Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 4: Laughing At Women, Not With Them

In the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, cranky Christopher Hitchens wrote a "provocative" article entitled, "Why Women Aren't Funny."  A hot topic among cultural critics and Jezebel readers, the article offers a confusing and all-too-common take on women and comedy at the dawn of the 21st century.  On the one hand, Mr. Hitchens seems to be saying that women have all the power, and making them laugh is the only thing men can do to get their attention; and on the other hand, he explains that women are burdened by more practical concerns, like giving birth, and therefore can't make light of the cruel world we live in.  Unfortunately, these conflicting attitudes also influence the portrayal of women in many of the submissions we receive. In fact, some of the gender-based characterizations are so antiquated it makes us wonder if the production team has ever met a human female in the flesh. And while these comic stereotypes are most prevalent in films made by male directors (who also send in the overwhelming majority of submissions, but that's for another post...), we've certainly seen them in work by female directors as well. When women are employed for comedy in these films, it's not because they get to tell the jokes; it's because they can be described as one or more of these three things:

They're Terrifying: The women in this category are all-powerful, all-knowing, and have very little interest in men. Or, at least, not in the "hapless" male protagonist.  Therefore, our Hapless Hero (very young, or very nerdy, armed only with his sense of humor) must persuade the Terrifying Lady (bold, self-reliant, built like the prow of a ship) to come down off her pedestal and be with him. While that may sound like the plot of nearly every Woody Allen movie, in the good ones (you know which ones), the woman is still her own person with her own objectives and romantic criteria. In a boon for the character in question, she may also be Diane Keaton. But in short films featuring the Terrifying Lady, she becomes "the enemy," even though she's also the main character's objective. She asserts herself as the antagonist every time she asserts herself as an individual.  We're supposed to laugh at the lengths to which the hero will go to win her heart, to bring her down to his level where she is no longer strong and terrifying.  But that doesn't make for a very convincing romance, comedy or film. It just sounds like wish-fulfillment.

They're Difficult: Another category with the funny woman as adversary, this type of woman is not a goal but an obstacle to be overcome. Why? Because she demands things of the male protagonist: money, time, attention, emotional engagement, gifts, romance, sex. As a result, the comedy comes from the put-upon man trying to meet the fickle needs of his woman, whose only purpose in life, apparently, is to flummox him. Irrational behavior is one of the cornerstones of comedy, George Burns & Gracie Allen being one of the most satisfying examples. But, unlike George Burns who directed all credit for their hilarity to Gracie, many of our submitting filmmakers seem genuinely angry with their Difficult Women. They play it for laughs but the underlying story is that these wacky women are holding the main character back, miring him in a dismal, half-hearted comedy when he should be starring in the sequel to Scarface, or some other lofty all-male endeavor. As in Mr. Hitchens' article, the comedy that stems from the Difficult Woman's petty day-to-day concerns ironically becomes the reason why "women aren't funny." Having a demanding and difficult antagonist is ripe for humor, if the woman is portrayed as an individual, but it loses its juice if she behaves that way simply because "that's how women are."  Because it's often not true.

They're Secretly Men: The weirdly positive category. In the recent film, "Up In the Air," the female lead says to her male counterpart, "Think of me as you, with a vagina." While the movie ultimately upends that idea, many of our submitting filmmakers seem to take the sentiment more seriously. The usual storyline goes like this: the young male lead develops a crush on his buxom, sassy co-worker/bartender/sister's friend. Once he gets her attention (haplessly; see "Terrifying" above), it becomes clear that they're both looking for the same thing: a buddy. She swears, she swaggers, she likes sports, she can hold her liquor; she's actually more "man" than he is. And she's got that sweet rack. The problem is, once you get past the whole "chick acting like a dude" thing, Secretly Man Woman doesn't provide any further conflict (or humor) because she doesn't have any of her own needs or goals. She's like a funhouse mirror where the protagonist sees only a reflection of himself, but with exciting new shapes. There will often be a female character from one of the other categories lingering on the sidelines, providing a vivid reminder of the kind of woman men don't want. She's bitchy, she's demanding, she's emotional, but all a guy really wants is a girl who's just one of the boys.

The solution to all of this is a simple one.  Filmmakers: take an interest in all of your characters.  Put yourself in their shoes, think about what they want, consider what they add to your story. One-note characters and stereotypes can get an easy laugh, but nothing beats the conflict of individuals with their own believable agendas. Sure, Hollywood gets away with casual sexism all the time, but we don't laugh when they do it either.  And we haven't even talked about women as lead characters!  But sadly we don't get very many of those either.  Needless to say, ignoring or shortchanging women leaves the comic potential of half the world's population unmined.  And that's a lot of short films waiting to be made.

Check back with us next week, when we'll be posting another Movies We Love entry, devoted to great funny women in short film.  Because we believe in negative AND positive reinforcement!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rob Cantrell to Guest Judge at March 6th Iron Mule Screening

We're pleased to have Rob Cantrell joining us a special guest judge at the March 6th Iron Mule screening.

Comedian Rob Cantrell, a Washington DC native, has performed stand up on several major networks, including CBS’s Late Late Show and as a Top 10 Finalist on the very first season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. He tours the World making people laugh, most recently as a member of the Marijuana- logues, and as a Celebrity Judge at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. Rob is a contributing writer for High Times Magazine and various TV Shows. In 2009, he was signed to Stellah Records and released his debut comedy/music album Keep On The Grass. Rob lives in Brooklyn with his wife and 14 imperial poodles.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Union Docs Screening at MoMA

We know we're a comedy film festival, but we'd like to recommend a non-comedy screening coming up; Union Docs as part of the Museum of Modern Art's Documentary Fortnight.

Union Docs is a remarkable organization, and this screening on February 20th marks their MoMA debut.  Congratulations to Union Docs!

Information about the screening, other and upcoming Union Docs screenings and events can be found here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Notes from our February 6th Screening

Greetings and thanks to those who got a coveted seat at last Saturday's show, our first-ever sold-out Iron Mule program! It was standing room only on a cold February night as we gathered for 12 short films, two trailers and our fancy new 3-D title intro. Almost as good as Avatar, and a hell of a lot shorter.

For those who've attended any Iron Mule shows in the last year, you may remember that this was the moment of truth for hosts Jay Stern & Victor Varnado who had each made a pledge to shoot a feature film before February or host that month's show naked. And boy, did they deliver!... their films. The audience was witness, not to the full monty, but to the trailers for Victor's movie, "Lasergun," and Jay's movie, "Jay Stern's Still Untitled Movie About a Ghost in an Apartment." While they both agreed that shooting a feature in a weekend may not be the way to go, it did kickstart both of them into working on their next project. In Victor's case, that means using the footage he shot to try and scare up money to go back and shoot it better, and in Jay's case, that's preparing for the other two features he plans to shoot this year.

On to the main event, Jay & Victor introduced our guest judge, Ritch Duncan, who shared some wisdom from the book he co-authored with October's guest judge Bob Powers entitled "The Werewolf's Guide to Life." After answering audience questions about silver bullets and the veracity of Teen Wolf, we began the evening with a pair of British films about trying to get ahead. "Audition," by Simon Brown, features a monkey puppet trying out for the role of Othello, and Kat Moon's "The Initiative," revolved around an office drone named First who always comes in second. Kat, a New York native, was on hand to tell us about making the film while attending the London Film School, and how her DP ended up starring in the film after her lead actor quit the night before shooting started.

Next up, "Official Selection" skewered the Hollywood "Art vs. Commerce" debate as two budding screenwriters battle to rewrite the movie they're in. And following that, previous Iron Mule participant Louis Grenier shared his latest short, "Don't Put That There," a monologue about littering that features footage he'd shot fifteen years ago and recently completed. Louis talked about the process of adding new footage to the film and how he first started recording his stand-up monologues. Checking in with our guest judge, Ritch explained that he had been taking "copious notes," such as "monkey puppet" and "exploding car." Any further opinions he was clearly keeping close to the vest.

We then moved on to an animation bloc, beginning with David Baas' "Skylight," from Canada. A mock nature documentary (and a rare success in the genre, see here), "Skylight" examines the majestic arctic penguin and the danger he faces from laserbeam-accurate holes in the ozone layer. After that, Iron Mule was very lucky to have longtime-viewer, first-time-screener Laurie Rosenwald on hand to share three of her animated films. Employing temps she pays "little or nothing" to set her cut-paper-collage animations into motion, Laurie's films use anecdotal monologues to explore superlatives, cable TV addiction, and other pitfalls of modern life. Her third film, "David's Diary," centers on a diary entry read by author David Sedaris, whose articles she has previously illustrated for The New Yorker.

Rounding out our competition entries for the evening, we ended with "Brinquedos (Toys)," a silent, surreal short from Brazil about a little girl's perilous quest for a doll carriage, and "Time Travel: An Allegory," from Portland, Maine filmmaker Ritchie Wilson. In the film, the main character invents a time machine to kill Hitler but mostly uses it to steal cereal, while his roommate watches the many doppelgangers come and go and tries to keep him from inadvertantly killing himself. Ritchie made the trip down from Portland to talk about the film and discuss how he came to live in Maine. (A girl was involved, he said mysteriously.)

Before concluding the program, we introduced a special guest in attendance: Ming-Yi Smith. She met future husband Alan Smith when she was chosen to be in the Wanna Be A Star? film "Kumquat," which Alan directed. The two hit it off immediately and went on to make a sequel, "Avocado," and last month tied the knot. (Their story was recently covered in this New York Times "Vows" article.) In honor of our first Iron Mule wedding, we screened "Kumquat" and talked with Ming-Yi about her memories of the shoot. This month's Wanna Be A Star? film, directed by Iron Mule producer Lin Sorensen, featured a couple Iron Mule faves, filmmaking team dp & Kasey Williamson. In the film, "Go For The Win," dp plays a job applicant struggling through a very unorthodox interview. So far, no one involved in the production has decided to get married. For more information on the Wanna Be A Star? competition, please visit our website and check out our next show for your chance to win.

After all the ballots had been collected, guest judge Ritch Duncan announced the winners: "Official Selection" won our Audience Award, and "Time Travel" picked up our Judges' Award. Congratulations to Vince & Ritchie on your accolades, and thanks to everyone who helped us pack the house. Our next show is March 6th and we'll have lots more great short comedy, including films from Germany, Newfoundland, and Los Angeles, so get your tickets early!