Featuring first-year M.A. student Stephanie Macdonell
Interview by Natalie Hulla
NH: Hi, how’s it going?
SM: Good, how are you?
NH: Good! What are you drinking?
SM: I’m drinking an iced latte.
NH: We also have mini muffins.
SM: We do.
NH: So, I don’t really know what you’re studying. Can you condense that for me?
SM: Yeah, I’m actually all over the place right now. I’m a first-year MA, so I’m kind of in the pre-thesis phase. Planning and thinking about it, so, yeah, I don’t know exactly what I want to get into. When I came in it was about women’s studies but I’m starting to rethink that now.
NH: Was it all psychoanalysis?
SM: God, no.
NH: That stuff gets to me. I’m like, ‘If I read any more Freud, I’m going to lose it.’
SM: It was funny, when I first came here, half of my cohort was like, ‘People are still talking about Freud? Is that a thing now?’ I guess he’s still relevant. We’re still talking about him!
NH: What’s your background? What did you get your bachelor’s in?
SM: I got it in film studies and English.
NH: Nice, same here.
SM: Yeah, I got it at Sac State. I actually started off with English and then the film studies program kind of wooed me into joining them.
NH: Cool. Yeah, I did my undergrad here as well. I graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s in creative writing and I did a minor in Film -- there’s a little bit of production and a little bit of film studies, so yeah, I wanted to spend a few more years geeking out a little bit over film.
SM: Yeah, I got my minor in creative writing, too, and I did it in poetry.
NH: That was one area of composition that I didn’t really go into. I focused more on nonfiction.
SM: Yeah, I needed a last class and I was scrambling, having a panic attack over what my last class was going to be and finally, I saw a poetry class and I ended up taking that. I kind of fall into everything that I get into.
NH: Was it a survey or was it a workshop?
SM: It was a workshop. I did mostly creative writing workshops.
NH: So, were there any electives or classes, or any particular areas of film studies that you focused on before you came here?
SM: Yeah, I did a lot of genre and structuralism. I thought I had fully grasped everything when I came here and realized that I knew nothing.
SM: Not nothing, just thinking about it in an entirely new way. That was weird and interesting and panic-inducing and wonderful at the same time.
NH: Which genres did you focus on?
SM: I focused a lot on Westerns. Really generic ones. Gangster, Western.
NH: What were some of your favorite films out of those genres?
SM: I got really into Cronenberg, actually, a lot of his later films. I did my undergrad thesis on A History of Violence and talked about this new idea of how to focus on Westerns in the new U.S. How it’s the contemporary West but how Cronenberg still creates contemporary narratives out of it.
NH: That’s really cool. I remember studying that in my undergrad, in one of the basic, introductory level classes. We didn’t focus on it being a Western but it makes so much sense.
SM: Yeah, Cronenberg said something that I was blown away by -- he was trying to create the West out of the Midwest, which I thought was a really interesting thing, how he was going to do that.
NH: Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
SM: Yeah. Cronenberg created this idea of the wide, open West out of the Midwest. He used classic tropes of the Western hero, good versus evil, and also the bad guys versus the law. So, I wrote about the way he was able to create that space and inject those classic narratives through it.
NH: I remember one of the shots that was pretty visceral was when Maria Bello’s character runs down and protects the home with a gun -- I don’t know what kind, I’m not a gun nut.
SM: It was a shotgun.
NH: Yeah, she just swings around and her son is there just eating cereal, like, ‘Uh, what the hell is going on?’
SM: Yeah, with that paper, too, I focused a lot on genre about how he created noir America out of the classic American Dream, and he was able to break the boundaries of those genres by those narratives.
NH: Tell me a little bit about the classes that you’re taking now.
SM: I’m taking Utopia with Ofer and I’m taking Queer Cinema with Erin. Have you taken any classes with Erin?
NH: I haven’t, she came in right at my thesis year.
SM: I’m going to take aesthetics starting next week, and then Film History with Ofer. Ofer and I are doing an independent study right now on postmodernism.
NH: Cool. What are some of the films you’re watching in Queer Cinema?
SM: We’re watching some Pedro Almodovar films, Bad Education.
NH: That’s a good one.
SM: Yeah, I really like that one. We just watched -- I’m thinking about writing a paper on it -- But I’m a Cheerleader.
NH: I love that film!
SM: Yeah, I like finding connections between my classes, so, I’m studying postmodernism with Ofer and I’m hoping to incorporate that into my paper, maybe, if I decide to write it on that.
NH: That’s awesome. I remember the first time I watched that. It came out of that independent canon, when all the films were like that. A little low-budge and cool, full of street cred.
SM: Yeah, it came out in the late nineties.
NH: I don’t even think I was a teenager when I first saw it. That was a film that pretty much marked my viewership in a way. It was just not commercial, it was not Hollywood. It was so cool, but it was weird at the same time. And of course, the content is queer and at that time it wasn’t part of the mainstream the way it is now.
SM: Yeah. When I first saw it -- it was actually before I came here -- and I got this weird obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race. I bingewatched it.
NH: We’ll totally have to talk about that later.
SM: Yeah, and that’s what got me into it. Re-watching it in now in Queer Cinema -- I don’t have a lot to say about it but I have to think about it differently.
NH: Don’t they go to a protest and they’re like, ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’?
SM: Yeah, and, ‘Silly rabbit, dicks are for chicks’.
NH: I like the realization that Natasha Lyonne’s character makes, when she’s like, ‘Oh, my god, I’m a homosexual!’ and she’s crying and drooling at the same time. It’s hysterical.
SM: I love it because it’s such disgust but there’s also a lot of comfort on her face, too. She balances that so well.
NH: So, you’ve said that you came in with a women’s studies, or feminist, background and that’s shifted a little bit. Do you still watch or study films with a feminist lens?
SM: Absolutely. I feel like I’m starting to get too narrow into that sometimes, because women’s studies is really personal to me, so it naturally happens. I’m trying to see what else I can do away from that, or maybe incorporate it in a different way. Last semester, I ended up doing a feminist reading of Antichrist. I kind of didn’t want to do it at first but it had to come out. I’m trying to see what else I can do, what else I can be interested in. I feel like sometimes you do get pressure as a woman to be into feminist studies, or to have feminist studies as your discourse.
NH: I can certainly relate to that as a writer… It’s very difficult to escape the politics of representation. I’m actually doing an independent study with Ofer and we’re trying to figure out the scope of it. I know I want to study feminist film criticism, and being that I’m not a film scholar, it’s kind of hard to figure out where I want to go with it. I had an appointment with him a couple of weeks ago and he asked, ‘What are you thinking, where do you want to start?’ I was like, ‘Here’s what I don’t want: I’m sick of feeling the responsibility to write responsible, feminist stories!’ Sometimes when you feel compelled to write with a feminist lens, or study with a feminist lens, it’s easy to feel as if you have to do something activist-like when you’re working.
SM: Yeah, I definitely feel that. Especially because sometimes I feel I haven’t had enough education to research a topic and be able to pull activism out of that work. Yet.
NH: I got really stuck in a rut in the first year of the program where I had just come off of working for the Obama campaign in 2012, and less than a year later, started film school and I hadn’t been writing a whole lot. I had activist on the brain and I was being politically engaged, and wanted to put into the creative universe these positive ideas, and that really messed me up! Because as a writer, I want to tell real stories. I can’t really do that if I feel like the weight of responsibility… I was trying to explain all of this to Ofer and I went on some kind of seven-minute soapbox.
SM: This last independent study that I had with him was comical. I came in and my thoughts weren’t all together and I was like, ‘Uh… Uh…’
NH: I feel so much better now, to be honest
SM: When I was writing about Antichrist last semester, I did not go into it with a feminist lens whatsoever. That was not my intention and then it turned into that… I guess it will always be my critical lens. So, it turned into that but because I wasn’t going into it right away with this feminist reading, I was able to stand back from it and not make it completely about feminism, but also incorporate it enough to pull certain aspects of it… That was a really nice break for me, to see where my voice is and where my thoughts and analysis go.
NH: Isn’t it weird? It’s like all roads lead to Rome.
NH: I found that, too, because when I was writing the script for my thesis film, I was like, ‘I’m just going to write these real characters and I’m going to write a real story.’ I knew that I wanted to narrativize the culture that my documentary talked about -- the college party culture -- and how that culture, not just within the parties but within the larger scope of campus, is relatively unsafe for women, minorities and non-binary folk. So, basically, anybody who’s not a white, privileged, straight man. And how the experiences of those two groups are completely different, and so I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to tuck that in the back of my mind, because I don’t want to drag out my soapbox and put my character on it.’ That’s not the way I wanted to approach it, because that’s the knee-jerk feminist reaction -- do you get that, too?
NH: I just started crafting this character in a satirical setting and realized that all of the crazy people that I was surrounding her with were all of the forces that I talked about in the documentary. All of those typical behaviors and attitudes that we see in the culture, each of those characters brought that out, and I left the protagonist alone. I didn’t even touch her. One of the earliest critiques from my professors and the first people who read it were like, ‘Your protagonist is not developed. The world is there but the protagonist is not’... In a roundabout way, the uglier the story got, the more feminist it became. That was probably the biggest awakening that I’ve had as a storyteller. Once we got to the end and I was communicating and working with the actress, and I realized how much I had stuck to real actions and behaviors and thoughts, the more impactful it became, and I was like, ‘Oh, I am a feminist!’ If I just write, it naturally comes out.
SM: I think it’s organic, the way it happens. I feel like a lot of times when I wear the feminist cap, it gets very combative and that doesn’t do anything, and it makes for very bad representation. It just needs to organically happen. I just need to be objective -- that’s what I learned a lot last semester. That’s when my mind goes towards a certain discourse. It organically happens.
NH: Let’s talk about Lars Von Trier… I feel like he’s sort of a lightning rod.
SM: Yeah, I still don’t understand him! When I was doing my presentation for Antichrist, I went really deep into these old interviews and I felt like I had an idea about him. He became such a complex figure and I never thought of him as a misogynist, and then after taking that Horror class and after really looking into his past, I thought maybe he is, but I don’t really feel at times he makes misogynistic films and that brought this whole complex question to me: can you be a misogynist and not make misogynistic films? Can your film portray misogynist aspects without being misogynist?
NH: Those are heavy questions. I’m not totally familiar with a lot of his work. I’ve seen Melancholia, Nymphomaniac and Antichrist. Are you familiar with more of his work?
SM: Yeah. Breaking the Waves is something that I studied in my undergrad. And also, Dancer in the Dark. We had a really, really heavy debate when we studied Breaking the Waves, because he punishes his female protagonists. He really puts them through the ringer, so a lot of people were saying that’s misogynistic, it’s a misogynistic film. I started to think, you know, just because someone is punished and has gone through all these hardships, especially if she’s a woman, doesn’t mean it’s misogynistic. Just because she’s a female figure doesn’t mean she can’t experience all of the hardships of life, all of the punishments of life. It got pretty heated. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it but I’m trying to think outside of that feminist lens.
NH: Have you seen Nymphomaniac?
NH: What did you think?
SM: I liked it. I appreciated it. I went into it thinking it was going to be something completely different. I don’t want to say that I related to the protagonist, but I related to a lot of the feelings that she felt and a wide range of them. And just because she’s doing these things -- the actions you do don’t define you as a person, and all of these little things that she does, I started to emotionally connect to.
NH: I watched both one and two -- I don’t remember if I watched them back to back -- but when I watched them, I remember the presentation of the raw, brazen sexuality is something I hadn’t seen before, ever, and if I had seen it, it was so exaggerated and hyperbolic that it wasn’t realistic in any capacity. I have sort of a major crush on Charlotte Gainsbourg in that film because her character, Jo, is so unapologetic, and to me, that’s the most important aspect that i took away -- how unapologetic she is, at a very basic level.
SM: Yeah, there’s that scene where Uma Thurman’s character comes in with her children because Jo was having an affair with her husband and he was going to leave her, and her next lover comes in and it was this uncomfortable moment where Jo is just sitting there, so unapologetic, like, ‘You guys figure that out’... As a woman, when I relate to her character, it’s not just the sexuality. It’s not her sexuality at all that I relate to. One of my really good friends lost her father and when she watched that film, she related to her losing her father, and there are all these little moments that you relate to that have nothing to do with her sexuality. I thought that was really interesting -- those gaps between hypersexuality where you can really see her.
NH: I feel like her sexuality, or her performance of sexuality, is really a vehicle. The sex is really just symptomatic of her as a character, and I think that’s something that a lot of people miss. I think a lot of people are quick to immediately brand the film as misogynistic. I don’t know, I feel like that’s such an overly simplistic viewing of that film. For one, I think the whole film -- the two films, and I’m not even sure it warranted two films --
SM: That’s Lars Von Trier.
NH: That is Lars Von Trier. But I feel like the whole purpose was the lead-up to the last 30 seconds of the film, where he then comes in and thinks that he can have his way with her, essentially, and it cuts to black, we hear the gunshot, and she leaves. To me, that’s where I was like, ‘That is the whole film to me.’ I could pretty much erase most of the film before that, because that moment, I understand.
SM: It’s interesting, too, how the narrative is told through flashback. They’re just moments in her past.
NH: I walked away from that film and before I had engaged in real conversation about it, I walked away and was like, ‘That last scene completely blew me away… I get it, because that is how we see women who are comfortable and confident.’ I think Jo’s sexuality is fraught with a lot of other issues, but the brazenness of it, the assertion of her sexuality, is something that easily gets misinterpreted and it spirals down to slut shaming. It becomes misinterpreted as a man can come in and do whatever he wants because he feels so entitled to someone who is so open with her sexuality. It’s like no, just kidding, she’s going to shoot them. That, to me, was really raw.
SM: Another filmmaker that I really like is Michel Haneke. He did Cache and White Ribbon. I’m starting to think about him a little bit for my thesis because I feel like his films always have these shocking moments that he leads up to. Very shocking.
NH: Last year, in our MFA productions class, we had to do filmmaker presentations and Matt Herbertz did a presentation on Haneke and showed that moment in Cache -- you know what I’m talking about.
SM: Oh, yeah!
NH: It was so crazy because he did his entire presentation about how Haneke’s films lead up to that moment and then he shows that scene, and still all of his were like… I mean, I jumped back, I gasped --
SM: I did, too! I had that same reaction.
NH: You knew something was going to happen, but the way that it does is so, whoa… You’re then forced to watch it afterward.
SM: He forces you to watch these moments in a way that’s so unexpected, and I feel like you do understand, when you’re watching the film you know something is leading up to it, and it creates this uncanny feeling. The style of filmmaking, too, it’s not leading anywhere but you know, somehow…
NH: It takes such a careful filmmaker to create that unsettled feeling.
SM: Yeah… So, with that, I’m starting to go back to feeling like a film major again. What I always tell my students is when you watch a film, before analyzing it, before critiquing it, always evaluate what it’s doing to you before anything else. I feel like that’s what I’m doing now. I’m looking at these filmmakers from a new, fresh lens.
NH: That’s really good advice. I think it’s really easy to lose sight of the experience. When you watch a film, it’s still an event. Especially if you go to the theater, purchase your ticket, sit in the audience -- the actual experience of seeing a movie, you have to be very present with it. That’s great advice.
SM: I feel like that’s what leads you into better analysis. It’s funny, I went through this weird period at the end of the semester where I hated watching films. I was like, ‘I’ll do it,’ but after watching, like, six films a week, I was so over it, I became a zombie… I was just watching these films and wondering when they’ll be over, but then you get these moments, like with the Haneke film, that you get into it so personally and physically, and you remember what it’s like to watch films like that for the first time.