Love Lessons from Edward Scissorhands

Happy Birthday to one of my favorite holiday films. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Mixtape Madness Film Series 8 years ago (!) Still relevant.

alicia swiz

It’s that time of year again. The holiday season is upon us – a brief moment of time known to most of us in western culture as the season of giving. With the current economic crisis, and a heightened awareness of conservation due to our struggling environment, many Americans are preoccupied with the challenge of gifting those we love. What is often overlooked during this consumer fueled holiday is the most precious and valuable gift of all – Love. It is this gift that is the motivating force behind Tim Burton’s unexpected and unconventional holiday classic, Edward Scissorhands. So this holiday season why not take a cue from Burton’s unique protagonist? Stay away from the stores and, instead, give someone the gift of yourself. If you’re unsure of how to do that, as most of us are, take a deep breath, smile and try the following:

1. Start with…

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We Need to Talk About Teen Witch or Happy HallowTween: Teen Witch is Magic!

Originally published by Chicago Literati

Halloween is lurking around the corner and whether you’re a hardcore participant or a sideline observer, the screening of certain iconic films is a time-honored tradition most of us get behind. Though not specific to Halloween, horror movies abound this time of year. I have never been a fan of horror movies. They’re gross! And why are the girls always naked when they die? Any image of a horror movie I try to recollect is just a generic shower scene of naked women being viciously attacked. That happens in all of them, right?

Most people love horror movies. They’re often top grossing on opening weekends, celebrated in marathons on cable TV, and late night film festivals at your local theater are dedicated to them…from moderately horrific like Carrie to deeply disturbing like Saw. But somewhere amongst the gore and grime, the mortification and mutilation of female bodies lives a bedazzled nugget that is Teen Witch.

Released in 1989 and originally pitched as the female companion to Teen Wolf, Teen Witch was a definitive moment marking Hollywood’s realization that teen girls are a market worth serving. Which is how Teen Witch has endeared itself as a cult classic stalwart in the Halloween movie canon. It’s basically a 90-minute music video.

Like most films that fall in the “for girls” or “Chick Flick” category, Teen Witch is still reserved as “other” for most audiences. It’s the story of female interest and desire, although mired by the lens that Hollywood perceives them. Teen girl protagonists are by no means the norm when you look at typical storylines of feature films. Therein lie the film’s flaws and its glory. Nobody really takes it seriously and yet legions of people celebrate it.

Read full article here

That’ll Never Be Me: Four of My Favorite Unsung Films About Girls

A fun piece to write for the Chicago Literati Film Issue! Full article here.

What is most revolutionary about Stick It is how the girls became their own agents for change through camaraderie and collective organization. Together they are able to take a stand against a harsh system built on holding them to an impossible standard, and by doing so, they are able to perform for themselves and their peers in a way that satisfies a personal, rather than systematic, goal.

Perks of Being a Wallflower

Right now we are alive and in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.

I always think it’s exciting when books I love are turned into films because it signifies that someone else understands how powerful, beautiful, poignant and amazing this book is and they want to share it with an audience. While I realize that is not always the motivation in Hollywood, in this case I’d believe it to be true considering producer John Malkovich went straight to author Stephen Chbosky to adapt the screenplay and that Chbosky was hired to direct.  It isn’t frequently the norm in Hollywood that a novice director would be given the opportunity to direct a high volume project. Then again, he is a dude.

If you have no relationship to the book, or if you’re not really into movies that reflect reality, you may find this film depressing or even boring. Set in the early 90’s in suburban Pittsburgh, Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman) a lonely high school freshman recovering from the suicide of his best friend and working through a lifetime of unbalanced emotions. Urged by his therapist to “participate,” Charlie seeks salvation with the help of two new friends, Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), the guidance of his English teacher (Paul Rudd), and, the ultimate life saving device – music.

While the film did a good job painting the picture of adolescent “outcast” culture it was a little too glossy. Having the author so involved is certainly what saved Perks from being a watered down replica of itself but the film was produced within the “Hollywood machine,” essentially sacrificing some of the creative control that may have lent to it’s authenticity. Another coming of age story set in the mid-90’s, 2008’s The Wackness was a period piece that made me nostalgic for the era in which it was set  and the music triggered as much of a response as the plot and performances. But, the film adaptation of Perks just made me nostalgic for the book. Oh, isn’t that always the case?  Chbosky himself admitted this was one of the most difficult projects he’s worked on:

“It was the most challenging screenplay I’ve ever written, just by the nature of what the book was — a first-person epistolary novel. To turn that into something objective with the same emotional intimacy and emotional catharsis was hard.” (Miami Herald, 9/30/12)

The music for the most part stayed true to the book except for a brief cameo by Cracker’s Low, which was never mentioned in the book and wasn’t released until 1993. This was nullified when Dear God by XTC, a staple of my freshman year in the suburbs of Philadelphia, played a narrator’s role in a significant transitional scene. A letter to God questioning the pain and sorrow in the world, I still sing the opening line to myself when I am feeling particularly hopeless:

Your connection to the characters, and especially Charlie, will ultimately decide how much you enjoy the film and Lerman (Hoot) succeeds in delivering a deeply moving performance. Part of Charlie’s alienation, and woven into the subtext of the film, is the deviation from traditional male behavior. Charlie is emotional, caring, reserved. He’s not an athlete or a Casanova. He is moved by music and literature. We continuously see his admiration of and respect for women – in his support of his sister after he witness her boyfriend slap her and his unconditional love for Sam, regardless of the rumors that tarnish her reputation. And, while dating violence and slut shaming are both serious issues affecting teen girls, the core of the film brings much needed attention to the complicated experience of boys, driven by Charlie and Patrick.

Two of my favorite young actors, Lerman and Miller both offer a unique portrayal of masculinity essential to both of their characters. Miller (City Island) infuses Patrick with a delightful fervor for life and irreverence for his tormentors. How much of is bravado remains unclear until what he is finally given cause to break out.  In one of the most volatile scenes both Charlie and Patrick are caught in a convolution of anger, fear, violence, aggression and survival. When Patrick is beaten and emotionally broken, it is Charlie who comes to his rescue both physically and emotionally.  The tenderness of their relationship is another powerful image for teens to receive.

Perks of Being a Wallflower is certainly not the traditional “teen romp” caliber but these are important characters for young adult audiences. Perks couldn’t be better timed to reflect challenges contemporary teenagers face in their everyday lives and if they only find support and solidarity on film than it’s better than nothing. Truly, the story is timeless and for many us the haunts and angst of adolescence stay with us well into adulthood. The desire to belong, to be valued, to protect the ones we love and of course, the hardest part, to just be happy.

A Feminist Fairy Tale With Heart

Cross posted at Love YA Lit

“And she was adored, as much for her defiant spirit as for her beauty.”

This is the Snow White story I have been waiting for! Though it barely passes The Bechdel Test this is my favorite feminist film of the year, so far.

If the classic Disney fairy tale is your only point of reference for this dark and daring story you might be more comfortable with Disney’s current reimagining, Mirror Mirror.  Snow White and The Huntsman is equal parts dark and light, a more accurate reflection of the Grimm’s fairytale than any reimagining since the original story.  Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is more comparable to Katniss Everdeen than her original namesake and helps to usher forth what I hope will be the new wave of female adolescent protagonists: passionate, brave and leading with their hearts.

Heart is the core of this story: the ways it makes or breaks us and for Snow White, it is her heart that makes her so valuable, both literally and figuratively. The Evil Queen, Ravenna, masterfully played by Charlize Theron, seeks to devour Snow White’s heart in her manic obsession to be the fairest in the land, to remain eternally youthful and beautiful. A provocative script and a seriously riveting performance by Theron elevate Ravenna’s character from the familiar archetype of a villain by giving her: 1. An identity – do you remember the Evil Queen having a name in any other re-telling? 2.  A heart, albeit a bruised and bitter one. Taught from a young age that beauty is power and having spent a lifetime subsequently “ruined by men” Ravenna’s humanity makes her the most relatable character in the film. She is more a victim of female gender role backlash than sincerely demonic. Sound familiar?

Ravenna’s darkness is juxtaposed by Snow White’s fairness, not just physically but emotionally. Throughout the film Ravenna is the embodiment of natural beauty tainted by the carelessness of the world and, in typical mean girl style, she resents those who find their beauty reflected in the world, such as the fair Snow White. One of the most beautiful elements of the film is Snow White’s relationship to nature, an aspect that was trivialized in the original Disney version where Snow frolicked in the forest, yearning through song about waiting for her Prince to find her. This Snow White is not waiting to be found, she is not hoping to be rescued. She is seeking justice and activating her destiny with no thought for romance.

The casting of this film should not go unnoticed among teen and adult audiences. Theron has made her career out of characters that explore the complicated, often ugly side of the female experience. She has long been a favorite of mine but it was last year’s Young Adult, a slice of life story where she tackled the painful consequences of a female life built on beauty and image, that marked her a permanent heroine of mine – brilliant and brave.

There are mixed opinions about Kristen Stewart, I hear a lot of people rag her, but she continues to take roles that usurp the traditional trajectory of a young Hollywood actress. She has yet to star in a romantic comedy nor has she been pigeonholed into the stereotypical teen girl image force fed to us by studios predominantly run by men. Often criticized for her awkwardness and emotional blandness, Stewart’s real life resistance to the Hollywood teen idol image serves her character well. As Snow White, who has spent the bulk of her developmental years in solitary confinement after witnessing Ravenna murder her father, Stewart’s interpretation of the character is imbued with an innate understanding of her power and position. She just has to learn how to access it. When she does finally find her voice it is strong enough to rouse a rebellion.

Let me be the first to say that the description of this film offered by IMDB, Google and this month’s Elle magazine, which features Stewart on the cover, are inaccurate. Each, in one way or another, summarize the story in a way that suggests the Huntsman protects and mentors Snow White. Um, yeah. That’s not how it happens at all. In fact, there is only one scene where the Huntsman offers guidance on how Snow can protect herself. He instructs Snow White to drive a blade right into her attackers heart and “Don’t remove it until you see their soul.” Responding that she could never do that The Huntsman replies, “You may not have a choice.” Ooooh, feminist foreshadowing.  Because, guess what, HuntsMAN? I do have a choice. In the scene immediately following the two are attacked by a larger than life troll who knocks the Huntsman unconscious and turns to unleash a powerful roar in Snow White’s face. Snow White responds by roaring right back and they face each other – pausing, staring, and seeing each other’s souls. Is that not what we all long for? To be heard? To be seen? To be allowed to be ourselves without fear of hurt, loss, and abandonment?

In truth, it is Snow, with the support of the seven dwarfs (a fun surprise of familiar faces shrunken down in size) who mentors him. Following another archetypical path of the widowed male drowning his sorrow in alcohol and violence, it is Snow White’s fairness – not beauty but commitment to justice that rejuvenate the Huntsman’s desire for life. By being unapologetically vulnerable and insecure, “How do I inspire? How do I lead men?” but brave enough to admit it, Snow White demonstrates the true meaning of strength, of power, of heart.

Above all, the most prevalent message in this film, and one of utmost value for female audiences, is the example of leadership modeled by a girl that is simply being herself. We should all be so brave.