Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not really that scary at all

So i was thinking about writing a little bit about this, but didn't think I could really post it on here because it doesn't have to do with fear or knitting.
But it does. It is a thing that many people in our society fear these days.

I'm talking about homophobia.
More specifically, the portrayal of gays in the media.

I was thinking about this watching modern family, and i thought about it watching project runway this season too, and a little bit with the one episode of Glee that i put myself through. Not scary movies, but they've been dealing with scary issues--anti-gay sentiment, HIV, etc.

Let's start with Modern Family, because i was just watching it. If you haven't seen this show, it's about three family units who are all related, one of which is a gay couple.  If you haven't seen this show, watch it now.

First off, i love the gay couple in this show. They are hilarious and lovable. But while i was watching it today, i realized: they are very very stereotypical.
And is that what the LGBT community wants? Sure, it's easy for the average american person to enjoy watching these guys, but for some people--who live in tiny towns in southern new england, like myself, where there's only one openly gay person who hasn't moved to New York or London--this might be the only exposure to gay people that viewers get, or, potentially, allow themselves to get.

And hey, I'm certainly not one to say that all gay people aren't like that, since i only know, like i said, like four people who have come out of the closet. (note, i'm almost positive all gay people aren't stereotypical. I mean no offense by this.) And even if they were, that's fine with me--like i said, these stereotypical characters are so lovable.
But some people love them not for their character and their senses of humor, but simply because they fulfill the stereotype. Take for instance, the made up character I'm about to discuss (cough, my father, cough) Mr...Jones.

So Mr. Jones doesn't know a lot of gay people (or doesn't think he does,) and also listens to a lot of conservative talk radio. As a result, he thinks that he doesn't like gay people, because, "he doesn't like watching men kiss." (no word yet on how he feels about women kissing, but when his teenage daughter brings home her black/hispanic/muslim girlfriend from college, we'll find out.)
Whenever Mr. Jones imitates gay men, he adopts a terrible rendition of a stereotypical flamboyant voice, leading people to believe that he thinks all gay men talk that way. In Mr. Jones' mind, he doesn't like people who talk that way (they are foreign, he doesn't understand them: they scare him,) so he doesn't like men who are attracted to other men.

One day, Mr. Jones says something in that voice in the context of telling a joke about two men who live together. The following conversation goes like this:

Mr. Jones's one liberal relative: not all men that live together talk like that!
Mr. Jones's mother in law, who hasn't left the house in six weeks: Yes they do! That's how they talk on TV!
Mr. Jones's daughter: *apalled*

That conversation happened. There is at least one person in the world who thinks that all gay people are exactly as they are portrayed in the media. And when there is one adorable and sweet, but sheltered and close minded old woman, there are a thousand. Maybe.

Project Runway, unfortunately, portrays gays--and fashion designers-- often in much the same way, but this is a reality show. My father, i mean, Mr. Jones, refers to all the male contestants and Tim Gunn and Micheal Kors as "that wicked gay guy."
As it is a reality show, it deals with some more realistic and scary issues than Modern Family does. (Not to criticize Modern Family, i know that it's purpose isn't to address realistic issues in hard-hitting ways, it's a satire.) I thought it was incredible that this season they got into the personal aspects of Mondo dealing with his  very religious family, his sexuality, and his HIV. That was intense. Tim Gunn discusses his sexuality more this season than any I can think of, and i think the show really represented the climate of the LGBT civil rights movement that (thank GOD) is so prevalent right now.
Yet still, people can be insensitive. I very nearly was sobbing when Micheal Costello got kicked off, yet during one of the floating head interview things, maybe in the preceding episode, my parents laughed at how affeminite he had to be to be getting so emotional over the show. Terrible. Terrible stuff.

And of course, i probably shouldn't get into the ending (i haven't even watched the finale.) Here's one way to not get ratings: Having the bitchy single woman beat the gay guy with the catholic family and HIV during the height of a LGBT civil rights movement. Way to go Lifetime.
So still, the theme is conflicting messages. We want to accept gays, they have a hard time, they are people too--but look at those weird clothes they wear! I'm a conservative New Englander, I can't interact with people who are that creative and brilliant!

Last, and actually probably most importantly, Glee. I'm not much of a Gleek, but I watched this episode, one, because i've seen "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" so many times, and two, because i adore Rocky Horror.
Now, i love some of what Glee is doing. Having an openly gay character (no matter how stereotypical,) is a good thing, and addressing this issues is important. Most importantly, they've been massively helpful in the advent of the It Gets Better project in light of the recent suicides, and i love the It Gets Better Project. More on that later.
Since Glee is coming off as such a trailblazer in the world of portrayal of diversity in the media, I'd expect a pretty uncensored Rocky Horror portrayal. There is some pretty racy stuff in that movie. Like "Creature of the Night." Which they recreated. Shot by shot.
However, they edited out some key "inappropriate" words. Heavy petting became heavy sweating. (What?) Bed wetting became bed fretting (wait, do these sound worse to you?) Most importantly, though, was the way the edited "Sweet Transvestite." Give it a listen:

If you didn't see the episode and don't feel like clickin' about, the gist is that Mercedes is a sweet transvestite (wearing girls clothing, replacing every time she says "man" with "girl," so...cute?, from sensational Transylvania. Not transsexual Transylvania, which is how the song really goes, but sensational.
This edit doesn't make sense on so many levels. Not the least of which, transsexual isn't a bad word. It's just...a thing. That some people are. It's not a derogatory term or even something that the legality of is up for debate. It's just...a word. Not to mention, Transylvania is not a person. So we're not even talking about a person who's transgender, we're talking about a country or, more accurately, a made up planet that's being described as transsexual for no apparent reason other than to be whimsical. It's basically the equivalent of saying....The amputee planet Geneva. It has no relevance to anything. Are amputees offended by it? no. Are people who hate amputees offended by it? Not with any good reason they are.
The only effect of this edit is to offend people, as far as i can see. I haven't talked to any trans-gender people about it, because i don't know any, but it at least upset me quite a bit. As far as I'm concerned, fox can do whatever it wants, but if you're going to be a show that makes it self out to be in full support of teens trying to discover their sexuality, for god's sake, don't do something like this.
"We support you, who ever you are. If you're confused about your sexuality, come out of the closet. If you're confused about your gender, you can maybe become one of those..things. That we aren't allowed to say because it's too racy. But we support you!"

I feel like after all that jibber jabber my thoughts aren't portrayed entirely accurately. I am in full support of any and all homosexuals. I have crazy amounts of respect for them, and I'm honored to be part of the generation that seems to finally be making some headway on this anti gay nonsense. And I'm certainly not opposed to gay people who are open about their sexuality, and i wish we lived in a world where everyone could express themselves without automatically being stereotyped as sacreligious or whatever.
Thus, i'm in full support of portrayal of "stereotypical" gays in the media, especially if that is realistic (i certainly am not one to say whether or not it is.) I hope that this portrayal leads to an acceptance of these personalities, but i have my doubts and i think it deserves some thought.

In writing this, i was trying to think of a place where a gay man wasn't portrayed as affeminite or flamboyant: i could only think of one, but it's a darn good one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

If you're immensely bored and really love Sweeny Todd....

Yay formal film analysis!
           Sweeny Todd has been horrifying people for ages. The story was first told in the mid nineteenth century, about a barber who killed and ate his customers to satisfy his appetite for flesh.
            It became a folk tale of the London streets, and it is difficult now to say if there ever was, in fact, a demon barber on Fleet Street. Regardless, it has endeavored—the tale went on to take the form of plays at the Grand Guignol in Paris, early British comic books, an eighties TV movie, a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, and, most recently, a 2007 film directed by Tim Burton.
            The film is based most closely on Sondheim’s play, using its plot, music, and characters. Sweeny Todd returns home after spending years in the prison camps of Australia, only to find his daughter adopted by the judge that unfairly convicted him, and his wife presumed dead. Mrs. Lovett, the woman that now owns the building where his home and barbershop once were, takes him in and allows him to keep shop above her meat pie emporium. Before too long, Todd’s anger gets the best of him, and he goes into the business of killing his customers—both to get revenge against society and the judge, and to provide the meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. It is fair to say that this adaptation, with a screenplay based on Sondheim’s play by John Logan, brings the most complexity to the story. Each of the fully developed characters has his own clear motive that drives him through the plot of the story. While the themes of the movie are largely focused on horror, it is the subtle parallels and contrasts in characters that make the movie so impressive. Tim Burton uses brilliant cinematography to get this across, particularly in the use of foreground and background. Color is also manipulated brilliantly, through costumes, scenery, and color correction, to create contrast in the mise en scene during the scenes that characters with differing motives dominate.
            Of course, an extremely important aspect of the film and the play from which it was adapted is the music, which, while adding greatly to the mood of any given moment in the film, also emphasizes the differing motives of the characters. The lyrics to these songs also reveal the nature of these ends to the viewer. In fact, it is rare that any goal is directly stated in dialogue—they are nearly always said in song. Furthermore, many of these songs are duets, and in many cases characters sing the same words but with entirely opposite meanings.
            Burton’s innovative cinematography is large in part responsible for our understanding of the characters even though they do not always voice their thoughts. The relationships in this film as well as the motives are very important, and through the various shots and angles, we are able to identify the mood of a relationship between characters without either of them saying a word about it. Burton extensively uses a sort of over the shoulder shot—a close up of one character in the foreground, off to the side of the screen, with a blurred long or medium shot of another character in the background, occupying the other half of the shot. These shots usually function as shot/reverse shots, and many conversations occur without the actors ever looking at each other. Particularly enhanced by this technique is the relationship between the films’ leading lady and man, Mrs. Lovett and Sweeny Todd. Lovett is in love with Todd, and when he returns to London from his time as a prisoner in Australia, she takes him in, sets up his business, and eventually goes into a corrupt partnership with him, running their joint barber shop and restaurant. Because of this partnership, Todd is dependent on Lovett, despite his lack of emotion towards her.
            Lovett’s goals are mainly monetary—when she realizes that she can use the meat from the bodies of Todd’s victims to make her pies, it is a purely financial plan. However, she also wants a family. Todd is the only one who can provide her with either of these things. He depends on her meat pie business to dispose of his bodies, and on the facilities of his old barber shop—now owned by Lovett—to kill his victims. His main goal is revenge on the man that adopted his daughter after driving his wife to poison herself—but because that revenge depends on having the judge as a victim in a long line of murders, he depends on Mrs. Lovett to eventually obtain that goal. Their motives are interdependent, but conflicting.
            Therefore, in the sense that they are dependent on each other, they are partners, and, especially in Lovett’s mind, they are a couple. In one song, it is even implied briefly that they are lovers.[1] However, they are almost never showed in a direct two-shot. All of their conversations and interactions take place either in the aforementioned foreground-background format, in shot/reverse shots, or in a window or reflection. We never see them make eye contact, we rarely see their faces both in focus in one shot. We are shown through cinematography that, though in plot they are together, they are essentially alone.
            Unsurprisingly, Todd’s motives also differ greatly from the other characters’, but again, they are closely intertwined. The goal of Todd is to regain possession of his daughter Joanna; Antony, a young boy that he met while sailing home from Australia, also wants to pull her from her current home, but wishes to marry her and run away. The judge, who has adopted Joanna, and whom Todd wants to kill, wishes to marry her himself. Joanna wishes to marry Antony, but really, not knowing her father exists, just wants to escape her unhappy and sexually abusive home with the judge.  Lucy, Todd’s presumably late wife who now walks the streets, a crazed victim of self-induced arsenic poisoning, wishes to destroy the business that Todd and Lovett have created.           
            While all of these conflicts are revealed through the normal plot devices of dialogue, lyrics, and flashbacks, the paradoxical contrasting and parallel nature of them are further emphasized through two things: color and music.
            Tim Burton has been using up-to-date CGI technology brilliantly and innovatively since the beginning of his career, and this film is no exception. Green screen and color correction, as well as costumes, make up, and mise-en-scene, make the bulk of the movie seem almost black and white. Though the film is not actually in grayscale, only a few colors exist in Sweeny’s world. There are shades of dark gray and black—in his hair, his clothes, the walls and floors in Lovett’s home, and most importantly, the sky of the “great black pit” that is London. Lighter shades of gray and pure white show themselves occasionally, in the high contrast light that shines in through the large window of the barbershop, in the barber cloak, the shaving cream, and Lovett and Todd’s very makeuped skin. Yellow exists in small places—mainly in the streetlights, a rare flit of the color of Lucy’s hair that Todd remembers so well and recalls so frequently. Most importantly, Todd’s world is accented in red: in the outdoor lights at Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie emporium, in some subtle details in Lovett’s clothing, in the meat that fills her pies, and, of course, in the highly stylized blood that soaks Sweeny’s barbershop each time he kills a customer.  Through some magic of editing, almost no other colors stand out or are even visible in Todd’s world.
            In contrast, the world of Todd’s past in the exposition flashbacks in the beginning of the film is filled with overly saturated bright colors. Almost every thing is on the lighter shade of the spectrum, a theme radiating from Lucy’s white-blonde hair. The color theme is only disturbed when the officer that comes to drag a falsely accused Sweeny away enters the scene, dressed entirely in over-dramatized dark black.
            Back in current London, Joanna, in seeming unconscious homage to her mother, is the only character who dresses in light colors, the sole hue that she will wear. She also spends all her time sitting in a window with white curtains, watching a bright yellow canary sing in a literal cage that parallels her own metaphorical one. Though her situation is every bit as dark as the other characters, by nature of her identity she brings light to the screen.
            The world of the judge is as dark as Sweeny’s at most times—after all, he spends his life in the same gloomy weather that dominates Todd’s London. Somehow, though, his world is often a big brighter, a bit more well-lit. His hair is white and his skin is less ghastly than Todd’s, his visage is in shadow less of the time, his face becomes the location of the pure white shaving cream, the lightest colored material in Todd’s world. This lightness vaguely represents the judge’s position in society. As a judge, he is known to be lawful and pious—but the audience, and Sweeny Todd, know that this is not the case. Even though Sweeny Todd is the one killing people, he is the protagonist, making his enemy, the judge, the antagonist by default. It is different and plays with our views of the characters to have the hero all in black and the villain all in white.
            Of course, these colors mean nothing out of relation to each other. Left over chronology from the play puts different characters in nearly every scene—almost no consecutive scenes follow the same plot or sub-plot. This drastically emphasizes the color contrast in the mise en scene that follows different characters. Burton translated these transitions, which would take some time on the stage, into quick, sharp cuts between scenes; by doing this, he keeps the movie fast-paced and interesting, but also directly juxtaposes the contrasting scenes. Our mind has no time to stop thinking in black before it is plunged suddenly into whiteness. This contrast, of course, follows the contrasting personalities and motives.
            The music is also brilliantly crafted by Sondheim to match exactly the nature of the characters that sing it. All the music relating to Sweeny’s goals is either very dark, lyrical, orchestral music in minor keys, or quick, suspenseful, angry music to accompany his revenge. The songs that Lovett sings about her imagined future life are light and happy, her soprano and the poppy tempo of her tunes, of course, match the vision of happiness she has. Antony’s serenades to Joanna are hopeful and poetic, as are Joanna’s musical musings of freedom.
            Again, these themes mean very little until they are compared to each other. The most clever pieces of music occur during the duets. It is common in musical theater for two characters to sing the same song, lending the lyrics to entirely different interpretations, but Sondheim takes this to a new level. Again with Todd and Lovett: their first duet, “My friends,” is an ode from Todd to the razors he finds--the tools he once used to earn a living, and will now use to exact revenge. However, when Lovett joins in, the song takes on an entirely different meaning. She has found a past love, (she reveals in the song that she "always had a fondness" for "Mr. Todd,") and says that she wishes to have a life with him using the same lyrics that he uses to express his future plans of murder and vengeance to his weapons. Later, Todd sings a duet with the judge, his enemy, about "Pretty Women." From the judge’s perspective, the song is a lyrical waxing on the nature of beautiful women, particularly his ward (Todd's daughter,) whom he is about to marry. Todd, while singing the same song, is sardonically and bitterly veiling his resentment for the judge's situation; while they both sing the same words--"Pretty women, are a wonder, even when they leave you and vanish they still are there--" the judge is referencing the satisfaction he has gained from sexually abusing Sweeny's wife and daughter, while Sweeny is referencing the pain he has experienced from the judge's taking the women in his life, the only people he cared for. Later, Antony sings a song entitled Joanna, expressing his desire to marry the girl and his hope for their future; Todd sings along on alternate verses, expressing his regret at loosing the life his family potentially could have had and resigning himself to the fact that they will never be reunited. In Lovett and Todd's infamous duet, "A Little Priest," in which they formulate their plan to cook corpses into Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, though they do not sing the same words, but their respective lyrics, set to jovial music contrast their goals; Todd expresses his need for revenge in a dissonant shout, (“I’ll come again when you have judge on the menu!”)  while Lovett is inspired by the idea due to her lack of money to buy meat, (“With the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it…”). The music in this movie is packed with double entendres and is, in fact, often a double entendre in and of its self.
            The entire movie is packed with double meanings, and each carefully crafted word can lead to parallels between the motives of the different characters. Luckily for us common viewers, we do not have to analyze each word for what it can mean for every character in the film—Burton shows us the subtleties through his brilliant cinematography and manipulation of color. Each mise en scene presents a different personality, a different sub-plot or goal, and the characters, whether originating in Sondheim or fables in the streets of London, are complex and developed enough to match them.

[1] In fantasizing about their future wedding, Lovett sings, “me rumpled bedding legitimized.” It is unclear whether or not she is referring to a current sexual relationship or one she imagines in their future.