10th 12 - 2015 | no comment »

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.

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Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.

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The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.

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Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.

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Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.

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Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.

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Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.

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Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.

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Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.


8th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Clever (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Divorce is never a joyous affair. While it may be a relief to both parties, there is usually an instigator who has the courage to throw in the towel and who can more easily move on. The ego blow taken by the discarded partner is not so quickly healed and often results in a quest for love or status of any kind to replace the feelings of unattractiveness and deflation.

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In psychological terms, it seems that cars are symbolic of the male ego, and that certainly is the case in the mordantly funny Clever, a new comedy from the Uruguayan filmmaking team of Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro. The duo, who were both born in Montevideo and earned social communication degrees from the Catholic University of Uruguay, have worked together since 2005, honing their unique style in the process of making short films, music videos, and experimental documentaries. In this, their feature film debut set some time in the early 2000s, Borgia and Madeiro take aim at machismo, chronicling the frustrations of Clever (Hugo Piccinini), a martial arts instructor who, in the opening scene, is sitting in court as the presiding judge grants a divorce to his wife Jacqueline (Soledad Frugone).

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Clever did not want the divorce, and soon after the court hearing, we see him persuade Jacque to get in his rusted, blue Chevette and then try to force her to kiss him. She fights him off and disappears behind a gated entrance to the home they once shared. When we next see the couple, it is six months later. Clever has completely shaved his balding head, giving him a tougher look, and painted his car orange. He is picking up his son Bruce (Santiago Agüero) for his weekend of custody. The exes talk to each other amicably, though Clever grills Bruce later about the new man in Jacque’s life.

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After a trip to the dojo where Clever teaches, he takes Bruce to his apartment, minimally furnished and very much a divorced man’s pad. Bruce isn’t much like his namesake and Clever’s idol, Bruce Lee, preferring to sit in front of the TV playing videogames on a cheap game console. When he wants to play with Clever’s model cars, Bruce must be very careful—this is a collection as fragile as Clever’s ego. Bruce does delight his father, however, when he notices a car painted with flames as they drive along a Montevideo street. After Clever’s friend and coke-snorting buddy Juez (Ernesto Borgia) strong-arms the car’s owner into telling him who painted it and where he can be found, Clever sets off for the sleepy town of Las Palmas to find the artist who can make his wheels the most badass at the city’s annual car show.

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Borgia and Madeiro’s shooting style, ably lensed by cinematographer Ramiro González Pampillón, favors extreme close-ups and slow horizontal pans that provide humorous juxtapositions. For example, we see only the stubbly mouth of the judge in the opening scene as he steams his glasses with his breath in slow motion and rubs them clean. We watch Bruce pumping small dumbbells, followed by a pan to his father pumping considerably more iron in one of many mirror images that dot the film. The directors use slow motion to suggest Clever’s emotions, as when he sees his car after Sebastian (Marcos Escobar), the body-builder/artist, drives it out of his shed; this priceless moment of ecstasy uses a corny love song about sex in a car performed in English by singer Ismael Varela to reveal the dragon-shaped flames along the side and the classic pose of Bruce Lee with hands at the ready painted on the hood.

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In the grand tradition of Paris, Australia, in Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) or Werner Herzog’s Wisconsin in Stroszek (1977), Las Palmas is a place that reason forgot. When Clever stops to relieve himself in the bushes, a boy on horseback rides by and shoots his tire out with his rifle. His arrival in town along a long approach appropriately lined with tall palm trees lands him next to a cantina with a red popsicle painted on its side. Everyone near the cantina, including a man wearing a pageboy wig, is slowly sucking on a popsicle, a Las Palmas specialty made of wine from locally grown grapes. Police play pick-up sticks with a handcuffed prisoner and argue about whether he moved a stick. Clever incurs the wrath of the man (Néstor Guzzini) he was told was the artist by rightfully doubting he is who the villagers and he say he is (and slights are not forgotten in this small, possibly inbred town.) Finally, Sebastian and his mother (Marta Grandé) form quite a pair—a muscle-bound, religious mama’s boy who has “a 100 percent latin temperment” and possibly a hard-on for Clever, and a sexually frustrated woman who has decorated their home with hundreds of her paintings and drawings of nude males.

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Where Clever succeeds most spectacularly is in the offhand depiction of the masculine psyche. The man whose car sent Clever on his quest is a flabby, hair-covered, unattractive man who projects his desired self-image onto his car. Clever’s car, at the beginning, reflects the shabby state of his ego. He is assertive in Las Palmas, but can’t wheedle his way out of sleeping in Sebastian’s bed—feet to head—and finally simply abandons Sebastian near a small lake where they are shooting photos of the car when it appears that the artist is planning to make a major move on him. His impotence in the face of his wife’s rejection finally erupts when he bashes a large rock through his rival’s windshield, a perfect image of his shattered ego. In the end, he reveals himself to be very much the boy, as he and Bruce sit side by side wolfing burgers down at a sidewalk stand and playing in the cars most suited to them—bumper cars.

This film is filled with oddball moments, gorgeous frames, and most important, a central character whose confusion is touching and funny in equal measure. This is a film to treasure.

Clever screens Saturday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 25 at 6:15 a.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Adama: An ingeniously animated coming-of-age story depicts a 10-year-old West African whose journey to save his brother takes him into the heart of battle during World War I. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


14th 07 - 2015 | no comment »

To Take a Wife (2004)/Shiva (2008)/Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)

Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.

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This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.

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The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.

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The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.

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The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.

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The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.

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The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.

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Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.

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The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.

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Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.

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Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.

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Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.

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Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.


8th 03 - 2012 | 28 comments »

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is International Women’s Day, and to “celebrate” the single day the estimated 3.2 billion women of the world accept to highlight whatever this vaguely defined day means to them, I’m going to focus on a country where women must navigate the capricious whims of men whose permission they need for everything from getting a job to getting a divorce—Iran.

A Separation, lauded with nearly 50 awards the world over, comes from the gifted director/screenwriter Asghar Farhadi. I was an enormous fan of his 2009 film About Elly, which similarly focuses on how misfortune brings out the worst in people, and indirectly, how the restricted status of women encourages them to lie to get what they want. While About Elly looked at well-off Tehraners on vacation, this time, Farhadi goes full force into their complicated lives at home and reveals the universal oppression of economic insecurity and laws that turn all—men, women, and children—into liars. While A Separation discusses many particularly Iranian problems, the universality of the predicaments it poses must certainly factor into its worldwide acclaim.

The film opens in a courtroom where Simin (Leila Hatami) is petitioning to divorce Nader (Peyman Moadi, also seen in About Elly). When the unseen judge, by camera placement sitting in the same place as the audience, asks if Nader is cruel to Simin, she replies “no, he’s a good man.” Her reason for seeking a divorce is that their visas to emigrate will expire in 40 days, and he has changed his mind. Nader insists he can’t leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s, while Simin says the old man doesn’t even know who Nader is. Simin is adamant about leaving because she wants a better future for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). When the judge asks what’s wrong with the future Termeh will have in Iran, Simin looks away and says nothing.

Viewers who know about the restrictions on women in Iran will see Simin’s point. However, Nader’s wish to look after his impaired father also has our sympathy. On a symbolic level, one could see this situation as the sacrifice of young women to oppressive old men who don’t even recognize what they have done to their nearest and dearest. But we don’t have to get too symbolic to see the Nader and Simin have been at odds for some time, with Nader’s rigid pride and selfishness an impediment to understanding and sympathizing with the pain of his wife and daughter.

This seeing but not seeing becomes crucial to the story when Nader is accused of murder by causing Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman he hires to look after his father when Simin moves out, to miscarry her 19-week-old fetus, a full human in the eyes of the law. Nader, upset when he found his father alone and on the floor twisted in some ties Razieh used to tie him to the bed when she had to leave, accused Razieh of stealing some money and pushed her out of his apartment, causing her to fall. His defense hinges on whether he knew she was pregnant. It’s ironically amusing that Razieh’s hot-headed husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini, also from About Elly) questions how Nader could fail to notice his wife’s pregnancy when the entire purpose of the concealing clothing Iranian women must wear is to make their bodies invisible to men.

While A Separation makes subtle political points with such details, the larger issues of lying and personal responsibility are the main event here. Termeh, an innocent as yet to the uses of deception, repeatedly questions her father about what she knows to be lies. He must spell it out in large letters that he has to lie to stay out of prison, and he is clear that his concern is more for her and his father than for himself. He has already written Simin out of their lives, so this concern seems genuine to me, yet in this sense, he continues to fail to see Simin. He also fails to see the pain Termeh is in over their separation, and becomes more concerned about proving his innocence than recognizing the potential danger Termeh is in from an unstable, self-righteous Hojjat.

Hojjat is another individual who has taken his eye off the ball. Prolonged unemployment and the failure of the government to legitimize his grievance with his former employer have made him clinically depressed, and so his distractedness is more understandable. Razieh takes a job without his permission out of necessity, compromising her religious beliefs but preserving his dignity with her deception. When he asks her to lie again in a more important way, however, she refuses. Both Razieh and Simin draw lines that are very hurtful to them and those they love. More cynically, Nader and Hojjat consider that desperate times call for desperate measures. Their losses (a potential son, a marriage) seem more like opportunities for outrage and redress than emotional trials. I hasten to add that no one in the film is unsympathetic, and only Simin seems relatively blameless, at least during the events of the film. By setting up the film visually to make the audience both judges and witnesses, we are implicitly asked to put this social order on trial.

A Separation is a good film. Like most Iranian films, this one makes exceptional use of its locations, and the handheld camera work by Mamoud Kalari provides a compelling immediacy and framing that teems with the chaotic life of the principal characters. Applause go to Hayedeh Safiyari as well for film editing that builds tension with judicious edits or the wise use of long takes, such as the one that ends the film.

However, A Separation is not the first-rate film I was hoping for. The plot is unwieldy, and too full of melodramatic reveals that undermine a more complex assessment of the dilemmas these two families face. The character of Razieh is particularly problematic. She’s basically a simple-minded disaster, avoiding her charge to watch Nader’s father and spending her time leaving the apartment to empty the trash and run other errands. Her failure to tell the truth makes sense in some situations and no sense in others. A lot of the plot of the film revolves around her, so her character needed to be more strongly drawn than it was. Termeh has enough maturity and intelligence to go to bat for her father, but her unrehearsed lie to the judge is so smooth that it comes off as scripted. Simin, well realized by the fine performance of Hatami, is pushed mainly to the periphery of the film, letting some of the air out of the interesting dynamic the film sets up initially. Hatami is the anchor of this film, keeping some of the more melodramatic moments grounded. When she is not in similar scenes, the film becomes overwought.

In the end, Termeh is our proxy, choosing offscreen which parent she will live with. Without more emphasis on both of the parents throughout the film, however, I’m afraid that this audience-judge couldn’t make up my mind.

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23rd 04 - 2010 | 3 comments »

The New Age (1994)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Tolkin

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If there had never been a California, Michael Tolkin would have had to invent it. Tolkin, a talented novelist and filmmaker, has made a specialty of exploring the particular kind of lost souls that emanate from the balmy, windblown clime of Southern California. He especially likes to take on the self-important pretensions of the rich and bored. The Player (1992) showed up the arrogance of privilege in a particularly satisfying way, as Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi wallowed in the mud bath of a desert spa like two contemptible pigs. You might even say that he showed contempt for the privileges God arbitrarily offered and withheld in The Rapture (1991).

The New Age takes a slightly different tack by having a privileged couple, Peter and Katherine Witner (Peter Weller and Judy Davis), serve as the instruments of their own destruction. Katherine, a graphic designer with her own business, “fires” her biggest client for nonpayment, deletes all his electronic files, and then goes on a shopping spree. Peter, who has been screwing up at a CAA-like talent agency, spontaneously quits his job when he is brought under fire at a board meeting and goes off to meet Alison (Paula Marshall), his mistress. When the Witners meet up back at their exquisitely appointed mansion and learn of each other’s financially disastrous follies, what do they decide to do? Throw a party. “We haven’t had one in weeks,” Peter laments.

The party puts the Witners in contact with Jean Levy, a French (“Belgian, actually”) self-help guru (Patrick Bauchau, Vic in The Rapture) who seems to have anticipated Twitter with his pithy, vague exhortations to “Live the Question” and other New Age falderall. Jean’s disciple Ellen (Susan Traylor) buzzes close to Peter, arousing Katherine’s suspicions, but her cheat-o-meter goes into high gear when she spies Peter and Alison talking, though they lied to her about having just met when Alison shows up unexpectedly as the date of an invited guest. In retaliation, Katherine leaves the party with Misha (Bruce Ramsay), an attractive, young coffee-shop owner, and becomes an adulterer for the first time. Shortly thereafter, she suggests a trial separation, one in which she and Peter share the house but not the bedroom; Katherine seems to have abandoned her business and has insufficient finances to move out. Alison and Misha both move in, and Peter and Katherine carry on their dalliances while opening and running a high-end clothing store together after Levy suggests that their next move should be something that involves their greatest talents—talking and shopping.

The New Age is quite funny in the way it shows what impresses people like the Witners and their set. Jean speaks French, so he must be at the vanguard of something authentic. Katherine also seeks help from Sarah (Rachel Rosenthal), a spiritualist who must be the real deal because she’s old, dresses like a wealthy hippie, and shaves her head, but Katherine confesses in frustration that she cannot feel the vibes of the universe the other women in her drum circle do. Katherine’s pain at her husband’s serial infidelities, her failed business and slowly failing clothing store, and the betrayal of her friends is difficult to watch. She sells a $400 belt to her friend Anna (Patricia Heaton), oblivious to Anna’s reluctance to buy it, and later finds out Anna is throwing a party to which she and Peter are not invited. Anna bluntly says she doesn’t want to deal with Katherine and Peter’s problems; “I have to be honest,” she says when she no longer has the option to lie by omission. Later, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the coming of the Apocalypse in The Rapture, Peter, Ellen and several others go to a “sacred place” in the desert and get caught up in a dust storm. As the assembled scurry for cover, Katherine stumbles upon Peter and Ellen kissing passionately at the base of a rock. Katherine, who admits she only cares about looking cool (“but I’m working on it”), is more afflicted by others than inflicting. Her businesses legitimately dry up, and she faces the reality of surviving and making better choices.

Peter isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic a character. Despite being poorly fathered by a hypercritical, rejecting father (Adam West) who gives him a $10,000 check to help him keep his home and business afloat and then cancels the check first thing the next day, Peter actively turns into someone he himself despises. Telemarketers, whom he loathes as lying parasites, plague him throughout the movie until he is so desperate that he begs one for a job. When he hoodwinks an elderly florist (Audra Lindley) out of $150, his boss (Samuel L. Jackson) declares him to be “a man.” This “validation” is an indictment of Peter and Katherine’s entire way of life—selling image rather than substance to corrupt people like themselves—and by extension, the lack of substance that, in 1994, was making overvalued or nonworking elites wealthy and quietly destroying the economy for real workers, who were being laid off in droves and replaced by cheaper labor in other countries. Katherine ends up doing what she is truly interested in doing with her talent for style, and Peter, though offered high-paying work back in show biz, descends into self-loathing and acts on the outside what he has always been on the inside, choosing to follow in his surrogate father’s footsteps as a telemarketer.

In the panel discussion after the film, Tolkin said it really shook him up to watch the film, that it was more personal than he remembered. He said the point of the film was to explore what a man is supposed to be in this society. When questioned about his attraction to religion, he admitted that he sees religion as all psychology, and that belief is an expression of character that he can’t explore in the abstract. Therefore, he does not caricature belief systems, though the spirituality in this film certainly skirts that line.

Tolkin revealed that he didn’t agree with Judy Davis when they were making the film, but stands in awe of her skill and recognizes after seeing the film again that her choices were dead right. A funny line in the film comes when Peter sits down to play the piano—Fauré—and he is asked to play something else by a guest who has heard him play this piece numerous times. “It’s the only song I can play,” says Peter, and indeed, it is the only piece Peter Weller could play on a piano at the time.

Tolkin offered his different takes on being a novelist and a filmmaker, and on being a screenwriter and a director of his own work. Humorously, when asked what he thought of the film, he said, “The writer was really angry with the director, and the director threw the writer off the set.”

Although this film takes place in 1994, its mention of an economic meltdown makes it timely. “I’m always right about the economy,” said Tolkin about his social commentary over the years. He also suggested that the film had some documentary qualities to it, that he likes to film real people being themselves. At one point, Peter is taken to an S&M orgy. Tolkin said the people at the party, including the two women who invite him to take his pants off and join them in a threesome, were real members of the scene. While this part of the movie seemed a little tacked on, it was a fascinating scene reminiscent of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut; the entire film has quite a few echoes with Kubrick’s film, though somewhat surprisingly, Kubrick’s is more hopeful.

The New Age captures a moment and place in time with breadth and deadly accuracy. Despite its moments of humor, the film is not really fun. But it is wise in its wariness, and another small gem from a talented writer and director.

Q&A with Michael Tolkin


11th 07 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Restoration (1995)

Director: Michael Hoffman

The Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is an entry in the Self-Involvement Blog-a-Thon hosted by Culture Snob.

In 1995, I was a few months separated from my first husband, living with my mother in my childhood home, sleeping in my childhood room, and completely broken and lost. I had already quit my job, unable to carry the responsibilities my boss had in mind—publishing two magazines instead of our current one without adding staff to our two-person operation—and freelancing a bit and working a part-time job at a local YMCA. I needed to be around children, think about life renewing itself, instead of feeling less than dead. I wasn’t yet a film buff, I wasn’t blogging. Hell, I’m not sure there were blogs yet. I wasn’t sure of anything. I was turned inward, wondering if I’d ever return.

At the time, the Morton Grove Theatre, a small movie house literally yards away from my mother’s home, was still in operation. It had gone from the first-run house I frequented in the early 70s, to a second-run, cut-rate house. The day I went to see Restoration wasn’t much different from others; I’d spent an extremely undemanding day at the Y and then gone for my usual mega-lap swim. Exercise was my main release back then, which was a great relief to my mother, who feared I’d turn to the bottle for escape.

It felt good to sit alone in the dark. It was something I used to do a lot as a kid. I used to lose myself in my dreams. Now, I’d lose myself in someone else’s dream. Seemed appropriate, because I’d just done that for the past seven years, trying to be someone I wasn’t to please my mate. I didn’t know who I was. Maybe Restoration could tell me.

The story takes place in the 17th century, during the reign of Charles II of England, a restoration of the monarchy after the overthrow of Oliver Cromwell. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Robert Merivel, a gifted physician who comes to the notice of the king when he is observed reaching into the chest of a man who walks around with a metal plate covering a hole and holds the man’s beating heart in his hand. Merivel’s lack of superstition about the human heart fits perfectly with Charles’ (Sam Neill) Enlightenment attitudes. The king summons Merivel to his castle, shows him his models and contraptions, and then engages him as a royal physician—for his dogs. Robert, though loathing the assignment, feels he cannot say no. Soon, he becomes another one of the court wastrels, indulging in the decadence that has come back with a vengeance after the previous 11 years of Puritan severity under Cromwell.

Charles has a beautiful mistress at court, Celia Clemence (Polly Walker), which is beginning to vex the queen. He decides to marry her off to Robert to make her seem safe, and then carry on his affair in a less conspicuous manner. Robert does the unthinkable—he falls in love with Celia. In a poignant scene, the newly married couple repairs to their marriage bed, with Robert clumsily clad only in a feather-festooned cap covering his genitals. Robert blindly hopes they are to consummate their marriage, only to watch Charles take his place beside Celia, thank Robert for his service to the crown, and laughingly embrace the bride. Robert’s sad, humiliated face tells all.

Restoration%203.jpgRobert leaves the king’s service and wanders in a daze. He eventually meets a woman named Catharine (Meg Ryan) at an insane asylum where he finds employment and takes her as a lover. She has a peculiar habit of walking in a circle in the courtyard using wide, heavy steps. She calls it the “leaving step.” “Every man on earth has his leaving step. If my husband had been a small man, he would not have been able to leave me. But he was a large man, and stepped over me as I slept, one great stride,” she explains. Catharine becomes pregnant and listens to hear Robert’s leaving step. But he doesn’t go. He takes her to London where he intends for them to become a family. Unfortunately, when Catharine’s time comes, her baby is breech. Robert must perform a C-section to save the baby, but he tells Catharine that she will die. She accepts her fate and asks only that Robert care for the baby and name it Margaret if it is a girl.

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Robert mourns Catharine, but becomes a restored man in fathering Margaret. The 1666 Great Fire of London engulfs Robert’s home, and he risks everything to save Margaret. He can’t lose himself again, now that he has rediscovered his gift as a doctor and removed the steel plate from before his own heart and felt what it is to love.

I had no real idea what Restoration was about when I went to see it. I only knew that Robert Downey, Jr. was in it and that I felt a kinship with his troubled soul. I cried as though I would never cry again, feeling so much the hurt of thinking I loved someone who ended up only using me, of giving up on my own being and gifts to rest in an institution to which I rushed in panic at being 30 and unwed. I cried because I tried to please someone who never would have been pleased with me, and experienced his leaving step. I hadn’t yet been restored to myself—that would take 10 years of hard work—and was terrified that once I got there, I would lose it all again. But I saw that there was a road ahead, that I might not always feel empty and bereft, and that my gift—writing—might yet pull me through.

I walked home, went up to my small, safe, childhood room, wiped my eyes, and put on some audiotapes a kind soul had given me to help me understand divorce and recovery. I can honestly say that this heartfelt, well-crafted, visually stunning movie with sincere performances all around changed my life by giving me a mirror onto my own experience and, along with it, hope.

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31st 07 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Wanda (1970)

Director/Screenwriter/Star: Barbara Loden

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This week, the world lost two of its greatest film makers—Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Both were men of enormous vision, skill, and influence, and their films will pass down through the generations to enlighten new viewers and inspire the giants of cinema’s future. How lucky for us. And how lucky for them!

My words now are not for the much-lauded who saw their ambitions fulfilled over the span of long lives, however, but rather for those directors who died too soon, who hit walls in making and distributing their films, whose output—visionary as anything by Bergman or Antonioni, but not as formed—was, is, and will be ignored and possibly lost. There are a lot of talented film makers in this group. Barbara Loden—who died at the age of 48, having been unable to get another film made after Wanda appeared and disappeared—was one of them.

Some people may know the name Barbara Loden. She was a pin-up model and actress whose best-known performance today is as bad girl Ginny Stamper in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Loden also was Kazan’s long-time mistress, and eventually married him. Kazan helped open some doors to get Wanda made, but apparently didn’t lend a hand again to help her realize her other projects. Among the many honest things Wanda communicates about women’s place in society in the 1960s and the crushing effects of economic constraints on the human spirit, is an ambivalent, but no less cutting, indictment of traditional men like Kazan. Maybe that’s why he never helped her make another film.

According to Wanda’s cinematographer Nicholas Proferes, the idea for the film came when Loden read a newspaper article about a woman named Wanda Goranski, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in a bank robbery. Apparently, when the judge sentenced her, she thanked him. Loden, who had grown up dirt-poor in Marion, North Carolina, connected with both the boldness and self-effacement Goranski exhibited in this newspaper account. Although the film is set in Pennsylvania, Loden wrote the screenplay with her own experiences in mind.

The film opens on a coal-mining operation. A long shot of the coal fields gives way to closer shots of large machines grasping and moving mountains of coal. Then the scene shifts of the interior of a house in which a baby is crying, a toddler is moving around, and a worn-looking woman just out of bed is in the kitchen, trying to prepare food and quiet her infant. On the couch is a figure under rumpled blankets. It’s Wanda (Loden), who stretches absently as she watches her sister (Dorothy Shupenes) and registers the dirty look her brother-in-law (Peter Shupenes) gives her as he leaves for work. “He hates me because I’m here,” Wanda says. It sounds like she’s felt this way before.

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Back in the coal fields, a ghostly white figure moves across in an extreme long shot. It is not until the figure nearly reaches its destination that we realize it’s Wanda, dressed in a cotton blouse and slacks, with her hair in curlers. She asks a mentally challenged man who is collecting coal in a bucket for his own use to lend her a little money. His relationship to her is not made clear, but he gives her a dollar. She uses it to get on a bus. She’s late to her own divorce hearing in town.

wanda05.jpgHer husband (Jerome Thier) is anxious for the hearing to begin because he wants to marry the woman sitting behind him with his two kids as soon as possible so she’ll take care of them. Wanda finally shows up. He claims she abandoned the family. She does not dispute this claim and says that if he wants the divorce, the judge (M. L. Kennedy) should give it to him. She doesn’t even look at her children. “They’ll be better off with him,” she says when the judge asks her if she wants custody.

So what’s going on here? Mr. Goranski seems more inconvenienced by Wanda’s disappearance than anything else. He has already lined up a new caregiver and wants to make sure his life gets back on track. On the other hand, Wanda seems indifferent to her children, which he, at least, is not. She seems very emotionally disengaged and resigned to losing what she had. Did she really want it? It’s hard to know. Wanda doesn’t say her wants out loud very often.

The next scene is in a garment factory. Busy hands move irons and push cloth through sewing machines. We see Wanda enter the manager’s office. She tries to collect two days’ pay from the past week. The manager (Milton Gittleman) says she was paid. She reckons she was owed $24 dollars, but only got $9. The manager claims the deductions were government withholding. “They take out that much?” she asks. He assures her they do. She asks if she can come back to work. He says that they need people but not her—she’s too slow. She thanks him as she leaves his office. She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t get it.

She goes to a diner and orders a beer. A man (Arnold Kanig) in the diner says he’ll pay for it. We next see him trying to make good his escape from his hotel room the next morning without waking Wanda up. But she catches him and briefly pursues him out the door before he peels away in his car. So maybe she wanted him. Off again she goes.

Late at night, she walks into a tavern. The man in the bar says they’re closed and tries to push her out the door. She pushes back, insisting she needs to use the toilet. He waits nervously for her to come out as she takes her time washing her face and pushing at her hair. When she comes out, she sits down at the bar. The man comes around the other side. We then understand that he is not the bar owner but a man who came in to rob the owner, who is lying, bound and gagged, on the floor, out of Wanda’s view. Wanda asked the robber (Michael Higgins) for a beer. He opens the cash register and pulls out all the money. Then he draws her a beer. They leave together. After they have sex in his hotel room, Wanda asks Mr. Dennis if he’s married. “You have a ring,” she observes. He evades the question.

Wanda%203.jpgBut they form an alliance. Wanda acts a bit like Mr. Dennis’ dog—obeying his commands about how to dress herself, begging to come back to him after he has thrown her out of the car for questioning what illegal doings he’s up to, scraping pickles off his hamburger. She never calls him by his first name. Dennis is gruff, but he’s a penny ante loser who robs a Goodwill drop box to clothe Wanda and grabs a suit for himself from an open car. He’d take tips off tables if he had the chance. He doesn’t really have a clue how to get by in the world. When he visits his father in Scranton, we learn that he’s just out of prison. His father refuses to take money, considering that it must have been stolen. He’s right, of course, but Dennis is hurt, nonetheless. The next scene shows Wanda and Dennis drinking near their stolen car. A remote-control model airplane is buzzing overhead. Dennis climbs on top of the car roof and dares the plane to come back and get him. This is all the fight he’s got in him? It’s starting to look like he and Wanda were made for each other.

The movie veers bizarrely into a Bonnie and Clyde plot in which Mr. Dennis plans a bank heist and enlists Wanda to help him grab the bank president’s family as hostages. When the bank president (Jack Ford) tries to take Mr. Dennis’ gun, Wanda hits him, grabs the gun, and jams it into his back. She ties up his family, Mr. Dennis places a suitcase full of explosive in front of them, and sets the timer. He, the bank president, and Wanda, leave the house to go to the bank. “You did good,” Mr. Dennis says to Wanda. The smile on her face shows exactly what a gift she’s gotten.

Of course, the heist goes horribly wrong, and Mr. Dennis becomes a suicide-by-cop. Wanda, shattered, wanders and ends up in front of a restaurant/bar that night. A friendly looking woman passes by her and says hello. Wanda does not respond. The woman climbs some stairs. After a bit, the woman comes back down and asks Wanda if she has anywhere to go. When the apparent answer is no, she steers Wanda upstairs to join a rousing party of her friends in the bar. Wanda sits, holding a beer, looking crushed, lost, and completely alone.

This film was shot in 16mm using a handheld camera, giving it a grainy verite look that has been compared with the films of John Cassavetes. Like Cassavetes, Loden shot some of the film near her home in Connecticut and treated the cast and crew like a family for whom she cooked. Why Loden didn’t follow in Cassavetes’ shoes and act to gain money for her projects is a bit of a mystery—though work for actresses has always been more dicey than for actors—but it seems that Wanda must have been a character close to herself.

wanda14%20edit.JPGLooking for some kind of validation, living at a time of few options for women, despised for walking out on family life, Wanda is a character seemingly moved by an irresistible force within to be something or go somewhere she feels she counts. The women who were at the vanguard of the modern women’s movement—often without realizing it—paid a heavy price. Wanda is horribly vulnerable, terribly beaten down, and directionless without society’s accepted paths to walk. She made Mr. Dennis take care of her in the brief time they were together, even if it was on his terms. Unfortunately for Wanda, the solution of making a man stand by you has proven over and over to be a sham. Sitting in the bar, surrounded by people who are connected and happy to be together, she looks like an alien, utterly miserable and completely unnoticed. What will happen to Wanda?


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