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“One Big Birthday Present”: Judith Guest on Robert Redford’s Adaptation of Ordinary People

On November 2, 2016, writer Judith Guest introduces the Walker Art Center’s screening of Ordinary People, the Robert Redford–directed film based on her 1976 novel. In 1976, before my novel, Ordinary People, was published, I got a letter from Robert Redford telling me that he’d received my manuscript from his reader in New York City and […]

Ordinary People (1980) Directed by Robert Redford Shown: Timothy Hutton (as Conrad Jarrett), Mary Tyler Moore (as Beth Jarrett)

Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Photo courtesty Universal Pictures/Photofest

On November 2, 2016, writer Judith Guest introduces the Walker Art Center’s screening of Ordinary People, the Robert Redford–directed film based on her 1976 novel.

In 1976, before my novel, Ordinary People, was published, I got a letter from Robert Redford telling me that he’d received my manuscript from his reader in New York City and wanted to let me know how much he’d enjoyed it. I was thrilled, but it didn’t occur to me that this meant he was interested in making it into a film, until my publisher called to say there had been three movie offers on it. “Two are from big studios, which means they might make it. Or they might just buy it to keep somebody else from making it. And the third offer is from Redford.”

“So, what do you need from me?” I asked. “We want you to tell us who to go with.” I thought for about 2-½ seconds about it, as you can imagine.

From then on, it was all one big birthday present. Redford would send me drafts of the screenplay (written by Alvin Sargent), with a note attached saying, “Judy, feel free to wail.” Once he called to run some names by me: “Tell me how you feel about these guys,” he said. I listened to the names of actors, some whom I loved, and some not so much. “Hey, this sort of feels like playing God,” I complained at one point. “Never mind that,” he said. “Just tell me if you like him or not.” Then I mentioned an actor I liked, and he said, “Nope, he’s got weird eyes.” And I saw how one’s acting job could hang by a thread that small.

He told me this was to be his directing debut. “Needless to say, I want the movie to be good,” he said. “And if it is, it should give your book a lot of shelf life.” Which, of course, it has. And for that I couldn’t be more grateful.

Redford sent his production manager to scout the Twin Cities as a set, but since the Minnesota Film Board had yet to be founded, there wasn’t much support for it, and they decided instead to film in Chicago. But Redford did come to Minneapolis to do some casting. He said that New York kids had too much angst and California kids didn’t have enough, and he wanted to cast the lead, Conrad, from the Midwest. While he was here, we went over the script together. I mentioned one scene that hadn’t worked for me, and he said, “Yeah, I don’t like it either. Don’t worry, it’s gone.” Another scene, where Conrad and his doctor hug during a therapy session, prompted me to say that, as much as I liked the idea of them having that moment together, I thought it would take away from the primary embrace at the end, between Conrad and his father. “No, no, this will work,” he assured me. And then proceeded to act out both scenes for my benefit. “Okay,” I said when he was finished. Who wouldn’t have? I had my own private screening with Redford starring, for heaven’s sake.

At one point I confided to him my many frustrations with the character of Beth, the mother. “I don’t see her as a villain,” I said. “But people seem to hate her. I have a lot of sympathy for her, and yet I wasn’t able to get that across. Some characters are like poems: you never finish them, you just abandon them in despair. “ He told me, “I see how you as the author might feel like that, but for me, and for the purposes of this movie, I think she works just fine.” So I quit worrying about her.

He never did cast Conrad in the Midwest; he used California actor Timothy Hutton in the role, but he did find Scott Doebler, a Twin Cities drama student, to play the role of Conrad’s brother, Buck. And I remember him telling me how much he loved Mary Tyler Moore as Beth, the mother: “You barely have to breathe at her, and she knows exactly what you want.”

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People, Chicago, 1980. Photo courtesy the author

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People, Chicago, 1980. Photo courtesy the author

I got to visit the set in Chicago twice, and I met all 80 people on the crew and found out what each one of them did on the movie. I also made a good friend, Jim Sikking, who played Calvin’s law partner in the film. He and his wife, Florine, are natives of California. We still exchange Christmas cards, and I see them whenever I am in LA. So for me, this experience was as good as it gets.

And the best part of it was the night of the Academy Awards. I should mention that they were postponed for a day, due to the fact that President Reagan was shot. Thus does life pre-empt art. On the following night my neighbors, Doug and his wife Linda, had a party. Doug set up three TVs and we all sat around them, making predictions while he taped the show. The movies Ordinary People was up against for best picture were Elephant Man, Tess, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Raging Bull. I loved them all and didn’t think OP had a prayer of winning. I can still see Redford sitting at one end of the row and Scorsese at the other—two guys who couldn’t appear more different from each other!

It was up for six Academy Awards and won four: best picture, best director, best screen adaptation, and best supporting actor. And every time it won an award, we’d all jump up and down and scream our heads off, and the phone would ring and it would be my dad calling from Detroit, saying, “D’you believe this??!!” After the party was over, and everyone had left, Doug turned to me: “Let’s watch it again!” We didn’t, though. At least, not that night…

Afterward I sent my mother a copy of the letter I had gotten from Redford, and she called to tell me she had copied and mailed it to several of her friends. “But, that’s all right, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, the letter belongs to you, right?”

“Well, no,” I said. “Legally a letter belongs to the person who writes it, not the person who receives it.”

My mom thought about this for a minute. “You mean if he found out, he could sue me?” And then her voice got all quivery and excited: “Oh, gosh, I hope he sues me!”

Ordinary People screens November 2 as part of Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary, a 25-film retrospective and dialogue. 

Moral Ambiguity, Meritocracy, and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994)

Robert Redford’s acclaimed film Quiz Show (1994) screens at the Walker Art Center on October 26, 2016 as part of the Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary retrospective. In September of 1994—two months after cable and network television stations devoted two uninterrupted hours to coverage of law enforcement’s slow-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco and […]

Quiz Show (1994) Directed by Robert Redford Shown: Ralph Fiennes Robert Redford’s Quiz Show 1994 Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Ralph Fiennes in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Robert Redford’s acclaimed film Quiz Show (1994) screens at the Walker Art Center on October 26, 2016 as part of the Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary retrospective.

In September of 1994—two months after cable and network television stations devoted two uninterrupted hours to coverage of law enforcement’s slow-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco and two years after MTV debuted The Real World, a reality show promising to capture when cohabiting strangers “stop being polite”—Buena Vista Pictures released Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s origin story for the ascent of sensationalized reality television. Informed by Redford’s own experiences in the entertainment industry, the film offers the rigging of 1950s televised trivia shows as a prime example of “the eternal struggle between ethics and capitalism.”

The film was set in the waning days of the first Golden Age of Television when TV game shows were ubiquitous in the United States—and so were their controversies. In 1954, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that game shows didn’t constitute gambling, but when the show Dotto (CBS) surfaced as rigged in 1958 PBS reported, “more and more former quiz show contestants came forward to reveal how they had been coached.” Through controls like coaching programs could predict (read: determine) winnings and stay within production budgets.

Following scandals around the quiz shows $64,000 Question and Twenty One in particular, the FCC attempted to amend its licensing policies, marking an inflection point in television regulation. Rather than issuing the licenses pro forma, the FCC adopted a harder line, announcing, “There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.”1

As network television grew in popularity, its function in society was shifting. Scholar Peter Lunt laments, “The role of television as a public service provider is under threat as the social, market and technological contours of the mediascape change.”2 In this vein, we should analyze the structure of television, too. The service was established—and continues to operate—in a top-down manner, similar to most corporate, capitalist enterprises. When we realize there is little individual “choice” to begin with, then whom do we blame when things go south? How do individuals reconcile the “false consciousness” and the “sincere fictions” disseminated through media and internalized in their daily lived experiences?

Appropriately, then, television stars as the central character in Quiz Show. Interested in the topic of “winning,” Quiz Show completes Redford’s unofficial trilogy dedicated to unpacking the rather uniquely American obsession with ascensions to status and power (Downhill Racer and The Candidate precede Quiz Show in the trilogy). To explain his rationale for focusing on an event that occurred decades prior to 1994, Redford remarks, “I see the quiz-show scandals as really the first in a series of downward steps to the loss of our innocence. When it hit, the country was numbed by the shock, but it was erased quickly because no one, including Congress, or the networks, wanted to deal with it or hear about it. But the shocks kept coming: Jack Kennedy’s death, Bobby’s death, Martin Luther King. Then Watergate, then BCCI, Iran-Contra, S. & L. And now O.J. I think people may look at this film and say, ‘Well, as a scandal, big deal.’ But in a historical context, it’s very much a big deal. This was the beginning of our letting things go. And what did we do about it? Kind of nothing, as long as we kept being entertained.”3

On the larger theme of “winning at all cost,” Redford explains:

You’re given slogans like “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, I found out that was a lie; in this country, everything mattered, whether you won or not. And so, I wanted to make a trilogy and pick three areas of our society that were dominant—sports, politics and business—and tell a story about the pyrrhic victory of winning.4

According to critics, Quiz Show acts as a “forced parable of lost innocence” as well as a “meditation on some of the dark, sleazy realities just beneath the glitz and glitter of postwar American culture.”5 Yet, why did Robert Redford, of all Hollywood notables, feel compelled to tell this story, to underscore the dangers posed by the cultural myth of American meritocracy? Even Richard Goodwin, author of the book the film is partly based off, attempts to undermine the cheats at the top and expose their dirty dealings through his congressional work—but to what end? After all, who is actually on trial? In this instance, does television fill our need for a scapegoat?  

Twenty One
star Charles Van Doren was chosen to participate on the show because of his prestigious and wealthy lineage. He purportedly had a “fatal Achilles’ heel—his intellectual vanity, the sense that he [wasn’t] quite measuring up to his illustrious antecedents,” which complicated his eagerness to go through with the lying and cheating. No one believed his claim that he was doing a public service by “promoting education” to the millions of home viewers.

The Washington Post’s Desson Howe argues the Van Doren that Redford portrays is a “sympathetic Hollywood spin on the real counterpart.” In some respects, Van Doren serves as a symbol, and consequently his treatment as a character is more limited by binaries. Redford relies on his own creative license to attempt to fill in the grey area between the black and white categories that audiences are more trained to see and expect from moralistic Hollywood.

Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One

Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One. Public domain photo via Wikipedia.

Don Enright, son of Twenty-One co-creator Dan Enright, believes Redford editorialized, too:

Quiz Show, the movie, is rigged. Fixed. Just like its television counterpart.

And for precisely the same reason. Played straight, the story would be much more dramatically complicated and much less morally convenient. The real truth is that Redford has sacrificed truth—not to say decency—to make his show a more dramatic, more compelling and, ultimately, more successful product for mass entertainment. Precisely the same offense for which they once, quite properly, condemned Dan Enright.

We cling to the cliché that Americans love rooting for the underdog. On Twenty One’s archetypal underdog, Herb Stempel, Professor Richard Tedlow asserts, “Like a good American, he fought hard, taking advantage of every rule… Like a good American, he won without crowing. And, like a good American, he kept on winning.”6 It is hard not to empathize with a character who “feel[s] like a racehorse whose gate won’t open.” We recognize the sentiment and repeat the mantra. If only there were more opportunity; if only we worked harder; if only we got the recognition we deserved. As Rolling Stone’s film critic Peter Travers puts it, “Redford sees the battle between Van Doren and Stempel as a microcosm of American class warfare: It’s race vs. race, pretty vs. ugly, have vs. have-not.”7

Arguably, the American public revels in watching elites fall from grace even more than seeing the common man rise up. Brinson notes, “The sheer enjoyment Americans found in watching the quiz shows was matched by their sheer disgust at learning of the deception.” Watching the original Twenty One episode you get an uneasy feeling that Van Doren and Stempel are puppets putting on a show. You get a similar feeling watching reality TV shows of today. With likable and unlikable personalities, “TV is still playing the game of reinforcing stereotypes and fudging facts in the name of entertainment.”

Quiz Show illustrates that if anyone is to be put in the monetized limelight, a descendent to the white, patriarchal status quo remains preferential. The real “game show” in America—the fallacy of the American dream—plays out in a similar way. In his congressional testimony, Van Doren admits, “I’ve stood on the shoulders of life and I’ve never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I’ve flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy.”8

Has this story changed in recent years? Think Ethan Couch, think Brock Turner—two white, young, wealthy males whose heinous actions—drunk driving and rape—were barely sanctioned. Couch’s offense even brought a new term into the American lexicon: affluenza, which, in part, then minimizes the real damage such a “disease” actually hath wrought. Although both cases were met with wide media coverage, few actual consequences were delivered, which served to cement the treatment for their ilk. Why are we effectively saving a falling Icarus? Conor Friedsdorf of the Atlantic writes about this issue, noting, “When elites break the rules they aren’t punished like regular people. They’re bailed out of trouble, or spared criminal prosecution for their lawlessness.” Why does this happen and what will it take for it to stop?

Redford spoke about his intent in regards to Quiz Show, claiming, “I want an audience to be fascinated by the process of finding an answer, or finding out there isn’t one.”9 He relies on nuance and perception. In claiming this purpose, Redford also projects the idea of filmmaking as exploration. He himself does not have all the answers.

After viewing his work, we can admit there might never be tidy answers to these big questions. Rather, we must sit with the ambiguity. We can also admit that the FCC and other governing bodies may never enforce ethics as they should—not when money and corporate interests are involved.

However, it may be too painful to admit that America has been lying to itself this whole time, that the answers to the questions we ask are far too nuanced to comprehend in the predetermined parameters. Just look at how quick we are to give out lavish commendations to wrongdoers for simply finally telling the truth. Van Doren only faced consequences where it regarded his public persona and subsequent influence. His punishment: to live his privileged life knowing he was once caught for his criminal and immoral behavior. Except, as he admits during his aforementioned testimony, he had plenty of others to aid his ascent—yet no one was there when he fell. The elite, powerful moneymakers continue on unscathed and pawns like Van Doren take the heat.

We must critically examine how the undercurrent of meritocracy runs deep in this country and be ready to navigate the ambiguity that follows. Regardless of whom you deem most at fault, Janet Maslin of the New York Times summarizes it best: “Confronted by that Chrysler as a symbol of false values and misplaced optimism, the audience faces the most salient aspect of the American dream: that we had to wake up.”

Footnotes
1 Brinson, Susan, “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,June 2003.
2 Lunt, Peter, Television, Public Participation, and Public Service: From Value Consensus to the Politics of Identity,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 625, (Sept. 2009), pp. 128–138.
3 Rubenstein, Hal, “Robert Redford,” Interview Magazine, September 1994.
4 Ibid.
5 Sumner, Gregory D. “Review,” The American Historical Review. Vol. 100, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 1206–1207
6 Tedlow, Richard S., “Intellect on Television: The Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 483–495.
7 Travers, Peter, “Quiz Show,” Rolling Stone. September 14, 1994.
8 Brinson, Susan, “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2003.
9 Rubenstein, Hal, “Robert Redford,” Interview Magazine, September 1994.

Filming Process: The Mundane, Remarkable Stories of Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women screens at the Walker Art Center on October 21 as part of the series Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary. Kelly Reichardt doesn’t make typical movies. She doesn’t make love stories, mysteries, or farces. Her films offer few thrills and little means for vicarious escape. While so many filmmakers aim to transport their audience to another […]

Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women screens at the Walker Art Center on October 21 as part of the series Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary.

Kelly Reichardt doesn’t make typical movies. She doesn’t make love stories, mysteries, or farces. Her films offer few thrills and little means for vicarious escape. While so many filmmakers aim to transport their audience to another world, Reichardt finds plenty worthy of interest in our own. Indeed, there are few contemporary filmmakers who have plumbed the existential depths of the mundane with such stubborn regularity and resounding success. From a hard-up young woman searching for her missing dog in a small Oregon town (2008’s Wendy and Lucy) to two old friends attempting to reconnect over a weekend camping trip (2006’s Old Joy), Reichardt’s stories examine the ways in which the most elemental stuff of our identity and life experience seeps into the unremarkable activities of our day-to-day lives.

“I really like filming processes. Whatever that is: walk across the country, build a fire, build a bomb, go to work, feed a horse,” Reichardt said after a screening of Certain Women at the New York Film Festival (NYFF). “The getting to and fro seems to be where a lot of things take place.”

Starting with 1994’s River of Grass—a sort of anti-road movie about two would-be fugitives in suburban Miami who never quite get it together to actually flee—Reichardt has directed six features to date, all bearing her signature character-oriented approach. Rather than trace linear paths of character growth, Reichardt’s human studies develop by an accumulative process of patient observance. As such, the conflicts that propel her stories are more frequently logistical than interpersonal: a broken down car or covered wagon (as in the 2010 period Western Meek’s Cutoff), a malfunctioning cell phone, a familiar landscape that refuses to yield a path half-remembered.

Reichardt’s characters are lost, stuck, or wanted, and in the particulars of their responses to these situations, the director finds some hint of their truest selves. Wendy’s (Michelle Williams) observant distrust of the people she encounters, coupled with her single-minded devotion to the task of locating her pet, suggest a life balanced on the rim of catastrophe, though her past circumstances and plans for the future are only ever sketched in the vaguest detail. When—in 2013 monkey wrench thriller Night Moves—the fall out of an act of sabotage threatens to spiral out of control, the increasingly extreme responses of Jesse Eisenberg’s radical environmentalist bear grim testimony to the monomania of his convictions. These revelations rarely arrive as dialogue, tending instead to emerge from the narrative space that surrounds words, Reichardt’s camera lingering on a face, a landscape, or a complex task well past the dramatic threshold of most other directors. As Certain Women co-star Laura Dern puts it, Reichardt is “interested in the life that happens in the pauses,” an approach that opens up entirely new avenues of exploration for the actors she works with.

Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

Kristen Stewart in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

“It’s really vulnerable to not play something. Or not be expected to play something,” shared Kristen Stewart, undoubtedly the most high-profile member of Certain Women’s marquee cast. “All of a sudden you start revealing things rather than displaying them.”

In Certain Women, Stewart plays Beth, a recent law school graduate teaching a night class in Belfry, Montana who finds herself the object of the ambiguous attentions of a local ranch hand (Lily Gladstone). Adapted from a trio of short stories by Montana-raised writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women shares a nominal ontology with earlier literary adaptations Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (both inspired by Jon Raymond stories). Yet unlike those projects, which Reichardt patiently stretched to fit the expanded frame of a feature film, Certain Women’s triptych structure demands a dramatic concision relatively new to the director’s work. In adapting Meloy’s stories—unrelated works from two different collections—Reichardt introduced peripheral connections to bring the character’s worlds into dialogue. While some of these overlaps provide meaningful subtext between plot lines, they are, from a narrative standpoint, pretty tenuous, clearly not intended to unite the original stories into a seamless whole. What results is unique within Reichardt’s oeuvre: an ensemble film that approaches its themes from a number of different angles, rather than dwelling with one or two characters over the course of its run time.

NYFF, where Certain Women screened earlier this month, offered a bounty of new films anchored by strong female leads, featuring a slate of accomplished actresses that included Stewart, Isabelle Huppert, and Sônia Braga. This is a heartening trend, certainly, yet most of the roles spoke to a fairly limited sphere of experience: on one hand, the hyper-practical business culture of contemporary Western capitalism (Elle, Toni Erdmann), on the other, the more abstracted realms of celebrity and art (Personal Shopper, Aquarius). Within this formidable field, relative newcomer Gladstone’s understated, painfully honest turn opposite Stewart came as a breath of fresh air: a different type of woman’s experience, worlds apart from the professional habitats and upper-crust social scenes of the of the urban Western world. Buried beneath layers of thermal knit cotton and canvas, the rancher, with her artlessly butch demeanor and kind, open face, bears the marks of both the bleak solitude and indelible hopefulness of a life spent in big empty spaces. One night, Gladstone’s character shows up to class on the back of a horse—maybe the one place she feels truly herself—offering Beth a ride to the local diner. The chapter’s final set piece, in which the real depth of the rancher’s feelings are finally laid bare, is one of the more potent depictions of unrequited love in recent cinema, Gladstone riding out the pendular emotions of the moment with heartbreaking sincerity.

If Stewart and Gladstone’s encounter provides the film with its emotional climax, the preceding chapter equals those heights in terms of sheer dramatic nuance. In the second of Meloy’s adapted stories, Williams (in her third Reichardt film) and James Le Gros play a married professional couple building a second home in rural Montana. Hoping to give the property a certain geographic authenticity, the pair attempt to convince an elderly local (René Auberjonois) to sell them an unused pile of sandstone. Hinging upon Auberjonois’s exquisite portrayal of the fast-fading Albert, a simple negotiation leads into melancholic dreams of a distant past, soon to be buried beneath the petty logistics and modest hopes of the younger couple’s future. A perfect encapsulation of Reichardt’s unique approach, this simple material dilemma blossoms into a tender, philosophical examination of aspiration and the passage of time.

Kelly Reichardt Certain Women 2016 Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Lily Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

In the film’s opening chapter, a lawyer, Laura (Dern), finds herself trapped by the increasingly reckless behavior of a dissatisfied client, Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris). A construction worker who suffered a life-changing injury as a result of employer negligence, but ceded his right to sue when he took an initial settlement, Fuller refuses to accept his lack of legal options, eventually taking matters into his own hands. Though in Night Moves Reichardt showcased a previously unflexed talent for building cinematic tension, Fuller’s eventual showdown with the authorities is an anticlimactic, amateur affair, underlining his character’s tragic delusion. Laura and Fuller’s reappearance in the film’s coda provides Certain Women a rare instance of unambiguous character growth and the clearest articulation of its deeply felt, humanist themes. Left alone in the end, his bridges burnt, Fuller implores his lawyer to write him a letter: “You could talk about the weather, talk about your day. Just so you put it in an envelope and put it in the mail.”

The title Certain Women, with its hint of sexual moralism, might well serve a work of trenchant ideology, but Reichardt’s film bears few traces of irony. While several of her characters invoke an explicitly feminist consciousness, Reichardt’s new film—like the politically ambivalent Night Moves—is not intended to be read as a persuasive document. This is not to say Certain Women isn’t a feminist film. It most certainly is. But the inherent radicalism of Reichardt’s film is less ideological than dramatic. Reichardt’s character portraits are so meticulously wrought, so subtly human, so empathetic, that it becomes easy to forget how rarely female characters of this depth and complexity appear on American movie screens. Struggling to navigate an ambiguous world, Reichardt’s characters are far from perfect. While at times they seek out the route of compassion, at others, they settle for the path of least resistance. Most inch just a little bit closer towards a life marked by the dignity and respect they and the people around them deserve. Above all, these women are emphatically real. That in itself is a radical concept and a practice worth celebrating.

Cinema as Landscape: Amy Taubin on Robert Redford

In conjunction with the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary (September 30–November 12, 2016), critic Amy Taubin shares her perspective on the actor, director, and Sundance founder’s four-decade career. Taubin shares the stage with Redford during a November 12 Walker Dialogue. Over the past 40-odd years, there has been no more iconic a presence in the […]

Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson 1972 Photo courtesy Warner Bros

Robert Redford (right) in Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In conjunction with the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary (September 30–November 12, 2016), critic Amy Taubin shares her perspective on the actor, director, and Sundance founder’s four-decade career. Taubin shares the stage with Redford during a November 12 Walker Dialogue.

Over the past 40-odd years, there has been no more iconic a presence in the landscape of American cinema than Robert Redford. He is a multi-hyphenate: actor, director, producer, and the visionary founder of the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. The metaphor of cinema as a landscape is particularly apt in relation to Redford, an environmental activist who has fought to conserve the wilderness of the west and who, in many of his films, depicts the land itself as the source of passions and values, action and contemplation—in short, of much that comprises American identity, both personal and collective.

One of the defining images of Redford, the actor, occurs about 50 minutes into George Roy Hill’s 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film that made Redford a star. On the run from the law, Sundance (Redford) and Butch (Paul Newman) climb to the top of rocky ridge. We see a close-up of Sundance as he surveys the terrain below, and from his point of view we see a sweeping moving-camera shot of vast stretches of plains and hills, dappled by the sun. Sundance is on the lookout for their pursuers, but his gaze is also smitten by the beauty of the landscape. No actor other than Redford could have turned, however briefly, a bittersweet comedy about two charming bank robbers into a tragedy of disenfranchisement. Sundance’s tragedy is to be exiled from the land he loves. The movie transformed the largely fictionalized story of outlaw buddies into a foundational myth of the west, not merely because Butch and Sundance were daring and outrageously handsome gunslingers, but because of the truth that Redford brings to Sundance’s impossible desire to be one with the land.

George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969 Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest

In the early 1960s, Redford bought a few acres in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Compelled by the beauty of this site, he used his movie star wealth to gradually expand his Sundance holdings and his movie star fame to attract private and public sponsorship for the Sundance Institute and slightly later for the Sundance Film Festival. American independent filmmaking did not begin with the founding of the Sundance in 1981, but the infrastructure that Redford created enabled filmmakers to survive outside the corporate structure of Hollywood and brought films that the studios never would have made to an ever increasing audience worldwide. It is not an exaggeration to say that within 35 years, Redford’s vision for Sundance and his dedication to independent filmmaking has recast film culture in America.

In that sense, the two strands of this retrospective, “Sundance Film Festival at the Walker” and “Redford at the Walker” are inseparable. The Sundance festival films, many of them workshopped in the Sundance labs, suggest the enormous range of independent cinema, documentary and fiction. Almost all of them reflect Redford’s commitment to regional filmmaking and to the depiction of cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender diversities that continue to be either ignored or homogenized in Hollywood product.

Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men 1976 Photo courtesy Warner Bros/Photofest

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest

What is most striking about the series of films in which Redford is either director or star is that so many of them are both specific to their historical moment and stunningly relevant to the way we live now. Watching Alan Pakula’s 1976, All the President’s Men, the adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their investigation of the Watergate scandal and the fall of the Nixon administration, one can’t help thinking that corruption and spying at the highest levels of government is now taken for granted and the buying of elections has been institutionalized by the Supreme Court, while the kind of time consuming, carefully sourced investigative journalism practiced by two rookie reporters (played by Redford and Dustin Hoffman) and their editor at the Washington Post is all but dead in the age of Google algorithms. Watch All the President’s Men and weep.

Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate 1972 Photo courtesy Warner Bros/ Photofest

Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972). Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest

Baldly apropos of this presidential election season is Michael Ritchie’s 1972 The Candidate, which Redford developed and in which he plays a liberal California community organizer who reluctantly allows himself to be drafted into running for the Senate against a conservative incumbent. Promised that he could campaign on his own beliefs and policies, he gradually succumbs to the strategies of his campaign managers. In winning the race, he loses himself. The film concludes with him asking, “What do we do now?” It is the same line that ends the 1969 Downhill Racer, Redford’s earlier collaboration with Ritchie. There he played an ambitious skier from a poor family who sees an Olympic victory as his route to money and fame. Redford’s character is driven, self-involved but not personally corrupt; rather it is the sport itself that is corrupted by its all-consuming focus on winning.

Of the nine feature films Redford has directed, only two are represented in this series. He debuted as a director with the 1980 Ordinary People, a subtle, uncompromising depiction of an emotionally troubled upper-middle-class Midwestern family. It was a surprising choice of subject for an actor largely defined as an action hero, albeit a somewhat conflicted and introspective one. In Ordinary People, Redford focused on what had been wrongly ignored in his own performances, the inner turbulence and damaging repression beneath a graceful, assured presentation of self. The nuclear family, riddled with secrets and lies, is implicated in the hypocrisy and mendacity that is institutionalized in every area of American society.

Robert Redford’s Quiz Show 1994 Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

One of those institutions is television. Redford’s most brilliant film as a director is Quiz Show (1994), as cogent an exposé of the deceit that continues to afflict American society today as All the President’s Men. (So too is a film not included in this series, the 1975 espionage thriller Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack, which stars Redford as a low-level intelligence gatherer forced to become a whistleblower when he discovers the existence of a rogue spy network that goes all the way to the top of our national security agencies.) Quiz Show is based on the late 1950s scandal around the game show Twenty-One, which mesmerized viewers who disavowed what was blatantly in front of their eyes—that the contestants were coached in their every gesture and given the answers in advance. Neither the sponsors of Twenty-One nor NBC, the network which aired it, suffered legal consequences. Indeed, the lesson that was learned—the reason that Quiz Show hits home today—is that audiences don’t care how honestly a game is played, they just want to glom onto a winner. There is a direct line from the quiz shows of the 1950s to the “reality” shows that have saturated 21st-century television and have produced a presidential candidate whose falsehoods are accepted as truth by surreal numbers of Americans because it entertains them to do so.

Yes, Redford, the golden boy romantic hero, has turned out to be one of our most hard-hitting political filmmakers. But there are at least two movies in which Redford stars where politics and social relations recede into the background. In Pollack’s 1972 Jeremiah Johnson, Redford plays a 19th-century survivalist, who goes alone into the wildness and learns how to live off the land. The film is something of a visual tone-poem in which the forests and rock cliffs of the west deserve equal billing with Redford’s “mountain man.” The existential struggle between man and nature is even more radically drawn in V.J. Chandor’s 2013 All Is Lost, a film that calls on Redford’s polar-opposite strengths as an actor—his athleticism and his ability to draw the viewer into a character’s inner life without uttering a word. Chandor gave him the role of a lifetime and Redford threw his then-76-year-old mortal body, his actor’s intelligence and experience, and his personal convictions into a character identified in the credits merely as “Our Man.” Alone and adrift in the Indian Ocean after an errant cargo container rams his yacht, he marshals strength, will, ingenuity, and perseverance in the struggle to survive against the forces of nature (albeit polluted by global capitalism) even as his efforts are rendered null by one crisis after another. All Is Lost is a film of exceptional purity—a thrilling distillation of the action movie, of great movie acting in all its virtuosity and mystery, and of the daring of Robert Redford, going into uncharted waters to bring the vision of an inspired novice director to the screen.

J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost 2013 Photo courtesy Film Independent

Robert Redford in J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013). Photo courtesy Film Independent

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Artforum, Film Comment, and Sight & Sound.

The Odds: Jeff Chang on Cultural Equity and #OscarsSoWhite

A month after Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) hit bookstores, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, was announced. In the two years since that book—which looks at the “explosion of cultural expression that moved us forward toward mutual recognition amidst a cascade of regressive policies, laws, and […]

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Host Chris Rock speaks onstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Chris Rock hosting the 88th Annual Academy Awards, February 28, 2016. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

A month after Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) hit bookstores, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, was announced. In the two years since that book—which looks at the “explosion of cultural expression that moved us forward toward mutual recognition amidst a cascade of regressive policies, laws, and political maneuvers”—the notion that there ever was a “post-racial” moment has come to seem “naive, even desperately so,” Chang writes in his new book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016). Through six essays, the author and journalist argues that despite our many celebrations of “diversity,” we’ve “slid back toward segregation”—in the political, policy, and entertainment spheres. Moving from the rise of Donald Trump to the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives, the changing suburbs to the equality-challenged spaces of Hollywood, We Gon’ Be Alright makes the case that, as Chang told the Washington Post earlier this month, “we don’t naturally fall into a situation that is equitable. Equality is something we have to fight for.”

Here, we share Chang’s chapter on race, Hollywood, and the recurring #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

* * *

When the Academy Awards came around in the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, I decided I would support Spike and Jada’s boycott—my little twenty-first-century version of honoring the picket line, engaging by disengaging. But in this era of converging media, there is no escaping Big Cultural Events. When my friend Kai texted me, I could no longer ignore the damn thing. “Yikes,” she wrote. “Jose sparked a POC fight on Twitter about anti-Blackness.”

Jose was our friend Jose Antonio Vargas, the indefatigable undocumented Pinoy activist who at that moment was one of the main targets of a brilliant and viciously funny Black Twitter hashtag #NotYourMule.

As Chris Rock worked through his opening monologue, Jose had tweeted, “When will @chrisrock bring up Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American actors and opportunity?” Others, it turned out, were wondering the same thing. Ming-Na Wen tweeted, “Chris Rock hasn’t once brought up other minorities who have worse odds at the #Oscars.” Black writer and activist Mikki Kendall replied, “Someone tell me not to do a #NotYourMule tag about the expectation that Black people take all the risk to advance representation in media.”1

Kendall had summoned Zora Neale Hurston— the patron saint of Black Twitter, the respectability-politics-exploding writer-fighter who knew her way around an incisive diss. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s character Nanny declares, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Kendall’s hashtag set the feeds flying—tweets about Black solidarity for POC, POC anti-Black racism, Peter Liang, it was all on the table. In its 2016 nominations, the Academy ignored what might be called the Black Lives renaissance—the broad, urgent work of Black actors, directors, and others who were telling some of the most important stories of our time. It was the second year in a row that April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag mobilized audience fury at the blatant omissions.

In response, Academy head Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first woman of color ever to hold the position, pushed her board to pass a plan “doubling the membership of women and diverse members of the Acad emy by 2020.”2 The actors’ branch alone was 88 percent white. Even the Academy’s language of change was awkward and out of touch, directed largely at convincing its “non-diverse” members. Here was another American institution, led by a Black woman, whose leadership and membership remained unrepresentative of and unresponsive to a constituency that had changed. The story sounded Clinton Sparks familiar.

In fact, it reminded Jose of a 2014 Hollywood Reporter cover essay written by Chris Rock, packaged under the headline IT’S A WHITE INDUSTRY. IT JUST IS. In it, Rock wrote personally and passionately about his efforts to create opportunities for other Black actors and artists in a closed studio system. Jose had been particularly struck by two paragraphs.

“But forget whether Hollywood is black enough,” Rock wrote. “A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough?” He continued:

You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist— not racist like “F— you, nigger” racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. Th ere’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. . . .

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now.3

emergingusstat

Source: #EmergingUS on Facebook

Jose had been so moved that he and his team produced a powerful video, “I, Too,” for his EmergingUS platform that they debuted the day of the Oscars. It seemed to have been inspired by Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl ad, “America the Beautiful.” But in his piece there was no cynical ploy to sell sugar water. Instead the video offered beautiful images of Latinos in Los Angeles—a parking lot flagger, a taquería food worker, a seamstress, a deliveryman, an elderly worker on a bus, a young mother and her child—all set to the sound of a man reciting in Spanish Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Yo también canto América.”

Jose later recalled, “When Rock started his monologue, I thought maybe he’d repeat a line or two from his essay.” So he tweeted his question. But as the night and the feeds rolled on, he realized that Kendall and others were likely reading something else into it—a misplaced anger about Rock’s omission, or, worse, an aggrandizing “what about me” ethnic solipsism, an expression of non-Black POC entitlement. As Kendall put it, “Solidarity doesn’t look like Black people taking the risks & every one else reaping the rewards.”4

If Twitter’s brevity does nuance no favors, its velocity can reveal complexity very quickly. When #OscarsSoWhite gave way to #NotYourMule, the discussion branched from the whiteness of Hollywood to the relative invisibility of different communities of color. But both hashtags also reminded non-Black people of color of the central role Black protest and creative expression has played in moving us all toward cultural equity. After all, “I, Too” had reappropriated Langston Hughes. For years, Black directors, producers, and writers had been the champions of opportunities for other non-whites. Jose knew all of this very well. By the next day, the conversation had moved beyond whiteness and invisibility to the stakes in the struggle for equity. It is the continuing strangeness and difficulty of race that all of these conversations have to happen at the same time.

But we must begin somewhere. So let us start with the whiteness of Hollywood. American popular culture, by its nature, trades on optimism. It wants spectacle with its trauma. It wants its laughs, its happy endings. This is the legacy of a national culture birthed in the twin narratives of cowboys-and-Indians and blackface minstrelsy.

It may also be true that we have entered into a new golden age of representation. Many of our biggest icons are people of color. Our pop landscape appears desegregated. Take television. For about a decade, from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, networks featured shows that centered on Black lives, from the groundbreaking Cosby Show to Living Single. But by the turn of the millennium, shows like Girlfriends and George Lopez were the exception. Cable picked up the slack, making stars of Dave Chappelle and Tyler Perry, and telling important stories on shows such as The Wire and The Shield. On the networks, characters of color had come to appear mostly in big ensemble shows, giving emergency rooms and criminal courts their verisimilitude of diversity. These were images of a “post-racial” America, mostly featuring middle-class people of color who were just like middle-class white people, except for the color of their skin.

In the first year of Obama’s presidency, ABC’s Modern Family reconstructed the suburban sitcom by augmenting the stock white nuclear family with an extended clan that featured a gay couple with an adopted Asian American child, and a patriarch with a gorgeous young Latina wife and child. In Hollywood elevator-pitch terms, it was Married with Children meets I Love Lucy and The Birdcage. But its surprise success made it possible for TV execs to gingerly step back toward shows with leads of color. For twenty years, Asians had not had a lead on television, but in 2016 Fresh Off the Boat, Quantico, and Dr. Ken were among ABC’s top shows. ABC was also home to Black-ish and Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. On Fox, Empire continued to crush the ratings. They were the big stories in a company town that loves to celebrate its successes.

So maybe it seems a bit rude, a bit vibe-killing to note that, despite all of this, Hollywood remains overwhelmingly white. But it does. In February 2016, when Channing Dungey, an African American woman, was named president of ABC Entertainment, she became the first person of color to head a major network. In 2014, less than 6 percent of executive producers and 14 percent of writers were of color.5 These numbers had barely changed in a decade. Hollywood may indeed be run by the most liberal whites in the country—some of them have written and acted and produced with the deepest of empathy. But they can never be a substitute for people who can tell their own stories best. That was the lesson of Black-ishFresh Off the Boat, and Empire’s breakthroughs, a lesson that needed to be relearned every twenty years or so. Millions wanted to see shows written, directed, and acted by people of color telling stories about themselves. Duh.

And yet the odds of a person of color breaking into the upper echelon of the culture, where the stories and songs and visions that we tell ourselves about ourselves—with all their values, meanings, and instructions for living—are gathered, made, and produced, and then marketed, sold, and pushed back to us, remain long indeed.

Culture, like food, is necessary to sustain us. It molds us and shapes our relations to each other. An inequitable culture is one in which people do not have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas, and stories. It is one in which people cannot represent themselves equally. To say that American culture is inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity. It is to say that the culture does not point us toward a more just society.

ABC's Black-ish

ABC’s Black-ish. Courtesy Disney | ABC Television Group

Artists and activists have long demanded better representation for people of color, women, poor people, and rural people. They have asked: Who is represented in and through cultural production? How does their representation, underrepresentation, or misrepresentation undo or reproduce various forms of inequality? But cultural equity is not just about representation. It is also about access and power. How can important cultural knowledge survive? Who has access to the means of production of culture? Who has the power to shape culture?

By the end of the twentieth century most developed countries had established modern structures to support the production of culture. Funding for the arts came through four primary sectors: the state, the culture industry, philanthropy, and community.

Culture was an important tool to develop and project a national identity. Democratic countries such as Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, and Denmark funded the development of large cultural sectors through government ministries. But such state-sponsored cultural production did not necessarily imply the building of propaganda machines. That false narrative was a peculiar product of the Cold War and the culture wars.

In fact, before the Cold War, the United States led the world in building a robust, democratic cultural policy. The New Deal supported the art and the artists who created the enduring images, stories, and songs of the “American century.” Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothea Lange, Orson Welles, Charles White, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright were all beneficiaries. The artists exposed in equality in America. They forged a new national narrative that wielded values of inclusion and resilience against hardship and despair.

The culture industry reacted belatedly to this shift. Popular movies reflecting progressive values like It’s a Wonderful Life or On the Waterfront came long after the peak of the cultural front. At any rate, the Hollywood blacklist campaigns brought an end to this period of rich expression, illustrating how sensitive industry leaders were to the pressures of being labeled “red.” By itself, a culture industry concerned with a bottom line or political pressures would not lead toward equity.

As an answer to Soviet soft power, President Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. The NEA played a key role in funding the growth of fledgling institutions that made up the arts uprisings of the 1970s and 1980s. At its peak, the NEA controlled the equivalent of half a billion 2015 dollars annually, and ecosystems of arts organizations from Appalachia to Los Angeles produced a generation of artists of color and women, queer, and avant-garde artists who would popularize multiculturalist ideas.6

But after the fall of the Soviet Union, right-wing moralists attacked these same artists and ecosystems by vowing to defund the NEA and NEH. By the mid-nineties, they had succeeded in forcing many arts organizations to close shop. Conservatives argued at the time that if an artist could not find someone to pay for their art, or fund it themselves, then maybe it did not deserve to be made. Consolidation of the culture industry followed. George Yudice has famously called this moment “the privatization of culture.”7

By the end of the 2000s, New Zealand, a country that is seventy times smaller than the United States, was appropriating $50 million more to its Ministry for Culture and Heritage than the United States was to the NEA. Between 2000 and 2010, state funding for the arts dropped by over a billion dollars.

Inequality in the American arts world now is more severe than even income inequality. Nationally, the top 20 percent of income earners receive 50 percent of the income. In the U.S. arts world, the top 2 percent of organizations garner 55 percent of philanthropic grants. Seventy-five percent of organizations serving underrepresented populations have budgets of under $250,000.8

Of every foundation dollar given in the United States, only eleven cents goes to the arts. Five and a half cents goes to arts organizations with budgets of more than five million dollars. One cent goes to arts organizations serving underrepresented communities. Less than half a cent goes to arts organizations that produce work related to social justice.9

For the last decade, many of the largest nonprofit arts institutions have been confronting the vexing question of “audience,” namely the steep declines in aging white patrons. Yet many of these same arts institutions seem to have little interest in questions of equity and instead seem to be positioning themselves to follow their narrowing audiences down into oblivion. It is too early to know if crowdfunding, the for-profit version of the age-old sweat-equity model so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, can be of service in the push for cultural equity. On the one hand, here is where cultural moves always start: with the enthusiasm of creation, in the spirit of beating the odds. But the odds remain what they are.

* * *

Viola Davis of How To Get AWay With Murder. Photo: Disney | ABC Television Group Follow Flicker, used under Creative Commons Todd Wawrychuk

Viola Davis of How to Get Away With Murder. Photo: Todd Wawrychuk for Disney | ABC Television Group, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

History reminds us that desegregation is not a destination; it is a constant struggle. It took until 2015 for the Emmys to honor a Black leading lady. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” said Viola Davis, the star of How to Get Away with Murder, upon winning her award. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Spike Lee, who received a 2015 honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement before the nominations angered him into boycotting the February ceremonies, said in his acceptance speech, “It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio.”10

For decades, the problem was not even seen as a problem. Only in light of the justice movements and rising cultural activism have many of the art world’s and culture industry’s leaders tried to address the problem. One sign is the recent flood of reports documenting the extent of cultural inequity. Here’s a short list of their recent (re)discoveries:

• 87 percent of American museum leaders, curators, conservators, and educators are white. More than half of security and facilities workers are nonwhite.11
• Of the largest museums, theaters, and dance companies in the United States, none have annual budgets of less than $23 million. Of the twenty largest African American and Latino museums, theaters, and dance companies in the United States, only five have annual budgets of more than $5 million.12
• In a survey of over 1,000 New York City arts organizations, 69 percent of those polled agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel my organization is diverse.” Yet 78 percent of board members and 79 percent of leadership staff in these same organizations were white. The city is 33 percent white.13

And yet access and representation are only a part of the problem of cultural equity. Even if these issues are addressed, the question of power will remain. In a world that is no longer white, to borrow from James Baldwin, will the culture point us toward greater understanding and justice, or will it reproduce social inequities?

These questions had Jose Antonio Vargas disheartened the day after the Oscars. He worried that some might have mistaken his intentions. Two days later he posted an essay he had written entitled “Here’s What I’ve Learned About #NotYourMule.”14

First, he wrote that while “it would have been helpful,” he now felt Chris Rock was in no way obligated to speak for non-Blacks. Indeed, as the discussion had proceeded during the Oscars ceremony, Latinos and Asian Americans started their own hashtags to focus on underrepresentation. He concluded by saying that he did not believe that race was solely a “Black vs White” issue, but that he vowed to address anti-Black racism in his future work. He wrote, “. . . white people don’t always need to be at the center of the conversation.”

But there was more racial controversy lingering from the Oscars, in the form of tone-deaf jokes Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Rock told at the expense of Asians. Rock had tried to inject some humor into a required segment about the accountants’ tabulation of the votes. “They sent us their most dedicated, accurate, and hardworking representatives. Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz,” he said, as three Asian American kids carrying briefcases walked onstage to laughter and not a few groans.

“If anybody’s upset about that joke,” Rock added, “just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”

Cohen’s joke was delivered—unscripted and unapproved by show producers—in character as British wigga Ali G. “ Here comes yet another token Black presenter,” he began. He went on to say, “How come there is no Oscar for them really hardworking tiny yellow people with no dongs? You know, Minions.”

As with Sarah Silverman’s skits circa 2003–04, Cohen’s “post- racial” humor turned on the shock value of saying racist things in a faux-clueless manner to an audience that knew they were racist jokes told by white liberals for white liberals. Audiences could indulge in the communal thrill of laughing at the stereotypes while staying safely above it all. Here again was why white Hollywood liberalism could never be a substitute for cultural equity.

Chris Rock understood this problem well. The power in his art, like Dave Chappelle’s and Patrice O’Neal’s, came from dancing on the line between white flattery and Black truth. There was one way in which Rock’s Asian joke might have been made subversive, become the kind of grace note that Jose had been seeking. It might have made the joke, worthy of Rock’s cutting intelligence, something funny and uncomfortable rather than merely awkward and denigrating. Rock might have told the joke as a retort to the model minority myth.

Rock might have spoken to Asian American in-betweenness, pushed the Oscar audience to see beyond the threat of curve-raising automaton “tiger children” into a community made up of both math whizzes and sweatshop laborers. But then again, at this moment in history in that auditorium, before a nearly all-white audience that appreciated Black performance but rewarded only itself, while Asian Americans remained unrepresented and African American solidarity under-reciprocated—maybe not. All things are not equal. Perhaps that kind of joke could have been told only in the context of a more equitable culture.

Throughout his career, the folklorist Alan Lomax argued for the importance of cultural equity. He said that arts produced by diverse groups of people are socially valuable because they offer us ideas, technologies, and values that help us figure out how to live together. The real benefit of a vital, equitable culture lies well beyond the money there is to be made. It offers us a sense of individual worth, bolsters our collective adaptability, and forms a foundation for social progress. In that sense, cultural diversity is just like biodiversity—at its best, it functions like a creative ecosystem. The final product of culture is not a commodity, it is society.

But we are far from that ideal. If cultural activism and justice movements can succeed in decentering whiteness and improving access and representation—and all the evidence suggests that the odds on that are still very long—we will still need to address the ways in which we see each other. Perhaps one day we may no longer need an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. But we will still have to deal with the kinds of inequities that made #NotYourMule. What, then, will a culture of transformation look like?

Excerpted from We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, published in September 2016 by Picador USA. Copyright © 2016 by Jeff Chang/Picador USA. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved. For more from Chang, read a chapter from Who We Be: The Colorization of America or watch the 2007 Walker panel discussion related to his book Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop.

 

Cover of Chang's book, featuring art from Damon Davis's "All Hands on Deck" series

Cover of Chang’s book, featuring art from Damon Davis’s “All Hands on Deck” series

Notes

1 Marisa Kabas, “How Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue sparked the #NotYourMule protest,” Daily Dot, February 29, 2016.
2 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “Academy Takes Historic Action To Increase Diversity,” January 22, 2016.
3 Chris Rock, “Chris Rock Pens Blistering Essay on Hollywood’s Race Problem: ‘It’s a White Industry,” The Hollywood Reporter, December 3, 2014.
4 Kabas, Daily Dot, ibid.
5 Writers Guild of America, West, “WGAW 2015 TV Staffing Brief,” March 2015.
6 Data is available at National Endowment for the Arts website. Figures were adjusted for inflation.
7 George Yudice, “The Privatization of Culture,” Social Text 59 (Summer 1999): 17–34. Also see: The Expediency of Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
8 Holly Sidford, “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy,” National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, October 2011.
9 Sidford, ibid.
10 Kory Grow, “Spike Lee Blasts Acad emy’s Lack of Diversity in Oscar Speech,” RollingStone.com, November 16, 2015.
11 Roger Schonfeld, Mariët Westermann, with Liam Sweeney, “The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” July 28, 2015.
12 Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, “Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies,” September 2015.
13 Roger C. Schonfeld and Liam Sweeney, “Diversity in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Community,” New York City Department of Cultural Affairs report, January 28, 2016.
14 Jose Antonio Vargas, “Here’s what I’ve learned about #NotYourMule,” Medium.com, March 1, 2016.

Urgent Cinema: Terrance Franklin and a Failure of Justice

Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that […]

D.A. Bullock. Killing Mookie. 2016.

Terrance Franklin in D.A. Bullock’s Killing Mookie, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that has become commonplace in officer-involved killings, stated that they feared for their lives. Occurring before both the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Franklin’s death received comparably little media scrutiny. In revisiting the incident, Bullock draws attention to the a history of police conduct that precedes the Black Lives Matter movement.

An excerpt from Killing Mookie screened at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In conjunction with the program, I connected with Bullock to discuss the film. This is the final interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob, Dawn MikkelsonKeri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

Killing Mookie addresses the shooting of Terrance Franklin by Minneapolis police in 2013, prior to widespread public engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. What made you decide to investigate an officer-involved shooting from this period? Do you think Black Lives Matter has changed public awareness and media coverage of policing?

I decided to focus on Terrance Franklin’s case because I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the police narratives that we have accepted and taken for granted. This case stood out to me because I remember when it happened, I remember the sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, and most importantly I remember how the city at large reacted with a collective shrug, an assumption of Terrence’s guilt: “The bad guy got killed by the police.”

I think Black Lives Matter has forever changed the awareness around policing of Black and Brown folks, for that I am eternally grateful to the mostly young people who have put themselves out there on the front line, to demand justice.

Your project draws on a tremendous media archive ranging from newscasts to footage shot on mobile devices. What made you to decide to draw on such a broad range of material?

We live in a world of media tapestry and media collage. Much of our lives are pieced together as timelines and tweets and bursts of small storytelling. I thought it was appropriate to use that approach in piecing together Terrance’s life and the events of that day. Also, we know we cannot necessarily trust the entire mainstream media narrative about this case and others, because that narrative was sourced from one single entity, the police. It is the classic case of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie termed “the danger of the single story.”

What do you feel is absent from daily news coverage of policing?

We are delivered stories of events without context, and with a certain degree of bias, whether that’s conscious or subconscious. The traditional media doesn’t analyze police policy with a critical eye. They don’t supply the depth of questioning. In Terrance Franklin’s case, they didn’t ask if Terrance had gun residue on his hands; they relied on the police narrative of DNA. They didn’t ask about why the grand jury was convened by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. They didn’t examine the police narrative and question what did not add up. Lastly, they wait for cases like this to tell the story in false equivalencies. They do not take the time and effort to tell the story of the systemic failure that creates these cases. We are currently living under a dysfunctional police and criminal justice system.

The film is shot in black and white and includes voiceover. What made you gravitate towards overt directorial intervention, instead of vérité technique, for the project?

I own my bias and my imagination. I’m very up front about it. I feel like part of my artist responsibility is to advocate and elevate and touch and inspire. I think the vérité technique is more manipulative in that it lulls us into believing that film is not a contrived fabricated presentation. It is a creation, even documentary. I’m not manipulating facts, but I am leading the viewer down a deliberate path. Every good documentary does that. I embrace that idea. I admire the work of documentary storytellers, like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who imagine with a distinct point of view. The black and white here is about contrast; it’s about the conceit that the story we are given is “just the facts”—very black and white. In fact the story we received was wrought with nuance and manipulation and bias. The system likes to pretend it’s blind to all that, so I wanted to present my education on this case in very black-and-white, visual terms. The media in the film taken from television reports and social media at the time of the case remains in color, and the archive is in color. I’m making the case in black and white.

Urgent Cinema: Winona LaDuke and the Enbridge Pipeline

These days, Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabe activist and onetime Green Party vice presidential candidate from northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation—is a key voice backing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The ongoing protests mirror a project closer to home: Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would’ve piped oil from northern Minnesota […]

Keri Pickett. First Daughter and the Black Snake. 2016

Winona LaDuke in Keri Pickett’s First Daughter and the Black Snake, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

These days, Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabe activist and onetime Green Party vice presidential candidate from northern Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation—is a key voice backing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. The ongoing protests mirror a project closer to home: Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would’ve piped oil from northern Minnesota through tribal treaty territory to the port city of Superior, Wisconsin. A four-year battle that eventually resulted in Enbridge canceling the pipeline is the subject of award-winning photographer and filmmaker Keri Pickett‘s newest documentary, First Daughter and the Black Snakewhich looks at LaDuke’s environmental activism and advocacy in defense of Sovereign Lands. The title, as Picket explains, combines the Dakota meaning of La Duke’s first name with the destructive “black snake” of indigenous prophesy—the oil industry.

The film screens at the Walker on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Pickett to discuss the film. This is the seventh interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob,, Dawn Mikkelson, and Norah Shapiro.

First Daughter and the Black Snake addresses Winona LaDuke’s environmental activism and, in particular, her work to stop the Enbridge pipeline. When did you begin work on the film and what attracted you to the subject matter?

My real American history education started in 1980 when I attended the Black Hills Survival Gathering. At that gathering I volunteered to run the switchboard in the American Indian Movement tent. Years later I wanted to learn more about the indigenous people of Minnesota and a friend said, “I know just the person for you to meet.” So in 1984 I met Winona LaDuke up at the White Earth Reservation, and over the years I have tried to document the milestone moments in her life.

In 2013, when the Enbridge corporation announced that they planned to construct a pipeline which would across the Headwaters of the Mississippi River and the wild rice beds of Winona’s Anishinaabe territory, I knew I had to follow that story.

I started photographing LaDuke’s actions in the spring of 2014, and I started filming her “Love Water Not Oil” horseback ride against the current of oil that summer. But it wasn’t until I followed her to New York City to participate in the climate change summit and the People’s Climate March that I realized that I had to commit to making a film about her efforts. Native people are the leaders of the charge to protect water from contamination of fracked and tar sands oil.

I attended college at MSU (now University of Minnesota Moorhead), and I love northern Minnesota. I believe that our states water is our most valuable resource and worth fighting to protect. Inspired by Winona and her Ojibwe community, I want to share what have seen with others so they might add their voice and participate in protecting our natural resources.

Your background is in photography, and previous projects such as your photo book Faeries have provided rich, intimate engagement with subjects often marginalized (or absent) from mainstream media. How did your background in photography inform this project? 

As an artist, my work has centered on family and community, and I am interested in revealing how our lives reflect our value systems. Intimacy and honesty are important to me and through my photography books Love in the 90s, Faeries, and Saving Body and Soul I have shed light upon people who have typically been marginalized in our society—the elderly, the gay community, and the poor and homeless.

First Daughter and the Black Snake is a continuation of my artistic interest in family and community exploring how actions reveal value systems and how much one person can make a difference. Documenting Winona’s pipeline fight is therefore a natural extension from photography into the moving image reflecting my lifelong efforts to document people who are struggling against the odds.

The film includes sequences of public forums and town halls. Why did you think it was important to capture public debates? How does this footage supplement the interviews you include?

First Daughter and the Black Snake follows what happened during these past two years. In the course of documenting I have amassed over 800 hours of footage in the process. Winona and her allies have attended countless public hearings conducted by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Commerce. Winona says in the film that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” Many people complain about the system, and very few take the time to engage within the system.

I am inspired that the native communities who have lost so much at the hands of the government would choose to participate in that same system. The film has interviews but primarily I have tried to tell a compelling story of how Winona has fought the pipelines with treaties, indigenous “slow” food and her spiritual horse ride with a cinéma vérité approach.

Democracy Now recently featured an interview with LaDuke and a report on funding for the Dakota Access Pipeline, identifying 17 banks that are providing financial support for the project. In making this film, were you primarily interested in depicting activism or the larger systems and companies that support the pipeline? In national coverage of the oil industry and pipeline development what parts of the story do you think are typically under-addressed?

My documentary film focuses on the activism. Native American communities have born the brunt of much of the extreme energy extraction practices of major corporations. Enbridge Energy and Marathon Petroleum are featured in my film. These corporations have experienced the Minnesota regulatory system and pushback from many environmental groups such as Honor the Earth, Friends of the Headwaters, and MN350.

Citizen protestors have gathered and made their voice heard. The people’s efforts have been the focus of my film as I am documenting what I have seen Winona and others efforts to protect the water.

In indigenous communities the “black snake” is prophesied to bring destruction to the earth, and many believe that the oil industry is the black snake. The people I have documented and tried to make visible are the protectors rather than the perpetrators.

The end of my film reveals the Enbridge pipeline battle has changed. There is a win with the Sandpiper pipeline but the struggle remains here in Minnesota with Line 3, and now the black snake has moved to North Dakota to the Dakota Access pipeline.

Urgent Cinema: On Trauma, Forgiveness, and Restorative Justice

Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma. An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works […]

Dawn Mikkelson. Risking Light. 2016.

Still from Dawn Mikkelson’s Risking Light, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma.

An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Mikkelson to discuss the film. This is the sixth interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

In Risking Light you speak with subjects who have been victims of tremendous abuse and trauma. What made you decide to make a film about forgiveness? As you worked on the project did you always feel ready to forgive, or were you also experiencing anger and sadness about what the film’s subjects had faced?

Honestly, I was looking for some hope in my own life. I’d become rather jaded about people and was searching for stories that could change my perspective. Then I met Mary Johnson, who shared her story of the loss of her son and ultimate forgiveness of O’shea Israel, his killer. I knew this was the story. But I also saw that their story, if told alone, only gave one perspective on forgiveness and was compelled to find more. To really explore what forgiveness was and what it wasn’t.

As someone with at least an average level of empathy, I found that swimming in these stories of pain and injustice was challenging. This is what kept me digging into their stories. I needed to understand how one gets from anger and pain to forgiveness and healing.

I think that I tend toward films that explore things that I need to work through in my own life. I had a lot of repressed anger directed toward myself and others, for a lifetime of injuries. Nothing nearly as profound as the subjects of Risking Light, but enough to have made me pretty bitter. I pretended that wasn’t the case, but the more I dug into this subject, the more my own anger and frustration would surface. Many times, this would subconsciously lead to a slowdown in production. Then I’d figure out my own challenge, and miraculously I was able to move forward with the film.

Did you meet with each of our subjects knowing that they wanted to forgive the perpetrators of crimes and violence against them, or did the journey towards forgiveness begin during filmmaking?

In each case, their journey to forgiveness was complete or nearly complete before we met. That is how I found them. One of the things I find interesting about each of their stories is that they are all still on a journey. A journey to continue healing and a journey to make a positive change in the world, as a result of their acts of profound forgiveness. It is rare to find someone who has forgiven injuries as big as these without having moments where they are haunted by the past. Pain has a way of showing up in your life in all sorts of ways. But having begun this journey, they are much more prepared to handle the surprise moments when pain revisits in a different form.

In addition, each of them is compelled to do more with their lives as a result of their forgiveness. They have turned something that was destroying them internally to something where they are now helping others in their lives, in big and small ways, heal. The ripple effect of forgiveness is clear in all of these stories. It is not just about you. It is about who you become in the world and how that new person changes the lives of others.

First person accounts play a large role in the film. Why did you believe it was important to have the subjects speak for themselves about their experiences with limited formal or narrative interventions? What role does the testimonial play in your documentary practice?

I am a big fan of having subjects tell their own story, without the use of narration, whenever possible. In this film, that went to the extent of using an EyeDirect device that effectively projects my face on the lens of the camera, so they are looking directly at the camera. Thus they are looking directly at the audience. Looking into a subject’s eyes, you see another layer of vulnerability and experience a more intimate connection with them as an audience member. Throughout my career, I have tried to tell the stories of my subjects with emotional honesty. We spend so much of our time debating issues, in effect distancing ourselves from the personal impact of our actions, political or personal. I’m a believer in the power of the personal story and sharing of lived experiences as a way to connect us as humans. To increase empathy and compassion for one another.

The film addresses restorative justice, a system that focuses on reconciliation and rehabilitation instead of punishment. What role do you believe restorative justice has to play in the criminal justice system?

Restorative justice plays a critical role in the story of Mary and O’shea, in particular. They came together through a restorative justice process. Prior to making this film, I didn’t have any exposure to this kind of process. Since then, I have really grown to see restorative justice as one of the keys to creating a more just society, through making Risking Light, as well as additional work I’ve done on restorative dialogue circles. Every story, every crime, every person is unique. So I hesitate to speak in general terms when it comes to restorative justice. But I will say that I have seen it utilized at all levels. From petty crime to murder to war crimes. So often we frame “justice” in terms of retribution or punishment, but what if “justice” was something that would allow victims to process their pain and heal? What if offenders could learn the impact of their crimes and possibly reform, thus breaking the cycle of violence? This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what restorative justice can bring to the criminal justice system.

Urgent Cinema: Women Veterans and the Lasting Impact of War

The 2016 recipient of the US Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Blood Stripe is the story of a female war veteran’s return to civilian life. The directorial debut of Remy Aubernonois, the film was cowritten by Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, who co-star in the work. An excerpt from Blood Stripe plays at the Walker on Thursday, September […]

Remy Auberjonois. Blood Stripe. 2016.

Still from Remy Auberjonois’s Blood Stripe, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

The 2016 recipient of the US Fiction Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Blood Stripe is the story of a female war veteran’s return to civilian life. The directorial debut of Remy Aubernonois, the film was cowritten by Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin, who co-star in the work.

An excerpt from Blood Stripe plays at the Walker on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Auberjonois to discuss the film. This is the foftj interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

While other films—from The Best Years of our Lives (Wyler, 1946) to The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)—depict servicemen returning to civilian life, it is unusual to see comparable stories about the experiences of female veterans. What made you decide to focus on a woman’s return home? Do you think that gender influences the experiences of people returning from deployment, be it by shaping access to resources or the official support available?

We decided to make a film about a female returning from war because it’s a new character that we haven’t seen. The story of returning from war is one of the oldest stories we tell, but the American woman veteran who has seen combat is a new character type and we felt there was a space in the genre. There are a lot of documentary films being made now on the subject, and there is a lot of reportage, but we haven’t seen many of these stories told in a narrative fictional context. We felt like it was a way to introduce the issues inherent to the subject to an audience that might not consume documentaries, and provide an entrée for the audience into the experience through empathy and engagement with character and story.

As to the role of gender in the experience of homecoming, it is our understanding that a lot of women returning from deployment experience it differently from men because they are not expected to have “been in the shit” by the civilian population. So I think there is an assumption sometimes that they won’t have been affected in the same ways as their male counterparts. Of course this is a fallacy in many cases, particularly because these wars against guerrilla insurgents have no “front lines.” Gender also comes into play because many of these women are wives and mothers and have to return to these “traditional roles.” This I think presents its own set of challenges. Also, when we are speaking of women who have served, we cannot avoid the fact of military sexual trauma (MST), which admittedly plagues both men and women.

Blood Stripe depicts the protagonist Our Sergeant’s struggles with PTSD without using flashbacks or identifying a singular source of trauma. What made you decide to focus on the experiences after her return instead of during her deployment?

We wanted there to be some mystery. We wanted to challenge the audience, and trust them. We wanted the audience to project the what and the how. I felt that the audience would bring their own associations from other sources to the story. Hollywood can make big war movies, but as a scrappy independent film we were constrained by our resources, which I think opened up a whole area of exploration. We drop clues, but we found when we were writing that when we had the character speak about what “happened” to her it minimized the potential scope. She is plagued by “war” and everything that represents. Kate pointed out early on that in Greek tragedy the blood is almost always shed off-stage. There is a lot of violence depicted in todays films. There is violence implicit in our film, but not depicted. I hope that creates more tension and potentially allows for a greater emotional catharsis. Also, speaking about trauma is the beginning of healing, and so many people who struggle with this type of trauma are not healing. There are no easy answers to this epidemic; we wanted the audience to engage with the problem, without our prescribing a solution.

The film specifically addresses the difficulties in receiving support from the VA. Did you hope this film would raise awareness about the challenges faced by veterans?

We wanted to make a film about a pressing, contemporary, dare I say “urgent,” issue, without being preachy or having it feel like watching it is taking medicine. Our ambition was to make a cinematic, artful, dramatic film that is truly about something. Many things.  When we were financing the film the tragic reality of veterans dying while on waitlists at the VA was unfolding. It was certainly a somber validation of the relevancy of our subject matter. We hoped to use the tools of independent drama to enlighten and expose a reality. Our goals are to entertain, expose, and contribute to an understanding of a very current human condition. It is only one version of the veteran experience, and trauma is universal.

Urgent Cinema: Firearms in the Rural North

Filmmaker and actor Karl Jacob‘s newest film, Cold November, is the second installment in a trilogy on the culture of Northern Minnesota. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a matriarchal household in the region, Jacob crafted an intimate portrait of the familial ritual of hunting, a subject that intersects with contemporary conversations about firearms. An […]

Karl Jacob. Cold November. 2016

Still from Karl Jacob’s Cold November, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Filmmaker and actor Karl Jacob‘s newest film, Cold November, is the second installment in a trilogy on the culture of Northern Minnesota. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a matriarchal household in the region, Jacob crafted an intimate portrait of the familial ritual of hunting, a subject that intersects with contemporary conversations about firearms.

An excerpt from Cold November will screen at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 at part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program I connected with Jacob to discuss the film. This is the fourth interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. BullockMahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherDawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

The beginning of Cold November depicts the film’s protagonist, Florence, playing in a cardboard village before being ushered to bed by her grandmother, a sequence that clearly establishes her youth and innocence. Why did you decide to begin the film with a sequence of Florence playing?

To be honest, the scene was originally just an experiment, but then became much more important as the writing process went on. I was working with a group of writers, led by my friend Jacob Krueger, on some character work, and this scene was a result of the process. It’s stayed identical to the first draft almost beat for beat, and it was the very first page I wrote of the script. As the writing went on the matchbox cars became a bigger player in the overall story arc, and an important piece of the puzzle, which was nice to discover. When the full film becomes available, you’ll be able to see how this unfolds. Twelve is admittedly a little old to be hanging on to a tiny toy city, but there’s a reason.

The sequences of Florence playing emphasize her youth and childlike qualities. Do you mind speaking more about the decision to center the story on an innocent, or even morally unimpeachable, young woman?

The focus on the age of 12 is derived from ancient human ritual. There is a near omnipresent tradition in cultures throughout the world that centers around the 11- or 12-year old transitioning away from childhood. For a long time in human history this has historically been the period when kids go through a ceremony to become adults. Examples range from the Jewish Bat Mitzvah to communal near-death beatings. Rituals that focus on death experience as the main goal are the most common, among a wide range of groups. As I personalized and compared this knowledge with my own “death ritual” of killing a deer at the age of 11, it became clear that the story had to be about a young woman: I was raised by six women, my mother taught me how to gut out a deer, and my grandmother taught me how to shoot my first gun. The fact that each of them had also gone through this ritual as kids seemed like the most interesting and salient way to approach telling the story. Also having them as a resource while I was writing the script was obviously crucial, as I have never been a 12-year-old girl. The insight and talent that the actress Bijou Abas brought to the role of Florence was also crucial. The character would not have been the same without her commitment to developing Florence completely.

Tradition and family are clearly very important to the film’s narrative. Even though it’s a fictional feature, did you draw on personal experience to craft the story?

Since early development, I’ve thought of this film as a hybrid piece. Cold November is a story that has been in my mind since I went through the process of learning how to hunt and kill a deer myself, many years ago. My family is very important to me, and they played a big role in making this film happen. We shot the film on family land during deer hunting season, and I literally couldn’t do it any other way. It would have been impossible. My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandma were actually hunting while we were simultaneously shooting. I did this by design because I wanted the film to feel lived in, and I wanted to use real animals in the movie. There is a scene of all of the women skinning a deer together, and a scene of Florence field dressing a deer, and those scenes are effectively documentary, but using actors instead of the people who actually killed the deer themselves. Everyone in my family was very supportive and they were on hand to coach, assist, and make sure the animals were dealt with in a way that preserved the meat in line with the family tradition. I also think they were very invested in the movie because I am effectively documenting this personal ritual that is admittedly unique for most modern Americans, despite it being an ancient survival ritual. A semi-tangential fun fact is that I am a vegetarian, and so is the cinematographer.

How did consideration of economics shape the world you create in the film? What kinds of financial resources did you envision Florence and her family as having at their disposal?  

It’s funny that you are asking me that right now because I have been thinking a lot about economic influence since I last watched the latest cut of the film. I think Florence’s family will likely come across as a middle-class family, which I believe makes sense for the time frame of the movie. One of the goals of the film was to accurately portray the region, and Hibbing has had a long history of being both middle class, and a place where economic downturns can happen fast when the mines shut down. I think we definitely reflect all of these points in the film. The idea of needing to live off the land being right around the corner definitely drove the building of the story world and characters. In related news, I’m in development on a new project right now that centers around one of the seemingly biggest economic coups in American history that also took place in Hibbing in the early 1900s. I think the current economic conditions of our region and disparity in the country in general has influenced both Cold November and my new project.

Though the film focuses on familial ritual and hunting, its portrayal of hunting—and, by extension, guns—clearly, intersects with contemporary political debates surrounding gun control and the Second Amendment. Did you intend the film as a political intervention or for it to take a political stance?

I never intended the film to take a political stance, but I definitely realize its political importance. I also personally value the tradition of living off the land, which my immediate family has done and continues to do to an extent. It’s what got my grandparents through the Great Depression. Guns play an important role as a tool in that lifestyle, and I think that lifestyle perhaps has not been portrayed that much, if at all, in popular media. As I discover the place that Cold November can have in gun discourse, I’m excited at the prospect of the film being seen by someone who has maybe spent their entire life in a city. One’s relationship with guns is completely different when they are not being used primarily as objects of war, which is effectively the case in most urban living. You’re not shooting squirrels with a 12-gauge in Loring Park, you know? I think I am a bit of an anomaly as a predominantly liberal, urban-living vegetarian who values the importance of gun ownership. I think the world needs to know that people like me exist and that perhaps the “gun debate” is not as simple as the NRA vs. The Liberals. There are nuances to every issue, and having compassion with someone’s story that is different than your own is important. I mean, it’s the foundation of what our country is supposed to stand on, right? For that reason I am proud to be adding this angle to the conversation.

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