Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


10 Comments

The Butler: A Conflicted Review

I’m in Brooklyn at the moment, visiting family and getting a boost of much-needed energy.  I met up with my father and got to drive the Porsche. On Sunday I’m having brunch with freelance journalist, memoir author and fellow blogger, Caitlin Kelly of Broadside. But this post is about none of the above because I just saw Lee Daniel’s movie The Butler.

[photo source: imdb.com]

[photo source: imdb.com]

The Butler is loosely based on the real-life story of long-time White House butler Eugene Allen who served every President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. It was directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed Precious, The Paperboy, Shadowboxer, and produced Monster’s Ball, in addition to the aforementioned films. It shows the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of the White House butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son Louis Gaines, who participates in sit-ins, freedom bus rides, marches, the Panther Party and then traditional politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for anything that educates and/or enlightens us on the Civil Rights Movement. But is there anything in this film we haven’t seen before? No, there is not. Is this a new take on the Civil Rights Movement? No, it is not.

The only difference between this film and other films about the Civil Rights Movement is that the main character witnesses it from within the White House. While he’s serving tea, cookies, breakfast and lunch, he overhears his various bosses discuss, argue and make decisions about policies that will affect his and millions of other African Americans’ lives. This is difficult to watch because the entire time he cannot speak or react in any way. In fact, he is instructed to be “invisible.”

And therein lies the rub.  The main character is a passive Black man. His goal in the film is basically to not lose his job, to not rock the boat, to not offend his bosses or do anything even remotely controversial.

If my father had seen this movie, he would have probably walked out. Or he would have been mumbling under his breath the whole time, “This is bullshit,” and we would have been shushing him. I’m not going to judge the main character like my father would. He was a butler and there was dignity in not only his work, but also his role as a father and husband. But I do take issue with the producers. Why was this film made? What did it add to the conversation about race? How many times have we seen the African American experience told from this point of view? It’s similar to always seeing the Jewish experience told from the Holocaust point of view. The victim point of view.

This isn’t to say that the point of view isn’t valid or shouldn’t be expressed. I just don’t know that we need to see yet another rendition of a passive Black male unable or unwilling to do anything to change his genuinely painful situation. And I find it especially frustrating that this was the hero’s point of view. In my opinion, it would have been far more interesting and inspiring to tell this story from the son’s point of view on the front lines of the movement. He was the only active character.

If you think I’m being harsh, check out Harry Lennix‘s take on the film (slightly edited):

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

  “… Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I’m not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House. But then he “ni**erfies” it. He “ni**ers” it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes… well… historical porn. I refused.”

Unlike Harry, I did go further than the first five minutes and I actually do recommend people see the film. Even though I had issues with it, I didn’t totally not enjoy it. It is well-made, has an all-star cast, strong performances and solid direction. Oprah Winfrey’s performance is absolutely delicious and reminds me of what a great actress she is. Also, the father-son relationship and conflict in the film is genuinely compelling.

But when it was over and my 11 year old niece turned to me and asked, “So, did you like it?” I had to pause. “Yes and No,” I told her. Yes… and no. Then we spent the rest of the walk home discussing why.

Have you seen The Butler? What did you think?

Related articles:

www.bellenews.com/search/cecil-gaines-wikipedia/#ixzz2dVrf8bDI

http://www.blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/harry-lennixs-take-on-lee-daniels-the-butler-and-it-aint-pretty


4 Comments

Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Filmmaking

This week I am reblogging this incredibly generous and informative article written by director Danny Boyle for Moviemaker.com. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Boyle is the director of such films as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. People are sharing this article via Twitter and Facebook (how I learned of it). I’m sharing it here so we can talk amongst ourselves. Please note, everything from hereon comes from Danny Boyle, not me. Enjoy!!

1. A DIRECTOR MUST BE A PEOPLE PERSON • Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.

2. HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE • Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.

3. LEARN TO TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS • Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.

4. FILM HAPPENS IN THE MOMENT • What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person. I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.

5. IF YOUR LAST FILM WAS A SMASH HIT, DON’T PANIC • I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL STORIES ABOUT OTHER CULTURES • You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.

7. USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD • You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.

8. DON’T HAVE AN EGO • Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.

9. MAKE THE TEST SCREENING PROCESS WORK FOR YOU • Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.

10. COME TO THE SET WITH A LOOK BOOK • I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!

11. EVEN PERFECT FORMULAS DON’T ALWAYS WORK • As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.

12. TAKE INSPIRATION WHERE YOU FIND IT • When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.

13. PUSH THE PRAM • I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!

14. ALWAYS GIVE 100 PERCENT • You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.

15. FIND YOUR OWN “ESQUE” • A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.

Full article (with pictures) here:
http://www.moviemaker.com/articles-directing/danny-boyle-15-golden-rules-filmmaking/

Happy creating!


29 Comments

The Love of Cinema

Do you remember your first movie? Mine was STAR WARS. At least, that’s the first movie I remember seeing. I was 6 and 1/2 when it came out in May 1977 and went to see it with my father and brother. Everything about it was awesome and new and I believed all of it, from C-3PO and R2-D2, to the creatures in the bar, to Darth Vader (who scared the shit out of me).

The next year I went to see a very different kind of movie with my mother called THE LAST WALTZ, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on The Band’s final show. It might seem strange to take a 7-year-old to see a film about coked-out musicians but I’m sure my mom was thinking about the music… Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchel, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and countless others. When the lights came up she turned to me and said, “Want to see it again?” I did. We sat through the second showing. Then she bought the soundtrack and played it every weekend for the next 10 years.

In 1979, my older brother and sister snuck me into a screening of ALIEN, which makes me laugh every time I think about it. I’m not sure either knew what it was about when we snuck in. For most of the movie my sister was covering my eyes while squealing beside me, but I could still hear it and I still saw that infamous scene with John Hurt because neither my sister, nor anyone else in the world seeing it for the first time, saw THAT coming. To this day, it’s one of my favorite films.

Around the same time, I became obsessed with musicals. From the Busby Berkeley spectacles, to the fantastical WIZARD OF OZ, to the romantic WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, to the grittier HAIR and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, to the super corny OKLAHOMA, MARY POPPINS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and so on. It didn’t matter what year it was made or the genre. And if Barbara Streisand was in it, forget about it.

As I got older, my mother started taking me to an art-house theater in Philadelphia where we saw foreign films by Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa and Bergman. I remember walking out of a screening of AUTUMN SONATA (about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, played by Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann) saying with a sigh of relief, “I’m so glad we’re not like them.”

I grew to love certain directors, especially Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Ridley Scott, Billy Wilder, Terrence Malick and others. Each had his own style. Each brought out the most amazing performances from their actors, music from their composers, editing, production design, costume design…

It wasn’t until college that I considered making a film. That was a task for other, far more glamorous people, who lived very far away in a place called Hollywood. I never thought I’d be living there. Once I learned the basics of the craft I wanted to study film in NYC where my idols Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee worked and lived. But those schools didn’t accept me, so I went to the school that did. I thought film school was heaven. Imagine seeing the epic Sergio Leone film ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST or the beautiful Caroll Ballard film THE BLACK STALLION (both in all their 70mm widescreen glory) for the first time in a pristine theater with only 10 other people… and then talking about them

Cinema has changed over the years. I’m rarely blown away by a film like I used to be when I was young. I admit, I also don’t go to the theater as much. But I’m trying to get in touch with it again, trying to reconnect with that initial thing I loved about movies… to be transported to another world, to be enlightened, to feel compassion for characters I would normally never meet in real life or never love, to feel a togetherness with the other people in the audience, to witness the unique vision of the filmmaker.

I’m trying to remember the difference between cinema and movies, as so eloquently explained by the director Steven Soderbergh‘s in his recent keynote speech at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival:

“The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.”
http://m.deadline.com/2013/04/steven-soderbergh-state-of-cinema-address/

Do you like movies? Was there a film that made a big impact on you?