Part 1—The Times feeds our longing for Villain: Hooray for Sillywood!
A monster movie has walked off with Oscar's top prize for the year. It was truly a movie which suits the age—an age with a longing for Monster.
As the week proceeds, we'll discuss that ongoing longing for Monster. Today, we'll start with a near relation. We'll start with the longing for Villain.
Over the weekend, this longing surfaced atop page one of the New York Times' Sunday Review. From one of the newspaper's highest platforms, the Times gave us a story by a privileged kid who seems to have had her feelings hurt.
At least as presented, the youngster's story doesn't seem to make sense. But who cares! She started her story in the best tribal manner, by feeding our longing for Villain.
The youngster in question is Minhal Baig, "a writer and director." Baig is five years out of Yale (class of 2012), and when her story begins in the Times, she's actually eighteen months younger!
Her story begins in 2016. As you can see, her presentation of Villain comes fast:
BAIG (3/4/18): About 18 months ago, an executive at a cable network asked for a meeting with me. I’d written and directed a short film about a Muslim teenager that had found an audience on the internet, so I was feeling especially confident. The executive and I spoke about my upbringing and how I made the film. Then he asked about what I wanted to do there, at his network. I’m a writer and a director, but for the purposes of that meeting, I needed to be clear: I want to direct for television.As you can see, our story seems to start in September 2016. Baig is four years out of Yale. "An executive at a cable network" is instantly offered, feeding our longing for Villain.
The tenor of the conversation shifted. He said that breaking into the field would be very difficult, and that I should consider a diversity program—a “shadowing” program for directors without television experience who come from backgrounds that are generally underrepresented in Hollywood. The goal would be to gain a practical understanding of a set, and an opportunity to make connections.
I was taken aback. He had asked for this meeting. I felt, suddenly, that he did not see me as a filmmaker ready to take on television but as a woman of color who needed a “program” so that, one day, I might be really ready.I blurted out, “I don’t believe these programs teach you how to direct,” and he immediately backpedaled. Of course, he said, that’s not what he was saying. He was just trying to be helpful.
Let's review what we know so far, with a few extra facts thrown in:
In September 2016, Baig was four years out of Yale. She had produced one "short film...that had found an audience on the internet."
We'd put the emphasis on "short." In fact, the film in question was 14 minutes long. By our reckoning, this works out to three and a half minutes of film per year, post-college.
Let's state the obvious. The short film in question may have been a very good short film. At any rate, on the basis of this first effort, a cable executive had asked for a meeting with Baig.
A cable executive asked for a meeting. As if in some sort of Onion parody, she tells him she wants to direct!
Baig wanted to direct for the executive's cable network. At this point, the cable executive is revealed to us as the figure who will feed our prehuman longing for Villain.
Darn that cable executive! Instead of letting our young Yale grad seize control of his network, he makes a type of suggestion—a type of suggestion which may or may not seem unwise or offensive in any number of ways.
(It might also seem like a great opportunity, like a bit of a gift. But let's not think about that.)
Good lord! Despite her 14 minutes of film, our Villain suggests that our Heroine should enter a type of mentoring program with an established director, giving her additional experience, and knowledge of the way things work.
The complication seems to arise when we're told that this particular mentoring program is a "diversity program"—a program for types of people who "are generally underrepresented in Hollywood."
As such, this sounds like a type of "affirmative action" program—"affirmative action" of a type liberals have generally endorsed. But because our Heroine was already an established master of film-making, she takes offense at this idea, and strides off to sulk in her tents.
Let's be fair! Already, our longing for Villain is being satisfied, in a pleasing way. That said, was there actually something wrong with what our Villain did?
A sensible person might well respond as the young superstar did. A sensible person might be offended by the idea that she was being viewed in terms of her ethnicity and gender, as seems to have been the case, at least as the story's been told.
A sensible person might bristle at being viewed in that way. Then too, a sensible person might ask a question like this:
Suppose a young "white male," four years out of Yale, had produced 14 minutes of promising film. Why shouldn't he gain access to a mentoring program too? A sensible person could even have that reaction to this type of "diversity program!"
Whatever! As the story has been told, our young Yale grad—presumably, she's 25 or 26—has refused the offer of a mentoring program. And sure enough! As her story proceeds, the inevitable triumph quickly occurs:
BAIG (continuing directly): That was then. Last October, I was location scouting in Chicago for my feature film, “Hala,” based on my short film. The news about Harvey Weinstein had just come out. Inside the scout van, I saw the #MeToo movement taking shape online. Every day, it seemed, there were new allegations of sexual misconduct being brought against prominent men in entertainment — actors, agents, producers. Every day, a new name was trending on Twitter. Police reports were being filed. Women were bravely taking their stories to the media. For the first time, the ugly truth of our business was being exposed.Sure enough! Thirteen months later, our young star is scouting locations in her native Chicago for her forthcoming feature film, which is based on those earlier fourteen minutes. By December, she was editing her film, and the climate in Tinseltown had changed, "imbalance of power"-wise.
When I returned to Los Angeles at the end of the year to edit the film, the atmosphere felt different. In January, the red carpet conversation at the Golden Globe Awards shifted from self-promotion to heartfelt expressions of solidarity. Natalie Portman’s introduction to the best director award announcement—“Here are the all-male nominees”—became a viral moment, and Time’s Up, a movement founded to fight sexual harassment and inequity, burst onto the scene in full force.
Meanwhile, I had 10 weeks to edit a feature-length film. I lost a lot of sleep, missed a trip to Japan and a friend’s wedding in Mexico. These are the things one does when making a movie. But even as sheltered as I was during the edit, I could see a palpable difference in how women in Hollywood were talking to one another. Male friends and colleagues also had to stop and think harder about the imbalances of power in the industry, and their own possible role in perpetuating them.
Might we inject a tiny thought at this point? This particular youngster doesn't exactly strike us as the wretched of the earth.
In the ten weeks during which she edited her film, she says she missed 1) a trip to Japan and 2) a trip to Mexico for a friend's wedding.
Does this young genius know how "privileged" this information may make her seem? There is no sign that she knows this at all! We humans may tend to be like that.
That said, let's return to the endless longing for Villain, even for Monster.
Had Baig's story ended here, we would have a pleasing tale of triumph of the will:
Out in Tinseltown, a highly condescending Villain had tried to undermine a young genius. The youngster refused to be compromised. Inevitably, her genius emerged.
For better or worse, Baig's report in the New York Times didn't end at that point. Much later on, this passage appears, and her story, at least as presented, seems to stop making sense:
BAIG: I did end up doing a diversity program after all, through Ryan Murphy’s Half foundation. I shadowed an incredible director on “American Horror Story,” who taught me so much about the practical realities of filmmaking on a bigger scale, staying on schedule, and working with established talent and collaborators. She ended up endorsing me for membership in the Directors Guild of America—whose director membership is only 15 percent female. The numbers are much worse for women of color.Say what? As it turns out, Baig did go into a mentoring program. Indeed, it was a "diversity program," like the offensive program she's earlier rejected.
Armed with this experience, I had a second meeting with the executive who had suggested a diversity program. Everything about this meeting felt essentially the same as the first, except there were two female executives in the room this time. I told them: Now that I’ve done this program, I can say with confidence that I don’t believe in separate pipelines. White men don’t have to go through diversity programs to get jobs, so why should anyone else? Men are frequently hired because of potential, while women are hired based on their previous experience.
As I talked to these executives, I thought about how important it is now for women to speak up about harassment, lost opportunities, and to fight for what they’re worth. From an outside perspective, that might appear selfish. So more women get writing and directing opportunities — what will that change for other women? The answer is that it changes everything.
If the Villain's suggestion was so offensive, why did Baig enter this program? Baig doesn't explain, but she seems to have gained a great deal from the experience.
"I shadowed an incredible director on 'American Horror Story,' who taught me so much about the practical realities of filmmaking on a bigger scale," she says. These practical realities include such things as "staying on schedule, and working with established talent and collaborators."
Baig had entered the very type of program which had cast that network executive as a pleasing Villain! Triumphantly, she now meets with the Villain again—and she tells him that, despite all she had gained from the mentoring program, she had been right all along!
Women need to speak up, this highly privileged young monster goes on to say. While strongly agreeing with that point, we would add this thought:
Women, and men, and all living things, need to try to make sense when discussing important topics. They may even need to stop beating the bushes for Villain and Monster. But they need to say things which make sense.
That rarely happens in the Times, a newspaper which has functioned like a bit of a monster over the past thirty years. In particular, it didn't happen when some editor at the Times waved Baig's piece into print, at least in the way its puzzling story was told.
In fairness, Baig's piece makes sense in one major way—it feeds our longing for Villain. We got our Villain in paragraph one, though he was part of a story which ended up not making a whole lot of sense.
Baig may turn out to be a superb film-maker. That said, the New York Times is routinely a comically awful newspaper, especially in some of its history-changing selections of Monster.
This Sunday's network executive was just a Villain, not a Monster. That said, explain if you can:
In the current jumbled instance, what did this Villain, for whom we long, do which was actually wrong? Does anyone have the slightest idea after reading the Times' latest tale?
Tomorrow: "He isn't a monster," she said