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The Place That Makes Us

Youngstown, Ohio is a steel mill city on the Rust Belt that has seen a major decline over the past few decades. The mills closed and the subsequent loss of jobs sent its residents fleeing. For those left behind, they were faced with a crumbling infrastructure, an uptick in violence and crime and hundreds of vacant homes. 

Directed by Karla Murthy, The Place That Makes Us spotlights a group of Youngstown residents seeking to transform their hometown. Filmed over the course of three years, the documentary follows members of the city council and organizers of YNDC (Youngstown Neighborhood Development Committee) as they work to rebuild Youngstown’s abandoned homes and make plans to boost their community. While the documentary is specifically about Youngstown, it could really be about any shrinking city or town in America. What the film does really well is drive home the message that any community can be transformed but it takes its residents, not outsiders, to really enact that change.

The Place That Makes Us premieres today on the WORLD channel series America Reframed. Visit the official website for more information.

The Lavender Scare

On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.

Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.

“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics.
But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”

Director Josh Howard

Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.

I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.

The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.

Riplist

They say celebrities die in threes. They die the way the rest of humanity dies but their fame elevates the awareness of their passing and casts a wider net for mourners. We’re despondent over the deaths of people we may have never met in real life. These deaths come as a shock, even when our favorite celebrity is of advanced age or has known health problems. It puts us in a vulnerable place. It puts us face-to-face with our own mortality. For some people, they decide to take back some of the control death has over us with celebrity death pools. The gamification eases some of the grief if we know its coming.  

A group of friends who refer to themselves as “Riplisters” come together every January to create a draft of the 15 celebrities they believe will die within that calendar year. Each participant has their own draft, or “Riplist”. The selection process is long and involved. The participants negotiate, research and strategize. Eligible celebrities can come from all different walks of life whether they are actors, musicians, athletes, royalty, politicians, etc. Whomever gets the most right on their Riplist wins a trophy and bragging rights. The participant with the fewest correct has to draft first the next go around. Some celebrities seem like a sure thing but other deaths elude the riplisters. 

Writer/Director Mike Scholtz’s new documentary Riplist chronicles the participants in this group and focuses primarily in the drafting process. As a classic film enthusiast, I was particularly interested in Matt, a film critic who owns over 4,000 movies and knows all the Oscar winning films and can recite them chronologically from memory. Other participants are mostly men but there is one woman, Christie, whose parents were morticians and now works as a death investigator. A few of the subjects are profiled and there are some frank discussions about mortality. Ultimately the Riplist is a way for them to process the idea of death. But they can take things too far. They research which celebrity is in hospice or as one subject says “who’s circling the drain.” They congratulate each other when one of their picks dies. They claim they’re not rooting for people to die but the gamification of the whole process makes it seem that way.

“The game of life is fun. Why can’t the game of death be fun?”

Some of the classic film related people mentioned

  • Olivia de Havilland
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Kirk Douglas
  • Robert Osborne
  • Norman Lloyd
  • Baby Peggy/Diana Serra Cary
  • Don Rickles

“I do enjoy it. I don’t know why but I do.”

However for me what these Riplisters were doing left a bad taste in my mouth. And I’m one of the most morbid people you’ll meet. Death fascinates me and if you were to look at my browser history you may back away cautiously and run in the other direction. However, I dread the day that my favorite classic film stars, many of whom are in their 80s, 90s and 100s, pass away. I don’t like to think about it. I will never write an obituary in advance. I would never participate in a death pool. I want these people to live as long as humanly possible. Hoping someone dies so you can win a game just seems flat out wrong. It’s asking for bad karma.

With that said, I believe it’s important to explore the different ways people deal with death. And while the film’s subject matter is quite heavy, Scholtz takes a lighter approach that will relieve viewers of some of the inevitable tension that would have otherwise been overwhelming. The documentary has fun with the lower third, the subjects are interviewed in interesting places, for example a grocery store, taxidermist’s lab, cemetery and mausoleum. There are some reenactments which are a bit hokey but that also adds to the fun.

Essentially Riplist is a dark comedy with a healthy mix of gravitas and humor. It presents a difficult subject in an approachable way. For my fellow classic movie fanatics however, the ones who are praying their favorites won’t be dying anytime soon, Riplist is your next horror film.

Riplist is part of IFFBoston’s Documentary Features series.

Social Animals

“When image is everything, nothing is off limits.”

Technology has drastically changed our culture. The Instagram generation is creating a social dynamic unlike anything that we’ve ever seen. These youths are living their lives in the public arena well beyond the scope of their immediate IRL (in real life) social circle. Their online presence is highly strategic. Teens will go to great length for the attention that comes with likes, comments, follows and a reputation they can sell. It’s the new modern version of the pursuit of happiness. These teens eventually become addicted to the thrill and the reward that Instagram has to offer by portraying a contrived version of themselves. What repercussions will these teens face for sharing their lives online?

“Instagram opened the horizon for pettiness of my generation.”

Directed by Jonathan Ignatius Green, Social Animals is a new documentary that explores the world of Instagram teens by looking at three different case studies. First is @kalynslevin, an aspiring model with a rapidly growing following. She’s blonde, beautiful and incredibly rich; all the criteria you need to become Instagram famous. In her interviews she states that she’s just a regular person and wants her followers to see her as such. However, her carefully curated Instagram is built with the help of professional photographers and stylists and is more aspirational than anything based in reality. Second is @humzadeas, a New York City based teen who dreams of becoming a professional photographer. Instagram for him is a creative outlet where he can share his creative vision with the world. He becomes a daredevil, ascending great heights to capture incredible images of the cityscape and urban life. His adventurous spirit gets him in trouble.

@kalynslevin
@humzadeas
@emms_crockett

The most fascinating of the three is @emms_crockett, a Mid-West teen studying at a small Christian school. She feels peer pressure to use Instagram and when her ex-boyfriend and high school friends use it to bully her, the experience sends her on an emotional rollercoaster. We see the horrifying consequences which lead to a suicide attempt. Through her we see how social media platforms like Instagram can negatively affect a person’s mental health.

One thing Emma points out in one of her interviews is how she gave the audience too much power. Perhaps it’s something that’s overlooked but I would love to see a documentary, perhaps a follow-up one to this, that explores the nuances of interaction and how it affects both sides. In Social Animals, several teens, beyond the three profile, go into detail about the methods they use to rig the system for the most return on their efforts.

As an adult who was a teenager in the 1990s, I’m incredibly grateful that I didn’t have smart phones or social media. Many people of my generation and others will agree. I dealt with bullying, stalking, sexual harassment and more types of emotional and mental abuse but I’m so grateful it didn’t play out online where classmates, friends, family and members of the public could see it. 

Social Animals is a relevant documentary that relies on the voices of the Instagram generation to shine a spotlight on this new social dynamic. It lacks some focus and could benefit from some more in-depth study. We may not fully understand yet how to analyze the social of social media. This is a start.

Social Animals is available from Subconscious Films is available on iTunes and VOD with a release date on Netflix scheduled for later this year.

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