Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1251: The Stonewall Mystery

Director Roland Emmerich, best known for his tendencies to spend massive amounts of money to pretend blowing up landmarks on screen, and for a dubious taste in home decor has a new film out called Stonewall, about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and guess what: everybody hates it.

Critics are calling it a disaster, the gay community, whose story the film claims to tell, is calling it an abomination, and most likely audiences are going to call it a miss.

Now this presents a mystery that I would like to solve, but before I get to that, I think you might need a little background.

Our story begins in the late 1960s. At that time there was no gay rights movement. In fact, most of what is now called the LGBT community were more interested in not getting assaulted, locked up, either in prison or a mental hospital, or blackmailed. Places for them to socialize were rare, and the few that did exist were usually owned by gangsters, and regularly harassed by the police, either through constant raids or demands for payoffs.

One such place was The Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. It was often described as a dive. The place was ugly, seedy, usually crowded, with more than a few shady customers, the staff wasn't big on checking ID, or doing their jobs all that well, and the less said about the state of the bathrooms, the better.

But Stonewall was relatively large, it allowed the customers to dance, another rarity, and its mobbed up owners usually made sure the NYPD's Public Morals Squad were paid off, making it a bit safer than many of the other places in the city. One night in 1969 something went wrong. No one is sure if a payment was missed, or if the cops were just feeling ambitious, but the place got raided right at the peak time for trouble. The place was packed, the weather was hot, and the crowd's mood was fired up by a combo of intoxication and anger at years of regular harassment.

The raid didn't go to plan, the cops lost control of the situation quickly, and a full scale riot broke out.

That riot sparked what is now called the Gay Pride movement, and is seen as a pivotal moment in the history of America's gay community.

It's a story that's more dramatic and complex than my little summary could possibly tell, full of colourful characters, and is the sort of underdog story that might take it from beyond a niche audience to somewhat wider appeal.

Which brings me to the mystery of the Stonewall movie: Why did they give the green-light to Roland Emmerich?

The Stonewall story requires a filmmaker who can express and explain the complexities inherent in it. Someone who can bring the stories of the real people to life, and use it to possibly bridge the gaps between the LGBT community and the wider "straight community."

Emmerich is not that filmmaker, and in no possible way can he be mistaken for that kind of filmmaker.

Emmerich's the crass vulgarian spawn of blind commercialism and a particularly childish kind of post-modernism where as long as he looks down on what he's doing, he doesn't have to try to be good at it. His specialty is destroying famous landmarks with CGI while cardboard cut-out Hollywood-marketing-executive-friendly stereotypes recite hackneyed dialogue written with a shovel from a compost heap of cliches.

He's also known for tossing scientific and historical accuracy out the window. And not for taking liberties in the name of narrative cohesion, character development, or even to compress events for time. Emmerich does it for stuff he thinks looks good in the trailer.

The investors and producers who financed this film should have known that.

They also should have known that we live in the Golden Age of Offence. People get horribly outraged over little things, so the people behind the film should have known that something as inherently politicized as the story behind Stonewall would be nitpicked for so-called micro-aggressions and macro-douchebaggery.

Getting the film would require diplomacy, and class, two things Emmerich doesn't have.

When asked about why he downgraded all the real people, who were predominantly black and hispanic, to focus on a fictional caucasian lead/saviour, Emmerich replied by saying he knows what sells and they don't.

That's only going to make it worse, especially in this hypersensitive day and age. It only serves to alienate the core audience the film needs to take that step towards a more mainstream audience.

You see it is possible to take a story like the Stonewall Riot, and make a film that's both compelling and possibly successful. You just have to follow these simple steps:

1. Be as accurate as you can be. Everyone knows that liberties and changes have to be made when bringing a true story to the screen, but there's a limit to how far you can go. It may be necessary to create a fictional "gateway" character that would allow the audience to get the know the milieu they're being brought into, but that character should not overshadow, or outrightly replace the real people at the heart of the story. A good gateway character would be a tabloid journalist, assigned to write a lurid exposé about an underground subculture witnessing history and learning about the shared humanity I'll be getting to shortly. That way you have a someone who has an excuse to witness events without taking anything away from the actual participants.

2. Don't offend the core audience. If the front line of people most interested in the Stonewall story are going to feel short-changed or even insulted by your film, then your film will fail on every level. The only way you can defuse criticism is by embracing as much of the truth of the source material as you can. If they say "I don't like that part" the only viable defence is to say: "I'm sorry, but that's what actually happened, and I'm trying to tell the truth." If you're just making shit up, and that angers the core audience, you have no defence.

3. Emphasize what's shared. For any film about the Stonewall Riots to succeed it would need to cross over to at least part of the mainstream audience. Now Emmerich fails because he thinks along the lines of marketing, by casting someone who goes too far when it comes to identifying with the mainstream audience. According to some reports they just barely stop short of giving him a girlfriend, which sort of defeats the purpose.

You don't sell a film about a minority to the majority by trying to hide the differences. Instead you acknowledge those differences quite clearly, but emphasize what they share on a deeper human level.

Going just be surface appearances the average American doesn't look like they have much in common with the average citizen of India. So how did Gandhi become a success in an era less "diverse" and "politically correct" than today?

Because when they sold the film they emphasized that the characters, despite their ethnic/religious background, were human beings facing the all too human problems of being outcast and harried as the underdogs.

Emmerich doesn't seem remotely interested in shared humanity. He seems interested in padding his resume with what he thinks will be Oscar bait simply because of its subject matter without the work and sensitivity to make something that does justice to the subject matter and the audience.

Anyway, if the people who financed this picture still have some money lying around, and still want to make movies, call me. For a reasonable fee, I can do research about subjects and people to help save you the hassles you're facing now.


  1. Rainforest Giant25/9/15 1:04 pm

    Why not give it to Emmerich? Anything that goes on film about it will be as much fiction and truth as 'Plan 9 from Outer Space'. It doesn't matter who produced or directed it. The movie would be as unwatchable to most people as a 'Lifetime Movie' is to men. The subject matter could go one of two ways anyway and it would be like a Woody Allen film. Unless it's your cup of tea you're not going to watch.

    And it's not like paeans to the event have not already been sung. I watched a PBS documentary on it decades ago where a man in a very loose loincloth was flapping his penis to the music. PBS. I had to pay in 'subscription drives' to keep Dr Who on or Monty Python but they spent my money on flapping penises naked men and psychedelic music (along with words of praise for the brave souls willing to 'ride against the tide' and be bold pioneers).

    Wow, I guess you scratched one of my old scars. That was the day I realized any money I gave to PBS went to dreck and the shows I wanted I actually had to pay extra for. I paid money to be actively offended by a guy flapping his junk at me in my own living room.

  2. Gays have a huge influence on movies because even though they only represent 1 to 2 percent of the population, their movie attendance is something like 15 percent of the audience. This is a function of the fact that gays in general make more money than average and are more interested in the arts. Meanwhile, the gay rights movement is now doctrinaire far left progressive and someone with walls painted with huge pictures of Chairman Mao who could quote the "right" slogans would likely pick up the gay investors who underwrote this thing.

  3. Paul Greengrass would've nailed this film, as anyone who seen "Bloody Sunday" could tell you.

  4. Paul Greengrass would've nailed this film, as anyone who seen "Bloody Sunday" could tell you.