We lost filmmaker Michael Cimino, filmmaker of the critically-acclaimed Vietnam War masterpiece The Deer Hunter and the critically-lambasted western epic Heaven's Gate, over the weekend. Cimino was ambitious (some would say overly-ambitious) and detail-oriented; in the best of his work, you get to know the characters intimately and feel their joy and sorrow viscerally. One thing that touches me about The Deer Hunter is how it gives us a group portrait of simple, blue collar folks working in steel mills or bars or grocery stores for not much money... Working class people are often overlooked or caricatured by Hollywood, but Cimino allows them a universal humanity. And as for Heaven's Gate, I like how Jason Reitman (director of Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and Up in the Air) put it:
"Heavens Gate was the bravest swing for the fences.
May we all be that bold when we turn on the camera."
Speaking of films recognizing working class people's humanity and featuring Robert De Niro... I just last week watched David O. Russell's 2015 movie Joy, an inspiring, emotionally affecting movie that earns every laugh and throat lump it evokes. Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman who's fallen on financial hard times and spent her adult life taking care of her dysfunctional family members (including her father Robert De Niro, her mother Virginia Madsen, her grandmother Diane Ladd, and her ex-husband Edgar Ramírez) instead of living her own life. The story kicks in just before she finds an opportunity to apply her ingenuity and smarts, with assistance (and sometimes setbacks) courtesy of those around her. Lawrence, possibly the best actor of her generation, is vulnerable and strong in the title role. De Niro, giving his best performance since the last time he worked with this director, brings additional honesty and a subversive humor to the film. This is the third time Russell has worked with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro, and those who enjoyed their previous romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook and caper drama American Hustle will likely enjoy Joy as well.
Last week I also watched the Pixar movie Inside Out (another movie with a main character named Joy!). It's been out for almost a year, so I'm late to the party, but it's not exactly a movie that ages poorly. I highly recommend it - it's a simple but profound statement about empathy and sadness, and the storytelling is top-notch, with smart writing, nuanced and enjoyable performances (Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are excellent as the protagonists, and casting Lewis Black as the emotion Anger is only an obvious choice because it's so perfect). Inside Out is hilarious and emotionally powerful - I laughed, I cried, I cried more.
When Inside Out was first released, I saved a few interesting-looking articles to read after I saw the movie. And that time is now! Upon reading, I find that not only is this a wildly successful movie featuring female characters at its center (which by its success argues against the Hollywood "wisdom" which claims that, despite hits like the Alien movies or The Hunger Games or any number of valid examples, female protagonists just don't sell tickets), but also "Inside Out had the highest-grossing opening weekend of any original film — a movie that wasn’t based on a book or comic book and that wasn’t a sequel." Considering this was an animated feature focused on new female characters the audience had no connection to prior to seeing the movie, that's staggering, inspiring, and encouraging. Though Hollywood is often ignoring this appetite, there's an audience hungry for this sort of material.
I think there are two basic ways for a story to address a particular issue - for example, that of women being under-represented in media. One way is to address it head-on, sometimes even going so far as to make the story about that issue. The movie Joy aligns more with that method - when Joy is a little girl, a friend tells her that in her dream plan she needs a handsome prince, and Joy refutes this (though the story, once it has addressed this explicitly, only touches on it another couple times - it has other things to talk about, and doesn't portray Joy's gender as the largest obstacle to achieving her goals). The other way for a story to address an issue is to just take your position for granted and tell the story from that viewpoint. Inside Out follows this second method - the movie never brings up whether the female characters deserve to be seen as equals to the males, it just assumes they do and tells the story. With Flesh Machine, I've chosen this latter route. As a man, I'm not the best equipped to explore what it's like to live as a woman in a man's world, and one of the benefits of science fiction is that the writer gets to make their own rules about how the world of the story works. In the world of Flesh Machine, no one questions whether some people are of more value than others based on their gender (though based on their ideology... well, that's another story...).
Something that I like that Pixar does (or at least seems to do - maybe I'm reading too much into these things) is to make a short film before a feature film as a warm-up. They appear to use the short piece to experiment and figure out how to animate the subject of the feature. For example, if their next feature was to be a samurai movie, they'd probably warm up beforehand with a short film set in feudal Japan. (Oh, man, now I really want Pixar to make a samurai film. A Bug's Life was loosely based on Seven Samurai, so they might be open to it...) It occurs to me I'd like to try that approach - short pieces as warm-ups to longer works - with comics.
I figure my current comic, Flesh Machine, will end up being 300 pages or more when it's finished... so I still have two thirds of it left to make, but I already have a number of ideas and notes for other long comics to write and draw after Flesh Machine (most of which are ideas that I had before I started working on Flesh Machine). But after I've finished Flesh Machine, I think I'll do some short comics before starting my next full-length graphic novel. It'd be fun and useful to use some of those short comics to experiment with art styles and subjects I plan to tackle in the long pieces. Sort of like drawing sketchbook studies before creating a painting. For Flesh Machine, I'm drawing in a simple, slightly exaggerated art style with black and white and three gray tones. That art style is what I specifically chose for this project because I thought it'd be the best fit. For other projects, I'll use other approaches. I have one story that I want to do in stark black and white brushwork, smooth and using lots of black, with no gray tones. I have one that I think I'll do in a loose, sketchy, more cartoony art style. And there's another comic I hope to do in clear line with color.
(Clear line, or ligne claire, is a style of drawing that has no variation in line width and uses no shading techniques. It was made famous by internationally successful cartoonist Hergé in his children's comic series The Adventures of Tintin, and is still in use today by people like Chris Ware, who's widely considered one of our finest living cartoonists, as well as Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan and Norwegian cartoonist Jason, two personal favorites of mine.)
So, anyway - after Flesh Machine, I think I'll do some short pieces that warm me up for some of the longer pieces I want to make in the coming years.
To wrap up, I'll remind you I post new pages of my sci-fi/war/romance comic Flesh Machine every Tuesday at michaelavolio.com, where you can read the whole story thus far for free. Remember to pass the comic along to anyone you think might like it, and thank you for reading!
May we all be that bold...