12 Years a Slave

Movie Goers and Friends,

It is very seldom that I come across a film in which I struggle to find the proper words to describe it. I know that while I cannot begin to describe the experience of 12 Years a Slave, I couldn’t help but find myself immediately jumping to my computer when I returned to my apartment to try to piece together my thoughts, my feelings, and my emotions in regards to 12 Years a Slave. I want to frame my thoughts and my response around three pieces of this film in hopes that they will help me express my ideas. While I rarely talk about acting, it must be noted and discussed. The use of the long take created the emotional feel of this film. And the momentary spectacle of some of the shots in this film help explain its deeper significance.

            Chiwetel Ejiofor. His portrayal of Solomon Northup was truly a noteworthy performance. While I feel fickle for saying it, but I hope he gets the recognition he deserves from the Academy. I am sure there will be plenty of buzz around stars like Tom Hanks and Robert Redford come Oscar season, but it seems necessary that Ejiofor gets mentioned. His performance was something unusual. Truly stunning. The emotion, the horror, the brutality, and the pain that was experienced by Solomon Northup and his once fellow slaves was best captured in the eyes of Ejiofor. Steve McQueen, the director, knew that it was in the eyes that would best capture these emotions. I think that is what it making me struggle to find the proper words. The human eye holds so much weight. The eye holds fear, pain, stress, happiness, sadness, relief, and so much more. It is in the eye that we lose words. I am never good at remember eye color but I know when I look into someone’s eyes I can sense the feeling and I can remember that feeling. I pay no attention to eye color when I am gazing into someone’s eye. Ejiofor captured the struggles, trials, and pains of slavery in his eyes. And I feel foolish for using the words “struggles, trials, and pains” for those words cannot describe slavery as Ejiofor’s eyes do. They seem inadequate and weak. They carry no weight or meaning when used to discuss a film such as 12 Years a Slave. It is noted in the film by a character that Solomon does not show his emotions. After a slave weeps uncontrollably for her family be split up at a slave auction, she remarks Solomon’s indifference. She questions whether or not he feels for being separated from his wife and his son and daughter. He strikes back with anger and raw emotion that he can never let them go or out of his heart, but he does not show it because he carries all his emotion in his eyes and heart.

            Much can be said about Michael Fassbender’s performance, but we all know his talents and his skill. A rising actor who made his breakthrough performance in Inglorious Basterds and Shame, his role as Epps, a brutal slave owner, is due recognition as well. His portrayal of the drunk, crazed, uncontrollable, evil man, Epps, is truly remarkable.

            Where the emotion of the film was captured in Ejiofor’s eyes, the stunning beauty of nature was captured by the camera. Shots of the sunset over the tree lined streams and creeks leave me wondering if the metaphor is that there is still beauty in this evil slave world. But I feel that this metaphor is inadequate. I feel that these shots rather represent that in the slave ridden South there is no true beauty. These shots represent that there is evil in the beauty of the antebellum South. A horrifying beauty. While the sunset seems peaceful it is only quickly reminded that the sun sets upon an inhuman culture and society.

            12 Years a Slave is sprinkled with biblical verses in its script and features scenes of plantation owners delivering Sunday service to their slaves. As God and evil are brought up in the dialogue and represents a theme throughout the film, the true doses of evil are most felt by the use of the long take. One scene that is most memorable and most disturbing is after Solomon beats his slave master. He is strung up by a noose and hung on a tree with his feet just barely touching the ground. He dangles hanging reaching and holding himself up by his tiptoes in effort to save his life. What follows is a wide shot and long take (long take is when the camera holds on a shot for an extending period of time). As Solomon dangles, the other slaves in the background emerge from their slave quarters and begin their chores. They work in the background of Solomon dangles and the camera holds showing this torture forcing the audience to look and to feel.

            After Solomon talks with Bass (Brad Pitt’s character) there is a seemingly unmotivated and episodic low angle shot of Solomon looking out in the distance. The camera pauses and holds once again on Solomon’s face from a low angle off to the right. Solomon gazes out. Ejiofor’s eyes capture the tension.  The fourth wall is almost broken as Solomon shifts his gaze (if an actor stares directly at the audience and the camera is it known as “breaking the fourth wall”; the fourth wall being the camera). We cannot tell Solomon’s true feelings in this scene. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? Fear? Anxiety? Worry? Pain? Hope? Despair?  It was intended for the audience to not know the exact feeling. It is a motif throughout the entire film which explains my inability to properly describe this film. The audience can never truly understand the experience of slavery. We can never find the true words to describe it. Words like horrible, terrible, gut wrenching, painful, bear absolutely no weight in the discussion of slavery. The only ones that seem to somewhat stick are evil and horrifying. As religion is used in the film, evil can be the true representation of slavery. “Horrifying” bears such fear and pain that it may be able to describe the experience. But to truly understand “horrifying” and “evil” is only to experience it. Ejiofor delivers the closest representation of the “horrifying” and “evil” nature of slavery, but he nor any member of the audience can every understand that feeling. But this film only reminds us of our nation’s greatest sin and the twisted nature of humanity. 

Les Mis

Movie goers and friends,

I begin with my grading and student work sprawled over my kitchen table. A glass of water almost empty (or partially full). My fan running for no real reason. My mind trying to stay focused before I call it a night. 

 

I want to welcome you all to the next stage of CInema Sunset. As many of you know, I lead a film club at the high school I work at. We graciously call our club “Cinema Sunset.” Last week, my students and I, watched the first half of Les Mis directed by Tom Hooper. While we continued our study of mise en scene  (See Lee Daniel’s The Butler post for a more thorough definition), which is everything you seen on screen during one shot, we aimed our eye towards the function and use of lighting. 

 

In the world of film, there are two general types of lighting: high key lighting and low key lighting. High key lighting is when there is a bright shot. There are limited to no shadows. The screen is typically even in terms of lighting. Low key lighting features a contrast of light and shadow. If there are shadows in one part of the frame and brightness in the other, that is a sign of low key lighting. Here are examples:

Note: Low key lighting is often used in suspense films, film noir, and other thriller movies. 

 

Lighting greatly influences the tone and mood of the film. It helps convey the emotions of the characters and aids character development. The following are the words of my students as they watched Les Mis, Note their fake names!

 

“Lighting is important because it changes the mood by making emotion.” –Anah-Bannah 

“Lighting is a key element to mis-en-scene. Depending on the lighting in a certain scene often represents the mood that it is meant to portray, such as light silhouetting a villain in the movie, making them appear more powerful, especially if the light comes from above. A dark scene with little light represents a scene meant to be scary, sad, or depressing, just as light coming from one side of the screen, with a character going toward them, represents hope for whatever that character that is in the scene. It takes a good eye to understand what lighting in a certain scene is meant to represent, but when you see it, its easy to do with any other movie. Farewell”–Sweety Poo

“Lighting creates many emotions such as dark for terror, grief, sadness, and anger. Lighter usually creates innocence, freedom, or righteousness. Les Miserables portrays a lot of light changes throughout scenes. In many of the songs when there is a change in emotion the lighting changes based on it.” –Dan

 

“The lighting in Les Miserables is very specific and portrays many different meanings. There lighting transitions in the movie that goes with the theme of the movie. For example, the protagonist is a very good person with good intentions, however he always seems to find himself in bad situations, so he is in the dark with lighting shining on his face.” –Ali-Cat

“Lighting is important to movies. Lighting shows the character’s emotions. Lighting also shows the character’s personality, and what they are like. Lighting can show the mood of the story.” –Dez-Baby

 

“Light effects the characters portrayed. For example, most protagonists are light and empowered. The antagonist is dark and depressing.” –Big Daddy Loop

“The lighting so far for the move symbolizes the emotion/feeling of the characters, but for Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman, sometimes it’s based off their past. So, lighting in this movie symbolizes the mood of that scene or character.” –Ja-cob

 

“The lighting expresses the inner character, whether in dark situations or light, the inner character will show. The face of good inner characters is light while the darker/antagonist face is darker. Not everyone is bad though, more like struggling to do the good thing…law wise and moral wise. Good movie so far.” –Booky Nerd

 

“The light was many different contrasts for different characters. When moods changed or personalities changed, it went dark to light.” –Deigo

 

Those are the words of my Cinema Sunset members. There will be more to come. Continue reading to see them grow and develop as movie analysts! 

 

I end with my cup now empty. My head aching. My phone beeping at the sound of a text message and my student work and grading still sprawled on my kitchen table. 

 

’til next time,

Mitty

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Movie goers and friends,

I begin with a printed out blog on religion and conflict on my right. My student’s work on my left. A bottle of water in front of me. And my kitchen fan on to stir the air of my apartment.

I want to spend tonight’s post on my reflections of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I just came back from the theater and I have not had the chance to fully digest the film, but I want to try something different and post with my immediate thoughts on the film rather than wait out the digestion.

In my film club at my high school I planned to teach my students about Mise en scene. But this week, due to field trips and doctor’s appointments, we only had two members of Cinema Sunset show. After they decided to watch Hairspray, I decided a lesson on mise en scene will wait for another day. (Although it might have been a perfect example). So, I will teach all my followers what I was hoping to pass on to my students.

Mise en scene is often defined as everything that is seen on the screen during a shot. From the costumes, set, props, actors, lighting, sound, composition (positioning of characters)…etc. The pieces of mise en scene affect the mood of the film, the message of the film, and help express the film’s vision. For today, and specifically for Lee Daniels’ The Butler,  I want to focus on the idea of mise en scene with an emphasis on costume.

The Butler is a story about Cecil Gaines, a son of a cotton farmhand raised to the ranks of butler to the White House. Serving presidents Eisenhower to Reagan, Cecial Gaines effectively saw the tumultuous growing pains of America during the Civil Rights Movement. The film, in many ways, reminds me of Forrest Gump–the story of a man growing up during America’s most recent revolution and how he played a role in

American history. While Lee Daniels’ film was inspired by true events, the story had an overwhelming emotional agenda seeking to hit the audience right in the “feels” in order to portray its message and honor those who sought change during the Civil Rights Movement.

While Forest Whitaker gives a fine performance as Cecil and as Orpah Winfrey gives a surprisingly strong performance as Cecil’s wife Gloria, I don’t want to spend too much time on acting. Let’s then move to the costumes.

As a butler, Cecil and the others mus wear the typical black and white uniform. It is the uniform and the costume that carries the central message (or messages) of this film. The clear message is in relation to race. Black vs. White. The colors are stark opposites and represent a clear divide and tension. White is the color of purity and innocence. Black is the color of power, elegance, wealth, but also of evil and sadness. The film is about the two colors clashing and experiencing great pain as equality is sought and fought for and against. As these two colors collide it is only proven that there is a big difference between the two but they can coexist.

Now, the other meaning of the costume and the role of costume in helping express the vision of the film lies in the true job of being a butler. Cecil Gaines, after being invited as a guest to Reagan’s dinner remarks…”I could see the two faces the butler wore to serve and I knew I lived my life by those two faces.” The most memorable moment when Cecil and Gloria fashion the white and black is on Cecil’s birthday. Gloria is sporting a stunning and retro black and white dress. Cecil is sent upstairs to put on his gift…a matching attire of black and white. It is clear that throughout thole film and that throughout all of Cecil’s life he has acted just like his outfit. Two faces. Two opposite colors. Hiding emotion and true feeling he as stymied his own personal growth and opinion. Fighting to balance these two lives, his marriage come in jeopardy. He has been set in his ways of living a two faced life, hiding himself in plain sight as if he were never there, hearing nothing, saying nothing. His life was as simple as black and white. He played the white man’s game in order to help (whether implicitly or not) raise the black man’s name. All along Cecil’s life and the life of a butler is as clear as their outfit. That is why Cecil’s son Louis doesn’t wear black or white. Louis lives with color, evolves into all black, and emerges through back in red by the end of the film. Gloria only sports black and white when her life has become more clear and more like that of her husband’s.

While I understand that these notices and my statement may not be a grand comment or deeply profound statement on The Butler, it is rather a note, an explanation, of the importance of mise en scene towards the development and message of a film and its characters. These are the pieces of artwork that come into play when movies are seen as art. This is what I was hoping my students were to learn on Friday, but it will have to wait a week.

I end with the same set up as I started. Nothing new has changed. But my thoughts are down and another post it up. I am glad you read. I hope you enjoyed and took something away from the post.

’til next time,

Mitty

Perks of Being a Teacher

Movie goers and friends,

I start at the kitchen table of my new apartment in Sunderland. My Ipad playing an episode of “New Girl,” An empty Subway cup in the background. My teaching supplies sprawled on the table. And my newly printed Cinema Sunset Membership cards for my students on the table. 

So, I know it has been a while, so let me catch you all up. I was living in a hotel room for a month. I was incredibly stressed, nervous, and doubtful before starting my new job as a high school history teacher in Springfield. As previously mentioned, I have moved into my apartment and after three weeks of school, I am finally back to loving my job. I have gotten in trouble with my students for causing a disturbance in the courtyard for being too loud (our “Clash of Civilizations” tug of war got a little too competitive!) But I have also started a film club at my new school. We started the year watching Beasts of  the Southern Wild and continued this week with Perks of Being A Wallflower. So, today, I want to talk a little bit about the idea of the film club, the movies we watched, and what I hope to be doing in the upcoming weeks.

 

Let’s start with Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film is set in Hurricane Katrina New Orleans on a remote and self-isolated island of Bathtub. The film follows the story of a little girl, Hush Puppy, and her father as they try to survive the floods following Hurricane Katrina. I will try not to give away too many spoilers. But the film is a true piece of art. The story is riveting and touches the sole of the audience. While mythical creatures set the stage as the central metaphor for the relationship of Hush Puppy and her father and Hush Puppy and her friends, the story is about the courage to face oneself and persevere through the pain and turmoil of experience tragedy. If losing her mother wasn’t enough, Hush Puppy has to struggle through being raised by a prideful alcoholic of a father and the loss experienced during Katrina. The mythical, prehistoric beasts, “Aurochs” serve as motivation for Hush Puppy to push through her life and emerge a strong, independent, and powerful person. As she escapes from the FEMA hospital and makes her way back to her father in Bathtub, the Aurochs, who have been chasing her since the beginning of the film, finally catch up with her. As her friends flee from the danger, Hush Puppy stops and turns around to face the Aurochs face to face. The beasts not simply represent the residents of Bathtub and her father, but they represent the person Hush Puppy is. She didn’t fully see her potential and face her fears until she turned to face the lead Auroch. She wasn’t simply confronting the beast, but she was confronting herself–all of her fears; her fears of being left alone, her pain of losing her mother, her pain of growing up with a stubborn, alcoholic, but loving father, the fears of being only five years old and having to somehow figure out how to live. As Hush Puppy and the Auroch go face to face it is almost as if Hush Puppy is looking at a mirror. She has to confront herself in order to continue living and become even stronger as her father falls ill. At five years old, Hush Puppy has to be a woman.

 

While it is well known that the movie industry is male dominated and portrays women constantly being entangled in relationship issues or as wannabe men, this film is a piece for feminists to be proud of. Hush Puppy has no romantic engagements. Yes, she is portrayed as a daughter and the narrative of father-daughter exists, but it is not the point of the film. The message of the film is what the Aurochs represent. And to have a five year old girl as the lead in the narrative is a championing moment for all those who wish to see women given the roles and characters of strength, respect, and fearlessness.

Now, we watched Beasts of the Southern Wild because my rental on Amazon could not be accessed at school. But the impact was left on my club members. As tears ran down their faces, the meaning was clear and the impact was worthy. It was a good way to start the club. But for the second week, we got to watch their first choice–Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

 

Now, we all love our high school dramas. Especially high schoolers. It wasn’t out of the norm for a teen drama. A young man who has experience such great pain struggles with his demons and falls for the one girl that resists her feelings for him but only soon succumbs to her true love for him. It is a good story, It is a good movie. I understand why it was a big hit with my students. Logan Lerman stars as Charlie. Emma Watson stars as the love interest. I don’t want to dive too much into the story, because it is a simple plot and a the character development is predictable. But I rather want to say that it brought me back to my high school years. Now, I never had any of the experiences Charlie had. And as a teacher, I know that no class, no matter where you are, what subject you teach, how long you have taught, who you are, will EVER  quiet down complete after a simply “shh.” But I digress. 

 

It brought me back to the feelings of being a teenager and wanting to have a reason for my pain and insecurity. I had no reason for feeling like I did in high school. I had no reason for feeling a bit depressed. But I knew I wanted to have a reason. It remains a confusing age for me but that is what high school is about. We are dealing with emotions that aren’t quite mature yet. Charlie lost his best friend to suicide. His aunt was killed in a car accident after saying she was going to get his Christmas gift. He suffers from PTSD. He has a reason for his depression and his pain. At least for me, I never had a reason for my emotions. I had an empty pain that for some strange reason caused me to want to experience real pain. I wanted my character to be tested. So, I want to say that it is these high school dramas that reflect this larger culture in our youth. I have students who experience pain, who struggle everyday with their lives. I have students who are similar to Charlie. And I remain the Paul Rudd standing in the classroom hoping I leave an impact on at least one person–hoping that I can change one life for the better. 

Well, I was hoping not to open up about my personal life in a blog, but it was the film that caused these feelings. It was part of the experience of Perks of Being A Wallflower. These films come out every so often to be a reflection for the new high school generation. They are movies that kids hold on to because as high schoolers, we all were filled with emotions and hormones. Just as The Breakfast Club was the high school movie for my generation and before, Perks of Being A Wallflower is the new thing for high schoolers to identify with. It is Hollywood’s attempt to keep a young audience in its grasp but also to give a young audience their growing up experience. Just as a coming of age novel can be perennial, so can the high school drama. It is part of Hollywood cyclical nature. Its a recycling center. Old stories get reborn in the new generations and stir up old emotions for the older audience. 

 

So, what should be appearing in the upcoming weeks, it is my hope, are blog posts from my students! I want to begin to have them write about their movie-going experiences at our Cinema Sunset club. I am planning on teaching them different features of film in order to deepen their analysis and reflection. I have made them Cinema Sunset membership cards to cement the idea of our little club and culture. And also as a trial run for the future when I open up the Cinema Sunset movie theater.

  I end with pretty much the same set up as I started. Ipad is now off. My cell phone is buzzing. My mind is still racing with lesson plan thoughts, things I have to do, and where I need to go. But I am off to Rhode Island for a little R & R to celebrate the coming of fall and a good three weeks at school. 

’til next time,

Mitty

Super 8

Movie goers and friends,

I begin sitting at my dinning room table at my sublet in Worcester. Empty water bottle to my right and empty cup with what once was a glass of iced mocha coffee. iPhone at the ready and my notes on “Super 8” opened.

Super8

This was my first time seeing “Super 8.” Thanks to Netflix and a slow Thursday night before I move out, (I should be finishing up my packing…oh well), I stumbled upon “Super 8.” It caught my attention while it was in theaters and through the trailers but after finding out it was an alien movie and not a movie centered solely around the Super 8 camera, it lost my attention.

With that said, I was glad I watched it. It is a film that is perfect for a summer night and on the big screen. I did not do it justice by watching it on an iPad. But the image quality was still far superior to that of my television. But in sum, “Super 8” is, “mint” Hollywood. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, and Elle Fanning, the movie was a summer blockbuster hit.

If you watch this movie and hope for a mentally stimulating film you will be let down. And to be honest, I didn’t expect to write about this movie, but I felt the desire to because it reflect a lot of what Hollywood is creating in todays movie industry.

To begin, Hollywood has shifted toward a lot of camera movement. With directors like Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams, the camera is never given a rest. In many ways the camera has to move in order to help make up for a lack of original storyline and plot. So the originality and true art of Hollywood rests on how creative can the directors and cinematographers be at moving the camera and creating visually stunning shots and angles. This is an art in itself. Think of it as a series of photographs…that move at a very high rate. Now J.J. Abrams comes up with a series of stunning images and shots. From Joe at the wirelines on his bike at sunset to to the repetitive “front of the car” close ups as the vehicle interjects on the action in the background. But again, these shots make up for the lack of originality elsewhere in the film.

Super83

Character development is predictable. The Father, Deputy Lamb, is a cold, strict, and workaholic man who puts his job before his son…as per the opening scene shot of the cop car in the foreground and Joe in the background on the swing set. It is imagery of his central flaw. By the end of the film, the Father realizes his faults, puts his anger about his wife’s death behind him, and embraces his son in the final shots of the film. Joe is a shy and timid boy who is clinging onto his mother. He is shy towards girls, but by the end of the film he is a leader like his father and wins the girl.

The story has triumph, danger, love, growth, action, emotion, and and vindication…a solid outline of many Hollywood films. The alien plot line is banal and honest not all that interesting. I much rather prefer the “going home” alien storyline of District 9. I felt the true gem of the film was the story around the idea of the kids making a zombie movie for a student film festival. Now that is a great story. But that originality gave way to the jam-packed, action filled idea of explosions, death, and survival of any supernatural film and story.

If I were to stretch and dive deeper into the meaning of this film I could argue that Abrams is making this same statement. That Hollywood has lost the art of true film…that digital action movies with the fast paced cutting and camera movement has surmounted the beauty and rawness of film. The Super 8 camera was lost quickly in the film. The Super 8 film and footage was soon forgotten. In many ways there was a clear progression of this. The movie began wonderfully. With the story of Joe’s mother dying and the idea of creating a zombie moving. Kids escaping home to put together this movie without their parents approval speaks at the minds and hearts of many film buffs and movie makers whose parents want them to get a “real” job that makes money. It is these early scenes of the kids making the movie that are the greatness of film. Creativity, art, passion, and skill are what make a movie into a film. In many of the Super 8 film reel scene the digital over takes the Super 8 film.  When Alice and Joe watch the home video of Joe’s mother and him as a baby the digital shots cut up and break the flow the best part of the movie. The dialogue is great and compliments the footage, but the digital shots take away from the emotion and power of the footage. Abrams couldn’t let the footage be shown for more than 10 seconds before there was a cut to Joe and Alice. The sound of the projector was going but he couldn’t let the grittyness of the footage speak for itself. Furthermore, when the kids are in the middle school looking at their former teachers materials, the footage is place in the background, obstructed by a blurry chair and other objects, a constant reminder of the digital camera.

Super82

Here’s where someone grasping at straws can say this is art. Maybe it is Abrams’ commentary on the idea of the digital replacing the film. Maybe it is Abrams saying that in the 21st century we have lost the power and comfort of film reels and actual film…that has to be developed and strung through a machine before you can see the playback. We are addicted to the quickness and speed of the 21st century. We have lost patience. And our movie reflect that. Maybe Abrams created this movie and faded out the power of the Super 8 camera to make this statement. Or maybe I am stretching here and looking too deeply into this action movie.

It is probably nothing more than a movie that epitomizes Hollywood and the idea that the camera is now the true motivator of suspense and build up of tension. That the close up is still the signature of Hollywood which calls for only decent looking people to be on camera. But the movie was titled Super 8…after a character and motif that was quickly lost to the demands of the 21st century expectations of the audience and of the men in Hollywood. So, maybe Abrams was saying something here. Maybe we should go back “home” away from the digital and CGI and return to the Super 8 and others filmic methods of capturing moments, preserving and commemorating those who are lost, and creating art and enjoyment.

To the Super 8:

“Honey, I love you.”

“I  love you too..”

I end with my empty  glasses now in the  sink. My  water bottle now full and a friend sitting across from me. With technology ironically making this post extremely difficult to finish. I am now longing to return to the days of typewriters and chalkboards.

’til next time,

Mitty

Little Miss Sunshine

Image

Movie lovers and friends,

I begin with a Berry Boppin’ smoothie at small table at Worcester’s Nu Cafe. With no one directly next to me but strangers straight ahead enjoying their lunchtime conversations and meals. Looking over my notes on Little Miss Sunshine listening to the variety of drink orders being served to the patrons.

It is only fitting that I begin my first reflection on a movie with my favorite film…Little Miss Sunshine directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Michael Arndt, staring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and of course the true gem of the film, a yellow VW Bus.

The film received critical acclaim premiering at Sundance, nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Abigail Breslin), and winning two Oscars (Best Original Screenplay Michael Arndt and Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin).

In my following words I will try to explain why I love this movie so much. However unconventional it is to say Little Miss Sunshine, I cannot help but enjoy this beautiful story every time I watch. I have the script for the movie, a piece of film reel, and I have it on both DVD and Blu-ray (Believe it or not it is available on Blu-ray). This movie also is the sole reason why I want to one day own a VW Bus. I think my enthusiasm for this movie is clear. So let’s get to the thick of things.

The script holds the weight of the entire movie. While heavy on dialogue, the story flows smoothly and delves into the complexities of family, a road trip, but most importantly, the obsession in our society of winning and losing. While Arndt’s story was mainly to comment on the idea of winning and losing, the film strays a bit from this theme as the narrative progresses, but the undertone of winning and the need for people to win is captured in the story lines of many of the characters. It is captured in Richard Hoover’s drive to get his “9 Steps” Program published, in Olive’s drive to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, in Frank’s effort to bounce back from a failed attempt at suicide, and Dwayne’s quiet mission of signing up for the air force.

A script so focused on the dialogue relies on the actors to put on a powerful performance. And did they put it on. Carell’s portrayal of a suicidal, gay, scholar, is by far his strongest performance of his career. It was one of his first films while he was still a relatively unknown actor before his success as Michael Scott. Collette gives a very underrated performance as the mother, Sheryl. Alan Arkin, while maybe not Oscar-worthy, gives a great performance of the meat of the humor in the grandfather. You start out hating Kinnear’s Richard Hoover but come to love him by the end of the movie and accept who he is (part of the central theme and meaning of family…I’ll get there in a bit). Paul Dano’s writing on the pad, his character’s vow of silence calls for Dano to portray his emotions through body language. And Abigail Breslin. While her first acting role was in Signs, she gave a truly remarkable performance as Olive Hoover. It was her beautiful blue eyes that begin the film. It was her innocence, her smile, and portrayal of pure joy after she heard the message left by her aunt. It was Breslin that drove this film. She was not only a binding force for the characters to come together, but it was Breslin who was able to capture the hearts of the audience.

Credit is due to directors Dayton and Faris in enabling these beautiful performances. Dayton and Faris had the actors go on a mini road trip of their own in a van and had the actors spend a week together before filming in order to develop a culture and sense of family among the actors. Because the script was heavy in dialogue, Dayton and Faris relied on movement of both the actors and the camera in order to break up the dialogue. A key example is the first scene at the dinner table. As a peaceful dinner goes array after the voicemail, Frank and Dwayne are left static as Richard and Sheryl fight over how Olive is going to get to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The wide shot of the dinner table allows for Collette and Kinnear to navigate the kitchen and dining room as they clean up and fight over the dilemma. The camera both follows them as they walk and stays still to capture their movement.

One of my favorite scenes is after (*****SPOILER ALERT*****) Grandpa passes away. In a truly hilarious scene, his body is pushed through a hospital window and carried ungraciously by Frank and Dwayne to the Bus. The handheld tracking shot the ensues is perfect. The camera captures the movement as it bobs behind a row of cars. The soundtrack for this scene (and this movie in general) is perfect. (Credit is due to Paul Dano for recommending many of the songs to Dayton and Faris). But again, movement captures the struggles of the characters and provides a visual flow of character development and narrative progression.

Winning and losing is captured in the epitome of the winning/losing culture in our society…a beauty pageant. These venues for fabricated beauty sadly plague our society. We have more than one television show that glorifies this pageant world and this sad and sick mothers who doll-up their daughters to live a life they surely can’t live. These pageants for children to pass up on their childhood and begin a quick descent on the path of insecurity, anorexia, bulimia, and artificial happiness. Dwayne, Frank, and Richard try to save Olive from this descent, but Grandpa has already set strong foundation that will not shake Olive’s resolve to be who she is and wants to be. Her dance performance is a big middle finger to the entire pageant industry and who better to give it than an innocent, normal sized, thick-rimmed glasses, symbol of true happiness and the real definition of beauty that is Olive.

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Themes such as death, addiction, and suicide are dealt with a light touch of dark humor, the exploration of family is what truly strikes home. Art often reflects what we want to see in it. Art is as much a reflection of ourselves as it is of the artist and the artist’s intentions. When we identify with a movie or a piece of art it tells us something about ourselves. I love Little Miss Sunshine because it comments on the complexities of family. My family, as all families do, has its fair share of drama. I don’t have much of an “extended” family. In reality, my biological family, that I identify with is only 5 people (including myself). I grasp on to Little Miss Sunshine because it so eloquently explains the idea of family. Family is not just love. Kinnear addresses this point in the making of Little Miss Sunshine. Family is acceptance. We may hate each other at moments, we may fight, we may not speak, but there is the unyielding bond between family members. It is a level of love, but more of a level of acceptance. We accept each other for each other’s faults, flaws, and failings. Often times in family there is something that holds everyone together. In the Hoover family that force is Olive. They are united by their love of her and for her. They are united by her innocence, charm, and passions, whether they want to be or not. Little Miss Sunshine shows the progression from acceptance of each other to a loving acceptance. At the dinner table in the Hoover home, Frank and Dwayne are left alone during the fight. By the end of the film they are united together for each other and their journey on a stage dancing to the tune of “Superfreak.” It is a dance for all they are and all they went through to get to this pageant. The dance scene is a scene to remember. It brings mixes together worlds of silent vows, homosexuality, suicide, failure, divorce, bankruptcy, and childhood, on a stage that pushes these characters to come to a loving acceptance of each other. It is a true bond that form. And that was family is…a bond that is impossible to properly define in words but so easy to understand actions and visuals.

Now it would be negligent of me to forget to talk about the VW Bus. It is character in its own. It has a personality. It is the perfect vehicle for the Hoover family. It is a physical space that forces the family to come together. The bus and its faults, the horn, the bad clutch, the broken door, are all symbols for the struggles the family endures. But just like family does, the Hoover’s come to accept the Bus as family and for all it is and will be. The Bus even gives a message to the audience. As the Hoovers continually have to push the Bus to get it moving and as they try to find the parking lot to the entrance of the beauty pageant, they are stuck in a cul-de-sac. It is a beautiful message that sometimes when you feel like life has you driving in circle you just have to say “Fuck beauty contests” and drive through the palm trees until you get where you need to be.

I end with an empty cup of what once was a Berry Boppin’ smoothie. With a half eaten Turkey Avocado panini. With the same two men from when I started writing, sitting directly in front of me on one laptop either catching up on their life stories or conducting business. With Pandora tuned into “Blur” Radio.

Beauty Pageant Host: Where’s your grandpa now?

Olive: He’s in the trunk of our car.”

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’til next time,

Mitty

Title…Not Required

Movie lovers and friends,

I begin with my Toshiba computer, my iPhone, a glass of citrus mango pineapple juice, and a seat on the back porch of my parents house.

I am not going to contemplate the struggles of life, the qualms of our current American society and culture, or the fears of maturing into adulthood. But rather, I seek to comment and reflect on a piece of our vast culture in terms one of my passions…film. Film is much more than a leisure activity or a thing to do on a rainy day. (Don’t get me wrong, I turn to movies during a storm and when I want to relax). But there is more than meets the eye (pun intended). 

Film is obviously an art form and a style of social commentary. Themes in films reflect our culture’s current struggles and tribulations. Films reflect our definition of love, beauty, triumph, family, and more. In effect, the movie industry has created its own class and group of individuals who make an astonishing amount of money and achieve levels of fame and glamour that often have taken the lives of many of the true artists in the industry. Movies are meant to be enjoyed and to stir emotion. Whether you cry during Forrest Gump or laugh from the actions of the Minions during Despicable Me. So, movies are more than mere entertainment, they are an experience. 

I recently was listening to NPR and a segment on the role of trailers and how they have become “too long” or give away all of the good parts of a comedy. But the more profound issue addressed in this particular broadcast was the importance of trailers to the financial well-being of the movie theaters themselves. A guest during the segment noted that trailers have become the main source of revenue for theaters across the country. Theaters are selling Hollywood in order to pay the bills. (Let’s face it…trailers are beginning to dominate the realm of the movie going experience. And don’t get me wrong…trailers can be an art in themselves.) The key issue noted was that theaters were selling Hollywood…not the experience of movie going. Theaters should be creating an experience for the audience. Yes, the movies create their own experience for the audience, but the theaters should be supplementing that. 

In attempt to not lose my passion and my knowledge and skills gained as a film minor during college, I am creating this blog to make up for the lack of experience so many of our movie theaters are failing to provide. I am trying to be a part of the experience and create more of an experience for movie goers. Whether my words are read or not is not the point. It is to revive a culture that is fading or that is hiding in the smaller, more valuable art cinemas that are sprinkled throughout our country. 

Remember to be part of the experience, to create it for yourself. Talk about the themes, motifs, dialogue, symbols, etc that were in the movie you just watched. Reflect on the experience you had during that movie, for there is value in thought and reflection. 

I end with my glass now empty. My father to my left practicing classical guitar. My mother sitting on my right reading her book and our dog lying on the porch gazing at and sniffing the world around him swept up in his leisurely curiosity. 

 

’til next time, 

Mitty