The Oscars and diversity…

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The Academy Awards will always be big news. That’s a given for one of the most important dates in the film industry’s awards season. However, at the moment the Oscars are making the news for all the wrong reasons.

Over the past week or so, the usual pre-Oscars discussion has changed from who will/who won’t win, to a much more serious and emotive question of diversity. For many, the issue is that this year’s nominees illustrate an increasingly obvious bias against non-white people, made all the more stark by some surprising omissions.

At the time of writing, Will Smith has just confirmed he’ll be following his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, by not attending this year’s ceremony. Smith had widely been tipped to pick up a nomination for his role in ‘Concussion’, yet was overlooked by the Academy. We can also add to that list ‘Creed’, whose director Ryan Coogler and leading man, Michael B. Jordan, were also passed over. Spike Lee has also confirmed he won’t be attending, while there is pressure on Chris Rock to step down as host in protest.

So, is the Academy simply out of touch, or is there something more sinister going on? This isn’t the first time that the Oscars have been accused of a racial bias. For many, the evidence suggests an institutional bias. Last year, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo were controversially overlooked for the Best Director and Best Actor respectively for ‘Selma’ at the 2015 Academy Awards. The Academy has also been criticised for the lack of women recognised in categories like Best Director, with the aforementioned DuVernay being a recent notable omission.

Of course, film is a highly subjective medium, where opinions differ greatly. This is especially true when it comes to awards shows. Just because a person is omitted doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been excluded on racial or gender grounds. However, when it comes to the Oscars and issues of race and gender, 2016 and 2015 aren’t isolated examples. The Academy has long faced calls to improve its diversity, both in terms of the nominations, and in its membership. In this light, 2015 and 2016 look increasingly less like exceptions and more like the rule.

It could be a vicious circle. The less diverse the Academy membership, the less diverse the nominations. Seeing as receiving a nomination is one way to become a member, we are back where we started.

It’s clearly an emotive issue. As to who should win what, it should all come down to performance. Skin colour or gender should never be an issue, whether that’s to exclude someone or to give a token nomination or award. However, to say race and gender shouldn’t be an issue when it clearly is, is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend the problem isn’t there.

I still remember the 2002 Academy Awards, and the Best Actor/Best Actress wins of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Though the coverage in the news afterwards was right to suggest their historic importance, the fact that it was so notable shows how much work the Academy had to do back then regarding race and gender. The fact that we are still having this same conversation  in 2016 shows the work still needs doing.

 

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Improv…

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Seeing the band Of Monsters and Men recently made me appreciate the strengths of another art form, in this case music. Or more specifically, live music. One of the things, aside from the talents of both OMAM and the support act, Highasakite, that impressed me was the feeling of a shared experience, that both the bands and crowd were feeding of each other. It was clear to see that they enjoyed being on stage, peforming, and that the audience were connecting with the songs.

Now, this might sound like a frustrated musician talking, (and I promise it’s not), but it was hard not to feel almost envious at the way live music, offers people the chance to experience this, whether they’re on the stage or in the audience. It gives an immediacy to the songs that you won’t find on record, and is obviously only found in live peformance. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting contrast with film, where, whilst creativity and flexibility are needed, there is obviously no equivalent to the kind of live performance you get with music. The clearest exception to this would be theatre, although there the acting style is totally different to film.

This isn’t meant to come across as a moan about my career choice. I love films, and I’m blessed to have this opportunity to attempt to make a living out of them. It just got me thinking how a medium like live music allows musicians to see, firsthand, the affect that their music is having on audiences, and the satisfaction that must come with that. The closest thing we have to that in filmmaking is box office figures, although that doesn’t reflect what people thought of the film, just that they paid to see it in the first place.

Aside from the limitations of one art form against another, I wonder if there might be a way to inject some of the spontaneity of live peformance into filmmaking? Improv is one way to harness the spontaneous, and it’s something I’d like to explore as a filmmaker. You obviously need your cast to remain within the parameters of the story and their characters, and to be mindful of the visual/technical apsects of the film, but within that I think there is scope for creativity and a certain element of spontaneity.

I’m beginning to realise that as a filmmaker, you have collaborators in front of the camera as well as behind it. Of course, there has to be one unifying voice and vision, (yours, as the director), but that doesn’t mean you can’t accept and listen to suggestions from cast and crew throughout the production. Indeed, I think the best directors do exactly that. I imagine what it would be like to work with actors skilled enough at improvisation, like Robert Downey, Jr and Emma Stone, and how using those talents could add even more to a script.

With the criticism being that many blockbusters offer little more than filmmaking by numbers, what better way to tap into more creativity by allowing your cast and crew to be more spontaneous, giving them the freedom to use their skills and talents, then putting that through the filter of your overall vision?

Yet another ‘flawed’ female hero?

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Catching up on season two of True Detective has been a rewarding experience so far. If it hasn’t quite hit the heights of its first critically acclaimed season, then there has still been much to admire, not least in the acting, cinematography and its complex plot.

However, for me there has been one false note: the character of, played by Rachel McAdams. I want to stress that it has absolutely nothing to do with McAdams’ performance, which has been compelling and realistic. The issue is that Bezzerides seems like yet another example of a strong female character ‘with issues.’ We can probably trace this recent phenomenon to Carrie Mathison of Homeland. As talented a CIA officer as she’s supposed to be, it’s an understatement to say that Carrie has a few emotional and mental issues that she’s dealing with. Taking Carrie and Ani together, we have two strong personalities, capable at their jobs, but both with a number of personal issues.

Of course. no one is perfect, I understand that. We are all flawed. The trouble is, it seems like whenever we have a female lead character on TV at the moment, in serious drama at least, she seems burdened with personal problems. to the point where she’s barely holding it together, often with the use of pills and copious amounts of alcohol. I’m all in favour of presenting the archytype of the flawed hero. It’s just that when it comes to lead female characters, the issues seem to define the characters in a way they don’t for their male counterparts.

Bezzerides is asked by one of her colleagues, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrel) about the fact she carries a few knives, as well as her sidearm, on duty. Her reply is telling. She points out that as she’s smaller than many of the men she will come up against, she needs to protect herself. The contrast with her (equally flawed) male colleagues is clear: they carry guns, as she does, but that is because of the job, and the authority it brings. With Bezzerides, it seems like she’s carrying these weapons because she’s scared. She’s armed herself to this extent because she’s scared.

Her backstory (a difficult relationship with her hippie father, a failed marriage, a string of bad relationships) only adds to the perception that the way she’s armed is a response to her fears. Maybe, the very fact that she’s a police officer is because of her past: it’s a way to defend herself, sort of striking back against a patriarchal society as a whole and certain men in particular.

How Claire Danes and Rachel McAdams play these roles is actually beside the point, as the issue is in the writing. With Bezzerides and Mathison, their issues seem to be front and centre of their characters, defining them. It’s not that there aren’t male characters on TV that are flawed. True Detective has given us a number of them, such as Rust Cohle and Martin Hart from season one, as well as Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh from season two. My point is that the range of characters on TV for men appears to be far more complex and varied, covering a wide variety of types. For women however, the most popular seem to be the love interest, the kooky, crazy one, or the emotionally scarred one.

It’s getting to the point where in some cases it strains credibility. It’s hard to believe that anyone with the emotional issues displayed by Carrie Mathison would be allowed anywhere near the CIA, especially not in Mathison’s position. It renders the script unbelievable, and it verges on being dramatically dishonest to suggest that that this could happen in real life. This is even more damaging for a show that tries so hard to keep up with current news events, such as the civil war in Syria and the ensuing refugee situation. Such realism is lost when you have a character who defies logic so often.

While Bezzerides doesn’t seem as unhinged as Carrie, it’s still sad to see yet another female lead role portrayed like this. It raises the question as to why the writers felt the need to create the characters like. Could Bezzerides do the job without these issues? Yes, but even if the writers wanted her to have these flaws (perhaps thinking that by doing the job despite them it shows her strengh) then is it necessary to have her respond in such an emotionally fragile way?

Olivia Wilde’s recent comments about female superheroes being portrayed like “goddesses” isn’t without foundation. However, while that is an issue, it isn’t solved by going to the other extreme, and having female lead characters who are practically buckling under the weight of personal demons. It makes me wish for a character like Kate Morgan, from 24:Live Another Day. Partly because of the writing and partly down to Yvonne Strahovski’s strong performance, Kate Morgan looked and acted like a CIA officer. It wasn’t because she was some flawless superwoman, though. Morgan made mistakes, and had challenges to deal with. However, we didn’t need to suspend our disbelief to accept her as a CIA officer, and could instead imagine that we were watching an actual real intelligence officer.

Characters that act like real people? Plots that don’t defy logic? Surely that’s not too much to ask?

Props…

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One lesson I’ve learned is that there are very few things that are simple about making films, even micro budget shorts. In fact, I was once told that when it comes to filmmaking, the general rule is that if it can go wrong, then it probably will. It might sound a bit pessimistic, but it’s true. Even on a short film, the amount of things that can go wrong, and therefore need to work for the project to be a success, is considerable.

Actors, crew, locations, cinematography, lighting, sound, editing, equipment, costumes/make-up and hair, production design and props are just a few of the things that are potential obstacles to getting your film made. As it happens, it’s that last item that’s giving me the biggest concern at the moment.

I’m working on a short called Runner, and one of the props we’ll need is an imitation handgun, equipped with a silencer. Now, the issue isn’t finding one, as even a basic internet search will draw up a long list of websites that provide imitation firearms for for short and feature length films. The issue has been what might be called the bureaucracy that goes along with it.

It’s not hard to see how using an imitation firearm might cause problems, especially when, as is the case with Runner, it will be an outdoor shoot. Now, every budding filmmaker wants to get noticed. However, I draw the line at getting noticed by the police, especially if they’re armed.

This is where drawing on the experience of your collaborators helps. Two of the crew members on Runner know the procedures to follow when using imitation firearms on a film, including how to go about notifying the police before filming.

It goes to show why filmmaking is such a collaborative process. Not only do you get to bounce ideas off other people, you get the benefits of their experience as well. In this, case, I knew what the script required (the ‘prop firearm’), but I didn’t have the experience of how to go about it.

It might seem like a small thing, but it brings me back to the advice I received about the potential for things to go wrong when making a film. No matter how trivial the ‘thing’ might be, there is a greater chance for things to go wrong if you aren’t prepared, and it’s far easier to be prepared when you have a group of people with whom you can collaborate.

We all have different gifts and skills, strengths and abilities. This is especially relevant when making a film. I’m discovering that one of the skills that a director needs is the ability to recognise what is needed to make any particular film, and find the people that can help to make that script a reality using those skills.

However, trying to do too much yourself only damages the film you’re trying to make, as it can take your focus from your own role, which will in turn affect your ability to manage your cast and crew effectively.

So, whatever the script calls for, it’s far better to meet those challenges with a decent sized group of collaborators around you. It might be the case that you don’t know the answer to a particular problem, but someone working with you might. If that’s the case, you might also discover that problem wasn’t as hard as you thought.

Reputations and the ‘box office flop’…

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Seeing the critical and commercial failure of the rebooted ‘Fantastic Four’ film, released last month, got me thinking: in the movie industry, reputations can be built up very quickly, but they can also be lost just as easily.

Rewind to 2012, and the film ‘Chronicle.’ A critical and commercial success, it marked out its director, Josh Trank, as one to watch. It wasn’t long before his name was being linked with a number of high profile franchises, and it was no surprise when he was chosen to helm the new ‘Fantastic Four’ outing.

Trank’s ‘one to watch’ status was further cemented when he also signed on to direct a spin-off film in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise. For a while it looked like Josh Trank was on the fast track to Hollywood’s A list of directors, a well received film under his belt and one, (soon to be two) franchises to his name.

Then, suddenly, things went a bit ‘off script.’ ‘Fantastic Four’ opened to poor reviews and a weak box office, while prior to that, Trank exited the ‘Star Wars’ spin-off, citing a desire to work on his own projects, rather than be attached to another existing property. However, perhaps more damaging are the rumours that Trank was difficult to work with during the ‘Fantastic Four’ shoot, which led to Disney executives deciding against hiring him to helm the ‘Star Wars’ spin-off.

For his part, Trank has accused Fox executives of meddling with the final cut of ‘Fantastic Four’, even to the point that entire sequences were removed. Whether this is true or not, or if Trank’s version would have resulted in a better reviewed and popular film, is beside the point. Trank’s example shows, again, how a bright reputation in Hollywood can suddenly be smothered in a wave of negative publicity and poor box office.

It’s highly reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s career trajectory. After ‘The Sixth Sense’, he was hailed in some quarters as ‘the new Spielberg.’ Then, a few box office and critical disasters later (the nadir surely being ‘The Last Airbender’. Or possibly ‘After Earth’) and suddenly all of that is forgotten, and even some of the very things that had marked him out as a talented writer-director (such as the last act twist) became evidence of creative indulgence.

However, in M. Night Shyamalan’s story there is reason for hope. If Hollywood secretly likes the classic ‘fall from grace’ story, then it’s just as hooked on the story of the comeback, the ‘phoenix from the flames’ tale of career redemption. Shyamalan, like others before him, has started his career rebuild on the small screen with the well received ‘Wayward Pines’, while he is also once again enjoying success on the big screen with ‘The Visit.’ A return to the low budget chiller territory of ‘The Sixth Sense’, it has seen Shyamalan get his best reviews and box office for a long time.

There are plenty of other examples in Hollywood of a career brought back from the brink of either off screen scandals, poor reviews, box office bombs or a combination of all three: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Downey Jr, Mickey Rourke, Drew Barrymore, Kiefer Sutherland, the list goes on. Of course, one box office flop doesn’t necessarily ruin a career, but it can certainly put the brakes on it for a while, as Andrew Stanton may have found when he moved from Pixar to the live action ‘John Carter’, and all the goodwill he’d garnered from his work at Pixar evaporated as ‘John Carter’ failed at the box office.

So what is the lesson to learn from all of this? As I said, in Hollywood reputations can be lost as quickly as they’re built. Though perhaps that wouldn’t be the case if we all, audiences and the media together, didn’t collude in building people up so much. For some, it’s just so they can take cruel delight in watching others fail, in other cases it’s because we expect too much of people like actors, etc, idolising them to the point that they can only fail to meet our high demands.

People are flawed, and no matter how talented a filmmaker, singer, politician or athlete might be, they will fail and make mistakes. It’s certainly a risk in filmmaking. Some ideas work, but some don’t. Even those that looked on paper like they would. Making films is a risky business, and sometimes they don’t pay off. If on some occasions we hype people up too quickly, then equally we write them off too quickly as well. It’s worth remembering that one film doesn’t make a young filmmaker the next Spielberg, Hitchcock or Scorsese, any more than one failure consigns them to the scrapheap.

Free Speech?

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Is it a human right to not be offended, or should we accept it as a side effect of free speech in a democratic country? It’s a big question, and it seems to be becoming more and more pressing at the moment. I started thinking about it this week after seeing a story in the news about a radio presenter, Alex Dyke, on BBC Radio Solent. Dyke had made some controversial comments during a phone-in discussion on his show.

The remarks concerned breastfeeding in public, which Dyke said “must be stopped”, while he labelled breastfeeding “unnatural.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down too well, and before long an online petition to have him taken off air had gathered more than 6,000 signatures. Even though Dyke eventually apologised, it was revealed he wouldn’t be presenting his show on Friday (14th August.)

Another familiar, and very modern, feature is the role of the internet in all of this. Moral panics and collective offence at something is nothing new, but the internet has the advantage of making it far easier for people to get those opinions out there. This democratisation of outrage has levelled the playing field, to the extent that it looks like all you need is a computer, an internet connection and a grasp of how to use Twitter, and you’re away.

The huge irony here is that the offended masses often argue that it is their right to not only take offence, but to register that offence publicly. Not only that, but by doing this they are exercising free speech, seemingly ignoring the fact that those who made the original comments could claim to have been doing just that.

I’m not saying we should be negligent and act with malicious intent. What I’m saying is that if we have free speech, and a free media, then that means, inevitably, people will get offended. If we as makers and consumers of media content value truth (and we should), then we need to remember that the truth can sometimes be inconvenient for some and cause them offence, no matter our intentions. The same is true for opinions, and if we truly believe in freedom of speech, we should believe that same freedom extends to those views that are opposed to ours, no matter how objectionable we might find them.

The alternative is a narrow orthodoxy that seeks to force its beliefs on other people, all the while claiming to defend democracy. It is this contradiction that is at the heart of the UK Government’s plans for Extremism Disruption Orders (EDO’s), where the definition of an extremist is worryingly loose and fluid, and could be applied to any view that is seen as threatening to mainstream opinions.

That’s really the issue here. If your views happen to line up with what is temporarily the majority view, then you might be in favour of the Government’s measures, or of censoring the ill judged and poorly phrased comments of a radio presenter. However, consider for a moment if your views aren’t considered mainstream, or if they used to be, but then times changed, and now you find yourself on the fringes of what is regarded as acceptable opinion.

Just look at the recent court case involving the Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland, accused of discrimination for refusing to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan that went against their Christian beliefs. Despite losing the case, they garnered a lot of support for their stance, even amongst some supporters of gay marriage, who perhaps recognised what the ruling actually represents: in seeking to protect the rights of certain groups, it’s now seemingly okay to discriminate against other groups. As well as being hypocritical, It’s nothing less than legally approved discrimination against Christianity.

Such anti-Christian sentiment is also evident in the media (and especially online) following Ireland’s legalisation of gay marriage, and the recent SCOTUS decision to allow gay marriage across America. Both demonstrate a worrying trend: it isn’t enough to object to an opposing view, we must demonise, slander and ridicule them, asserting that their views threaten the unity of our societies.

However, this neglects another important truth: it is this very drive to artificially create a uniformity of beliefs and opinions, and to rule out anything the majority rules as being offensive and divisive, that is actually the most offensive and divisive thing we can do. It’s the exact opposite of what a mature democracy should be doing: it’s not free, it’s not fair and it’s certainly not democratic.

The best is yet to come?

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The idea that art reflects the concerns and hopes of the society that produced it is nothing new. It’s probably even a cliche. However, it was on my mind recently as I’ve been catching up with the recent TV adaptation of ‘Twelve Monkeys.’ Based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name, it tells the story of a time traveller trying to prevent a virus outbreak that, in the future, will decimate the world’s population.

Watching ‘Twelve Monkeys’ got me thinking about what appears to be a trend for films and television to depict the future as being well, frankly a bit rubbish. The trend seems most marked in films targeted at teenagers. ‘The Hunger Games’ series is probably the most successful and well known current example, while we can also add the ‘Divergent’ series and ‘The Maze Runner’ franchise to that list as well. It’s also worth noting that all three examples are adaptations of successful young adult novels, which shows that pessimism about our future can be found on the bookshelves as well.

Of course, it’s nothing new. ‘Blade Runner’, released in 1982, (an adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is, for many film fans, a touchstone when it comes to dystopian science fiction. For anyone familiar with Philip K Dick’s work, (even from just watching the many film adaptations), there are the common themes of technology’s impact on mankind (very rarely positive) and the battle to preserve something human in the face of opposition, either from the state, the law or often technological advancements.

‘Total Recall’, ‘Minority Report’ (both also based on Philip K Dick stories), ‘Logan’s Run’, ‘In Time’, ‘The Terminator’ franchise, the ‘Robocop’ films, ‘Elysium’, ‘The 100’, the recent Channel 4 series ‘Humans.’ These are just a few examples off the top of my head of films/TV shows that present a cautious picture of the future, where technology has had a questionable impact upon mankind.

Even if it is a cliche, the argument that art can tell us much about the society that produced it is a compelling one, and slightly worrying when applied to this situation. This is because, if we take even just a few of the examples above, it presents a picture of a world that has taken a metaphorical look into the future, and what it has seen isn’t good.

It then begs the question: why? Why are we so pessimistic about what the future holds? Perhaps looking at what’s going on in the world may provide a clue as to why the dystopian future seems to have such a hold on the imaginations of writers and filmmakers. It is common for future-set stories to be a commentary of the times in which they were produced, so taking a look at what’s in the news may provide a reason for all the dystopian pessimism.

For example, Alan Moore’s ‘V For Vendetta’, which tells the story of a future United Kingdom ruled over by a fascistic, totalitarian state, can be seen as a product of the Thatcherite era, where there was concern at the policies of the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, while ‘Watchmen’ by Moore and Dave Gibbons, reflects the fears of nuclear conflict that were prevalent during the Cold War.

Therefore, art that is set in the future can be said to say more about the present than any concrete ideas about the years ahead. It’s not hard to pick a list of current concerns. Terrorism, economic uncertainty, global warming, crime, state control versus personal freedoms. In short, it’s no wonder that we are so negative about what the future holds if the present is anything to go by.

Looking at the dystopian nature of films like ‘The Hunger Games’ and The Terminator franchise also suggests that not only do we fear for the future, we don’t give ourselves much hope of then making things better. Take ‘The Hunger Games’ as an example. Without spoiling things, the conclusion of the trilogy implies that there isn’t that much difference between the tyrannical Capitol and the rebels, which leaves heroine Katniss Everdeen disillusioned. Was the fight all in vain, if at the end of it, the rebels are just as bad as the Capitol regime?

Mistrust. Uncertainty. These are common themes, and very telling as to what we think about the future: there are no easy answers, with the lines between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ blurred to the point where no one can be trusted. It’s either that or a future dominated by wars against powerful enemies, where victory is far from assured.

It’s tempting to see this as symptomatic of an increasingly godless world, one where we can’t agree on much except that things aren’t right, though we are completely at a loss as to what to do about it. To take this atheistic thinking to its natural conclusion, if there is nothing at the end of life, if this is all there is, then there is no hope. Not just for now, but for all time.

In this light, it’s no surprise that dystopian stories are so popular across a range of art forms, from films and books to video games like the popular ‘Fallout’ series and the forthcoming ‘The Division.’ It’s all very revealing about what this world thinks about itself: the problems are many, the solutions are few and far between, and the future is far from bright.

On Comic book films…

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The past few days have been a good time to be what might affectionately be called a geek. Sunday saw the culmination of Comic Con 2015, surely the high point of ‘geekery.’ Of course, you didn’t even need to be there to share in the excitement at the new trailers and announcements that were revealed during the convention in San Diego. Thanks to the internet, exclusives and trailers soon reached the masses, leading to often frenzied reactions, some even bordering on hysteria, such as the reaction to the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens footage.

As a big DC fan, two trailers in particular caught my attention: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, both, for the uninitiated, based on characters published by DC Comics. Naturally, reaction to both has been swift ever since the footage debuted. David Ayer, the director of Suicide Squad, openly stated that one of their aims in making the film was to be true to the comic book canon, which reflects the importance that fans attach to the material. The reaction was further proof of this, and neatly illustrated the size of the task awaiting any filmmaker adapting a comic book title.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Not said in reference to comic book adaptations, of course, but it fits them perfectly. For every reaction of the “I can’t wait to see this” kind, there were a few negative responses to these two big Warner Brothers/DC films. As I said above, comic book fans (of which I’m one) have a sense of ownership over their characters, to the extent that, in some cases at least, they believe that their preferred version of their favourite characters are the true depiction of that character, and any film adaptation must adhere closely to that. If it doesn’t, then the message boards won’t know what hit them.

Witness the reaction to Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman/Bruce Wayne, or when one of his predecessors in the cape and cowl, Michael Keaton, was cast in Tim Burton’s Batman. Cue a backlash from some angry fans in both cases. Much the same, in fact, to the reaction in some quarters when Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in The Dark Knight, or when Anne Hathaway was announced as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

There was a similar level of fan disquiet when Hugh Jackman was cast as Wolverine, with the complaint being that he’s too tall for the role, a gripe that still continues to this day, some fifteen years after the Australian was cast. Peyton Reed, director of Ant-Man, also experienced some negativity from fans when he was named as original helmer Edgar Wright’s replacement, when the Hot Fuzz director and fan favourite left the project.

Basically, comic book films are important, never more so than now. Even ignoring the box office that some of these films bring in, it’s hard to remember a time when comic book properties were so prevalent, on both the big and small screens. On TV there’s Gotham, set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, Arrow, The Flash, Marvel’s Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, with Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow (a sort of small screen Justice League with a collection of DC heroes) still to come.

Over on the silver screen, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad will be followed by solo outings for a number of DC’s big characters, including Wonder Woman, Batman, The Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern. Marvel will also continue their assault on the box office with debuts for Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange and Inhumans, while their X-Men stable at Fox will grow with 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and The New Mutants, with solo outings for other characters, including Wolverine and Deadpool.

Even the late nineties fads for disaster movies and teen comedies are dwarfed by this. All of this is good news if you’re a comic book fan, not so much if you’re not. As I said before, I’m a comic book fan, so I’m positively giddy with child-like excitement at the thought of it all. However, if I could inject a note of caution into the proceedings: with the sheer number of projects to come, there is a real danger of audience fatigue with all things superhero, as even some die hard comic book fans might agree.

A related risk is that, in an effort to stand out from an increasingly crowded field, filmmakers will take more and risks with the material. Surely a good thing? All of that depends on how it’s received by those hardcore fans. There is the fear that all it will take for the ‘superhero film bubble’ to burst is one or two high profile and costly failures. That’s the pessimistic view. On an optimistic note, comic book properties have such a built in and expectant fan base that there will always be a market for them. Arguably, these films are an integral part of the film calendar, especially the summer block buster movie season.

As much as some might object, it is hard to imagine a medium which allows for such variation, covering as many genres as comic book movies, while we only need to look at the varying ways in which Batman has been presented on film to see what a rich creative opportunity these characters represent for filmmakers.

All of which means that Batman, Superman, the Avengers and their other costumed ilk will be hanging around at the box office for a long time yet, delighting (and probably annoying some) comic book fans for many years to come.

Images and words…

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To begin: a very, very obvious point: film is a visual medium. Okay, now that’s out of the way, hopefully what follows will be a bit more in depth. Still, any film studies course worth the money will teach its students that, when it comes to making their films, they should “show, don’t tell”, or else something very similar. Visual medium, and all that.

That isn’t to say that sound design isn’t important. Of course it’s very important, especially at a time when even big budget film and television shows are routinely criticised for poor sound and muffled dialogue. However, the main language of film is, of course, visual. Therefore, the way that filmmakers convey meaning will be, primarily, through images. For example, a director could have his or her lead character convey their feelings of isolation by launching into a heartfelt monologue about loneliness. Or, the director could show the character’s loneliness by framing him/her sitting alone, using a wide angle lens, possibly at a distance, for example, or by carefully framing and blocking the scene.

So whether it’s lens choice or something as potentially simple as where the cast are placed in any scene, a director can suggest things like emotions, themes and major plot points without a line of dialogue. This is because, as important as words are, images are just as important in showing and conveying meaning, even unintentionally.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw the main poster for the new instalment in the Terminator franchise, ‘Terminator: Genisys.’ The poster features two of the film’s lead actors, Emilia Clarke (Sarah Connor) and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger (T-800.) Nothing unusual there. Both are brandishing some pretty fearsome looking guns (again, nothing unusual there), while Clarke is holding the severed head of a Terminator.

However, it’s the way that Clarke is positioned that is worth noting. Before I make this point, I’m aware that I might be accused of reading things into the image that aren’t intended. That being said, I think it’s fairly obvious from looking at the way that she’s standing, side on, that, (to put it carefully) a certain part of her body is being emphasised.

In case that might be dismissed as a coincidence, another promotional poster for the film, this time with just Emilia Clarke, has her positioned with her back to the camera. Coincidence? Some might suggest so. To the rest of us, it just looks like the marketing team have decided that Emilia Clarke’s bottom should be a major selling point for ‘Terminator: Genisys.”

It looks like the latest in a long line of examples where blockbusters have seemingly been content to play to the lowest common denominator when it comes to making money. At this point, some may object by claiming that, as these films often have a majority male audience, it’s simply giving the guys what they want. It is the film business, after all.

True enough. It isn’t called the film business for nothing. However, market principles and morality shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s especially important when we consider that many of these films will have a large teenage audience. For example, the recent ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service”, is pretty much a teenage version of James Bond. For one of its main promo posters, there is a clear focus on star Sofia Boutella’s behind.

Another coincidence? I don’t think so. It’s not as if the debate on sexualised female images in and around films is a new issue, even this year. ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ has been criticised for the portrayal of its lead female characters, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), especially in their costume design, This is a similar charge levelled at ‘San Andreas’ and the role played by Alexandra Daddario, whose character seems to be facing the possible destruction of California in jeans and a tiny vest. Then, of course, we could write many volumes chronicling the teenage boy-friendly ‘Transformers’ series, and especially its treatment of Megan Fox.

Even as an aspiring filmmaker, I recognise how the way a script is filmed and how individual scenes are shot can either enhance or detract from the material. It’s also important to remember how film has a visual language all of its own, where certain types of shots and camera moves have certain connotations. It’s why a continuing knowledge of camera techniques is vital for any filmmaker, as without it, we may unintentionally be depicting our actors and actresses in ways that suggest things no one ever intended.

Of course, the examples given above look intentional, which is a different matter entirely. As is the solution, which is far harder to come by, raising as it does questions of how much control actors have over how they are depicted in the final cut and in the promotional material for their work. Until an answer is found, however, it is likely that the trend of using an actress’ body, rather than her acting talent, as a way to sell tickets will continue.

When a change isn’t always good…

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The actress Michelle Rodriguez, (Avatar and The Fast and the Furious series), recently discovered how voicing your opinons on a controversial subject can come back to haunt you, especially through social media. In response to rumours that she could be in line to play a female version of the DC Comics character Green Lantern, she stated her opposition to white characters being altered into non-white minorities, during an interview with TMZ.

Unsurprisingly, her view generated a lot of internet chatter, much of it disagreeing with her comments. Many suggested that because strong, well written roles for non-white actors are in such short supply, changing white characters is a necessary step in order to give these actors good roles. For her part Michelle Rodriguez has since clarified her comments, posting a video on Facebook, where she apologised for “a tendency to speak without a filter”, although not, it seems, for the comments themselves.

As controversial as they were (and no doubt remain) I find myself agreeing with her. However, before I explain why, I want to make it clear that I believe the lack of well written roles for non-white actors in major studio films is a disgrace, especially when it comes to leading roles. The situation on the small screen is improving, with shows like How To Get Away With Murder, with Viola Davis, and Scandal, starring Kerry Washington in the lead role, although this is not before time.

All that being said, while I agree that there is an issue, I don’t believe that changing and re-writing white characters so that a non-white actor can be cast is the answer. At best, I think it’s a step towards adopting (even informally) a quota system, and at worst, it can ever be a case of re-writing history.

For example, a TV show is in development called Broad Squad, which centres on the first female graduates from Boston’s police academy during the 70’s. Despite the fact that this is a true story, and that all of the women were white, one of the four lead roles has been given to the black actress Rutina Wesley.

Even if you have a tenuous grasp of America’s history of race relations, you’ll know how much opposition a black recruit to any police force could possibly have faced at that time, even more so if that recruit happened to be female. However, by altering the past, it runs the risk of implying, even to a small extent, that things weren’t as bad as they actually were. It can make periods of history look more tolerant than they actually were, as if we’re looking at the past through the lens of our present day desire for racial harmony and tolerance.

While desire for tolerance is absolutely right, it should be built on an acceptance of the wrongs of the past, and not by pretending that things were far rosier than they actually were. In other words, we don’t address historical or present issues by lessening their severity, and by avoiding the scale of the issues we face.

What makes it worse is when challenging parts for black and minority ethnic characters are themselves changed. For example, the Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul is a rare example of a non-white character in comic books who is complex and multi-layered. However, in both of his recent live action depictions, he’s been played by white actors Liam Neeson (in Batman Begins) and Matt Nable (in Arrow.)

While both portrayals have been enjoyable to watch, it’s rather sad to see an important part of the character’s history changed. It was even more disappointing in Arrow, when producers cast Homeland actor Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir), as a high ranking member of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins, when he would have been a perfect fit for Ra’s himself.

To be clear again: I recognise that there is a sad shortage of good roles for non-white actors, especially lead roles, and even more so in mainstream studio projects. However, I think it’s sad that rather than concentrating on adapating those non-white characters that already exist (such as DC’s Cassandra Cain) or writing and developing original parts for non-white actors, studios are seemongly settling for just changing white characters. At best, it seems lazy, at worst, it’s an insult to the actors themselves. Crucially, it does nothing to solve what, sadly, remains a major issue.