Frederick Marx (named
Frederick after the socialist scholar Engels) wanted
to be a professional basketball player. Instead, he became
a filmmaker and gained international acclaim as the director
of the 1994 documentary called Hoop Dreams. Set
in the world of amateur basketball, Hoop Dreams
is a story of how race, class, and culture coalesce to
impact three young mens' lives.
Picking up where Hoop
Dreams left off, Marxs newest film Boys to
Men? The Crisis in Teenage Masculinity is
the second of what he calls a three-part tragedy.
The story of three New Jersey teenage boys on the threshold
of adulthood, Boys to Men? follows their various
struggles, offering a disturbing look at their difficulty
transitions to adulthood. "I did have a hypothesis," Marx
explains. "And it was that teenage boys across race, class,
and culture are not making it because theyre not
being consciously initiated and mentored."
Marx recently spoke with
Gadfly after a screening of his new film by the San Francisco
Film Arts Foundation.
Gadfly: Did seeing
these three boys struggling make you want to get involved
with the families, sit them down and help them talk things
Marx: As a rule, generally
at one time or another, I do get involved. When and how
I do it varies. But I do see my role as being one in which
I can be of help, and I try to be. Sometimes that happens
during the filmmaking. I was able to help bring a lot
of the parents closer to their kids and vice versa by
explaining one to the other. The problem is a lot of the
rituals (like a bar mitzvah, for example) have been denuded
of their real meaning. Its almost symbolic of the
way the culture has corrupted what were rites of passage
and turned them into exercises of consumptive materialism.
about the boys. Spence is the only white, middle-class
kid in the film. Yet he struggles perhaps as much as the
others. Why is this happening even to kids of relative
We hear a lot about African
American inner city kids who grow up without fathers,
but the fact is suburban white kids grow up as much or
more without fathers. The fathers may be living in the
home, but theyre so absent through all the work
they do to keep their heads above water in this capitalist
society. It is interesting to note that in some ways theyre
more isolated than African American inner city kids, because
even if the latter dont have fathers, culturally
theres more of an extended family. They see their
aunties, uncles, cousins, friends
due to geographic spread in the suburbs and socioeconomic
reasons, middle-class kids dont have that extended
family. They have even less support.
tragedy with Ciscos story?
To me the deeply sad paradox
of Ciscos story is that his greatest virtues as
a nurturer and a caretaker, which have been scrupulously
developed by his mother, have been developed to exploit
him in a sense. Theyre being developed so that she
can make him into her caretaker. Hes such a bright,
capable, loving young man, and to see that happening breaks
my heart. The key for Cisco, which I try to point to,
is that he needs mentoring, he needs a male adult hero.
The thing he most needs is the thing he most fears, some
really strong but loving male guidance. He hasnt
had any, and hes been taught to fear it by his mother.
Al-Tran is the
character who most obviously spirals downward into a depression
during the movie, but he seemed the most hopeful and buoyant
at the start. What happened?
Al-Tran is so acutely self-analytical,
and he knows what would help. He says, "Well, I never
had a dad to show me how to become a man. If I had one,
Id be ready to become a man, but as it is, I grew
up with my mom and Im just not." Subsequent
to the filming I offered all three boys my services as
a mentor. Al-Tran was the only one who consciously took
me up on it, but it did not stop him from doing what he
has this innate tendency to do, which is to undercut and
destroy the possibilities that come before him.
I dont see fathers
as the panacea here. Its more than that. Its
about being initiated yourself and then consciously initiating
your son or mentee. Its really essential.
I left the film knowing very well that there is a problem
for boys in this culture, but frankly I didnt have
a sense of the solution. What is the solution to this
Ive done a risky
thing commercially with this film, because in effect Ive
made an elaborate statement of "the problem"
and it wont be until I make the sequel Men to
Boys and put the solution as I see it before the audience,
that the two will be complete. I respect the audience
enough that I dont mind putting complex problems
before them and letting them use the work as a common
point of departure to discuss social issues.
If families watched this
with their kids, it would be tremendously helpful. Its
a bridge across the gap that may exist between parents
and their kids.
Was there a personal
reason you wanted to explore the subject of teenage boys?
I went into this film thinking
that my unconscious reason is I want to understand my
own teenage years in more detail. Even though they were
relatively happy, I can see how lost and confused I was.
But what really became the deeper truth is it was really
my surrogate parenting energy that was driving a lot of
the film. I wanted to get right in there with the parents
to figure out why they were doing what they were doing
with their kids. I dont have any kids, and in the
last five to six years I have had this upsurge of mentoring/fathering
energy. Ive been mentoring younger filmmakers and
young people in their personal lives. To some extent,
I did that with Hoop Dreams, but this time I get
in there and talk to Al-Trans mom, offering my own
feedback after a long period of deep listening to both
You only shot
footage for about nine months. How did you get to such
a level of intimacy with your subjects in such a short
One of the things Im
good at is gaining trust. Its a function of my choosing
to work with who I choose to work with. I sense a certain
openness in the subjects to begin with. In the last 7-8
years, Ive been conscious of my style, which is
to model the vulnerability and openness that I seek in
my subjects. People respond to that. If Im willing
to shed a tear, theyll be that much more willing
to do the same.
How much of the
editing went into making sure there was a "message"
in the film?
We shot for three to nine
months, a total of 150 hours. One hundred of those were
verite sort of field shoots. One hundred and fifteen were
the stories, 25 to 35 were the focus groups of the boys
in the studio. I was having my student co-workers doing
the editing while we were shooting, but the bare- knuckles
sit-down-figure-it-out-make-it-work editing took about
six to eight months. My biggest difficulty as an editor,
and I consider myself to be a very, very good one, is
not discarding the message of the film in the face of
really foregrounding the narrative. It takes me, in my
own judgment, too long to arrive at the story I want to
tell, because I hold too fast and dear to some of the
message elements. But eventually I get there.
of documentaries in the academic sense, theres a
lot of talk about the responsibility of the documentarian
to contend with the problem of objectivity. How do you
Objectivity does not exist,
and documentarians need to recognize that. The question
then becomes, "Where and how do I foreground my subjectivity,
and how do I maintain consciousness around that subjectivity
and the choices I make?" I constantly ask myself questions
while making the film that relate to that. I decide my
answers based on first being grounded and clear on "What
is my own shit?" versus being compassionate to my
subjects. And then at the same time, "What is the story
I want to tell here?" Im constantly weighing these
factors against each other. Ive evolved to a point
where I resolve some of these questions differently than
I would have 25 years ago.
I see what I do as being
a compassionate witness. Thats a shorthand description
of how I see my role. Ive also made very self-reflexive
docs. Thats where I started, but Ive worked
through a lot of the issues about reflexivity and ownership
and point of view, and Im just not there anymore.
To me, I see so much in documentary that continues to
grapple with that, and it looks self-absorbed. Im
kind of bored by that kind of film. And theres so
much thats rich in society as a whole. Naval gazing
is not the most interesting way to get there anymore.
Did the story
steer off into territory you had not foreseen when you
started the project?
Sadly, no. Im one
of the few filmmakers I know, even in the documentary
world, who still will go into a project not knowing where
its going to end. I love that flying without a parachute
feeling, yet its absolutely important that I be
deeply grounded in my starting hypothesis. I dont
want to pass myself off as a social scientist or something,
but at any rate, I did have a hypothesis and it was "Teenage
boys across race, class, and culture are not making it
because theyre not being consciously initiated and
mentored." Well, halfway through the film, I thought,
"Oh my God. Im wrong. Thank goodness. These
boys are so wonderful. Theyre vulnerable, articulate,
loving, blah blah. Great. I can tell some happy stories."
Well, no. As time wore on, I ended up with something close
to the film I imagined at the beginning. What I didnt
realize at the beginning was the necessity of making the
sequel, Men to Boys.
In the sequel, Im
going to film different boys. I will start with boys aged
15 to 16. There will be six boys in six different cities,
and we will have six different initiating paradigms. Ill
follow the stories for maybe twelve months. The key will
be to meet a subject with his family, present an issue
in that youngsters life, something hes struggling
with, see him go through the initiation with/without his
father or with some kind of mentor. Then see him afterwards
go back to his daily life. And see if over time this initiation
has had an impact to change his sense of self, to meet
the coming challenges of adulthood. Who knows what well
see? If the story is these kids arent making it,
thats the story Ill tell, but my suspicion
is that that wont be the case.
This sounds very
much like a cause.
It is! I dont work
on things Im not deeply passionate about, because
God knows, its such a pain in the ass to make these
things. If I dont feel deeply passionate about it,
theres no way Im going to sustain it.