Upon recommendation from a writing colleague, I picked up a book — you know the type. The kind of book that is supposed to help guide you through the trials and tribulations of being a writer. The kind of book that will give you great insights into the world of scribedom, and helps you hope that one day, you too will be a paid laugh-maker, scream-inducer, or tear-jerker.
Over some Kibbe and Falafel on Thursday, Adam and I got into a little discussion focused mainly on naming characters. It seems that we are about 90% in agreeance over one thing: female characters’ names in films have become fairly pretentious.
His theory is that if you want an every-woman character — a name that won’t be distracting, to script readers and theater-goers alike — go with one of the more popular names for a person born during the time period in which the character would have been born. So, if I were writing about a current/incoming high school student (which I will be soon) for a script I figure I’d complete in 2012, I would choose a name that was fairly popular in 1998 (BTW, I was in high school in 1998). In the case of my coming-of-age script that I’m working on (yeah, yeah, the world has plenty of coming-of-age stories) my lead female character’s name is Vanessa. According to the Social Security Administration, Vanessa was the 52nd most popular name among American babies in 1998; mid-range, considering the top 100.
But we don’t necessarily always want an every-woman. Some writers, like some parents, want our children/characters to be interesting straight outta the womb (take “Sue” from this pretty awesome short a classmate of mine did, for example). The lead female character for another script I’m working on is named Harper. This name, Adam took issue with, but I don’t think Harper is really that ridiculous for a name. Maybe a decade ago, that would be a seriously pretentious name. In 2004, it was the 887th most popular baby name in the U.S. Last year it was #119. So in 5 years, it may be even more common (but then again, can pretention also be common? Vice versa?)
I just finished reading Freakonomics, which has a lot of fascinating insights on race, class, gender, morality, and, most interestingly, parenting. In the chapter titled, “Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” I made a bit of a connection: While some people may believe that “black” names (like DeShawn or Imani) may have a detrimental effect on the children who receive them, the real correlation seems to be a socioeconomic indicator; “good” parents put a lot of emphasis on picking a name, and “good” parents tend to be better educated in general, and can provide decent opportunities for those children. Furthermore, I don’t think DeShawn or Imani are bad names. I know good people with those names! In either case, the parents who give their children strong or “smart” sounding names tend to care more about their kids anyway, and they share a more aspirational attitude/goals for those kids. If I were writing about a stripper living in a trailer park in Daytona Beach, I’d probably name her Krystal or Jazmynn. If I were writing about a Yale-bound, cello-playing snobby 16-year-old, I’d probably name her Eleanora or Madison; quite presidential.
Names of characters tend to have several indications: the tone of the film, the essence of a character, and who wrote the script. I thought about some of my personal favorite comedies/romantic comedies of the last few years, and the names of the female leads:
Cady (Lindsay Lohan)
Olive (Emma Stone)
500 Days of Summer
Summer (Zooey Deschanel)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Clementine (Kate Winslet)
Em (Kristen Stewart)
Kill Bill, Vol 1 &2 — yes, I know this is not a comedy.
The Bride/Beatrix (Uma Thurman)
Jules (Emma Stone)
Gracie (Sandra Bullock)
Lost in Translation
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson)
Elle (Reece Witherspoon)
The Devil Wears Prada
Andy (Anne Hathaway)
I would venture to say that none of these names are in the top 50 names for females in the probable years that each character would have been born. If anything, these names indicate, to me, that writers and authors are affluent, educated, and tend to indicate that in their own characters. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. In Freakonomics, sixish of the names listed above are also listed below with the average number of years of formal education that the mother who chose the names also had:
– Clementine (16.23)*
– Charlotte (14.98)
– Beatrix (16.26)*
– Ellen/Ella for Elle Woods (averaged to 15.235)
– Olive (15.64)
So yes, some of these A-List writers like Burt Royal, Charlie Kauffman, and Uma Thurman/Quentin Tarantino are effing geniuses.
The names with the * indicate that they were among the list of the “Twenty White Girl Names That Best Signify High-Education Parents.” Interestingly, despite my blackness, my name was the eighth most popular “White Girl” name in 1980. In 2000, the 8th most popular name was Emma. I’m sure by now, #8 is Mackenzie. Names that indicate affluence supposedly trickle down from the upper class down to the masses, kind of like how Forever 21 knocks off a beautiful Gucci dress. And, just like fashion, one day you’re in, the next day, you are out.
So, my point is that while I agree that the unique, quirky names have gotten out of hand — in real life, and in books and film — I don’t think Harper is really all ridiculous. In fact, I’m just ahead of the curve.
Years ago, I had a professor who was fairly young, and was around on campus as Facebook was popping up. About a year into Facebook infiltrating campus life (mid 2005, maybe?), I remember him observing that social media is a great tool, but it is hurting the way that young people interact with each other. I totally agreed. I’ll be honest, writing a funny one-liner on a friend’s wall was waaaay easier than a 45-minute phone call about whether they should break up with their boyfriend (if it’s someone I really don’t care about — I’m not completely callous).
Fast forward a few years later; 2009ish. My husband and I were talking about media consumption, and he says “We’re losing the water cooler in our society.” The grander society no longer shares collective experiences in everyday media.
And, for better or worse, it’s definitely true, along nearly all major forms of media: music, movies, television, web, and books.
Everything now is highly niched. As highlighted in the NPR series, Fractured Culture, nothing can be targeted toward the greater society. There are so many great scripted television shows on prime time right now, but only small fragments of America watch them. While you can say that’s partially because of cable, it goes beyond that. There are so many options. You don’t even have to have a television. You can just have DVDs and a Netflix account streaming to your TV, and maybe access to Hulu Plus. And then, of course, there’s YouTube. Right there is access to TONS (literally) of hours of nearly anything you could possibly want to watch. And music videos. So why sit in front of the television and watch the shows they are force-feeding down your throat, when you can watching a hilarious web show with a disgusting, crass sense of humor that you can’t find on television, but is so well targeted toward you?
Music may be the most emblematic of this — the first industry really hit hard by this shift in the way we consume media. People stopped paying money for music years ago, unless it was truly meaningful now. No one watches MTV for videos — firstly MTV hasn’t played music videos since the days of Jesse Camp, and secondly, music videos are basically an online-only venture (aside from BET, really). Why watch a bunch of random videos hoping they’ll play the one you want to watch, when you can just go online and play the one you want to watch at that moment? Also, do you notice that your favorite television shows and movies don’t use overwrought music that you’re already sick of because they play it on the radio constantly anymore — they play the “indie” stuff. It’s cheap, and it caters to an appreciation of the “underground.” It’s catering to the fact that people love to be the first of their friends to have heard of a band, and then be pleasantly surprised to hear it on Grey’s Anatomy.
And etc. and so-forth. But is this nichefying a completely bad thing? I don’t know. I think there is good to this, because, as the NPR series points out on many platforms, audiences who have not been engaged before on television can enjoy niche TV on cable (106 & Park and its teenage fan base); Asian people don’t really have soooo few images on television, but can find some well produced series’ online featuring people of Asian descent doing stuff other than being nerds or weird little businessmen.
So to me, as I’ve written about before, I don’t think it’s necessarily a terrible thing. In fact, I’m hoping to one day capitalize on it…
My mom, acclaimed and amazing author Rita Williams-Garcia, nabbed two — count ’em, TWO!! — big old fancy schmancy awards today:
– The Coretta Scott King award for “outstanding books for children and young adults.”
– The silver prize for the John Newbery Medal for the second-most “distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
Add that to her being a finalist this year for the National Book Awards and winning the Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction last week, and we’ve got ourselves a pretty happy family! She is so deserving and so talented. My mom’s amazing!!
And while all of this is so literary, this does play into films, too. One of the reasons I want to get into TV/film is because I’ve seen my mom work so hard to get to where she is today, while pop writers do great things to get kids to read, but it ain’t exactly quality stuff. I’m not naming names, but my mom isn’t writing about vampires and zombies and pirates. She writes about youth forgotten — immigrants, teen moms (15 years BEFORE it was cool, MTV), bullying in school, dancers turned away from the ballet world because of its own ridiculous body hang ups, and most recently, the Black Panthers through the eyes of three little girls. Furthermore, her visual writing style, and accessible characters are perfectly adaptable for the screen.
But does anyone want to pay for tickets to go see deeply written black teenagers on the big screen — or small screen, for that matter? That’s the big gamble that, so far, very few have been willing to take, aside from the marvelously sweet Akilah and The Bee, Precious (oy), and The Quite Saccarine Blind Side (double oy). So, we’ll see. And if anyone is interested in actually filming an adaptation, let me know. I know an excellent associate producer (hint: it’s me).
I’ve taken Media Law as an undergrad, and then again when I was considering getting an MA in journalism a few years ago and took a class online at the University of Missouri. I’ve also learned a lot about the legal dealings incorporated with launching a company, copyright, contracts, and all that good stuff through my UCLA class that I took last semester. So I am not really feeling like I need to learn it all on my own. So I’m just not gonna. In the interest of concentrating on what’s important, I’m dropping my Entertainment Law course.
I’ve basically done all of my reading/viewing assignments for the week, so that’s been good. I still have not had a lot of time to work on my Modern Family Outline, either, but I have the whole week off to hone it.
All in all, I’m still pumped on this whole project. I’ve received a bunch of great things from friends and family for Christmas that’ll help me with my learnin’: a couple of gift cards, and the DVDs, Directors: Life Behind the Camera and the PBS documentary, Pioneers of Television.
I just wanted to take a break from making Christmas dinner (Cornish Game Hens, roasted red potatoes, and buttery-fantastical string beans) to give an update on some altered plans for the week. I know, I know, you’re saying “already altering plans? FAIL.”
But no. I’m making provisions to make sure I know what I’m doing.
Earlier this week I dropped a lot of money at our local big-box book store that is in the process of cutting off all of their inventory to shut the store down. Honestly, I’m surprised they lasted longer than they did. Anyway, they had a ton of stuff at 40% off, so I bought my husband’s Christmas gift and about five books for myself — some that I know I’ll need for future classes and my career, and others I’ve just wanted to get. One of which was Get the Picture: The Movie Lover’s Guide to Watching Films by Jim Piper. While I’m supposed to be evaluating these TV shows, films, and shorts, I figure I should know what I’m talking about. I’ve only read the first 2 chapters, but it has me thinking about shots in a more conscious way — color, angle, depth of shot, movement and framing.
Yesterday, on my way home from work on the bus, I watched a book mentioned in chapter 3 of my Film history book, Rescued by Rover by Cecil Hepworth. This was one of the first films to show sequence with several cuts and implied movement throughout the story. We see a baby get abducted while her nanny’s back is turned away, and * bam* the next cut is the nanny bursting in to the house, to tell the parents what happened. We don’t see her going on and flirting with that dude; we don’t see her turning around and not seeing the baby, and turning over leaves in the park to look for him. It’s implied that all of it happened, so we cut straight to the drama. Furthermore, we see the dog running across town looking for the baby. When he finds him sitting with the gypsy that stole him, the dog runs back using the same sequence of setting. He then gets his owner to follow him, in the same sequence of shots, and then they rescue the baby. Good times. It’s short, and simple, but a clear step forward in filmmaking…prior to this, cameras were pretty darn stagnant, and basically no cuts. Take that, Air Buddies!