s attempts to rule also reveal the profound shortcomings of the focus on European history in Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation. Daenerys swoops in like a deus ex machina on dragonback to liberate the oppressed people of color from Game of Thrones’s equivalent of the Middle East. In doing so, she (and the books and TV show) writes out the many historical non-Western models for political legitimacy (Al-Farabi, say, or Ibn Rushd; Confucius, or the Bhagavad Gita) and implies that it takes a white person to run an enlightened political system based on individual liberty. This isn’t very surprising: Art reflects the society around it, and plenty of Americans couldn’t believe a black man was the legitimate president of the United States. On the other hand, Game of Thrones goes powerfully in on the idea that a woman can be the most legitimate political leader in a crowded field. For Daenerys in this upcoming season, the woman card might turn out to be a winning hand.

Game of Thrones’ obsessive anxiety about the roots of political legitimacy helps explain why it’s such a smash hit right now. The question of what makes a ruler legitimate has been the central issue in American political life for the last fifteen years, from the mainstream to the fringe. Who won all those hanging chads in Florida in 2000? Was 9/11 an inside job? Was the Iraq War a legally and morally legitimate use of force? Was George W. Bush within his rights to have terrorism suspects indefinitely detained and tortured? Was Barack Obama really born in America, or is he a secret Muslim agent smuggled in to undermine the country? Did Donald Trump work with the Russians to steal the presidency? Can international climate accords legitimately control what America does? Does the press bravely speak truth to power, or is it all just fake news?

The world of Westeros, like the European history on which it’s based, implies that political legitimacy is both real and perceived: it rests on the power to rule, but it also lies in the eyes of the beholders, the everyday citizens who see their leaders as legitimate or not. Appearances, as Shakespeare knew, are everything — all the world’s a stage. Or, as Shakespeare’s ruler Queen Elizabeth I put it, “we princes, I tell you, are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world.” It’s a lesson that George R.R. Martin’s characters have to learn. Robb Stark, for instance, manages for a while to maintain both the moral high ground and the military successes necessary to make himself a king. But when his underlings think he has acted illegitimately — breaking his betrothal to the Freys and letting his mother get away with freeing Jaime Lannister — they abandon him and kill him. In Game of Thrones, peaceful government depends on a system of political legitimacy — an agreed-upon set of norms about who gets to rule and how — but most of the time, that rule collapses into chaos and bloodshed.

The show ultimately reminds us that the institutions that create political legitimacy — our laws, beliefs, customs, and constitutions, the stories we tell ourselves about why our leaders get to lead — can be as fragile as Ned Stark’s neck, ready to explode when the next tyrant with a fop of yellow hair like Joffrey Baratheon slouches along. Behind the idealistic fantasy battle between good and evil, Westerosi history, much like our own real-world history, implies that if we want good government, we have to fight for the institutions that protect political legitimacy and preserve the rule of law. But neither our history nor Martin’s made-up one promises we’ll win.