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Detroit

“Nervous breakdowns/Crowd the calendar of freedom/When reality is forced upon the nonbeliever’s ego plan/Criticizers/From the hanging cliffs of plenty/Laugh to see the fall of those/Who would remain in honest lands/Clairvoyants strive to see/The plans of those who need to know/What lies beyond the seeing tree of life” – Eugene McDaniels, Unspoken Dreams Of Light, from the album Outlaw, 1970

 DETROIT

When I saw Detroit last Tuesday, I believe that I was fortunate enough to have a wholly unique viewing experience. I assume that unlike most white male viewers I had a special “tour guide” in the form of a running commentary from two elderly Black women seated directly behind me. In many respects this commentary provided a good deal that the film did not. Though these two women restricted most of their commentary to the fashions of 1967, their personal reminisces that accompanied these asides were highly enlightening. The Black Culture of 1967 that was too elusive in Detroit became almost tangible to me thanks to my fellow spectators. Now I cannot imagine making it through the entire film without them.

The fact that the cultural context for Detroit came not from the film itself but from my fellow spectators indicates the primary failure of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film. A film which sets as its objective the “education” of an audience should be more inclusive, prioritizing the context of its protagonists so that, from the vantage point of 2017, we may understand and even recognize the dramatic stakes proposed by the film. A recent publication in the Huffington Post, ‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible And Dangerous Movie This Year  by Jeanne Theoharis, Mary Phillips, and Say Burgin, points to some of the major omissions of historical events as well as the political ramifications of said inclusions and omissions.

This half-hearted approach to Black Culture in a film made by white filmmakers condemning racism squarely places Detroit within the tradition of Richard Brooks’ or Stanley Kramer’s civil rights oriented films of the fifties and sixties. Kramer’s use of caricature, narrative cliché, and preachy dialogue seems out-of-place in a film of 2017; it may even be dangerous. When Stanley Kramer was making his films Oscar Micheaux had already completed more than two dozen films that had never been released widely to white audiences (J. Hoberman’s excellent essay on Micheaux is collected in his book Vulgar Modernism). Black filmmakers before 1970 were almost exclusively left to exhibit their films on a regional level (New York based filmmakers screened their work there, Memphis filmmakers screened their films there, etc). The segregation of American cinema in the fifties and sixties and even before is what makes Kramer’s films such important political documents. In other words, Kramer’s voice was one of the few audiences all over the U.S. heard at the cinemas on the subject of civil rights. Today Black filmmakers have found a more general mainstream acceptance, so issues of racism in this country do not have to wait for a “white savior” like Stanley Kramer to stick up for them. It is almost impossible to imagine what a filmmaker like Oscar Micheaux would have been capable of if he had had the opportunities of Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins or Steve McQueen.

The films that have endured by white and black filmmakers alike about America’s racial conflict are the ones that have not sought to explicitly propagate one agenda over another. Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), and Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (2012) and The Butler (2015) all take an equally compassionate view of their characters regardless of race; prioritizing character over politics and thus finding something closer to the truth with regards as to how race affects human beings on an acutely personal level.

Detroit does not offer viewers human beings, only character types and sketches, distilling the life out of its characters both Black and White. This has the unusual effect of placing Detroit more in line, in terms of genre, with the home invasion thriller than with the historical drama. Detroit, like any good exploitation film, favors the spectacle of violence, revelling like a sadist in scenes of torture and depravity. The only “message” this tactic can offer viewers and the only understanding of the event in our history Detroit seems ready to share is that racism is violent and bad. This juvenile interpretation of these historical events both demeans its survivors as well as leaves viewers ill-equipped to address this kind of racial violence after seeing the film.

Detroit

For myself personally, the truly frightening aspect of racism is that it can be found anywhere. People and co-workers one may assume one knows could in fact harbor some of the most revolting kinds of racism. Costa-Gravas’ film Betrayed (1988) takes this as its thesis, constructing around this idea a uniquely disconcerting thriller. However, this kind of terror can only be made manifest on the screen if the film attempts to construct actual characters.

Bigelow and Boal have most certainly accomplished the antithesis of their goal. Detroit does not work as a film about the Detroit race riots of 1967. Detroit is an exploitation film, dressed up with a major budget and sold as a quasi “historical revelation”. Its great accomplishment will be to offend, and in so doing prove just how out of touch White Hollywood still is with the problems of Black America today and yesterday.

-Robert Curry

 

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How I Wrote Julie Lovely

by Thomas Lampion

Origins

I don’t remember where the name Julie Lovely came from, let alone how the project even came about but both the screenplay and pre-production for the film have taken over three years of my life. My collaborator Robert Curry certainly remembers, though he couldn’t tell you where the title came from either. It was apparently conceived in the balmy summer of 2010, a series of hazy conversations in a suburb outside of Philadelphia in some stranger’s swimming pool at a party we’d likely crashed. It entailed my favorite novel Alice in Wonderland, silent film, mysticism, witchcraft and cults, all colliding into the dream-film we’d want to make together one day.

Fast forward to the end of 2012 when I left an abusive relationship in Chicago, returning to Philadelphia unsure of what to do with my life in nearly every capacity, I fled a job, an apartment and an entire way of life that I thought would never change. Robert called to have a meeting. He proposed that we work on a project together, and that I write a screenplay for a full length feature called Julie Lovely.

‘Julie who’?  I asked after Robert excitedly pitched what would be Zimbo Films latest and most ambitious undertaking.

‘You really don’t remember do you’? Robert asked, disappointed.

A lot had happened since 2010. I could remember every dreary Chicago winter and dead end apartment of my life from then on but could barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone a conversation from way back when. I shook my head sadly.

‘Well, why don’t you just write it anyway’?

And so I did, and over the years Julie Lovely has grown to mean a lot of things and has changed drastically from that long summer night. A lesbian myth, a love story, a Coming of Age story, a love letter to silent film, a work of horror, a depiction of the gradual death of the 1920’s giving way to the Great Depression to the 1960’s of racial and cultural strife.

portrait of Julie Lovely by Thomas Lampion

The Story

Julie is an American girl in 1969, the year Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education passed through the Supreme Court, ordering the complete Racial Integration of the Public School System in the South. Like many White parents of the time, Julie’s mother and father decide to enroll her elsewhere, going so far as to take her to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Somewhere down the line, Julie’s father crashes the car killing both parents. Julie is left alive, but physically altered by head trauma; she wanders away from the scene, and into the forest where she encounters a boarding school. Is this where she was going? Clearly not, Our Lady of Our Forest Academy for Young Girls has been abandoned over 40 years because of a notorious series of murders.

Julie has found herself back in time, at an institution embroiled in the madness of religious hysteria. Spearheaded by the monstrous Headmistress Professor Mädchen, the school is going broke at the head of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Parents can’t pay tuition; some students are even virtually abandoned. Discord and chaos abound among a school where all of the instructors have fled and several students are missing. It doesn’t take long for Julie to figure out where they went; to Mädchen’s basement or the bottom of the courtyard. Words of an uprising begin to circulate amongst the girls- who are tired of watching their friends vanish, in a setting where punishment and execution is now commonplace.

Julie enters the school secretly, tip-toeing down halls and peering through doorways as the semester continues all those years ago. Almost no one can see or hear her, except a girl named Juliette, along with a few other girls, Juliette grows to believe that Julie is their savior, an obscure Saint by the name of Juliana. Quickly, those who see or believe in her have deified the seemingly unfazed Julie, becomes more invested in the fate of Juliette, who has unfortunately caught the attention of a blood hungry Professor Mädchen for her revolutionary activities and professed love for the Spectre Julie. Is this all a ghost story, or is it all the product of Julie’s now injured brain?

Influences and the Schoolyard Melodrama

Certainly no screenplay ever just dropped out of the sky and onto a writers head. To write an effective script it is necessary, no, mandatory  that a screenwriter pore over countless films  both good and bad to be able to understand the plot, structure and order of a screenplay. You could write an earth-shattering novel or a passionate poem from the bottom of your heart but no one writes a screenplay like Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights. The form of writing one is entirely too technical and stifling, the script is merely an interpretation of a story that is often different than the one hopefully shot and edited on screen. Julie Lovely is a film heavily influenced not only by genres but other eras of film altogether, including the 1920’s and 60’s. Perhaps the kernel to not only the story, but the aesthetic of Julie Lovely is a film my colleague Alicia Eler alerted me to once I started writing about film- Mädchen in Uniform, is a German film made in 1930, set in a Prussian boarding school. It tells the story of a girl who falls madly in love with her female teacher and all of the troubles that arise. What so excited me about Mädchen was the fact that it was such an early sound film that used the technical conventions of silent film, beating its Hollywood contemporaries with a sophistication and flair. Not only that, it was a film that so brazenly addressed lesbianism and sexual anxiety so soon before the Nazi’s rise to power.

More important yet was the marijuana-induced viewing of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in High School, which takes the same conventions as Mädchen such as lesbian yearning and repressive rules and places it in a world of beauty and existential dread, centering on the mysterious disappearances and deaths at an Australian Boarding School for girls in the early 1900’s.

Julie Lovely is unabashedly a genre film in one of the strangest genres of them all, the Schoolyard Melodrama. Often lumped into the category of a “coming of age” story, the conventions of the Schoolyard Melodrama are both aesthetically and metaphorically different. While a coming of age story will tell you what it means to grow from a child to an adult, films in this genre use the Boarding School as a metaphor for the conformity and rigid rules adults impose on children and how impossible, even cruel they are once they are set loose into the adult world.

Films such as Mädchen in Uniform and Picnic at Hanging Rock address this vicious cycle and what happens in the wake of any transgression or move against the grain.

 Personal Connections

In my initial drafts of Julie Lovely, I felt not only unsatisfied with its hodgepodge of symbolism and allusions to the Horror genre; I felt I had no real emotional connection to the material. If there is no real way for you to establish some emotional bearing on a story and its characters, a script will do virtually no work for you. Find whatever you can, no matter what minute detail to help you find something visceral and real about the world you’re trying to establish. My trouble was in the beginning, I found Julie and her parents had nothing important to talk about besides going to a new school. What connected them, and what was now tearing them apart? Furthermore, why were Julie’s parents taking her away in the first place? I had no real timeline of when and where all of this was taking place. I thought about my own family, my own mother in particular who grew up in the turbulent 60s and was in fact, about to start High School when Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education passed in 1969. My mother gave me the history lessons they weren’t going to give at school, ones that abounded in race riots, armed brutality and even stuffing one of her best friends in the back of my grandmother’s car trunk to avoid the police. I also thought of my Grandmother who in 1931, was born to back-breaking poverty in the height of the Great Depression in the backwoods of Madison County, North Carolina. Having grown up under her dotage from infanthood to age nine, I understood she was the product of another generation, whose ethics and morals were entirely different from those of my mother, merely because they both experienced the same things but at completely different times and perspectives. I learned that in reality, I wanted to make a film about the broken dialogue and tension between two generations of people, a generation of survival against a generation of change. Through this film, I channeled not only my mother, but a family of people some alive, some dead that helped me go in deeper as a writer.

Julie Lovely character sketch by Thomas Lampion

Establishing Symbols and Images

Julie Lovely is a film whose aesthetic and imagery are synonymous with production and was created through dozens upon dozens of sketches and drawings before a script was ever written. Julie is a film whose aesthetic and symbols are just as important as any scene. Religious hysteria is the undercurrent of horror within the film; the schoolgirls love cult created around the mysterious Julie whom they believe to be Saint Juliana is inspired by the occult iconography prevalent in films by Kenneth Anger and the burgeoning counter-cultures of the 60’s. Catholicism, its mystical cousin Rosicrucianism and European Witchcraft intermingle as a battle between Christian and Pagan rituals ideals and stands in as a metaphor between Adult and Child. Often, drawings were able to help me decipher plot points and characters that wouldn’t appear by just merely sitting at a computer. The more one fleshes out a character from everything to their hair down to their clothes, the rest of the work does itself, it was always my top concern that a story can only go so far without bold and memorable characters, their complications and subtleties can be worked on later, and can only exist with an actor.

Constructing a Screenplay and the Silent Method

It’s difficult navigating the absurdism of writing about writing a screenplay. The script is the cradle in which all of a films ideas and values are laid. But it’s also just that, a series of ideas on pieces of paper, which may or may not ever get made depending on well over a thousand reasons. What makes Julie Lovely’s screenplay different from others and furthermore difficult to write is the fact that there are only ten minutes of the film with dialogue sound, the beginning of the film before her parent’s fatal car crash. Just as Dorothy leaves a Black and White Kansas for a Technicolor Oz, Julie leaves her parents bodies for a silent film world. It is timely that the film reverts from 1969 to 1929. By then, Hollywood was already scattering to arrange their films for sound, leaving the conventions and technological advancements of silent film in its wake. By completely altering the sound-scape of the film, we are able to fully explore and decipher the symbolism and imagery presented to us.

What the script of Julie Lovely offers to do is tell an effective story in the most unconventional way possible and do it in a way that’s never quite been done before. What the script will provide will be an entirely organic experience between directors, crew and actors in how to effectively evoke the conventions of the silent film method as though it were brand new. The actor’s experiences and reactions will be based entirely around the surroundings and aesthetic, leaving little way to being confounded by the usual and often literal technicalities of a standard spec script with hit the mark dialogue and the anxiety of foley sound, dubbing and post dubbing. Sound will generally be important as foley that will contribute to the film score. By doing so, we will be able to give the camera an infinite freedom as seen through classic silent film, allowing us to pay more attention to the visual iconography as depicted by its actors and its sets. This process, lending to the fact that the script often only gives a general idea to how each scene will go, also gives way to potential improvisation and allow even more input from cast and crew as to how each scene can be effectively depicting each scene.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to effectively explain not only the screenwriting process but exactly what kind of screenplay Julie Lovely is and how it will be depicted on screen. It’s been a long time, and nothing excites me more than to be able to illuminate our readers and fans about how much work goes into the creation of a film, its writing, its influences and maybe we can provide  advice to anyone out there who is also trying to write and get a film project off the ground.

 

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The Intruder: An Appreciation

Charles Beaumont made a career of writing macabre stories whose slight removal from the reality we know and share gave them a urgenency and horror that would influence a generation.  In popular culture he is most renowned for his work writing for The Twilight Zone.  Though his career spanned just less than twenty years Beaumont’s work provides today’s audiences and readers with a unique glimpse at the psychology of America at the height of its social and political upheaval.  In adapting his novel The Intruder for the screen as a project for producer/director Roger Corman in 1962, Beaumont has given us what may be the best account of the racial violence in the deep south of the time.

The Intruder

The film follows Adam Cramer (William Shatner), who arrives in a small town called Caxton.  Cramer is charming, intelligent, and does not appear at all threatening at the outset of the film.  But when it becomes clear that he has come to Caxton with the intention of halting the court-ordered integration of the local high school, a darker, hateful side of his character comes to light.  The ominous quality of Taylor Byars’ photography of Shatner clearly signifies that the audiences’ sympathies should not be with the pro-segregation characters.  This is reinforced by Corman’s choice of casting locals, and presenting African-American characters first within the context of a functioning family unit (a rarity at the time).  Later this will serve to dramatize the ramifications of Cramer’s allegations of interracial rape; a sequence whose macabre design, complete with Klansmen, foreshadows Corman’s Masque Of The Red Death (1964).

In the tradition of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963), The Intruder packages its edgey social commentary in the vernacular of the B-Movie.  But it is Corman’s film that truly confronts the controversial issue of its day head-on.  What the B-Movies of the early sixties didn’t have to worry about, at least not to as great an extent, was the press.  Films such as Martin Ritt’s Edge Of The City (1957) and Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) cost nearly three times as much as The Intruder and featured big-name stars like Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis (William Shatner would not be a household name for four more years when he is cast as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek).  The mainstream could not afford to isolate its audiences with either the truth of racial violence or the bluntness of their liberal message.  What filmmakers like Ritt and Kramer could do was to suggest the injustice of laws such as segregation and allude to racial violence in their films.  The minute Corman shows us Cramer driving into the “black neighborhood” of Caxton with Klansmen in the back seat he has immediately surpassed these other films in terms of the directness of his political and social agenda.

William Shatner in Roger Corman's The Intruder

Though The Intruder can be seen today as a remarkable film for its time, when it was originally completed Corman had to struggle to find it distribution.  Even then audiences were not receptive to the films shocking portrayal of racism despite the fact that The Intruder was getting predominantly favorable reviews.  It’s been due to William Shatner’s and Roger Corman’s ever evolving cult statuses that The Intruder has remained in print and available for viewing in the years since.  Though it has been confusing at times since I have seen home video releases of the film under the three different names the film was originally marketed as, both nationally and internationally, including the comical title I Hate Your Guts!.  But that just goes to show that it is the film’s makers who are the selling point not the film.  Hopefully, that will change.

-Robert Curry

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