Monthly Archives: December 2009

Out of the Office: Auto Reply

So …

I’m taking a little vacation …

Here’s a bit more of a hint: Joyeux Noël and gelukkig nieuwjaar!

xoxo -AVB

An Open Letter From One of Your 51 Percent

After reading Manohla Dargis’ piece in the New York Times and her subsequent interview with, I felt the need to write the following open letter to the heads of all the feature film studios in the United States.

Dear Sirs (+ the one madam co-chair):

I would like to introduce myself. My name is Ashley, I am one of your customers. One of your 51 percent, to be exact. Ironically, I’m also on the cusp of two age brackets that seem to allude you. Being 28 years old, I’m just edging past your “Twilight” audience and will soon hit your 35+ when-its-a-hit-it-must-be-a-fluke audience. Not only am I one of your customers, but I also happen to be one of you, albeit a very low-level one of you. I feel this puts me in a unique situation, I know your audience because I am your audience; AND, because I’m somewhat of an insider, I’ve struck upon a solution to your problem. A solution that will make you even more money than you’re making now. I’m talking Twilight, The Dark Night, and Mamma Mia kind of money. Believe-it-or-not, it’s not as hard as you think and it’s actually something you know how to do already: make movies. But not just any movies; movies that 51 percent of your audience can relate to and which feature the work of those members of our 51 percent who make their careers in feature film.

Don’t get me wrong, I know you get cross-over audiences. I’m just as likely to see a romantic comedy as I am the next Bourne movie, but I’m even more likely to see a Bourne movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow. I’d probably even go back for seconds if you decided to expand Julia Stiles’ character or give Joan Allen’s more of a back story. Like Bourne, I want to know what taunts them, what makes them tick and what makes them want to find Jason Bourne (because, let’s face it, it’s beyond just their professional duty at this point).

I like stories with style and substance, but I also like action, chase scenes and even my fair share of violence. My favorite movie is “The Silence of the Lambs.” “SOTL” is a great example of how to make a movie that grabs 100 percent of your adult audience: follow the hero’s journey. In this case, the hero just happens to be a 5′ tall heroine and her unlikely leading man is a serial killing cannibal. There’s blood, guts, gore and most importantly, STORY. Both men and women alike invest in these characters because we learn what makes them tick. But women have an extra investment in this particular story (this is the reason why we go back to see it again, recommend it to our friends, buy it, download it, etc.) we see ourselves up on the screen, a lone woman among men in an elevator. Every woman has experienced that moment, just as every woman’s secret desire (like Agent Starling’s) is to save the world.

I also like my romantic comedies to be smart. Yes, I do like to see pretty things and pretty people on a screen, but I’m not an idiot either. I’d trade in a beautiful set and a character’s designer wardrobe for a really good story. Make more movies like “When Harry Met Sally.” Those characters had a story and they had great conversations about things we all discuss at dinner parties or over the phone with friends. Many elements of the script came from actual conversations between Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron. And guess what? That movie appealed to men as well. Why? Two reasons: 1) They saw themselves in Billy Crystal: he is the every man and he got the girl; 2) Insight into women. Yes, we sometimes fake orgasms. Now you know.

The “Buddy Movie” (now recoined as the “Bromance” or “A Judd Apatow”) We, the 51 percent of your audience, have only one of these movies to stick a flag in and call our own: “Thelma and Louise.”  This movie was made in 1991. Oh, wait, there was another female buddy movie! In 2002, producer Cathy Konrad put out a hilarious flick (penned by Nancy Pimental) called “The Sweetest Thing.” I was in college. I saw it two times on opening weekend with seven other female friends. It still remains the closest we’ll ever get to “The Hangover” for women. Speaking of which, if  “The Hangover” was pitched with an entirely female cast, it would never have gotten made. Though I have no doubt there would have been an audience for it — made up of both genders.

The drama (aka “The Oscar movie” or “The Meryl Streep”). In their current state, these movies have a slightly better shot at appealing to me and my fellow 51 percenters because they feature more screen time for women (usually women who can no longer wrinkle their foreheads, but that’s a different letter for another day). The funny thing about these movies is that they’re rarely directed and/or written by women. Though I love men who can write wonderful parts for women (hello, Michael Cunningham), they are not women, and, as such, they will always leave the character with an unexplored territory. It’s one thing for a woman to be mysterious, but another thing to leave 51 percent of us knowing there is so much more to the story that needs to be told. “The Hours” has a great scene which touches upon this, when Clarissa Vaughn talks to her daughter about a moment in her youth:

“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.”

Contained within those lines are two potential movies for two generations of women, “the sense of possibility” movie, reaching audiences from their late teens – 30s, and “the moment looking back” movie, for the 40/50/60 female audience. I want to know what that woman sees as both a 20-something and then as a 50-something woman. Romantic comedies offer shades of these moments as well, though they are even fewer and farther between.

I believe women go to rom coms and dramas because they crave any glimmer of seeing their lives reflected back at them, no matter how fleeting of a moment it may be. We women store up a mosaic of these moments and play them back in our minds when we need them. A “greatest hits” if you will. They are our touchstone, our reminder that we are seen, we are remembered; we do serve a purpose. But wouldn’t it be even better if we didn’t need a highlights reel? If the marquee at our local theaters advertised movies where we saw ourselves and our husbands/boyfriends/friends/girlfriends/teens depicted by someone like us who knows the way we think, the way we see, who gives us not “women’s movies” but movies from our perspective? And, maybe even a woman who gives us male viewpoints just as dramatically or funny as the Michael Manns or Judd Apatows of the world, but from a fresh perspective.

I am one of your 51 percent. And, I am also your colleague. I want to see a reflection of myself on a screen just as much as I want to see my name in the credits. I am a part of both sides of this letter. And, I will keep moving forward both from my seat and on a set, until my voice is heard. Because when it finally is, there will be 51 percent of the world’s population behind it. I hope you start listening.

-Ashley Van Buren

Even Cookbooks Tell a Story

I’m a big proponent of the homemade Christmas gift. Especially when it’s for my sister. She’s very specific in her tastes and anything short of a gift card is usually returned within 48 hours of being unwrapped. This makes it nearly impossible to give her something unique and heartfelt and not made of plastic. As a result, she’s turned out to be the perfect candidate for a homemade gift. She likes the thoughtfulness behind it and, even if she doesn’t completely like the gift itself, she’s always touched by the effort (and it can’t be returned!) Because of my sister’s recent burgeoning interest in cooking, I thought it best to make her a cookbook with some of my favorite recipes and some essentials. I pulled recipes from 15 different cookbooks in my collection and wrote a letter of introduction for the book, explaining a side of cookbooks that isn’t always evident to the novice cook. The letter turned out to be an interesting meditation on story and life that I wanted to share with more people than just my sister (though I have no doubt she will appreciate it as well):

Dear Alexandra,

Food tells a story. It tells of cultures and lost civilizations. It reveals mysteries through the ages. We track the lives of the ancients through their food. We can tell their diet, their habits, their nutritional intake, and their physical & environmental landscape. Today, food celebrates the modern equivalent of these cultures. It wasn’t until the middle ages that recipes were written down. Before that, it was merely through story and practice (a sort of pre-historic version of a home economics class) that people learned what to prepare for a meal. Though we have books filled with recipes, mapping out specific guidelines we must follow, it is the ancient people who had it right. The best things we eat are not written down. Recipes, no matter how thorough, can never be duplicated exactly. Grandma knew this intuitively. I think it’s something most Italians know. There is a basic outline for what needs to be achieved (a cooked meal) and a general map that will lead you there. However, in cooking it is the detours that make it the most enjoyable.

This cookbook is filled with my favorite recipes, some essentials, and some passed down from our grandmothers. Use these recipes as your rough outline, but remember to rely on instinct and take detours. The cheese they call for in a recipe may not be the one you think works best. Garlic can be replaced by adding more onion; delete peas and replace them with corn. Whatever you choose, throw yourself into it with abandon. Do not be intimidated. Mark up the recipes with your notes, your grease stains. Give them lives on paper and on a plate. These recipes are pieces of people. Julia Child may be known for her French cuisine, but it is her roast chicken that (to me) stands out the most. Jamie Oliver is a British chef, but his risotto recipe beats an Italian one any day of the week. Nora Ephron is a film director, but she also knows her food. I’ve included her favorite recipe (from the Julie & Julia cast & crew cookbook) here. Mark Bittman is a New York Times writer who was experimenting with using vegetables in place of pasta when he happened upon his simple, easy dish.

In the recipes from our grandmothers, I learned Dad’s mom had over 30 recipes for zucchini. She also had eight recipes for woodchuck (which dad swears he’s never eaten). Our maternal Grandmother’s recipes are like that of an artist or a writer, little notes jotted down on scrap paper, recipes ripped from magazines – like incomplete story arcs or the beginning of an idea. Some of her recipes are exact, but most are vague and leave much to the culinary imagination. In a way, it makes me believe that through her recipes she gave us permission to experiment, to make mistakes and to surprise ourselves. It’s a lesson parents try to teach their children everyday. It’s also why we study the habits of ancient civilizations, to learn from the past and pave our own future. Think of this book as both your past and your future. Approach it with love and passion and without fear. If you can do that, you can conquer anything (including boeuf bourguignon).