Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Boyhood

The awards season and the accolades it's received have brought Boyhood back into the limelight, making that piece I've been putting off for several months finally topical again.

I saw Boyhood back on August 30 at IFC. My immediate impression was that the existence of the film was quite a feat, but the film was not mind-blowing in and of itself. While the passive storytelling wasn't extraordinary per se, it was a demonstration of precisely what I love about Richard Linklater's work. His films explore the passage of time like no other filmmaker, and this project seemed like his ultimate experiment.

A lot of time has passed, obviously, between when I saw the movie and now, as I write about it, so I won't bother to list its many fine attributes or plot points, but one of the aspects of the film that has really stuck with me is Mason's characterization. I've heard that many critics, those both underwhelmed and awestruck, felt that Mason was hollow or completely reflective of his atmosphere, that he was too passive or poorly drawn to carry the film. I disagree. One thing I absolutely loved was that this was a true picture of an introverted character in film.

Though my circles were pretty universally in love with Boyhood, I've been hearing a lot of backlash about the film since the Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe wins. Of the most striking critiques, the one about how Boyhood doesn't capture or represent everyone's boyhood, just that of a Texan WASP, caught me a little off-guard. Of course this isn't supposed to be everyone's boyhood; it's just a boyhood. Was that not clear? Perhaps it's just because I'm a black woman and I'm used to watching and relating to others onscreen despite our most obvious differences, but I never assumed I was watching a stereotypical childhood unfolding onscreen before me. Mason's quiet demeanor was one of the most telltale signs for me that I wasn't just watching any kid grow up. Not to say that he was special, but it does seem like every other movie is pedaling a version of the hot-blooded American male that is assertive, loud, non-discerning, and decisive, not to mention white and mysteriously (financially) carefree.

So when I started making out the portrait of a quiet, thoughtful, hesitant kid, I found the idea of Mason refreshing. I also related to it, as someone who grew up with a similar demeanor, and I realized we don't see much of it in film.

Why is that? What other examples of quiet, thoughtful, observant (non-fantastical) characters do I have to relate to onscreen? It seems that they always have an extra characteristic tacked onto them, almost like a shorthand that makes them seem taciturn despite their necessary dialogue or explain their away their silence: the brooding hottie, a la James Dean, Gilmore Girls' Jess, or Steve McQueen's Bullitt; the depressive, like Paul Dano's Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine; or the psychotic, from Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men to Norman Bates. (Let's table the fact that I couldn't think of any compelling quiet women characters to mention for another discussion.) None of those characters were quiet, thoughtful people who drank in their surroundings just because. Introverted people rarely have the time and space to fully develop onscreen.

I realize that it's much harder to fully develop a character with a rich inner dialogue than it is to create someone who is self-aware enough to just lay their thoughts bare to anyone who will listen. I recently saw Inherent Vice, and I thought Joanna Newsom's Sortil├Ęge was a really nice way to voice the inner essence or perhaps higher consciousness of a character. She serves as narrator as well, but she also allows Doc to be as thoughtful as he needs to be in the moment without him having to piece the puzzle together for the viewer himself. That said, all of those moments she was speaking as his conscience, she was doing just that—speaking. Boyhood was also a triumph in my eyes because there was so much space in which to think, to live, to soak up and experience time, just as Mason was doing.

Most viewers take for granted that onscreen characters are often telling us everything that they're feeling. Yes, it is a visual medium, and yes, we bestow awards on those actors who can best channel unexpected, raw, unfiltered emotion while speaking the words of the script. I totally support and understand that. But even emotions and gestures can be loud and attention-grabbing, especially when they are supposed to register what sometimes amount to sweeping changes over the course of a two-hour film. I really loved that Mason's character was able to be carved out of and through time through small, subtle reactions and events. Because we spent so much time with him over the course of twelve years of moments (and, of course, because of Richard Linklater's deft cinematic and storytelling choices), we are able to observe when he chooses to speak up and when he doesn't, when he chooses to actively take part in something and when he chooses to hang back and watch. And the film ends—appropriately, in my opinion—just as he is beginning to take those lessons and accumulated experiences and exercise some agency, as he goes off to college to explore the wilderness and begin to find the right words to say aloud.

I agree that Boyhood is a feat, and that time is really the essence of all of its grandeur: the very idea of the project, the commitment of the cast and crew to such a long undertaking, the passage of time made visible, and the fact that it was finished at all are all impressive successes in their own rights. But I want to also give credit to the kind of characterization that is uniquely possible with this type of project. I was struck by something Ethan Hawke said in a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, that real formative moments don't often happen in the blink of an eye or at one important turn of events; impressions are absorbed and then harden into thoughts and feelings over time, and those thoughts and feelings grow into the building blocks of what we believe as teens, students, and adults. The temporal space of the film gives Mason's character room to breathe and form as slowly as personality realistically does, especially for a quiet, thoughtful person as he turned out to be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Following Through

I wrote that last post in February of last year but chose not to publish in the midst of some new movements in the work world. I was right about to start a completely new endeavor as an Associate Producer on a low budget feature film, and I didn't want to publicize any wavering commitment to the project or my newfound colleagues. We shot through March. It was a great experience, full of new people, new situations, a new headspace. And it jumpstarted a period of productivity I hadn't had in a long time.

2014 was the first year I was a real freelancer. I didn't apply for unemployment even once; I had fairly steady work. It felt good, to be sure. I didn't completely hate New York for the first time in two years. There was a moment at the end of June, when I'd finished all of the jobs I had going, when I finally looked around and had nothing to do for the first time in six months. It was a nice breather before the panic set in: am I a freelancer in a lull, or am I unemployed? Is this it for me, six months of good work and then I'm done? But fortunately by the end of July, I had another couple jobs come in. And that was an even more fantastic feeling.

Not that any of this is has been lucrative by any means. I miss my salary so much. Even a low salary is something, and it's something stable. None of this "we'll wait until the 30th day of the 30 days you gave us to pay you" bullshit. Last year I made a little more than half of what I was making at the University, and then there's that pesky little thing called taxes, which I'm not looking forward to for the first time ever. But hey, the most important thing here is that things were looking up in 2014, and was I happy. Right? Not so fast.

The steadier work got (and man, was I thankful for that!), the more I cared what I was working on. What I'd written in February kept nagging away in the background: I'm not feeling fulfilled, there is a disconnect here. For jobs on which I was just the editor, I could engage with the content only very little. I missed thinking about the content and actively getting a worthwhile message across. My work with the American Museum of Natural History has been a godsend in this regard. They have so many great things going on there, and I'm really happy and always grateful to be a part of what they're doing and the messages they're sending to the public.

And working in close proximity to education again has helped me solidify my decision to apply to grad school. After talking about it for a year, I finally submitted my applications to three great schools. And after batting around multiple ideas about how to best approach my interest in psychology, I finally found the most amazing program I didn't even know I was looking for: a cognitive studies in education program that specifically explores how we learn and how such knowledge can be applied to other topics, such as media. Sesame Street may not be so far away after all. I find out in March.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Do the Hokey Pokey

February 11, 2014

Something's not right. As I sat in bed last night reading Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones (a long overdue read for someone who devoted so many years to studying China and the Chinese language), I was finally able to put words to the creeping feeling I've been getting for the past few months. I miss thinking. I miss thinking critically. And working in video production isn't providing this important need for me.

SM and I waded through accumulated, muddled feelings together to get down to the root causes. When I was in college, my intention was to use my skills both technical and mental, to think and do, in the world of media. I was drawn to cinematography because of the combination of technical precision and big picture grasp of art, of art and science, that was intrinsic to the work. But after it became apparent how quickly film as a medium was waning in the industry, I lost hope that the technical skill of video would measure up to that of film. Instead I turned to producing because I would be able to stimulate both sides of myself if I applied my skills to organizing and thinking through the creative process. I thought that with the right partners in the creative realm, I'd be able to both think and do.

I've always been most comfortable in a supporting role. I've never been the writer/director type; instead I've always said that I'm the one who helps translate other people's visions to reality. Additionally, I want my work to mean something to others, to help on another level by informing and educating others. It's one reason why I was attracted to documentaries and non-fiction production. Fiction film, on the other hand, seemed more selfish for me to actually take part in. Obviously I love fiction films, and I think there's a lot there to think about (hence this blog), but when taking part in a fiction production, part of me can't fully commit because I don't believe I'm contributing to society. Part of me wishes that I could be an artist who is compelled to make art and thus justify bringing in tens of people to execute my visions. The same goes for thinking about going to back to school for film theory. But that's just not me. It's an odd desire, but I wanted to help someone else help the world.

My dream job used to be working at Sesame Street. I wanted to create the content that would help kids learn and be ready for school, just as Sesame Workshop's mission states. The catch is that I wanted to create that content in every sense of the word. I wanted to be Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson. But those jobs don't exist, less now than ever. Sesame Street's production is actually done by a few third party production companies, where shooting and editing content is divorced from its conception, writing, and even puppeteering. It's been a real example of the market for video for me, a telling dead end on the path toward my non-existent ideal occupation.

At this point arriving at this conclusion, that I can't really tell someone else's story or explain someone else's information without ceding some control of the full capacity of my brain power, seems like common sense. It's hard to do and think critically on behalf of someone else, especially in such a specialized and growing industry. But I guess I had my hopes up because I was looking for a place where I could put my whole self into my work.

It's interesting how each step of my career has been a test to drill down to what I'm really looking for. When I was in college, I was running on all cylinders, nurturing my mind in all aspects as I learned about film theory and history along with the technical aspects of film production. When I moved into my first full time position, I continued to feed my curiosity through the content I was working on, even while the rigor of production wasn't too demanding. It was moving away from the engaging material and leaning solely on my production skills that started me questioning whether or not this was my calling. "Okay, so it's the content I'm missing," I thought. "I need to find a place where my approach, where critical thinking, will be valued as an asset." But the catch is that more I look (and this is an experiment conducted over 8 months of unemployment and then some), the more I'm beginning to think such a place doesn't exist. Furthermore, even if I were to find a few like-minded people and start my own venture, I'm not sure our niche would even be seen as a marketable edge over the competition. It's just not what the people want.

So, forget what the people want; what do I want? I want to help people. I want to think critically and do good. I want to use my whole self.

For these and other reasons I am aching to go back to school. I want to learn something new, and then I want to apply it in a realm that needs my assistance. I have always been interested in how things work and how things can run in the most efficient and best way possible, and I have also always been interested in applying such questions to people. It's part of what I wanted to bring to cinematography, to understand how characters were thinking and to help convey that to viewers. My new path is toward understanding the human mind and helping them through therapy and counseling, as counselors have helped me. Furthermore, I hope that by going into a profession that offers more stability both in my mind and in my bank account I will also be able to better pursue my interests in video, to actually afford to buy my own camera and to go to the movies and think about film in ways that I can't while spending time hustling for rent and happiness—always doing and rarely thinking as much as I would like.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Breaking Out of the Cycle: Llewyn Davis is Left Behind at the End of the Folk Revival

Last weekend, a few friends and I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis. I don't think I'd been to the theater since seeing The Master back in February (after everyone else had seen it), so it was nice to revisit the big screen. And I must say, it was definitely a good choice for a first flick back. The Coen Brothers have brought out their A Serious Man side again, and it's arguably my favorite side of their repertoire. The dark and muted cinematography—beautifully rendered by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a subtler turn from Amelie and A Very Long Engagement—takes us right back to 1960s Greenwich Village, a tricky but successful feat since the Coens like as much on-location photography as possible. Each character is dispatched so economically, so that every one of their appearances, no matter how many minutes of screen time they are given, evince a deeply believable relationship to the protagonist that is instantaneously recognizable, be it a longtime friend, a fellow traveler, or a tastemaker with the upper hand.

On the surface, the film features the titular folk singer down and out, couch-surfing his way up and down Manhattan, as he fails to jumpstart his career and insensitively steps on the toes of everyone else in his life in the process. Llewyn is lost without the other half of his musical duo: his solo effort hasn't sold any copies, and he is languishing at the darker end of the success gradient than the other musicians in his circle. During the film he strains the relationships he has with his married friends Jim and Jean, also musicians, by not respecting the former and possibly impregnating the latter. He also simultaneously takes advantage of and keeps at arms length the care of his surrogate parents in the film, the Gorfeins, an academic couple on the Upper West Side who treasure their hip "bohemian friend." He even manages to use and disappoint his sister, his only immediate relative in their right mind. In short, in a lot of ways, much his lack of success can be placed squarely on his own shoulders.

Plot-wise, the movie is framed by two stays at the Gorfein's house, two performances at the famous Gaslight Cafe, and one or two (depending on your interpretation of where this lies in the fabula of the film) alleyway beatings. At the beginning of the movie, Llewyn finds himself at the Gorfein's empty house the morning after a rough night, makes himself some breakfast, and takes off with his guitar and bag, accidentally letting the Gorfein's cat loose on his way out. At the end of the movie, he finds refuge back at the Gorfein's house after a bender and wakes up in a similarly empty house, but is sure to leave the cat indoors as he leaves. The film opens with Llewyn's performance at the Gaslight; his performance at the end of the film even features the same closing schtick. And again, Llewyn takes a pretty vicious alleyway* beating both at the beginning and the end of the film. One gets the feeling he has gone through all of this before. Indeed, even borrowing money and couch space is all too familiar to those around him for his behavior to be an occasional occurrence. He is homeless and he is a sponge trying the patience of those around him, and part of his fatigue stems from the fact that even he knows this cycle is not sustainable. After the movie, most of the friends I was with agreed that Llewyn's story was one of self-sabotage.

But I believe that this movie is bigger than just Llewyn. I don't think he's just an asshole stuck in a cycle of self-sabotage. To me, it was clear that the film was chock full of signs that Llewyn was not alone in the muck in which his wheels were spinning. While at fellow singer Al Cody's house, trying to stash his records, he finds a box of Al's own solo effort just as full as his own and sporting eerily similar cover art. Troy Nelson, the perky but perhaps tragically ironic soldier in from Fort Dix, is eager to make it big. His friends Jim and Jean are nominally more successful at drawing a crowd, but near the end of the movie Llewyn learns that Jean sleeps with the owner to earn a spot on the bill. Every wannabe knows where to play, but no one is breaking out of the scene. One of the lessons that stood out to me from these signs is that just because a scene is big or that an artistic revival is in the offing doesn't mean that it will be lucrative in its pure form.

In 1961, the year in which the film takes place, folk music was still, in the true sense of the word, trafficking in known standards and tied to the protest efforts of grassroots movements—from the true folk. To make a famous, 1960s TV-worthy career out of it, the genre would first have to evolve into something more mainstream, something Llewyn's character does not believe in. And it eventually did. But as the style of music evolved and gained popularity during the 1940s-1960s folk revival, the definition of folk music itself widened, from only encompassing traditional music and standards to connoting often original music that used similar instrumental and vocal arrangements and dealt with grassroots subject matter. Being based in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis is not arbitrarily on the cusp of this push into popular dominance. Many of the big names of the revival (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez) were big because they were committed to these movements, and while they may not have left the genre after its peak, their fame retreated to the background along with it during the rise of more mainstream work. This is a compromise Llewyn, and many in the pure scene, probably would not have made.

Two developments helped to change folk music into a lucrative art and take it to the next stage of its evolution, and both are present in the film. The first was the willingness of some members of the scene to lend their folk sensibilities to pop music. Jim, Justin Timberlake's character, writes and records the silly pop tune "Please Mr. Kennedy" that strikes all the right notes, name checking the president, outer space, and those rock 'n'roll stutters that are sure to make it a hit. Llewyn is enlisted to help record, but he can't help but scoff at the stupidity of it, and doesn't even bother to think ahead to what royalties he's sure to miss out on as he signs away his rights. While true folk fans might see songs like this as watered down or selling-out, real-life bands like the The Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas took off in the mainstream because of the pop-folk combination. The second development was a willingness to apply folk sensibilities to original music. Instead of sticking to the standards, as beautiful as they still are, artists like Bob Dylan sang their own poetry and simultaneously elevated and blew apart the whole genre.

Thus, it is important that the break to Llewyn's cycle of misery doesn't come from within, as it might in a typically protagonist-centered film, or to even Llewyn personally. As SM so aptly pointed out soon after we left the theater, Bob Dylan's (or more truthfully "Bob Dylan's") appearance at the Gaslight at the end of the film means that the cycle is broken for the whole folk music scene. Bob Dylan's rise to fame killed off the Greenwich folk scene, and whatever hopes the Llewyn Davises, Troy Nelsons, and Al Codys of the world had of making a career out of traditional American songs were effectively dashed. Songwriters and original music dominated the late 1960s and 1970s and the standards receded to cult status. I am not giving any commentary on folk music here; I am a big fan, and I think traditional music is both enjoyable and important. But my point is that I don't think Llewyn Davis was ever going to succeed, and the viewer is there as he finds the end of his rope.

One thing SM and I observed in a discussion about all of this is that the people most likely to make it big were the people less likely to be purists. This is true in the film as it was about the implosion of the folk scene. Llewyn may have put down Jim's ditty, but the audience knows that it might just be Jim and Jean's ticket out of the village and into the family life they want. I think part of what made Bob Dylan so successful was that he wasn't bound to a genre or a style, the music that came out of him went beyond that, reached past folk, and you could hear it. Folk was just a starting point, whereas for Llewyn and many others in the scene like him, it was the goal. There's a line in the film, after Llewyn plays for a club owner in Chicago: "I don't see any money in this." And he's right. The standards are beautiful, but, unfortunately for Llewyn, the scene was right about to come into its own.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

When is My Big Break?

So. It's been a while.

I've gotta say, it's been an incredibly hard year and a few months since I moved to New York, and the bubble of lowlights and foiled attempts at success I've been living in have just not been conducive to musing about anything. I've been talking with a few close friends about adulthood, and that I just don't think I'm anywhere near it. Subsistence living, running in place professionally, and being stuck in a big city full of richos has me in a near state of arrested development, and it turns out I'm not alone.

At first I thought this was because of a lack of (trust) funds, especially in the form of my parents' help, but I have plenty of other friends who are fortunate enough to come from certain means but have found themselves in a similar emotional position. Then I thought it was just this damn city. And yeah, that is definitely part of it—the rent is too damn high, especially compared to my midwestern roots and life in Chicago only 18 months ago, and I do strongly feel like I'm bleeding money every time I leave my apartment. But that's not all of it.

In short, I think my despair, and that of some of my friends, is rooted in the fact that our cohort has been profoundly screwed over. Most especially the class of 2008, my class, who graduated the very same summer that the financial world was seemingly collapsing around us, has fallen into a sort of holding pattern from which it feels like we'll never recover. You'll notice I'm using a lot of qualifiers and subjective language, and it is on these conditionals that hinge the bulk of my fears. I am more than willing to allow that one's twenties are supposed to be hard, that these will be the hardest parts of our lives, that we're really "figuring out who we really are." But at this point, I'm 27, and I'm over it. I've learned my lesson; I've done my soul-searching. Where is the reward for all the nail-biting and tears and handwringing over missed bills and rising credit card debt and dignity lost in borrowing money from family yet again? I'm happy to look beyond this to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but for some of us there is a real fear that it will never materialize.

All those months of economic uncertainty and hiring freezes represent a lot of lost time for the class of 2008 (and fine, 2009 too), and at times I don't see how we can recover. By the time companies slowly started hiring again, there were at least three classes of newly-graduated job seekers, meaning three times as much competition and a third as many excuses for lack of relevant experience. Sure, many individual hiring managers out there might understand that there was nothing we could have done besides take irrelevant jobs to make ends meet, leave the country, or rack up more debt going to school. But on the whole, we just don't look as good on paper. Even when I have made strides in my own professional career, I find myself plagued by an incredible case of impostor syndrome, and I'm constantly underselling myself.

More than five years after all of this, most of my friends have fortunately either found work or graduated from their programs, but there is a profound dissatisfaction or anxiety that I've been picking up from them and feeling myself stemming from officially reaching our late twenties. I'm 27 and will be 28 next month, but while my 30+ year old friends are buying houses, getting married, or even having kids (and some well-faring friends my age are admittedly doing the same), many of my friends from my graduating class are nowhere near that stage in their lives even if they want to be. How can I even think about raising a kid when I can't make rent? How would I fund a wedding when I can't find a steady job? Meanwhile, some of my younger friends have been struggling for what seems like the acceptable amount before landing their jobs and getting on with their lives and enjoying their early-mid twenties. The bigger things are easier to focus on when the smaller matters are taken care of, and vice versa.

I find myself most anxious that the anxiety will never end. I remember being an (albeit hyper-self-aware) angsty teenager and looking forward to being in my 20s when all these feelings and high school drama would finally subside. I want to look ahead to being 30 and knowing more than what I do now, chiefly that things will, on the whole, turn out alright. One thing I have figured out in my 20s is that there will always be problems. I will always find something to hate about my job, there will always be "first world problems." But the peace of mind that can come with a steady paycheck and food on the table is one that I hope will not be lost on me when I finally make it out of this.