Happy Valley (2014)

In this country, many can agree that rape, molestation, and using manipulation to do so is not only legally wrong, but also completely morally unacceptable. Society wonders where those with a preconceived idea that rape and molestation are okay, and one has to assume that such people who do pursue such outrageous acts are very, are actually very sick.

Jerry Sandusky raped and molested children and pursued this personal goal of his through manipulation. Amir Bar-Lev’s (Producer/Director/Writer) documentary film, Happy Valley, observes this and examines the people who chose to protect him, even if their eyes were cast down in an ignorant haze. Society wonders if those who condoned such acts were also manipulated themselves, and one must assume that they were. Regardless, is it somewhat acceptable to look down, away from the horrors of reality, if they are too opaque to notice at the moment, but once the truth is revealed…it is better to take action. Look straight ahead at the opposing force, and that blank stare it holds, and challenge it with every inch of reason, and more importantly, heart, that you might have. Happy Valley does just this.

Spread through newspaper clippings, on online press outlets, and social media posts, many readers and users of these sites have posted, “shared,” and expressed the blatant sexual assault that Jerry Sandusky subjected his victims to. How could such a respectable man do such horrible things to impressionable children? How could the men who worked around and supported him condone this? Amir Bar-Lev chose to examine this, to delve into the words of the people who surrounded him during this time, including one of his victims, his own adopted son. As the documentary presents it, Jerry Sandusky’s family didn’t seem to know what he was doing behind closed doors with the boys he had brought to games: as a reward, a gift that screams keep quiet, if you won’t tell, I won’t.

Clearly these children were manipulated. They were given perks in exchange for their innocence. As many rapists and molesters do, Jerry Sandusky manipulated these boys by giving them options that appealed to them most.

Under normal circumstances, a lot of boys want to go to football games. They are fun, entertaining, and it’s a part of childhood for many boys…to be a part of a team, or to watch a team succeed. But Sandusky exploited this. He took advantage, and this is where the lies he formulated really took their place among the saddest occurrences that have happened in college football. How could a sport that is so full of life, and fun, be turned into a sick game of manipulation? As the documentary shows, Sandusky performed these acts of manipulation so blatantly, and this is why he got away with it. It’s important to understand how such horrors occur, rather than why. The “why?” is something that one really doesn’t have to know, because only the perpetrator, in this case, Sandusky, really knows why exactly he chose to rape and molest children. The how will tell people the signs to look out for in the future, when all seems well.

Sandusky brought the children he abused out in public, to games and events. A great treat, I guess it seemed, when behind closed doors, he chose to rape and molest them. Happy Valley exhibits that this is why so many people didn’t realize that something was wrong. One expects that after a rape, the individual who performs the violent act of degradation will flee the scene, but it was very clear that Jerry Sandusky knew better than to run. Happy Valley shows that if he had left suddenly, without explanation, or cut off contact with these children, he would have been caught sooner. Here is where the sickness of the crimes he committed really took shape and revealed themselves as a formulated, premeditated plot to deceive the society he had worked so hard to impress. The documentary shows people, even those who were close to Jerry Sandusky, that society was deceived by this plot, these notions to cut off all ties of rescue for these children—these young, impressionable boys.

At one point in the documentary, tourists flock around a statue of Joe Paterno to take photos with it before it is torn down. Was taking this statue down rightful? You’ll have to decide based on the sufficient evidence that is revealed in Happy Valley. Paterno sent emails revealing that he knew of Sandusky’s abuses against the boys that he raped and molested. In one short line of an email thread, it is revealed that Paterno said that he would take care of these abuses. He eventually reported it, with a short time lapse in between his report. For the benefit of avoiding a scandal, it seems, that Paterno attempted to slip these abuses beneath the cover of a respectable institution.

Throughout the film, there are different scenes focused on a mural of individuals who have presumably shaped the positivity of Penn State University. Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno were both a part of this mural, their individual figures monuments for the university. The initial mural is first shown. After the documentary progresses to different scenes, the mural reappears. Throughout the course of the documentary, the mural’s artist decides to paint Jerry Sandusky out of his respectable cover. Another scene shows the artist painting a halo on Joe Paterno. Later in the documentary, the artist removes Paterno’s halo, when it is revealed that he might not have reported Sandusky the way he should have—with force and without resistance. Eventually, the artist painted a flower into Paterno’s hand, after he passed away. At one point, the mural’s artist mentions that deciding whether or not to remove Paterno’s halo was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Hyperbole does not work when you’re talking about something as serious as sexual crimes against children.

Regardless, Joe Paterno did not commit this crime, he only chose to condone it. Amir-Bar Lev said at the Hamptons International Film Festival Q & A: “Joe Paterno went from, overnight basically, went from being this sanctified paragon of virtue to a person who was reviled by most of America.” The real focus should be on Jerry Sandusky and how he was able to commit these crimes.

There is a scene in Happy Valley where, presumably, Penn State football fans are attempting to take photographs with the statue of Paterno that was to be taken down. The documentary shows that it was incredibly difficult for Paterno’s family to know that their husband and father’s credibility was now tainted and that such monuments that were established in his honor were going to be dismantled and discarded as trash. For his family, who hadn’t known of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual exploits, it was incredibly difficult, the documentary shows, transiently. For the children who were abused, one can only assume that it was and is still incredibly difficult to move past the fact that they were tricked by a man of power—similar to a witch who only acts upon his victims with a simplistic motive, driven by the impulsivity of carelessness— with candy and game tickets. An activist who was daringly standing in the photographs that these fans were trying to take before the statue was taken down, assured that the people he seemed to be bothering, or so they said, that he had the right to be standing there, as they complained. After calling one of the men, who wished to take a photograph with Joe Paterno’s statue, a “pedophile enabler,” the activist was verbally abused by this fan’s insults. Although Joe Paterno was not a pedophile, it is implied that because Paterno wasn’t as forceful about finding justice for these children as he thought, he directly became a condoner of these acts, and the people who wish to hold Joe Paterno on a pedestal, are pedophile enablers themselves.

During the Q & A after the screening of Happy Valley at Hamptons International Film Festival (2014), Director Amir Bar-Lev spoke of semantics, drawing upon symbols. How his previous films were focused on symbols of a “hero” and an “angel,” and how, in a way, Happy Valley was a film that partially touched upon fatherhood—it is not so much applied to Jerry Sandusky as a father, but to his adopted son who protects his own children from the abuse that his adoptive father subjected him to. Sadly, this happened, and initially, in the documentary, Sandusky’s adopted son denied that these acts of abuse happened to him, because he, like the other children Sandusky abused, did not realize what was happening to them at the time, because of the manipulation they were subjected to.

Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt Sandusky, is a father who builds for his children. To protect them, to keep them safe, and in this documentary, he has assured his children that the people who they knew as grandparents “are not good people.” Matt fills a wall in his basement for his children, and before anything else it is a labor of love.

On a larger scale, Happy Valley touches upon problems within our society that are happening every day, among people in power. If a person has the opportunity to direct a situation, he or she should remember that taking advantage of another human being, depending on the situation, is illegal, immoral, and disgusting, whether it is sexual, emotional, mental, and/or physical abuse you are subjecting that person to. People are not only traumatized by sexual abuse, but there are many situations when their lives are permanently ruined if they cannot handle the situation properly, through therapy or emotional support by non-abusive family members and friends.

It’s also important to remember that Penn State as a university should not be blamed for the actions of the few individuals, who either pursued or condoned such abuses. The team players, students, staff & faculty, and other members of the administration who had no idea what was happening should not be blamed. There were many people who were included in this film who assured, with honest demeanors, that they had no idea what was happening behind closed doors, or even, within open locker rooms. In contrast, there are a few individual administrators, who according to the documentary, were to be reprimanded for condoning these abuses for, simply, not reporting implications of these abuses. Amir Bar-Lev mentioned that it may happen in 2015 now, and that their trial had been pushed back since the making of this film.

Matt Sandusky fills a wall in his and his children’s basement, and it is love and protection that drives him. When so much wrong has been done to a person, the fact that he is able to continue to love and care for the people that he, noticeably, unconditionally loves is something that more people should learn to do. There’s a lot of negativity in this film; the general premise is very depressing. But it ends on a positive note…that someone, and people in general, who have suffered through so much can and will have a chance to make their lives better every day. The honesty within this film does not make up for the dishonesty that the manipulator ticket salesman extraordinaire practiced for much too long, but, perhaps, it brings to light questions that weren’t answered to those who read off the sides of days old newspaper clippings in the street. It fills in the blanks for the people who didn’t know what was truly happening, and more importantly, how the victim turned heroes really do prevail once they fill in the blanks, or really, the walls themselves.

Before you accept an offer, recognize the motive, the setting, the tone of voice. Happy Valley will teach you to do this, and in a world that hopefully progresses with such honest filmmaking…perhaps the world can become somewhat of a better place.

Amir Bar-Lev gave credit to Molly Thompson, a person who he told the audience “I do all my films with.”

Happy Valley screened at Hamptons International Film Festival this October (2014)

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”: the tragedy of a profession

By Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler tells the story of professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to get both his career and life back together.

Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.

As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.

Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.

Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.

Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.

I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.

Director, Connor Williams talks about his new film, “The Spoilers”

Connor Williams is 17-years-old and is the producer/director/star of “The Spoilers”, which also stars Terry Kiser, the dead guy from Weekend at Bernie’s. Connor financed this film completely out of pocket, with money saved from acting jobs and working at Pizza Hut. Philosophia Verax was curious as to what makes this kid tick. Content produced by Film Syrup.

Connor Williams and Terry Kiser

FS: What made you get into film making?

CW: My family moved to Idaho from California when I was 7-years-old. Unpacking boxes, my parents came across a tape of a commercial I was in as a baby. They didn’t pursue acting for me. That commercial was a total fluke. When we watched the commercial together, I told them I wanted to be an actor.

FS: What was the commercial for?

CW: It was for a Soup restaurant in New York. I googled them a couple years back and they are no longer in business. I didn’t do much but lay there on a table.

FS: No soup for you?

CW: Nah.

FS: So, you were 7-years-old, an aspiring actor in Idaho, removed from California. Where did you go from there?

CW: My dad read about a 48-hour film contest, so he entered in hopes of networking with people that made films in Boise, ID. It was a disaster of a film. We had no idea what we were doing. It was finished on Wednesday, a full three days late. They still showed it in the theatre. The plan worked though, a director needed a kid my age and cast me in his feature film. I never have seen that film as it was rated R and my parents wouldn’t let me go to the premiere.

FS: What was the feature? Have you ever seen it or are you still not allowed?

CW: The feature was called  “Autumn Angel”. Yes, I’m finally officially allowed as I’m 17. That was a long wait. I never did see it, as there were some legal issues with the producers of the film so it stopped being shown.  But it was one of the few times I got my footage. What’s up with people promising footage and never delivering, by the way?

FS: Not everyone can deliver as efficiently as Pizza Hut, I suppose. How many movies have you been in?

CW: To date, I have been in 17 movies. Mostly shorts, but mostly as the lead. I have made many shorts and have won some festival awards. The truth is I only made “The Spoilers” film because I love acting. I’m now thinking differently about directing. I’m one of the leads of a movie “The UnMiracle”, which is going to Redbox in a few months. In fact, they’re  changing the ending so I’m flying back to Chicago to shoot a couple of scenes opposite Steven Baldwin and Kevin Sorbo. I also shot a couple of scenes in Jared Hess’s (Napoleon Dynamite) new comedy opposite Sam Rockwell.

Let me add that I love Pizza Hut! They have been very supportive of me with me traveling to auditions and everything that is involved in acting.

FS: How did you discover the script for “The Spoilers”?

CW: I had never met the writer, Bill Persons. Never even talked to him. I selected him from many writers off of elance. He and I were on the same page from the start. He was awesome to work with. I only had so much money to make this film, so I knew it had to have limited locations and people in the movie. I couldn’t have a scene at a concert with a thousand extras. I couldn’t blow things up, unfortunately. I had to make it all about the characters and the story.

FS: What’s it about?
CW: “The Spoilers” is a lot like The Breakfast Club, but with 2014 teen problems, not 1985. It’s a teen movie where kids are court ordered to school on the weekend for different offences and It’s their last chance to get it together. There’s social bullying, inappropriate teacher-student relations, issues pertaining to sexual consent, gang affiliation, religious beliefs etc.

FS: How did you find your Director of Photography and crew?

CW: I interviewed DP’s from a few different states. I really clicked with Andy and Korie Byrd. They made this movie. They busted their tails to get this done!

FS: How did casting work?

CW: For the actors, I put the break down on Actors Access. We had about 1,500 submissions. From that we (the crew was now involved) selected a ton to audition via tape. We selected the top ten for a callback via tape. We then invited the top 4 to Skype another callback and then top two for the last Skype callback. During that process, a couple of people googled me and discovered I was 17 and bowed out. I tried to hide my age until the end. I wanted everyone to take this seriously. Luckily, my top choices didn’t google me.

FS: It sounds like the internet provided a lot of things you needed to make this movie. Are there any other digital resources for filmmakers you utilized?

CW: Yes! I hired someone from fiverr.com to make the website . I hired someone off that site to write a press release and then when I’m ready to let the world know about the film I will hire someone to send it out to all the different news outlets.

FS: How long did it take to shoot?

CW: We started shooting on August 1st and wrapped on August 17th. We took the 2nd and 3rd off then worked straight through to complete it.
FS: What was it like, your first time directing?

CW: I had been on some pretty good sets, so I knew how it worked. The directors I have worked with put a lot of their faith into the DP. I did the same. I was totally prepared to let the DP know the shots I wanted and to hash things out with the actors, but I really didn’t need to. Andy made a shot list that we both agreed on and after the first day he totally took the pressure off of me. I stepped in a few times, but he knew what he was doing. He shot quickly and efficiently. I couldn’t imagine making this movie without him. He was awesome and he didn’t treat me like a kid. He treated me like a professional. When I wasn’t behind the camera, I would talk to the actors individually about the scene. They were so prepared that they took away a lot of stress. These guys will make it as actors. They are as hungry as I am. Keep your eyes on Brandon Butler, Kathryn Jurbala, Shruti Sadana and Hunter McCade. Props to them!

FS: How did you get Terry Kiser (Bernie, from Weekend at Bernie’s) in your movie?

CW: To be honest I wasn’t familiar with “Weekend at Bernies”. Another feature was being filmed in Boise, ID at the same time we were filming “The Spoilers”. There was an article in the paper about that other movie and he (Terry Kiser) was in it. My parents then told me that they had parked cars for him at his Hollywood Hills home thirty years ago, when they were in college. That same day someone heard that I was making a movie, heard about my age and wanted to represent it to sell. He asked if we had a “name” in the movie. Armed only with the valet story, I found Terry Kiser’s agent through IMDB and called her. I told her the story, we negotiated that I would pay for his flight change and two more nights at a hotel and his rate. I was shocked over how easy it was.

FS: What was it like to work with him?

CW: On set he’s all business. When he’s filming a scene, he doesn’t want chit chat. He termed it “WalMart-ing”. Like when you run into someone at the store and have to make mindless chatter. He holds a script in his hands while the camera is being repositioned. He told me later, sometimes he does that to go over lines, but mostly he doesn’t want people “WalMart-ing” him. He’s there to work. He stays focused until the scene is done, after that, he’ll talk about anything. He’s really funny, a cool dude, but very professional with everyone. We wrote four additional scenes for him. We gave him a ton of dialogue at about 4:00pm on Sunday and he knew it all by the time he was due on set at 9am Monday! He was a pro’s pro. I learned just from watching him.

FS: What’s he like as a person?

CW: He couldn’t have been more gracious with us. On the day he was shooting with us, I was throwing a “Thank You!” party for the moms and kids that came out from all across the US, later that night. I asked him if he wanted to come and I couldn’t believe it when he said “Yes!”. We got to know him on a friend level. He invited me and my parents to stay with him at his Austin, TX home if we get selected for their film festival. A couple nights before we wrapped we had a “Weekend at Bernies” viewing at my parents house. It was hilarious.

FS: So… he’s alive?

CW: Most definitely.

FS: Are you sure? No voodoo curses?

CW: … Pretty sure. I did the Bernie Dance with him so I’m 99% sure.
FS: What was the most difficult challenge in making this film?

CW: Scheduling. I was horrible at it. If schedules were changed somehow, I was the one who had to let everyone know. A couple of days, we were off by an hour. Next summer I’m hiring an “A” student from my high school just for scheduling and making sure all actors and production are on the same page. The other challenges were that it really did all rest on me. Needed lunch picked up? I went to get it. Needed a prop? I went to get it. I was the intern. I will have an intern next year. I didn’t get any down time. I worked three nights a week at Pizza Hut the entire time. I was pretty exhausted when it was over. If the cast and crew hadn’t been as prepared as they were, it could have been a disaster.

FS: How did you finance it?

CW: From my own money. 100%. I like to save money. So when I told my parents I was doing this my dad said he wasn’t putting any money in. He made that clear. So because I have been thrifty in the past I had a pretty good amount (or at least for me) saved up. I earned the money from acting and working at Pizza Hut.

FS: That’s impressive for a 17-year-old. Did you have to make a lot of sacrifices to get the movie made?

CW: Besides my wallet ? Well ,sleeping in. While my friends were waking up at noon, I had already been up and worked six hours. Recast a friend of mine, which was a long story, so maybe a friendship.

FS: What are your plans for “The Spoilers”?

CW: I want to sell it. I will submit to film festivals. The first filmfest I’m submitting is Slamdance, a film fest in Utah. I think that will tell me a lot about the movie. Slamdance is fully aware they will be the first festival that I will submit it to. I also am going to the American Film Market in Santa Monica to get in front of decision makers and try to sell my film. I think my age can help me stand out from the rest.

FS: What are your influences, film-wise?

CW: I liked Superbad and 21 Jump Street a ton. I like to be entertained. I know those aren’t the deepest of movies, but they made me laugh and they looked like fun to make.

FS: What are the qualities you look for in movies?

CW: If you’re not going to make me laugh, it better have a great story line. Entertain me. Movies are so subjective. Every element is so important from story line to production to acting. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.

FS: Where are you going from here?

CW: I want to push “The Spoilers” as much as I can. I know I can make a full length feature. I know how much it will cost and I know the mistakes I made that I won’t make again. I’m totally prepared for my next movie. Foster adoption is big in our family. My little brother and sister are foster adopted. I know all the statistics and I have heard some very sad stories. I would like to find a compelling story where I can bring awareness to the 500,000 kids in foster care. I have ideas based on facts but I’m not sure moms and dads are ready to see the truth and what’s happening to kids. It’s a sad situation.

FS: What advice do you have for people who are interested in filmmaking?

CW: If you want to direct and you haven’t yet, what the heck are you waiting for? Just do your own thing. Of course you’ll make mistakes like I did, but you won’t do that the second time around. I have never taken an acting class. Ever. I directed my own shorts (starring me) but I think if you’re honest with the people you’re working with, they will forgive you for your shortcomings. Most importantly: hire a DP that you trust. He/she is the backbone of the production.

FS: What do you have to say to people who think 17-years-old is too young to be making a movie?

CW: I guess I can say I proved myself right and them wrong. Overall, everyone has been very supportive.

FS: One last thing, can you tell me why it’s called “The Spoilers” or would that be a spoiler?

CW: Can you keep a secret? So can I!

For further updates, visit “The Spoilers” on its Facebook page: Spoilers The Movie.

“Sick Exhibitionism” in John Waters’ “Female Trouble”: I can take much more!

By Colleen Rowe

The first time I ever watched a John Waters film was when I was ten years old— it had been almost a decade since it had been released. Serial Mom (1994) was initially shocking for me, but even at that age I understood the humor of Kathleen Turner’s portrayal as Beverly Sutphin. I always made sure not to wear white after Labor Day after that, especially in areas where phone booths were prevalent.

Over the years, I watched a few of John Waters’ films here and there, but in my late teens, I was finally shown Pink Flamingos (1972) for the first time by a friend. I’m not sure what my friend was thinking, to be honest. Not because I felt overly disgusted by Pink Flamingos, which is the appropriate response, but because it was our first one-on-one interaction together. I didn’t see much of my friend after that.

IMG_6796John Waters post screening of Female Trouble at Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty years of John Waters: How much can you take?”

After the initial horror of egg-eating, ass-dancing madness, I decided that Pink Flamingos was truly original. As Mink Stole said in a clip from AMC’s nine-part series, Movies that Shook the World: Pink Flamingos, “There’s barely a moment in it that could be shown to any God-fearing household.” If you can make audiences twist their faces in anguish as you present a larger, thought-provoking point, you have truly accomplished something great. Waters explained that when titling Pink Flamingos he wanted it to have a non-sensational name since the film was so shocking in itself. Waters did this by capturing the foul, puke-antagonist that is Pink Flamingos and its “poor step-sister,” as he termed it, Female Trouble./ Theme song./

IMG_6802

J. Hoberman and John Waters at the Walter Reade Theater during opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? Q & A post-screening of Female Trouble.

Dawn Davenport’s (played by Divine) psychotic behavior is partially foreshadowed in the infamous Christmas morning scene where she actually pushes her mother (her parents didn’t buy her Cha-cha heels!) and a Christmas tree falls on her. At the Walter Reade Theater at the opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” Waters recounted to critic J. Hoberman and his audience that a Christmas tree had fallen on his grandmother when he was growing up and he exaggerated slightly. She was not hurt, as Davenport’s mother seemed to be. “Knocking over the Christmas tree has become a holiday favorite,” Waters remarked on Friday night, a comment that made the audience explode with laughter.

IMG_6775Outside of the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center

Waters educated the crowd on Cha-cha heels further, explaining that a lot of people didn’t know what real Cha-cha heels looked like (Apparently Cha-cha’s had smaller heels than most people thought). He added comically, “I had to teach drag queens about life.”

Dawn runs away after her dramatic outburst and crosses paths with Earl Peterson (also played by Divine). Earl literally screws himself for associating with a woman such as Dawn, and vice versa.

One of the greatest characters in Female Trouble is Taffy Davenport. Mink Stole portrays the older 14-year-old Taffy who interrupts Divine and her husband, Gater (Michael Potter), while they are having sex (take note that Mink Stole was in her late twenties when this film was made). Taffy’s responses to Gater are honestly appropriate. He’s a sick pervert and she knows it. Her infamous line: “I wouldn’t suck your dick unless I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” will make audiences laugh out loud with the follow-up classic one-liner, in response to Gater’s questions: “Writing a book, hippy? Why don’t you go listen to some folk music and give me a break!?” Taffy is emotionally and mentally tortured throughout this film and she has every right to insult the “morally bankrupt,” as the only apparently logical character, Dawn’s doctor, calls them, adults who surround her.IMG_6809Initially, Dawn and Gater spend a lot of time at a local beauty salon where Gater works. Here, Dawn meets the bigot-yuppie couple, Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce) who are absolutely obsessed with beauty. With her eyes perpetually rolling, Sally (Sally Albaugh), a customer at the salon, comments: “Well throw a goddamn penny in the fountain and make a goddamn wish and maybe it will come true.” Waters always found it hilarious that a lot of people had wishing wells on their front lawns. Along with other front lawn decorations, a lot of people also had pink flamingos. John Waters commented that he disapproved of the resurgence of pink flamingos that critic, J. Hoberman, spoke about during the Q & A at the retrospective’s screening of Female Trouble. Waters said, “‘I’m for them if you’re 75 years old and you have the plaster kind, the original since the 40s, I’m against it if you’re a yuppie with a plastic one on your front lawn meant to mock blue collar people.” He added: “Now they’ve become wearisome.”

Waters also expanded upon the act of “hitchhiking,” which Divine does in Female Trouble. Waters said, “Most people don’t know what hitchhiking is. I was hitchhiking once in Provincetown and a family picked me up. The little kid was staring at me like “’Dad, why is this man in the car?’”

Taffy is the only one who seems to realize how preposterous the idea of Dawn’s modeling career is. When Donald Dasher says that the camera he has is for taking pictures of Dawn, Taffy blatantly exclaims, “You must be cock-eyed!” and proceeds to annoy Donna Dasher with her drawn out “Hey, Laaady” as she drops chips all over Donna, who pretty much deserves it. One of the best lines in Female Trouble (keep in mind that almost every line is quotable in its entirety) is said by Donna Dasher after Dawn offers them dinner. With a long drawn out half-sigh, Donna says: “I couldn’t possibly eat spaghetti. Do I look Italian?” It isn’t so much the comment, which is in itself hilariously ridiculous, but the way Pearce says it.

This is not the only notable comment by Donna, who says to Dawn, dreamily, with the seduction of the movie-fame life overhanging, “We’ll give you a new look, an interest in life… and together, we could overcome… this boredom that imprisons us all.” Pearce’s drawl is the voice we hear when we read advertisements on highways, pushing without direct contact with the subject. Those sprawled out magazine famous models are the products that their industries make them become, and Pearce portrays this almost too perfectly with an eerily captivating tone. Her voice is the fine print that we did not care to read.

Dawn’s violent tendencies are finally captured! The Dashers start taking photographs after young Taffy throws a bowl of Dawn’s spaghetti at the wall. As Dawn is about to beat Taffy down with a chair, the Dashers excitedly ask her to pause for a great shot. Don’t worry, it doesn’t stop her from performing the act, and suddenly Taffy is Dawn’s trophy, messily sprawled across the floor like an overused prop. So Dawn begins to trade pain for fame, as many people do, and then a serious undertone takes its place beneath the blatant comedic obscenities that are performed. The Dashers are loving it: the exploitation, the opportunity to record shocking images. They are the show business industry.

While the Dashers embrace conforming behavior, or what they think is impressive, Gater’s Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) defames it. Aunt Ida states, “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.” It sounds familiar, maybe it’s usually said a little differently. How many times have we heard it on the street, at work, in school, among colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and especially enemies?: “Homosexuality is sick”, but Aunt Ida turns around and points the finger at you, heterosexuals! Why are you the exception? Aunt Ida is an important metaphor for the ignorant phrases we hear of those who dwell too long in the realm of homophobia. The next time you’re about to express a phobia against someone’s sexuality, just think of Edith Massey, and how she looks better than you in that tight, black dress.

Female trouble escalates quickly. Dawn starts to completely lose her mind as The Dashers direct her like sideshow puppeteers. Behind the scenes of her first big performance, Dawn points a gun at The Dashers, shaking it playfully with big, wandering eyes. This scene is hilarious at first glance; the shot of her as the screen flicks back to the dressing room where her high school friends, Concetta (Cookie Mueller) and Chicklette (Susan Walsh), and The Dashers sigh happily with joy as Dawn forcefully dangles a lethal weapon.

Taffy shows up behind the scenes, dressed beautifully with a new light in her eyes. She has joined the Hare Krishnas, a decision that has seemed to affect her positively.Taffy speaks with Aunt Ida who tells her, “If you get tired of being a Harry Krishna, you come live with me and be a lesbian.” It’s a pretty great offer.

Dawn “embarrassed” and horrified that Taffy has chosen to associate herself with such a group, strangles Taffy within minutes and the witnesses squeal with happiness. Taffy had said to Dawn, before she had left to be a part of the Hare Krishnas,“You can’t kill Krishna because Krishna is consciousness.” If you beat it down or ignore it enough, I guess you really can kill something.

Why do onlookers and show business “professionals,” i.e, The Dashers, find the thrill of being killed so humorous? Why is Dawn being presented as a part of a show when she should really be getting some psychological help? Why is any of this okay in any film? Oh, you will make a lot of money. In fact, it’ll be a hit! You’re famous suddenly as the screen turns red.

Dawn’s speech during her show is most memorable:

“Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart! You came here for some excitement tonight and that’s just what you’re going to get! Take a good look at ME because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow! You’re looking at crime personified AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT! I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot line on Abby Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremmer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck! And I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself! Now, everybody freeze! Who wants to be famous? Who wants to DIE for art?”

As Dawn says, “everybody freeze!” she reveals a gun, pointing it at the crowd. As she shows herself off, her trampoline routine is quite entertaining, but as soon as the weapon is revealed the situation changes from hilarious to truly terrifying in an instant.

In the final scene, Dawn is strapped to an electric chair. During his Q & A with Hoberman, Waters recounted that he and his crew, “Walked across the prison yard carrying the electric chair.” He continued, “Could you imagine that being allowed today?” The prisoners, probably horrified, were onlookers right before this scene was shot.

After laughing so hard throughout the film, it’s shocking how calm you’ll suddenly become as Dawn is finally reprimanded for the seriousness of her “sick exhibitionism”, as Donna Dasher calls it. Dawn states in her testimony during the trial that produces the result of her landing in that death chair, “How can they not want to die if they want to become famous for it?” and “Without all of this, my career couldn’t have gotten this far.” Here, the timeless question is asked through dialogue: How far will a person go for money and fame? Dawn is proud of the offenses she has committed against others. She demands to be on television.

The most horrific stories are always highlighted in the news, movies, books. People like to talk about murder or any terrible crimes because it makes their content in its entirety more interesting. Forget about morals, it is all about the special recognition. If you’re watching a film made by John Waters, the violence isn’t overtly gruesome like many films today exhibit. The dialogue is the key factor while watching Female Trouble. There are countless subtle meanings behind almost every sentence that reflect a critical idea. Through the dialogue that runs smoothly alongside the situations portrayed, homophobia, religious persecution, child neglect and abuse, sexual exploitation, snooty upper-class norms, glamorizing drug use, and many other social issues, are portrayed obscenely but correctly.

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On opening night, a few of the Dreamlanders were present at Lincoln Center Film Society’s John Waters Retrospective, including Mink Stole. Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom) was also present. He described the Dreamlanders who were present, and also those who have passed on, as “my friends, my colleagues, my gang,” some of them for over 50 years.

Prior to the screening, Waters said, somewhat apologetically, that he is sorry that everyone in this movie seems to be screaming constantly. It’s a very “loud” film. Overall, Waters said that this film, after its initial release got good reviews, “but people didn’t know what to make of it at the time.”

Today, John Waters, remains a huge part of pop-culture, influencing other filmmakers and social commentators.

There’s one great lesson to learn from Female Trouble: Remember to never mention a sex act in front of anyone respectable and rich because it is vile and crude!

Interview with Directors, Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, on their new documentary: “Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story”

Film Syrup Founder, Colleen Rowe, interviewed directors, Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji (currently based in India) on their documentary film project: Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story. This film “is an attempt to understand a community which has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.” Produced by: Public Service Broadcasting Trust & Ministry of External Affairs.

 

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1. Film Syrup: What attracted you to this particular community? Do you have a specific tie to the Parsi culture?

Divya: When I first moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2008, I felt an inexplicable sense that I was coming home. I not only belong to the Parsi community, but have been in love with the idea of being a Parsi all my life. My research on the community at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) during my Masters dissertation led me to a nuanced understanding of our history and an admiration for the formidable feat of holding our own as a minority community and yet influencing the world around us in nothing short of a significant manner. As the community is plagued with anxieties over its dwindling numbers, it is important to focus on all that is good and admirable, and to note that the community has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.

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2. Film Syrup: Do you think you took a subjective stance as the creator of this film or did you remain wholly objective to the content presented in it?

Shilpi: A documentary film can never be objective. The very process of a documentary production, which involves research, scripting and editing, makes it a subjective process for there is always an argument that the filmmakers are trying to construct for the audiences. The narrative flow of Qissa-e Parsi historically locates the Parsi community in India, delves into basic ideals of the Zoroastrian faith and tries to understand their relationship with the British and with the city of Mumbai. Additionally, we also look at contemporary debates gripping the community, especially regarding issues of women and inter-faith marriages. We have made these choices, keeping in mind that this is the first film in our larger project of documenting the community. At every critical juncture of the production process, both of us made sure that we brought in our respective subject positions into our work. In such a scenario having two directors, a Parsi and a non-Parsi, therefore proved to be rather helpful.

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3. Film Syrup: How is the history (between the 8th and 10th century) of the Parsis relevant to the community that lives in Gujarat, India today?

Divya: When the Parsis arrived at the shores of Gujarat between the 8th and the 10th Century (the exact time of arrival is widely disputed), they did not land here by accident or mere chance. Having previously fostered trade relations with India, they knew they would be coming to a friendly people, who would understand their plight and help them in whatever way possible. According to the Qissa-e Sanjan, which is the first written account of the Parsi arrival and settlement in India, the local King Jadhav Rana asked them for an explanation of their religion and customs. He granted their request for asylum and freedom to carry on their religious practices as they saw fit, provided they adopt the local language of Gujarati; that their women adopt the local dress or sari; and that they henceforth cease to bear arms. Having accepted these conditions, the Parsis formed a settlement at Sanjan and subsequently spread around several parts of Gujarat, incorporating local customs and ways of life that bear their mark on Parsi identity until today. It is only centuries later, with the advent of the British in India, that the Parsis ventured beyond Gujarat to cities like Bombay and Calcutta. Several still remain in the state that gave them much needed asylum all those centuries ago.

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4. Film Syrup: How is Mumbai different from the areas that surround it? Why is it particularly intriguing?

Divya: In tracing the rich history and lives of the Parsis in India, one must inevitably end up in the city of Mumbai. This influential, albeit small community, has helped shape the city of Mumbai, or more appropriately erstwhile Bombay,  into the metropolis it is today, and in turn the city itself has come to leave its mark on the Parsi identity, with over two-thirds of the world’s Parsi population calling this place home. One has only to walk down the streets of South Bombay to encounter the everlasting impression of the Parsis on the history and ethos of the place, be it architecturally, in the numerous statues that unassumingly dot the leafy lanes, in centres of cultural significance, in quaint Irani eateries, in schools, museums, hospitals, charities, and the endearing eccentric bawas (an affectionate colloquialism for Parsis) who run these establishments or offer their faithful patronage.

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5. Film Syrup: Are you/did you film from a feminist viewpoint when reviewing the issues of inter-faith marriage? If not, what was your viewpoint?

ShilpiThe community today is faced with the stark reality of its dwindling numbers and the near and very real possibility of extinction. This has given rise to anxieties over issues of conversion, intermarriage, and purity of race; the burden of which seems to be falling increasingly on the Parsi woman. In what seems a strange confluence of religion, race, law and custom, the Parsis have constructed for themselves an extremely exclusive identity, where any form of plurality appears non-negotiable. According to us, the implications of justifying the discrimination faced by women in the 21st century on the grounds that something has been a certain way for centuries and should therefore unabashedly continue to be so, will prove to be extremely detrimental for the community. We see this as a concern not just for the Parsis but for women in other Indian communities as well. So far we have dedicated a section of our film examining this debate and hope to explore it more extensively in future.

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Film Syrup: Do you think this culture/community will die out if their numbers continue to decrease?

Divya: It is estimated that under 70,000 Parsis remain in India today, and the threat of extinction seems to be a very real possibility for the community. However, it is worth noting that the worldwide Parsi population, at its peak, has never exceeded 1,50,000. We have always been a numerically small people, capable of great things. The situation today is however accelerated by increasing incidences of inter-marriage, late marriage, not marrying at all, decline in fertility and rampant emigration, to name a few. But I believe that if the community puts their heads together, and allows the panic to bring us closer together instead of tearing us further apart, this too we can overcome, as have so many things in our past.

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 All photos that are included in this interview posting have been provided by Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji.

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