Court says director of “The Queen of Versailles” did not defame film’s subject

The director of an interesting film about the largest single-family home in the United States was cleared of defamation charges in court:

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19…

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.

An unflattering but true story can still be told. But, if the story was not going to be positive, why participate in the first place or go through the whole process after things had turned sour? As I note in my quick review of the film, the story is less about the big house and more about what happens when someone loses lots of money and disconnects from his family. Also see a September 2013 update on the fate of the home.

Quick Review: The Queen of Versailles

I recently watched the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which details the quest of David and Jacqueline Siegel to built the largest house in the United States. My thoughts on the film:

1. I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed more of the movie isn’t about the house. And, I hope the house is completed just to see what an 85,000 square foot house looks like.

2. The film ends up being a lot more about what happens when a wealthy person/family suddenly sees that money disappears. This is an interesting story in itself. How do they adjust? How much of their behavior really changes? Even if they say they can readjust to a lower income, which is closer to what they grew up with, it appears this is is a really hard process. This reminds me of recent research suggesting people feel losses more strongly compared to equal gains.

3. Jackie is a somewhat sympathetic character but David Siegel is the one to watch here. His mood gets darker and darker as his financial prospects dim. I felt sorry for him; he freely admits at several points that he can’t separate his family and work and it shows in how he lives. Is this what trying to hold on to money looks like? If so, it doesn’t look attractive at all.

4. The film does address at various points who is responsible for the situation the Siegels are in: banks who made money easily available or people who got addicted to this easy money? But, the film doesn’t go far enough in trying to resolve this. It would be interesting to see banks or financial institutions interviewed on this particular case, or even more broadly, to get their side. We see the personal fallout of the problem as the Siegel family tries to recover but the film only hints at the bigger picture.

While this is an interesting story, I wonder: if the outlandishly large house was not involved, how different is this from a number of reality shows or films about wealthy people? In the end, I do think the family is pretty honest about the changes they are experiencing and perhaps it is this authenticity that sets this documentary apart.

(Note: critics like the film. On RottenTomatoes, 98 out of 103 reviews were fresh.)

Translating the dystopian world of The Hunger Games…into 1930s scenery?

In my review of The Hunger Games movie, I noted that I was not terribly impressed by the futuristic designs in the movie. At The Atlantic, three design critics make similar arguments and note that much of the scenery and design is not from the future but rather from the 1930s. Here are a few of their thoughts:

The props, sets, and costumes are a giant mash-up of visual cues taken from eras when the socioeconomic disparity between classes was so extreme as to be dangerous. The look is sort of cherry picked from influences ranging from the French Revolution to the Third Reich to Alexander McQueen. A more unified or coherent vision, one that took the influences and used them to create something unique, might have served the story better…

The opening scenes in District 12 are atmospheric and period precise. The bleached-out blue palette, the wooden shacks, the muddy roads—you know you are in the 1930s of the Farm Services Administration photographers. There were a couple of moments, like the line of cabins going down into the hollow, or the two scrawny kids looking out of a hole in the wall, that I could almost swear were direct imitations of a photograph. I found out after I saw the movie that those scenes were filmed in Henry River, North Carolina, an abandoned mill town from the 1920s. In District 12, it is coal. In North Carolina, it was yarn…

The overall look of the Capitol was 1930s neoclassicism, an architectural style used by the Nazis and based on Roman precedents. Fascist architecture seems too easy and obvious an equivalence for Panem’s totalitarian regime. I thought Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins was trying to make a trenchant point about what we all like to watch now. Making the Capitol a contemporary skyscraper city, like a forest of Far East towers, would have made a much more pointed contrast with the Appalachian opening. What about the top of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, with its mile-high infinity pool, as the setting for Katniss and Peeta’s pre-Games talk? How could you get more decadent than that?…

Maybe oppressive architecture in movies has to be Fascist, in the same way that aliens need to be either robotic, humanoid, or insect-like—otherwise we don’t immediately recognize and fear what we’re seeing. The tributes’ apartment was like an outdated hotel room that was trying too hard to be hip but not quite succeeding; the green chairs were ridiculous in the same way as Effie’s shoes, hats, and makeup…

On the whole, these critics argue that the movie seems to lean on the past a lot rather than casting a new vision for the future. I understand the difficulties of doing this; futuristic settings can be too jarring or cheesy (see the city scenes in Star Wars Episodes I-III). Maybe moviegoers are more invested in the movie if there are scenes they can recognize. For example, the Nazi narrative is clear to many so invoking these ideas in the Capitol is an easy way to make a link between Nazism and the totalitarianism that made the Hunger Games possible in the first place. The movie taps into familiar cultural narratives such as the Depression or Nazism, pointing to the future while also drawing on the past.

Perhaps this comes down to an argument about whether movie makers should always try to hit a home run with design and setting or play it safe. I think The Hunger Games played it safe on this end. Rather than risk ridicule or have to develop a whole new world, they borrowed heavily from known images. Perhaps this could even drive home the possibly commentary even further that we aren’t as far away from this sort of world as we might think. In other words, the future (or the present) might look a lot similar to the pas.t But I think this was a missed opportunity: considering the budget and popularity of the books, the movie could have presented a grand vision of the future that truly captured the attention of viewers and also pushed design and popular imagery of the future further.

Movie “Abduction” based on discovery in a high school sociology class

Sociology courses aren’t featured much in movies or television shows. However, the recent movie Abduction begins with a discovery a high school student makes in his sociology class:

Taylor Lautner shines as an action hero in Abducted.  Surrounded by top veteran actors Sigourney Weaver, Jason Isaacs, Alfred Molina and Maria Bello, Taylor Lautner delivers a fast paced and physical performance as a young man whose entire existence has been turned upside-down.

Engaging and entertaining, Lautner fans should be pleased with this film and the Blu-ray extras.

While working on a high school sociology assignment Nathan (Lautner) makes the discovery that he may be an abducted child, that his parents are not really his parents.  He loves the people he knows as his father and mother (Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello) and is shocked and scared when immediately after his online acknowledgement of the missing child picture someone breaks in and both “parents” are killed…

Follow the link to read the rest of the plot though critics were not fans of this thriller: it is only 4% fresh (4 fresh out of 95 total reviews) on RottenTomatoes.com. Let’s hope the low rating was not due to a poor or boring portrayal of what a sociology class can be.

This premise could be used in a lot of plots: a sociology professor asks their students to do something unusual and the student finds out/stumbles upon/discovers something really strange that ends up leading to the student being threatened by people desperate to cover something up. Do you want your thriller to hinge on some weird sociological phenomenon? Just stick your protagonist in a sociology class where they are supposed to be studying weird things!

Two quick conjectures:

1. Most sociologists would not want their discipline tied to Taylor Lautner and Twilight.

2. Yet sociologists might like being portrayed in films as long as they aren’t portrayed as neurotic academic types.

Quick review: Watching The Social Network at Harvard

This weekend, the movie The Social Network, a disputed origin story about the founding of Facebook, hit theaters to nearly universal acclaim.  I had the opportunity to see the movie on the second day of release and can add my wreath to the many laurels heaped upon this Aaron SorkinDavid Fincher collaboration.  However, since so many others have dissected this film so thoroughly, I will refrain from a typical movie review as I feel I have little to add.  I will instead comment briefly on just how surreal it was to watch this movie at Harvard.

The AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 is located one block off the Yard at Harvard University, and the mood at the 6:30pm showing on Saturday, October 2nd was electrifying.  The audience appeared to be a mix mostly of college students and their professors, and they clearly had come to have a good time.  When the Mark Zukerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, made a crack early in the movie about Boston University students not needing to study, there was a collective gasp.  When the exterior of The Thirsty Scholar made a cameo appearance, there were actual cheers.

This movie was about us–not as representatives of some abstractly-defined generation nor as students coming of age during web 2.0–but as residents of Mt. Auburn Street, two blocks away.  In the men’s bathroom after the movie, I overheard a conversation between two students debating the wisdom of trying to get into one of Lawrence Summer‘s classes now that he is returning to Harvard (after working as director of the White House National Economics Council).

Many of the best movies take us from our own specifics into the universality of the human condition.  While I am sure that The Social Network will do this for many people, it had quite the opposite effect on me.  For me, it took that most abstractly universal of all web phenonmenon–Facebook–and gave it a specific human face.  One that might well have been in the theater with me last night.

Quick Review: That Thing You Do

I’ve always liked this 1996 film that follows a one-hit band from Erie, Pennsylvania to the top of the record charts and then back down again as they fall apart. A few thoughts on re-watching the extended cut of the movie:

1. The movie has an innocence about it: small-town kids make it big. The characters have a wide-eyed wonder for much of the movie until they become disillusioned. Perhaps this is still the American dream for many bands: hope to get discovered by a local agent and then hit the big-time with all its benefits (fame, money, women, TV).

2. Though he is the last member to join, the drummer, Guy Patterson, is the main character who speeds up the tempo of the band’s hit song when it is still in its embryonic stages and tries to hold the band together as the pieces fall apart. Guy is likable. The extended cut includes move of Guy’s initial back story before he joined the band.

2a. The lead singer, Jimmy, on the other hand, is the brooding genius who can’t handle the demands of the road and just wants to record his next hit record.

2b. Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, is played by Liv Tyler and is a lovely girl caught in the band’s crossfire. (This is the only movie where I liked Liv Tyler’s acting.)

3. I like the music. Though it was written in the 1990s, it does sound like music from the 1960s. The title track, “That Thing You Do!”, is catchy and usually stays in my head for a few days after hearing it. Some of the other songs on the soundtrack are also good.

(According to Wikipedia, the title track was good enough in 1996 to merit airplay: “Written and composed for the film by Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, and released on the film’s soundtrack, the song became a genuine hit for The Wonders in 1996 (the song peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, #22 on the Adult Contemporary charts, #18 on the Adult Top 40, and #24 on the Top 40 Mainstream charts).”)

4. I don’t think the extended cut scenes add much. While it adds more nuance to some characters, particularly Guy, the in-theater version was snappier.

5. There are a lot of allusions/homages to the mid 1960s music scene. The Beatles are referred to often and a scene where the Wonders bike/run/skip on a map of the United States is very similar scene from A Hard Day’s Night.

6. I’ve been trying to think about the main point of the film. It could be viewed as sort of a slice-of-life retrospective about the heady days of rock in the mid 1960s but there are a couple of themes that run throughout the story that suggest there is something deeper:

a. The power of relationships over music and fame. While the band hits it big, it’s not the band that endures – it is the relationship between Guy and Faye.

b. The permanence/creativity of jazz compared to rock music. Guy is more interested in jazz when he initially joins the group to help them survive the injury of their original drummer. By the end of the film, he is still more interested in jazz. Compared to the fickle nature of rock (from nobodies to stars to nobodies all within a year), jazz is portrayed as having staying power.

c. The cycle of one-hit wonders that makes the music world go around. Toward the end of the film, their manager (played by Tom Hanks), suggests that this tale is a common one. The music machine takes innocent kids with hit songs, uses them for what they are worth, and then doesn’t care too much if they disappear. As long as there is another chart-topper in the works, that is all that matters.

After another re-watching, my liking of the film is confirmed: the catchy music plus the joy of seeing a small-town band hit it big plus the reality of what often happens when fame comes between people makes for an enjoyable two hour concoction.

Quick Review: Pleasantville

I’ve seen parts of this 1998 film before but I watched it again recently to see if I want to use it in a class on suburbs. Two modern-day teenagers end up back as part of a family in a 1950s suburban world and they start bringing color to this less-than-idyllic community. Some quick thoughts about the film:

1.The film is a critique of suburban life, particularly that of 1950s television shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The critiques are typical: suburban residents are repressed (more on this in a moment), women are in a subservient role, and the people are conformists who just like things to stay the way they are.

2. Sexual repression is the major theme throughout. The teenage female protagonist quickly charms another high school boy and sets off big changes at Lovers Lane. The mother of the family explores her feelings, the manager of the diner does as well, and the whole town generally goes crazy. While there are other themes, like conformity, patriarchy, and being closed off from the outside world, they are not explored as much.

3. The whole black and white vs. color scheme is a clever tool. The two teenagers who end up back in the 1950s find a black & white world but as this world opens up, things turn to colors. It is visually interesting to watch this contrast throughout the film.

4. The sexual repression theme is somewhat heavy-handed by the end though there is a twist: the teenage female protagonist who first introduces sex to the community finds out that there is a value in books and ideas. While the rest of the teenagers want to go nuts, she pulls back and decides there are more important things for her to explore.

5. In the ending scenes, the characters ask what they are supposed to be doing in life and the response is “we don’t know.” While on one hand this is a refutation of the 1950s world where “we just do things because that is how they are done,” this is not very satisfying: the better alternative is left unexplained.

An interesting film with some surprises. I wish it could have explored some other suburban issues beyond sex and conformity…but perhaps that is a lot to ask.

(This film was generally well-received by critics: it is 85% fresh, 70 fresh out of 82 reviews, at RottenTomatoes.com.)