Saturday, November 22, 2008

Four Minutes (Vier Minuten)

This review was also published at the Feminist Review.

Since the advent of sound entered the motion picture business in the 1920s, audiences have continually been fascinated with the bebop rhythm of music and its creators. Al Jolson, who uttered cinema’s initial words (“…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”) was the first to be tackled by Hollywood’s dream machine. Next came the likes of Gershwin, Miller, and Porter. Busby Berkeley made violins out of the figures of women who danced to jazz numbers. Dorothy Arzner, one of Hollywood’s only feminist filmmakers, directed Dance, Girl, Dance. Soon enough, MGM’s innovative Freed unit followed suit and produced spectacular musicals with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Music truly brought magic to the movies. Well, at least until the 1970s when the studio system collapsed and Hollywood took every ounce of musical cinema down with it. Today, musicals have dwindled down to the most inane form of entertainment: the bio-pic. Movies like Ray, Walk the Line, DreamGirls, and Moulin Rouge have all but ruined the movie musical with their tired narrative formulas and unimaginative aesthetics.

There are many grave misfortunes that go hand in hand with the reality of an over-commercialized film industry. One of the primary aspects is that there really are a few films released each year that are worth our attention. But we never get to see them on any sort of a mass scale because we’re too busy being bombarded with the latest blockbuster. However, I recently had the privilege to view one of those elite flicks, a German film called Four Minutes (Vier Minuten) that, thankfully, proves me wrong with its insane amount of passion, musical poise, and sincere subject matter.

Jenny, played immaculately by Hannah Herzsprung, is a convicted murderess serving out her sentence at an all-female prison in rural Germany. She was once a grand pianist who gave up her gift when her father began sexually abusing her as a teenager. Jenny is now a headstrong and irritable kook who has a devout need for self-expression in art, but is not able to access that kind of release until Mrs. Krueger (Monica Bleibtreau), an eighty-year old with a dark past, begins giving her piano lessons at the prison. Music becomes a source of freedom for both characters. It’s almost as if they’re only truly human while making beautiful music together.

There is a strange frenetic quality running through the veins of Four Minutes that will leave you feeling wonderfully disjointed by the film’s end. It doesn’t pull any typical punches. Like, when the main characters talk about their troubled past, neither the film or the other character stops to pay attention. Instead, these minor personal trifles are viewed as a small, necessary annoyance; something to get over with quickly so they can move onto what’s really important: the music; neither Nazism or sexual abuse can stand in its way. Four Minutes is a worthwhile modern musical because it embraces the power of the medium without losing itself entirely inside its own world. It’s a consciously musical film without being self-conscious.

Though discussing acting isn’t usually my forte when reviewing a film, I must make special note of Hannah Herzsprung’s performance as Jenny. She is remarkable because she makes a mostly monstrous person both realistic and heartbreaking. Passion and zest ooze out of her body language and speech. There are a few memorable images in the film - the plucking of a cigarette out of a dead person’s pocket, playing the piano with handcuffs on, and a dramatic musical finale in front of a huge audience - that stand out amongst the rest because of the sheer power and charisma of Herzsprung and her character. She has won several acting awards for this film, and if you see it, you’ll definitely understand why. I can’t wait to see more of her work.

Four Minutes is a rarity in contemporary cinema because it takes the passion and talent of its characters seriously. Instead of rigorously enforcing the narrative structure upon us with inane details and devices, the film freely takes flight in pure moments of cinema that tell us more about the characters and their thoughts than an expository scene that hits all of the right, but boring notes. If you have Four Minutes to spare, I sincerely recommend you track this film down as it is the best of the best of the now New German Cinema.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Catch-up Capsules

Married Life

This flick doesn’t really know where it wants to go. Melodrama? Dark Comedy? Family Drama? Every person in this star-studded ensemble with Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, and Pierce Brosnan seems to have a different idea. It’s one of those everyone-is-sleeping-with-everyone roller coasters that doesn’t deliver in any one department completely. And, despite teasing us audience members with delicious, juicy tidbits like poisoning wives, Oedipus complexes, and post WWII mentalities, the film’s tonally stilted environment fails to bring light to any sort of worthwhile message or theme.

…But Rachel McAdams does wear amazing clothes. And I love the Lana Turner blonde upsweep.

What Happens in Vegas

My friend and fellow writer, Alex Dowd, brought a recent trend in Hollywood comedies to my attention - the two part sour and one part sweet three-act structure. Basically, the first two-thirds of the movie depict all of the characters being absolutely deplorable to one another only to chase it all down with a spoonful of spicy sugar at the end. What Happens in Vegas falls into that category, only it happens to be much worse because 66% of the damn thing is dedicated to guilt-tripping Cameron Diaz for wanting to be a career woman. The remaining 33% is spent reiterating the first two parts of the movie with a sappy marriage proposal from Ashton Kutcher along with the hopeful prospects of being a homemaker and stay at home mom. Aw.

Mamma Mia!

I have an immense soft spot for musicals…especially those that have a mostly all-female cast, take place in Greece, and have an entire dance number (Yes, the dancing queen routine) that features hundreds upon hundreds of women of all ages getting their groove on together in the spirit of womanhood. What I thought would be a frivolous flit into musical territory turned out to have some rather liberal messages about marriage (life first, marriage second), growing older (do it gracefully), and even women in the workplace (it works!). Also, Meryl Streep rocks as the Mamma in her sexy sixties and further proves she's not going to quit working anytime soon.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Switchblades and Suffrage - The Femsploitation Films of Jack Hill

"It was easy for him because he really didn't believe it was comin', but it ain't gonna be easy for you, because you better believe it's comin'!"

Between 1970 and 1975, the second wave of the feminist movement was in full swing and making the most progressive strides of its generation. For the first time in history, schools of all shapes and sizes were supporting and acknowledging women’s sports because of the Title IX amendment passed by congress in 1972, feminist magazines were all the rage after the first issue of Ms. magazine debuted that same year, and, most importantly, the epic Roe vs. Wade trial granted women the right to safe, legalized abortions across the nation in 1973. Those five years were also the most prolific and groundbreaking for feminist film theory and criticism. For instance, two of the most innovative works of the movement, Laura Mulvey’s innovative essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and Molly Haskell’s comprehensive book, From Reverence to Rape, were published in 1974 and 1975. Clearly, the topic of feminism was widespread across the American conscience. To this day, the entire feminist movement has never seen so many extensive leaps and bounds within such a short time span.

And, yet, while feminism ruled the newspapers, books, and colleges with the first ever women’s studies programs, there is a surprising lack of feminist cinema within this time frame. As this is, of course, the era in which male filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg got their start in the mainstream industry as well as their start in dominating the movie screens with their masculine-driven narratives. While the feminists stepped outside the home to fight the good fight, the males moved into it and largely took over the entertainment industry with a death grip that still clinches our minds and bodies today.

However, between 1973 and 1975, filmmaker Jack Hill defied the odds by being both a male filmmaker who makes feminist films and for doing it under the vague guise of the exploitation film genre, or in this case, the femsploitation genre. In three of his films, Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Switchblade Sisters (1975), filmmaker Jack Hill created feminist works of art that exhibit strong female characters who actually think and feel like human beings. Not only that, but Hill also managed to weave narratives around these female characters that closely resemble a lot of the happenings and sensibilities of the feminist movement, like the battle between NAWSA and the NWP during the first wave of feminism in the early teens and the anti-lesbian mentality of feminists everywhere in the second wave. During the male-dominated cinema years of the early 1970’s, Jack Hill wrote and directed films with female characters and situations that ring true to the feminist feelings of the time period.

While all three of these films share a common theme within their main characters - the struggle for justice in a patriarchal world - it is the first film in Hill’s femsploitation niche, Coffy, that exhibit’s the most defined conventions of the femsploitation genre within a single female protagonist. Coffyis about a woman with the same name (Pam Grier) who systematically murders the members of a heroin empire, from the lackeys to the head honcho, after her eleven year old sister acquires brain damage because of a bad batch of heroin she accidentally came into contact with. And, while Coffy is totally in control of her actions and knows what she’s doing in terms of murdering each male figure in the empire, she also has a conscience that keeps her character from feeling too bombastic or devoid of feeling. In fact, her character feels quite the opposite - she feels more and more humane with each murder she commits because of the obvious physical and emotional effects it brings forth for her. Though she knows in her heart of hearts that what she’s doing is the right thing to do, she, nevertheless, hesitates a little more each time she has to pull the trigger or knife someone in the gut. So, by the time the film ends and she’s killed approximately twenty men, we empathize entirely with her because we as an audience have physically felt her entire emotional structure shift in more ways than I can count. After all, taking down an entire heroin empire single-handedly is pretty daunting.

However, these emotional shifts do not detract from the empowerment of Coffy’s character. While certain films would use this filmic platform to exhibit a woman who transitions from a strong, fierce woman to a simpering, blubbery mess throughout the course of the film, as it does in, for instance, the pre-code film, Female (1933) or Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1930), Coffy is always seen as a smart, sassy, and sexy woman who can flirt or fight her way through life and attain what she wants, which is probably the film’s greatest success.

Released in 1973, Coffy is very much of a film of the feminist movement because it is the first, if I’m not mistaken, film of the era to feature a lone female character rising to power by defeating the patriarchy within a male-dominated field. Though it’s widely considered to be one of the originators of the blaxploitation film genre, and it can certainly be determined that way, I think it fits in with more of the ideals of the feminist movement because of the reasons behind her actions - her little sister having her life ruined and physically damaged by a masculine industry and her mission to prevent other girls in the future from being affected, is a very womanly mission.

However, there is one major flaw within the narrative structure that largely contradicts the feminist reading of the film - Coffy never asks for or takes support from other women. Her lone wolf status is empowering for her as a singular character, but if we were to look at the film’s overall structure and gage who she actually fights with throughout the entire film, it’s the women who are the dominating force. She may kill the men, but she fights with the women - women who are jealous of her presence around their drug pusher boy friends and, in one particular sequence, literally pour a bloody alcoholic drink all over Coffy’s white dress and expose her breasts by tearing off the straps. And, while, Coffy does fight back and tear off an equal amount or more of their clothing in a spectacular ten-minute catfight during a party scene, she never tries to recruit them for her mission. There’s no sense of a feminine community within this particular Jack Hill universe.

Foxy Brown picks up the slack in that regard except it does it in the worst possible way. During the second wave of the feminist movement, all of the organizations that were founded to support the mission, such as NOW and the Ms. Foundation, excluded lesbians from the scene because they thought the inclusion of fighting for gay rights as well as women’s rights would detract from their feminist objective. These sentiments are clearly expressed in all three of Jack Hill’s femsploitation flicks, but none are so strong thematically as in Foxy Brown, where there’s literally an elongated fight at a gay bar between Pam Grier and several stereotypically butch lesbians over one of Pam Grier’s female friends. The lesbians in Foxy Brownor should I say, the “fat, pig dykes” as the main character in Switchblade Sisters so eloquently spouts, are the dumb-jock, dumb-hick equivalents of the men who go after women in other exploitation movies – they’re one-dimensional characters, ahem, stereotypes, that are just looking for the next piece of ass to rape.

This is incredibly odd considering how progressive the films are in accordance to their racial and gender politics. Grier herself, now a gay icon and a cast member on The L Word, fails to address the problem, as expressed in a recent interview with her by one of Washington D.C.’s GLBT newspapers, The Metro Weekly. The interviewer asks:

“I know that both as a kid and as an adult I found myself attracted to this image you've had. What was it about you or your persona that drew that attention? Not every actress gets that kind of gay allegiance.”

Grier responds:

“I don't have a crystal ball, but it could be the fact that [those characters] fight -- she puts her neck out on the line for others. She's not a sacrificial lamb, but she will walk through the fire. She always fought for the underdog, and didn't take a lot seriously -- but what was supposed to be taken seriously, I did and the character did.

We didn't have a lot of women on screen then fighting for the underdog. In our communities we did, but it was never reflected on screen. Thank God, American International Pictures and [Coffy and Foxy Brown director] Jack Hill had this great respect for women and sexuality.”

But is that enough to warrant such blatant homophobia? I don’t think so and I don’t think Jack Hill does either. Because in his final foray into femsploitation territory, the 1975 flick Switchblade Sisters, Hill cuts down on the snarling stereotypes considerably and ups the female ante by creating the most empowering feminist film of his career. In the universe of the film, there are two gangs – the Silver Daggers (the male group) and the Dagger Debs (the female sub-group). The Debs, who, even though they have their own gang, are still buried underneath the masculinity of their male masters, the Silver Daggers because the Deb’s leader, Lace (Robbie Lee) is madly in love with the Dom (Asher Brauner), the leader of the male gang. She enjoys playing housewife to his manhood, which enables Dom to keep the Silver Daggers in a higher class above the Dagger Debs. That all changes when Maggie (Joanna Nail), the feisty, forthright feminist with big ideas struts into town with her thigh-high black boots and deadly belt and takes over the operation because of her moralistic values.

In my mind, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the battle of differences between the two political parties of the suffragist movement and the first wave of feminism – the NWP (National Woman’s Party) and NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association). NAWSAwas the old-hat organization started by women, like Carrie Chapman Catt, who wanted to fight for suffrage on a state-by-state basis, which would have ultimately culminated into nothing because they weren’t being active participants in their fight. The NWP, first known as the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage (CUWS), was started by women like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who were people that actually wanted to go out and accomplish something instead of just sitting around and waiting for it to happen.

Though the battle between the two organizations didn’t end their feud in a cinematic knife fight as Maggie and Lace did in Switchblade Sisters, the film and the organizations do have striking thematic similarities. Maggie is the Alice Paul/NWP of the film universe and Lace represents women like Carrie Chapman Catt and NAWSA, in the sense that Lace stands for the old, torpid ideals of femininity. Maggie, like her counterpart Alice Paul, sees the patriarchal cloud hanging over her head when she joins the Dagger Debs and decides to do something about it by going after the rival male gang and winning the victory all on her own by using her ideas, wit, and craft to make it happen. The women in the gang gradually flock to her as their leader because she treats them with respect and dignity. This is very similar to both Alice Paul’s rise to leadership as well as some of her methods in acquiring the right for a woman to vote. For instance, in 1916, after Woodrow Wilson reneged on his commitment to the suffrage movement by not passing what is now known as the nineteenth amendment, Paul organized a twenty-four hour, seven-day a week picketing of the White House. Women stood outside with signs that said “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for women’s suffrage?” Those two lines are similar in spirit to Maggie’s last line in the film:
“No, let me give you some advice, cop. You can beat us, chain us, lock us up. But we're gonna be back, understand? And when we do, cop, you better keep your ass off our turf, or we'll BLOW IT OFF! Ya dig? We're Jezebels, cop - remember that name. We'll be back! “

While all three of these films are categorized under the “exploitation” genre because of their inclusion of graphic female nudity and explosive violence on screen, I don’t think that Jack Hill is exploiting these women in the same way, say Russ Meyer exploits his women. Jack Hill uses exploitation elements, like the unnecessary breast action in Foxy Brown, to distinguish the differences between his female protagonist and the other women in the film. The same application can be applied to his use of rape, misogyny, and violence – he’s utilizing their inherent power to show the audience how they effect his women, not how they affect the audience. Therefore, I think the term “femsploitation” is more of an appropriate title to give the films of Jack Hill because he’s doing the same thing with the feminist themes by combining them with the exploitation fundamentals – showing how they’re used to give them more meaning.

Though he started making films in the mid 1960’s, Jack Hill has only completed sixteen films to date, Switchblade Sisters being his penultimate film. He hasn’t directed a film in twenty-five years. His films may contain a certain amount of material I disapprove of, like the blatant homophobia, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better male filmmaker after the fall of the studio system who so lovingly engrained powerful female characters into our public consciousness like he did. Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Switchblade Sisters are all films whose themes revolve entirely around women, their plights, and the feminist sensibilities that allowed them to be there in the first place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Save BITCH!!!!!

Hey everyone!!!

Bitch magazine, the best magazine around, needs YOUR donation! If they don't have $40,000 by 10/15/08, then, sadly, Bitch will cease to be no more. It's hard out there for a non-profit magazine, so please donate anything you can! Even $5.00 will help. You'll even get your name in the magazine! And, I will love you forever.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I'm Back!

Hey everyone,

I apologize for being basically MIA over the past few weeks. I moved to a different state and almost immediately got a full-time job that's been kicking my butt on a daily basis. However, things are a little less wacky now and I've finally cleared my schedule a bit by completing some professional reviews for other places, so hopefully I'll be able to catch up on my project because I miss it dearly.

Here are some femme pics from what I've been watching in my web absence...

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, Jean Negulesco)- Three girls (Bacall, Grable, and Monroe) get mixed up in their scheme to marry millionaires for their money by falling in love with some average Joe's...or are they?

The Furies (1950, Anthony Mann) - Barbara Stanwyck challenges the patriarchal west as the smart and sassy Vance Jeffords in this beautiful, epic western by Mr. Anthony Mann.

The Quiet (2005, Jamie Babbit)- In this severely under appreciated, almost Shakespearean drama about family life, two teenage girls, played by Camilla Belle and Elisha Cuthbert, seem to be opposites in every possible way - - when, in reality, they're a lot similar than they had originally hoped and planned.

And, please don't forget to take a look at my brief review of Babbit's Itty Bitty Titty Committee featured below.

It feels good to be back!

The Itty Bitty Titty Committee

Indie female filmmaker Jamie Babbit, famous for her inspiring, inviting queer flick But, I’m a Cheerleader and moody family drama, The Quiet, teamed up with the feminist production company, Power Up Films, to create her third feature and unfortunately titled, The Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Thus far, Babbit’s films have focused solely on young female characters who undergo severe life changes that generally revolve around sexual awakening - in But, I’m a Cheerleader, Natasha Lyonne’s Megan Bloomfield accepts her lesbian feelings despite severe opposition, in The Quiet, Camilla Belle’s Dot is forced to confront her qualms about life when she learns of an incestuous relationship between her godfather and foster sister. And, in TIBTC, Melonie Diaz’s loner lesbian Anna discovers feminism when she joins the C(I)A (Clits in Action), a confidence-building feminist group that kicks ass.

TIBTC is probably the most direct feminist flick you’ll see this year. It’s mission is simple - to make people aware about the politics of feminism in a light-hearted, educational way that also happens to snugly fit in with the rest of the (good) quirky comedies of the past few years, despite being mostly typical in its three act romantic comedy plot (I.e., the two leads flirt, then fight, and then flutter). Thankfully, you won’t find any of that Juno or Little Miss Sunshine bullshit around these parts. TIBTC is well-acted and features some of the hottest young feminist women in Hollywood, including several L-word regulars and the best of the best of non-Hollywood talent. This is a true-blue indie gem that had a budget of a solid million and sadly, didn’t even receive a proper theatrical release even though it did really well on the festival circuit. I had the opportunity to see it on DVD a couple of weeks ago and I’m really glad I did. I highly recommend everyone taking a gander at this flick because it will definitely be making my feminist top ten list of the year. I hope to give it a more proper review when I have the time, but until then, please take my word for it and give it a rent. It’ll pump you up and make you feel like you can take on the world. Yeah!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Argento's Grande Madre

“Style over substance” is the phrase one most often hears in relation to Dario Argento’s work. Whether it’s shards of stained glass impaling helpless victims (Suspiria, 1977), bullets being shot into your eye through a peephole (Opera, 1987), or simply a sixteen year old Jennifer Connelly falling into a “flesh” pool backwards (Phenomena, 1985), Argento truly knows how to create breathtaking, horrific images that stand the test of time. The lack of so-called “substance” in his work has never bothered me because, frankly, the images or “visions” as they are - speak for themselves. Dream logic is just as important in the Argento world as it is in the Lynch world - it may not always make sense, but the bits and pieces we accumulate through our consciousness somehow makes everything feel complete, not necessarily cohesive, but organically and cosmically whole. He doesn’t need the schlock dialogue or badly dubbed lines to articulate his cinematic feelings and I’ve often wished he would do away with those aspects all together. Can you imagine a no-dialogue Argento film? With just Keith Emerson’s and/or Goblin’s music accompanying the visuals? Bad ass.

Anyway, Argento’s uninspiring, self-parodist work in the 1990’s seems to have led him back to the “oldie but goodie” territory of his 70’s and 80’s films - namely, The Three Mothers trilogy, which started in 1977 with Suspiria (the mother of sighs) and continued on into the 80’s with Inferno (the mother of darkness, 1980). He’s finally capped off the trilogy with his latest film, The Mother of Tears, starring his daughter, Asia, and his long-time, on again/off again partner and mother of Asia, Daria Nicolodi, as well as a slew of other Argento returning guests like Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni. The usual suspects are all in place for The Mother of Tears except for the director himself, as this is least “Argento” feeling Argento I’ve ever seen. Indeed, The Mother of Tears paces and parades itself like a run of the mill horror flick without any of the painterly pizzazz of the Italian horror master himself.

And while this is troublesome for the cinephile in my soul who loves to sit in a darkened theatre with her mouth hanging open during the beginning of Suspiria, I can appreciate Argento’s choice to step away from his usual aesthetic and focus on new aspects of creativity because it means he’s trying to reinvent himself. Or should I say, reinvent herself? Most (80% or so) of Argento’s flicks feature a central (virginal) female protagonist who acts as a JV gumshoe in solving a murder mystery, a mystery usually involving a murderer who kills young, slightly “immoral” women in gruesome, disturbingly prolonged ways (razor blades to eyelids, glass in the face, etc). I used to consider this blatant misogyny and, in some cases, it is, (though Argento will never be as distasteful as his contemporary, Lucio Fulci), but my consideration was decidedly wavered when I learned Argento almost always uses his own hands on screen to commit the murders. Why would he do that?

It could easily be argued that Argento is merely executing the classic virgin/whore complex on film, that is, his murderers kill (or fuck, as most of the murders are hyper-sexual) the so-called slutty women in an effort to praise his virginal protagonists - the gals’ who are just too good to be caught. Too good, in fact, to wear anything but lily-white, not-too-tight frocks and generally be framed from the shoulders up. And the other girls, the dead girls, that is, show enough T&A while being sliced and diced in shredded dark clothing to open up their own strip joint. That and then there’s this quote by him:

“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don't have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don't care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject.”

However, Argento’s recent return to the Three Mothers territory has me questioning the director’s true intentions. In Mother of Tears, Argento places an incredible amount of importance upon well, motherhood, and the startling power of rebirth - the rebirth of the self, of the mind, and of the heart. Thinking back to all of the classic Argento films - Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Phenomena, Opera, etc. - they all seem to feature direct themes to the idea of rebirth and being born again. For instance, after Jennifer Connelly falls into the “flesh pool” and gets doused in bodily, bloody ooze, the plot directly takes her to battling a child mutant in a crisp, clear lake where she emerges victoriously with her long, flowing white attire billowing at her sides.

…Is Argento trying to exorcise his demons cinematically by physically killing off his “immoral” impulses through the murder victims? Does he want to become one of his protagonists?

Much has been said about Argento using his own daughter, Asia, as the central protagonist in the latter part of his career. In the four pictures, they’ve made together - Trauma (1993), Stendhal Syndrome (1995), Phantom of the Opera (1998), and now Mother of Tears (2007), Ms. Argento is frequently the victim of brutal, grotesque rape, violence, and even acts as a fetish subject for serial killers galore. However, to inspect the arc of these four films is to understand the basis of my argument. Argento is using Asia, his own flesh and blood, a piece of himself - to explore and conquer his own demons. It’s almost as if each of the film’s Asia is in removes a layer of his torturous psyche and desires. The first two layers, Trauma and The Stendhal Syndrome, are by far the worst - seeing Argento put his own daughter in the character’s situations feels like you’re watching the rape scene in Irreversible (2002) ten times in a row. She gets so mind-fucked by the serial killers in each movie that there’s no way her characters will be able to psychologically survive after the film’s end. Phantom of the Opera, perhaps Argento’s worst film, is much less severe on Asia’s end and even treats her as somewhat of an angelic presence.

And, in Mother of Tears, Asia rises above all of her previous protagonists to become the pure heroine Argento has always aspired her/himself to be. Heck, she doesn’t even get fully naked in the film. Several other women do, unfortunately, and Argento seems to have felt the need to shamelessly point out his puritanical victory by murdering his women in even more terrifying ways than before. The most prevalent example I can think of is a woman dying at the hands of a gigantic spear stabbing her vagina. In fact, almost all of the deaths in Mother of Tears, including infant death, involve his hyper-sexual flare. Except without his stylistic talents to back him up, Argento is merely provoking disgust instead of provoking discussion, which is what I genuinely think he was trying to attain with his latest cinematic effort and failed miserably in the process.

That being said, I have high hopes that Argento’s next picture, the appropriately named Giallo (2009) will introduce new, fresh ideas to the filmmaker’s body of work and inspire audiences to reappraise their preconceived notions of Argento as an artist and appreciate him once again. We need all of the horror film auteurs we can get.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Summertime Flicks

Fun is in
It's no sin
It's that time again
To shed your load
Hit the road
On the run again…
Summer skies
In our eyes
And a warmer sun
It's one for all
All for one
All for all out fun

- It's OK by The Beach Boys (15 Big Ones, 1976)

There are many reasons summertime is my favorite time of the year. The previously dreary environment of the outside world is now warm, welcoming, and sunny with joy. Our clothing choices are no longer compromised by having to wear bulky, clunky winter coats coupled with sweaters and long johns. We, and I mean me - can now wear tank tops, pedal pushers, or skirts every single day if we want to. Hell, men and women can walk around naked now and still be comfortable. And, to be more specific to my current and previous age groups, the inspiring freedom of summer vacation allows us to concentrate on what’s most important in life - - doing whatever the hell we want to for as long as we can.

For me, at least for the last ten or so years, that has always consisted of watching as many movies as possible in a 24 hour time span and hanging out with my movie pals until all hours of the morning talking about movies and eating sweet organic junk food. Amazing. However, those are merely the activities I partake in during the summertime hours. There’s a mentality that comes with the territory that is also specific to the warm, sunny days and nights of June, July, and August. By not having to concentrate on the mind numbing repetition of school work and other such things, our minds are allowed to relax and wander into new zones of thought and feeling. I don’t know if this is a decidedly female trait, but during the summertime I have a difficult time completing just about anything because I become so enraptured inside my dreamy, listless world of imagination and enchantment. I'm not actually getting anything done, but I somehow feel accomplished - almost as if my soul becomes replenished during the summertime months because I actually have time to think things through. These feelings have been captured on film more than once and, not so oddly enough, have been captured most frequently by female filmmakers. These are the films of my youth.

Here are five examples of summertime flicks and the things they all have in common:

- The film usually only revolves around two female characters.
- Large chunks of the narrative are spent inside closed areas, which allows the two characters to get to know one another inside and out.
- Either actual or insinuated lesbianism combined with budding sexuality.
- Death.
- A journey - either of the metaphorical kind or the realistic.
- Rich vs. Poor.
- Gorgeous cinematography.

Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994): Juliet (Kate Winslet) and Pauline (Melanie Lynsky) provide fantastical, emotional, and sexual outlets for one another throughout the course of a single year - a year that changes everything forever.

The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999): Though it’s not strictly a summertime tale, Ms. Coppola and Jeffrey Eugenides (the author of the book it was based upon) make the Lisbon sisters’ story of death, depression, and desire feel romantically ethereal and honest while simultaneously honoring the summertime mentality.

Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2002): While on a holiday by the sea, two physically opposing sisters discover sexuality only to endure disastrous consequences.

Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002): After the suicide of her longtime companion, Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) takes off on a journey to the Mediterranean sea with her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) in an effort to get over the emotional damage and find a new life path.

My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004): The manipulated (“Mona,” Nathalie Press) and the manipulator (“Tamsin,” Emily Blunt) take charge in this darkly metaphoric film about the battle between good and evil.

And, I must give a shout out to Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2006) because it possesses all of the feelings I just discussed except inside the story of a little girl named Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) instead of a teenager.

And another shout out to The River (Jean Renoir, 1951) because it involves some summertime sass, but not quite enough to make the cut.

However, these are all great movies and I highly recommend a fourteen hour marathon of all of 'em! Or, at least do what I've been doing all summer long and watch one a week.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sex and the City - It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing

Do Whop Do Whop...

Hey Dickwad, I’m speaking!

In Sex and the City: the movie, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha may all sing, but none of them really swing. Or, in other words, they all talk the talk, but these ladies’ don’t really walk the walk.

I suppose it was wrong of me to invest so many of my feminist hopes and female dreams into this one fiendishly femme flick, but all of the signs pointed in the right direction and I must have gotten ’carried away’ with my desires to declare Sex and the City the most empowering chick flick of the year. It’s not. Plus, I was all starry eyed by the impact of the midnight show and being surrounded by hundreds of dolled-up gals. I’ve taken three weeks+ and three viewings of the film (…7.5 hours) to think things over carefully and considerately before declaring my verdict of the film to the world.

And, to be honest, I still haven’t completely made up my mind about the philosophy of SATC’s narrative. Though gray isn’t a prominent color in the wardrobe of these sparkling fashionistas, there sure is a lot of gray matter within their lives that either fails to be addressed completely or is glossed over and not given a second thought, which discredits a lot of the progress the film and TV show attains.

For instance, the fact that Samantha lives in Los Angeles now and, yet, still seems to appear in every single scene of the film. It had never occurred to me before seeing the movie that these friends don’t see each other every single day. The tourniquet-esque editing style coupled with the bombardment of lunches, shopping trips, and general hangouts between the ladies’ causes their lives to seem inseparable from one another. And, obviously, that’s the point of Michael Patrick King’s aesthetic choice and I absolutely love their towering friendship - however, it severely detracts from showcasing the women as individuals. It would be amazing to see Miranda kicking butt as a partner in her law firm and Samantha sassing up her agency. Or, better yet, see Charlotte slowly going insane with her happy housewife status and Carrie actually(!) doing some writing. In fact, about the only time they’re away from one another is when their men-folk are around.
So, what about their men folk? Why do these four talented, smart, absolutely gorgeous women drop everything for love with a sweet cheater, Mr. Blah but sexy, Mr. Blah but rich, and Mr. Blah Blah Blah? God knows they’ve tried, but why can’t the gals’ be involved with men who are as vibrant, passionate, and worthwhile as they are? Back in the glorious days of women’s pictures, it was perfectly acceptable for the man in the woman’s life to simply be “just” an archetype or even be a quadruple Blah (I’m looking at you Van Heflin) because the women themselves were larger than life - at least the life most women led at the time. They always put themselves first and didn’t revolve their entire lives around a man, at least not without wondering why they needed to. The ladies of SATC don’t have that option. Their friendships with one another may always come first, but the men in their lives come second with the third, less proportionate element being themselves as individual people. Why does it have to be that way?
Dare I say, is it because Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda aren’t worth a damn on their own? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Each gal may have her little niche inside the clan, but as separate characters, they’re mentally and emotionally malnourished and only become shall we say, “whole,” when around the other three women, kind of like Captain Planet for mature ladies with designer labels instead of teenagers with earth conservation.

Oh, but when they’re “whole,” glorious things start to happen - feminine love is spread throughout Manhattan and wonderful, sincere girl chat is vocalized and cherished by the three most important people in her/their lives. No other film this year has so completely understood the feminine need for friendship, for loving, comforting companionship. When the girls’ get together, there’s no stopping their powerful impact upon NYC, Mexico, LA, or anywhere else they choose to go. They rule the roost. And, most importantly, they cherish their femininity. They’re not ashamed to be women, in fact, they’re damn proud of it. The film, if nothing else, celebrates their pride and showcases it like a diamond necklace at Tiffany’s.

All in all, Sex and the City is a mixed bag of feminist feelings and ideas. I love the gals’ despite their shortcomings and seeing the movie at the midnight show with so many other women is a memory I’ll cherish forever. I'm also enormously happy to see it doing so well at the box office. Judging by the reaction to the film by critics and box office analysts, I'd say my hopes for studios creating other female-driven flicks based upon the success of SATC is a-go. Progression isn’t at the forefront of thought in either the movie or the show, but by doing its best to honor the code of femininity, I think the movie makes up for some of its falsehoods and meandering ideals.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

She Did it the Hard Way - Bette Davis

Bette Davis (1908-1989)

Ruth Elizabeth Davis, more commonly known as Bette Davis, was born April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. She was a precocious, self-absorbed child who discovered her love of acting while watching the play, The Wild Duck (by Henrik Ibsen) when she was a teenager, proclaiming, "Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress... exactly like Peg Entwistle (who played Hedvig in the play). Her doting, generous mother, Ruthie (Bette’s best friend for her entire life) sacrificed herself to Bette’s whim by working two jobs, one as a very talented portrait photographer and, the other, as a laundress, to supply funds for she and the Davis family to live in NYC and send Bette to acting school at the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre. Bette was, of course, the most exceptional pupil in her class, which made Ruthie’s efforts worth the trouble. By 1929 at age nineteen, Bette had already appeared in on and off Broadway productions, including playing the part of Hedvig in The Wild Duck. During the performance of one of her plays, a Universal Studios talent scout spotted the young starlet and invited her to Hollywood for a screen test, which led to a run-of-the-mill contract, followed by bleached blonde hair, and then a whole lotta nothin’.

Universal didn’t know what to do with the odd-looking starlet they had on their hands. She played numerous bit parts in generally bad movies until 1932, when (then) superstar George Arliss chose her to be his leading lady in The Man Who Played God (1932) and she signed her first Warner Bros. contract. That role paved her way into playing her first mind-blowing performance as Mildred in Of Human Bondage in 1934, a part that pushed Davis into the mainstream appreciation of critics and fans and started her precedent for playing unlikable, challenging characters. Though she didn’t win the Academy Award that year (despite a Hollywood-wide campaign), she did win her first Oscar the following year for the film, Dangerous (1935) and won again in 1939 for the 1938 film, Jezebel. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress eight more times throughout her career.

Her best-known performances are probably as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (1942), Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), and as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Though Bette acted in various genres throughout her life (horror, comedy, drama, etc.), she is most fondly remembered for her startling commitment to the women’s picture genre – a section of time in film that she realized affected thousands of women everywhere and, along with supporting the troops of WWII by starting The Hollywood Canteen in 1942, Davis acted in films starring/about strong females to support the women on the home front during the war. After starting in 1936 what Olivia DeHavilland eventually finished in 1943 with the “DeHavilland Law,” Bette was basically able to pick and choose which parts she should play and which directors would work with her, which, to say the least, was unusual for a female star to do during that era (…and even now). She challenged authority on a daily basis and she usually won her battles.

Her unwavering power and determination is clearly displayed in each performance she gives, which she does with her entire being and soul. Whether she’s being good Bette (All this, and Heaven Too, Now, Voyager, Dark Victory) or very bad Bette (The Letter, In this our Life, The Little Foxes), Ms. Davis always acted as a tower of female strength and pride for her audiences to identify with and aspire to be. She inspires me everyday – through her films, through the books written about her, and even through the images of her I have placed all over my apartment. I love Bette Davis because her ghostly presence over my life encourages me to be a better person and a better woman. Her image has attracted me to her since I saw the insipid Watcher in the Woods (1980) when I was a small child (I loved horror movies, what can I say?), which only grew into staunch admiration when I saw All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in junior high school. I’ve seen over thirty of her films and I want to see more. My personal favorite is probably Jezebel (1938) followed by Now, Voyager(1942), Old Acquaintance (1943), and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

Off screen, Ms. Davis’ life was far less gratifying – she married four times, all ending with divorce (three times) or death (once), and had three children, one of which, B.D. Hyman, wrote her own version of Mommie Dearest entitled My Mother’s Keeper that amounted to nothing – no publicity and no shame on Bette’s part. In fact, she wrote a fiery response in the form of a book called This ‘n’ That. The love of her life was director William Wyler, who directed Bette in three of her most beloved films, Jezebel (1938), The Letter(1940), and The Little Foxes (1941). She had affairs with Howard Hughes, George Brent, and Vincent Sherman. It seems that no man in her life liked being known as “Mr. Bette Davis.” They should have been honored.