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The Guardian – The 40th Toronto international film festival (Tiff) runs from 10-20 September. This article will be updated as official announcements detailing the full lineup are released. The-Dressmaker-008

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Right: Kate Winslet in ‘The Dressmaker’

The rules for movie financing were radically redrawn Wednesday by a landmark Securities and Exchange Commission ruling that opens the door for online investments in start-up businesses  by the majority of Americans.

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AFM is here, and Variety will keep us up to date:

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Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts

If any American film of the last ten years speaks to us on a human level it is Ken Lonergan’s  You Can Count On Me – starring Laura Linney as the single mom Samantha Prescott (Sammy), saddled with more responsibility than she knows what do with.  Brought into the mix are a taciturn son Rudy (Rory Culkin), problematic brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) and indecisive boyfriend Bob (John Tenney).

You Can Count On Me reminds me somewhat of the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, although O’Connor dealt with the South and this film does not – and yet, both O’Connor and Lonergan have a similar mission statement.  For O’Connor, the challenge was to portray decidedly fundamentalist Southerners in such a way to contrast their belief systems with a type of compassion that Catholics seem more apt to embrace than Southern Baptists.  Lonergan has a similar mission statement (he himself plays a priest in the film) in that a pervasive attitude of empathy and compassion become what drives the characters. Both O’Connor and Lonergan can be said to embrace a Christian Realism (or humanism). For Lonergan, this exploration ends with reconciliation and forgiveness – the ability for characters to recognize their own flaws and forgive them in themselves and others – that the film so eloquently conveys.  For this reason Lonergan is unlikely to be accused of the nihilism that some say haunts O’Connor’s work.

The film also poses a question: where are the strong men?  Or rather – what is the changing definition of womanhood and manhood – and by inference, strength?   Sammy has no husband because her ex was decidedly authoritarian and anti-female – or at least anti-feminine. Sammy’s brother Terry informs Rudy Jr. that his father ‘always had to show he was better’. Rudy Sr’s attitude is competitive and domineering while Terry relates to Rudy Jr., several years his junior, as a peer.

Linney’s character of Sammy brings together masculine and feminine traits – she dominates her boyfriend Bob and seeks non-committal sex outside of that relationship. Linney becomes an emblem of the modern woman who must fend for herself.  The responsibility she bears is brought on by the reality of her son – and the reality of the death of her parents – who both died in a car accident. She now takes on the role of her mother and father, minding the house as the responsible core of the family, whereas brother Terry drifts in and out of relationships and jobs, not willing to commit, nor be a disciplinarian. But Sammy too, is unwilling to commit. In the end, the brother-sister relationship is what binds the family together, and why Sammy cannot bear to see Terry part as the flawed proxy father-figure of the family.  That her most important relationship must be her sibling – and by inference, sexless – tells us that Sammy has a fundamental problem with submitting to a dominant male resulting from the dysfunctional relationship that she had with her ex Rudy Sr., and displayed in her need to dominate her boyfriend Bob and have non-committal sex with her boss (played by Matthew Broderick).

In an uncertain world, drifting values and drifting responsibilities lead to weakness in men. We also live in a permissive age in the West, and have for many decades, where we are allowed essentially free reign regarding many moral issues and see any encroachment on this as negative. Sammy is reacting to such a state. Sammy seeks a father figure in her Father Ron (played by Lonergan) and wants him to tell her “she’s going to hell” for having sex with her boss – something he refuses to do.  She seeks a God that no longer exists – a father figure for her son and herself – but the world will not provide one. Again, the definition of ‘strength’ is at issue – for clearly strength is not what Rudy Sr., her ex, displayed. Nor is it displayed in her boyfriend Bob, nor Priest Ron who believes that God forgives all. Where then, lies strength?

To Lonergan, the now anachronistic strong father is missing and God is Dead. Or at least the God that we knew that demands anything of us. The New God – one might say the New Testament as portrayed by Father Ron – is decidedly compassionate and, in a strange way, nonjudgmental – as indecisive as her boyfriend Bob, who seems to have little reaction when Sammy decides she doesn’t want to marry him. Lonergan’s God is one that is compassionate yet guiltless — and Sammy is faced with a life that holds the possibility of being both liberated from guilt and defined on her own terms as a woman. She seems to long for someone to be accountable, and the only answer is to look at herself.

What is left when God is both absent and unaccountable is people’s love for one another, or the possibility of such. From the film’s perspective, this is where real strength lies. Lonergan’s absent God leaves us to fend for ourselves in a melancholy sense of abandonment, much as Terry, Sammy and Rudy Jr. were abandoned by their parents when they died in a fatal accident. But that abandonment was not due to choice, but fate. This fate brings promise and loss.

When confronted with tragic fate, what do we do? When God is no longer present, and we feel the absence of God, what do we do? The Buddhists actually belief there is no God – that god is in fact ‘emptiness’ and out of that emptiness we, as humans, can forge a compassionate world.  It is this emptiness that pervades You Can Count On Me, where the only thing you can count on is a melancholy sense that we have lost something that cannot be regained unless we embrace a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward one another, and find strength in those bonds. As such the film is a Buddhist, and humanist, treatise on human possibility absent an Old Testament God.

Like my own film, Clouds, Lonergan’s film was released just prior to our Decade of Terror – where unaccountable “strength” has ruled supreme and we are dealing with its ramifications.  Both films  showed a promise of human relationships and a definition of men and  manhood that would be walloped by the Bush years – a time where we sought to react to the moral drift apparent in You Can Count On Me.  Interestingly, Lonergan has had many problems making films since then, but will (hopefully) release his next feature, Margaret, by 2011. The Bush years saw Lonergan pretty much absent from film, except for a screenwriting stint on Gangs of New York (directed by Martin Scorsese).

I found it interesting that Martin Scorsese executive produced Lonergan’s film. Scorsese is a Catholic (although by his admission, a ‘lapsed’ one) and loves the kind of compassionate and humanistic reflections on existence portrayed in Italian Neo-Realist films. But Scorsese does not often venture into the territory of You Can Count On Me, not at least since Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – another film about a single mom with relationship issues. Let’s hope that Scorsese will continue to support this kind of film.

My sense is that over time You Can Count On Me will be seen as a singular American Masterpiece of humanistic storytelling. And let’s hope Lonergan will turn again to this type of material in the future. It has long been absent in American filmmaking, and much more needed. While we’ve seen one You Can Count On Me in the last 10 years, how many comic book movies have we been asked to endure?

It was about 10 years ago that Diana Takata and I founded nextPix with Dr. E Ted Prince, and about eight years ago when I met Mike Neff and we started the SolPix webzine. This new SolPix Blog will continue discussing many of the ideas that were initially put forward on both the nextPix website and the SolPix webzine. I’m glad to be back after a 2-year hiatus from SolPix.

In 2000, in an essay titled ‘The New Media Age’ – and even as early as 1993 in a piece called ‘The Digital Tribe’ — I outlined what I thought were some trends in the media for the future. A lot of what I considered actually came to be – trends that led to YouTube, Social Networking, increasing media fragmentation, micro-niches, media democratization and so on, have come to be reality.

While these trends continue to evolve, we’re also faced with different challenges. While the last twenty years have indeed been revolutionary, driven by a combination of new technology and the War on Terror and the subsequent backlash so many of the Bush policies brought about, we are now in the age of Obama. What does that look like? What is the media future under Obama?

My sense is that this decade will prove to be just as transformative as the last, with much of that transformation, particularly within the United States, involving a continued re-assessment of our core values. While many people are diving headlong into change, many more are trying to hold onto old ways of thinking and old models of behavior.  However, I think that we are in a time that will allow for nothing short of change that could, by the force of events, be extreme, driven to a large extent by continued economic upheaval and shifts. Ultimately, I think we’ll end up in a better place – I guess that makes me an optimist!

So what we might have is an opportunity. For those interested in making media, it can be an opportunity to find oneself in one’s vocation rather than just another way to make a buck. Media people should look to the trend in ‘B’ corporations (more on that below). With the days of Enron, WorldCom, and the Wall Street meltdown (hopefully) behind us, this new socially-responsible business sector should have its mix of media providers. It’s already happening: we have Participant Media, Chicken and Egg, Human Media, DogWoof, Clear Films and nextPix. We need more like them. These companies are promoting a new kind of ‘B’ movie.

Because digital media can, on the low-end, be so cheaply produced, and (with a little talent) can even be of relatively high quality, many documentary filmmakers and citizen journalists have stepped up to the plate, showing us a sea change in media is possible. These filmmakers and journalists have used digital technology as a vehicle to express what their passion is – often in a way that helps others. I am in fact astounded by the number and scope of documentary filmmakers that use cheap digital means to express some form of altruistic intent.

Moreover, the rise of so-called ‘B’ (for Benefit – often hybrid profit-non-profit) corporations reflects the desire of people to connect their values with their wallet. But the idea of businesses being responsible for something more than the bottom line – that companies exist interdependently with both society and the environment and therefore must act responsibly – has yet to take hold in the mainstream media, where such ideas often have little sway.  For one, first amendment rights make any concept of ‘media pollution’ problematic, even though many people feel that there is a lot of media pollution in so-called entertainment – much of which many of us know is patently awful. But unlike environmental pollution, there often isn’t a direct or easy corollary to physical or mental harm – although studies do continually show that certain kinds of media do in fact create negative behaviors.

But legislating morality is, in my view, not the path to media enlightenment. Rather, promotion of humanistic values is a better path. We do not, in my estimation, need another Hays Code.  I have stressed this on the nextPix site and projects and to some degree in the SolPix webzine. What do I mean by ‘humanistic’? My own inspiration comes from three main sources: Italian neo-realist filmmakers, the founder of the New Humanist Movement, Mario Rodriquez Cobos, and the Dalai Lama.

Of the Italians, the films of Rossellini and De Sica had a profound impact on me during my studies at UCLA. What these filmmakers had to say, in the wake of WWII, was profoundly moral and courageous, told through stories of stunning simplicity. Cheaply made, you might call them ‘B’ movies with a purpose.  American Independent filmmakers should look to these masters from Italy for renewed inspiration.

So SolPix is back, and we’re here to give you our two cents worth on what’s going to happen next in the media revolution (or to some, de-volution) we call the 2010’s. It’ll be serious, but not too serious. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, taking oneself too seriously can have a serious (no pun intended) downside. I think we’re all ready for the upside again – even if that winds up being just hanging out and having a good time on the Web.

I’ll share with you what I wrote In 1993. I think it was pretty forward thinking – but then in fairness I got many of the ideas from others who were still more forward thinking. I just happened to be listening.

A revolution in perception

The globalization of media and the proliferation of telecommunications will allow for a break on the hold of traditional media and the view that it purports. Media will become universal and democratic. Many points of view, hundreds or even thousands of points of view, will all be given equal weight. In this new landscape, the information consumer will pick and choose among the vast landscape of information, brought to them through agent software that reflects their very personal perspective.

Neither the State nor the Networks in the name of Democracy can control media content. The whole situation is a floodgate of awareness, because the implications of hundreds or thousands of perspectives being simultaneously available are the seeds of a revolution in perception. That is, the viewer becomes a powerful editor of their own reality. Responsibility for perception shifts from media owners to media perceivers. In turn, the perceivers themselves may add to the overall mix of media, through an increasingly powerful public access infrastructure.

The whole situation will call into question the current media power structures. Technical expertise and understanding of how to create “commercial” media will be in many ways usurped by the ability to resonate powerful truths above the mass of mere information. Media manipulation will become increasingly easy to perceive, call in to question, and address. There will be no secrets anymore, unless we want them because we fear the responsibility of self-awareness. On the other hand, truth will be harder to decipher, and more valuable when it is found. Truth will stand out not through any single perception, any one artist, priest or purveyor of enlightenment, but in the cracks between those perceptions. Relativity becomes not only theory, but perceptual fact, moving from the brain of Einstein to the mass consciousness.

—excerpt from “The Digital Tribe” by Don Thompson, 1993

We’ll start with this blog, and then see where it takes us.  We’ll try to keep it interesting, for sure.

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