Regarding the NFL and Domestic Violence

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NFL and Domestic Violence

by S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

We’ve been asked a few times if we’re going to write on the NFL and its domestic violence situation. In truth, we’ve had difficulty finding the right words to apply to the situation.

First off, so you know where this is coming from, four of us are football fans: Cleopatra and Eden passingly; Vanessa and Gabe as die-hards (Vanessa’s been to Super Bowls, Gabe’s never missed watching one in his life); and S.L. and Amanda couldn’t care less about the sport.

We wanted to come up with a straightforward statement that, despite all our different perspectives, we could agree on and fully support, word for word. Here it is:

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked in his single interview since he bungled the league’s approach to domestic violence and finally suspended domestic abuser Ray Rice indefinitely: does he believe the NFL has a domestic violence problem?

Let’s be clear. The NFL does not have a domestic violence problem. The world has a domestic violence problem. To contain this to the NFL is to once more exceptionalize it, to rationalize it away as something that happens to others who live a different lifestyle, to pretend it’s unlikely to happen to people you know because it’s the sort of thing others do.

The problem with the NFL is not that it has a domestic violence problem, it’s that it has THE SAME domestic violence problem America does at large. We overlooked it when it happened in boxing, baseball, and basketball, but football is America’s sport. We are not implying that the NFL should be excused. It should be nailed to the wall. We are saying that other sports, and not just sports, but other walks of life, should not be excused.

We didn’t care when Wall Street did it. We didn’t care when it happened in Hollywood. We didn’t care when politicians did it, so long as it was to their wives and not a mistress. We cared for a minute but got over it when Chris Brown did it. We didn’t care when a company we hired with our tax money to help run Iraq caged an employee in a trailer after a gang rape. We didn’t care – we are very good and very practiced at diverting our attention elsewhere.

It’s not that the NFL has a domestic violence issue, it’s that we have a blind spot a mile wide and suddenly, exceptionally, we finally had a story hook into us, and reporters who have pushed this issue for years finally caught our cultural ear at the right damn moment.

We are angry at the NFL. Their corporate headquarters should be swept out on its ass, because they deserve it and because it will send a message to other leagues and corporations. The San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, and Minnesota Vikings are all hiding behind a due process excuse that teams and the league have been extraordinarily inconsistent about applying in the past. They need to shape up and get the message, too.

But we are angrier that this is only an issue when it happens to the famous. Our fear is that this is a moment, that we’ll move on. Our fear is that, once the media tsunami has passed, Goodell will find an “extenuating circumstance” to allow suspended players back into the league early as he’s so famous for doing (the NFL just rushed a new drug policy this week to get back two star receivers early). Our fear is that this issue will once more disappear in a few months, rather than be expanded upon and pushed into other industries. Our fear is that we’ll be able to go on thinking it’s been addressed because the NFL fixed one example of many in our lives. Our fear is that we’ll think those football players are so dirty and rotten, and that will be the out that allows us to ignore blatant domestic violence elsewhere.

Even ESPN continues to run Floyd Mayweather and Jameis Winston ads in between its Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice and Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy coverage. It’s a blatant and oblivious statement that we’ll care about abuse in one place because it’s too big to ignore, but we’ll turn around and ignore it somewhere else because we feel we’re already addressing it.

Our fear is that people really do believe this is a problem with the NFL, or with athletes, or with celebrities, and not a problem that happens every day, not a problem that happens to 1 in 3 women in their lives, not a problem at all because it happens to someone else, someone on TV, someone who you’ll never meet. Our fear is that we can pretend it’s a TV issue while we turn that mile-wide blind spot on our own lives. Our fear is that, like the league’s history of inconsistency, we have a cultural history of equivocating, justifying, and dismissing.

Our fear is that the public relations strategy the league is adopting to handle this, rather than understanding and changing, mirrors disturbingly the public relations strategy so many people adopt in their day-to-day lives. Rather than understand and change, it really is easier to ignore and exclude.

The NFL needs to be punished. But they’re not the only one. Our outrage and motivation should not stop where the league ends.

This is not a problem with the NFL. This is a problem. Period.

Trailers of the Week — Jennifer Lawrence Season

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Let’s just dive straight in:

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1

My worry for the Hunger Games series has been how it goes bigger, how it goes from a franchise about very orderly deathmatches to a franchise about chaotic, messy war. The series’ strength has never been its action. Its strength has been psychology. From the first moment of the first film, Hunger Games invoked the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange. The games were secondary, a function of presenting fashion and celebrity. They could just as easily have been a football game, or a celebrity feud on reality TV distracting us from our everyday struggle. That’s the whole point – deathmatches are just more cinematically compelling.

I remember walking out of the second Hunger Games and thinking, This is the franchise we need. This is my generation’s most complete, mass-market call for resistance. Not the kind of guns-out resistance in the movie, but a social and cultural resistance. Films like Hunger Games and this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier make the reality of how our nation’s evolved toward oligarchy a little easier to comprehend for many. The broadest tools for social change can’t be the sharpest – they have to be accessible in order to reach a wide audience. These are the movies that most finely balance being a blockbuster with translating social commentary.

So I worry for Mockingjay Part 1 not because I have reason to, but because maintaining that complete social comment across multiple films is a truly staggering task. In going bigger, in becoming messier, will it lose that psychological edge, that critique that makes it compelling not just on a cinematic level, but on a social and political level? It has created an opportunity event franchises just aren’t allowed. I have no doubt this film will be good, maybe even great, but it can’t just be that. It needs to be socially crucial. It needs to build exponentially on the ideas of its predecessors, like the second entry did.

The subtitle on this blog is “Movies and how they change you.” There’s a real chance The Hunger Games can not just embody that, but that it can continue to redefine the scope and scale on which event films are able to take social stands.

SERENA

Mockingjay isn’t the only Jennifer Lawrence movie to trailer this week. Serena has been held back as Lawrence’s star continues to rise (and as the studio figures out how to sell it). It would seem to re-unite her with Bradley Cooper, but this was actually shot before American Hustle.

Serena follows timber barons George and Serena Pemberton during the Great Depression as they scheme their way to power. There will be tragedy, neat costumes, and acting your face off aplenty. The trailer’s ill-defined, but Lawrence and Cooper – aside from sounding like a law firm – are enough to make it must-watch. Danish director Susanne Bier is a staple in the Oscars’ Foreign Language category, and her In a Better World won the award in 2011.

I named this one of my top 10 most anticipated films at the beginning of the year, but I’d begun to think it had been pushed once more. The release date is still in question, but it looks like October 24. Frankly, whether the film is good, bad, or indifferent, Magnolia Pictures is doing an atrocious job of advertising what should be easy money. People will go watch Jennifer Lawrence read a phone book for two hours at this point, and she’d still do it well enough to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. Put some money into advertising and get it out there.

MR. TURNER

EFFIE GRAY

Originally, the title this week was going to be “British Painter Season,” but then Mockingjay hit and, well, that was that.

In truth, I held Mr. Turner off from last week so it wouldn’t get quite as buried. The visuals of Mr. Turner look particularly striking, and I enjoy that the film appears to be as focused on his watercolour landscapes and their impact as it does on J.M.W. Turner’s personality.

Effie Gray excites me a little less, if only because the trailer makes it unclear quite what’s happening. Is Dakota Fanning secretly the painter in question, or is she the wife of the painter, or some combination thereof? The film looks like it has potential, however, and at this point, you don’t overlook a film with Fanning’s involvement (and Emma Thompson’s, for that matter).

IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE

Revenge comedies are few and far between. In fact, when the Coen Brothers and Guy Ritchie aren’t applying their talents to one, all we’ve got left is Scandinavia.

Thank the gods for Stellan Skarsgard. Whether delivering the best one liners and running naked through Thor or charming and terrifying his way through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he’s too overlooked for his dynamic and disarming performances.

In Order of Disappearance looks like a superb vehicle to showcase his talents, and I can’t wait to see it.

JOHN WICK

You can take Keanu Reeves’ dignity. You can take Keanu Reeves’ car. But you better not lay a finger on Keanu Reeves’ dog.

That’s a message I can get on board with, and that’s the theme to this wackadoodle-meets-Euroslick trailer for John Wick. Put Nic Cage in this, and it makes Worst Trailer of the Week. Put Keanu Reeves in it, and suddenly it’s stylish as hell. Such is the power of Keanu.

A host of unexpected actors and the sheer grace Keanu possesses in the choreography they drop at the end suddenly takes this from iffy into got-to-see-it territory.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN

I’m not much for slasher movies, unless you’re talking Italian giallo films from the 70s. The problem is that American slashers dropped all the psychology, opera, and art history from the genre and replaced it with torture, cheesy masks, and fear-mongering misogyny. That said, The Town That Dreaded Sundown looks like it has potential, with a small-town mystery at its center and some brilliant shots and color composition in the trailer. Then they drop in the guy with the cheesy mask and I lose all hope. Still, it’s one to keep an eye on just in case it delivers on those wonderful visuals.

Worst Trailer of the Week: MAPS TO THE STARS

This is one of my more anticipated movies this Autumn, but boy oh boy, is this an awful trailer. You’ve got to be careful cutting a David Cronenberg film for ads. His movies are composed of long stretches of quiet, of set-up, of reinforcing the mood, and sudden explosions of outright violence. That’s hard to define in a two-minute stretch, but my god, do they do a terrible job of it here. There’s a complete lack of dramatic timing in how it’s edited together.

What Went Wrong — Lea Michele’s “Louder”

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Lea Michele Louder lead

by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez

What happens when you take a Broadway singer and stuff her into a Katy Perry pop mold? Some good things, some bad.

Louder is Lea Michele’s debut album (free of Broadway or Glee soundtracks) and she uses 29 writers and 21 producers in just 11 songs. Or maybe they use her.

When it was released on February 28, Michele was roundly trashed, getting 1.5 stars (out of 5) from Rolling Stone. Idolator was the kindest around, rating Michele 3.5 stars. Very occasionally, they even remembered to grade the album, too.

They were in the ballpark, though. The album has some disastrous moments. So what went wrong? That’s easier to find if we start with what went right.

“Cannonball” is a strong opener. It hits listeners with Michele’s Broadway chops via the repetitive chorus: “I’ll fly like a cannonball.” This is an appropriate metaphor. As any Glee viewer can tell you, Michele is best when she’s allowed to sing to the back of the room.

Pop star Sia Furler wrote “Cannonball” and Norwegian duo Stargate produced it. They’re smart to strip the power ballad to basics: Michele’s only accompaniments are canned drums set to 1980s riff and a walking synth line that revisits the same five chords for three minutes straight. Soft electric string tones join in the middle to add a cathartic note (literally, they add only one note). An airy piano, which hands the walking line to the synth at the beginning, returns at the end to reflect Michele shedding the song’s dark, depressing opening lyrics and finding strength.

With the most basic level of instrumentation, the song is forced to rely on Michele and her background singers. This is great: it fits into Glee‘s semi-a cappella mode that’s been designed for Michele over 121 hours of TV. There’s nothing extraneous in “Cannonball,” and that puts the burden on her vocals.

(More voice means more emotion. This was the theory when Peter Gabriel and Real World Studios first re-engineered pop music around canned drum cycles in the mid-1980s.)

Portamento (pitch sliding) is not Michele’s forte. She hits a note perfectly, but when she’s asked to slur from one to the next in a single syllable, it doesn’t often sound right. More consistent production could have done a better job of hiding or orchestrating around this, and the best production on the album does.

Not surprisingly, the songs written by Sia are the album’s standouts – “Cannonball,” “Battlefield,” “You’re Mine,” and “If You Say So.” Not all of them were originally written for Michele, and maybe that’s why they work.

Lea Michele

“Battlefield” is also the only song produced by Josh Abraham. He began his career in the production booth for heavy metal groups Danzig and Orgy and rap-rock bands that don’t know how to spell Limp Bizkit, Staind, and Linkin Park. Love or hate them, these are all bands that limit the number of sounds that take place in their songs. They’re loud, but they’re not complicated. There’s no Wall of Sound to deal with.

“Battlefield” is Michele accompanied by piano and drums. There’s also an African chorus that feels like it entered the wrong recording booth, but it finds its way out quickly enough. “Battlefield” is the song that feels closest to a Broadway solo.

“You’re Mine” sounds more like a Selena Gomez song. Michele’s wanting portamento is replaced with quick, staccato note changes. She’s accompanied by canned drums, emotive strings (synthed), and occasional piano. This is one of two songs on Louder that Chris Braide produced. He’s previously produced for Sia, Lana Del Rey, and Malaysian singer Yuna. His synthesized strings are a trademark.

As he does for those artists, he makes sure to keep the instrumental elements in the background, supportive of Michele. The drums use reverb to complement Michele’s ability to assertively hold notes, and pull back to soft clapping for a relaxed three-quarter break. The strings are held to a walking series of choruses so they can’t become a focus. Like “Cannonball,” “You’re Mine” rightly places the weight of the song on Michele’s aggressive delivery.

“If You Say So” is a good performance in the wrong song. Unlike “Cannonball,” Sia wrote it with Michele in mind, but it feels like it was written for Sia by Sia. Lyrics like “I check my phone and wait to hear from you in a crowded room” could ache with Sia’s delivery, but feel misplaced with Michele’s. Michele is still singing to the back of the room. Sia would sing it to herself. It’s the difference between a performance (even though it’s a good one) and a heart wrenching personal portrait.

It’s the mistake the whole album makes. It isn’t Michele’s fault. She’s stepping into unfamiliar places by recording an album and putting herself in the hands of so many different writers (29) and producers (21). By relying on so many different personalities, though, too much gets asked of Michele. The picture she’s trying to paint is too big, and looking closely reveals gaps in detail.

Michele had a hand in writing two songs on the album, “If You Say So,” and “Cue the Rain.”

“The city was on fire for us
we would have died for us
up in flames
cue the rain…”

It’s the kind of nonsense Michele can make you picture. She’s a cinematic singer, but like most pop stars, she has a big Achilles heel in her delivery. Michele’s happens when singing introspectively.

Britney Spears can pull off mess like “I know my heart’s too drunk to drive,” but Michele can’t. Britney is an introspective singer (stylistically, not effectively). Michele is the polar opposite.

Consider the Lecture Hall Test. If Michele’s at the front of a lecture hall and pointing at you and singing about fire and dying and rain, you’re not looking anywhere else. You’re thinking, this is going to be an awesome semester. If she’s boring holes through you with her eyes while she goes on about her heart getting a DUI, you’re heading to the academic department and hoping the add/drop deadline hasn’t passed.

The best pop singers can sing to the back of the room and to themselves, depending on what the song needs. For all the other faults in her music, Katy Perry’s ability to shift gears quickly and effortlessly is why she dominates the field. She can overcome the kind of lackluster production Michele faces on “On My Way,” “Louder,” “Don’t Let Go,” and “Empty Handed.”

Lea Michele Glee 1

Anne Preven is one of the most constant producers on the album. She’s worked extensively with Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. These are singers geared toward safe, radio-friendly songs whose direction is decided more by orchestration than by vocal. Michele isn’t suited to that kind of quick, hoppy delivery. She doesn’t know how to follow her instrumentation, and her stage and TV experiences have offered her next to no training in how to do so. She leads the charge; all her experience is in orchestrations being built around her.

Our hope would be for a second album to settle on a more limited field of writers and producers. And maybe that was the purpose of this album – to see who Michele works best with and what direction offers the best musical future.

Our hope? “Thousand Needles” works because Michele’s strong voice lends itself to the instrumental spareness, elongated delivery, and emotional catharsis of R&B. It’s Michele’s best vocal delivery on the album and it’s the only one in which her portamento isn’t brutal, perhaps because the tempo isn’t rushed.

It’s also the only song Ali Payami produces, and one of the few Kuk Harrell has a hand in. Payami is a deceptively clever remixer of club and house music. Harrell has produced for Rihanna, Usher, and The-Dream. He also has a hand in producing “You’re Mine” (pro) and “On My Way” (con). We think he needs more opportunities with Michele.

“Cannonball” is produced by Stargate. When writing this article, we kept e-mailing each other, “You know who should produce for Michele? Whoever did Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It.’

Turns out that’s Stargate, too. Great minds, people, great minds…

Stargate is a Norwegian production team composed of Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen. Their experience mixing R&B with hip-hop and the electronic nuances of Scandinavian pop lends well to Michele’s strengths, but they rarely produce an entire album.

A cut down lineup of producers Abraham, Braide, Harrell, and Payami would help to focus the direction of the album, with Stargate engineering the intended singles.

As for writers, Sia needs to stay, but this is a no-brainer. She’s one of the most sought-after writers in pop music, and four of Louder‘s best songs were written by her hand. Michele needs to keep hitting up Scandinavia – “Thousand Needles” was cowritten by Tove Nilsson (Swedish pop star Tove Lo) while Stargate helped write “Cannonball.” Michele also needs to take a stronger lead in writing her own material, becoming more aware of the big, sprawling, cinematic metaphors that play to her delivery and the personal, everyday, in-the-moment images she doesn’t perform believably.

Many of the writers and producers we haven’t named here come from a Cyrus/Lovato/Kelly Clarkson/American Idol/America’s Got Talent background. They can’t return. Michele needs to be treated more experimentally – some combination of Broadway, R&B, and Scandinavian pop. Anything country or folk needs to be kept very far away from her.

There’s a clear path forward for Michele’s inevitable follow-up to Louder, which wasn’t necessarily a bad album. It was just one half of a very good album and one half of a soporific disaster. Very few efforts this year so starkly demonstrate the influence that writers and producers have in how a pop album comes together…or doesn’t.

What Went Wrong/What Went Right will be a returning series that puts the emphasis in music criticism on the music itself, and not the celebrity or lifestyle behind it. If you enjoyed it, please check back, and feel free to browse our music video criticism in the meantime.

Lea Michele Louder cap

A Bit of a Punishment — “No Good Deed”

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No Good Deed lead

by Gabe Valdez

Movies are all about expectations. If I’d rented No Good Deed straight-to-DVD, having no idea what it was, I still wouldn’t think it’s a good movie but I’d applaud the effort. Seeing it in the theater, however, magnifies all its flaws 30 feet tall.

Most of my expectations come from the leads. Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson typically define quality. You’ll recognize Elba from Thor and Pacific Rim (or the BBC’s Luther), Henson from TV’s Person of Interest. Elba plays an escaped convict, Colin Evans, who we’re told is a malignant narcissist. Think Jeffrey Dahmer – all charm and intellect in the service of murdering women. Henson is Terri, a mother of two children whose home he finds after driving off the road in a rainstorm.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse game as Colin ingratiates himself more and more into Terri’s evening, learning information about her, whether her husband will be returning, earning the momentary trust of her daughter.

So what are these flaws? The script by Aimee Lagos is awful. The concepts are good, but the dialogue just isn’t there. You’ll never see a more underlit movie in your life. There’s realism and then there’s watching actors in permanent silhouette for 90 minutes. Ever wonder what the moody, droning synth music they play in crime procedurals sounds like in an entire theater? The answer is “overwrought.”

Worse yet, director Sam Miller doesn’t know when to cut. Elba and Henson do a great job of saving the tension of the film later on, but in the service of realism, Miller extends scenes and shots too long, taking nicely acted emotional beats into the dreaded realm of overacting. He does his actors a disservice.

No Good Deed mid

Worst of all (I feel like we’re doing a countdown here), there’s a major twist near the end of the film. Now, twists are great. I love twists. One of the saddest days in recent film history is when M. Night Shyamalan got self-conscious and stopped using them. When you add a twist in the last act of a movie, however, you have to give your viewer space to process it. The best twists – those in Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and Shyamalan’s early career – are foreshadowed expertly and delivered so precisely that they seem obvious to the viewer the moment they’re revealed. The only thing you want an audience to think in that moment is: “How could I not see that earlier?”

The twist in No Good Deed still has you figuring out how it works as you walk out of the theater. It’s not a bad concept. In fact, it’s the most interesting element of the movie – it changes Colin’s entire motive and presents an even more warped and frightening vision of his moral compass. It’s delivered in such a clunky manner and feels so far out of left field, however, that the shaky suspense Elba and Henson have fought to develop across the rest of the film evaporates in a heartbeat. It’s the single worst moment I’ve seen in a movie this year.

On a side note, No Good Deed is getting slammed by some because it’s a movie about a man’s violence toward women in a news week dominated by the NFL’s Ray Rice and other players being investigated for domestic abuse. I’ll credit a movie for coming out in a timely manner and having social presence, but I’ll hardly blame one for coming out during the wrong news cycle. (I’d also tell ESPN that while they’re tearing down the NFL – and rightly so, despite my love for the game – that it seems disingenuous to champion Floyd Mayweather and athletes in other sports free of the context of their domestic violence histories.)

Getting back on task, No Good Deed is a mess, but is it an interesting mess? It has its moments, primarily because Elba and Henson keep recovering the film’s tension. One scene in particular, involving a shower and Colin forcing Terri to change, was uncomfortably close to the domestic violence a friend of mine recently suffered. It captured my attention. Another scene involving a traffic stop is very solid. The film keeps coming frustratingly close to mattering, but it undermines itself on every technical and story level possible. I’ll applaud the effort, but its execution is disastrously bad.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

All new reviews going forward will have a section on whether the movie passes the Bechdel Test. This helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does “No Good Deed” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Terri’s best friend Meg (Leslie Bibb) and daughter Ryan (Mirage Moonschein), as well as Colin’s unnamed ex (Kate Del Castillo).

2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes. Terri speaks with Ryan and Meg at different points in the movie.

3. About something other than a man?
Technically, yes.

I’ll go into this last answer. Terri speaks with her daughter Ryan, telling her to do chores or get ready for bed. The only conversation she has with another adult is with Meg. These conversations have one-line asides about other matters, but always focus squarely on men – Terri’s husband, the mysterious Colin.

Meg is a fairly empowered character – she ogles a construction worker, she’s sexually assertive, and she’s clever about ferreting out Colin’s lies. Ryan is a little girl and doesn’t have much to do outside of being in danger. She’s never once scared, but I think this has more to do with bad direction of a child actor than any statement the movie’s making. Terri herself is presented as having given away much of her independence and power to her husband, and regretting this. Within the confines of horror movie cliches, she’s very smart in how she fights back against Colin and protects her children – it’s safe to say she’s a strong role model.

The genre itself (home invasion) requires every character get beaten, terrorized, or killed at some point. Everyone but the villain being a woman presents a danger in adopting the villain’s misogyny from a cinematic standpoint. For all its other faults (and there are many), the movie does avoid this trap. Its women are terrorized, but that never feels like the point. Terri and Meg are strong, capable women with their own lives, although I do wish their friendship had been explored a bit more.

Go Watch This: “Chasin A Rainbow” by Railroad Earth

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by Gabe Valdez

The music video for Railroad Earth’s “Chasin’ a Rainbow” is a great one. Full disclosure: it’s co-directed by a friend of mine, Stephen Gifford (the other director is Rick Sebeck) from Philadelphia production studio Pretty Damn Sweet.

This means two things: 1) I get to be amused by his posts about an airline losing camera equipment that is pretty vital to his continued sanity (a helpful airline employee found it the next day); and 2) I get the notice when this remarkable music video goes up.

We follow a number of children working in the coal mines – there are nuances of steampunk here – when one comes across a bit of magic that gives them a potential escape.

I don’t think it’s just about being a kid, though. It’s about those dreams we thought we’d one day achieve and the muck and mire that so easily detour us. It’s a great video, and I’ll freely admit to tearing up at the end. Go watch it!

(Users in most countries will have to click through to YouTube – copyright and all. It’s worth it.)

Focus On: The Fashion Photography of Holly Parker

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Focus Holly Parker lead

by Gabe Valdez

Fashion photography has long suffered a big problem – decades ago, it dissociated from glamor photography and began favoring the clean lines and in-the-studio feeling of the commercial photography that became so popular in the 80s. Commercial photography sold us computers, TVs, cars, phones, anything technological by delivering clean-looking lines and shining, pristine surfaces in front of a black or white background. Commercial photography’s simple, perfected, antiseptic tone told us: here is the product, it is desirable.

Fashion photography took a number of these cues – it began isolating models in the same antiseptic settings. This had the result less of selling clothes than of selling the models themselves. After all, clothes sales aren’t what companies are after – they’re after brand loyalty. You have to sell a product again and again. You have to sell an image once. Over the years, however, buyers have become more and more resistant to commercial photography’s gimmicks. They aren’t nearly as effective as they once were.

So what’s different about Holly Parker? She returns a certain class to fashion photography, replacing hypersexualization with allure. Her models – women and men – are typically posed as strong and complex figures, not as helpless or sullen product. It’s an incredible and important difference.

Think of a photographer much like you’d think of the director of a film. Lighting, angle, composition, retouching and editing – it all comes together to make a huge difference in the shape a model’s performance takes.

Whereas some photographers still stress a model’s gauntness or pose them plaintively, as if they’re a toy waiting to be picked up by the viewer, Parker highlights a model’s muscle and tone. A big part of this is due to her favoring natural light over complex lighting set-ups. The portrayals she gets from models are realistic yet still iconic. They’re more colorful than the overly serious commercial approach to fashion photography, and they stress the landscape around a model as much as they do the model herself.

This may seem counter-intuitive, as if it draws focus away from the model, or the swimwear or dress being sold, but to the contrary – it’s a photographer’s way of world-building. Parker shifts the viewer’s experience from one of desiring the model to one of desiring a time and place – an entire experience. This gives her models greater function, stresses them as performers inside that world she’s built instead of simply as commercial objects.

From a brand perspective, there are any number of reasons to favor presenting an experience over presenting an object. Perhaps that’s for another article – my precise interest lies more in how Parker’s artistry expands the role and power of the models inside her work.

In particular, she has a keen eye for the interaction of focal points, asymmetry, and different levels of shallow focus. This is my favorite shot of hers.

Focus Holly Parker 1

She finds a way to echo the color of the model’s top in the rock face and her skirt in the further cliffs. Moreover, the model’s offset stance – cocked head, arm held across herself, leg bent out – uses her body to direct the eye in a natural manner from top left to lower right along the photo. This is supported in the slightly lesser curve of the rock face, and if there’s one thing the human eye loves, it’s concentric encouragement. There’s a curve on the left, there’s a similar curve in the middle, the brain is visually pleased. The upper right of the shot is largely negative space – there’s stuff there, but it’s soft focus, and so our brain guides us back to the center, where we know there’s a reinforced pattern and we’re more visually comfortable.

This, too, is encouraged by the color scheme – light brown rock, light brown top, white skirt, white cliffs (I know it’s Berkeley Gold and Snow or something, but let’s call it light brown and white). This implies a certain verticality as our eyes go from left to right – as colors grade lighter to darker across an image, our brains tend to want to reassemble that vertically. Darker objects imply distance, reinforcing on a second level the increasing depth of the shot as it opens right. This creates a slight touch of disorientation. Again, this returns us to the center, to an anchored position. I’d be shocked if Parker didn’t retouch to bring the colors of the rocks, cliffs, and clothes closer together. What it all adds up to is a number of concepts that work in conjunction to return our eyes constantly to the fashion at the image’s center.

Now you can just plop fashion in the middle of a photo and your eyes naturally gravitate to it, but what Parker does is some pretty high-level conceptualization – she gives the fashion moment, character, and attitude. She creates a visual anchor while purposely throwing us off so we seek to return to it. What’s most impressive is that she’s not using one trick in isolation – that’s gimmick territory. She’s using several techniques that each strengthen the next.

I’m also a fan of her closer, portrait work:

Focus Holly Parker 2

Again, Parker plays with asymmetry and an empty upper corner in soft focus, but these qualities alone don’t amount to a great photo. They have to be part of a more complex whole. There are vertical and horizontal bisections happening here. Where the high collar meets the horizon behind the model creates an implied line across the entire photo, and where the shadow takes up the left third of her face (as we look at her) gives us a strict lighting separation.

This means the smallest quadrant – the upper left – is also the heaviest in terms of image. It’s dark due to shadow and it’s busy due to the model’s hair being pushed over. Our eye is encouraged to find a simpler, brighter position to start. The head wrap creates a very easy transition for the eye to escape right, where that soft focus corner again makes the eye go a little crazy. The out-of-focus sky has no texture and we want detail, so our eyes hook onto the top the model’s wearing – its texture is a repeated, orderly detail that creates a comfortable visual anchor in the image.

Stand back and look at the image – even after I’ve told you all this, your eyes go from upper left to upper right before making a diagonal cut to the center. Again, Parker’s disorienting you a little bit so that she can take charge of your eye and guide it through the photo the way she wants. This is what I mean by combining focal points, asymmetry, and shallow focus. Your eye doesn’t just shoot to the center. Parker directs it along the path she wants you to take.

She also breaks the rules and can be a little Werner Herzog with some of her contextual details. You typically don’t want an ocean background tilting to one side. But ask me if it matters given the performance she’s captured from her model.

Focus Holly Parker 3

This isn’t a perfect shot – there’s less technique here – but it’s one that communicates a hell of a moment. Most photographers – even most fashion photographers I know (sorry, guys) don’t have Parker’s knack for capturing the smaller moments of her models’ performances, let alone her ability to guide the eye in a way that suggests the experience of world, story, and character. Now, Parker does have a few faults. Her photography of men isn’t quite as assured, but it’ll get there.

Specifically, her preference for using natural light to show off both tone and imperfections like smile lines will be of terrific advantage. She knows how to build story and character out of these.

Focus Holly Parker 4

I’m highlighting Holly Parker because…well, it’s my job as a critic to point out the artists whom I hope are the future of their industry. Sure, Parker’s a woman in a male-dominated industry. She’s also a step ahead in the awkward, industry-wide transition from commercial-influenced fashion photography to a brighter, more character- and experience-driven style. I also feel her work is a far more empowering presentation of women in fashion than much of what’s been generally accepted in recent years.

More than anything else, however, Parker’s doing it in ways you don’t typically see in fashion photography, employing complex, intersecting framing and visual techniques across multiple levels. I’m analyzing her technique in the same way I might certain classical paintings, or a P. T. Anderson long-take. That’s certainly not true of most photographers, not at this level of complexity.

I’m not saying she’s Dorothea Lange or Alex Prager just yet. Her photography still speaks of someone who’s harnessing all these gifts. She’s still figuring out when and how to use them, but the intrinsic talent she’s showing at a very early stage of her career is phenomenal. Parker’s a superior talent and if she can continue to develop her own style and add even more tools and technique to her repertoire, I very much look forward to seeing more of her work both in the fashion industry and outside of it.

What I’ve analyzed here are just a few images. Visit her site if you’d like to see more of Holly Parker’s photography, or her work as a model.

Go Watch This: “Every Other Freckle” by Alt-J

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Every Other Freckle boy

by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez

[NSFW warning for the videos.]

At the end of every week, we messily exchange a bunch of stuff we’ve watched, hoping our own passions will spark with another writer and we can gain some traction on article ideas. The most contentious topic is music videos, I’m guessing since we’re running a Best Of list of them every month.

There’s one we haven’t been able to stop talking about since it ran, and that’s Alt-J’s “Every Other Freckle.” It’s actually two music videos, a “Boy” and a “Girl” version, and the way they interplay is one of the boldest music video statements of the year.

Two videos, one centered on a man, one on a woman. Both attractive. Not very safe for work. The images in between their close-ups are the same – buffalo stampeding, seagulls soaring, a cat pouncing on things. Each video on its own is cute, well-filmed, and seems like a celebration of sex and the human body, no matter the gender. When paired together, though, the message becomes wholly different.

The storming caveman in the “Boy” video seems like something subconscious in the male ego, a drive toward violence. When viewed in the “Girl” video, that violence suddenly has a target. The seagull, seemingly a musical accompaniment in the “Boy” video, becomes a yearning to escape in the “Girl” version.

Watch the videos synched together, side-by-side, and each reacts to the images of the other, and to slight syncopations in the delivery of certain metaphors.

Violence that seems aimless in the “Boy” video becomes a direct confrontation, a male assertion of dominance. Images of gathering fruit in the “Boy” video that seem out of place suddenly become a disturbing metaphor in the “Girl” video – he looks determined, she looks fearful as the armful of apples falls from each of their grasps. The genius of the paired videos is that they shift the lyrics themselves from clever and funny in “Boy” to scary and harmful in “Girl.”

The metaphors in one video don’t hold complete meaning until you view its partner, and suddenly it all turns from contemplations of beauty to a portrayal of obsession, violence, and possession. It’s a brilliant statement. This isn’t a full analysis – if it were, we’d be talking about its Garden of Eden metaphors and how slick the editing is. This is a “We Can’t Wait Till the End of the Month to Tell You About This So Go Watch Now Because We’re Obsessed With It!”

Watch one and then the other, or synch them up to run side-by-side. But do watch them.