Sunday, May 20, 2007

Silverdocs and "Filmanthropy"

Just a quick post about Silverdocs, which takes place June 12-17. I’ll be attending for the first time and look forward to seeing several films. I'm hoping to catch Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side; which focuses on U.S policies/practices of torture and interrogation and the death of an Aghani taxi driver; Please Vote for Me, about third graders practicing classroom democracy in China, and 14 Women, which follows female members of the U.S. Senate in 2006. I also want to see some short films by Jem Cohen and AJ Schnack’s much acclaimed Kurt Cobain About a Son, and if I can squeeze it in, the biographical doc Frank and Cindy.

I’m also looking forward to the International Documentary Conference and sessions on Filmanthropy, which will examine how nonprofit groups and philanthropists are turning to documentaries to raise awareness about key social issues. Filmanthropy is a term that originated with Nanking producer and AOL Exec Ted Leonsis, who is a keynote speaker at the conference. Although the connection between nonprofits/advocacy groups and documentary is nothing new, I’ve been paying close attention lately to wealthy philanthropists trying to promote social change through filmmaking: the most obvious example is Jeff Skoll’s for-profit Participant Productions, as well as the emergence of Ben Goldhirsch's Good, a media company which includes a print publication, a blog and creates and posts videos on youtube (A brief review of these can be found here.) While the films created through such "filmanthropists" can bring awareness to certain subjects (the best and most obvious example being An Inconvenient Truth), I’m wondering if this type of filmmaking will risk giving up on storytelling and craft to focus on fundraising, with a singular goal of asking viewers to make contributions and serving more as propaganda than anything else. I guess I’m taking a cynical view here, but I’m just not sure how this particular trend will shape documentary practices in the future.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Adrienne Shelly's final film, Waitress (imdb) is getting plenty of rave reviews. Most of these reviews suggest it's cute and light, and seize the opportunity to use baking/food metaphors, describing it as " a little slice of heaven" and "warm, flaky fun ."

One of the primary reasons for its critical success is the spot-on performance of Keri Russell as Jenna, who's reluctantly pregnant and reluctantly married to dolt Earl (Jeremy Sisto), but happily baking pies at Joe's Pie Diner, set in a small Southern town, waiting tables alongside geeky Dawn (Shelly) and the somewhat neurotic Becky (Cheryl Hines). Russell exhibits equal skill with both comic and dramatic material, and it's obvious that Shelly's camera and sympathies are aligned with Jenna from the start.

The film's strengths also include some smart dialogue and deadpan timing, obviously the influence of the years that Shelly worked with Hal Hartley. (This is most evident with many of the exchanges between Jenna and her OB-GYN/man-on-the-side Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) who in some spots seems to have studied the work of another Hartley collaborator, Martin Donovan.) Waitress does employ plenty of indie quirk, including Jenna's permagrin smile of bliss at one point and the arrival of Ogie (Eddie Jemison) as a Pee-Wee lookalike love interest for Dawn. But unlike some recent films that simply drown in this "quirk" (including Little Miss Sunshine, Thumbsucker, and although I haven't seen it yet, here's the same argument for Year of the Dog), Waitress doesn't need to rely on it because the film actually has a well-developed character to follow.

Pies are the central metaphor here and work as a barometer of what Jenna is feeling at any given time. It's a fun framing device, and it makes you wish they served some in the theater. Some pies are made with love and joy, while others are the fruits of anger and frustration (I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie). However, Waitress sometimes stops the narrative in its tracks to interject Jenna visualizing these pies--and this sometimes introduces a jarring change in tone. While it achieves the intended comedic effect (you know she's in trouble when she suggests a pie with oatmeal and fruitcake carelessly mashed together), it also reminds us that the balance between romantic comedy and serious drama is sometimes tenuous, and that the film isn't exactly sure what it wants to be.

This contrast in tone occurs in other places. Scenes in the diner (in a nod to women everywhere, Shelly makes sure many important conversations occur in the diner's bathroom) were dramatic, often upbeat, showcasing the camaraderie among the women, and establishing them as fully defined. In contrast, scenes in Jenna's house are dark and depressing, as she's trapped in a marriage to a man that makes her promise to love him more than she'll love her baby, but usually acts like a baby himself. It's during the film's second act that Jenna contemplates the immorality of having an affair, and at this point we wonder how she will ever get out of this mess. Often, I wondered why the high-spirited Jenna didn't take more steps to remedy her situation.

Despite some of these missteps I enjoyed Waitress and hope that it finds a wide audience on its own merits, and not because of the sensationalized publicity garnered by Shelly's tragic death. I'm sure that's what Shelly would have wanted, too.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

No Longer Lurking...

I am late to the whole blogging thing. I can make a parade of excuses here, but instead I'll just emphasize that I've had a different kind of presence: I've been lurking. I say lurking to suggest that I've been fairly quiet in my blog browsing, only commenting infrequently (a type of reader I think most bloggers actually dislike-sorry, folks!). I've been reading and gathering and collecting and mentally synthesizing lots of fabulous information, mostly from film/media blogs, for a few years now.

I join the blogging community now with a couple goals in mind. First, it's a matter of self-discipline: since I'll be a doctoral student in Moving Image Studies at GSU in the fall, I need to develop a daily habit of writing and responding to media, rather than simply thinking about it. Second, I'm fascinated with reception studies, and how a film, TV show, or web site can have so many different responses.

Lately, there have been many discussions regarding how film bloggers, also known as cloggers, should anticipate that their posts will be considered reviews by readers and to write accordingly. However, I think the film blogging community's primary purpose is not to provide prescriptive film information for readers, but to promote those discussions filmgoers love to have after seeing a film, encouraging conversation, examination, and (for those of us who are also academics) serious critical analysis. That's why Cynthia Rockwell's post on Hannah Takes the Stairs was particularly insightful to me. I read it soon after I saw the film, and it detailed a reaction that was similar to my own. Aside from the controversy over how she should write film entries, her post and its related comments/links brought up many other ideas, particularly how film reception is sometimes divided along gender lines.

Ultimately, I would like to point out upfront that my writings on films and other media will often be reactions to what I've seen, not necessarily reviews, as I try to figure out why I'm responding to films in a certain way.

Stay tuned for an entry on Adrienne Shelly's Waitress, coming soon, as well as lists of some of my favorite blogs, books, etc.