At the 2012 Sundance Awards, writer-director Ava DuVernay won the prestigious Directing Award for Middle of Nowhere, a feature film about Ruby, a quietly bold nurse who, after her husband is incarcerated, undergoes a personal transformation that forces her to make difficult choices about her life and marriage.
The setting is 35 years after World War III: The Water War. A society felled by ecological destruction has been relegated to a subterranean existence, and citizens’ movements are strictly regulated by an authoritarian government propagating a single message: “The outside is dead.” Then a young scientist named Asha discovers a sprouting seed, sparking a journey that will force her to defy her superiors and abandon the world she knows for a chance to prove that there is still life above ground.
Filmmakers Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas met at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2005 in a class on film, video, and gender where Stanley was the teaching assistant and Vargas a student. Both were radical activists on issues of prison abolition, queer antiassimilation, and trans justice, and both were heavily influenced by revolutionary feminist and political films like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the two began collaborating—their first film, Homotopia, was released in 2006.
The film reflected Stanley and Vargas’s disillusionment with the recent concerns of gays and lesbians in the political sphere. Gone are the days when queers actively and openly resisted heteronormativity; gone are the many prisoner-solidarity projects that Regina Kunzel describes in her 2008 book Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality; gone is the grassroots fervor of past queer organizations like Gay Liberation Front and ACT UP that militated against state invasions of queer lives and politics. In their place are groups like Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who actively set about courting D.C. politicians on same-sex marriage. Instead of arguing that everyone needs health care, mainstream gays and lesbians are now insisting that an unfair system should be extended to include them.
The new film Criminal Queers is the pair’s second attempt to confront the rapid mainstreaming of gay politics. Along with a bevy of radical and enthusiastic friends and lovers, they’ve made a sequel to Homotopia that finds the wedding crashers on the run. One of them, Lucy Parsons, languishes in jail after being denied bail, her gender identity—while she claims female pronouns, her state identity card marks her as male—throwing the state into confusion. Drawing upon the same visual repertoire as Homotopia, Criminal Queers is a mixture of satire and political critique, wrapped up in a classic prison-break narrative. The presence of perhaps the most famous prison abolitionist of our time, Angela Davis, lends weight to the film’s rumination on the prison-industrial complex. Yasmin Nair caught up with Stanley and Vargas to talk about the PIC, the HRC, and feminist film in a genderqueer world.
From all the films made every year, the Academy must choose the performance that deserves its Best Actress accolade—and avid watchers of their annual awards might well conclude it has no sensible criteria. Some years, the voting body wants to show its integrity. Other years, it wants to pet its poodles. This year, it wanted to pretend that racism isn’t an industry given, and rolled out an inelegant glut of tardy tributes. And there are, clearly, yet more social and political complexities polluting the field.
Everything’s bigger in Texas, or so the saying goes, and that may be truest in the realm of sex-education controversy. Texas, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, has also been at the forefront of abstinence-only education in public schools since 1995, when then-governor George W. Bush signed the curriculum into law.
From the machismo of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to Woody Allen’s nebbishes and the teenage fantasies of the Porky’s and American Pie franchises, manhood in all its flavors is a staple of the silver screen. Writer-director Wes Anderson is clearly fascinated by the subject too, yet over the course of his four films he has turned his lens on one specific aspect of masculinity: the balance between boyish and manly behavior necessary for the health of not only the individual male but also the culture he embodies.
A few reviewers have acknowledged this by mentioning, if only in passing, Anderson’s penchant for father-son or mentor-protégé relationships, and Anderson himself has confirmed it. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times interview, he credited director James L. Brooks—who helped him find the funding to turn a short film into his 1996 debut feature, Bottle Rocket—with inspiring his filmic exploration of mentors. Each of Anderson’s four features involves a relationship between a young man and either his father or a man who is old enough to be his father: wannabe thief Dignan and crime boss Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket; 10th-grader Max Fischer and his industrialist friend/rival Mr. Blume in 1998’s Rushmore; favored child Richie Tenenbaum and his irresponsible father Royal in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums; and airline pilot Ned Plimpton and the titular marine-life documentarian he suspects is his father in 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Those simplified labels, however, are inadequate to describe the mutual give-and-take of the pairs.
Amy Richards met Jim McKay as he was getting ready to release his first film, Girls Town, in 1995. McKay was kind (and political) enough to offer his film to the Third Wave Foundation, which Richards cofounded, for a benefit screening. Though Third Wave has had dozens of events since then, none has come close to matching its success, in terms of sheer dollars raised in one sitting (over $20,000), the number of new donors and allies attracted to the organization’s work, and the unparalleled visibility that comes when you combine social justice and Hollywood.
It is not my pleasure to remind anyone of the 2001 teen flick Sugar & Spice. Teetering between the black humor of Heathers and the girly glitz of Clueless, it achieves the success of neither, and I bring it up now only because of a single scene.
A film studies professor once told me that everything you need to know about a movie is revealed in the first five minutes. This is particularly true of The Stepford Wives.
In the opening scene of Bryan Forbes’s 1975 original, Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) takes a long, scrutinizing look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her reaction is one of mild surprise, then subtle resignation, as if she’s thinking, That’s me?…Oh, well. She appears wistful and introspective as she walks around the silent Manhattan apartment that has been emptied for her family’s move to the suburbs. Compare this to the start of Frank Oz’s 2004 version: Joanna (Nicole Kidman), a powerhouse network executive, struts like a supermodel up to a podium, delivers a self-congratulatory speech, and previews the coming season’s reality shows to a huge industry crowd. The mood is loud, flashy, and in-your-face. The difference between the two scenes is night and day, and therein, as my professor foretold, is everything we need to know.
Few would debate the fact that before the civil rights and women’s liberation movements percolated into mass culture, representations of black/white relationships in popular media, particularly Hollywood, were thoroughly unbalanced. Viewed in retrospect, seemingly amicable duos like Uncle Tom and Eva, Scarlett O’Hara and Mammy, and Shirley Temple and Bill Bojangles make us cringe with the obviousness of the black character’s one-way caregiving role. The minstrelization of African-Americans—alternately portrayed as countrified nurturers or urban entertainers—reveals the extent of their oppression in Hollywood. But a look at contemporary film exposes the perhaps more troubling fact that little has changed, and nowhere does this become clearer than in narratives that take on the societal ramifications of interracial romance.