Sizing Up A Trainwreck

trainwreck_foto_01Last week, the first trailer arrived for  Judd Apatow’s rom-com “Trainwreck,” and most film outlets reported on it as they would any other highly anticipated summer movie. But for Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, it provided him an opportunity to expound his thoughts on the feminine virtues (or lack thereof) of the film’s writer and lead actress Amy Schumer.

In a post titled “Apatow’s Funny-Chubby Community Has New Member,” the veteran entertainment reporter described Schumer as “a chubby, whipsmart, not conventionally attractive, neurotically bothered female comic” who in “no way [would] be an object of heated romantic interest in the real world.” It didn’t take long for his comments section and Twittersphere to light up in the wake of his insensitive and sexist comments, but Wells doubled down in a follow-up post “Schlumpies & Dumpies.” Waxing nostalgic, Wells posited that “that sexual attractiveness standards have definitely evolved in favor of the notties” over the last decade or so, and he “grew up in a world in which conventionally attractive or semi-attractive people used to be the ones who got laid the most often.” And he wasn’t done there, adding that “Schumer is brilliant, talented and somewhat funny but she’s not grade-A or even B-plus material, certainly by my standards as well as those of any moderately attractive, fair-minded youngish heterosexual dude who’s feeling hormonal or what-have-you.”

Certainly, the galling offensiveness and absurdity of Wells’ comments don’t need further dissecting, but sadly, he is but a mere reflection of an industry that has a long tradition of treating women poorly both on screen and off, to the point where it’s nearly culturally ingrained. Indeed, one has to look no further than this weekend’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” to see how acceptable the boorish depiction of women in mainstream entertainment has become. **SPOILERS AHEAD**

The film has been positioned by writer/director Matthew Vaughn as the anti-spy movie, one that riffs on the standard tropes of the genre. Except, it would seem, when it comes to how women are portrayed. The story follows troubled teen Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who is recruited by a secret spy service alongside a handful of other youths, and must complete a series of increasingly difficult tests in order to officially join the organization. He initially fails, with Roxy (Sophie Cookson) winning the gig, an initially bold and welcome narrative choice, but each step of the way, her character is undermined. Instead of becoming an ally with Eggsy (who is has to jump back into action when the Kingsman are betrayed and the world is at risk — so much for subverting spy tropes) she needs his help and support to conquer her fear of heights during one particularly trying trial, and again, when she has to balloon into space to destroy a satellite in the film’s final act. But other than that, she’s actually completely removed from the finale, with Eggsy taking center stage.

And fine, ‘Kingsman’ is about Eggsy’s journey to become to kick-ass spy agent, but the movie truly turns sour when during the hectic battle to save the world, our young hero is promised anal sex by a Swedish princess trapped in the baddie’s lair, if his mission succeeds. This moment, played for a gag, is revolting. For a movie that purports to want to do something different for spy movies, it plays the worst cliché possible, using a woman as nothing more than a narrative incentive with a sexual reward on top as the ultimate trophy for the film’s hero. And everywhere else in the regrettable film, women either lack agency (Eggsy’s single Mom must also be rescued from her abusive boyfriend), are part of the villainous scheme (the blade legged Gazelle), or stand by the sidelines (Roxy).

However, it’s sadly not a surprise the $80 million dollar movie got greenlit because, quite simply, studios, financiers and producers, largely don’t put into these issues into consideration, because it’s more important to sell sex — literally and figuratively — than substance. Even the film’s series of posters, riffing on the one-sheet for the James Bond flick “For Your Eyes Only,” don’t hesitate to make a woman’s rear-end the most prominent feature. A surprise? Hardly.

As “Welcome To The Dollhouse” star Heather Matarazzo’s recent blog entry “What The Fuck Is Fuckable” lays bare, actresses must become acclimated to a culture that puts appearances ahead of any talents they possess. Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

When I was 19 or so, I was standing in a Starbucks in West Hollywood with a director, talking about the upcoming film we were about to shoot. It had been a long road, but we had finally made it. Waiting for our coffee, I could see that he seemed a bit uneasy. I asked him if everything was ok. He said yes. I didn’t believe him, so I asked him again. He looked at me and said “Heather, I’m sorry, we have to give your role to another actor. The producers don’t want you.” I didn’t understand. I had been attached to this project for two years, and now two weeks before filming, I’m being let go. I asked him why. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “They say you’re not fuckable.”

It’s an anecdote that speaks volumes about the atmosphere of the industry, and the value it places on actresses, and one can only surmise how that attitude extends outwards when it comes to hiring women as writers, directors, producers, or executives.

It’s somewhat heartening to know that at least observers of the movie world are able to take comments like those shared by Wells to task, but his perspective is part of a larger problem in Hollywood that has long guided how business is transacted. But the industry is caught in a troublesome catch-22, where it is relying on the very people maintaining the status quo to enact progress and change. And while we are seeing a growing number of women-created television shows and films that are both popular and acclaimed, there is still much to be done at all levels to ensure this momentum continues to move forward, and isn’t stymied by the old modes of thinking that are still very much in place.

But at least pleasure can be taken in the small victories when they come, and Amy Schumer’s last laugh on “Trainwreck”-gate is a particularly nice one.

By Myself, For Myself

00315401The question of art, the artist, and the relationship of both to an audience, has reared its head in interesting ways over the past few weeks.

Last month, film director Steven Soderbergh continued his infrequent series of re-cutting famous movies and posting the results to his blog. Previous efforts had seen him turn “Indiana Jones & The Raiders Of The Lost Ark” into a monochrome experience, stripped of dialogue, and backed by the score from “The Social Network” score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. He has also spliced together both Alfred Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant’s versions of “Psycho,” and re-edited the notorious cinematic disaster “Heaven’s Gate.” All were interesting experiments that raised eyebrows as insightful curiosities, and interesting demonstrations and explorations of filmmaking technique and process.

But none of those editing bay larks quite earned the same amount of attention as Soderbergh putting his hands on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The director is an unabashed fan of the movie, watching it three times in 2014 and reading a book about the making-of process too. And his awe of Kubrick’s picture is clear, as he wrote: “…if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” With that in mind, Soderbergh still tinkered with the masterpiece, cutting his own version which runs less than two hours and seriously reshaped the original movie.

However, unlike the other recut films, Warner Bros. along with the Kubrick Estate, requested Soderbergh’s edit of ‘2001’ be removed from his site. And he complied.

It should be noted, that in all cases, Soderbergh turns off the Vimeo embed and sharing link mechanisms of his re-edits. You have to watch these versions on his site, so there is no way anybody is going to confuse them with the official films and certainly, the director isn’t making any money off these either.

But the larger question that looms overhead is: once a film is received by an audience, does it still belong to a filmmaker? Legally, yes. Culturally or artistically? That’s where the debate begins. Certainly, Warner Bros. and the Kubrick Estate are acting to protect the integrity of “2001: A Space Odyssey” but is it an overreach when Soderbergh’s project had no ill intent and served as an illuminating look another filmmaker’s approach with the material? But, would this discussion even happen it it wasn’t Soderbergh and just a film enthusiast tinkering with a movie? Would the legalities and ethics be seen as more clear cut? (For example, are these issues any different in regards to the recent four-hour, fan-created The Tolkien Edit of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy?).

Meanwhile, last week it was shockingly announced that Harper Lee was going to release “Go Set A Watchman,” a sorta-sequel to her literary masterpiece, and only published book, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was actually written before ‘Mockingbird,’ and rejected by her publisher at the time, who encouraged Lee to use Scout’s flashbacks sequences as inspiration for a new story. And did she ever.

However, very serious questions have been raised about the circumstances surrounding the effort. An interview with Lee’s editor about the announcement was evasive and strange, the circumstances of the book’s discovery are a bit odd (Lee’s lawyer was rummaging in her safety deposit box for some reason and stumbled across the “forgotten” manuscript), and there are concerns about whether or not the author has been pressured into releasing the novel (which is being done without any revisions to the original text) with some claims about Lee’s mental faculties to make such decisions.

And while these assertions have been denied, the allure of “Get Set A Watchman” is strong.  But what is the responsibility of eager readers, who don’t know the full story of Lee’s true feelings on wanting this book published? Does it betray the author to read the book if it really is something she wished to remain locked away? Would this situation be any different if the work was published posthumously? Would it be easier to ignore the messier ethical questions in the absence of the author?

When an artist or director or painter creates a new work, the common argument is that by releasing it into the world, they are consciously or not choosing to engage and share their work with an audience. That their work becomes part of a bigger social and artistic fabric, and one can’t control what happens next.

But perhaps the question isn’t where the artwork ends up, but the intent with which it’s created in the first place. Perhaps before this conversation starts, we must heed the words of Franz Kafka (who found fame after his death) as portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s fictionalized fantasy of his life “Kafka,” who says, quite simply: “I write by myself… for myself.”