By Marina Brafa
Black Panther is one of the hottest movie tickets around. But let’s be honest. Black Panther is a fairly conventional superhero film in the Marvel Universe. The plot mixes a bit of everything to please the crowds: romance, action, politics and moral lessons. However, in contrast to other Marvel movies, Black Panther puts stronger emphasis on political and social issues than its predecessors. Sure, there is still the hint of a love story and exciting car chases through the streets of Seoul, but these scenes are the weaker ones in a generally good film. They seem to be relics of a time when superhero movies still had to stick to strict patterns with regards to content and aesthetics.
The movie opens with visually stunning views of the East African nation of “Wakanda,” a high-tech society still connected to its ancient tribal roots and folkloric culture. One of the characters calls it “El Dorado,” alluding to the hidden kingdom sought out for its gold reserves by foreign adventurers. And Wakanda is one hell of a gem: a blend of modernity and unspoiled beauty, tucked away from other parts of the world with a precious horde of “vibranium.” This extremely valuable material, when used for good, can fuel, heal and power practically everything and is therefore of huge interest to others.
Here is where the problems start for Wakanda. The country pretends to be poor and “less developed.” However, the obligatory greedy villain of the plot (Andy Serkis) knows about the “vibranium” and tries to get his share of it to use for evil purposes, of course.
That’s not the only challenge Wakanda faces. Internal turmoil threatens to tear apart the allied tribes after the death of Wakanda’s king T’Chaka. His son and new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) starts to question his beloved father when he discovers a dark secret T’Chaka has kept for decades. The secret (no spoilers, promise) almost destroys Wakanda and raises questions of morality. What makes a “good king”? Were all decisions made by the old king “good”? It is up to T’Challa to find out the answers.
T’Challa’s journey is therefore one of reflection and self-discovery, with the action often taking place elsewhere, making Black Panther different from other action heroes. The impenetrable black suit conceals a sensitive kitten rather than a fierce panther. This is why T’Challa heavily depends on the support of four female characters on his quest: his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and two women, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who fight for him in Wakanda’s special armed forces, the Dorja Milaje.
We are well into the review and yet I have not touched upon the one thing everyone has been talking about when it comes to Black Panther: its nearly all-black cast. This is an important element of the movie and the main reason it sparks such enthusiasm worldwide among critics and viewers. Is this Marvel film a story of the Black Panthers, or just one Black Panther? Does it have the ability to empower black communities?
Yes and no. For sure it was a long overdue step to shoot such a big-budget action film in which almost the entire cast consists of actors of color. But Black Panther does more than just star black actors, the film tries to show a diverse range of black communities. However, the representation of these communities - the plural is important here - is more complex than many viewers might want to acknowledge. The movie was shot on locations in the U.S., Argentina and South Korea, the director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole are African-Americans and the lead actors were raised in the U.S., England or Africa. This, in a way, reflects far more diversity of black or African communities than audiences are used to. Yet, paradoxically, Black Panther still focuses on U.S. American Black culture and represents African Black culture from this point of view.
Beyond the cast and settings, the plot opens up a binary division between African and African-American cultures. Representing the latter is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan by birth who lost ties to his ancestors’ origins and has instead been formed by the place where he grew up: Oakland, California. Logically, he was influenced by Black American culture. The division between the two continents is represented by the characters’ outfits and by the music that accompanies their screen time. The Wakandan characters wear tribal clothes with designs that derive from several African groups (readers, please excuse my lack of knowledge here), Killmonger sports what one might call blipster or hip hop clothing. Wakanda and its characters are supported by a drum-based score, Killmonger is prefigured by a catchy soundtrack curated by none other than Kendrick Lamar. Language equally serves as a dividing cultural marker. Members of the Wakandan tribes speak English with various African accents whereas Killmonger clearly speaks Black American vernacular.
A closer look at the female characters in particular reveals another binary in the film world: old-fashioned gender roles. Women appear strong in certain settings, most of them traditionally female-gendered. They are clever and can fight, no doubt. But in the end, their task is to support T’Challa. Nakia and Okoye literally stand next to him to protect him, or behind him in front of the United Nations. T’Challa is surrounded by gifted women all along but still remains the center. Pretty conservative, I would say. Do not get me wrong, Black Panther is a step in the right direction, especially since it introduces questions of race into mainstream cinema. But for now, the panther is still a kitten waiting to grow to its full size (and potential). To be continued for sure.
By Elisabeth Granzow
I was very hesitant to start watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-) when I first heard about it. The premise of the musical dramedy is that successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca, played by the show’s creator Rachel Bloom, runs into her summer camp boyfriend Josh Chan and on a whim moves to West Covina, California, which also “happens to be” Josh’s hometown. I am not a big musical fan and I was put off by the problematic title and the premise of a crazy woman who is obsessed with finding romance. One thing that piqued my interest, however, was that the male lead character Josh Chan is played by Filipino American Vincent Rodriguez III. Including an Asian man as the main love interest seemed to me like a promising signal that the show might delve a little deeper into topics around diverse identities since Asian men are still highly underrepresented and desexualized in American film and television. Now, after watching all three seasons on Netflix, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my favorite shows currently on television (it airs on the CW), because it consciously deconstructs common stereotypes around women, sexuality and mental health among others.
This deconstruction is part of what makes the dramedy unique. Another part is the fact that it is created by the incredibly talented women Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna and centers around complex female characters, their ordinary lives and female-specific experiences. However, it does not only deal with female perspectives, but other important topics around identity, such as sexuality. The latest season - season three - for example has been praised for including three bisexual main characters. What further makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend special is its combination of smartness, quirkiness and liveliness with moments of tragedy, such as when the viewer realizes that Rebecca is struggling with serious symptoms of mental illness.
Other aspects that makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stand out are the hilarious characters and the witty writing. In addition, the 2-3 musical songs per episode usually spoof common music genres and satirize different topics. The comical musical numbers and recurring jokes and references also give the show an intelligent coherence, which enables and invites the viewer to rewatch the program and still find new things. Another thing that gives me high hopes is the announcement that the next season will be its last, which means that the creators have a clear, well thought-out ending in mind. Although I am sad that the program will end soon, I believe that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has the potential to be part of a canon of high quality television shows by and about women.
The songs and writing frequently revolve around gender-specific topics and particularly around unique female experiences, for example, when Rebecca’s best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) sings about the “The First Penis I Saw” on the episode “Getting Over Jeff” in the third season. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend even breaks with many taboos. In the second season, several characters start singing the song “Period Sex” suggesting sex during menstruation. However, the full song was deemed too controversial for the CW network and even for Netflix, Therefore, “Period Sex” has only been teased on the show, while the entire song and video can be watched on Rachel Bloom’s YouTube channel (see video below). The comedy does not only portray topics around women, however, but also brings in male perspectives. As the show progresses, the male characters like Josh and Rebecca’s boss Darryl (Pete Gardner) become more complex and receive more screen time for their own storylines and viewpoints. For example, in his first individual song Darryl sings “I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way)” (Season 1, Episode 5) and explores the nuances of a healthy and loving father-daughter relationship, complicating the trope of the more or less cold and “absent” father commonly found in many TV dramas. These are just a few of many examples in which Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives balanced and nuanced viewpoints around gendered experiences, while at the same time poking fun at prominent sexist stereotypes.
But beyond all the quirky jokes and satire, there also lies a deeper, more serious layer within the dramedy, namely its complex portrayal of mental illness and its stigmatization. My first thought was that the stereotype of the crazy woman obsessed with a man could reproduce a problematic sexist image. However, the show is very self-aware of this issue, probably due to the fact that Rachel Bloom herself has had to deal with mental illness. From the very first episode, it is clear that Rebecca displays clear signs of anxiety and depression. She also had been taking medications in Manhattan and starts seeing a therapist in West Covina in the first season. At first, her obsession with romance and Josh seems like an exaggerated premise of a comedy that ensures hilarious encounters. Yet, as the series progresses, it becomes obvious to the viewer that her behavior and longing are not about Josh at all, but just symptoms of her mental health state. In the third season, the show goes deeper into in Rebecca’s self-awareness of her situation and she is finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BMD). Her diagnosis and group therapy sessions allow Rebecca to start facing her mental illness and coming to terms with the fact that having a healthy and fruitful romantic life among other things is more challenging for her than for others. Therefore, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives a complex and complicating context to the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend and reveals just how stigmatized mental illness is in our society, as Rebecca is mostly concerned about hiding her true self from others. While the series also highlights how dealing with mental illness is a long process filled with potential setbacks, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still remains quirky and hilarious, therefore demonstrating that dealing with mental illness is not all bleak, but also makes Rebecca special, which is underlined by her charisma and her friends’ deep affection for her.
It is difficult to describe how smart, funny and unique Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is and I can only recommend viewers to tune in for a few episodes before judging it. While the show might have some weaknesses, such as how most main characters are white and racial identities are only discussed on the surface, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still has so much to offer. To me, it stands out as a coherent piece of art that is intelligent, hilarious and entertaining and proves the value and importance of media programs created by women.
By Christina Schultz
Jan Henrik Stahlberg’s Fikkefuchs, released in Germany in November of 2017, did not make a lot of money at the box office, nor did it gain a lot of attention. Perhaps because it was overshadowed by the blockbuster German comedy Fack ju Göhte 3, released three weeks prior on October 26, 2017, and other big studio pictures. Or perhaps because the topic just doesn’t seem that interesting: a fallen, albeit self-proclaimed, sex God finds out he has a son and the two form an odd relationship while they embark on a quest to get chicks. It gets better, though. The 50s-something father, Richard “Rocky” Ockers (played by none other than director Stahlberg himself), is a misogynist and his son shows that the apple, his son Thorben (whom he calls Thorsten, which hilariously highlights Rocky's stubborn ignorance), not only doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree, but that it has taken root and grown into an even bigger, more misogynistic tree. The son winds up in a psychiatry clinic for sexually assaulting a cashier at a grocery store. Whereas the father once could charm his way into women’s pants, or so he claims, the son has not an ounce of charm and in his delusion thinks all women are DTF.
The only redeeming things about this movie in my opinion are the truly excellent acting performances of Stahlberg and Franz Rogowski (Victoria, In den Gängen). The two leads are uncompromising in their commitment to the wretchedness of the characters. The characters themselves, however, do not redeem themselves at all, except for Thorben/Thorsten. Maybe. But not really. He pulls through for his dying father, but I just don’t think he transforms into a better person by the end of the film. He has intercourse with a Greek woman who luckily can’t understand what he’s saying and somehow the attraction is mutual - although he still speaks to her like they are in a bad porno, so in a sleazy, objectifying way. So I’m not convinced he has learned his lesson and will treat women better after his consensual sexual encounter on the Greek beach. The fact the woman he connects with is not German seems to be the key to his “success,” not his new-found respect for women. German-speaking women, such as the cashier he assaults or the other women he verbally accosts, would be able to understand his misogynistic and aggressive language and behavior and thus reject him, which suggests that the cycle of his violence can only be broken abroad. However, the films concludes in Germany. Rocky succumbs to cancer and after the funeral, Thorben abandons his father’s dog and walks off into the unknown. Not exactly commendable behavior. Not exactly rehabilitated characters. Rocky dies and Thorben never has his epiphany. Stahlberg lets them get off easy (pun somewhat intended).
Stahlberg also lets his male characters be presented as victims. We, society, should pity men because we place too many, and ofttimes contradictory, expectations on them. They should be excellent lovers, the main breadwinners, physically fit, sensitive but tough, etc. etc. While it may be true that men feel pressured and insecure - and I’d like to add we should be respectful of everyone and their feelings (except maybe for rapists - personal thing, #sorrynotsorry) - it is highly troubling that the film fails to shake the father-son duo’s hubris. It is equally troubling that the “c-word,” or Fotze in German, which I take issue with enough on its own, is thrown around with reckless abandon like the dice at a Vegas casino. While the certainly has its funny moments, and some really gross and uncomfortable ones, it is more provocative than anything else. I think it is meant to be a (poor) response to the growing number of people, myself included, supporting the Time’s Up, #MeToo and Equal Pay movements because, you know, men have to defend themselves from the threat of liberals and feminists!* Whatever side you’re on (but hopefully not on the a$$hole side), Fikkefuchs ultimately tries to sell the idea that male insecurities somehow excuse misogyny and rather than teach the two wretches a lesson, they can either die or walk away from the sexual crimes unscathed. Nope. Sorry. That's just not good enough anymore. The times they are a-changin. And one thing’s for sure: time is definitely up.
*Please note the sarcasm here: the author is what most people would consider a liberal and a feminist, if you’re into labels.
**Other side note: I find it striking that the film was reviewed almost exclusively by males, although as Beatrice Behn pointed out in our interview, the world of film criticism, like so many other professions, is dominated by white males. I would be curious to read what other female audience members and reviewers think of this film. Please feel free to post your respectful comments! I’m certainly glad that the male reviewers generally found the film disgusting and even mentioned the #MeToo debate. Here is one example, in German, written by Oliver Kaever: http://www.zeit.de/kultur/film/2017-11/fikkefuchs-film-jan-henrik-stahlberg-sexismusdebatte/komplettansicht
By Marina Brafa
The stakes are high: In the third edition of their introduction to film history, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell promise no less than an overview about dates, names and developments in the history of film not only in the U.S. but worldwide. How can a book possibly cover such an amount of information? Indeed, the volume contains close to 800 pages with only a few stills or illustrations and the authors provide a flood of facts. Fortunately, they do so in a very structured way so that it is easy to follow their argumentation. Basically, Thompson and Bordwell assume and admit that several inventions and events took place more or less simultaneously worldwide and that one has to consider continuities as well as differences between times and spaces. They come to the conclusion that most occurrences are somehow related. This conclusion is a common thread throughout the rest of their book.
The book is divided in six parts, each covering a certain time period, e.g. Part Two: The Late Silent Era 1919-1929, or Part Five: The Contemporary Cinema Since the 1960s. They chose the periods wisely as the starting points of each are marked by a turning point. However, the authors do not suggest that movements, techniques etc. introduced in one era would stop existing in another but show how they might have been changed, replaced or continued to exist.
Each large chapter is subdivided into smaller ones that focus on specific topics or national cinemas. This structure helps to clearly connect or contrast developments in the film industries on a national or international level. For instance, writing about the era of early cinema - when “cinema” still had to be defined - the authors manage to capture the many relations between technical innovation, audience demand and business foundations in the U.S., France or England. Often, the competition among production companies would force them to be more innovative than others or would cause them to work together on certain areas whilst cutting each other out of other markets. Moreover, Thompson and Bordwell point out decisions that persist in today’s cinema such as editing standards and take a brief look at film markets outside the U.S. or Europe, e.g. early cinema in Japan.
Each chapter introduces not only historical facts and developments but also film terminology that emerged along with technical inventions or events in film history, thus contextualizing and historicizing specific terms that are still of importance in today’s film production. How and why did the “shot/reverse shot” standard form? Where does the word “nickelodeon” stem from? The answers can be found in the book as well as many more explanations of – nowadays - common cinema terminology.
Finally, the book is accessible for film scholars and newbies because of its practical nature. Thompson and Bordwell’s language is concrete and developments and events are never isolated but incorporated into a bigger picture of film industry. Drawing on movies from each era and the people “behind” the stories and history of film, the abstract subject is personalized and thus rendered more traceable and understandable, especially to people without much or any previous knowledge.
However, the authors could have problematized national cinemas from a race and gender point of view in each of the chapters to raise awareness of such questions, especially for a non-academic audience. The book definitely lacks a conscious discussion of important theories from gender studies, queer studies and postcolonial studies in film. This could be addressed in a further edition of the book.
Still, Film History: An Introduction is worth having on your bookshelf or to use in your classroom. It would be impossible to to memorize all the facts and figures provided in this book. The book can serve as an encyclopedia of quick information about a certain type or era of cinema, and it is a relatively short, easy-to-read insight into a comprehensive subject. And most importantly, it makes readers understand that no development is an island!
*Note: There is now a brand new 4th edition of Film History: An Introduction that just came out on March 1, 2018. See how to get a copy of the book here --> from the publisher McGraw-Hill or here --> from Amazon
Review of Touch Me Not (2018): Within Reach - Romanian Director Adina Pintilie’s Film Wins the Gold Bear
By Edith Ottschofski, republished here with her gracious consent
Translation by Christina Schultz
The Romanian-Czech-Bulgarian-French co-production - with actors and laypersons that hail from Great Britain and Australia - was filmed in English with occasional German. It is an appropriately global film in today’s day and age. In 2013, Călin Peter Netzer was the first Romanian director to the win the Golden Bear with Child’s Pose/Poziția Copilului.
People dressed in white sit across from one another in a white room; at the edge of the room, people dressed in black crouch on the floor. A calm, solemn voice gives the people dressed in white instructions on how to touch each other. The people dressed in black sitting on the floor observe. The focus is on a bald-headed young man (Tómas Lemarquis); he is supposed to touch his partner’s face, a young man with long hair (Christian Bayerlein) who cannot move his arms or legs. As the camera gradually reveals his [partner’s] face with beaming, expectant eyes, the hint of a smile, protruding teeth and traces of drool, the viewer is embarrassed by this indiscretion. Tomas carefully follows the instructions and only later can we see him oppressed by this burden. The face is too intimate for him to let someone get close, but that is exactly what this film is about.
The director researched physical intimacy over the course of seven years. One of the main characters, Laura Benson, a woman in her mid-fifties, does not allow anyone to get close to her and tries to overcome this in various ways: in therapy sessions; with a call boy whom she watches masturbate; and with Hanna, a transvestite and music lover. At the same time she visits a person in need of care (possibly her father), and her austere look betrays that this is hard for her to deal with. In the second narrative thread, the bald Tomas explains how he lost his hair at the age of 13 and how his life changed. At one point in the film, he lands in a BDSM club where he meets another character who is not averse to unusual sex practices. The most thoughtful statements are made by the disabled Christian, who does not like to be called by his name, as he speaks openly and candidly about his shortcomings, but also about his fulfilling sex life with Grit, putting many an able-bodied person to shame by being thankful for his body.
Reflected in an awkwardly mounted glass in front of the camera, the questioning director appears every now and then and thematizes the creative process on a meta level in which she speaks with an absent person (her husband?). One time she is pushed in front of the camera by the main actress, and, close to tears, reveals her fragility. Thus she opens up her innermost self, just as she demands of her characters. The tangibly close, deeply human subject moves the viewer, especially because it is portrayed so bluntly but without compromising the characters and one is unsure whether it is scripted fiction or reality. Nevertheless, based on the director’s interventions alone, it is clearly an art film.
Audio tracks consisting partially of screams or loud music tracks underline the severity and seriousness of the film. I wonder if the film would have benefitted from a bit more humor. Instead there are some involuntary funny scenes. The film is still worth watching, not least because it sounds out the border between normalcy and the unconscious mind and gets one to think.
Link to Edith Ottschofski’s original text in German:
By Christina Schultz
If you think it’s hard being a woman, try being a prepubescent teenager who can’t decide whether they - not he or she, the semantics are important here - even want to become a woman or not. That is precisely what director and writer Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s film They wants us to witness: “their” decision process, or more accurately indecision process, on deciding which gender to become. And this is where the film might disappoint those who expect a traditional resolution. In the end, we don’t know what they decide.
“They” goes by the name J, played by Rhys Fehrenbacher, a gender non-conforming 14-year-old assigned female at birth. Rhys, however, was born male and identifies as transgender. Like his character, Rhys was going through identity-postponement at the time the film was being made. Similarities and differences between J and Rhys aside, Rhys’ performance of J is excellent, capturing a shyness, delicateness and vulnerability totally fitting with the film’s overall theme of indecision, as if J’s introversion is somehow linked to the fact they don’t know who they are. J seems to get lost in the shuffle quite often throughout the 90 minute story, perhaps because of their indecision. We often see J in the garden tending to plants, quietly fixing technical issues (like pinning up a young boy’s outfit or fitting an iPhone into a projector) or hiding in the shed keeping tabs on how they feel that day: B - G - ? The hormone blockers, non-FDA approved by the way, are giving J more time to decide. The monthly tallies of Bs, Gs and ?s, when the camera offers us a glimpse of them, do not reveal a clear-cut answer. J tells her older sister Lauren something that perfectly captures their dilemma: “I wish I could remain a child.” Then J could avoid making the decision, which society might see as an act of resistance (by denying the very core of our heteronormative society), albeit a quiet one. This indecision, suspension, postponing of becoming an adult unfortunately has no easy solution, and the film’s ending highlights this fact.
But J isn’t the only one with a big decision ahead of them in the film that remains unresolved. Lauren, played by Nicole Coffineau, is the polar opposite of J. Extroverted, artistically-inclined, decidedly female and in a heterosexual relationship. She has to decide whether or not to take a job assignment in another city. Lauren’s Iranian boyfriend Araz, played by Koohyar Hosseini, inevitably steals the show. He is a ray of humor in an otherwise somber and slow-moving film. He and his family, who live in the suburbs of Chicago, are lively, loud, chaotic and speak a dizzying mix of English and Persian. Araz, we learn at a family get together, has visa troubles and must decide whether to move back to Iran or marry Lauren, which is now problematic if she takes the job. This is the point when J, referred to as “Lauren’s brother” in the Iranian household, is almost forgotten. At first I saw this as a weakness of the film, but when one considers the theme of indecision it all falls into place. J is always around, observing, helping, thinking, even if they are not always the center of attention.
As if the three main characters and their (in)decisions were not enough, Ghazvinizadeh adds another, subtler reminder of the theme. J and Lauren’s aunt suffers from dementia and there is uncertainty about the aunt’s health and future. In other words, we briefly meet another character who is in a state of arrested development.
Not only is Ghazvinizadeh’s thematic choice inspired by Robert Bresson’s idea of fragmentation and ellipsis, ambiguity and the undefinable, but also her camerawork, which I found skilled and diverse. She uses a number of mediated shots with images reflected in glass doors or the spectator looking through windows at the action. There are also static shots and close ups on flowers, J’s list or, my personal favorite, of J’s dirty knees from the garden. We have tracking shots of J from behind, which focuses on their alabaster neck and further highlights their vulnerability. We even see shots of computer screens when Lauren and Araz conduct Skype calls.
They is ultimately an intimate story about searching for yourself. In the end, we are reminded it is not always easy. The likeable characters and appealing visuals make up for the, for some, frustrating lack of resolution. What is important is that you have a loving family who will support you for who you are, no matter what you decide.
Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, clinical psychologist explains transgender vs gender-nonconforming in this video:
[Note: much of the information in this review was gathered by the author during a post-film discussion with director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh; the photos were also taken by the author during the discussion]
By Elisabeth Granzow
At first glance, One Day at a Time (2017-) seems like a typical, easily forgettable sitcom. It makes use of the good old live-audience-trope of the traditional sitcom genre, which is often connected to pure escapist television by cueing the viewer to laugh. However, after binge-watching the two seasons of the Netflix comedy, I realized that One Day is a hidden, thought-provoking gem, not only within the sitcom genre, but in the whole television landscape. The comedy is created by Gloria Calderon Kellet and Mike Royce and presents nuanced and complex representations of race, gender, sexuality and class with lovable characters and heartwarming storylines. One Day accomplishes so many things, which makes it worthwhile for broad audiences despite it being hidden within Netflix’ extensive list of programs.
Over the past few decades, half-hour comedies have been more experimental in style and content by portraying diverse topics such as race, gender and sexuality. One reason for this shift lies in the diversification of the television market, which now also includes popular streaming services and their original content, such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. These programs are often popular with critics and less dependent on ratings and a mass audience than mainstream network sitcoms. Therefore, these formats are considered niche programs that target more specific demographics and do not have the pressure of appealing to everyone. One Day falls into the category of a niche program, since it is part of the vast selection of original content by Netflix. The streaming service just recently released the second season of One Day, which has received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences.
The show about a Cuban-American family includes a range of current topics, such as PTSD, depression, immigration and racism. What I found most astonishing about this series, however, is that it combines urgent political commentary with the very traditional format of the mainstream family sitcom. One Day is filmed in front of a live audience and incorporates the laughter and reactions of the enthusiastic viewers in the studio. Most of the scenes take place in the living room of the family and are shot with a three-camera set-up. Thus, One Day is reminiscent of the more traditional mainstream network sitcoms. In addition, it is actually a remake of the popular sitcom with the same name (1975-1984) by Norman Lear, who is also a producer of the new One Day. It is surprising to find this format on Netflix rather than a network channel. The more acclaimed network sitcoms like Modern Family and Black-ish (both on ABC) stylistically diverged from these traditions by using the “mockumentary” style or voice-over narration. One Day, on the other hand, uses typical, seemingly outdated, sitcom conventions, which are usually linked to low-brow entertainment and escapist TV, which is considered to lack political or societal value.
However, I would argue that One Day is more successful and complex in political commentary than the stylistically more experimental sitcoms on the mainstream networks such as Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat (also on ABC). The majority of the mainstream family sitcoms are still traditional and conservative in their content, representing the norms of American society and families, such as the nuclear middle-class family with the father as the head of the household and breadwinner. Some of these shows present non-white families and might discuss racial identities as in the sitcoms mentioned above. Yet, their race is often the only thing that sets them apart from the other white middle class families prominent on TV. Therefore, these network family sitcoms still follow the blueprint of normative nuclear families and use diverse racial identities as a way to stand out and make the program more marketable. Since these series are made for a broad audience with the aim to make their viewers laugh, the issues around race, gender and class they address are often resolved in a simplified manner in one 22-minute episode.
One Day seems different from these traditional sitcoms. The comedy presents a multigenerational Cuban-American family and centers around Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a divorced single mother who raises her two children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), together with her mother Lydia (played by the amazing Rita Moreno). The sitcom does not have a patriarch or any important father figure. Elena’s and Alex’s father is mostly absent and battles with alcoholism and PTSD. Penelope, with the support of her mother, is the one who holds the family together while working full-time as a nurse and attending school to become a nurse practitioner. The working mother is also a veteran who is dealing with PTSD and takes antidepressants.
What is so refreshing about this show is that it portrays many issues Americans deal with on a daily basis and connects them to the political state of America, for example the lack of fundamental support of veterans from the government or the economic struggle of single parent households. While addressing many “American” issues, One Day also discusses the diversity of ethnic and cultural identities in the US and is one of the few shows depicting the life of a Cuban-American family, which is sadly rare, since the Latin American community is still highly underrepresented on US television. Furthermore, the sitcom frequently addresses topics of immigration and the fear of deportation. Lydia, for example, gives moving monologues about leaving Cuba, when she was a child and had to leave her parents and older sister behind.
The uniqueness of this seemingly traditional sitcom stems from the complex challenges the Alvarez family is facing, which are not resolved in one single episode. Instead these challenges are recurring, which highlights the complexity of the characters’ identities and experiences when they have to face sexism, racism and homophobia. Elena, for example, comes out as a lesbian to her family in season one, but this is not resolved in one episode and her challenges to grow up in a heteronormative world are continuously addressed. A cross-season storyline depicts how Elena and her family deal with the fact that her father is having problems accepting her sexuality and that it is “not just a phase” for her.
Though all these topics seem very serious and are sometimes heart-wrenching, this show is still a sitcom that aims to make the audience laugh. This is why I think One Day is such a hidden gem on the TV landscape. While it incorporates serious issues around identity and oppression, the family celebrates life, their culture and the happy things they experience. Despite the fact that some of the jokes and punchlines come out a bit flat in a typical sitcom manner, much humor is also evoked through the different identities and perspectives of the characters, especially between the family’s three generations. Another source of humor is Dwayne Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the ignorant but well-meaning white landlord. In various episodes, he relates Lydia’s immigration experiences with his own immigration as a wealthy Canadian, therefore completely overlooking his privileges as a rich white man. Thus, One Day accomplishes being cheerful, optimistic and thought-provoking at the same time.
The complexity of the storylines and characters combined with charm, humor and important political messages make One Day a sitcom that has the potential to be appealing to a wider audience. The sitcom is also a great example of a female-centered program co-created by a woman. With its fantastic female cast the show also empowers three generations of Cuban-American women. Lydia, Penelope and Elena represent the significant bond of women within a family and are inspiring role models for Alex, who is raised to be a sensitive, thoughtful and confident young man by his sister, mother and grandmother. Thankfully, after much suspense, Netflix finally renewed the sitcom for a third season. Many fans were concerned that Netflix would not renew One Day because the program might not stick out to viewers browsing through Netflix’ vast content. I can only encourage everyone to watch One Day at a Time with the hope that many more seasons will come.
The two seasons of One Day at a Time can be streamed on Netflix. The sitcom has been renewed for a third season.
By Marina Brafa
A lot of praise was showered on Lady Bird when it came out in the U.S. last year. It won four Golden Globe Awards in main categories and received five Oscar nominations in 2018 for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Greta Gerwig is the fifth woman in Oscar history to receive a nomination for Best Director. Unfortunately she went home empty handed at the Oscars. But whether or not the awards mean anything, Lady Bird still deserves praise, as it is a gorgeous film that depicts the coming of age of a young woman in a sober, thoughtful manner. Moreover, the fact that the film was made by a talented female director-screenwriter and includes a plot driven by realistic female characters makes it stand out among similar films.
There are two points in particular which I think are crucial for the success of this low-budget movie at the box office. First, the universal plot. One can state in one sentence what the movie is about: A coming-of-age story of a teenage girl that grows up in an average American city in a middle-class family with financial issues. Sound familiar? Correct. There is a whole genre that covers these kinds of stories and audiences can therefore easily relate to the film. However, what makes Lady Bird stand out is Greta Gerwig’s original, empathetic script. The film’s protagonist, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), is an almost 18-year old growing up in not-so-exciting Sacramento. She is unpleasant and rebellious, especially toward her mother. She re-names herself “Lady Bird” and tries to reach her dreams: losing her virginity and attending an ivy league college, even though her family is living on a tight budget because her father recently lost his job. On her journey, Christine/Lady Bird is nasty and loving, determined and insecure all at the same time. To create a character that carries all these features, and thus comes close to the complexity of real life, is not an easy task to accomplish. But Gerwig’s script does a good job of layering and interweaving these fibers of life into her characters and their interpersonal relationships. There are no crazy twists, no bloody messes and certainly no action-laden sequences, but rather subtle personal development that makes the story seem authentic and relatable.
Second, the cast is outstanding. The characters run the risk of seeming flat precisely because of their complexity and the difficulty for actors to convey emotions that differ from person to person. But because the plot itself is not filled with artificial and implausible turns, it depends on and is heavily driven by the artists’ performances. Luckily, the cast of Lady Bird captures the emotions perfectly. It does not come as a surprise that two of the main actresses were nominated for an Academy Award for their acting. Saoirse Ronan as Christine the moody teenager and Laurie Metcalf as the overbearing Marion are a perfectly mismatched mother-daughter duo who give their characters life. They are accompanied by a group of likewise gifted actors and actresses like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s friend Julie and Timothée Chalamet who plays one of Christine’s love interests (coincidentally he appears in another critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning movie Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino), and was nominated for Best Actor). These so-called supporting actors are “supporting” in the best way: they counterbalance the dominant figures of Christine and her mother. Like mirrors that surround Christine and Marion, the other cast members reflect various aspects of the main characters and show how multifaceted these two women are. Sure, the supporting roles could be more fully developed, but this is not the aim of the movie. It centers on Christine and her relationships and avoids losing itself in elaborate psychological profiles that would drown the movie and turn the comprehensible, tragicomic coming-of-age film into a pretentious, lifeless character study.
Lady Bird is about human beings in all their positive and negative moments and screenwriter Greta Gerwig was able to capture them. In many articles and reviews she has been applauded for this element of the movie. Her role as director, however, has not been emphasized much, despite her Oscar nomination for Best Director. Maybe this is because the camera work is impressive in a subtle, diffident manner. Although we have a close look at family life and follow Christine throughout the film, the camera manages to stay unobtrusive as if it just happens to be observing the situation in which it finds the main characters. Many scenes unfold in tableau-like compositions under the bright Californian sun, the latter highlighting Christine’s outfit choices ranging from colorful to dark (depending on her mood). In the end, Christine/Lady Bird moves to New York where we witness her getting drunk and then hospitalized for her wild night out. So far, so normal for an 18-year-old freshman.
While that might seem anticlimactic, it is more important what happens on a symbolic level – “Lady Bird” changes her name back to Christine McPherson and calls her family back home. The self-proclaimed “Lady Bird” takes off, faces her struggles, undergoes a transformation and gets her broken wings fixed again. She lands back on earth and can now find her way with both feet firmly on the ground. What a happy ending.
Lady Bird was released in the U.S. on November 3, 2017 and in Germany on April 19, 2018.