Author: Lauri Pask

Slightly stressed English and Media teacher with a penchant for film, feminism, politics and gin.

Class Rules: The Representation of UK’s Social Class in Film

April 23, 2019

“The middle class were invented to give the poor hope; the poor, to make the rich feel special; the rich, to humble the middle class.” 
Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Class – it could be argued that it is still as divisive a topic now as it was 100 years ago. Although there have been momentous breakdowns in barriers, there is still an evident divide between those who have and those who have not.

It is felt evidently in everyday life; the current political climate only goes to show that there is a whole societal group who have felt unheard and ignored. While at ground level, teenagers from working-class backgrounds feel they are not worthy of places at the top educational establishments such as Oxford and Cambridge. They don’t really help themselves in this perception, with 80% of offers still going to those from the most privileged backgrounds.

People often have a skewed perception of those in a ‘class’ outside of their own. People who consider themselves ‘working-class’ often see the more affluent members of society as out of touch snobs. While the upper classes can still look down on those in a much lower socio-economic bracket to themselves; It is important to realise what role the mainstream media has in perpetuating these stereotypes. To see classism in all its glory, you only need to indulge in daytime television.

The Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s air time of 9.25am would make it seem like family friendly viewing. However, just watching one episode will show you a patronising host who sneers at those who cannot get their point across as eloquently as he deems suitable and an audience that revel in the mockery. It’s hardly a healthy starting point for breaking down class divides.

Surely film can offer a more diverse level of representation? That depends entirely on who you ask. Although most offerings have a very limited, primarily white, depiction of class divides, there are still those films which will be analysed and debated for years to come. Sadly, it is often for their realism.

This is England

Shane Meadows’ This is England is now studied at A-level, degree and Masters level. And rightly so. Based a great deal on his own adolescent experience, Meadows is perfectly able to present the multi-faceted aspects of working-class life. Even Combo, the violent, racist thug is shown to be a juxtaposition of the aggressive rhetoric he preaches during brief moments of vulnerability.

This is England sees Shaun Fields (a thinly veiled pseudonym for Shane Meadows) desperately craving a sense of belonging while the death of his father leaves him vulnerable to negative male role models. This microcosm is set within the bigger picture of a town ravaged by the reign of Thatcher, something that many towns – including my own – have never fully recovered from.

While showing the Skinhead subculture in a more favourable light than it had often been presented, Meadows also highlights the bubbling racist undercurrent that was taking hold in these forgotten towns and cities. It is impossible to ignore how pertinent this theme is when we are now leaving the EU because we are apparently overrun with outsiders stealing our jobs and the American President is still hell-bent on building his wall. The agonising scene of Combo beating Milky, the only black character, almost to death while hurling racist slurs is even more uncomfortable due to the fact that this is still happening. While Combo represents a small, albeit dangerous, group there is also a definite sense of community in This Is England; social mobility is resisted rather than strived for. Shaun’s growth and understanding is the primary focus but Meadows does not shy away from how his social class influences this journey.

“While both are about people living in poverty, Loach is didactic, and even propagandist, in a way that Meadows rarely is. His politics can be found not in a straightforward message, but rather in his sympathetic, complex, rounded view of working class lives.” – David Buckingham, This is England: Growing up in Thatcher’s Britain

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake is a film that stays with you long after you’ve watched it. Ken Loach’s most successful film at the box office presents social realism at its most harrowing and makes no apologies for it. The idea that it was an example of propaganda was felt by Ian Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary. This was the same person who was “looking to make it harder for sick and disabled people to claim benefits” according to leaked documents.

The fact that this politician was able to claim that this film was an unfair representation of the reality shows just how out of touch he is. Food Bank usage has gone up by 13% between April and September in 2018, with the Trussell Trust’s food bank network providing 658,048 emergency supplies to people in crisis.

Daniel Blake is approaching his 60s and has been deemed unfit to work by his doctor, yet he is forced to go through an uncompromising and often demeaning social system which forces him to look for work. The desperate lengths that both Daniel and single mother Katie are driven to are unbelievable, upsetting and disgraceful. While this is a work of fiction, I, Daniel Blake portrays the everyday reality for many people living in poverty. It is by no means an easy watch but it is a necessary one.


While these are two productions offer an insight into social class in Britain, they can not be seen as sweeping generalisations, much like Downton Abbey cannot be the one true depiction of the wealthy members of society. However, with nepotism still being a huge issue within the film industry, it is unlikely that we will see a more varied, colourful spectrum of experiences until people from those backgrounds are given the opportunity to share them.

Many, more uplifting stories, are out there but have to rely on the support of established film industry members to reach a mainstream audience. Fighting With My Family is just one example. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant, he discussed the theme of social class in this article with The Guardian.

With social mobility still stagnating in the film industry, with just 12.4% of people asked in a study being from working-class backgrounds, surely we need to demolish these outdated barriers. Perhaps primarily gritty representations of working-class life are hindering more than helping?


Big Screen Blinders

March 3, 2019

With filming of the fifth series of the hit now show complete, will the Shelby Family be making their big screen debut?

I was a little late to the Peaky Blinders party, only getting around to watching the show in 2018. (I might have binge-watched the first three series on Netflix and then had to order series 4 on DVD because I couldn’t possibly wait!) From its sharp script to Tommy Shelby’s sharper cheekbones; I was hooked from the start.

Peaky Blinders boasts a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has also received several accolades including the British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Series and a National Television Award for Most Popular Drama. The show has amassed a cult following since its BBC2 debut in September 2013, with it now being the inspiration for tours, bars and themed live-action events. (Cardiff’s Depot is set to host its second ‘By Order of…’ event after last year’s roaring success.) It even has its own gin!

For those of you who haven’t watched Peaky Blinders, it follows the notorious Shelby family who have the run of post-WW1 Birmingham. They are engaged in countless criminal plots which provide a great deal of the action in the series. However, the show also looks at the impact the war had on industrial cities such as Birmingham and the men who were left to deal with the emotional and physical trauma it caused. Depravity, hedonism and morality become blurred amongst the rising political tensions of 1920s working-class Britain.

The rumour mill has been busy for a while, with whisperings of a film in the pipeline, but the show’s creator, Steven Knight, seems to have confirmed this to be the case.

“We’re getting approached to do all kinds of things- the ballet, the musical…and the movie would be great.”

Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby, has also confirmed he would want to be involved if “the writing was as good as the show.”

Knight has said that he wants to make seven series in total and end “with the first air raid siren [of the Second World War] in Birmingham”, 25th June 1940. Potentially, a big screen version of the show would happen before the end of the series itself. So what would the film version need to live up to the small screen powerhouse that is Peaky Blinders?

Awe-inspiring Aesthetics

The cinematography in this show is absolutely breathtaking. Within the grim context of post-war Birmingham, where crime was rife and prostitution was often a necessity rather than a choice, particular shots can powerfully contrast this misery or emphasise it. It’s little wonder that the show, specifically George Steel, won the British Academy Television Craft Award for Photography and Lighting in 2014.

Opening Scene, series 1

Fire, smoke and shadows are utilised to perfection in this show, encapsulating the internal struggle of the characters it follows. It’s a Media Teacher’s dream!

Series 4

Multi-faceted Characters

The Shelby Boys are a notorious criminal gang who threaten, maim and kill anyone who stands in their way. Yet they are also vulnerable men, picking up the pieces after a brutal war, who look after those who matter to them. Tommy Shelby, the organiser of the biggest heists, is so damaged by post-traumatic stress that he is reliant on narcotics to even sleep at night. Arthur Shelby, the oldest of the brothers, also struggles with his own demons throughout the series. It is this vulnerability of outwardly strong characters which is a particular strength of the show; it humanises them. This might have something to do with Knight’s family links to criminal gangs which he was told about during his childhood. In an interview with Radio Times, he said; “These were people just like us, you know. They were no different to us, inside.

The female characters, too, are complicated which makes a refreshing change from often one-dimensional roles for women. The family is ruled by a strong matriarch, Aunt Polly Gray (fantastically played by Helen McCrory), who manages the affairs of the Peaky Blinders. Her strength is undeniable, both in heated discussions with Tommy and in harrowing situations brought about by a vehement love for her family. Polly’s inner demons are never far from the surface and often bubble over during times of particular desperation; just like anyone else.

That Soundtrack

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ moody track Red Right Hand is now synonymous with Peaky Blinders. This show knows how to use music to its advantage, picking gritty songs which pair perfectly with the harsh depictions on screen. It just as easily juxtaposes a softer sound, such as Laura Marling, with painful scenes. The show’s soundtrack is able to ratchet up the emotion with a swift key change. The BBC have compiled an excellent Peaky Blinders playlist while NME have listed the ten best songs from the soundtrack, in their opinion. (Be warned, this list does feature some spoilers!) It might help that one of the composers is Antony Genn of the band Pulp. He and Cillian Murphy discuss what songs are Peaky in NME.

Script Writing Perfection

It has already been mentioned how important the quality of the writing is before a potential film can move forward and it’s easy to understand why. Each strand of a storyline is defined and developed. This coupled with fully rounded characters, the scripts have it all. It is difficult to fully explain just how well written the show is but it seems to have the perfect blend of witty lines and philosophical musings delivered in that wonderful Birmingham drawl.

We can look forward to series 5 being back on our screens this year with a move to BBC1. Hopefully, the big screen will follow soon after. It is an exciting prospect to see what tale will unfold in a feature-length telling of the Peaky Blinders, the possibilities are endless!

Peaky Blinders – Season 1 Trailer (BBC)

The Unhealthy Obsession With Prince Less Than Charming

February 25, 2019
Zac Efron as Ted Bundy

The archetypal “bad boy” has been the focus of countless books, television series and films. The idea that an aloof, brooding type can be won over by the persistence of a plucky, likeable heroine is a tried and tested trope which always seems to draw in audiences. But is it the healthiest narrative for, largely female, audiences to be consuming?

This is not a new phenomenon. Frankly, bad men have been romanticised in literature for hundreds of years. Charlotte Brontë’s depiction of Mr Rochester is one of a passionate man who is “tightly and inextricably knotted” to the protagonist, Jane Eyre. Jane returns to her man after hearing his disembodied voice calling her from afar. (We’ve all used that excuse!) The fact that he had his wife locked in the attic after she had been deemed mad was quickly forgotten for the happy ending that Brontë desired! At least Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy was only emotionally stunted! The Brontë sisters seemed to love a toxic male protagonist – Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff was a volatile, controlling and aggressive character yet became a literary heartthrob – the fact that he locked up a girl because she looked like his former obsession is often overlooked.

Speaking of people who have a ‘type’, Ted Bundy’s atrocious crimes have now become the focus of Netflix’s documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes as well as Joe Berlinger’s film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring former teen, and now grown up, heart-throb Zac Efron. Many have argued that the casting of Efron is further romanticising a killer who had women defending his name in droves while he was on trial for horrific crimes against innocent girls. (For an excellent take down of Bundy I highly recommend the All Killa, No Filla podcast)

It would be comforting to think that these are just products of their historical context but unfortunately this idea that women can change fundamentally bad men has been perpetuated in the mainstream media for decades.

However easy it would be to blame Hollywood for subconsciously imbedding the idea that all bad boys can be changed with the love of a good woman, it actually seems that human psychology has a lot to do with it. A study at the University of Durham found that women were naturally more attracted to men who possessed the Dark Triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellism. Sounds dreamy! This is mainly because these men are incredibly confident, say all the right things (in the beginning, at least) and often seem like an absolute catch. And they are – in the short term. The study noted that the traits possessed by these men often link to primal mating instincts and this is why these men seem too good to be true in the first few weeks and then inevitably show that to be the case if and when things become more long term. It seems we just can’t shake those cave days of needing protection and to procreate for the survival of the species. The risk-taking, enigmatic man who seems strong and exudes sex appeal still makes us weak at the knees.

So the initial attraction to these men is explainable through science, but what about the reasons why women stay once the honeymoon period has worn off?

Unfortunately, after a certain point, women feel like they can’t leave particularly toxic relationships. This might be down to fear but, more often than not, women believe that the sweet, caring person they fell in love with will eventually reappear. Or, they think that enough love will make their significant other realise their true feelings. It is hardly surprising when film and television creates the impression that this type of rehabilitation is possible or that glaring red flags should be overlooked.

Let’s go back to 2008, I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t the only 17 year old at the time who had a crush on Twilight’s Edward Cullen; his intense stare, the insistence on ‘taking care’ of his love interest Bella and his protective nature. Looking back as an adult, it is clear to see that this “love story” was romanticising a highly obsessive relationship. The fact that the guy breaks into her house to watch her sleep is bad enough but there are also more subtle signs of abuse which are largely overlooked.

Flash forward to this year and Netflix’s binge-worthy series You has had its second series commissioned much to the delight of fans. However, there is an incredibly dark undertone to this fan base with girls wishing the protagonist, Joe, would kidnap them and saying how much they love his character. The worrying phenomenon even caught the attention of the show’s star, Penn Badgley, who took to Twitter to respond to the tweets lusting after his murderous character.

It really is frightening that women would feel that they deserve or would want an abusive relationship, particularly when femicide in the UK involving a woman being killed by a current or ex partner, accounts for 46% of female deaths. It’s a startling statistic but one that should be considered when creating and analysing characters for a mass audience.

The impact of these negative depictions is not just on women and girls. Impressionable young men could see this behaviour as acceptable or even desirable based on the reactions of female fans, thus creating the foundations for incredibly unhealthy and damaging relationships.

So maybe 2019 needs to be the year that the bad boy persona gets chucked in the bin in favour of respectful, emotionally and mentally stable male characters. Preferably ones who don’t have soundproof glass cages in their basement.


Questioning Our History

November 26, 2018
Hacksaw Ridge Screenshot

“History is written by the victors.” The irony of this quote from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who led Britain through one of the most documented wars, isn’t lost when it comes to historical accuracy and how Hollywood’s depictions of historical events can shape our understanding of the past.

It is crucial that history is documented and Hollywood re-tellings can make previously unknown historical events accessible to a wider audience. However, issues arise when an artistic license is taken to a new level and scenarios can be changed in order to heighten drama or, a more damaging reason, to portray events from a particular bias.

The popularity of period dramas is undeniable; let’s face it, good period dramas are one of the main reasons the BBC can justify the TV license – not that I’m complaining as it brought Tommy Shelby into my life! Now other platforms are jumping on the historical bandwagon – or carriage – with series three of the Netflix original ‘The Crown’ now in production.

Audience numbers for ‘historical fiction’ films have peaked and dipped over the years. There was a huge increase in 1998, with 16.63% of overall tickets sold being for this genre (Titanic had been released the December before!) while the 2011 rise could be put down to the film adaption of The Help. However, ticket sales have declined rapidly in the past year, from 6.98% in 2017 to just 2.61% this year. So why the drop?

Perhaps the issue is the historical accuracies, or rather, inaccuracies which has caused audience numbers to dwindle. Perhaps it is the whitewashing of historical events which has been prevalent in Hollywood. Perhaps it is the lack of diversity within period and war dramas.

There is a clearly evident issue of harking back to the “good old days”, particularly in older war films. This is often the case with films told from a British perspective. Graham Dawson refers to this as “the pleasure culture of war”; films providing a nationalistic perspective. Although this is to be expected as the winners tell the story, this only provides a very limited narrative to audiences. The issues caused by this “revisionist” history can be incredibly damaging. On a small scale, it might infuriate historians to see a plane being used in a film which wasn’t commissioned until two years after the events it is portraying. But, on a more damaging scale, stories can be told which present people and even social groups in an unfairly positive or negative way.

Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 faced a huge backlash; both historically and socially. The film gave the Spartans all the credit when they were actually supported by around 7,000 other Greeks. More worrying is the film’s portrayal of the Persians. The Persians were one of the most advanced cultures within the ancient world while the film depicts them as savage killers who held people as slaves. It was, in fact, the Spartans who held the most slaves in Greece while the Persians had outlawed the practice. The film received a great deal of negativity in Iran due to this factually inaccurate and damaging depiction of the Persians.

Although issues can arise in the making of a film, it is still vitally important that these events are documented, albeit accurately and with fair representations. As  the old adage from George Santayana goes; “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we still need to remember the actual past, not a fictional one created for heightened drama and box office sales.

World War Two is possibly the most documented war in modern cinema. There have been all sorts of perspectives told on the silver screen; from the battle in the air to the trials and tribulations of those left behind when their loved ones went off to fight. Stephen Spielberg has done his fair share of big budget war movies, most famously Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. (He also directed War Horse – a British story about British soldiers directed by an American – think that’s one for another post!) Both films mentioned have been heralded as incredibly accurate representations of the events they depict. Although Private Ryan wasn’t, in fact, a real person, the artillery used in the film most certainly was. In fact, the opening scene, the storming of Omaha Beach, was so accurate that WWII veterans had to be escorted from screenings. Schindler’s List is another Spielberg film which has been praised for its accurate telling of the harsh realities of Nazi Germany.

Perhaps that is what historical films need in order to be able to fully tell their story: harsh reality. 12 Years a Slave was incredibly difficult to watch because of the brutal violence shown. It has also been deemed one of the most accurate accounts to date by historians. The film was based on the actual experiences of Solomon Northup, a man who was forced into slavery and was able to share his narrative after he regained his freedom. It was a narrative that I was unfamiliar with until the Hollywood adaptation, at which point I read the book. This is why historical re-tellings are important; they provide the opportunity to learn about the lives of people which might otherwise have been lost. However, it is vital that these stories are told with the accuracy they deserve.


Understanding Violence in Film

August 22, 2018

“He’s just eaten that dog, hasn’t he?”

My child’s reaction to her first viewing of Jurassic Park 2, when the T-Rex has a kennel hanging out of its mouth, and my first foray into dealing with violence in a film which I definitely should not have let my 3-year-old watch. That particular film was rated PG – parental guidance – but I was looking at it through the rose-tinted haze of nostalgia, not the more sensible reasoning that live-action, carnivorous dinosaurs might not be the best viewing for my pre-schooler.

This particular incident didn’t have any long-term damage, as far as I can tell, there were no nightmares and she still says her favourite dinosaur is a T-Rex. But what of the claims that violence in films and television is having a detrimental effect on young people who are ignoring the age rating and watching? Can on-screen violence lead to deviant behaviour in the real world?

In Britain, film classification is decided by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). During this process, several factors are taken into account such as discrimination, imitable behaviour, language, drugs, nudity, sex, sexual violence, theme and violence. However, public opinion is also taken into consideration and, as this changes, so does the classification of certain films. This means that as certain topics become less of a taboo, then they are less likely to shock audiences and so require a less severe age rating. However, the group is aware that younger audiences are more likely to watch age-inappropriate movies at home when they are released on DVD or streaming services. They provide descriptions of the issues found in films in a bid to educate people before watching.

So what is meant by “violent imagery”? When classifying a film, the BBFC lists the following as issues which will be put a production into a higher categorisation:

  • the portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problems
  • heroes who inflict pain and injury
  • callousness towards victims
  • the encouragement of aggressive attitudes
  • characters taking pleasure in pain or humiliation
  • the glorification or glamorisation of violence

If films are seen to pose a risk to audiences they can be asked to cut certain parts out or, in some cases, be refused classification.

Although it is clear that extremely distressing scenes could pose a risk to audiences, particularly to those too young to fully grasp the context within which the violence is set, can individual acts of violence be directly attributed to movies?

In 1993, movie violence and its potential impact on young audiences were highlighted in the James Bulger murder trial. Initially, the Judge, Mr Justice Morland, claimed that exposure to violent videos might have encouraged the actions of the two 11-year-old killers. The film in question was Child’s Play 3. As a result of its link to the trial, the title was withdrawn from shelves and removed from television schedules at the time. Police refuted any link between the film and the actions of the two boys. But this isn’t the first and only time that connections have been made between violence on screen having a direct link with violent actions.

In a study conducted by Dr Nelly Alia-Klein of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and posted in the science journal PLOS ONE, it was found that watching violent images does make people more aggressive – but only if they are of a violent disposition, to begin with. The study focused on two groups of men – one group was inherently more aggressive with some having a history of physical assault, while the other group was much calmer. When shown the violent imagery, the group that was predisposed to aggression showed less activity in the area of the brain which controls emotional reactions to situations; basically, they were showing signs of less self-control. However, aggression is a trait that develops from childhood so if media does have an impact on people then this is something that is part of their nature from a young age rather than suddenly being impacted by what they see on screen.
So what about the filmmakers themselves? Should they take more responsibility for what is shown to audiences or should they be allowed to produce whatever they want in the name of “creative license”? Quentin Tarantino has been described as one of the most violent filmmakers of this time and he is unapologetic about this. Tarantino does not see himself as responsible for the actions of those who watch his movies and sees screen violence and violence in reality as two separate entities. In films such as Django Unchained, Tarantino argues that he is showing the brutality of reality at the time, something which he feels people need to be aware of. The same argument could be applied to 12 Years a Slave. Tarantino mentions that in his films the victim often becomes the victor. But it is argued that, where a character’s use of excessive violence is seen as a positive thing, this can create negative role models for young people. Rambo, Terminator, the list goes on. The characters are predominantly male and this type of role model can only feed into toxic masculinity which makes boys and men feel that violence and aggression are the only acceptable ways of expressing themselves.
But is all violence the same? In a word, no. Let’s face it, animated characters fighting one another is never going to compare to that head popping scene in Game of Thrones (I can still hear it sometimes!) but the animated violence is still going to have some sort of impact on younger audiences. The important thing is to educate younger audiences about violence in films and their own emotional intelligence to deal with what they see. This is difficult in a world which is becoming more and more desensitised to images due to things being shared constantly via social media and children now having easier access to things they should not be viewing at a young age.
The most important thing we can do to educate audiences is to talk about the issues. Focusing on media literacy in schools is a massive step in helping make topics less frightening. Being aware of fake news is something that children need to learn and it’s surprising, as a teacher myself, how many false ideas students believe to be true because of what they have heard or read in the media. My daughter recently asked why a man had put a bomb on the tube in London. A question which caught me very much off guard but my job was to answer her in a way that wouldn’t frighten her.
We can shield our children as best we can but banning these things is not really the answer – this often gives a violent film cult status. We just need to answer their questions and educate ourselves. Or, as the Index on Censorship puts it; “tackle actual violence, not ideas and opinions.”  Maybe just keep the 18 films on the shelves that are out of reach too!

Hollywood & The Military: A Special Relationship

August 14, 2018
Independence Day - Will Smith & Jeff Goldblum

What do the headquarters for the United States Department of Defence and Shia LaBeouf have in common?

Not a great deal actually apart from the fact that the above-mentioned department, also known as The Pentagon, worked closely with Michael Bay on 2007’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which LaBeouf also starred in. The term “worked closely” might be a slight understatement as, in exchange for the use of military grade weapons and real personnel as extras, the Pentagon had a huge influence on the final script.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, the Pentagon and US Military have been backing productions since the beginning of Hollywood itself. The very first Academy Award in 1929 was won by Wings, a movie heavily supported by the Pentagon. But is this influence a positive one? Despite the fact that production companies are paying for the use of military equipment and locations, the Pentagon still gets the final say on which films get the go-ahead. Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, unsurprisingly, did not get Pentagon approval. Perhaps they had an issue with the General’s “unorthodox” way of getting a nuclear attack organised!

When you consider that military provisions are technically “owned” by the tax-paying public, surely the military should not get this level of control and a degree of impartiality should remain?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In David Robb’s book Operation Hollywood he highlights both the humorous and disturbing elements of the military’s special interest within the film industry. One such instance is the nationality of an Admiral in the James Bond Movie GoldenEye changing from American to Canadian because he was perceived as too incompetent. Laughable, right? However, this level of influence gets more sinister as Robb shows when he discusses the film Thirteen Days. This movie focused on the Cuban missile crisis but was rejected by the Pentagon due to its depiction of Generals being in favour of invading Cuba. The issue? This depiction was based on actual taped discussions from within the White House at the time. In this instance, the director, Kevin Costner, refused to make the changes but it is frightening to consider how many directors have accepted the Pentagon’s ‘revised’ version of events simply to get their movie made.

With the development of special effects, directors are not as reliant on the military backing as they used to be. Independence Day was denied Pentagon funding because Will Smith’s character was dating a stripper, something that was simply unacceptable for a member of the military (*cue eye rolls*) The production company’s response? They just did it themselves; technology had developed to such a point that the backing was not needed.

So what does the military get out of this financial backing of Hollywood blockbusters other than a mention in the end credits? It is said that recruitment in the Navy went up by 400% after the release of Top Gun (another backed film). Yet, now the films being given funding are largely aimed at children (Transformers, Iron Man and G.I Joe.) Is this an attempt to make war look fun? A new way of upping those recruitment figures? It is alarming and does not present the idea of special interest groups in a positive light.

Perhaps it is interesting to note the positive outcomes from the lack of involvement from a particular interest group. Gabriela Cowperthwaite intended to document why SeaWorld was so successful and how it kept families returning time and time again. However, when SeaWorld refused to be involved in her project so began their downfall as it led to her uncovering ‘the dark side of SeaWorld’ in the hugely successful 2013 documentary Blackfish. Many positive changes have occurred since the release, most recently top UK travel agent Thomas Cook have said they will no longer sell tickets to the park.

Of course, there can be positive outcomes from outside influences in the film industry. Slowly, but surely, there are more LGBTQ+ voices being heard in Hollywood, along with people of colour. Gay rights activist, Ronald Nyswaner wrote the 1993 film Philadelphia which was seen as groundbreaking at the time in its portrayal of the homophobia surrounding HIV/AIDS. Oprah Winfrey, who can be considered an institution in herself, became involved in the 2014 film Selma as producer and Ava DuVernay, a woman of colour, as director who had to allegedly rewrite 90% of Paul Webb’s original script.  Although these aren’t outside ‘groups’, their influence and experience had a positive impact on the productions.

Special interest groups tend to want a particular image to be projected, the military is an apt example of this. Unlike product placement which aims to reach new audiences but not necessarily influence their viewpoint, the involvement of special interest groups can have a suffocating effect on the creativity that the film industry should ultimately inspire. While the influence of activists and minority groups can definitely bring a positive contribution to a production, perhaps the military should stick to what it knows rather than wading into Hollywood. But don’t expect them to loan anyone their fighter planes!


The Ingredients Of A Cult Classic

July 27, 2018

Take a huge helping of interesting, often strange, characters. Add a dash of quotable dialogue and a sprinkle of marketable merchandise. Mix it all together with an audience dead set against the consumerism taking over Hollywood and you should have the makings of a cult classic. But is that really all you need to create a film which will be passed down through the generations? Films that can often spawn their own sub-cultures, festivals and even religions?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a “cult classic” is; a film which has “enduring appeal to a relatively small audience” and exists outside of “mainstream” cinema. Cult films consist of an eclectic collection; there is no set genre which these wonders stem from.

During Hollywood’s formative years, there was not a great deal of opportunity for films to reach cult status with the quick turnover of productions. However, this began to change with the introduction of Midnight Movie screenings. These often featured films which were considered too shocking for mainstream audiences. “Freaks”, the 1932 MGM production, was one such controversial feature of the midnight screening.

However, the status of the cult film gained momentum with the development of distribution. Whereas before, low-budget, non-confirmative films had to rely on midnight screenings to reach viewers, home cinema allowed potential cult movies to reach a wider target audience. Television channels began to provide their own form of the “midnight movie”, showing films that didn’t cost a lot. (This is actually where I remember catching my first glimpse of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a cult classic which is firmly cemented as one of my favourites!)

This access to films only increased with the creation of VHS. Now fans could pass on the treasures they had discovered to other, like-minded potential fans. If a movie had been banned then this only added fuel to the cult film fire. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange gained such notoriety when it was withdrawn, meaning that any rare copies of the film added a particular magic for the cult following it amassed.

Much like A Clockwork Orange, the success of the cult classic seems to lie in it having some sort of controversy attached to it. As previously mentioned, these films often appeal to a small, niche audience and tend to challenge the typical conventions instilled by Hollywood. Many productions have reached the dizzying heights of cult status due to their focus on extreme, and often taboo, subject matters. The aforementioned Clockwork Orange had such graphic depictions of violent acts that it was withdrawn in the UK for  27 years after comparisons were made in high profile crimes.

Another way that a film can become a cult classic is by being so bad that it’s good. Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room is one such offering- it has been described by critics as one of the worst films ever created.” As a result, it has gained a massive cult following. So much so, that another film was created just last year, The Disaster Artist, to celebrate just how bad it is!

But what of those hugely successful films which have followings around the world? The Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises have gargantuan fan bases and have stemmed a multitude of sub-cultures such as festivals, conventions and even theme parks. Do these productions warrant the title of cult classic? Or do they fall short somehow? And if so, why?

Perhaps it is because these films have become so commercialised that they cannot be given the title of cult classics. Those films deserving of the title do so because of the microcosm that is their fan base; that “have you heard of this film?” moment. Whether you have watched the big blockbusters or not, you’ve definitely heard of them which is not always the case with those movies that are deemed cult films.

Some critics argue that the term has lost its value with it now being attached to any production which seems to break away from convention or challenge the mainstream. But the real cult classics will stand the test of time; that’s what makes them a classic after all.



Artificial Intelligence: The New Art of Storytelling?

July 10, 2018
Robot Writing

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication. It is how we handed down the ancient myths and legends and how lessons have always been taught. Before written words, stories were communicated through pictures or symbols. Stories help to stimulate our imaginations and, perhaps most importantly, build a relationship between the storyteller and their audience.

The same can be said for media texts; they are stories which the writers and directors feel need to be shared and they have particular ideas about how these tales should be told. These decisions are influenced by numerous factors including environment,  personal experience and emotional ties.

So is the emerging trend of using Artificial Intelligence (A.I) taking away the personal touch that writers, directors and editors bring to a production? Or is this simply the direction that the film industry is moving in and we just need to get on board or get left behind?

AI has been used in other areas aside from the film industry to help predict the success of a piece of work. Wattpad is an online program and app which currently has 65 million users worldwide. People are able to publish books via this website and it has seen some become bestselling authors. Sounds brilliant, but where does AI come into it? The website uses ‘plot-analysing software which is able to determine which subjects and content have previously been successful, profile audiences and basically create the perfect plot for a target audience -all a user has to do is write the book to fit.

One person who did just that is Beth Reekles, author of the highly successful book ‘The Kissing Booth’ which she published at just 15 years of age. In 2013 she sold the film rights to Netflix and it is now one of the streaming sites most popular searches.

Wattpad now has its sights set on the film industry with its additional creation, Wattpad studios, and aims to continue its successful use of artificial intelligence.

Jack Zhang’s company, Greenlight Essentials, uses a specially created algorithm to discover which plot will be successful based on existing lucrative productions.

Greenlight used this strategy to come up with a script for a new horror called “Impossible Things” – they made the trailer for just $30 and it accumulated 2.3 million views on YouTube. Needless to say, potential investors quickly showed an interest.

Surely though, this reliance on computers is sapping the feeling from the scripts being created? That’s one thing artificial intelligence is yet to master: emotional intelligence.

This possibility was tested when director Oscar Sharp and Ross Goodwin, a New York University AI researcher used a ‘recurrent neural network’ (that helpfully named itself Benjamin) to create a sci-fi script called Sunspring. The machine was fed scripts of existing sci-fi success stories including classics like Ghostbusters and more recent offerings such as Interstellar and created its own script in a similar way to predictive text on your smartphone. (The term “predictive” implies that creativity isn’t a crucial factor here!)

The result? A script that consisted of completed, coherent sentences individually yet, when these were put together, it all started to go a bit downhill! The film created looks professional and the actors played their parts well but these aspects had nothing to do with artificial intelligence, highlighting that human influence is surely a prerequisite of a successful production.

Zhang agrees and feels that the creativity is still the most vital aspect of storytelling stating; “If you give 50 screenwriters the same [plot] elements, they’ll still come up with 50 different screenplays.” This seems to be the crux of the issue; artificial intelligence can help in the creative process prior to production by looking at what elements have proved successful, although even that could take away from the next surprise hit.

I’m sure Zhang won’t mind me saying that he sums it up perfectly:  “[A.I] is like a compass, but someone still needs to sail.” Based on Sunspring, I don’t think scriptwriters have too many stormy seas to navigate just yet!




Film Critics vs Film Audiences: What Happens When They Don’t Agree?

July 4, 2018
Movie Theatre

A trip to the cinema is a luxury these days what with having to arrange babysitters and, more often than not, prop my eyes open with matchsticks; so I need to know I’m going to relish the experience instead of wishing I’d stayed home in front of Netflix…again.

I’ve always sought out reviews of the latest releases to help me decide on what films are worth the immediacy that a trip to the cinema elicits and which films I can happily wait to arrive on my screen at home. Most recently, this was the case for John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place; the rave reviews did not disappoint.

But what happens when the film doesn’t live up to the hype?

Ari Aster’s film Hereditary received high praise when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year, with many critics describing it as one of the most terrifying horrors of all time. It received an 89% rating from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, yet only 57% as an audience score with some calling it the worst film they had ever seen. The stark contrast in opinion is often difficult to fathom. Perhaps it is important to consider whether it is the film that is an issue here or those providing the reviews.

A recent study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism entitled Critic’s Choice? found that of the top 100 films of 2017 only 24% of the top critics, those featured in major publications, were female and 11.2% were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. It is questionable whether a critic can give a true review of a film in which a multi-cultural audience can engage with if they themselves are analysing it through a narrow lens.

The Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences, the group which selects the Oscar nominations, has this year extended invites to 928 people in a bid to diversify their group of critics. Now, 38% of the Oscar’s governing body is made up of people of colour with 49% being female. Not a moment too soon considering there was talk of the event being boycotted due to its primarily white nominees in recent years.

The Time’s Up Now campaign recently posted on their Instagram; “When top critics deciding which movies are ‘good’ are overwhelmingly white and male, audiences aren’t getting the full picture….”  While it is vitally important for the issue of diversity in film to be addressed until it is no longer an issue, would film criticism be doing its job if it only talked about what was “good”?

Alissa Wilkinson, in her article for Vox, does not feel that it would be. She believes that critics are art makers in their own right stating, “the art a critic makes is a review or an essay, something that is less about “supporting” a movie and more about drawing on an individual’s experience with a film to make an argument about that movie. It includes evaluation of the film, but it also, done well, is a passionate argument for the importance of art itself.”

With the rise of social media and websites such as Rotten Tomatoes, anyone can now be a “critic” and due to the viral nature the internet, these are often the first reviews that potential audiences see. However, these people are often just criticising the films they have not enjoyed whereas a good film critic analyses and evaluates a film, discussing both the positives and negatives. Yes, it is influenced by their own experience but the majority of critics do their job for the love of film rather than just to say what they like or don’t like in the box office at that moment in time.

Critics can offer a unique interpretation of the films they review, as can audiences who also offer their opinions, however it is necessary to add diversity to those with the power to influence in order to provide audiences with a cacophony of voices to help form their own interpretation.


Equal Writes: Why We Need More Female Writers

June 18, 2018

Diablo Cody. It was a name that first came to my attention when I was 17, sat in a cinema on an awkward double date, watching the opening credits of Juno. I didn’t consider the writer at that time but the character she created has stayed with me since and is one I return to frequently. Juno makes me laugh and makes me cry in almost equal measures; she is strong yet vulnerable, funny yet awkward, confident yet desperate. All things that she should be, that all women and girls are, and Cody translated that perfectly for my awkward 17-year-old self along with a host of others, I have no doubt.

However, only 16% of working film writers in the UK are female, an independent report from The Writer’s Guild has found.  The Sundance Institute reports that just 4.2% of the 100 top grossing American films are directed by women, the amount written by them is much lower.

At a time when teenage girls are facing ever-growing pressures from social media, exam stresses and every other hurdle that adolescence brings, surely there needs to be far more people writing from their perspective? By that, I don’t mean creating the common characters that girls are almost forced to aspire to, due to lack of alternatives, such as princesses who’s happy ever after involves a handsome prince who saves them from danger in that typical Propp trope of damsel in distress waiting for the protagonist to rock up. I mean characters with dimensions; with feelings; with flaws; with vulnerabilities.

But this isn’t just a necessity for teenagers. Young women are now finding themselves in a world where their voice is being heard, where they are told to speak up, yet they are still dealing with the damage resulting from difficult teenage years where they were reading articles entitled “10 ways to keep your man interested.”

Fleabag, written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and first aired in 2016, tells the tale of a young woman manoeuvring her way through sexual encounters, family disputes and her unwillingness to deal with the loss of her best friend. Initially, it seems like Waller-Bridge is just challenging the idea of feminism in this series adapted from her award-winning play but it is, in fact, a funny and, at times heartbreaking, analysis of the effect that objectification has on women. Not just the objectification that women are victim to on a daily basis, on the street, in the workplace, online but the objectification that is presented as normal in the mainstream media. Ultimately, it is relatable. Whether you don’t see much of yourself in the main character or it feels like a mirror image – the issues caused by, what Laura Mulvey dubbed The Male Gaze, continue to have a lasting effect on the female audiences consuming media texts and experiencing issues with very few scripts or characters which present these experiences from the women who experience them.

However, this isn’t just an issue for women; this also impacts men. If you get told something enough, you begin to believe it – so it is hardly surprising that women are perceived as weak, sexual (without being promiscuous, of course), objects by some men when that is the only representation of them available. And this is why it is important to allow women to tell their stories – because men need to hear them too.

So what is being done about this issue? The Writer’s Guild are calling for “programme-level TV equality monitoring data to be released” and for “public funders to pledge a 50/50 split between male and female-written films by 2020.” A 50/50 split when over half of the UK is female seems perfectly reasonable. Although, it is only recently that voices are being raised against the embedded white male misogyny which has run Hollywood since its very beginnings. Not only do we need to break down barriers for female writers but we need to break down barriers for those minorities who struggle even more to get their story told; women of colour, women of the LGBTQ+ community, transgender women – all of these stories matter and all of them can and will have a lasting impact on those people who feel they have never seen themselves on screen.

I only hope that every young girl gets their Diablo Cody moment.