Fear and unexplored realms: the inherent terror in Jurassic World

When I left the theatre after watching Jurassic World, one of the initial thoughts which struck me was that it was very similar to the original, so much so that it might as well have been a remake rather than a sequel. From the basic premise of scientific experimentation taken too far, right down to details such as corporate corruption and two vulnerable children lost in the midst of dinosaurs and subsequently having to fend for themselves (at least for a while), the similarities seemed endless and obvious.

It is no secret that Jurassic World has been a massive box office success so far, mainly because of its far-reaching appeal. There is something in it for most of the moviegoing demographic: it is attractive to fanboys, fangirls, families, and even newcomers to the franchise. In light of its recent popularity, it is interesting to compare Jurassic World with Jurassic Park (1993) and see how greatly filmmaking and mindsets can change over the course of 22 years.

Not knowing anything about the supernatural entity which is haunting your home, for example, is a scary prospect and subsequently one which draws large crowds looking for some sort of catharsis.

Although there are enough similarities to have Jurassic World be a remake, it seems necessary that Jurassic World is a sequel. This allows for it to dwell momentarily on technological and scientific progression over the decades while still following the familiar formula of humans desperately attempting to regain control of their own monsters (or creations-gone-wrong).

Generally speaking, when it comes to choosing films, mass audiences are drawn to that which induces strong feelings or emotions within them, whether this is found in a love story, horror film, or anything in between. Fear of the unexplored or unknown is one formula which plays upon people’s natural desire for knowledge. Not knowing anything about the supernatural entity which is haunting your home, for example, is a scary prospect and subsequently one which draws large crowds looking for some sort of catharsis. While dinosaurs do not fall under the realm of unknown – there is obvious evidence to support their existence – they can instead be categorized as unexplored, as they were alive in a time during which humans were not. Since humans have never interacted with these creatures firsthand, the notion of doing so vicariously in film is one which appeals to the curiosity of many.

Both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World play upon notions of the unfamiliar in order to evoke fear and excitement in the viewer. The idea that scientific experimentation can be taken as far as it is in the film is a scary prospect, especially considering the rate at which technology has advanced. In 1993, perhaps the idea of using gene splicing to create test-tube dinosaurs for use as theme park attractions would have been absurd. In 2015 it seems, alarmingly, a lot more fathomable.

The haunting implication here seems to be that one day, human intelligence will be the very thing that leads to its downfall.

This is primarily why it was necessary for Jurassic World to be a sequel rather than a remake – while both films offer up cautionary tales, the latter does so with the context of advancements which have taken place over the course of two decades. In Jurassic Park, the unfamiliarity and subsequent fear comes from the existence of the titular park itself. The very idea that such a thing could exist was exciting and unique enough to draw visitors, and in turn, draw audiences to the theatre to watch the film.

In comparison, the existence of Jurassic World is not enough to draw such large crowds, both in the context of the film and in real life. The film uses a relevantly corporate-centric lens through which to view this situation, as it strives to get more funding by pushing more boundaries. In order to add another layer of unfamiliarity, fear, and excitement, a new attraction is created – enter the Indominus Rex, a highly intelligent and mysterious killing machine created through confidential splicing. After giving the creature a name like “Indominus,” it is a wonder that park employees took so long to realize the inevitability of their doom.

The Indominus provides the much-needed layer of excitement which the jaded park-goers and movie-goers are so desperately seeking. The cautionary tale here revolves around the idea that we shouldn’t always be yearning for that which is larger, more dangerous, with “more teeth,” because it is possible for human beings to get so caught up in the success of their scientific advances that they might forget their place in the grand scheme of life, and this in turn will cause destruction.

After the Indominus has gone on a bender, killing everything in sight, one of the park’s employees says that she is figuring out where she fits in the food chain. This is a resonant statement as it relates to humans on a metaphysical level. The human race is one which has, for a long time, gone unchallenged at the top of the food chain because of the advantage of higher intelligence over other species. However, the haunting implication here seems to be that one day, human intelligence will be the very thing that leads to its downfall.

After giving the creature a name like “Indominus,” it is a wonder that park employees took so long to realize the inevitability of their doom.

In line with evolutions in genetic modification and gene splicing as it pertains to the world of the film, there has been an evolution in the fear of unexplored realms for film audiences. It becomes increasingly difficult to shock and excite, and especially to induce fear, in a public that has become so saturated with competing imagery. Similar to the park-goers in Jurassic World who are not excited enough with the already genetically-modified test-tube dinosaurs and demand something better, with “more teeth” (a phrase that is used repeatedly in the film), real audiences are also forever seeking “more teeth” in a metaphorical sense. Real audiences are seeking something which will shock them and take them by surprise, which has become increasingly difficult. This desire unfortunately often comes at the expense of elements which add quality to a film, as people are drawn to that which appeals to them on a shallow level.

This evolution in shock value in the context of filmmaking is one of the elements which makes Jurassic World such an interesting and necessary viewing experience. Part of the shock comes from the lack of shock itself – the idea of man-made dinosaurs in 1993 was absurd. Man-made dinosaurs in 2015 do not seem too removed from reality.

One of the best cautionary tales in the film comes from the character Hoskins, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who recognizes immense potential in the velociraptors because of their intelligence – he suggests that these creatures be weaponized for military combat, an idea which is met with much scorn from those who treat the creatures with respect, such as resident velociraptor-whisperer Owen (Chris Pratt).

Hoskins’ ideas eventually lead him to a gruesome and ironic death, courtesy of one of the velociraptors that he was so eager to harness. This further emphasizes the notion that while scientific advancements may be appealing and exciting, some sort of line should be drawn before things are taken out of human control.

Jurassic World is loaded with homages to Jurassic Park, and like its predecessor, it is also full of cautionary tales. These warnings can also be extended to the realm of filmmaking as they comment on the downside of adding shock value to a feature at the expense of quality. If we are to learn anything from Jurassic World, let it be that while “more teeth” are appealing at face value, it is steadfast quality which should ultimately win the battle.

An Open Letter to Our Readers

Dear Readers,

Last month, when we sent an email announcing the launch of our monthly issue, we received an interesting response. A reader replied to the email decrying us for not mentioning a specific film that had opened the previous weekend. He felt it was the very embodiment of the “Toronto film scene” and that it was irresponsible of us not to have covered it. He then admonished the media in general for not covering more Canadian film and implored us (specifically) to support our local industry.

I have to admit that when this email crossed my desk, I read it, paused, and then questioned all my life choices. Okay, sure, that’s hyperbolic, but I certainly questioned quite a number of them.

It didn’t matter to me that the focus of last month’s issue was Immigration & Culture and that the film he was asking about had nothing to do with this topic, or that including it in the email would have been strange. It didn’t matter to me that we had not only reviewed the film, but also interviewed both its director and star. It didn’t matter to me that the film he was asking about had played at a Canadian-only film festival the weekend before, which we had covered extensively.

It only mattered that a Toronto Film Scene reader thought we didn’t cover Canadian film.

If there is one thing I have learned in 35 years of life it’s that no one has original ideas; if this single reader feels that we don’t cover Canadian film, there will be more people who either think we don’t, or don’t know the extent to which we do. Despite the fact that Toronto Film Scene was originally conceived to be a news site, providing up-to-date information to connect casual moviegoers and cinephiles alike to films and programming that might interest them, it has evolved over its five years of life to be an online magazine dedicated to local, current and thoughtful coverage of the city’s film and its makers. In everything we do, we put Canadian cinema first.

When creating an issue of the magazine we have a formula in which 60 percent of the content must be on a topic directly related to Canadian film. In the last two years alone, we have covered 162 Canadian films, interviewed 109 Canadian filmmakers and talent, and profiled 15 Canadian organizations. Our writers have watched 24 Canadian films and debated whether or not they are “essential” viewing for all Canadians. We coined the term the “New Toronto New Wave” and introduced our readers to a new crop of talent who will be the next household names in Canadian filmmaking. When covering film festivals, we cover the Canadian films first and focus on getting interviews with Canadian talent. In fact, we cover Canadian film and culture so extensively that we are funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, an organization that provides funding to those making and promoting Canadian cultural products.

When it comes to actually writing about Canadians in the film industry and the movies they make, however, we take a slightly different tack. Canadian culture, the thing that defines us, is both controversial and elusive. We are more than Tim Horton’s, hockey and hosers, but when pressed we cannot define it better than that. If there is one truly defining thing about Canadian culture it is the shrug we universally give when asked what it might be. As a result, I have always endeavoured to cover Canadian film in an almost invisible way, and that is the guiding principle the (wonderful) staff at TFS is instructed to use. We figure that if a movie sounds good, and a reputable source recommends it, you are likely to try to see it regardless of its nationality. When Canadian films, with micro marketing budgets, are forced to “compete” in a commercial marketplace against massive productions from the US and UK, they simply get lost. They have release schedules of the “blink and you’ll miss them” variety. Add to this a seemingly inborn repulsion to see our own films, and it only makes sense to cover Canadian films in a way that is no different than any other film. Making a big hairy deal about their Canadianness will only send you to buy a ticket to the latest Marvel movie faster.

We take a similar, albeit augmented, approach to the way we cover Canadian talent. If you see a person on the cover of Vanity Fair you have never seen before, you’re more likely to take notice because Vanity Fair — a reputable and proven tastemaker — has found this person worthy of their attention, and therefore yours. Now I am not suggesting that Toronto Film Scene is of the same ilk, or even of the same level of influence, as Vanity Fair. Few are, especially in the online world. I am suggesting, however, that if we put a person on our cover, or take the time to write a profile, a think piece, or an editorial about them and their work, it can be assumed that we have done our due diligence and this is a person you should pay attention to. But again, we do not browbeat our readers with their Canadianness. The people we profile — be they directors, actors, makeup or costume designers, cinematographers or producers — are artists, plain and simple. They have dedicated their lives to creating in a medium that inspires and explores, that enlightens and entertains. They are worthy of your time and attention regardless of nationality, but we choose to include Canadian talent seamlessly with our coverage of major theatrical and foreign releases because we don’t want you to shrug and turn on the hockey game instead.

This marks the launch of our 40th issue, an accomplishment of which I am immensely proud (and, incidentally, validates most of my life choices). We will continue to publish issues on topics relevant to cinephiles and moviegoers with a minimum Canadian quotient of 60 percent per issue. We will continue to cover Canadian films and talent at festivals first. We will continue to cover the theatrical release of Canadian films with as much fanfare as the film warrants, not the fanfare its nationality requests.

Perhaps this letter serves as a manifesto of what a team of tireless and immensely talented writers and editors have done over the years. More importantly, however, hopefully this letter serves as a notice: we tirelessly cover Canadian work first and foremost, but we try not to make a huge deal about it. We wouldn’t want to scare you off, after all.

Sincerely,
td-initials
Trista DeVries
Owner, Publisher
Toronto Film Scene

Mixing cultures: interfaith and interracial relationships in film

March 2015 saw the release of a French romantic comedy called Serial (Bad) Weddings. The film focuses on a couple, who are coping with the fact that their daughters have all married men of different races and religions. While the intention of Serial (Bad) Weddings is to promote acceptance of these types of unions, the film must first resort to having most of the characters make casually racist comments and emphasize the fact that these types of unions are not considered to be “normal” in a society dominated by white Christians.

Serial (Bad) Weddings is far from the first film to tackle this subject and it will probably not be the last. In fact, the topic of interracial relationships has been addressed for practically the entire history of cinema, dating as far back as the 1917 film The Bronze Bride, which involved a union between a white fur trapper and an aboriginal woman. However, the film that most people will think of, in regards to interracial relationships, is the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, which is about a white woman who brings home her black fiancé. The film was released right in the midst of the civil rights movement and, at the time, interracial marriage was still illegal in many U.S. states. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was remade in 2005 under the title Guess Who, which starred Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac and reversed the premise, so it is now a black woman bringing home her white boyfriend.

Mixing cultures: interfaith and interracial relationships in filmFilms that deal with interracial relationships are usually about the fear of the “other” and how some individuals don’t believe it to be normal for different cultures to mix. One of the biggest extremes of this is the 2008 film Lakeview Terrace. This film stars Samuel L. Jackson as a LAPD police officer who terrorizes his neighbours, played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, purely because they are an interracial couple.

Because of different belief systems, particularly involving marriage, interfaith relationships may be seen as more complex and challenging than interracial relationships. That said, the issue of differing religious beliefs is not addressed in movies as much as interracial relationships. For modern films, this likely has to do with the fact that society as a whole has become much more secular, with many people not practicing the religions they were raised with. However, at the same time, interracial and interfaith relationships often intersect with each other, with different cultures having their own religious beliefs.

Typically, films that do deal directly with interfaith relationships often involve a Christian getting into a relationship with either a Jew or a Muslim. Also, many of these films tend to be romantic comedies. One notable example would be Meet the Parents (2000), which makes many mentions of the fact that Ben Stiller’s character of Greg Focker is a Jewish man marrying into a Christian family, particularly through his romantic rival Kevin, played by Owen Wilson, who became a carpenter because he idolizes Jesus Christ. Religious differences are also brought up in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), where John Corbett’s character Ian Miller converts to the Greek Orthodox church, in order to marry Nia Vardalos’ character of Toula.

It is pretty easy to find films involving interracial and interfaith relationships, where the cultural differences between such unions are an issue to be resolved. However, it is still very difficult to find films that treat these relationships as a completely normal act. As films such as Serial (Bad) Weddings has proven, interracial and interfaith relationships are still considered to be a somewhat taboo subject. This is likely because these films typically deal with older, more traditional, generations, who are not really that accepting of their offspring entering into relationships with people of a different race and/or religion.

Films that deal with interracial relationships are usually about the fear of the “other” and how some individuals don’t believe it to be normal for different cultures to mix.

That doesn’t mean that films that treat interracial relationships as no big deal are impossible to find. Interestingly Zoe Saldana, who played Ashton Kutcher’s fiance in Guess Who, has gone on to star in many roles, which has her in interracial relationships without her race being brought up. These films include Star Trek (2009), The Losers (2010), and The Words (2012) and can even be extended to her roles in Avatar (2009) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which has the added dimension of her playing alien characters. It is also not that surprising when interracial couples show up in Canadian films, since Canada prides itself with being a multicultural nation. This was indeed the case in last year’s hit film Dr. Cabbie, which featured not one, but two interracial relationships, including the central one between Vinay Virmani and Adrianne Palicki.

It might still be a few generations before interracial and interfaith relationships become more widely accepted by society and they become a more normal occurrence in films. In the meantime, viewers will just have to tolerate films, such as Serial (Bad) Weddings, which interpret such unions, and their lack of general acceptance, as something ripe for comedy.

Playing the long game: Lee Daniels’ Empire and synonyms for American culture

“So you can witness as Empire becomes synonymous with American culture and Lucius Lyon becomes a god.”

These words, spoken by Lucius Lyon (Terrance Howard) to a group of reporters part way through Empire‘s first season finale, can be read as a manifesto from creator Lee Daniels. While Daniels isn’t trying to bestow godhood on anyone in particular, he is out to change perceptions of race and sexuality in American culture, to challenge the the straight-white male default, to create a world where it is possible for a black owned and run hip hop empire to be considered the height of American popular culture.

Lee Daniels has always been a filmmaker whose work focuses on the lives and perspectives of those whom Hollywood ignores, with his work largely focusing on the marginalized black voice. Unfortunately, the commercial film world has never been a particularly receptive place to diverse voices and Daniels work, while critically acclaimed, has remained on the outskirts, much like the film’s characters. This is where the medium of television manages to surpass film.

That’s why Daniels’ latest project, Empire, airing on FOX, is such an effective vehicle for the foregrounding of race and homosexual representation within a popular sphere. Unlike film, television plays the long game which means it can afford to reduce marketing costs and rely on word of mouth to build an audience.

Over the past decade, television has established itself as a medium that not only accepts, but also promotes and encourages a diverse range of voices. More importantly, it has proven to be a platform where stories from marginalized voices cannot only be told, but more importantly can gain a significant audience and popular appeal. That’s why Daniels’ latest project, Empire, airing on FOX, is such an effective vehicle for the foregrounding of race and homosexual representation within a popular sphere. Unlike film, television plays the long game which means it can afford to reduce marketing costs and rely on word of mouth to build an audience. It also allows for a little more creative freedom for content creators because the episodes are less expensive and there is time allowed for a slow build to popularity. For a show like Empire this is imperative to Daniels intent behind the show—to break down boundaries and bring the underrepresented voices of black and more specifically black-homosexuals to the general population.

A large part of what makes Empire work lies in its re-appropriation of the typically whitewashed, pop culture phenomenon of the melodrama and soap opera genres for an almost exclusively black cast. In this instance the black characters are the default, and the white characters are almost solely defined by their race or their relationships to larger, social/cultural organizations that are traditionally coded as white or as existing in opposition to the black population, such law enforcement. Daniels strength has always lain in his ability to tap into stereotypes and assumptions that are culturally associated with his characters racial, sexual and gender identities to present the viewer with something that at first glance appears to support the established order. While many works that advocate for more diverse representation often steer clear of negative representations and focus on the positives or make discrimination and the overcoming of it central to the narrative, Daniels embraces every cliche and stereotype, placing them front and centre, steering directly into the cultural baggage that surrounds his characters.

In Empire, Lucius Lyon comes from the streets. His company was built on his rags to riches story and drug money, a secret that his wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) went to jail for almost two decades to keep. He may not have been a physically absent father, but he was still a distant one leading to a poor relationship with his three sons, Andre, Jamal and Hakim. In many ways Lucius is the stereotypical black man: violent, cut-throat, emotionally distant and homophobic, with a history of sleeping around and abusive relationships. As an ideal character for sensational drama, people like Lucius are also a staple of the soap opera. As a result, these stereotypes become less associated with the genetics or race of the character and instead become part of the larger pop culture landscape that is dominated by white people. Lucius isn’t an angry tyrant because he’s black and this is therefore part of his genetic code—he’s a tyrant because it makes good television.

In many ways Lucius is the stereotypical black man: violent, cut-throat, emotionally distant and homophobic. [But] Lucius isn’t an angry tyrant because he’s black and this is therefore part of his genetic code—he’s a tyrant because it makes good television.

All of this can be said of the other main characters in the show, who each begin fitting nicely into similar, familiar archetypes. Cookie is the crazy and jealous ex-wife, Andre, the straight-laced bipolar business man. The two younger sons Jamal and Hakim fit nicely into the sensitive, artistic gay and gansta wannabe respectively. The fact that theses characters can be placed in familiar soap opera tropes as well as racial ones means Empire does not feel subversive. Instead it feels familiar. We as viewers expect the emotional excess, violent behaviour, conspiracies, affairs and over the top plot twists. Combined with a high profile cast of guest stars like Courtney Love, Jennifer Hudson and Snoop Dog and the Oscar pedigree of leads Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard, Empire has all the elements of a typical pop culture juggernaut. Daniels manipulates the formula just enough to push boundaries, while still maintaining a mass audience.

Instead of preaching to the already converted as so often happens with pieces that try to affect a change in deeply engraved practices and beliefs, Lee Daniels’ Empire goes the other way. It embraces these practices and beliefs, luring the uninitiated in before they realize their associations are being rewired. What might at one time have been considered subversive or an anomaly ceases to be anything special. Instead the default changes and we are well on our way to a world when statements like Lucius Lyon’s are not considered to be groundbreaking. Instead they are just accepted as a part of reality.

A hat tip to David Lynch, the grandfather of the cinematic television drama

The once large gap between film and television had long been a source of frustration and confusion for film and TV lovers alike. The strata between actors and directors who worked in television and those who worked in film was wide. There was little, if any, crossover and if a television actor made their way onto the big screen, it was considered a boon for their career. There have been a few directors who have managed to bridge the gap and make a defining influence on both mediums, but when the pilot for Twin Peaks aired on April 8, 1990, it changed television forever.

By the time the show premiered the television set was in its 56th year of life, and the programming was a place for attractive actors to portray conventional characters in conventional storylines – a box to switch on when an escape was needed and a lot of creative thinking wasn’t required. Obviously, there is a place for lighter fare on television, but in a sea of night time soap operas and sitcoms, TV was ripe for something new, something only David Lynch could offer.

Cinephiles knew Lynch from his seminal (and equally ground breaking) films Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, and his fans discovered that his movies had the transcendence and surrealism to create a dreamlike world outside the bleak reality of the ‘80s, without forgetting the darkness of the world we live in. The story is now famous: David Lynch and Mark Frost pitched ABC executives a show about a murder mystery in the small town of Twin Peaks. Despite some serious odds, and to everyone’s surprise, they were given the go-ahead to make the pilot. Lynch teamed up with seasoned actors like Kyle McLachlan and Piper Laurie, and cast some surprising new talent like Sherilyn Fenn and began what would be become the created one of the most discussed TV series of all time.

The result was wonderfully bizarre. It showed viewers that the box in their living room could open a window to incredible and imaginative worlds like those found at the cinema. When it comes to television it is difficult to overestimate the importance of Lynch’s vision. He didn’t come to television with a formula. He bucked the then (and still now) standard episodic model with six minutes dedicated to ongoing plot by giving the show a central mystery to focus on. ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ was more than just a catchy logline, it was a galvanizing force that kept people tuning in week after week. Since Twin Peaks, this model has been adopted and moulded into many forms, with varying degrees of success. Short-run series with a central, driving plot that is returned to week after week has become the standard in cinematic television and it all started in a little town called Twin Peaks.

With this broad and cinematic mindset, David Lynch, in effect, gave birth to cinematic television. Because of the way television works, with a showrunner (or showrunners) having a significant amount of creative control, even when not at the helm in either the writer or director’s seat, their vision for the show still permeates. Lynch was present in every frame of the series, and his cinematic take on the world of Twin Peaks was obvious. The success of Lynch’s model began to trickle through the television world to bring viewers productions like The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire and, of course, recent productions like House of Cards, True Detective and Fargo.

He bucked the then (and still now) standard episodic model with six minutes dedicated to ongoing plot by giving the show a central mystery to focus on. ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ was more than just a catchy logline, it was a galvanizing force that kept people tuning in week after week.

But if Twin Peaks had such a lasting impact, how was it cancelled? First, despite making a few missteps in handling the show, ABC did know it had a hit on its hands and had hyped the show for months in advance. Despite being a huge success, it is impossible for a television show to sustain that kind of interest over such a long period. As with many shows the network wants but doesn’t know what to do about, ABC kept moving it around, making it difficult for even fans to find when it was on. (Remember this was before interested parties could just Google its new timeslot.) The constant moving made its biggest hurdle even bigger: its non-episodic storyline. With a single, ongoing plot that made it difficult to drop in and out of, it was difficult to pick up casual viewers, or even make new fans, because the plot continually built on itself. The second season attempted to deal with this by crafting shorter story arcs that came up and were resolved in fewer episodes, but it was ultimately a losing battle.

In an attempt to boost ratings, ABC insisted that Lynch and Frost reveal Laura Palmer’s killer halfway through season two, but this was something they had never intended to do. Employing the age-old film device of the “McGuffin” (something designed to further the plot, but to never be central to it), Lynch and Frost intended to continue to have the characters reveal the twisted underside of the town of Twin Peaks. Once the killer was revealed to be Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) possessed by “BOB”, a supernatural force who could inhabit humans, and who was at the behest of the Lodge spirits, it was just too much for audiences of the time and they quickly lost interest.

Over the next few decades the show’s fan base continued to grow, and the recent announcement that Twin Peaks is going to return to the screens in our homes next year has been the talk of the industry for months now. The show left many unanswered questions and it has been reported that the new show will address these. Lynch has managed to lock down the majority of the original cast for the new series, which only has fans more excited.

It goes without saying that Twin Peaks opened the eyes of viewers, distributors, production companies and premium cable channels to what a television series could ultimately be. As the first true auteur to move from film to television, David Lynch was a guiding light for television in the There is no doubt that David Lynch was the guiding light for future shows, proving that a cinematic story can be successfully told over a season and sustain the interest of the viewers.

So here’s to David Lynch, Mark Frost and the new era of television – thank you for setting the standard and raising it beyond our expectations.

What Louis C.K. can teach comedy screenwriters and filmmakers

There are very few true auteurs of the small screen, but no one matters as much to the medium right now as Louis C.K. His FX series, Louie, which begins its fifth season this spring, is the most fascinating comedy on television. The comic powerhouse wrote, directed, acted in every episode, and edited each half-hour from the first two seasons. Since 2010, the comedy has been one of the most thought-provoking shows on television – and it has done so through looking at the absurdity of real life with refreshing honesty.

When it comes to laughs per minute, Louie is far from the riot of hilarity that C.K.’s stand-up suggests it could be. The laughs sometimes hurt – and that is something people working in the business of funny should pay attention to.

Last winter, I penned a column about the dire state of film comedy for Toronto Film Scene. In a nutshell, I wrote that the broad, vulgar, mean-spirited humour in many mainstream comedies was doing too little to make us laugh. Instead, great comedies needed to earn their laughter by focusing on our humanity. Fortunately, C.K. is already doing just that, with magnificent results.

Many of the most financially successful (if dramatically inert) laughers in recent memory try to push outrageous jokes to a level that is beyond credible. Louie, on the other hand, films in real locations around New York City with a small crew and a few actors. In an authentic space, C.K. allows the story to breathe. With its languid pacing, Louie immerses us into the streets, apartments and hangouts the character frequents.

The comedy’s realist aesthetic looks more like The Bicycle Thief than a Judd Apatow film. Louie achieves a dramatic range that many big-screen comedies rarely find.

He pays attention to the people and places around him, collecting beautiful anecdotes from both the familiar and the bizarre events going on around him.  The comedy’s realist aesthetic looks more like The Bicycle Thief than a Judd Apatow film. As a result, Louie achieves a dramatic range that many big-screen comedies, shoehorned with running gags and three-act structures, rarely find.

A typical movie comedy focuses on an active protagonist trying to fight against powerful forces to overcome an obstacle. On Louie, C.K. plays a fictionalized version of himself, but as a largely passive character. He doesn’t act as much as react to new situations. Much of the show’s sly humour comes from his attempts to avoid or get out of an awkward situation.

Those predicaments can include Louie’s awkward dates, afternoons sourly looking after his sweet pre-teen daughters and interactions with different facets of a mid-life crisis. All of the humour is relatable, and the show creates comedy through C.K.’s adroit blend of these regular moments with both weirdness and painful truth. A date that turns to sex goes awry and feels unbearably clumsy. A subway mishap involving Louie’s youngest daughter destroys a good day out. An audience member talks through Louie’s stand-up routine and gets viciously yelled at.

By creating an environment that is sincere and unflinching, C.K. grounds the characters and the dialogue on a plane more akin to true life. The truth often hurts, but jokes that ring true hurt the funny bone even more. Setting his scripted series in such a well-realized domain, C.K. then has an easier time tackling difficult subjects, such as God, masturbation and teenage drug abuse.

When it comes to that thorny subject matter, many comedy writers would balk at approaching such topics with a straight face. Regardless, C.K. doesn’t use these issues for instantly gratifying laughs. Instead, he mines the content to create understanding between the characters. In one of the series’ best episodes, Louie engages in a debate on Fox News with a young, devout Christian woman about masturbation. The woman, Ellen (played by Liz Holtan), wants to remain sexually pure until marriage. Louie is stunned by her innocence and cannot understand how she can resist pleasure.

Given this synopsis, what would an ordinary comedy writer do? Perhaps he or she would take an obvious route, either mocking Ellen’s religious beliefs or turning her into a hypocrite that would fall into bed with her ideological opponent. Instead, C.K. treats Ellen with respect. Sure, the episode has dirty jokes, but Ellen never comes off as a stereotype or conduit for laughs. Her views are alien to the show’s creator, but C.K. is willing to open up the conversation.

How often do big-screen comedies treat overweight actors – the Kevin Jameses and Melissa McCarthys of the genre – as a person with feelings instead of as a punchline for physical humor? Almost never.

Last season, C.K. won a writing Emmy for one of the show’s most intriguing half-hours, “So Did the Fat Lady.” In the episode, an overweight woman, Vanessa (Sarah Baker), tries to court Louie – a man with a beer belly and who is no stunner in the looks department – into going out with her. Their first date goes wonderfully, until he tries to insist that she isn’t fat. She cringes, explaining how that is the worst thing he could say to her. Baker delivers a punchy, profound speech about the social difficulties experienced by many plus-sized women. In this scene, the camera twirls around her for seven continuous minutes. How often do big-screen comedies treat overweight actors – the Kevin Jameses and Melissa McCarthys of the genre – as a person with feelings instead of as a punchline for physical humor? Almost never.

Beyond the time he gives to the meek or marginalized, C.K. is also a daring storyteller when it comes to plot structure. Early episodes of Louie were often divided into two halves, with each 11-minute chunk focusing on a different absurd moment from the comic’s everyday life. Last season, C.K. expanded, telling an intimate love story over the span of six straight episodes.

A week later, he extended the half-hour time slot his series usually aired in to an hour-and-a-half for what this writer feels is his modern opus, “In the Woods.” That semi-autobiographical episode is about Louie’s shock when he finds his eldest daughter, only 12 years old, smoking marijuana. As he tries to figure out the right way to talk with her about this new habit, we return through flashback to Louie’s early teenage years, when he started experimenting with drugs. This could have been a “very special episode,” but also turned into a very special kind of that episode: one that dealt with the father coming to terms with his own foibles. (That Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, was supposed to star in the episode makes its emotional resonance sting even more.)

What makes Louie so unique amidst the rest of television’s comedy line-up is how little C.K. forces humour into the stories. Sure, we can laugh at the miseries of the offbeat people Louie encounters, but “So Did the Fat Lady” and “In the Woods” work, foremost, as thoughtful, character-driven dramas. The laughs come more from the wry outlook of the show’s creator.

Louie is atypical for a television show today, in that it is not a show one can properly binge-watch. The funny vignettes, personal and often poignant, need time to gestate and demand repeat viewings. The laughs are filled with pain rather than petty vulgarity. The pacing is patient, refusing to propel to the punchline when there is deeper irony and wit to excavate. At its core, C.K.’s show works because it generates comedy from the most mundane truths. The rest of Hollywood should take notice.

Obsession and the problematic portrayal of women on screen

After seeing Gone Girl a few months ago, I remember hearing people’s commentary as they left the theatre. One person’s comment, although it was probably a joke, was particularly memorable: something along the lines of “marriage turns women batshit crazy.” It is an unsettling reality that we live in a world rampant with sexism, and this carries through to Hollywood films. Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl is arguably the most recognizable female performance of 2014 in mainstream cinema – certainly not the only one, but the most widely recognizable to the general, non-movie-aficionado public.

This is highly problematic because Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne was already written through a fairly misogynistic lens to begin with; the film seems to take this and dial it up several notches. Amy is a character who repeatedly fakes her own rape in order to exact revenge on various men in her life. This is not only a disturbing representation of the female gender as a whole, but it is also unfortunately the prevalent view in the general movie-going public’s eye due to its popularity in this past year’s mainstream movie line up. This type of representation only adds fuel to the misogynistic fire.

It was a fire that was burning fairly bright to begin with. Amy Dunne may be the most recent woman obsessed with revenge, but she is far from the only woman to be depicted this way by Hollywood. Cinematic slates have frequently included the obsessed woman from Single White Female to The Crush to SwimFan to Fatal Attraction, all films about how women just can’t handle their emotions and latch on to a man who doesn’t want them — and these are just the major titles you might be familiar with. There is a buffet of B-movies or straight to DVD that peer out at you from Netflix categories like “Films About Obsession.” All movies about women who go insane because of a man, all representing women as not being able to deal with rejection. Just look at the film Obsessed. Nice, clean cut Idris Elba is a good husband and father, and a hard worker, and he has been rewarded with a big promotion, but then a slutty temp shows up and starts making advances. He’s a good guy though and says no, politely.  Ali Larter just won’t take no for an answer and oh my goodness she’s going to ruin everything! Of course the film ends with a “girlfight” in which Larter’s character dies (standard operating procedure for this type of film). So to sum up, a woman sees a successful, good-looking man with a good job and loses her mind after trying to use sex to lure him from his wife and family doesn’t work. The only way she can be stopped is to kill her.

Of course there are an equal number of films in which women are the subject of unwanted advances, often in the horror genre. While there are some that are well done (even considered groundbreaking), such as Sleeping with the Enemy, but the majority of these films portray women as being helpless in the face of a man who wants them, often making it seem as though the women are being unreasonable for not taking a perfectly nice guy up on his advances. She could at least have a drink with the guy before deciding he’s not worth her time, right? For example, in the movie P2, a woman is taken hostage on Christmas Eve by a security guard who just wants to “look after” her. He has been watching her go up and down in the elevator, and after seeing her be assaulted by a drunken co-worker, he decides she just can’t look after herself and takes matters into his own hands. So he starts looking into her life. He investiages her and learns the names of her closest family and friends, he knows where she lives and her usual daily schedule. Unfortunately, he is made out to really have the best of intentions, he just doesn’t know how to express himself. P2 joins a long list of films like this, but this list is much shorter than the list of films about women who become obsessed with a man and just can’t control themselves.

Then there is a final category of films, best personified by The Boy Next Door, opening January 23, 2015 in theatres, which offers up a slightly different brand of sexism for mainstream consumption. On the surface, the film centers around a woman who is relatively independent and caring; she lacks complexity and is a somewhat cookie-cutter representation of what a “strong woman” should be, but she is not terrible. She is, however, still defined by her relationships to the various men in her life. She is either confronting her husband’s infidelity, or worrying about her son, or (of course) engaging with the titular boy next door. Granted, it is probably too much to expect any great leaps in feminism from a film like this, especially since January is a dump month, where mediocre films get a chance to thrive with little competition.

One of the major issues with this film, however, is that at its core is a notion of punishment, and as noted above, this is all too common in Hollywood. The narrative punishes a woman for her sexuality and for her “weakness,” and indulges in several double standards along the way. When Claire’s husband cheats on her, he is ultimately rewarded with her forgiveness. In contrast, after Claire sleeps with Noah (the hot next door neighbour), she experiences much more misplaced guilt and constantly expresses regret about her “vulnerability” and her moment of “weakness.” The message that this seems to send is that her husband’s infidelity is easy to overlook, while hers causes her life to literally go down in flames. This double standard suggests that even after her husband cheated on her, she should have remained faithful – since she did not, she and everyone she loves suffered endlessly.

With such a jarring lack of female characters on screen for mainstream audiences, it is disappointing to see wasted potential in films which do center around women. Audiences already have little to choose from when it comes to female-driven narratives. The problem with these types of films is obvious: obsession of any kind isn’t okay. This is stalking, plain and simple. Gone Girl and P2’s representation of women feeds into society’s inclination to blame the victim. Films like Obsessed show how little control women have over themselves. The Boy Next Door puts forth a double standard when it comes to men and women’s sexuality. While it is not the job of any one film or director to change the face of Hollywood, it is problematic to see the limited representations of women on screen, along with the sexism they continue to perpetuate. And, perhaps, the onus is on the audience to vote with their wallets and simply deny films like these an economic reason to exist.

Bad trips and glamourized hits: drug addiction in film

In one of Pulp Fiction’s most infamous sequences, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) overdoses on heroin by mistaking it for cocaine. In a frenzy, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) rushes to pump a shot of adrenaline to her heart, which revives her. While the plausibility and medical accuracy of this scene has been endlessly debated, it still remains one of the most memorable moments from the movie. It’s an image that contributes to the diverse representations of drug addiction in film.

The image of Wallace has become quite an iconic one. Although she’s technically a secondary character, she appears on most of the film’s posters. Her look is one which has been recreated again and again — in spite of her addiction and overdose, she is viewed as a glamourous figure by many. There are two versions of the character which are often re-created by fans: the classy, clean Mia, and Mia after her heroin binge. The fact that this latter version is such a popular image and one which is repeatedly used as costume inspiration suggests that not only is Mia highly glamourized, but so is her overdose.

Trainspotting

While Pulp Fiction is more playful and purposely unrealistic, films like Trainspotting delve into the topic of drug addiction in a more serious and hard-hitting ways. A discussion about depictions of addiction on-screen is rarely complete without some mention of this film, which revolves around Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his struggle to leave behind Edinburgh’s drug scene.

There has been a lot of debate over the years about whether Trainspotting glamourizes the use of heroin or condemns it. Ultimately, it would seem that the film provides a somewhat balanced perspective. On one hand, Renton’s descriptions of the drug and its effects often paint it in an attractive and appealing light. Furthermore, Trainspotting seems to carry a mysterious undertone, one which suggests that the beauty of a drug trip cannot be portrayed on film; it has to be experienced firsthand.

On the other hand, the depictions of the squalid, heartbreaking lifestyles of junkies detract from this supposed glamourization and offer a more balanced view into the lifestyles of drug users.

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In comparison with Trainspotting’s relative balance between glamourization and condemnation of drugs, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been repeatedly labelled as being pro-drugs. Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, the film follows Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) on his trip through Las Vegas with his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) as they have various drug-induced psychedelic adventures.

As is the case with Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, Raoul is an attractive, slightly unhinged protagonist. He is a classically “cool” and nonchalant antihero in many senses, which has an appeal of its own. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas also features a series of unorthodox visuals; this aspect, combined with the darkly comedic nature of the film depicts the world of cocaine, LSD, acid, and other drugs as an amusing one. Doing so possibly suggests that if Raoul is having such an exciting time and living such a thrilling life because of his drug use, then perhaps anyone can.

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Finally, in contrast to this explicit glamourization in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Requiem for a Dream consistently depicts the ways in which the lives of various individuals are destroyed through their drug use. The film follows four main characters’ descents into addiction as their utopian worlds are shattered by harsh realities.

Requiem for a Dream depicts each of the characters as helpless and broken. In one of the final scenes, all of the characters are shown curled into fetal positions. The film labels addiction as an objectively negative influence in each of their lives, having been the main cause for their broken states. Furthermore, whereas Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas all contain comedic elements, Requiem for a Dream is consistently dark. Even if this film was not intended as a condemnation of drug use, the grim view into the effects of drugs inadvertently seems to condemn it.

The topic of drug addiction is a risky one for filmmakers to explore effectively. It’s often a challenge to depict not only drug-induced states, but also the after-effects of addiction. While many films have been classified as “drug films” over the years, there are certain ones which stand out and even become cult classics. While each of the aforementioned films address the topic of addiction in different ways, they are interesting to compare because of the ways that they glamourize or condemn drug use.

Kill Your Darlings is not simply a tragic love story

Within the last twenty minutes of Kill Your Darlings, Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) narrates for the viewer what he believes to be the nature of the relationship between Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). He says,

[Kammerer] loved you. And the truth is, once, you loved him back. But this secret ate away at you … He rescued you. He saved your life. You needed him as much as he needed you.

Since Ginsberg is the main character of the film and also the lens through which the audience sees the sequence of events unfold, the assumption to be made is that Ginsberg’s version of events is the truth.

Granted, those who are well-versed in the history of the Beat Generation and the relationships between the writers will raise various issues with Kill Your Darlings. This isn’t a film which has been praised for its accuracy. It’s one that’s “inspired by true events” rather than “based on a true story.” However, there is one major discrepancy between the film’s version of events and recorded history which is particularly problematic: the depiction of the relationship between Carr and Kammerer. The film portrays the relationship as a tragic love story rather than an abusive one involving years of stalking, pedophilia, and harassment.

Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, both of whom were closely involved in Carr’s life for a while, wrote about the events depicted in the film in their book, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Kammerer first met and began stalking Carr when they were 26 and 12 years old, respectively. He would follow Carr from city to city and from school to school until they ended up at Columbia University in New York. By this time, Carr was in his twenties and had faced several years of harassment. This culminated in the anger, altercation, and infamous murder.

Here, I would like to analyze the film’s portrayals of three individuals involved in the events, and what these portrayals say about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of abuse.

Allen Ginsberg

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Kill Your Darlings depicts Ginsberg as a sympathetic writer with a strong moral compass who challenges the institution of Columbia University and has a desire to expose the truth. By the end of the film, the audience gets the sense that Ginsberg sees the true nature of the “love” between Carr and Kammerer and only wants to bring about justice in the aftermath of the murder. Because Radcliffe is the star of the film and Ginsberg is the main character, the viewer is naturally inclined to sympathize with him.

However, in reality, Ginsberg often advocated pedophilia in his poetry – in some cases, it was a central theme – and he was also defensive about child molesters. Taking these factors into consideration offers up a new context through which one should view Ginsberg’s version of events. Radcliffe’s Ginsberg does not have the aforementioned context; instead, he is simply a young man attending Columbia with no opinion on or advocacy of pedophilia. This is why the film’s portrayal is problematic and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Lucien Carr

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Kill Your Darlings depicts Carr as a conflicted, closeted homosexual who struggles to deal with his feelings for Kammerer and for Ginsberg. He is also portrayed as a manipulative young man who uses his good looks, magnetism, and charm to get people to do favours for him. He exploits Kammerer throughout the film in this way and eventually begins to exploit Ginsberg as well. All of this adds to the overall implication that Carr is wholly at fault for taking advantage of Kammerer and Ginsberg’s love and kindness.

Regardless of whether or not he was gay, Carr suffered years of harassment according to firsthand witnesses, including Kerouac and Burroughs. There is no record of a mutual love between Carr and Kammerer or between Carr and Ginsberg. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not he was selfish and manipulative, these years of harassment should not be justified in the way that the film attempts.

David Kammerer

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Arguably one of the most problematic aspects of Kill Your Darlings is the portrayal of Kammerer as an intelligent, sensitive, sympathetic man who cares deeply for Carr’s well-being. Granted, there are moments in the film during which his stalker-like tendencies are brought to the forefront; namely, when he tries to kill Kerouac’s cat out of jealousy and when he verbally threatens to follow Carr wherever he goes. However, the overall vibe that the viewer gets from the film is that Kammerer is a sympathetic character.

In reality, Kammerer changed cities to follow Carr wherever he went. It’s unclear whether there was ever a sexual relationship between the two men — speculation seems to be that there was not. The fact that Kammerer’s obsession over a twelve year old boy is turned into a tragic love story is the most discouraging aspect of an otherwise well-made film. A pedophile and a stalker should not be portrayed as a misunderstood lover, no matter what the context.

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All of this is not to say that the murder was justified. However, since this film provides questionable context leading up to the crime, it’s easy to sway the opinion of the viewer, especially if said viewer is unfamiliar with the history of the Beat generation. If Kill Your Darlings was a fictional story, there would be no issues here: the acting is mostly fantastic, particularly from DeHaan, and it is an otherwise well-made film.

However, this is not a fictional story — this is a story based on true events. These events involved pedophilia, stalking, and years of harassment. Covering up these harsh realities—but portraying the actual murder—is an unsettling decision on the part of the filmmakers, in my opinion. It suggests that murder is an issue worth addressing on screen, while sexual abuse is not.

The fault in our narrative about disease

John Green is in a balancing act. Simultaneously, he’s one of the most admired and criticized people in media right now. During its opening weekend, The Fault in Our Stars made $48 million — a film which was adapted from Green’s book of the same name. The story is told from the perspective of a charming young woman named Hazel Grace Lancaster. Hazel attends a support meeting for children with cancer when, as if by fate, she meets Augustus “Gus” Waters. The novel documents Hazel’s coming of age as she copes with the way the world perceives her terminal illness, all the while falling in love with Augustus.

While the movie has a freakish Twilight-esque following, its popularity hasn’t stopped those from voicing their discomfort with the story’s existence. However, many critics of the film have admittedly not read the book, and they also fail to report the story’s inspiration. Green was inspired by a young girl who shared the same passion for books and nerd culture. In 2006, Esther Grace Earl was diagnosed with metastasized papillary thyroid cancer. She was 16 years old when she died four years after her diagnosis. Green’s book is dedicated to her, and he also wrote the introduction to another book made in her memory.

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In my opinion, The Fault in Our Stars is not an amazing book or movie — it’s simply OK. It’s an admirable attempt to commemorate Earl and others like her. More so, it puts into perspective how we view and talk about those who have cancer. However, much of the meaning has been lost in the scramble to franchise the story. Even the filmmakers skewed the meaning of the novel when they decided on the movie’s completely inappropriate tag line: “One sick love story.”

It’s enough to make you scream in outrage.

Much of the book’s meaning has also been lost in the Internet traffic of those—including myself—attempting to justify whether the film is a good or bad thing. Frankly, we shouldn’t place such a binary expectation on the film, especially when it addresses something as complex as childhood cancer.

This could apply to any movie or book that addresses illness. As illustrated by The Fault in Our Stars, My Sister’s Keeper, and A Walk to Remember, not one story about cancer is completely alike — as are our relationships with these stories. While we can definitely criticize the film industry for exploiting these narratives as YA rom-coms, it doesn’t change the fact that they can also provide comfort in dark times. This comfort isn’t a one size fits all — but for the few lives that the movies do positively effect, perhaps their existence is worth it.

While I write about film, I’d like to openly suggest that we stop focusing all of our attention of The Fault in Our Stars as a teen movie, and start learning more about heroes behind these stories, like Earl.

Last weekend, a 17-year-old boy named Ryan Veldkamp and many others helped raise $300,000 at the Walk for Miracles. According to Global News, Veldkamp, who was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia at 11, lost 12 of his friends to cancer during the time he underwent his own treatment. Many of us may never have the misfortune of losing several loved ones to cancer, let alone 12.

If The Fault in Our Stars has done anything positive, which is has, it has certainly reminded us that incredible children are around us. Their lives and their stories are not forms of cheap entertainment to be addressed only at the box office. Not only this, but it has made us think about the authenticity of filmmaking — would we be better off watching The Fault in Our Stars, or reading This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl?

The answer isn’t so clear cut, and it’s certainly not one I can give. But in light of the hype around this movie, I will contribute this thought: like many others, I’ve lost a loved one to cancer. Because of this, there is a certain discomfort in knowing the amount of money this movie is making. But outweighing that feeling is the hope that more people will be thinking about cancer and what we can do to help those with it. And by “help,” I don’t mean throwing our money into the void of the cancer cash-cow, something that companies will continue to exploit unless we actively resist.

Instead, perhaps we can look for ways to contribute in our own communities, and by reading more stories like Earl’s. I sincerely encourage those who happen upon the anger around this movie to go beyond it. We must realize that there is so much more in the world, and in the stars, to be thankful for.

The life of the mind portrayed in fictional psychiatric hospitals

The umbrella term disability doesn’t just include those with physical disabilities but also those with mental disabilities and disorders. Over the past couple of centuries, psychiatry has evolved from locking up people who were perceived to be “crazy,” to developing a system that included psychiatric hospitals where people with mental disabilities are sent for treatment. In the history of film, there are many movies that deal with life at mental hospitals. However, a vast majority of these films are either horror films or psychological thrillers.

This perhaps points to the fact that as a society we are still not able to completely understand the goings on of the mind, especially when it doesn’t act “normally.” After all, it’s what we don’t understand that’s the scariest. For this article, however, I look at a few films that have tackled the setting of the psychiatric hospital in a different way.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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Arguably the most well-known film set in a psychiatric hospital is Miloš Forman’s 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel of the same name. The film stars Jack Nicholson as R. P. McMurphy, a criminal who is sent to a psychiatric ward after feigning insanity to get out of being incarcerated for statutory rape. His constant anti-authoritarian antics put him at odds with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs the ward with an iron fist.

While the evolution of psychotherapy has really helped many people over time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest demonstrates that like any science, there is much to learn. This goes for the 1960s especially, when lobotomies were still a common way to combat mental illness. As McMurphy finds out pretty quickly, the staff at this hospital are more interested in keeping the patients subdued and under control than they are actually interested in helping them become healthy and re-enter society.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

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Based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of the same name, Girl, Interrupted examines Susanna’s (Winona Ryder) stay at a psychiatric institution following an aspirin overdose that may or may not have been accidental. Susanna maintains that she just wanted a little bit of rest and thinks she’s not as mentally unwell as the rest of the other women in the institution. She soon strikes up a sometimes-harmful relationship with Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a diagnosed sociopath who seems to rule all the other women around her.

The facility in Girl, Interrupted seems a lot more conducive to actual progress. In fact, at one point the head nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) even says: “I worked in state-hospitals. This is a five-star hotel.” Compared to what goes on in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one is inclined to believe her. Though not all of the girls on Susanna’s floor are seen to be cured throughout the running time, Susanna is able to work on her disorder through therapy and actually gets better. The film paints her environment as one that isn’t to be walked in lightly but definitely one that has and will help people.

Manic (2001)

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Before they enchanted audiences with the quirky romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel starred in this little-known teen drama. Gordon-Levitt stars as Lyle, a violent teen who is confined to a psychiatric hospital after nearly beating a teenager to death with a baseball bat. Lyle doesn’t think he should have been sent to the facility and resents being there and opening up to its resident psychiatrist David Monroe (Don Cheadle). He does, however, strike up a few friendships with his fellow patients, including the quiet Tracy (Deschanel).

Though the facility offers no special frills, it does seem to be focused on helping these teens deal with their problems. This is especially true of Dr. Monroe who seems to pour his everything into helping the teens in his care cope. Unlike in the previous two movies, he is shown as a human being beyond just his interactions with his patients. Manic is dark and doesn’t paint any rosy pictures but it does seem to fairly faithfully show what it might be like to have to deal with your problems in such a facility.

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

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I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK tells the story of Young-goon (Im Soo-jung), a young woman who is hospitalized after her delusions of being a combat cyborg lead her to cut her wrists. She soon strikes up a relationship with fellow inmate, Il-soon (Rain) who tries to help her deal with the consequences of her delusions.

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a much less straightforward film than the others on this list in terms of realism. Instead, it examines the issues present in the environment of a mental ward with a certain amount of whimsy and imagination. For this reason it has been described by film critic Tarun Shanker as “part One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, part Amélie.” Indeed, the whimsy is a surprisingly fitting choice for this kind of story. It perfectly illustrates the strange things that may go on in someone’s mind. Despite using cute imagery, it still doesn’t feel light or trivial, with the dark grasp of mental illness always seeming present.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

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It’s Kind of a Funny Story, based on the Ned Vizzini novel of the same name, tells the story of Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a New York teen who inadvertently checks himself into a psychiatric ward after seriously contemplating suicide.

Like with the characters of the previous films, Craig feels like he is not supposed to be in the psychiatric ward. He feels like his problems are of a totally different nature than those of his fellow patients some of whom he sees as legitimately “crazy.” At some point, Craig tells his psychiatrist Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis) that nobody at his school can know where he is, because it would be embarrassing. She replies that his disorder is a sickness just like cancer and thus not cause for embarrassment.

While perceptions and treatments of mental illnesses and disorders change over time, so does their portrayal on screen. Even just in the films here, we can see dramatic shifts from the treatment of mental illness in say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. As we continue to figure out the life of the mind, it is exciting to look ahead to how cinema will keep up with its portrayal of this process.

Making sense of disability on film

When it comes to representing the physical senses on screen (seeing, hearing, speaking, feeling), or a lack thereof, cinema has certainly had its fair share of films on the subject. It seems cinema has been exploring the idea of living without one of the senses for decades.

Paul Lenki’s 1928 short The Man Who Laughs is about a blind girl who becomes the object of affection of a man with a disfigured face. In Jonny Belinda, Jane Wyman plays a deaf-mute girl who lives on a farm in Cape Breton. The list goes on, but some films portray the issues better than others. Perhaps the subject has been so well-explored in cinema because film as a medium offers the unique intersection of the visual and the auditory. While many films have explored the ideas of what it means to be deaf, mute or blind, there are three that come up over and over and as such, I will look at them in depth.

Proof (1991)

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Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (not to be confused by the 2005 film of the same name) centres on Martin (Hugo Weaving), a blind photographer. When he accidentally injures a cat that hangs around a restaurant, he meets Andy (Russell Crowe), one of the dishwashers there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship when Martin asks Russell to help him with his work by describing the photographs he takes. When Andy meets Martin’s housekeeper Celia (Geneviève Picot), things begin to get a little more complicated.

When Martin and Andy first begin to spend time together, Martin tells Andy that if they are to be friends, he must never lie to him. Throughout his life and the duration of the film, Martin is fixated on this idea of the truth. And who can blame him? In a world that doesn’t present itself to him the same way that it does to others, he is reliant on their word. For Martin, this is reliant on childhood trauma. He grew up thinking that his mother was ashamed of him. He thinks, “she wanted a normal child to do normal things with.”

Proof‘s exploration of Martin’s resentment of being reliant on others is an interesting take on the belief that people who are without one of their senses are somehow weaker and must be helped constantly. Martin is a very independent man and goes so far as to do the one thing you wouldn’t expect of someone who is blind – photography.

Beyond Silence (1996)

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Caroline Link’s feature film debut tells the story of Lara (Sylvie Testud), the child of two deaf parents. Even as a child (then played by Tatjana Trieb), she acts as her parents’ link to the outside world, translating for them between her teachers, bank employees and her own grandparents. When her father’s sister gives her a clarinet, tension begins to rise in her home. Her father (Howie Seago) already has a strained relationship with his sister, who is not deaf and he feels as if she is deliberately alienating Lara by immersing her in music, the one thing he can’t understand.

Not unlike ProofBeyond Silence explores the idea of what it means to rely on someone when your access to the world is limited. Lara’s father doesn’t want to let go of Lara and doesn’t want to lose her to his sister and the world of music. At one point he tells her: “Sometimes I wish you were deaf. Then you’d be totally in my world.” He feels as if his daughter will never be able to fully understand him and his greatest fear is that she will see him the way the rest of the world sees him, as someone who always needs help. At one point he even tells her: “You treat us like children”. The film’s portrayal of the two separate but intersecting worlds and how they can affect even those closest to someone is truly moving.

The Piano (1993)

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Jane Campion’s 1993 film is perhaps the most well-known of these three films. It centres on Ada (Holly Hunter), a woman who has been mute since she was six years old and nobody knows why. She is sent along with her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) and her beloved piano to New Zealand to marry wealthy landowner, Alisdair (Sam Neill). When his associate George (Harvey Keitel) begins to develop feelings for Ada, things become more complicated.

Like Proof and Beyond SilenceThe Piano portrays its protagonist as someone who is fiercely independent despite being perceived by others as quite opposite. At the beginning of the film, Ada, who narrates with her “mind’s voice,” speaks of her husband-to-be. She tells us that he is happy to marry her, despite her muteness because “God loves dumb creatures, so why not he?”. But Ada is far from a dumb creature proving to all around and especially Alisdair that she has her own opinions, views and ways of doing things. She does not turn out to be the meek, independent wife he hoped he would get. Though she cannot speak, it becomes clear that the piano has become her voice, her way of communicating with the world. The difference in demeanour when she is playing the piano is palpable.

I find it interesting that all three of these films depicting muteness, deafness and blindness are directed by women. Perhaps women find themselves uniquely drawn to and understanding stories of those who are perceived as helpless “dumb creatures,” constantly belittled and seen as inferior. All three of these films do a great job highlighting the difficulties and  challenges of being without one of your senses while also ensuring their characters are seen as independent, strong and in many ways no different than everyone else.

The anatomy of a controversial sex scene

When Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was released earlier this year, it garnered quite a bit of attention because of its sexually explicit nature. The trailer itself is scandalous, let alone the actual movie. While sex scenes in film are not a new phenomenon, Nymphomaniac attracted relatively more controversy because sex is not an accessory in the film — it is the crucial axis upon which the plot revolves. This explicit focus on sex is something that audiences are not used to in non-pornographic films. While Nymphomaniac is not considered as controversial for today’s audience as it would have been in earlier years, it’s still quite scandalous for some.

Here, we explore what makes a sex scene controversial, and how perceptions have changed throughout the years as audiences have grown more and more numb to shock. The focus here is more on consensual sex scenes rather than rape scenes (although in some cases such as Antichrist, there is some overlap).

Ecstasy

In 1933, the Czech film Ecstasy featured Hedy Lamarr in one of her most controversial roles. This was the first time that a non-pornographic film portrayed a female orgasm. Although only the actors’ faces are shown during this sex scene, there is also an earlier scene during which Lamarr runs naked through a field. Ecstasy was predictably scandalous for all of these reasons. It attracted criticism at the time not only because a female character enjoys the act of sex, but also because she does so while cheating on her husband. After the release of this film, Lamarr became known as “The Ecstasy Girl” throughout most of Europe, proving that people are drawn to scandal.

Kids

A few decades later, director Larry Clark released Kids (1995). This film follows the lives of a group of teenagers in New York City, focusing on their liberal, unrestrained attitudes towards sex and substance abuse. The film attracted controversy during a particularly sensitive time: the era of HIV in the mid ‘90s. The morally questionable plot involves protagonist Telly on his mission to sleep with as many virgins as possible, with the sole purpose of infecting them with HIV. Along with the other explicit aspects of the film, this shockingly amoral storyline predictably stirred up a lot of public debate and opposition at the time.

Shortbus

While Shortbus (2006) is often referred to as a “sex film,” it’s not considered a pornographic film by most. Similar to Kids, the plot follows a group of sexually active people in New York City. The film, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, garnered considerable attention and controversy because it features graphic, non-simulated sexual intercourse. For a film which declared itself to be non-pornographic, this was a considerably novel approach. Many credited it as the first serious-minded film to feature real sex onscreen. Mitchell later claimed that through Shortbus, he wanted to explore sex in new creative and cinematic ways, as the subject is “too interesting to leave to porn.”

Antichrist2

Lars von Trier is no stranger to controversial films, and one of his most controversial to date is Antichrist (2009). This film, which revolves around a couple dealing with the death of their child, is so graphic that it apparently made multiple moviegoers faint in the theatre. As the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gradually spirals into madness, her sexual behaviour becomes increasingly violent and sado-masochistic. Von Trier pushes sexual and graphic boundaries with a lot of his films; with Antichrist (and Melancholia) as points of reference, Nymphomaniac seems like a natural progression in relation to shocking subject matter.

As is the case with gore and violence, audiences gradually become more numb to graphic sexuality. As filmmakers continue to push boundaries, whether for shock value or artistic value, viewers are bombarded from all sides with images. As these images become naturalized, viewers become harder to shock. In turn, filmmakers seek new and untested ways to push boundaries through their work. While this vicious cycle has led to increased numbness, it has also led to more liberal attitudes towards sexuality as a whole.

50 Shades Sexier: How Sexual Content Has Permeated Mainstream Cinema

We like to give credit to Game of Thrones for setting the quota of one sex scene/one full frontal shot per episode, and an increasing number of television shows are following suit. But what an ongoing battle for a kingdom has to do directly to sex is, quite frankly, beyond me. On the other hand, Showtime’s Masters of Sex takes us deeper with an entire show focused on sex studies. We must realize though that this is not a new low we’ve sunken to. Hollywood has been showing flesh for years, dishing out sex under the guise of art, never wanting to own up to the fact that what we’re watching is a hair away from pornography.

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Currently in theatres is Lars Von Tier’s two part film, Nymphomaniac, which is about a sex addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) who recounts her memories and experiences in graphic detail to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a man who has rescued her from the streets. Joe’s lusty details are juxtaposed with Seligman’s offbeat bookish wisdoms, for example, he relates to her methods of ensnaring men with methodologies of fly fishing. Their conversation is laden with metaphors and philosophies typical of von Tier and his arthouse tendencies. But alongside the classical music score and nature photography are images of sadomasochism, sex scenes usually filed until “hardcore” on pornographic websites, and extreme close up shots of both male and female genitals.

A Canadian film about a sexually aggressive woman is Lie with Me (2005) based on the book by Tamara Berger and directed Clement Vigo. It centers on the relationship between a young couple Leila and David. The exploration of Leila and David’s lives includes a number of titillating sex scenes, with extended images of foreplay and intercourse. Young People F*cking (2007) is still often abbreviated to “YPF” and has caused a huge amount of controversy during its production, with the government retroactively stripping the film of its tax credits due to its alleged offensiveness.

Ultimately, YPF received positive reviews for its unconventional look at modern relationships and was well received by audiences. Another film which unexpectedly blurred the lines between conventional drama and pornography was Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, which one one hand was nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or and later named “Best Alternative Adult Film” by Adult Video News.

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The exploration of fetishism was taboo for many decades. During the years of the Hollywood Code, filmmakers couldn’t allude to homosexuality, interracial relationships, or sex outside of marriage — much less explore any type of fetish. Surrealist Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour was one of the first films targeted towards a mainstream audience to address themes of fetishism, depicting a young wife secretly working as a prostitute. Following Belle du Jour, several erotic writings were adapted for film including several versions of “Venus in Furs,” “The 120 Days of Sodom,” and “Story of O.” The number of films in this category has since grown vastly, more recent entries include 9½ Weeks (1986) about the affair between an art gallery employee (Kim Basinger) and sexually domineering Stockbroker; Secretary (2002) about a sheltered young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose sexual awakening is brought on by her boss’ sadist tendencies; and even David Cronenberg’s Crash, focusing on persons who are sexually aroused by car crashes featuring hetero and homosexual couplings amongst the same group of individuals.

Finally, an increasing number of A-List celebrities willing to shed their clothes take us ever deeper into sexual territory. For her role as a stripper named Erin, Demi Moore was paid a record high salary to star in Striptease (1996), a film that generated much interest for its stripping scenes performed by the lead actress herself. This was quickly overshadowed a few years later by Eyes Wide Shut (1999), when then star couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman signed on for intimate nude love scenes. Kidman’s sex scenes included those with her husband as well as with Gary Goba for a fantasy sequence.

Those are just some of the films that have opened the floodgates, now Hollywood productions are commonly laden with sexual activity. So, 50 Shades of Grey coming out in 2015? Show me something I haven’t already seen.

Gaspar Noé: cinema’s ultimate provocateur

As more directors bend the R rating through graphic stories of sex, violence and sexual violence, it feels like audiences are becoming numb to shock value. Movies that would be tough to stomach 10 years ago are easier to digest. Films that push the boundaries of taste aren’t as common anymore, but that has more to do with our tastes than the directors trying to punch us into submission.

However, there is still one director making films both transcendent and numbing. Some praise him as a visionary and innovative stylist, while others are tempted to turn his movies off. His name is Gaspar Noé. This essay will explore Noé as cinema’s ultimate provocateur, and may contain spoilers for those who have yet to watch his films.

The Argentinean-born French director is talented enough to get his last two films, Irréversible and Enter the Void, into many film festivals. At the same time, he arrives at the screenings with security to protect him from moviegoers who feel disgusted or violated by his films. He is perhaps the finest director today that makes films that are difficult to endure but also challenge its audience to think about violence, sex, death and human behaviour in new ways.

Why is Noé the ultimate provocateur? It is hard to think of a man who makes his audiences experience the horror and beauty of life in such a visceral way. He traps the viewer inside the vortex of the story and takes them to a place so dark and authentically real that they are mesmerized, even as they fight to look away. His camera follows the characters so closely that we take their perspective as they encounter terrifying ordeals.

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Film critics referred to his 2003 rape-revenge drama Irréversible as an “assault on the senses.” It’s a difficult film to watch and gained much controversy due to a graphic, uninterrupted nine-minute scene when a woman is raped and beaten in an underground corridor. Despite the explicit content, Irréversible could be understood as non-exploitative. It explores what drives people to commit terrible violence and consequently, how we live with trauma.

Many critics blasted Noé for glorifying rape. New York Magazine’s David Edelstein wrote that the director “wants to violate you in the most lasting ways imaginable.” However, many missed the filmmaker’s point. Perhaps they were too scarred by the sexual violence to contemplate the film’s style and structure.

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The prolonged rape scene numbs the audience into a similar trauma of helplessness that the victim feels. Noé keeps the nine-minute shot of the violent assault entirely still. He doesn’t film the scene from a perspective that glorifies the attack. The camera is level with the victim, making it difficult to feel any arousal or dominance from the incident. By refusing to cut away, as well, the audience has no relief from the violence.

The scene is more difficult to watch when Alex stretches her arm out, toward the camera. The spectator cannot intervene in the violence, behaving more like the man who walks by in the background in the scene, observing the rape but not getting involved. We keep watching yet are unable to stop the attack. Noé examines how people relate to trauma and violence in challenging, thought-provoking ways.

By showing the scenes in a backward order, Noé only creates more dread, as we know what lies ahead. At the same time, he avoids a sense of easy closure to the events – we understand that the characters will see no respite from the traumatic event. A narrative film with a rape and revenge would try to create a happy ending. Noé wants to shake the audience into feeling that nothing cathartic will come from the circumstances of such violence. The effects of violence are long lasting. The characters cannot escape from their fate – one that is irreversible.

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In Noé’s 2010 symphony, Enter the Void, he also traps the viewer in a disorienting place where you want to look away but are too fixated on the image to do so. We see almost the entire story from the point-of-view of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American. He does drugs and we hallucinate with him. Oscar walks around a Tokyo ghetto and we follow him as if we were controlling him in a first-person video game – except it’s Noé who controls the horrifying things we will see. In a nightclub, a cop shoots him and we stay with the character as he struggles and eventually passes out. For much of the second half of the film, we experience memories of his birth, childhood and evolution into an adult. We experience the terrible and wonderful sensations of Oscar’s life as we float through his consciousness – his afterlife floating over the world as it is.

Like his earlier film, Noé does not flinch while showing us moments of sexual and drug-related ecstasy, or jolting violence. His reluctance to leave Oscar’s point-of-view traps the viewer, making one uncomfortable, as we have no control of where the camera (that rarely cuts to another perspective) will drift. As he loses control of his perception, so does the audience. That we view this destructive character in a disembodied space only forces us to feel as if we are falling victim to his violent, sexual and drug-induced impulses.

Noé creates an out-of-body experience meant to disorient us and hold us in his power. Oscar imagines his parents’ death in a car crash, as well as moments of sexual bliss that are quite overwhelming for anyone to view. In his perspective, we experience his life in a trance until a moment of graphic sex or violence jolts us out of our numbed state. The moments where we shift to the startling car crash of his parents are frightening – a moment of shock, a lived trauma similar to the one in Irréversible.

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You cannot just watch a Noé film. You experience it. The way Noé frames the experience of certain despairing moments makes the viewer feel just as viscerally involved in the scene as the victims going through intense trauma. Through a masterful visual style that magnetizes the viewer to the characters’ points of view, he ensures that our senses are assaulted, but in a way that shows us just how numb we are to deal with the darkness of life. His films challenge and shock us in fascinating ways that are hard to shake. Directors will try to create such shocking, visceral jolts to our existence for years to come, but it is difficult to imagine any one topping the stylistic and storytelling brilliance of Noé.

The Road to Brokeback Mountain: How Film Has Represented Homosexuality

Given the widespread social movements centered around LGBTQ rights in modern society, it may be slightly shocking to revisit the stereotypical depictions of homosexuality in films from earlier years. The subject was very rarely seriously addressed on screen because it was considered so taboo. However, when it was addressed, the representations would often be stereotypical and purposely insulting. In the 1914 silent film A Florida Enchantment, two women begin dancing together, an act which leaves all the men surrounding them confused. The men, in the midst of their confusion, begin dancing with one another, and this becomes comical. In a slight variation of this type of humour, effeminate male characters are often inserted into stories about overtly masculine men in order to provide comic relief.

Attitudes towards homosexuality and LGBTQ topics have changed significantly over the years — but while certain communities still view it as taboo, many no longer do. This change in attitude is due largely in part to social movements and causes which raise awareness and provide support. In line with this growing attitude of acceptance, depictions of homosexuality on film have also changed throughout the years. The subject is no longer as controversial as it once was, because it’s now much more accepted by society. While film depictions of homosexuality are far from perfect, even nowadays, things are hopefully headed in a more positive direction.

Here, we look at some controversial representations of homosexuality on film throughout the years and consider why they were viewed as such.

Different from the Others (1919)

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This silent German film Anders als die Andern was banned at the time of its release because of its gay themes. It follows violinist Paul Körner’s process of self-discovery as a homosexual, while he addresses his relationship with one of his male students.

The Nazis reportedly burned most of the footage and the film was thought to be lost for forty years. In recent years, Filmmuseum Muenchen reconstructed it using various discovered film segments, still photos, and censorship documents.

Different From the Others was viewed as controversial enough to be burned for several reasons. Firstly, it deals explicitly with gay relationships in a time of much political tension and oppression. Secondly, it addresses Magnus Hirschfield’s theory of cross-dressing, which suggests that all homosexual males are actually heterosexuals with an excess of female hormones — a notion that would be considered problematic in modern day.

Cruising (1980)

Cruising

Cruising stars Al Pacino as Steve Burns, a police officer who goes undercover into a gay community in New York in order to attract the attention of a serial killer targeting homosexuals. During the investigation, he finds himself drawn to the wild lifestyle and questions his own sexual identity.

Members of New York’s gay community protested this film after its release primarily due to the graphic depictions of violence against homosexuals. Many feared that such depictions would encourage real life hate crimes against a community which was already so marginalized and bullied. A thousand protesters even participated in a march to demand that the city withdraw its support for such a film.

Furthermore, in spite of Pacino’s claims that the Cruising is not anti-gay and is just a representation of a fragment of a more diverse community, many opposed the stereotypical depictions of S&M-loving, leather-clad, flamboyant homosexuality.

Basic Instinct (1992)

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This infamous film depicted above follows detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) as he investigates the murder of a musician and becomes involved in a relationship with the dangerous Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), who happens to be the prime suspect in the case.

Basic Instinct generated much criticism and controversy because of its graphic depictions of sexuality and violence. Furthermore, many LGBTQ activists, particularly lesbians and bisexuals, were opposed to the portrayal of gay characters within the film. Tramell, a bisexual character, is depicted as twisted and ruthlessly evil. Many saw this as a homophobic and biphobic stereotype.

This is not the only time that queer female characters have been stereotypically represented on film; notably, Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci’s characters in Monster (2003) received attracted similar controversy.

Brokeback-Mountain

When Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005, it was quite groundbreaking. It was initially viewed as controversial by various communities. Although this is not the first time that a homosexual relationship between two males was depicted on film, it further challenged norms by combining the image of the rugged, masculine cowboy with homosexuality.

Brokeback Mountain prompted the start of a shift in the public mindset. It brought a gay relationship to the forefront and put homosexuality more so into the mainstream. After the release of this film, subsequent films featuring gay couples were no longer viewed as so shockingly controversial.

Nowadays, homosexuality, bisexuality, and queerness are viewed with significantly more acceptance by many communities. While these subjects are still highly controversial in other communities, one cannot deny their widespread prevalence in society.

As we move towards a culture of acceptance, attitudes towards homosexuality on film have changed. If one views depictions throughout the years, it’s encouraging to see fewer stereotypes as the years go on. It is also no longer acceptable for a gay character to exist merely to provide comic relief. Perhaps this shift in film is mirroring our own changing attitudes and acceptance.

Fame and misfortune

When an artist commits a vile act, is it necessarily reflected in the art they produce? If a wicked man paints a portrait, is the portrait itself then morally suspect as well? When described in such plain language, the answer would seem to be no – that art is art precisely because it transcends its creator’s human fallibility. But perhaps it isn’t quite that simple. If a villainous man sells his art and then persists in committing further wrongdoings, are the purchasers of such works complicit in his crimes? This curious ethical dilemma has played out in the film world a number of times in recent memory and it would seem that a kind of moralizing stain can envelope first the artist, then the art itself and finally the fans who continue to support and underwrite the artist’s works. Is that fair game? Put another way, where do we collectively draw the line between the creative work and its creator? Are those who denounce the artist, the work and its supporters engaging in a kind of unfair censorship that hampers freedom of expression or can a work stand on its own merits, regardless of its creator’s possible misdeeds and transgressions? Attempts to reconcile this question is a fascinating – and very subjective – exercise.

In recent years, once an artist is accused of a crime, and often before any trial establishes their guilt or innocence, corporate and social media have often already spoken. The level of public interest in the story more often than not dictates how quickly and firmly the tarnishing brush of guilt moves from artist to art to fans. Hollywood’s star system has always been a very successful marketing tool, a means to draw in and please audiences. Larger than life stars were marketing creations themselves, packaged and sold in soft-focus. Without a probing paparazzi, the big studios had complete control over their actor’s public images. The audience consumed a highly sanitized version of the actor, designed for mass appeal. When people discussed John Wayne, they talked about how tough and stoic he must be – not about his illegitimate son’s recent stint in rehab. The modern celebrity-obsessed audience has near constant, often unfiltered, access to everything about the stars they love. The mystique is gone. We no longer daydream about their life in the fast lane because we know all about it – where they eat, where they vacation, who they’re dating… everything. This over-familiarity encourages a ruthless, judgmental attitude where a star can be lauded for a charming tweet one minute and raked over the coals based on a single negative sound-bite the next. As a result, the public discussion of film and television is increasingly dominated by celebrity coverage in newspapers, tabloids and celebrity blogs. Rumours and innuendo about the personal life of a Hollywood star is now fair game.

When people discussed John Wayne, they talked about how tough and stoic he must be – not about his illegitimate son’s recent stint in rehab. The modern celebrity-obsessed audience has near constant, often unfiltered, access to everything about the stars they love. The mystique is gone.

Recently, a famous New York-based filmmaker was accused of just such a crime and it resulted in two mobs quickly forming on opposing sides. On one side are those who continue to find merit in his body of work – portrayed by the other as ignorant fans. On the other, are those who demand his output be boycotted/censored based on the possibility that he’s guilty of the crime he’s been accused of – labeled emotional witch-hunters by the first camp. There is no room for a middle ground or reserving judgment. In the thousands of words written about the story thus far, most have focused on one question – who is lying and who is telling the truth? By the end of each piece, the authors have more or less made up their minds, despite the lack of any real evidence to support their findings. What both sides seem to agree on however, is that there is an ill-treated hero to sympathize with and an immoral villain to condemn. The inflexible black and white rhetoric that surrounds this particular story is an unfortunate byproduct of our modern proclivity to instantly broadcast whatever half-formed thought pops into our heads and then to treat it as fact. One-hundred forty character-assassination tweets have run rampant since this story first broke.

The passage of time can lessen the connection between a controversial artist and their body of work. In 1977, director Roman Polanski was charged with statutory rape but fled the United States to avoid serving his sentence and continued to make acclaimed films including The Pianist which garnered him a Best Director Oscar in 2002. Rightly or wrongly, over time Polanski’s criminal act and his film output have grown separate and distinct from one another. Film schools now routinely cover the artistic merits of Leni Riefenstahl’s work, despite her Nazi associations and the list goes on. History facilitates the appreciation of art on its own terms, unobstructed by the context in which it was created. It would seem worthwhile therefore to recognize that the histrionics that sometimes surround the contemporary dialogue about celebrities, actors and filmmakers fade with time. Artists are rarely remembered for their personal lives, but rather for the body of work they leave behind.

The controversy surrounding Christian films

Probably more than any other religion, Christianity, specifically Catholicism, has been at the centre of countless film controversies. This is partially due to fact that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with many devout believers having a very specific view of how their religious beliefs should be portrayed on the screen.

Controversy begins to brew whenever filmmakers decide to do an interpretation of a biblical story or question the very foundations that Christianity is built on — namely the belief that Jesus Christ was the divine son of God who died for our sins.

It probably doesn’t help that Christianity is such a divided religion, with the beliefs of a Roman Catholic likely differing from that of an evangelical Protestant and those of an evangelical Protestant differing from those of a Jehovah’s Witness and so on. This makes it difficult for Christian films to please everybody and it’s almost certain for films that involve the religion to be protested in one way or another.

This discussion will include some notable controversy surrounding Christian films from the surrounding religious community.

Diogo Morgado as Jesus in Son of God
Diogo Morgado as Jesus in Son of God

It would would be appropriate to begin this discussion with films that tackle the life and death of Jesus Christ. Believers have been very sensitive to how Jesus’ story is portrayed on screen. For lack of a better description, devout Christians seem to prefer films that somewhat sugarcoat the stories from the Gospel. An example of this digestible, cinematic portrayal of Jesus would be the recent film Son of God, which gives a literal depiction of Jesus’ story.

Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ
Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ

The depiction of Jesus in Son of God is the complete opposite of the very brutal depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which is both the most controversial and financially successful Christian film of the last decade. Gibson went for gory realism in depicting the Romans flagellating Jesus before nailing him to the cross. The film also received accusations of antisemitism due to its somewhat unfavourable depiction of Jews insisting that Jesus be crucified.

Even though it could be argued that the film is merely repeating lines that do appear in the bible, Gibson’s career never fully recovered from these accusations, especially after he made drunken antisemitic comments in 2006.

Willem Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ
Willem Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ

Another notable, and extremely controversial, depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The controversy of the film stems from the titular last temptation, which depicts an alternate future for Jesus, where he gets off the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, and lives life as a mortal human. This deviation of the Gospel narrative was not at all well received by religious groups and The Last Temptation of Christ was subject to many protests and boycotts, with the film even being outright banned in some countries.

Alfred Molina as Bishop Manuel Aringarosa in The Da Vinci Code
Alfred Molina as Bishop Manuel Aringarosa in The Da Vinci Code

An alternate history for Jesus Christ was also a major element of The Da Vinci Code (2006), Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel of the same name. The book and its adaptation articulate the controversial theory that Jesus wed Mary Magdalene prior to the crucifixion, and also that descendants of Jesus exist in the world. The book and film also received additional backlash for their portrayal of the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, who are shown as instrumental in covering up these revelations. To the film’s credit, the story was slightly rewritten, so that only certain Opus Dei members, known as the “Council of Shadows,” were behind the cover-up.

Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss and Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna in Angels & Demons
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss and Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna in Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons (2009), also based on a Brown novel, features a very controversial story involving the abduction and murder of Catholic cardinals during conclave at Vatican City. While not as controversial as The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic church was not really that happy about being associated with a story of murder and conspiracy, especially one that took place under the backdrop of the selection of a new Pope.

George Carlin as Cardinal Glick in Dogma
George Carlin as Cardinal Glick in Dogma

Ending on a much more lighter note, cult comedy filmmaker Kevin Smith experienced the biggest controversy of his career with his Catholic satire Dogma (1999). Along with Smith’s usual vulgar humour, the film featured violent fallen angels, a “Buddy Christ” statue (who winks and gives a “thumbs up”), and a golum made entirely out of feces. Despite the film being obliviously meant as a satire of Catholic beliefs, with Smith being Catholic himself, Dogma created quite an uproar that included protests, a delay of the film’s release, and even death threats against Smith.

As the world’s largest religion, the depiction of Christianity on film will remain subject to controversy. Even as the world becomes increasingly more secular, the believers still make sure that their voice is heard when they don’t agree with how their religion is portrayed on screen.

Sex addiction cinema: a not-coming of age story

Nymphomania has entered the mainstream.

No longer restricted to the realm of eye-rolling celebrity indulgence (lest we forget nympho-pioneer David Duchovny’s rehab stint) or relegated to small niche films about fetishists, sex addiction – like alcohol or narcotics before it – is now a condition ready for popular consumption. Sex addicts have appeared on screen before, but only recently has the issue completed the crossover from shock-inducing to legitimate mainstream subject matter. In the 1960s and 1970s, films such as Shock Corridor (1963), Caligula (1979) and Pasolini’s infamous Salo (1975) portrayed uncontrolled sexuality as a symbol of moral decay and a means of preying on innocents. A more nuanced view took hold a decade ago with Auto Focus (2002), Dirty Shame (2004), and I Am a Sex Addict (2005), but the latest crop of films to address sexual addiction are a different breed. In the last three years there have been four critically acclaimed, star-studded films on the subject – Shame (2011), Thanks for Sharing (2012), Don Jon (2013) and the highly anticipated upcoming Lars Von Trier epic, Nymphomaniac. It seems the topic has stepped out of the shadows in post-millennial cinema and it begs the question… why?

So, if the issue is not inherently cinematic, what does Hollywood’s recent preoccupation with sex addiction imply? Is it an extension of our growing need for nearly constant self-reflection and self-improvement or of a trend towards pathologizing every trait and flaw as a condition that can (and more importantly should) be treated?

At the risk of dismissing the seriousness of any addiction and its effect on people’s lives, perhaps there are some topics that are less cinematic than others. In the genre of addiction films, the struggles of a sex addict seem modest when compared to the horrors of substance abuse. Few scenes in film are as painful as the third act of Requiem for a Dream (2000) when the character’s minds and bodies begin to rot away from the effects of their various drug addictions. By comparison, the meaningless humping in Shame feels like an acute chocolate addiction. So, if the issue is not inherently cinematic, what does Hollywood’s recent preoccupation with sex addiction imply? Is it an extension of our growing need for nearly constant self-reflection and self-improvement or of a trend towards pathologizing every trait and flaw as a condition that can (and more importantly should) be treated?

Perhaps these films are an avenue to explore our increasingly complicated relationship with sex. Where the movie house once pushed the sexual envelope, contemporary films often seem more buttoned down, more conservative than the world outside. Remember how casually bare breasts were thrown around in the ‘80s? Comedies and horror films all seemed to have a needless pair or two. Even Mary Poppins herself got in on the action in S.O.B. These were not obscure European art house films, but rather populist, Hollywood fare that a provided a comfortable setting for our first sight of nudity and sex. Not anymore. It seems life now gets tamer when you enter the cinema rather than when you leave it and the movies themselves are less racy than the American Apparel ad on the back page of local newspaper. Who needs the thrills of an R-rated movie when we can download hardcore porn on your phone any time? Sex is everywhere and the titillating power of film has been effectively neutered in its wake. Enter sex addiction cinema – a vehicle for exploring sex as an abundant resource rather than a dirty secret. Sexual desire itself has become an adversity for the character to overcome.

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These films also provide a means to examine a deeper social concern; our diminishing capacity to relate to one another. Could the ability to seamlessly and instantly connect with virtually anyone online be hampering our ability to actually interact with those around us, culminating in an inability to do so during sex, the ultimate act of intimacy? Shame has been called the “least sexy movie about sex” for its depiction of sexual compulsion. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon – a sexy, successful 30-something who desperately jumps from one anonymous sexual encounter (both online and offline) to another, but is unable to perform when faced with real intimacy. His inability to connect with the woman he has feelings for, or even with members of his own family, fuels a sexual meltdown. Don Jon has been described as a “more fun version of Shame”. The film is about Jon, a studly Jersey boy who prefers his habitual internet pornography to real sex, although he manages to gets plenty of both. All of Jon’s relationships – with friends, women, family and even God – are halfhearted. Eventually, he finds a partner who provides the intimacy that’s been missing and fulfilling sex follows. Thanks for Sharing follows four characters in various stages of sex addiction treatment. The film emphasizes the need for community and personal, social support to recover and regain a healthy relationship with sex. Sex addiction in modern film is coupled with the loss of fulfilling, face-to-face relationships in general, and the remedy is to nurture these kinds of connections again.

Films about addition are only successful when the audience empathizes with the addict’s struggle and an uncontrollable need for sex doesn’t exactly inspire empathy. You could argue that the sexuality on display in these films is simply the vehicle used to delve into the real issue at hand; the struggle to find meaning in an seemingly endless string of empty relationships. These films tap into the fear that we are spread too thin socially – that we have more connections to others now than ever before, but that the quality and substance of these relationships are mostly shallow and unremarkable. At least that’s something modern audiences can empathize and identify with.

Robocop and reality: a brave old world

Last August Neil Blomkammp’s Elysium hit screens across North America. It’s a dystopian vision of the future that sees working classes living in overpopulated and impoverished ghettos throughout a decimated Earth. Meanwhile, the wealthy and privileged portion of the population live on an orbiting space station that is full of ideal landscapes and enough food and luxury for everyone. The film is using it’s sci-fi, futuristic setting to make allegorical comments about the current state of both immigration and universal health care.

Science Fiction films have used this tactic countless times. By using current social and economic trends to extrapolate and predict the future, the films stay grounded in our current reality and make the messages that much more poignant. This has been going on for some time. George Orwell’s 1984 automatically comes to mind as one of the more distressing predictions of the future. And to a certain degree Orwell’s concept of “Big Brother” has been manifesting itself through the continuing process of Globalization.

As large corporations continue to grow and take controlling interest in more aspects of industry, society is faced with a more homogenized culture. General Electric and Disney are two good examples of the company playing the role of “Big Brother”. Other sci-fi films have used the model of ubiquitous corporation or government as a faceless villain. The Alien series of films uses the fictional Weylan-Yutani corporation to pull the strings from behind the scenes, Andrew Nicols’ Gattaca postulates a company that controls the population through the use of advanced genetic engineering, Christian Bale’s starring role in Equilibrium sees a future where the law and order are maintained by a government who suppresses the emotions of the population with drugs, and so on. The examples can continue, but the point is that in all of these films “The Company” or “Big Brother” is in control.

To come to the conclusion that a company should take over society isn’t as far fetched as it seems. Globalization is the process by which international business, commodity, labour, and culture are compressed through improved communication and transportation. Journalist Thomas L. Friedman has termed the results of Globalization as a “Flat World”. He argues that the pace of Globalization is rapidly changing the cultural landscape around us; for better or for worse. Recent events in Detroit are partially a result of the Globalization process. Over the past 30 years the population of Detroit has decreased drastically, unemployment has skyrocketed, and industry has all but abandoned the former motor city. It’s a truly sad state of affairs. Meredith Whitney, a Wall Street analyst, predicted Detroit’s need for Bankruptcy as a result of the cities constant borrowing and the big auto manufacturers loosing money hand over fist through pension pay-outs in his book “Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity.”

Modern Detroit
A typical view of contemporary Detroit

The automobile manufacturing industry was practically born in Detroit. General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford all had their headquarters in Detroit as well as the main manufacturing plants for the billion-dollar industry. In the 1970s General Motors alone had over 500,000 hourly employees on their payroll. All of them received pension and benefits packages. Times were good. By the end of the 1970s however, Japanese imports started flooding the market and the big American manufacturers went into decline. By 2009 General Motors had reduced its hourly employees down to a mere 54,000, ten percent of where they were in the 1970’s. Meanwhile General Motors continued to be responsible for paying out pension and benefits to over 450,000 former employees. The writing had been on the wall for some time that Detroit was destined for failure. Whitney states that “Detroit embodies the devolution of the factory belt into the rust belt”, implying that Detroit is a derelict, dead city.

Interestingly enough, 20 years before Whitney’s predictions about the fate of Detroit, Edward Neumeier and Michael Milner were also able to predict Detroit’s decline in their screenplay for Robocop. Robocop is another sci-fi film that follows the model of using current social and economic trends to discern a possible future world. And they practically nailed it.

In Robocop we see a vision of Detroit that is in economic ruin and social destitution. The citizens are battling crime and unemployment at every turn and they are constantly lamenting the fact that the police are useless in the face of bureaucracy and budgetary constraints. It is precisely these problems that lead the mega corporation, Omni Consumer Products, to build Robocop in the first place. After all, a police force that consists of machines is not only loyal, but they also don’t require a payroll or a pension.

Robocop lives and breathes on the streets of Detroit. He is a symbol of corporate progression and control, but also of perseverance and hope. His character arc is inspirational and it speaks to the idea that what was once great can be great again.

In reality, Detroit is currently facing massive unemployment. The population of Detroit has fallen dramatically over the past thirty years, down to only 700,000 people. Of that population it is estimated that between 16% and 18% are unemployed. As a result, crime is on the rise. With Detroit officially filing for bankruptcy last year, the budgets for city services, including the police force, have been slashed dramatically. It’s gotten to the point where calling for a pizza is faster than calling 911. The people of Detroit know that their police force is underfunded and basically useless. In 2012 Detroit was voted the most dangerous city in America by Forbes magazine. In 2013 the same magazine voted it the most miserable city in America.

Robocop lives and breathes on the streets of Detroit. He is a symbol of corporate progression and control, but also of perseverance and hope. After all one of the main aspects of the story involves Robocop overcoming his programming to be more than a machine. His character arc is inspirational and it speaks to the idea that what was once great can be great again.

Detroit has recently been focus of several revitalization campaigns designed to bring industry, work, and the population back to the motor city. One of these campaigns has seen a life-sized statue of Robocop erected in Detroit, thereby solidifying officer Murphy’s place as the Patron Saint of the motor city.

The remake of Robocop hits theatres next week. It’s a slick looking piece of entertainment, however the PG rating and seeming lack of sensitivity to the current economic and social realities of Detroit are enough to make fans of the original skeptical at best. And so they should be. The 2012 remake of another Paul Verhoeven classic, Total Recall, was a sham. Every element of intelligent and insightful storytelling was exorcised and replaced with silly one-liners and slow motion fight scenes. Every trace of humanity was removed from the source material leaving only a superficial husk of a film. This is the fear for the Robocop remake.

According to Ed Neumeier the original draft of the Robocop screenplay has a hand written note on the front page that reads: “The future forgot about Detroit.” It’s a prescient message for economists and social researchers. For film fans this note could be rewritten for 2014 as “The future forgot about Robocop.”