Thursday, May 17, 2018

Boy (Waititi, 2010): A Film Interview with Alexandra Taylor

Below is an interview with Alexandra Taylor, a former student of mine who is currently studying Digital Media Content Creation at University of California, San Diego. She is a writer interested in stories that explore the human condition and inspire compassion.

JW: Is there a universal quality to this film--can film viewers say "how did director Waititi know that childhood is like this?"--or do we find a distinct, New Zealand coming-of-age experience represented here?

AT: Boy is a classic coming-of-age film told through a unique cultural lens. Waititi inspires the inner child within viewers by bringing to life the characters’ imaginations. Whether it is Boy pretending his father is Michael Jackson, Rocky expressing his anxiety through drawing or Boy’s friend Dallas painting himself to look like a "moldy Smurf," viewers can recall their own unbridled and unaffected imagination through these characters. At the same time, Waititi conveys issues like poverty and domestic violence present in many New Zealand homes--an issue which he has openly criticized in the past.

JW: Why is deception and impersonation at the core of this film? The father Alamein appears to be a big shot motorcycle gang leader, and the titular character consistently acts older and more experienced than he is.

AT: I’m fascinated by dysfunctional families and father-son relationships. Every parent-child relationship is a performance in which the parent pretends to be a hero and the child impersonates them. As we see in the film, the illusion eventually fades and reality takes over.

When Alamein reenters Boy’s life he must fill an immense void left by his absence, for which he’s emotionally unequipped. Alamein rejects adulthood, likely because he never had a father himself (his mother is barely present but there is no mention of a father) and thus he risks encouraging the same behavior in his impressionable son. When Boy realizes the truth about his father, he either must come to terms with his limitations or internalize his issues. Boy must learn that adulthood comes not from becoming a comic book hero but by accepting one’s self and developing the capacity to forgive others.

JW: My favorite scene is the dance number at the end, a combination of Michael Jackson and Maori Haka. What is the role of pop culture, and specifically Michael Jackson, in the film?

AT: Mine too! Pop culture permeates every aspect of the film, from Boy’s obsession with Michael Jackson to many of the characters’ names (Rocky, Dynasty, etc.). By weaving Michael Jackson with rural Maori life, Waititi immerses us in the cultural climate of New Zealand in the 80’s. Boy also sees Michael Jackson as a hero figure in the absence of his father and often merges the two in his mind.

JW: OK, I have to ask you about Boy's younger brother Rocky. Are Rocky's unique artistic talents (I love when he roller skates holding the sparkler when he confronts his father) the key to unlocking Boy's heart, allowing Boy to confront the world with eyes that see more clearly?

AT: The roller skating scene is one of the most compelling moments for me. For most of the story, Boy torments Rocky for his eccentricities and quiet disposition while he refuses to interact with their father. But unlike Boy, Rocky has a strong sense of self and doesn’t change himself for his father’s approval. There is a pivotal scene in which Alamein, in a drunken rage, puts their lives in danger. The two brothers react differently, and Rocky’s artistic temperament grants him a greater capacity for empathy. Their personalities complement each other and Rocky’s emotional strength keeps Boy afloat. By the way, do you think it’s a coincidence that Rocky’s name is the same as the famous fictional boxer? I don’t think so. But this Rocky is a lover, not a fighter. I love Waititi’s cheeky sense of humor.

JW: What is your favorite scene in the film? And how does the comedic tone of Boy inform your writing?

AT: Waititi’s comedic voice is iconic. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which Boy offers Alamein and his gang a cup of tea. Humor to me is in the little, almost imperceptible details of life. Waititi brands this humor as the “comedy of the mundane,” in which ordinary subjects become ridiculous. Waititi makes light of human frailty. In Boy, this allows Waititi to explore tragic themes like death, violence, alienation and rejection in a childlike way. Whether he’s writing an absurdist vampire mockumentary or a rom-com parody, Waititi’s comedic tension is a fresh departure from the sardonic humor of pop culture today.

It’s too difficult for me to be very serious without feeling affected and self-important. Good writing comes from the heart, and what comes from my heart is identifying humor in the face of darkness. It’s what brings us together. And it’s fun.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

#skatethru: Skateboarding Through Various Spots, Pt. 3

...this video is from Taitung, Taiwan and was taken in October 2017. It is part of series of leisurely videos I've taken skating through a handful of spots: Part 1 (China and Korea) is at this link, and Part 2 (California and Oregon) can be viewed here. Thanks for viewing!

Downtown Taitung, Taiwan (2017)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008): A Film Interview with Eddie Matthews

Below is an interview with Eddie Matthews, a former student of mine who is currently a Ph.D. in Creative Writing student at Swansea University in Wales. His previous degrees are from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He has a soft spot for artistic works that promote empathy.

JW: When did you first watch In Bruges? Did you have the feeling at the time that this film would stay with you for some time?

EM: I first watched it in high school at a friend’s house. His room was a converted garage that felt like a bunker (albeit a comfortable one). I was starting to realize my love of film as being beyond just a way to pass the time on a weekend night in a small town. I discovered the visual language of film resonated with me in a way that other art forms didn’t.

When I first watched In Bruges, I didn’t know what to make of it. I found it undeniable interesting, but didn’t think it’d be something I would revisit. It was so different from anything I’d ever seen and I chalked it up to one of my friend’s arthouse films that he watched to ease his insomnia. Turned out to be my favorite film to date.

JW: Describe the way the story unfolds. Why is it important that the story takes place in an environment in which the protagonist/s are foreigners?

EM: The premise is that two Irish hitmen are flying under the radar in Bruges, Belgium after one of them botches his first assignment. It’s both their first time there. The story follows the priorities of both characters on a quasi-holiday in a medieval city that the older hitman, Ken, finds fascinating, and the younger hitman, Ray, finds agonizingly boring. Other characters incite conflict while they wait for the impending authority to decide what to do, their boss--Harry.

Alienation is a theme lingering throughout the film, one which is emphasized by McDonagh’s distinctive command of language. Ray feels adrift in a city that lacks the pub ratio of Dublin and seems to be entirely comprised of medieval museums and cathedrals. Ken takes an increasingly paternal role in Ray’s life, as he continues to mourn the loss of his wife and balances his dedication to Harry (the boss) and his affection for Ray--someone he believes he can save.

JW: What is the significance of the consistent yellow/golden tinged hue that permeates the lighting of the film? How would you describe the style of In Bruges?

EM: A gothic color palette tinges every frame of In Bruges. The yellow-gold offsets the dark browns, blacks, and greys that the architecture is comprised of in the city and personify the stark morality of the Catholic Church. The blend of yellow with black (the two most contrasting colors) underscores the binary world that the Catholic Church preaches to its Irish constituents—heaven/hell, sin/grace, fidelity/adultery.

Against these yellow-black tinged scenes drifts a fog that obscures the actions and meanings of the characters in the latter part of the film. This fog is symbolic of the non-binary moral nature of characters’ decisions--Ken deciding to protect Ray (a known murderer); Harry willing to put others in harm’s way so that he may punish Ray for an unforgivable sin; Ray choosing not to kill himself, but risking the safety of others by staying in Bruges. The visual choices work in tandem with the characters’ motives and the repercussions of those motives.

JW: As a writer, how do you see this film in terms of the way it is crafted--is there an overlap between the narratives you write and the way this movie delivers narrative details?

EM: This film is crafted impeccably in terms of tone. The dark humor of In Bruges combined with a mix of satire and reverence for Catholicism is difficult to pull off in a way that resonates beyond a micro-population of characters who enjoy Tottenham FC digs and Irishmen hyper-protective of the Vietnamese. It works because of McDonagh’s authorial voice and because every line builds toward the finale while also building bridges toward other interpretations that seem like tangents upon a first viewing. McDonagh teases out exposition in an engaging way. From the first line, you know the situation--he mixes vagueness and specificity in a way that draws you in immediately. You don’t meet Harry until two-thirds through the film. He uses Checkhov’s gun, but delays the bang until it matters most.

In my stories, I try to give the same amount of scaffolding that McDonagh does here, enough that the viewer/reader will trust you enough to keep going, but not too much that they wait for the action to get going. A little disorientation helps.

What I learned from McDonagh that I try to incorporate into my work is that his dialogue is distinct, his characters’ voices are unmistakable, even when you don’t have Colin Farrell’s brooding eyebrows hovering over them. He always chooses the more interesting choice and I think that’s the biggest lesson as the writer. Ask yourself: what is the most interesting choice for this word/line/scene/character/story? Then proceed.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017): A Film Interview with Emily Anthony

Here is an interview with Emily Anthony, a former student of mine and a recent graduate from the University of Leeds in Leeds, UK, where she obtained her MA in Writing for Performance and Publication. She is a creative writer and an avid pop culture fan who enjoys exploring and analyzing the Marvel universe, Star Wars, and many other popular franchises. Be sure to check out her blog at

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JW: I know you are a huge fan of the Marvel Universe. So what brought you to the movie theater to see Wonder Woman? What kind of expectations did you have?

EA: I’ve seen quite a few of the DC films, and with the exception of The Dark Knight, I can’t say I’ve ever been impressed. I knew I had to see Wonder Woman on principle--anything I can do to support female-directed films with female-leads is of utmost importance to me--but I waited a while after it came out, a little so I could see the reviews and a little because I just didn’t have a lot of faith. I didn’t get excited until I started seeing great review after great review touting the incredible visual aspects of the film as well as the solid representation of a female superhero.

JW: What scene/s in the movie will retain their place within the best portrayals of a superhero on screen, and which scene/s do you think fall short of what Marvel has accomplished (assuming you're still in the Marvel camp even after this film)?

EA: I’m definitely still in the Marvel camp! One amazing film isn’t enough to make me forget about Batman vs. Superman...or Suicide Squad...or Man of Steel...Anyway, there are a few scenes in this film that I believe absolutely will retain their place within the best portrayals, most notably the scene in which Diana crosses No-Man’s Land all on her own. That scene is regularly mentioned as exactly what a superhero SHOULD be: a hero, using their powers to help others and inspire the values of freedom, valor, and integrity to make the right choice.

I watch superhero movies because I like fun, exhilarating, hyperbolic adventures exploring the vast capacity of human nature, not because I want to watch someone with super strength kill a bunch of aliens to find the magical McGuffin of the week. A less-often remembered scene that I also feel holds its place is the invasion of Themyscira, Diana’s home, by the German forces. Diana not only saves the life of the downed pilot Steve Trevor (a job very stereotypically seen with the gender roles reversed) but she also watches her mother, aunt, and fellow Amazonians bravely battle the invaders, learning a valuable lesson about the reality of war and the evilness of it, before stepping in to fight as well to save those she loves.

And the most amazing thing to me about this scene is that it’s bright and colorful! That’s what I associate with Marvel films, the ability to be visually bright and appealing, rather than constantly dark and gritty. I think Wonder Woman could have kept that thread throughout the film, rather than immediately delving into the foggy depths of twentieth-century London, but I don’t believe Marvel would have done the final battle any better. It would have been much brighter and more entertaining, but Marvel’s weakness is often the climactic battle scene as well.

JW: Do you think that Wonder Woman is a game-changer in terms of the ways women are represented on the screen within the superhero genre? 

EA: Absolutely. And if it isn’t, then there is unmistakable and irrefutable evidence supporting the rampant sexism in Hollywood (as if there wasn’t enough already). I’ve been shaking my head for years at Marvel every time they announce a new phase without any news of a female-led superhero film. They do have a Captain Marvel film slated for a 2019 release, but I don’t think they’ve made enough of an effort to make representations of women a priority, especially as Captain Marvel’s original release date of 2018 was pushed back to make way for yet another Spiderman film (don’t get me wrong, I like Spiderman, but the world didn’t really need a third iteration of the swinging super-bug, at least not before ANY female-led superhero films were released).

Basically, for Marvel, DC, or any other studio making a superhero film in which women are represented in any capacity, Wonder Woman is now the bar they must meet or exceed. It wasn’t perfect. There was plenty of room for improvement. However, it is by far the greatest representation women have had in this genre so far, and anything less than what Wonder Woman gave us is now unacceptable.

JW: How have you participated within, or analyzed, fan communities and their responses to the film?

EA: I always avoid reviews from critics, as more often than not I find myself disagreeing (case in point: Birdman won an Oscar and I couldn’t figure out what was happening at any point of that film). So I turned to Tumblr, audience reviews, fan blogs, Twitter, and YouTube to find out what other female superhero fans felt about this film. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the sheer amount of other women saying exactly what I felt was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Mostly what I’ve discovered is that female superhero fans are blown away by this film, in awe of the trope reversals and general feminist message of the film, and are now looking at other franchises with renewed hope and expectation. The majority of the non-female fans I’ve witnessed also enjoyed the film but are more critical of it, and that’s entirely fair. I think the difference lies in the basic facts of representation. Male viewers have a lot of representation in superhero films, and can pick and choose which heroes and films resonate most with them. Female viewers have Wonder Woman. I look forward to that changing, now that we’ve proven to the studios that a GOOD female-led superhero movie can make the profits they’re looking for. I only hope they’ll continue to hire female directors and writers as well!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Teaching the Video Essay

This past semester (fall 2017) was the first time I've required students in my upper-division Postcolonial Literature and Film class to submit video essays instead of traditional essays (2-3 and 6-7 page assignments), and while students were not unanimous in their endorsement of the form, over all the experience was very positive. 14 of the 17 students recommended that I require the same assignments in future iterations of the course.

I was inspired to teach the video essay because I think it's important to provide the opportunity for students to express their ideas in a format that is accessible both inside and outside the classroom (in an end-of-the-semester questionnaire, I was happy to learn that 15 out of 17 students stated that they would be more likely to share their essays with others via YouTube than sharing their written essays), and I discovered that students in my department weren't learning how to do so in their other classes.

A few student comments include the following, when asked if they preferred the video essay or the written essay:

"Surprisingly, a video essay. I like that I can put an image/sound with the argument I am making. The time forces me to say more with less 'wordiness'."

"Video essay. It takes longer, but it is a more enjoyable form of communication. It is fun to make (and probably more fun to read/grade)."

"As a visual person, I appreciated the visual element of this media. I was stressed about it at first though."

"I prefer creating video essays because (even though it takes more time) I enjoy that creative 'filmmaking' process. I love being able to see the finished product be the realization of the initial vision."

11 out of 17 students stated that they preferred submitting video essays rather than written essays, even though the learning curve initially was quite steep. Indeed, many students struggled with creating their first video essay. Representative comments of the 6 students who preferred written essays include:

"While I like the creative component of video essays, I found I didn't have as much time to spend on them as I'd have liked."

"I feel like I can communicate better through the written word."

Below, I briefly outline the steps I used in my instruction and preparation process as well as the results. (Do note that students still completed numerous writing assignments in the class, including an author presentation, class discussion paper, and midterm and final exam essays.)

My most important bit of advice, at least this worked for me, is that I assured students that I would not grade the quality of their video essay (regarding use of graphics, sounds, vocal delivery, etc.) so long as they met the assignment's minimum expectations: video length and quantity of visuals. I do not teach film production or computer graphics so I did not feel that it was my place to assess student work in these dimensions--rather, I wanted to tap into student creativity with minimum pressure when it came to the artistry of the video essay craft.

Assignments were graded on the strength of argument in terms of the inclusion of a quality and original main claim, evidence, counter-arguments as necessary, subclaims, qualifiers, a warrant, and backing (via Toulmin)--as expected of a typical academic argumentation paper. Granted, the form was new for nearly all of the students, so the task of submitting a substantial assignment in this format remained a challenge.

Background Research

The biggest time-saver in my planning process was realizing that I needed to primarily focus on letting my students know the basic tools they could use, and then do whatever I could to lower the pressure in terms of the aesthetic quality of their video essays--and then look forward to the results.

This strategy has worked marvelously in my World Cinema class in which eight groups of five students each make short films modeled on the films I screen in class. Students in the class as a whole typically love seeing the 5-7 minute re-creations of Bicycle Thieves and other famous films made by their classmates during class presentations; inevitably, the quality of each group's short film is often surprisingly stunning, considering that most students are taking the class for GE credit without backgrounds in formal filmmaking.

Here's what I did to prep for teaching the video essay:

1) First, I located a few apps and basic programs (such as iMovie) that I could use to model simple videos with voice-overs. Then I researched websites and teaching forums focusing on the production of video essays, but ended up not finding a satisfactory one-stop source--I remain open for suggestions! Instead, I stayed inspired by getting sidetracked by superior work by video essays on YouTube and the work of colleagues I admire such as @filmstudiesff and @acafanmom (be sure to check out their work).

2) I invited an expert from campus to talk with students for about 20 minutes at the beginning of one of my classes early in the semester, namely, Bernard Johnson. He provided a list of easy-to-use tools that I listed for students on our course's online platform.

3) Allowed for time and space in class to discuss the project and I distributed handouts with guidelines for each of the assignments.

Video Essay 1

Video essay 1 was due during week 7 of the 15 week semester. The traditional paper required a theme analysis of 2-3 pages without outside resources. For the video essay assignment, I used the same assignment instructions, but modified the presentation format to be a video essay of 3-5 minutes in duration.

The handout was two pages long, and included these categories: Assignment Description; Video Essay Requirements; Argument Requirements; Grading Rubric.

The minimum requirements to achieve a superior score, which all students met, included:
1. Submit a digital file including voiceover narration, sound, text, and at least 10 images (include sources in a Works Cited page).
2. The video must be 3-5 minutes in length

After students submitted their assignments, I used the beginning of class time to ask students to write about their experience creating their video essay.

Video Essay 2

Video essay 2 was due during week 13 of the 15 week semester. The traditional paper required a 6-7 page theme analysis with five outside sources. I used the same assignment expectations, but modified the presentation format to be a video essay of 5 to 10 minutes in duration.

The handout was two pages long, and included these categories: Assignment Description;
Video Essay Requirements; and Argument Requirements, which entailed a one-page list of questions students needed to fill out and submit separately, including a brief summary of their outside sources, a brief description of their counter-argument, and a Works Cited page.

The minimum requirements to achieve a superior score, which all students met, included:
1. Submit a digital file including voiceover narration, sound, text, and at least 10 images (include sources in a Works Cited page).
2. The video must be 5-10 minutes in length
3. Include music (does not have to be for the entire duration).
4. Include at least one moving image clip.

At the end of the semester, I used the beginning of one of the class sessions to ask students to write about their experience creating their video essays.


1) Yes, I'd do it again! There is a magic that occurs whenever image, sounds, and dialogue overlap, which is a pleasure to experience. More importantly, I believe students acquired a new skill and overcame significant challenges in the process. Now, when they watch video essays, my hope is that they might experience the form as active rather than passive participants.

An unexpected element of the assignment for me, while grading the work, was a deep appreciation of a certain feeling of informality students tended to transmit via this form; this is not easy to explain, but since students were not required to present flawless oral deliveries of their work, it was in the gaps and inconsistencies of each delivery that one could sense that students were truly taking a risk when presenting their explanations and points of view in a way that can arguably be masked behind signpost academic language and the visual formality of the formatted page. I did my best to express my gratitude to students for taking on this challenge when providing feedback to their work.

2) On the last day of the class I presented an exit questionnaire. Each student allowed me to share the results, included below:

1. Which takes more time: Video Essay: 11 students // Written Essay: 6 students
2. Which format do you prefer: Video Essay: 11 students // Written Essay: 6 students
3. Would you recommend future students in the class create video essays? Yes: 14 // No: 3
4. Which format would you most likely share with others outside of the class: Video Essay: 15 students // Written Essay: 2 students
5. May I anonymously publish these results on my blog or elsewhere: Yes: 17 // No: 0

If any instructor who reads this and would like to discuss further, let me know. I still have a lot to learn. Contacting me via Twitter is usually best. Thanks! -- jw

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Your Name (Shinkai, 2016): Mini-Film Review

Your Name (Shinkai, 2016), the highest grossing anime film to date, maintains its charm on the first viewing because it withholds key narrative information--the way it's high school characters are linked despite differences in time and space is mystifying. So, there's no wonder why the film intrigued audiences initially, for it's fun to see how all the pieces fit together. Of course, the film appeals on other levels too: the universal awkward experiences of adolescence, captivating artwork (especially a stunning dream sequence, the highlight of the film), and catchy pop music. I'm fascinated by the ways the film initially attracted young Japanese audiences. It reminds me of other film phenomenons such as Cape No. 7 (Wei, 2008) in Taiwan which retained it's staying power via word of mouth/social media and the formation of communities of viewers who return to the film multiple times.

35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2008): Mini-Film Review

35 Shots of Rum (2008), directed by Claire Denis, depicts a father-daughter bond in today's Paris. The father, a widower, is a subway driver who returns from work each night looking forward to the simple pleasure of having dinner with his daughter, a college anthropology student. The film reminds one of Biutiful (Iñárritu, 2010), as it traces the lives of residents in a European metropolis, yet it's pacing is in line with an Ozu film. On first glance, one might feel that little happens in the story; yet the diurnal rhythms on display here open up an entire psychological world worth reflection.

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Actor Alex Descas and director Claire Denis at the 65th Venice Film Festival