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)

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Hamptons International Film Festival 2014: Photo Collection

The Hamptons International Film Festival took place this October. Film Syrup covered the festival as press, providing a few articles, so far including films, “The Duke of Burgundy” and “Force Majeure.”

Hamptons 2 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Paige Skelly

Hamptons 4  Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Paige Skelly

Hamptons 3 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Paige Skelly

Hamptons 5 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Paige Skelly

Hamptons 6 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Paige Skelly

Hamptons 8 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Suzanne O'Regan

Hamptons 9 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Suzanne O'Regan

Hamptons 10 Film Syrup Colleen Rowe Suzanne O'Regan

Photographer: Colleen Rowe

Photo Editors: Paige Skelly & Suzanne O’Regan

A studied behavioral experiment gets the lush cinematic treatment in Ruben Östlund’s icy, darkly funny “Force Majeure”

Written by Daniel Spada

Force Majeure [Turist] (dir. Ruben Östlund, 2014)

Seen at Hamptons International Film Festival on 10/10/14

US (limited) theatrical release: 10/24/14

An avalanche – a visual spectacle most of us are unlikely to see throughout the course of our lives, depending on our fondness of the slopes and our class position. This spectacle acts as the inciting incident of Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, Force Majeure, collapsing the family unit at the center of the film and leaving some very emotionally unstable “adults” in its wake. The avalanche dually serves as a metaphor for the bourgeois Swedish couple’s matrimonial meltdown and the effortless challenging of gender roles’ basic foundation (not lack thereof per-se, but situatedness). Filled with credible performances and well drawn characters, especially the supporting ones, Östlund’s ideological inquiry is bolstered by an obsessive, formalist attention to detail – frames filled with etched-in meaning and musical cues used to jarringly effective ends.

We understand Tomas as a well-to-do, distracted, work-obsessed father from the first few scenes, in which he sneakily checks his iPhone in bed, and his wife Ebba tells her friend Charlotte at the lodge that they’re there on vacation because Tomas has been working so much. “So now he has five days to focus on his family,” she says. This, however, makes him no more or less an empathetic character. The scene that definitively rules him out as an empathetic character is the one in which, on Day 2, while having lunch with his family at a restaurant overlooking the slopes and reassuring them that the cascading snow they’re seeing is controlled, he sprints away to his safety (not without said precious iPhone), leaving Ebba to wrangle up the distressed kids all by herself.

The pressures of hetero-monogamous familial relationships hang heavy in the French Alps air, as Ebba persistently attempts to figure out her husband’s insistence on their two self-professed differing perspectives regarding the incident. At one point during a dinner with Charlotte and her English-speaking date, he offers the absurd rationale of not being about to run in ski boots. Östlund very cleverly holds the long shot of the both of them for several seconds past the point of excruciating embarrassment when Ebba repeats what he said to the couple. Ebba’s entirely believable patent disbelief and Tomas’ authentic humiliation and discomfort underscore the impressiveness of both Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Bah Kuhnke’s performances.

In a later, private moment between Ebba and Charlotte, Ebba’s dissatisfaction with her current situation hits a peak when she inquires about Charlotte’s sexual escapades (it is important to note that she does have a husband and children). Charlotte’s questioning and challenging of the foundation of human sexual norms is cut and dry. Ebba’s response, however, is not. Her anger is paired with nothing if not a distinct curiosity about Charlotte’s line of thinking (and self-professed actual lived way of life), which regardless of whether it is a put on air or not, deeply rattles Ebba. Ebba is not let off the hook, as she is depicted as a bit jealous of Charlotte’s disposition, but also neither is Charlotte. Her nonchalance is undercut by hypotheticals, the answers to which it is possible even she is unsure although she speaks with certainty.

A key moment comes along after Ebba persists in telling the story, once again, to an old friend of Tomas, Mats, and his girlfriend Fanny. The tension rises as Ebba becomes increasingly emotional about what it means that Tomas ran for his life, and Mats and his girlfriend get more uncomfortable over time. Eventually, Mats begins a tepid but clear defense of Tomas and Fanny comes to Ebba’s comfort (it is unclear about whether Mats actually believes the absurdity that he speaks or just feels bad for Tomas, attesting to the power of Kristofer Hivju’s supporting performance). Fanny then proceeds to tell Mats that she doesn’t think Mats would save their children in a hypothetical situation, while an older generation of men would have come to the aid of their spouses. Fanny understands the changing nature of gender norms and masculinities, just like the genesis of the silly contemporary gendered attachment to such colors as blue and pink, while Mats is overwhelmed by her apparent lack of belief in his ideal masculinity and paternal instinct.

In one of the most entertaining sequences of the film, Tomas and Mats are relaxing on beach loungers and drinking beers after a tough day of skiing during which Mats attempts to purge Tomas’ guilt and shame by making him yell into the snowy void. Electronic dance music playing in the background, Mats encounters a younger woman who tells him her friend thinks Tomas is attractive. A short while later, she returns to recant her statement, saying that she meant someone else. Mats’ initial reaction is disbelief – he thinks they’re kidding around – and then anger, while Tomas stays laying in his chair, clearly a little embarrassed about the mix up. The two of them then proceed to laugh it off, which is what the audience has been doing all along.

In what seemed like a tidy way to end the film, the second-to-last scene offers Tomas a chance at temporary redemption. While an open ending at once seemed likely, the viewer is slammed with an ending that calls for an overall deeper examination into how this vacation has affected everyone involved. Not to offset the serious philosophic base of the film, Östlund’s finely spun yarn is undercut with amusing and humorous visual gags – a child’s toy comes crashing into a serious conversation, while a judgemental janitor appears out of thin air at the most untimely moments. Vivaldi’s “Summer”, used to emphasize the chaos and disorder of the family’s post-avalanche scare state parallels well with the crisp, uniform images of the ski slopes being prepared daily, attracting our attention to man’s need to control nature. When the avalanche hits on Day 2, it almost feels too real, and though we haven’t really been given enough time to invest in these characters, I felt like running for my life, not unlike Tomas. What is certain, though, is that the professional photographs they had taken on Day 1 certainly don’t reflect who they are as people now.

Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014)

By Colleen Rowe

It looks as if colored oils are being splashed and organized into figures on canvas before your eyes. Director Peter Strickland’s full-length Drama, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is like a homoerotic Baroque painting, with its two female leads, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, dominating the screen in separate, but conjoined spheres. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is Evelyn’s (Chiara D’Anna) employer, but their relationship escalates quickly with a peer through a doorknob’s keyhole. Looking in from the outside, Evelyn peers into her ruler’s world: Cynthia’s matured body in lingerie as she undresses in unassuming privacy. Does she know that Evelyn is watching her as her dress slips from her waist, down her thighs…and falls upon the floor like a splash of flowing ink?

And so, the ink dries and the women continue with their master-servant relationship. Cynthia orders young Evelyn to do her bidding, which includes cleaning her boots vigorously, her eyebrows raised almost as high as her expectations. Cynthia’s impatience grips Evelyn forcefully, pushing her into seemingly torturous punishments—at first these inflictions are usually unseen, initially; the bathroom door is closed and there are gurgling sounds of a mouth full of water, Evelyn is choking, sputtering…but somehow loving every single moment of it. If the master had been a man, these interactions would have been looked upon with disgust, and people would shake their heads slightly with immense disdain for the abuser. But, as an attractive, mature woman perpetuating the servant’s liking for her punishments, the audience seemed intrigued, and turned on to understanding the parallel roles that are expected of women. Are these expectations acceptable to condone? Of course not, but they are there.

A male “master” can be more frightening to a woman, because of the power men have tried to hold over women since written documentation was first recorded in the grand scheme of time. There is also the vast history of social inequality between men and women that really taints the filters of perspective while watching this film. In the past, women who were unrightfully enslaved were raped by their masters; an account of this was recorded in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs, a true story of a young girl who struggled for equality in a world where her race and sex subjected her to the abuses she faced. Jacobs’ written work was influenced by Samuel Richardson’s famous novel, Pamela, also known as Virtue Rewarded. Pamela is a tale with dense misogynistic undertones and a plot that circulates around a male master who follows, confines, and stalks his servant until she finally succumbs to his rule and has sexual relations with him. Yes, her virtue is rewarded in the end. Let us make it clear that any forced sexual relations are abusive, even if they are “achieved” by manipulation.

A woman ordering another woman to do something is more comfortable, simply on the level of an employer/employee relationship, but one should not assume this is the reason why Cynthia’s inflictions against Evelyn, as they pursue a more personal relationship, are somewhat condoned by viewer reactions. It’s because they love each other, and that’s where gender or sex is stripped of relevance here. These two people love each other, and if the master had been a man, in the context that they truly care for each other, the accepted “abuse” would seem less horrible because Evelyn is constantly begging Cynthia to “punish” her. Evelyn, at one point, asks Cynthia to lock her in a chest that is large enough to hold her small frame. Cynthia allows it, but, she is concerned for Evelyn soon after, asking her to come back into the bed. Evelyn proceeds to tell her to leave her in the chest, as if she is enjoying her opaque cage. Cynthia eventually enters a dreamlike state, where she seems to imagine that she opens the chest and all that is left is Evelyn’s rotted skeleton, lying in the same position that Cynthia left her in. This scene is comparable to William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in which the character, Emily Grierson, is found out to have been sleeping beside her dead lover for decades, after a single strand of her hair is found on the pillow beside his skeleton. Morosely similar, The Duke of Burgundy uniquely portrays this implied necrophilia in a series of frames that demonstrate a transient passage of time. With shots focused on a clothed female crotch, delving into all-encompassing darkness, and Cynthia’s venture into the woods to metaphorically revive her skeletal lover, lifting her from the chest that has become her casket, they are swallowed into the darkness together.

There are two scenes that are brilliantly paired in The Duke of Burgundy; one takes place at the beginning, where Cynthia reprimands Evelyn for incorrectly washing and tending to her clothing. Cynthia is the master here, her deadpan glare ripping into Evelyn’s timid demeanor with disrespectful loathing. A flicker of hate for Cynthia might rise in your chest, temporarily, during this scene. Her pretentious, lifeless glare is captivating, and you sort of feel like she owns you, too. In a later scene that parallels this, after the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia has been established through playful, loving nights as they sleep beside one another, and Evelyn’s obsession with gaining new items and wealth becomes a dominant factor, disrupting their connection, the roles are reversed. Evelyn, the now master reprimands Cynthia, the previously glaring, dominant force within the film, and the woman you once hated, becomes the woman you now feel sorry for. With the dialogue and setting matching the earlier scene, Evelyn’s manipulations to rise above her social class have now succeeded, and as Cynthia cries, Evelyn reaches for her, as Cynthia once did, and whispers to her soothingly.

With profound directing, cinematography, acting, and editing leading this film into the depths of greatness, it’s almost impossible to look away as the storyline progresses and you watch the character development escalate.

This film is a work of art. However you paint the picture, after viewing The Duke of Burgundy, you will find your mind to be a color so incomprehensible that you won’t be able to forget what your eyes were just captivated by.

The Duke of Burgundy was a part of the Hamptons International Film Festival 2014 program.