Thursday, November 17, 2016


“Network. Dr. Strangelove. Do the Right Thing. Thelma and Louise. Taxi Driver. Birth of a Nation (2016). Roger and Me. Umberto D. Apocalypse Now. Writers, beware of Facebook becoming self-medication for outrage. Channel it.”

I posted the above quotation on my personal Facebook page about a week before the election. I listed films which were inspiring in how they were able to express a sense of outrage within a mostly conventional approach. It didn’t surprise me that the above meme popped up after the election that paid homage to a film on the list, Dr. Strangelove. Here is an expansion on my thoughts on how to deal with the current times in your art.

If you are a storyteller, you have a moral obligation to strip away falsity in your stories to create something authentic and true. Cinema is such a powerful medium that audience need to see themselves, parts of themselves—their truths—in the world and characters reflecting back to them from the screen.

Audiences are actively seeking some authenticity on the screen. Even when it’s there in the most surprising or implicit way, it can transform them in a magical way. It’s a powerful experience that can teach people how to be, remind them of who they are, and make them feel connected—not so alone in the world. Those bigger-than-life images affirm their lives, give credence to their existence.

Back in the day, the filmmakers of the Italian Neorealism movement reacted to their collective trauma, loss, and disillusionment during and after World War II. They couldn’t bear the artifice and superficiality of Hollywood movies, their own white telephone films (the symbol of the complacent status quo bourgeoisie) and contrived melodramas. They lost their patience and turned the cameras to the suffering right in front of them. They wanted to capture something closer to the unglamorous, unvarnished reality, as a way to connect directly to common people and their suffering.

However, if you look closely at the films of that time of De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, their styles differed vastly. We can all learn something about that. Ultimately, one of the most passionate film movements, Neorealism, wasn’t about style or form. It was about humanity.

In the early 1960s, Federico Fellini put the moment in film history in a larger context:
 “Neorealism is not about what you show, but how you show it. It’s simply a way of looking at the world without preconceptions or prejudices. Some people are still convinced that neorealism should only be used to show a particular type of reality – social reality to be exact. But then it becomes propaganda.”
Creating an objective slice-of-life reality that mimics the minutiae of our day-to-day grin is not the only path to capture some truthful essence of our lives. It’s about honesty. It’s about your reality. It’s about authenticity.
Your personal voice might reveal itself in ways that these films do…
  • As outrage – See above.
  • How we dream – Wild Strawberries, Fantasia, Spellbound
  • How we nightmare – Night of the Hunter, Rosemary’s Baby, Blue Velvet
  • As magical fountains of hope and optimism – Amelie, Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain
  • As adult fairytales that allow us the only chance to work out elements of our irrational side  After Hours, Birdman, Edward Scissorhands, Pan’s Labyrinth
  • As reminders that we are capable of uniting the most disparate, contradictory and illogical ideas, feelings and impulses – Persona, Mulholland Drive, Adaptation, The Orphanage, The Arrival
What’s broken about our society is also broken on the screen in mainstream films. Consider even the most systemic constructs of unfairness—in forms of prejudice and inequality. The dominant ideology translates these to symptomatic and specific representations on the screen that become codified rules themselves.
You can’t address every flaw in narrative cinema and society. However, the ones that prevent you from telling your story, you can attack on the page.
Here is an eclectic group of films that benefited from defying a status quo assumption or two: Mi Vida Loca, Carol, Dog Day Afternoon, Secretary, Hedwig's Angry Inch, Fruitvale Station.
This is not an intellectual process. Maybe not even political. But it’s definitely personal. To write in your voice, eradicate the assumptions and expectations that oversimplify, misdirect or obfuscate your ability to reveal yourself and your world in all of its nuanced complexity and humanity.
Allow people to see themselves on the screen. It could be a look into the struggles of a marginalized group. It could be a reminder that  it's okay not to be perfect: an ambiguous ending, a chubby protagonist, a character’s embarrassing flaw.

Ironically, your perfect script will honor the imperfect at the core of being human. 

Writing in your personal voice isn’t egotistical or solipsistic. It’s not selfish to tell personal and idiosyncratic stories. In fact, writing in your personal voice is perhaps the most selfless duty you should perform as an artist. 

The best way to show viewer their truth is to reveal some of yours.

The most personal story you tell will also be the most universal.