“I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind.”
So said a bewildered young woman in the 1979 movie MANHATTAN during a Museum of Modern Art cocktail reception to navel-gazing urban sophisticates.
Issac (Woody Allen) responds with “You had the wrong kind? Really? I’ve never had the wrong kind. Ever. My worst one was right on the money.”
The past six months have set the stage for me to be all three of these characters — the woman, the unseen doctor and Issac — inside of my head, of course. But we are not debating types of orgasm but rather my work’s success.
How do you measure success? Is it the right kind of success? And what kind of unappreciative, voracious person am I to question ANY kind success? It’s a Pandora’s Box of questions that has kept me up at night thinking about my work and the impact I’d like it to have.
I am loathe to appear ungrateful or entitled.
According to my Facebook pages — my personal page, SHARP EDGES: the original Tonya Harding page, and THAT WAY MADNESS LIES… page — the last six months' worth of posts make it seems that I’ve had nothing but success since the beginning of my career as a filmmaker and production teacher.
SHARP EDGES, the film I made 32 years ago for my senior thesis, has had an incredible run. The last six months have seen Allison Janney win an Oscar for a performance taken from SHARP EDGES. And a deal struck with NEON — the film distributors of I, TONYA — for a theatrical run of SHARP EDGES in New York and Los Angeles leading to availability on world-wide streaming venues. Then to top it off a crazy-good review in Variety, and now SHARP EDGES is on Hulu.
I’m on an amazing ride which I’m struggling to navigate and enjoy. And at the same time, maybe I’m trying too hard to manage and evaluate. It seems to be one of my life lessons. However, the nasty variables of luck and timing haunt me. I find myself questioning the “kind” of success I’m experiencing.
There are reasons that SHARP EDGES has had such continued success. The obvious reason is because of the 1994 scandal that shot Tonya Harding to outrageous infamy, and, of course, now the 2017 movie, I, TONYA. But it is also true that I, TONYA, without SHARP EDGES would look and sound very different. Why does this matter to me?
My measure of the film’s success and its impact isn’t based on these recent events of good fortune. For me, the measure is found in the impact the film had during the time it was made, and the framing it provided for the 1994 scandal eight years later. SHARP EDGES was the first film that Yale University accepted as a senior thesis and it won the most prestigious award given at graduation for the performing and creative arts. Its merits relied on craft and a well told story, not infamy and scandal. And at that time… the world, the industry and the university were spheres in which women and stories about women were rarely recognized. The film crucially opened the door to other films to be accepted and recognized as the culmination of one’s studies at Yale.
After 1987, the film appropriately faded from people’s memories. Then in 1994, as the FBI announced that they were investigating Tonya and those close to her for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the film gave context to the caricatures created by the tabloid media. I went to CBS 60 Minutes with SHARP EDGES, and we did a segment entitled “My name is Tonya Harding.” The piece allowed people a more nuanced view of the personalities involved.
I recently did a podcast for New York Women in Film and Television’s Women Crush Wednesdays that recounts the film’s trajectory. My interview starts at 14:00 minutes.
What I have learned from this experience is that the success of SHARP EDGES, is mercurial. It is not something that can be forced or predicted. It is what it is. Showing clips from it on 60 Minutes led to my film BELLY TALKERS, and BELLY TALKERS led to teaching at Yale.
During the first ten years of my teaching, when the notoriety of the scandal lingered, some students felt they could not possibly have the “luck” I had had in choosing subjects. It was hard to convince them to look beyond the scandal and at the film and to look at the story itself. A large part of the success of the film was my long relationship with the subjects and my life-long commitment to figure skating.
Ten years after the 1994 scandal, students started seeing SHARP EDGES as it was originally intended. And it began to influence their work as I had hoped. Without the opacity of scandal, they could see more clearly the advantage of making a film that has a personal and emotional connection.
Several years ago, a former dean of the School of Art at Yale, desperately wanted to fire me. The politics of academia can be brutal. This dean sought to use my long history and work at Yale against me. He wrote: “It is time you definotively [sic] cut the remnants of the ombilical [sic] cord once attaching you to Yale and continuing to haunt you like a phantom limb.” This sentence cut into me when I first received it. It had the power to transform an achievement into shame and leave me feeling exposed.
But by staying focused and invested in my students’ production work, I endured.
This May, NH Docs 9 (New Haven) presented a retrospective of my work and celebrated more than 20 years of my teaching at Yale. That retrospective included SHARP EDGES. For the second time in four years, a film made by one of the students in my class won the state-wide student competition. Despite 35 positive student evaluations during this academic year, I also received an evaluation that said, “Sadly, she is probably the worst professor I ever had at Yale.”
Even one evaluation like this can disrupt my equilibrium and disproportionally erase the positive ones. The task, perhaps, is to weigh success over the long term, like the stock market, and to weigh it quantitatively.
So, I still struggle with which films receive notice and for what reasons. Then I feel guilty for creating what a friend of mine calls “high class luxury problems.” It’s like that scene in MANHATTAN.
Then, there’s those old demons — timing and luck that creep into the mix. They are mischievous pranksters who delight in chaos and destroying my equilibrium.
I spent eight years making THAT WAY MADNESS LIES… and I continue to live the story outside the confines of the film. It was painful to make; exposing, sad and heartbreaking. So, I self-bargained a set of expectations that pulled me through. I convinced myself that this time my Samson-like effort would be rewarded in tangible measurements of success. But, again, what kind of success? MADNESS is unique. It shows our family dealing with my brother’s illness while traversing the broken mental health system. It shows copious archival family footage. And, what is most striking are the scenes of my brother’s first-person-point-of-view of his psychosis in real time. I lay it all out in a raw and straightforward way. Because I put all of this in the film, I convinced myself that it would bring quick change to a broken mental health system. I thought it would, ultimately, help my brother.
My expectations, impatience and ambitions for the film have broken my heart.
When a film is finished, in order to gain wider distribution (particularly a documentary), it must play at film festivals. There are literally thousands of festivals, each with a hefty application fee. However, the gatekeepers to distribution frequent only a handful of festivals with any regularity.
I wanted to premiere THAT WAY MADNESS LIES... at Sundance, the foremost festival in the USA because my film BELLY TALKERS had shown there. But MADNESS was not ready by the application deadline. Neither was BELLY TALKERS near finished when I had applied, but that film had had the backing of Harvey Weinstein (that was decades before his scandal that would engulf him). So, I had similar expectations for THAT WAY MADNESS LIES…. However, Sundance requires a world premiere and statistics show that you have a better chance of getting into Harvard than you do at Sundance.
I did contemplate waiting a year before submitting “MADNESS” but waiting another year wouldn’t improve my odds of getting in. I did not need a whole year to finish and there was a pressing reason for getting the film seen as soon as possible. At the film’s end, my brother is released from the Western State Hospital. By the time the film was ready to be be seen, he had been arrested and sent to the state hospital again, twice.
Once people saw the film, anywhere, I was certain there would be a call to action. There would be a revolution towards changing the mental health system. In the process, the film would receive world-wide distribution and my brother would receive the help he most desperately needed.
The obvious place to start was the Portland International Film Festival because the story takes place in Oregon. But when the film was rejected, it felt like a slap in the face. How could it be rejected? This story and the realities it reveals affects each and every citizen of Portland whether they realized it or not. But we live in a moment of time where people are besieged.
I did not anticipate that by the time the film was finished, we, as a country, would have an administration and culture in utter chaos.
Everyone, distracted by the fireworks, spectacle and too fatigued by having to fire-fight, could not, in addition, take on the systematic failures presented in THAT WAY MADNESS LIES…
His first week in office, Trump signs executive order rescinding Obama Era law
that revokes 2nd Amendment rights to mentally incompetent and
involuntarily committed individuals
Inexplicably, during Trump’s first week in office, he signed an executive order that endangers my brother’s life as well as my own. It rescinds a law that denies 2nd Amendment rights to mentally ill individuals involuntarily committed, and those who meet very specific criteria. So forget the legalese: it means that deeply disturbed people are entitled to firearms. How was Trump to know that Parkland could have been prevented? There has been almost no mention of this executive order in the aftermath of recent mass shootings. Instead, some mental health professionals and advocacy groups try to minimize the relationship between the severely mentally ill, who are prone to be a violent danger to themselves and others, and mass shootings. They work the numbers because they don’t want mental illness to be further stigmatized. One organization, and the same one that named me their 2018 Artist-in-Residence, wrote on its weekly blog of May 18, 2018:
“There is no doubt that something is seriously wrong with someone who opens fire with the intent to kill innocent people. But don’t be fooled. The vast majority of individuals with mental illness are not violent. They are, in fact, more likely to being victims rather than perpetrators of violence. Using that same line of reasoning, the vast majority of individuals who own guns are also not likely to open fire in a school yard and are not likely to kill anyone over the lifetime of owning a gun. So, what’s up?”
“These mass shootings are heinous, dramatic events. They also happen to be statistically infrequent – even though it doesn’t seem that way at the moment. Nassim Taleb calls these kinds of occurrences black swan events. These rare events have outsized impact and are extremely difficult to prospectively predict.”
But there is a connection, and all the defenses in the world and manipulations of percentages, etc, do not ease the mass trauma and mass impact. “What’s up?” and “Don’t be fooled!” Seriously? What’s up is that no one should be fooled by an undisclosed agenda here.
I can promise you this: every time there is a mass shooting, anyone connected to the untreated and severely mentally ill perpetrator is not crunching numbers or controlling optics to manipulate an agenda (unlike the NRA and their apologists). Instead, they have been trying for years to get their loved one help. THAT WAY MADNESS LIES… shows us exactly how someone with no prior history of violence or who never before met the criteria, could be the next shooter as their conditions systematically worsen. For that reason, I expected a more immediate embrace of the film for what it illuminates.
Eventually, I did engage the Northwest Film Center to show the film outside of the festival. The audience reaction at the Portland Art Museum screenings exceeded my hopes and expectations. I was taken aback by the number of people who told me at the screening, or wrote to me after, that my film matched their own encounter with the mental health system. The only marked difference was that I had footage as visual proof. This gave me tremendous hope and a mandate. Understanding the problems and seeing them unvarnished was our power. Since the film illustrates the problems, I would commit to showing the film and speaking about it anywhere at any venue I was invited. It’s my audience that can use the film to demonstrate their experience, even though their fight within the system has, in most cases, been much longer and unbelievably more difficult than my own. By showing the film, I have found a network of like-minded warriors in every step of this journey including, family members, doctors, first-responders, police, jail intake nurses, and judges. They are doing their best, with their hands tied behind their backs. Each story I hear is more outrageous than the last. I recommend Pete Earley’s blog as he gives a platform to many voices about mental illness. I have been trying to get a screening on Capitol Hill, but it seems our politicians are a bit overwhelmed at the moment.
After the premiere in Portland, I began my one woman road-show, criss-crossing the country with the film, at my own expense. It has played for mental health groups, law schools, universities, nursing schools, and a host of small film festivals where there was not a sales agent or distributor, and sometimes not even an audience for miles around. The film won Best Documentary Feature at the Hot Springs International Women’s Film Festival in Arkansas, where they asked me to be their keynote speaker. And the film was given a special jury prize at the Richmond International Film Festival in Virginia, where we barely had an audience. I think I have a record amount of press for a film relatively so few people have seen.
What I don’t post on my Facebook pages is all the festivals and places from which the film has been rejected. And, like the negative student evaluation, that creates a disproportional weight on me. PBS never got back to me, HBO turned me down after I pursued them for more than a year, as did the distributors who bought SHARP EDGES. I’ve had sales agents wish me luck, but declare the film was not for them. The film has been rejected by about 90% of the festivals to which I have applied. This is not unusual in the independent film business, and I certainly have come to expect it, but not with this film. The film has even been turned down by several festivals that were seeking only films about mental health. I just received another rejection from a festival devoted to films about social maladies. Why? Because the film does not have a walk into the sunset ending, and it does not offer a happy resolution or an easy solution. And yet, there is no question that MADNESS could not be more timely, relevant or unique in its presentation.
I’m only beginning to understand the emotional cost of making it. It crushed me when I offered to show it at NAMI’s national mental health convention ( the only organization to focus on serious mental illness) and was told that it did not fit into their agenda this year.
What is my rush? After all, it is not like this problem is going to be solved before people have a chance to see the film… But since the film was made, my brother has been released from the Western State Hospital to a woman who was fired from said hospital because she and my brother became lovers while he was there. This living arrangement lasted several months. Since then, Duanne has been been arrested four more times and been sent to the Oregon State Hospital at least two times in an attempt to be restored to competency. Because he refuses any sort of treatment, as is his right, he is considered not fit to stand trial, so the charges are always dismissed and he is released to the street. People do not get better in jail or living on the street. “Treat Until Fit” is not treatment. And just to be clear, the definition of treatment should not always be equated with psychopharmacology, electric shock therapy, and complete loss of agency.
I wonder if he will be out of jail by the time I show MADNESS on August 10th at the Clinton Street Theater as a benefit for local Portland mental health organizations. No one will tell me anything. But, I did learn recently that organizations misuse HIPPA to withhold information. Doris Fuller testified to the Federal Commission on School Safety about this misuse and the commission was surprised by the extent of the problem. I feel proud that the first scene of THAT WAY MADNESS lLIES… shows me being utterly stonewalled by the Oregon State Hospital under the guise of HIPPA. Seeing it in the film is understanding and really believing. If we have unquestionable proof that it happens, we can force change. (I have to believe that, despite this culture we are currently trying to survive.)
Recently, First Run Features saw MADNESS just because we asked them to look at it. That impressed me, and they really got it! They are a small, independent, reputable boutique distribution company that’s been in business for over 30 years. I’m happy to say that they expressed interest in distributing the film.
So the journey is still in its infancy and I just have to be patient (not my strong suit) and persistent (one of strengths.). But I think I am beginning to understand that success is success, big or small, despite the type. And sometimes failure is success that you have not yet come to understand.
In the final analysis, I have to agree with Issac, from the film MANHATTAN, not only concerning orgasms, but also applied to the measurements of success. And success, however measured, is a component necessary for change.
So, therefore, “I’ve never had the wrong kind of success. Ever. Even my worst success was right on the money!”
Sandra Luckow is an award winning filmmaker based in New York City. Her films include: Sharp Edges; Belly Talkers; A World Within; That Way Madness Lies…
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