A Look at Miss Representation

On Thursday night I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Miss Representation, a powerful documentary that elucidates how negative portrayals of women in media alter the way women and girls perceive themselves, and how these representations lead directly to the under-representation of women in positions of power in America.  It provides compelling content that illustrates how the media encourages the message that a woman’s value lies in her youth, beauty, and sexuality.  Though it runs just a trim 90 minutes, Miss Representation packs one hell of a punch.

The film’s strength is its comprehensiveness; it provides a well-rounded examination of women in media, from how female characters are constructed on film and TV, to the lack of female voices on the Boards of media conglomerates, to how these fictional constructs of women alter the way girls act and are perceived in the real world.  Film and TV clips are interspersed with staggering statistics that illustrate how the negative portrayal of women on screen impacts a woman’s ability to attain a place of power–not just in her own life, but also in the fields of politics, business, and entertainment.  These points are driven home by interviews with well-known and respected women in contemporary media and politics, from Jane Fonda and Rachel Maddow, to Condoleezza Rice and Katie Couric.  There are also compelling contributions from men in these fields, particularly Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and the Lieutenant Governor of California, Gary Newsom (who is also married to the film’s director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom).

My only complaints about the film concern its structure; the narrative of the film is constructed around Siebel Newsom’s concerns as a new mother–how she fears for her daughter coming of age in this media landscape.  While it’s a noble sentiment, Siebel Newsom’s presence in the film isn’t particularly necessary–yes, her voiceover helps propel the film, but the mention of her personal life and her impending motherhood is both unnecessary and distracting.  It’s a directing choice that seems antithetical to the spirit of the film, particularly since it takes a film about rejecting feminine stereotypes and couches it in the rhetoric of nurturing motherhood and maternity.

Structural concerns aside, Miss Representation is a must-see documentary capable of educating and inspiring.  It’s a sure conversation starter that details in stark terms the impact of the media on young girls and women in this country.  It provides no easy answers to the problems it enumerates, but its existence as a documentary is itself a necessary aid in the promotion of understanding and change.  This is a film that could fill a major gap in media studies programs; it would be particularly useful in middle and high schools as a part of a Media Literacy program, showing children how the media dictates what they see, how they see it, and why.  It’s also the perfect film to show anyone who fails to understand the extent to which women are misrepresented and underrepresented in contemporary media.

Miss Representation is screening at universities and festivals throughout the United States and internationally; you can also request to host your own screening of the film by signing up here.

The Forgetting Game: Second Thoughts

Back in November I wrote a small post on The Forgetting Game, a documentary (produced and directed by colleagues from my days at NYU) about Beate Kernke, a little girl who became the first person legally and peacefully transferred across the Berlin Wall to West Berlin.  Since that first post I’ve still been ruminating over the film–returning to its themes in my brain and contemplating the issues it brought up concerning both the role of the documentary filmmaker in the lives of his subjects, and in the structure of documentary narrative itself.

As the film progresses we learn the story of Beate’s transport across the Berlin Wall–how she eventually made her way across the border to West Berlin, where she spent a few days with the family of Neil M. Clarke, an American Red Cross representative.  We learn that days later, Beate was reunited with her mother and new stepfather in Burlingame, California.  As the story unfolds we learn about Beate’s life after the move to the States, and discover (perhaps to our surprise) that the Clarkes and Kernkes lost touch after Beate’s move to the States.

Beate was so young at the time of the move that she remembers little, though she remembers enough to complicate the negative portrayal of East Berlin that we all know so well; it was not the gray, forbidding place of cultural memory, but a place where she played and visited with a loving grandmother.  Conversely, Pam and her siblings paint a more traditional picture of East Berlin has a place of violence and darkness; Pam looks upon the story of Beate’s transfer with an obvious sense of pride regarding its place in her familial and cultural histories.

Pam and Beate’s narratives don’t quite mesh, and that’s perhaps the most fascinating part of The Forgetting Game: it illustrates the perils of historiography–how the narrativization of history clouds the truth of the events, and how memory alters the past.  For example, we learn that the famous photograph of Beate and Mr. Clarke is a reenactment–a staged photograph for the papers.  We also discover that the Red Cross does not include this story in its corporate memory.  So for some (particularly the Clarkes), this historical moment has come to define their heritage, while it remains unacknowledged by others involved.

I was also intrigued by the interactions between the filmmakers and their subjects; as the film progresses, its creators become an integral part of the story they are telling.  Partway through the film we discover that the filmmakers will (and do) assist in a reunion between Beate and the Clarkes.  There are glimpses of the director (Russell Sheaffer) and producers (Jim Bittl and Pulkit Datta) within the film because the filmmakers felt an obligation to acknowledge their impact on the lives of their subjects.  Sheaffer told me there was “no way to avoid” becoming a part of their subjects lives, and that the quiet way they hoped to tell Beate’s story led to their naturally becoming “a catalyst for a meeting” between Beate and the Clarkes.  So Sheaffer and the producers both tell the story and become crucial players in its development.  When Beate decides she’d like to contact Pam, she uses the crews’ equipment to record a video message, which they then deliver on Beate’s behalf.  The video they deliver leads to a real-life reunion in the United States, and the crew is there to capture that as well.

Ultimately The Forgetting Game provides a compelling examination of what is lost and gained in the narrativization of both personal and historical memory.  It also illustrates the impact that the documentary filmmaker can have on his subjects, and brings up some important questions about the role of the filmmaker in the processes of filming and editing a documentary.

The Forgetting Game

The Forgetting Game tells the story of Beate Kernke, a little girl who became the first person legally and peacefully transferred across the Berlin Wall to West Berlin.  It was 1963, and Beate was living with her grandmother in East Germany.  Her mother had left Beate in East Germany for a time, hoping to send for her at a later time.  But then the Berlin Wall went up.  After remarrying and moving to California, Beate’s mother sent for her, but Beate couldn’t get to the States without first crossing into West Berlin.  With the help of the American Red Cross, Beate eventually made her way across the border to West Berlin, where she spent a few days with the family of Neil M. Clarke, the American Red Cross representative who helped her across the border.  Days later, Beate was reunited with her mother and new stepfather in Burlingame, California.  And then Beate’s story disappeared from the historical record.  At this time her story is not even considered part of the American Red Cross’ corporate memory.

The director of The Forgetting Game, Russell Sheaffer, grew up hearing Beate’s story.  Hers was a tale unlike any others he heard about the Berlin Wall–a tale of peaceful negotiations with a segment of Germany often portrayed as dark, joyless, and oppressive.  As a student at NYU, Sheaffer began studying historiography—the narrativization of history–and viewed American propaganda films like The Wall, which spoke of the horror stories surrounding the Berlin Wall.  He remembered Beate’s story, and began looking for tales of the Wall that presented a different side of Berlin.  He felt a need to “complicate this black and white notion of history writing—not because terrible things didn’t happen, but because it seems dangerous to code players in a conflict situation as purely positive or negative forces.”  Through his research Sheaffer found Beate and the remaining members of the Clarke family.

The result of Sheaffer’s research is a documentary that at once details an unusual event in Berlin’s history and provides a compelling meditation on the construction of personal memories and cultural histories alike. The Forgetting Game recounts Beate’s journey and subsequent life in the United States, but it also looks at the legacy of Beate’s journey–the impact it had on the Clarke children and their perception of a familial history.  As Sheaffer and the film’s producers interviewed the key players of this unusual story, they became an integral part of the very story they were telling.  The film will interest historians and documentary filmmakers alike, as it provides a thought-provoking consideration of the role of memory in the construction of the historical narrative and the impact of the documentary filmmaker on his subjects.

The Forgetting Game screened at the Chagrin Documentary Film Fest, where it was nominated for the Emerging Filmmaker Award, and had its international premiere at the Marbella International Film Festival.  It was chosen as an Official Selection for New Filmmakers New York and will be screened as part of this festival on November 30, 2011, at The Anthology Film Archives at 6:00pm.


* Editor’s Note: I’ll be publishing another (more spoilery) post about aspects of this film in the future.  There’s much to talk about, but I wanted to introduce The Forgetting Game in a way that wouldn’t ruin the experience of the film for first-time viewers.

The Philadelphia Story vs. High Society

My special thanks to the wonderful folks at Pussy Goes Grrr for hosting the Juxtaposition Blogathon.  For my part I decided to examine the 1940 George Cukor vehicle The Philadelphia Story and its 1956 musical remake, High Society, directed by Charles Walters.  Both films received Academy Award nominations and were boxoffice successes (The Philadelphia Story was awarded two statuettes for its six nominations, while High Society received three nominations.)

It’s no secret that I adore The Philadelphia Story (I’ve written about it previously), and yet until this week I had never viewed High Society.  Still, I came to High Society with–pardon the turn of phrase here–rather high hopes for a good feature.  Like its predecessor, High Society features a veritable Who’s Who of movie stars: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (replacing the roles originated by Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart).  Add in the musical composition of Cole Porter and a bit of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and you have what should be the equivalent of a cinematic gift to a jazz-loving, Ol’-Blue-Eyes-fan like myself.  Unfortunately, High Society illustrates that all the right pieces can still add up to one horrible, ahem, picture.  And when I say horrible, please don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not saying High Society is horrible simply in comparison to its predecessor, I’m saying High Society is horrible on its own account.  There’s a reason Bosley Crowther called it “as flimsy as a gossip-columnist’s word.”

Good idea

High Society has a lot of potential: exemplary source material (both the Phillip Barry play “The Philadelphia Story” and its film counterpart), a star-studded cast, and a well-respected composer.  Unfortunately, the film suffers from a severe case of mishandling, particularly in regards to its song choice, casting, and directing. The casting is the most egregious error in the film.  Grace Kelly is a talented and beautiful woman, but her turn as Tracy Lord reads like a poor impersonation of Hepburn’s performance.  Hepburn played Tracy as a headstrong but wounded socialite, nursing a broken heart behind a mask of steel.  She beautifully elucidates her character when she remarks to Stewart’s Mike Connor: “I believe you put the toughness down to save your skin… I know a little about that.”  But while Hepburn brings nuance and vulnerability to the character, Kelly brings a stiff literalness.  It feels as if Kelly merely recites the script rather than interpreting it, and without the subtext, Phillip Barry’s Tracy is an Ice Queen without a vulnerable underbelly; she appears so harsh and unforgiving that it seems inexplicable when Bing Crosby’s C.K. Dexter-Haven, Frank Sinatra’s Mike Connor, and John Lund’s George Kittredge all vie for her love.  To be fair, Kelly isn’t fully to blame for her abrupt coldness–the screenplay excises much of the wit and exposition provided in the source material (including the scene mentioned above) to make room for nine musical numbers.

Unfortunately, all the exposition in the world would not make up for the woodenness of Crosby’s Dexter, the ex-husband and supposed ardent lover of Kelly’s Tracy.  Crosby has a lovely voice and a naturally affable screen persona, but he’s as asexual as an amoeba, and too much like your grandpa to be making love to Grace Kelly.  As Crowther suggests, Crosby wanders around the film “like a mellow uncle….  He strokes his pipe with more affection than he strokes Miss Kelly’s porcelain arms.”  For her part, Kelly’s coolness reads like daughterly affection and leads to some truly awkward moments: when she caresses Crosby’s face during “True Love” she looks unsure of what to do with her hands.

Bad idea

Sinatra fairs slightly better as Mike Connor, the reluctant tabloid reporter, though he lacks Stewart’s boyish earnestness.  Naturally, Sinatra benefits from the musical numbers (he sings in four of the nine songs in High Society), but even these are problematic.  When used correctly, songs can add a compelling new dimension to a source text, allowing characters to express their emotions in a way that transcends the written word. Unfortunately, this is not the case in High Society, where the songs included are lackluster, and do not flow organically into the narrative.  Sinatra sings “Mind If I Make Love to You?” beautifully, but when he intones “Since the dear day of our meeting/I’ve wanted to tell you all I long to do” the viewer is left wondering why he cares at all for Kelly’s drunken, poorly-drawn socialite.  Yet Sinatra fares better than his crooning counterpart–Crosby is cringe-worthy when he sings “Now You Has Jazz” with Louis Armstrong and his band.  Crosby is a lovely crooner, but he looks positively disinterested in his performance with the ever-enthusiastic Armstrong.

Crosby and his costars aren’t helped by Charles Walters’ banal and uncomplicated direction.  The success of The Philadelphia Story is due largely to the gorgeous direction of George Cukor, who bathes the characters in soft light and allows the camera to move with the ebb and flow of the characters emotions.  In contrast, High Society is a very sedentary film, featuring mainly medium and long shots.  The lack of close-ups and camera movements force the spectator to maintain a distance from the narrative, as if refusing the spectator admittance.  A good close-up can go a long way to express the interior state of a character, and Walters does High Society‘s actors and viewers a disservice by neglecting this, particularly since the narrative centers around the emotional awakening of the main character.

High Society has great potential, but it is squandered by poor decisions.  The witty and emotional source text is butchered and filled with songs that–rather than enhancing the narrative–seem shoehorned in, while the actors play cardboard versions of their predecessors.  For all its Technicolor beauty and jazz-infused melodies, High Society lacks what its monochromatic predecessor has in spades–a heart.

Leading Ladies

I first saw Leading Ladies a little over a year ago, when it screened as part of the 2010 lineup of New York City’s LGBT film festival, Newfest.  Enamored with the film, I interviewed one half of its directing team, Erika Randall Beahm (who co-directed the film with her husband, Daniel Beahm) for a piece originally featured in the now disbanded and archived online feminist collective, Elevate Difference (formerly Feminist Review).*  Leading Ladies continues its festival circuit, appearing next at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival on September 9th, and is now available on DVD.

It may seem quite an impossibility, but the film Leading Ladies is, simply put, a quietly revolutionary dance musical. While most dance musicals (think Dirty Dancing, Save the Last Dance) center on the boy-meets-girl heterosexual love match, Leading Ladies is a beautifully wrought girl-meets-girl story. It is simultaneously a dance musical, coming-of-age story, and coming-out narrative. The power of the film comes from its ability to maintain the generic conventions of the story while completely rejecting the hetero-normativity that is typically the narrative thrust of the genre. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that Leading Ladies succeeds at thwarting convention within a conventional structure while simultaneously being a whole lot of damn fun. Lesser films would sink under such weight.

Helmed by first-time directors Erika Randall Beahm and Daniel Beahm, this joyous film tells the story of the Campari women. The matriarch of the family is ballroom-dancing stage mom Sheri, played by Latin and Ballroom Champion Melanie LaPatin. Sheri has two daughters: like-minded drama queen and dancing champion Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith), and Toni (Laurel Vail), Tasi’s practice partner and the wallflower of the family. The film centers on Toni’s relationships, particularly with the emotionally volatile Tasi, and an unexpected romantic attachment to Mona (Nicole Dionne), a bubbly and outgoing woman Toni meets at a dance club. While LaPatin’s acting is a bit stiff, Smith’s neurotic and self-obsessed Tasi is played to high-pitched perfection. Vail might be the real star of this film, however, as she says more with her eyes than many actors can express with a word. She artfully plays the Ugly Duckling, the quiet witness to familial squabbles and the glue that keeps the Camparis together.

Leading Ladies has an ebb-and-flow, alternating between slow and quietly stirring scenes and vibrant, fast-paced dance numbers (most notably a hysterical and boisterous number set in a grocery store). The heart of this film beats loudly and quickly, and it leaves the viewer invigorated and deeply moved. To learn more about her hopes for the film, its generative process, and the ideological concerns that lead to its creation, I recently spoke with co-director Erika Randall Beahm.

Beahm co-wrote the film with Jennifer Bechtel, a friend and LGBT youth advocate in Champaign, Illinois, and Bechtel was struggling to find mainstream films that spoke to the young gay community. As Bechtel and Beahm perceived it, most gay and lesbian cinema tends towards violence or explicitness, while mainstream cinema features gay characters as “the sidekick.” Beahm and Bechtel thus sought to create a “family-centered gay and lesbian film for the mainstream market.” Their hope is that Leading Ladies provides gay youth with a positive portrayal of gay romantic love and thus “open a dialogue within themselves” and perhaps between gay youth and their families.

The film eschews aggressive and explicit representations of gay love for a romantic and “joyful falling in love which… straight kids get to experience in movies all the time.” Indeed, Leading Ladies treats its same-sex couple as any movie musicals’ heterosexual pairing: they meet, they dance, they fall in love. The romance is beautifully articulated through an artful juxtaposition of two dance sequences. Toni and Mona’s meeting is shot like a typical dance movie sequence—bright lights, loud music, and overhead shots looking down on the dancers. This film could be Dirty Dancing, if it weren’t for the same-sex couples dancing on stage and in the audience. Indeed, this is the goal of the film: to illustrate that dance (and by extension, romance and love) is the same for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual partners. Toni leads Mona through a raucous, enthusiastic dance, and as convention dictates, the two find love while dancing. In a beautiful inversion of this sequence, we next find Toni in Mona’s lush apartment, where the more romantically experienced Mona takes the lead in the dance of romance. The lovers’ embrace is gorgeously shot in sensual blush tones and shadow.

For choreographer and dancer Beahm and youth musical programmer Bechtel, dance served as an obvious choice of backdrop for the love story. Beahm choreographed the film’s dances with Melanie LaPatin and Benji Schwimmer, the former So You Think You Can Dance! winner who also plays Toni’s best friend in the film. For Beahm, dance has an inherently transformative power: “There’s this kind of kinesthesia with dance that gets people to literally be moved on a physical level, and I believe also on an emotional and intellectual level.” The love scene between Mona and Toni, for example, is highly choreographed to match the non-diegetic music; Beahm suggests that this emphasis on “energy shifts… and the musicality” of the scene helps the spectator “lose sight of this being a gendered duet, and it just becomes two people moving together, falling in love.”

By emphasizing the movement and musicality of the scene, then, Beahm hopes to ease the fear of spectators who are uncomfortable with same-sex coupling and perhaps open a space for internal dialogue within the spectator: “For people who might have a hard time seeing two women… make out, it becomes this kind of transference of two bodies going through these really emotional and tender but also choreographed spaces, and so gender becomes less important.” By shifting the spectator’s focus from gender distinction to the movement of the body the film illustrates how little gender matters and how love—like dance—is a universal language. Thus the film utilizes dance to open up a space for shifting “people out of the fear they may feel if they’re watching from an outside perspective.”

Though the idea of dance as a catalyst to ideological and personal transformation may seem unusual, Beahm is quick to point out that dance has often added a “queer element” to the movie musical. In West Side Story, for example, the spectator sees groups of men “snapping and skipping” and yet the dance isn’t “sexualized, it’s charged and it’s activated.” Dancing is particularly subversive in moments of unison dancing, she suggests, when members of both sexes dance the same movements, suggesting a unity of the sexes and the democratization of the body. Leading Ladies takes this democratization one step further, rejecting the hetero-normative ballroom dance structure of male lead and female follow and replacing it with same-sex couplings. In doing so, Beahm simultaneously feeds off of the democratizing nature of dance while rejecting the rules of a dance form that reinforces gendered performance.

It is the inherent queerness in dance that Beahm finds so appealing and in tune with her views on feminism. For her, dance and feminism are “compatible” because they are both “hard to pin down” terms; their “slipperiness” as terms allows them to create spaces for dialogue and questioning. She likes her feminism to work “from the inside out,” enjoying the notion of becoming part of a system, and breaking it down from within. This is why her personal mantra is the cheeky suggestion to “wear pearls to the country club and then talk dirty.” Ultimately, Leading Ladies represents a filmic expression of this mantra—by placing non-conventional characters within a conventional generic structure, the film wears its pearls but then lets out a glorious, enthusiastic expletive as it sits down to dinner. Swearing has never been so much fun.

* My thanks to the editorial collective, particularly Mandy Van Deven, for allowing me to re-post this review, and for providing a space for constructive and instructive discussions of difference.