Sunday, May 27, 2012

In Which Pedro and Austin Go to a Mad Men Burleseque Show Beacuse Why Not

When I went to work last week my eye caught a small poster that was advertising an event near by. Now the note-worthy thing was that this small poster was promoting a Mad Men style burlesque show and that this was placed outside the office for the Heartland Film Festival, an festival known for warm and inspirational films, and yet this placement worked because it got me to go.
I’ve never seen a burlesque show before. My only interaction with the spectacle was actively ignoring the Cher movie and watching this video on College Humor about the rise of nerdy burlesque. I brought along my friend Pedro because he tends to have no free will and he’s under the illusion that he owes me five years worth of rides.
I’m not going to say what bar the event was held at in case they happened to Google search themselves. Let’s just say that when we arrived Pedro immediately said, rather loudly, “We’re going to get murdered here.” Upon entering, I recognized the interior as the locale from every movie where a bar fight occurred. Pedro, once again, said loudly “This isn’t what I thought it would be. (Pause). Meaning the girls may not be as attractive as I thought.” I replied, “Pedro, you know when you speak people can hear you.” “Not here!”
In that regard, he was right. There was a band still playing when we arrived. I’m not a music critic but I feel safe in labeling them as not good. Most of the time, I believed one of the guitar players was peacefully asleep. Except when they were really “rocking out” then it was like he was having a particularly bad nightmare.
Pedro and I really felt that we stood out in the bar. I wore a button down shirt that wasn’t tucked in and Pedro wore a collared shirt. Now a few were dressed for the occasion wearing a suit like Don Draper. One girl was wearing a get-up that seemed more fitting for a Great Gatsby Burlesque show, equipped with the peacock feather in her hair. One girl was wearing a corset for a top and that distracted Pedro way too much. “I’ve never seen them pushed up that high!” But most of the place were wearing shirts and shorts that haven’t been washed this decade except for that time it rained last fall. It was like nobody really knew how to dress for a thing like this, which makes sense considering this was an event devoted to ignoring clothing.
Beyond this, it felt that this was a group of regulars and we were not regular. Honestly, this made everything a little more entertaining.
So we sat on a couple of bar stools against the wall ready for the show to begin. The hosts were very entertaining and were able to adjust quickly to the faulty audio equipment. Yet I quickly caught on that I might be the only one in the bar who has seen Mad Men. It’s one of my favorite shows; it’s a show that has plenty of ways to be sexy considering it’s about attractive people having secret lives outside of their well-mannered exterior.
The show takes place during the 1960s so obviously the first number was “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Immediately I felt that my critical mind and my heterosexual mind in conflict. I was a biased Olympic judge. “Well, none of the five girls were in sync when they were dancing together but they took off their clothes. 10!”
That’s what it was like the whole night! I was so confused. Like the next number was a solo dance and I felt that I recognized the song. When she revealed that she was wearing a pink wig, I knew exactly what this was. It was “Beauty School Dropout” from Grease. The audience to enjoy this number would be Baby Boomer women and gay men. Also Grease takes place in the 1950s, not 60s. Whatever, she took off her clothes. 10!
Now, in case you don’t know, burlesque is a type of dance. Technically this is a dancing performance so if anyone complains that you aren’t cultured enough I have a recommendation for you. With this genre of dance, it’s structured towards flaunting all that’s worth flaunting. That means using the music and owning the stage. The ones who are the best aren’t always the ones who are the most attractive because confidence reigns. There was one male dancer who got down to his underpants with the song “It’s a Man’s World.” (Also not in Mad Men.) He wasn’t the fittest man at the bar, but the crowd still genuinely whoo-ed and hollered. Confidence can be the most attractive thing and to do a thing like this on stage reaches a new level of impressiveness.
So how was this actually related to Mad Men? I have no idea. Elvis was featured but again, that’s the wrong decade. One performer said she was Joan Halloway-Harris, which I kinda got? The hosts decided to have a trivia contest between some of the numbers when they needed to stall for setup. One of the questions asked was what publication in the first episode said that smoking was harmful. Pedro asked me what it was and I told him. So he jumped up and raised his hand as high as he can.
Host: “Yes, who are you and what’s the answer?”
Pedro: “Pedro and Reader’s Digest!”
Host: “That’s incredible. Great job!”
Pedro sat down and said to me, “Wait, I don’t get anything?”
Don’t feel too bad for Pedro. For Pedro made a friend at the bar. No it’s not a woman although he got a hug from one of the performers…
Pedro: “I can’t believe you didn’t congratulate her for her dance.”
Austin: “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize her with the clothes on.”
Pedro: “That’s the dress she put on at the end of her bit.”
Austin: “Then I have no excuse.”
The friend Pedro made is a confirmation that the world doesn’t make any sense. At the table next to us, there was a man in a brown suit. Pedro became convinced that this man was dressed like the tenth Doctor from Doctor Who. Pedro swore that he hasn’t seen those pair of sneakers on anyone else but David Tennant. I didn’t think that’s what he was doing but Pedro kept screaming “Doctor!” from our seats. (No response) You know, I like to think that Doctor Who isn’t following me wherever I go, but when this man pulled out his sonic screwdriver—Not a euphuism!—and aimed it to the stage I couldn’t deny it any longer. I went to an Indianapolis Bar to see a Mad Men Burlesque show and someone in the audience was dressed as The Doctor.
When we left, Pedro said we had to say goodbye to The Doctor (the only name we knew him by) and refused to acknowledge that was a weird thing to do. I was tempted to ask him why he wasn’t dressed up as William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton since those were the actors in the role during the 1960s, but I guess he fit with the theme of “Nothing From the Era When Mad Men Takes Place”.
Will we go back here? Probably not. Did we have fun? Absolutely. All of the girls were great and the bar was odd but still was a place that served alcohol. But seriously, if they need someone to write/direct numbers that actually have to do with the pop culture theme, I’m available for hire. Actually, either way I’m giving you guys a 10.

Film Yap: Interview with Whit Stillman, writer/director of Damsels in Distress

In the 1990s, Whit Stillman was one of the leading voices of independent cinema with his three comedies “Metropolitan”, “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco”. They were films filled with wit and sophistication while covering the confusion of being a twenty-something. Then Stillman had an unfortunate hiatus from the world of cinema. He has now returned with a fantastic new film called “Damsels in Distress” staring Greta Gerwig, which is a shift in style, while maintaining his previous excellence.
We were thrilled to have Whit Stillman chat with The Film Yap about the similarities and differences between his characters, what an actor can bring to a role and how Bloomington helped inspire his new film.

Austin: Now what was it about The Last Days of Disco that made you want to adapt it into a novel?
Whit: Well, I always wanted to write a novel and the idea of turning a story of a film into a novel came up with Metropolitan and it used to a be a “phantom book” at Amazon just hanging around the internet. It was announced in a catalog for Soho Press. They were people that really wanted to do it, but they were pressing me to do it in a hurry and I was in Barcelona trying to write that script on a limited time basis. So the clash between trying to do the Metropolitan novel in a hurry and have this other script responsibility meant I had to drop out of the Metropolitan idea.
So I kept it in mind and felt that the Disco material was rich for a novel. A very good literary editor, Jonathan Galassi from Farrar Straus and Giroux, like the idea of a novel that would not be tied to the film’s release. So it could come out years afterward and I would have time to work on it. I really liked the experience. It got a pretty good reaction. I think there’s one part of it that I should have done something different. About 3/5th the way through, it loses momentum. I slavishly thought I had to include all the lines of dialog from the film in the novel and that was a mistaken; I should have restructured some of it.
Austin: Do you have any wish to return to prose?
Whit: I do, I really want to. It’s very very tempting. You can achieve things with film that you can’t at all in fiction; it’s more social and gregarious and has all sorts of good things about it. But I think with writing fiction, you get the pure creative play under your own control. I don’t want to use a strong word to describe the world of cinema but….there are a lot of annoyances, tension, and industrial processes with film. You don’t feel that you’re doing creative work, but industrial work which has its good side, I guess, too.
It may be economical too. I’m not sure if you get paid more for unprofitable films or unprofitable novels. (Laughs) No, our films are profitable. The reason they’re profitable is because they’re profitable for the investors and not profitable for me.
Austin: Then how has the independent film market changed from when you started out to now?
Whit: It’s been a radical change. We’re in a very tough period for independent film. I think there are good things too, but you have to keep your cost level low. [Damsels in Distress] will be profitable, but we made it very inexpensively.
Austin: And yet, your new film has a lot of visual style that I haven’t seen previously in your films. Including a musical number.
Whit: We were so lucky that we got that off the ground. I was very happy with it.
Austin: What was it like filming that?
Whit: It was really fun. (Laughs). It all came together with this beautiful weather. The cinematographer had a lot of really great ideas for how to do it. We got a crane to shoot against the backlights; we waited for the “magic hour” moment for Greta and Adam to dance in the fountain. We were lucky with our location that we had things like the Staten Island Botanical Gardens on our set and we had a young choreographer who knew how to adapt things to the spaces we had to occupy.
Austin: Well, it looked great.
Whit: I really liked it.
Austin: Now I wanted to ask you about your characters—
Whit: As well you might!
Austin: (Laughs) I know, shocking! In your first three films, it seems that your characters are almost burdened by their education. They have this rich vocabulary and know so much about literature, but they don’t know how to apply it well to their lives.
Whit: Well, I think they’re all pretty superficial in the nice way that everyone is. I think at that age and really at most ages you spend a lot of time talking about things you don’t know that well.
Austin: But then in Damsels, your characters don’t seem as superficial.
Whit: Oh cool.
Austin: They’re not as educated and they seem happier. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Whit: That’s really interesting. You’re probably right about that, but I never thought about it that way.
Austin: Do you have fun writing one style more than the other?
Whit: You know, I had a lot of fun writing Damsels in Distress. I really had a gas writing this one; I like this kind of comedy.
Austin: It’s more absurdist than your others.
Whit: It’s stylized, absurdist, broad. It’s a more out-and-out comedy than the comedy of manners.
Austin: Do you find there’s much of a difference between writing characters who are surreally dumb to those who are trying to be witty all the time?
Whit: No. I think the effect is witty sometimes from the characters in the other films, but I don’t think they’re trying to be witty. I noticed in the first screening of Metropolitan, that people were laughing more at the reaction shots. It’s not what’s being said, but the reactions to it. So they are saying absurdities. There is a commonality between the supposed “smart humor” and the supposed “dumb humor” of the two groups of films. I consider Damsels in a group of stupid films; now that I’ve gone stupid I don’t want to go back.
Austin: From that first screening, did you shape your films while thinking about that kind of reaction?
Whit: We had that in mind. The editor kept thinking about that when we were editing Barcelona together. That’s one of the great things about making a film, as opposed to writing a novel or another endeavor: you have a lot of other people thinking about it at the same time. So I like to think that every actor is like a research institute on their character. Sometimes you change things for production reasons, but then the actor comes up to you and says, “Don’t you know what you’ve done hurts the arc of my character?” Then you do what they suggest because they are the people keeping the integrity of that character going.
Austin: Do you have any examples of how Greta Gerwig changed the character of Violet?
Whit: First she did something that I love, which was she embodied the character. She created the character that was intended, which is the thing you really want. She did a lot of little things, most of which I didn’t find out until afterwards when we did interviews together. She did all of these physical things like she had a way of walking rapidly with small steps that conveyed this determination and specialness of her character. If someone spoke to her and she wanted to pay attention to them, she wouldn’t turn her head, she would turn her whole body.
These were the little and big things she worked on to get the character there. I think that’s the hardest part of the film so there had to be a lot of modulation in the first four days of the shoot. “Is it this way or is it that way?” So she had to do a number of different versions and we had quite a few takes to start with. Then once she voiced the right version we stuck with that.
Austin: The balance seems so difficult. How do you maintain respect for the character while also focusing on the absurdity that she found an epiphany through a bar of soap? How do you focus on the comedy while focused on the characters’ true thoughts?
Whit: Well, I believe a lot of this stuff. I think a lot of people can grab onto things to have their epiphany on like a special rare scent. I don’t think neither Violet nor I particularly like a lot of perfumes or a lot of scents. So you can have the idea of something transcending. It’s something that sounds absurd or laughable, but it can be something very helpful to people.
Austin: I understand. I was in the audience when you spoke at Indiana University a few months ago. I loved how someone asked you about Scrooge McDuck because I love that dialog scene from Disco and then you surprised me by reacting very enthusiastically about that character.
Whit: Uncle Scrooge? Yeah I love that character.
Austin: So you find that through the absurdity you can be really genuine?
Whit: I tend to have to work with stuff I like. For instance, I was chastised by several reviewers because they thought the film should have been about the conflict between Violet and Rick DeWolfe from “The Complainer”. That was a missed opportunity, blah blah blah. That was one of the big changes I made in the script because at a certain point it was going to be conflict between those two or Depressed Debby, Aubrey Plaza’s character. Then I thought that was such a boring prospect and it depressed me so much for being so unoriginal that I couldn’t write the script. I was stuck. My intention was to write it that way but then I had a writer friend who said that when you get stuck, you’re stopping for a reason. You have to think something through.
I didn’t want to make a boring formulaic film where there’s a conflict between two people and that’s the whole film and then it’s resolved. So I decided not to do the Rick DeWolfe story; he’s disappeared from the story. His effect is still there, that influence becomes the killjoy for the whole campus.
Austin: So what inspired you to switch the conflict to what it is in the film now?
Whit: I think it was that I was going in that direction, but it wasn’t the true direction of the film. When I started the film I didn’t want to do any political dispute between two people. I wanted to keep the zany Violet identity quest and romance story going so it was avoiding the trap of the other plan and staying with the ethos of the material.
Austin: I found all of the characters in the film to be really funny, but I felt there were more characters you wanted us to emotionally connect to and then there were characters who were just there for humor, like the guy who doesn’t know what colors are.
Whit: He was kinda touching too.
Austin: Oh absolutely. I was wondering, in a comedy, how much do you want us to respect your characters? Is that a weird question?
Whit: I always like it to leave it open to how the audience should feel about the characters. Sometimes I fear I leave it too open. People really like the Lily character because they think she’s the identification character but she really wasn’t. It’s hard for them to get back on track and recognize it as Violet’s film. They tend to be the ones more negative about the movie. That’s the problem with people being too preprogrammed to a certain film formulas. Like the one where the outsider character chastises the snobbish insiders, but Damsels ends up not being that.
Austin: I think then the movie would work better on a second viewing because I started off identifying with the Lily character until I realized how often she would change her opinions with whoever she was around.
Whit: I think improves a lot on a second viewing because they learn it’s not a film about where the journey ends up but what’s happening on the journey. You stop worrying about when it’s going to end and you get into more of the characters.
Austin: Now I know you were at Indiana University for a year or so?
Whit: I was in Bloomington for a foundation for a year but while I was there I had an Indiana drivers license so I could use the IU library. So I was in the IU library working at nights and on the weekends quite a bit.
Austin: Were you affected by that type of college town for this film?
Whit: I really was. My two college times were Harvard, my own experience, and the year I spent near the IU campus. I was there when the movie Animal House came out and I remember the toga parties at the time. And I had a tiny tiny roll of the production of the lovely movie Breaking Away. The director and the screenwriter, Peter Yates and Steve Tesich, were in Bloomington to location scout and they to be introduced to Mayor McCloskey. We were at a party and I was picked to introduce them to the mayor. I met Mayor McCloskey once so it was very incongruous me introducing them. He was such a live wire about seeing what a good opportunity for the town so he was like “Yes, we’ll do anything you need!”
Austin: Now I have to ask, are you working on another project right now?
Whit: I do have another project. I said in another interview that we’ll have to keep it under wraps. Then they posted the article saying I’m working on a project called “Under Wraps”, putting it in capitals. I loved that. So now people will say he never made his film “Under Wraps”, another film he didn’t make.
Austin: I just wanted to hear that you were working on something next because the gap was a long time for fans.
Whit: There’s the feeling that I will be able to make them faster now because I have the scripts pretty well written. I have several I want to make, but I still want to work on them. I want to make them even sillier.

“Damsels in Distress” is still playing in theatres across the country.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sound of My Voice

This movie wants you to play a game. You’ll enter when the main characters will enter and see all they get to see, plus a little bit more because this is a friendly game. The game is to figure out if she is telling the truth. She is named Maggie. She says she’s from the future. Is she?
Peter and Lorna aren’t so sure. Maggie remains a complete mystery and the only way to get close to her is to join her cult. It is a cult full of secrets and tests and complete devotion. Devotion to the belief, devotion to the secret handshakes, devotion towards complete vulnerability and commitment. Peter and Lorna know this is a dangerous cult preying upon the weak so they plan to uncover it with a documentary.
Like any good game, both sides need a proper chance. There is plenty of evidence that says that Maggie is a fraud while there is enough evidence to say you need more evidence.
The movie is not a very long game. That’s usually a criticism with video games, but with movies it’s nice when the story doesn’t drag itself out. With the case of “Sound of My Voice” it especially doesn’t feel long because the game ends when the movie ends. There are a few loose ends that can be pieced together after the final scene, but you really just need the time allotted by the credits.
Any lingering effect you’ll have with the movie is that there was a fun time to be had. There’s not much more to the movie, especially not its attempt to examine the deeper struggles of its characters. The most compelling will always be the ones we know less about.
In terms of pure plot, “Sound of My Voice” works. The pacing is deliberate and unnerving. All of the twists appear at just the right moment to keep enough people guessing. When they do have to give a little bit of answers, the filmmakers are mature enough to do it in a visual way instead of an awkward exposition dump.
The game isn’t the most challenging, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun. It probably could have worked even better as a short film, but how it is makes for an enjoyable little story.

4 Yaps

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Avengers

Okay, I’m not the biggest fan of superhero movies. I’ve liked most of what I’ve seen, but never thought they were the greatest movies on their own. Too often it felt like appeasing fans that were already fans of these characters, instead of creating dynamic movies to make new fans. The first time I saw a superhero movie really break from the dull plot formula was “X2: X-Men United.” Then “The Dark Knight” really destroyed the mold with a movie that was fantastic on its own.
“The Avengers” is now the first Marvel movie to join that club. In a gutsy move by the studio, they’ve spent years making movies to set up characters and franchises to all come together for this epic collaboration. This could have messed up a trillion different ways, but Marvel put its faith in someone very smart: Joss Whedon.
Marvel has had plenty of good storytellers before like Jon Faverau and Kenneth Branaugh, but their movies (“Iron Man 2” and “Thor”) never completely gelled and had fill-in-the-blank plots that are too familiar with these movies. Whedon was given enough time to really work out the story and…wait for it…actually write a damn good screenplay.
“The Avengers” rocks with its creative and fan-filled moments of action awesomeness. Yet after having spent a few days thinking about it, that’s not at all what I’m thinking about. The reason people are so pumped for this movie is because of the characters. It’s not seeing what is going to destroy New York this time, but it’s seeing Iron Man and Thor and Captain America all in the same frame. It could have been a movie where they all take turns punching the villain, but instead Whedon really focuses on the dynamic of this illogical team.
The way the film pairs certain characters up and has them challenge each other is what makes this a great movie. Whedon knows these heroes so well that it is never just a costume. There are elements that make Captain America, Captain America and that’s why we like him. I didn’t mind his movie last year, but it felt like every other origin story. This was the first time that I really found myself liking and rooting for people like the Captain or Bruce Banner (The Hulk). It wasn’t just the actors and the action; it was a wonderful introspective of how they all function (or often not function).
Everything else just rocks. The movie is hilarious from beginning to end with so many wonderful one-liners and visual gags. The action is bold and exciting. Even during the movie chaotic moments, the story is so focused on making sure it’s an ensemble so every one of the core team is doing something vital at every moment.
This is what all superhero movies should be. It’s a celebration of the characters that have endured for so many years with a story worthy of all of their power. It’s still shocking…they really did it.