Friday, 5 April 2013

How hating a movie sent me to film school

I follow Film Crit Hulk on twitter, and if you're at all interested in film, you probably should too. Hulk is hilarious, erudite (well you kind of have to be, on twitter) and almost always on point, even when I disagre with him. Earlier today, Hulk tweeted an article he had written for Badass Digest, entitled "Never Hate A Movie." I have to admit, when I saw the title, my eyebrows went up- never hate a movie? Even the offensive ones? Even the ones that hurt me deeply in my feminist soul? But when I actually read it, I found that I agreed with a lot of what Hulk had to say. But not quite all of it.

We say "oh, I hate X" fairly frequently, and not always with a lot of venom behind it- "I hate snow!" "I hate cats!" "I hate broccoli!" Often, it's shorthand for "I don't like this very much," but the thing we say we hate doesn't consume us unless we're brought into contact with it. Thus is it for me with most movies; even if I spend the entire time in the theatre groaning and rolling my eyes, like I did with Ghost Rider, I rarely think about them after the credits roll. Like Hulk says, it's not really worth the emotional effort. I have so many movies I LOVE, why would I want to waste time hating one? I can only think of one film I ever watched that stuck in my head like a burr for weeks afterward, itching and rubbing at me whenever I tried to sleep. And as it turns out, that film may have been the instrument that got me to apply to film school.

I love movies. I always have. I'm one of those weirdos who insists on arriving to the theatre at least ten minutes early so I don't miss seeing the trailers. I dissect movies after I've seen them on Livejournal and Tumblr. It's not just something I do for fun- it's practically a reflex for me. As a writer, storytelling is something that inherently fascinates me. Why did the filmmakers chose to write it that way? What was the purpose behind that word choice? And as an actor- not anymore, but almost all the time in my child and teenhood- the way the casting process and the acting craft functions fascinate me. Movies are a culmination of many, many things that fascinate me, so it's no surprise that they fascinate me as a whole.

In the fall semester of my third year of undergrad- this past fall- I had a chance to take a class called "Religion and Film" at my university. It was taught by Douglas Cowan, and if you haven't read his book Sacred Terror, what the hell are you doing wasting time on my blog? As the syllabus promised us, we were going to look at a variety of movies in a variety of genres, some of which you'd never think to associate with religion- our first two movies, War of the Worlds (the original, none of that Tom Cruise shit) and The Day the Earth Stood Still come to mind- but about midway through the course, he introduced us to a little film called Stigmata.

I had never seen this movie. I had never heard of it. I had only the vaguest ideas of what it was about. But sitting in class while the film rolled, I felt an emotion. A deep emotion. A powerful emotion. Watching this film play out on the projector, I felt very deeply, and that feeling was hate.

I fucking hated this movie. I hated everything about it. I hated the aesthetic. I hated the hammer-on-the-nail blue/orange colour contrast between the two main locations. I hated the direction. I hated the painful symbolism. I hated the weird habit of using voiceover to remind us of dialogue that had been spoken not five minutes earlier. I hated the ridiculous Da Vinci Code plot, which was actually written several years before DVC came out. At various points, I was actually grinding my teeth with rage. When the movie was over and the lights came up, Dr. Cowan turned to us and said "This director will never be accused of subtlety."

"He'll never be accused of talent, either!" I shouted. (This was the kind of class where we were actually encouraged to yell our opinions, which is probably part of why I enjoyed it so much.)

When I got home that night, I tweeted about this awful, stupid, rage-inducing film I'd just watched, and a friend of mine responded. "Oh my God, Stigmata? I love that movie!"

"WHAT" I said.

"I know, it's awful!" they said. "But it's so much fun! Watch it again and see!"

I agreed. I kind of had to; I had to write an essay on it. Alongside the class discussion, this was probably the part of the course that benefited me the most- writing an essay on the films we watched every week meant I had to hash through what I'd felt while watching it and come up with why it had affected me the way it did. The catch being, of course, that we couldn't just vomit inarticulate rage all over the paper; we needed to back up our conclusions and ideas. Also, it was based solely on our personal reactions, so we didn't need to do research or cite sources. If you've ever taken a university course, you'll know what a relief that was. And as I was raging my way through this essay ("EVOLUTION DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!1!!" my notes screamed in all-caps) I came to realize something: I hated this movie so deeply and angrily because, had it taken maybe five steps to the left, it could have been a movie I loved.

The themes! The idea of God coming to an atheist and how the atheist would deal with this! The corruption of organized religion! The function of love as a way of growing closer to God! I might have set aside the voiceovers and the colour scheme and the symbolism- all of it- if the movie had just made a few choices differently and put the emotional focus on the character who should have been the lead- the stigmatic herself- and not the priest character, who should by rights have been the secondary lead, I would have walked out of class that day singing this movie's praises.

I did not, naturally, write any of this in my essay. Instead, I wrote about the idea that the budding romantic relationship between the two main characters was an expression of the idea that love was a better conduit to God than organized religion, slapped my name on it, and handed it in. I got a 17/20 on that paper, and I'm pretty sure the hard copy is still floating around my room somewhere. Boom, bang, done. Dust yout hands off and move on to the next movie. It's over.

BUT IT WOULD NOT LEAVE ME ALONE. Like a cut that you keep poking open, I went back to the movie again and watched the scenes that infuriated me the most. "Why does the film not address this?" I cried as a highly non-consensual attempted sex scene took place. "WHERE IS HER AGENCY?" I howled as the main female character lay unconscious in bed while the male characters ran around punching each other in the face and having spiritual debates. I went out to look for other exorcism-themed movies to see how they approached similar material, and ended up writing a whole blog post about it. I think at one point the friend who'd told me she loved the movie might have been concerned for my mental health. I know my tumblr followers were. But I'd discovered something, in all my movie-watching and hate-blogging: for all I despised this movie- and I did still despise it- this movie fascinated me. I wanted to take it apart piece by piece to see how they fitted together, and then polish the individual pieces and put them back together, better. What I wanted was to make a different movie. A better movie.

I'd written scripts before- I spent most of eleventh and twelfth grade writing a Robin Hood TV series that I was never able to sell because a) I was a sixteen-year-old with no credits to her name, and b) Canada has this thing called the CanCon, or Canadian content rule, which says that a certain amount of Canadian TV has to be set in Canada. A period drama about medieval England clearly didn't qualify, as every agent that replied to my queries told me, so I sighed sadly, put the script in a drawer, and went back to writing novels. My newfound fascination with a terrible horror movie wasn't going to change CanCon. But . . . that didn't mean I couldn't write something else, did it? I could try to write a horror movie, couldn't I? I'd seen just about every exorcism movie I could find. I knew how to write dialogue. I knew the tropes. I knew the themes. I knew what I wanted to write about. I opened Scrivener and started to write.

Writing wasn't the only thing that occurred to me in the wake of that movie. I'd been struggling for years to figure out what I was going to do post-graduation, with a vaguely-named Liberal Arts degree and no applicable skills I could offer to an employer. There were film schools in Canada, weren't there? And if I wanted to write- and maybe direct- movies, I should learn from the pros, right? I sat down and started researching film schools.

I'm still not finished my undergrad, so I can't end this story with a happy "and then I got into film school and graduated with honours and won a million Oscars!" But I can say that watching this terrible, terrible movie set me on a path I might not have realized I wanted to be on. I want to make movies. I adore movies. I want to spend my life working on movies. And whatever else this course and this film did for me, I'm glad I realized it.

The movie still blows, though.

And this is gonna get really awkward if I ever meet the
director at a film festival.

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