Academic Writing

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

USA Network's Character Project: Short Films

For the latest phase of USA Network’s Character Project, the cable net partnered with seven filmmakers and created seven short films which tackle issues of difference.  As it says on its site, “Character Project is an ongoing artistic initiative committed to celebrating America's characters – the interesting, dazzling, and distinctive people, from all walks of life, who make this country extraordinary.”  The network’s “Characters Welcome” brand has traditionally referred to the characters in the narratives of its shows, but now the lens has been turned around and focuses on the inhabitants of our great country.  Flowing seamlessly into its pro-social initiative, Characters Unite, these films explore how, rather than pretending we’re all alike, recognize people with difference actually make our world more colorful and more interesting. 

These short films tell interesting stories about characters – some real, some fictitious, and all interesting.  What's most interesting about them is how relatable they are all.  Covering a variety of topics and types of people, there is something in all of them that anyone can relate to.  To top it all off, they are charming and definitely worth watching.  One resounding theme that echoes through many of these eight films is that of mentorship.  Each protagonist has someone who believes in them and refuses to give up on them.  Having someone believing in you is a powerful force, and the only way that many of us are able to succeed in many of the things we pursue.

All of the films can be found on the Character Project website.

Monster Slayer

Monster Slayer, directed by Caskey Ebeling, is about Ben, a 30-something year old who has battled mental illness since he was a kid.  He hates taking his medication because, as he says, it makes him feel like he’s not himself and it makes him feel more alone when he does take it. 

The title of the film is Monster Slayer and the real question the film asks is, who is the monster?  Is the monster his girlfriend, Sue, who actually says she feels like a monster for imploring him to take his meds?  Is it the actual monsters and other creations he sees when he’s off his meds?  Or is the monster Ben himself when he is on the medication as he has admitted to feeling like a different person and almost literally slays the monsters when he does take the medicine?  In any event, this film, in a brief 13 minutes, has captured a realistic portrait of someone struggling with the realities of mental illness.  It blurs the lines between reality and fantasy and allows viewers a quick glimpse into what the affliction might cause.


Duck, directed by Jakob Daschek, follows Manuel, a young boy who suffers from Haphenephobia, a morbid dislike or fear of being touched.  Isolated as it is, he often tunes out the audible world by putting on his headphones so he won’t be bothered by others, and so others won’t bother him.  His phobia has caused problems at school and puts a massive amount of stress on his mother who doesn’t know how else to help him.  One day she gets a suggestion from a friend to bring him to a gym where he can learn boxing, maybe this kind of human contact will break him from his fear.  Here, he also learns that was considered his weakness – an inability to be touched by others – turns out to be a great strength – a gift of avoiding jabs.  What could have been his downfall the coach refers to as a gift.  It’s his interaction with the coach there, someone who doesn’t give up on him despite what might be a handicap, that ultimately brings Manny to live up to his potential and achieve greatness.  It also teaches us to approach our lives with as many perspectives as possible.  What one might consider a flaw in ones personality could turn out to be his or her greatest asset.


Directed by R.J. Cutler, Fish is a short documentary about celebrity chef, Jon Shook.  He narrates much of the film, first talking about what inspired him to become a cook and what why he wanted to go to culinary school.  He currently owns two restaurants and talks about he focuses his business on sustainability and using as much part of the animal as possible.  He gets as many fresh, organic products as possible.

On the particular day that the filmmakers follow him, Jon and self-proclaimed wingman friend, Zach go out on the open seas with Jon go fishing for fresh fish for the restaurant.  They bring their spoils back to the restaurant and try to make a main dish out of what they’ve caught, but to no avail.  His frustration with the trial and error process with how to prepare one particular fish becomes overbearing at one point, but he doesn’t give up on what he needs to do and knows that he has a whole team of people working for him who also needs to see that he doesn’t give up.  Ultimately his passion for what he does and an insistence on excellence shines through.


Perfect, directed by Amie Steir, is about Anne on the day of her wedding.  As she prepares for her big night, all the people she encounters tell her how excited they are for Sara, Anne’s sister to return home.  To everyone else, Sara is perfect in every way.  She’s beautiful, smart, successful, and as expected, at the wedding she totally steals the spotlight from her sister.  At the wedding she also proves to be a crude sloppy drunk who overshares, insults wedding goers, and makes a general fool out of herself to the entire town.  However, in the end it turns out that this is Sara’s gift to Anne, to make her feel perfect on her perfect day.

The Dude 

The aim of The Dude, a documentary directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, is to introduce the world to the dude behind “The Dude” of The Big Lebowski.  The real “dude” is a Jeffrey Dowd, originally a Seattle based hippie, former draft dodger and antiwar activist.  After getting out of jail for his activism he became involved in the independent film industry, and was a part of the original Sundance Film Institute team working to nurture independent voices and storytellers. 

The bulk of the film is about Jeff’s time at the 2011 Lebowski Fest in Tampa, Florida.  Here he meets his fans and enjoys a celebrity status.  People flock to him, call him an achiever, hero and tell him how they’ve been inspired by him.  The one thing I've noticed is missing from all the praise is an explanation why he’s a hero.  Is it because of the activism he did when he was younger and continues to do till today?  It doesn’t really seem like anyone knows about that past, they just know about his status as the real life Dude.  Maybe it doesn’t matter why he’s a hero to many and the really important thing is that these fans have found someone they can look up to for whatever reasons are important to them.

The Fickle

The Fickle, directed by Bryan Poyser, is filmed in one continuous shot  and shows one young woman as she re-experiences 12 past love affairs.  It’s told as a tale of her quest to find love and companionship.  Of the men she’s with, each has their own shortcomings and ultimately she has to decide which is the shortcoming she can accept or overlook be happy with the otherwise sweet and endearing man she has found.

Wyckoff Place

Wyckoff Place, directed by Lauri Faggioni, is a documentary about the children who live in an apartment building in Brooklyn, NY.  These children, all seemingly between the ages of 8 and 12, are of different races, religions and backgrounds who live together through circumstances outside of their control.  They fight, they play, they joke around.  In sum, they’re kids.  They don’t know the different roles society places them in, so for now they are divided along the lines that kids should be – boys vs girls.  Some of them are immigrants and they talk about those experiences and what it was like in their home countries.  Some are born in the US, while others come from Sudan, Puerto Rico, and Yemen.  They do their homework together, play in the streets and coexist like children should.  Their politics and their differences not only go unmentioned, but are completely irrelevant.  When asked directly about the other kids, one girl’s only complaint is that they’re too loud.  When one boy is asked what it’s going to be like when the kids grow up and move away he says it’s going to be hard because he’ll be “without a friend, and you can’t do anything without a friend.”  There is an honest innocence about these children and there’s an implicit sadness that the film garners as viewers know that unfortunately, ultimately prejudice will pervade and the sweet friendships they share will likely be lost.  One can only hope, however, that these kids do in fact represent a future where we can live in harmony and see past the differences of our neighbors and recognize the quality person that lives within.

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