Improv and An Interview
By Katherine Schloss
In high school, my theater group was inextricably linked with the improv group, and I avoided my teenage angst by attending the improv shows when I wasn’t performing in productions for theater. I always envied the improvisers, cracking up at their wit and deeming their on-stage choices as “smart” despite the fact that I knew that I couldn’t do so myself. There’s a certain boldness that comes with throwing oneself out onto a stage, when you let down your barriers and allow your body to be a vessel for the promotion of a heightened sense of hilarity.
The more politically aware I became in the days leading up the 2016 presidential election, the more I turned to comedy as a refuge from the ever-changing (and often frustrating) political climate. Not only had it become a coping mechanism, it had also become a way to realize that I wasn’t alone in my feelings of turmoil within a world that already felt unsteady. My love for stand-up comedians such as John Mulaney has become a bit ridiculous, as I begin to idolize them and their ability to turn their own personal experiences into cultivated and relatable bits, just as an artist in the more traditional sense might curate a collection.
Improv, however, is a whole other beast. It involves split-second decisions, demanding that the improvisors generate material on the spot and in relation to the decisions of those around them, resulting in a sort of dance in which all of the players feed off of each others’ energies to create a larger masterpiece. Coming to college, I felt that initial drive to try new things and to diversify myself, but for whatever reason I always gravitate back to watching improv shows on Friday nights, quelling my swirling thoughts and allowing myself to give into the satisfying art of improvisation for a few charming hours. One of these groups is improv4charity, which has delivered clever shows with titles such as “Tie-Dye or Die Tying.” I decided to interview Colin Jindra, the president of the club, to gain some further insight on how improv, comedy, and art are all intertwined.
Kat: How is improv an art form to you?
Colin: Improv is about expressing yourself! Improv demands truth—you can’t do improv unless you let go of inhibitions and preconceptions and just let yourself come out on stage.
There’s also a certain magic that comes from the live nature of improv. While some people create with a pencil or a violin, an improviser creates with the energy in the room. There’s a give and take between the performers and the audience that you can’t find in scripted theater. Improv is fleeting and volatile, and there’s an intimacy that comes from that. Every single experience with improv is different.
Kat: What comedians, comedic movies, and shows do you find relevant right now and why?
Colin: I think late-night television comedians are among the most noteworthy entertainers of our time. With how politically turbulent these times are, late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah provide much-needed levity while still calling out absurdity where it exists. In my opinion, tough times are when comedians are at their most relevant.
Kat: What does improv do for you personally?
Colin: Improv has taught me how to present myself, engage with a crowd, and think on my feet. It trains me to recognize patterns and approach situations from a novel perspective. Most importantly, however, improv has allowed me to meet the closest friends I have ever had. Doing improv with someone really opens yourself up to them and forces you to rely on them, and because of that I have found a group of people I trust deeply.
Kat: What are the origins of i4c?
Colin: I4c has always been a subgroup of Theater for Charity. I cannot speak much to what i4c was like before I got here, but I know the group is only seven years old—and it has since grown very quickly in popularity in both its show attendance and its audition size.
Kat: What kinds of games do you do in practices?
Colin: Improv4charity performs short form improv, meaning we play mostly 3-5 minute games, like the type one would see performed on Whose Line Is It Anyway? “New Choice”, for instance, is a game in which the players act out a scene while the person running the game can prompt them to replace whatever they just said with something else. Some other examples of games are “Eulogy”, “Genre Replay”, and “Then There Was One” (an i4c original!). We also do long form sets in practice sometimes, which are 15+ minute improv sets with more free-form rules.
Kat: What is it like dealing with the different improv styles of each member of the group? Do you learn from one another?
Colin: Everyone has a different style, and that does give us a lot to learn from one another. I definitely think diversity of style is a strength that adds to our performances. Whenever we do a scene in practice, we have an open-floor discussion afterwards that allows everyone to offer their own input, so there is plenty of opportunity for performers to learn from one another.
Kat: Do you have any plugs for future shows?
Colin: Our last show of this semester is November 9th (so probably before this goes live), but information about all of our shows and events can be found at Facebook.com/improv4charity!
David Lynch and the Human Ear
By Jack Wareham
“It’s important that a film is loud and I hope many people agree. You should be inside of a film
when you go into a theater. It shouldn’t be way up the front of you. It should surround you,
envelope you, so you can live inside a dream.”
David Lynch is a director often associated with striking, iconic images. The ear in Blue Velvet,
and, of course, the film’s titular fabric (which has become an S&M emblem), the baby in
Eraserhead, as well as Jack Nance’s shock of vertical hair, and in Twin Peaks, the “Red Room,”
plus a cup of black coffee and slice of cherry pie. Lynch is equally well-known for his music,
like that nostalgic “Twin Peaks Theme” by Angelo Badalamenti, and Bobby Vinton’s kitschy
“Blue Velvet,” which remains stuck in my head for days every time I re-watch the film.
These images and songs gain their power, as well as their “Lynchian” quality, from their mixture of the commonplace and the strange. But part of what makes Lynch one of the most
transgressive and innovative American directors is his non-music sound: the auditory ambience that pervades his work and is crucial to what we think of as the Lynchian aesthetic.
Take a scene from Blue Velvet. Our starry-eyed protagonist (Kyle MacLachlan) takes a walk
through a suburban field and finds a severed ear lying in the grass, encrusted with dirt and pale
green mold, and crawling with ants. Lynch’s camera, which comes to represent our most
uncomfortable, carnal desires, slowly zooms into the ear canal. At first, McLachlan’s walk was
decorated with a quaintly suburban soundscape: the crunching of grass, cicadas buzzing, and
birds chirping (one bird’s call suspiciously resembles a child yelling “Mom!”).
But as he begins to discover the ear, we hear a low-tone industrial hum, and a close-up of the
decaying ear is paired with a quiet, high-pitched feedback noise. These techniques should be
familiar to the observant horror-film watcher, but the way Lynch’s sounds instantly recede once
the scene ends, without crescendo, is nothing short of unsettling. And, crucially, the suburban
soundscape does not fade out when the feedback noise enters; the two coexist.
That zoom-in shot of the ear has predecessors (the shower drain in Psycho) and successors
(Tarantino’s adolescent blood-fest in Reservoir Dogs), but it remains quintessentially Lynchian
in its uncanny mixture of banality and violence, especially with regards to sound.
It’s difficult to describe sounds, and I’ve never learned a formal vocabulary for studying ambient noise. Perhaps part of the pleasure of the soundscape in film is its imperceptibility – the way it creeps up all around you and “envelopes” you. But still, stopping to analyzing ambient noise in film upon repeat watches gives us a multitude of clues into the aesthetic strategies of directors. No analysis of an auteur’s style would be complete without understanding sound, which, after all, accounts for 50% of the cinematic experience.
‘Let's get this guilt’: Exorcising white guilt at ‘The Breadwinner’
by Nash Croker
At the end of my first month in America, on a whim and a 3-month-old recommendation, I headed down to BAMPFA for an all-age matinee showing of The Breadwinner (2017). Nora Twomey’s adaptation delivered a beautifully animated tale of humanity in the face of brutal hardship. A story, mirrored by its own childlike meta-narrative, of a young Afghan girl (Parvana) who dresses as a boy to care for her family when her father is arrested by the Taliban.
For a story so obsessed with the power of storytelling, however, it was only upon hearing the theatre erupt in applause upon its conclusion that the political role of its own story became apparent.
Deborah Ellis, the author of the book the film is based upon, is a white Canadian woman. Nora Twomey, the director of the film, is a white Irish woman. Angelina Jolie, a celebrated white American actor and filmmaker, is an executive producer of the film. The audience with whom I watched the film were predominantly white students of an American Public University. To state these facts is not to condemn these people for their whiteness, their gender, their nationality or their relationship to the production of the film. Instead, it is to locate the production and reception of this story in structural power relations.
As soon as its storybook visuals unfurl the first thing to notice about The Breadwinner is the language. With no subtitles and only a scattering of Arabic, The Breadwinner is fully voiced in English by a cast of largely migrant-Canadian actors of colour. This choice immediately asserts that the film and this story are for a Western audience. Unashamedly, The Breadwinner is a film about brown people, made by white people for white people. As such, the power relations between the film’s subject and its intended audience are central to the production and reception of the story.
The story is one of persevering humanity and acts of love in the face of devastating material hardship. Yet the causes of this material hardship are intentionally left unexplained. So much of The Breadwinner is about the power of storytelling, and it is through the artifice of storytelling that the film simplifies and obscures the ‘real-ness’ of this fictional version of reality. Even as a cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel the simplicity of its storytelling and eradication of Western intervention in Afghanistan is so severe as to question its political motivation.
Kabul’s decline and the rise of the Taliban is left explained only by ‘an invasion’ and civil war in Parvana’s father’s story. This simplified tale is not for her, but for the white Western audience. The childlike frame of reception evades any notion of Western influence for the material hardship our protagonist finds herself in. There is no exposition of the CIA’s arming and financing of the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion, or the ongoing war in Afghanistan preceded by the US
invasion in 2001. Instead, the ‘war’ that breaks out near the film’s conclusion is left woefully unexplained.
The plot itself is also mirrored by Parvana’s own tale, told to her younger brother, of a boy determined to overcome an ‘evil mountain elephant’. This use of meta-narratives to augment the main story highlights the film’s own political role in providing a naive simplification of decades of Western intervention in Afghanistan and the Middle East. So much as Parvana treats her brother to a storybook retelling of the plot, The Breadwinner treats its audience to a guilt-free moralising tale of human hardship.
Furthermore, as a review of the film in Variety magazine asserts, it is not only through simplified meta-narratives, but through the use of animation that The Breadwinner avoids confronting the human reality of its subject. “If “The Breadwinner” were a live-action film, it would be virtually unbearable to watch, but as animation, it’s not only possible, but somehow inspiring to immerse oneself in this pared-down adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ well-regarded young-adult novel” (Variety, November 2017). Not only does the animation mask the real human face of its fictionalised subject, but combined with a use of English language the white Western audience does not confront a real life Afghani population. In its own way, the animated, voice-acted characters in The Breadwinner are a Westernised fictional creation, substituted for the actual faces of this material hardship.
Ultimately, it is only upon witnessing the audience’s own collective reaction to the film that its political machinations become apparent. So much as the animated characters are meant to mask the human Afghani subject, they allow the Western audience to better empathise and see themselves on screen. Not only does the film’s title apply a Western capitalist conception of gendered division of labour, but it takes a markedly Western feminist portrayal of Muslim women’s experience of the burqa. For 94 minutes then, the audience is immersed in an albeit sanitised experience of material hardship.
Upon its conclusion, the clapping that follows does not serve to thank the producers and cast of the film for their art. Instead the only witness to the applause are other cinema-goers. To clap at film then is a self-serving act, one that signifies one’s own appreciation and public reputation in relation to the film. Applied to the veritable de-politicised story of The Breadwinner, the audience applause serves to both show the personal importance of having experienced this tale of hardship while simultaneously pulling them out of it, reasserting their privileged status as beneficiaries of the violence to which this material hardship owes its construction.
In essence, the political role of The Breadwinner’s story is a cathartic exercise of white guilt. It is the audience’s realisation of this that is expressed in its applause.
By Ryan Simpkins
The day had been shit. I was in bed, angry with men and anxious about something, wanting some escape from a bad mood. My best friend, Cloe, was in a similar headspace. We usually worked to shake off the shitty days by watching some primo teenaged content, like Twin-Peaks-wanna-be Riverdale or sexless romance Twilight. So we decided to bunker down, drink some wine, and watch Megan Fox be hot and eat boys.
Upon its release in 2009, Jennifer’s Body was written off as a money grabber without merit. Hollywood was not yet fatigued with Megan Fox, still shaping her into the sex appeal they wanted her to be as 14 year old boys drooling in their Transformers pajamas. Amanda Seyfried was fresh from her Mamma Mia fame, looking for an edgy role to oppose that of the “young and sweet”. The film was prime for Hot Topic promo as pop punk boy band Panic! At The Disco adorned the soundtrack, and a Fall Out Boy was poster prominently featured in the very first scene. Hollywood was tapping into emo girls’ dreams of vampire boyfriends and Paramore love songs. Critics shut Jennifer down before its release as a movie about girls made for boys who’d pay money to watch them kiss. It looked like just another teen movie. And director Karyn Kusama was keenly aware.
The film centers on closeted gal pals Needy and Jennifer (played by Seyfried and Fox). The two mimic a stereotype like that found in Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, the short skirted cheer captain and the girl on the bleachers; the difference here being they’re best friends. The girls have a complicated relationship, balancing intense admiration with power play, one knocking the other down or picking her up depending on which ego craves when. This back and forth reaches its peak when eyeliner wearing indie band Low Shoulder comes to town. The boy band abducts slurring, drunken Jennifer and sacrifice her supposedly virgin soul to Satan in exchange for becoming “...rich and awesome, like that guy from Maroon 5.” The band is mistaken, however, as our high school queen bee isn’t even a “backdoor virgin,” and so their attempted sacrifice results in Jennifer’s return to the mortal world as a flesh eating demon. She enacts violence on vulnerable teenage boys, luring them with sex before eating them alive. Needy comes to understand Jennifer is now more than a teenage girl; she has become something of hell itself. And so Needy must work to save the innocent from her murderous girlfriend, a plight explored with the sensitivity of a teenage girl’s. The tone is angry and jealous and rash because it’s one of heartbreak as Needy and Jennifer’s relationship is strained against heteronormativity, sexual ego, and violence.
The film casts Fox perfectly as a young girl sexualized by the grown men around her: her youth and sexual energy is taken advantage of by older men with authoritative status. In Jennifer, it’s the band or the deputy sheriff. In Fox’s young career, it’s men like Michael Bay. Kusama’s casting of Fox is vengeful. Jennifer uses male attraction lure them in, to devour them, to grow stronger, while performative heterosexuality allows her to enjoy her romance with Needy privately and intimately. Jennifer takes advantage of the heteropatriarchy in place, letting it empower her while enacting a subtle but deadly queer resistance.
I do not know if Kusama is queer herself, but she sure knows how to make a movie gay as hell. Jennifer lives and breathes Camp, an aesthetic of exaggeration and difference prominent in proudly gay movies. The film fully embraces young homosexuality with iconic Diablo Cody one liners on “going both ways” (murdering boys and girls) or being “totally lesbi-gay”. The film handles queer sex in a different light than that of straight couples. A strange scene plays out where Needy has sex with her boyfriend, Chip, for the first time. This is edited alongside a scene where Jennifer lures in her latest victim, the school’s resident emo and Needy’s perhaps closer-than-friends pal Colin. Needy’s sex starts innocently enough with an awkward condom fumble and creaking mattress box springs, lights fully on. Creaking floorboards and squeaking rats surround Jennifer and Colin as she seduces him, stabs him, and eats him alive. Visions of this come to Needy mid-copulation, seeing Jennifer atop Colin, eating his throat out, her chin wet with blood. Needy screams in horror, and while Chip reacts, he doesn’t stop, an almost proud look on his face, as though PornHub taught her painful noises signified pleasure. The hetero sex scenes are awkward and violent, ending in either pain or death. The moments shared between Jennifer and Needy, however, are sensual and intimate. Lights are dimmed and the camera is close while catching skin against skin or a hand running through hair. The moment between them doesn’t happen because it’s supposed to (as a boyfriend and girlfriend will eventually have sex) or because it has to (as Jennifer’s life depends on consuming her male partners). They do it because they want to. Critics misunderstood the film by seeing it from the male perspective, expecting smut for teenage boys rather than the antithesis of that: a genuine exploration of gay girls.
While the film’s marketing may not have targeted such an audience, Kusama knows she is making a movie for women. She understands their paranoia and desire, working to represent them in a genre that usually throws them away. One liners welcome a female knowingness as Jennifer is impaled with a pole and retorts by asking for a tampon. Other moments are darker, playing on female anxieties. The image of a foggy field where a man stalks a woman is familiar. Kusama flips this, depicting an unknowing Chip alone at night with an out-of-focus Jennifer emerging behind him from the fog, her white dress billowing behind her. The camera implements a female gaze here aligned with a teenage girl, giving a certain satisfaction with the fear. A teenage girl knows never to walk alone at night. We know not to follow strange men into forests or abandoned houses or their dark vans; we know what’s on the other side. Even if pre-demon Jennifer knew this too, a famous man she admired took advantage of her intoxication and led her to what waits there. He and his band abduct her, driving her to the middle of the woods to take advantage of her virginity. The fear of sexual assault is as real to the characters in the film as it is to the women watching it, Jennifer even asking if r*pe is their intention. While the intention of the band differs, the intention of the director is to invoke this primal femme fear, all too familiar with warnings against strange men in vans. Jennifer is tied to a tree, alone with only her assaultants. The men laugh and joke as she screams for help. They even sing as they stab her to death before her body drops into a ravine. But Jennifer’s impurity saves her from death, yet another horror trope Kusama turns on its head. And so we watch as she wreaks havoc on a society of men who cornered her into the hot girl role, exploring a type of reverse rape-culture (a term coined by critic Kristy Puchko).
Jennifer has developed a bit of a cult status since its flat 2009 release. I remember rolling my eyes at it then when I was only 11, turning any curiosity around Jennifer and her body into resentment towards “airhead” hot girls. That began to shift when I got to high school, the cool queer girl I looked up to talking about the film like white boys talk Mission Impossible. I became cautiously possessed for a moment, checking stills and reading the Wikipedia plot synopsis like I did for most horror movies I was too scared to see. I proudly watched the official “New Perspective” music video where Brendon Urie walked through the halls of my very own high school, intercut with clips of Megan Fox strutting the fictional halls of her’s. I don’t know why it took me till this October to decide to watch the film itself, post my misdirected Megan Fox hatred, post my pop punk phase. Vox recently published an article on the film’s newfound cult status, claiming the people of 2009 weren’t ready for Cody and Kusama’s feminist zom-com. I disagree. I just think the hate around the film was “invented by the boy-run media to make us seem like we’re crazy” for wanting to watch a hot zombie kill dudes and kiss ladies. But maybe that’s just me.