29th 03 - 2017 | 10 comments »

Shoes (1916)

Director/Screenwriter: Lois Weber

The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the women who helped create the film industry, few stand taller than Lois Weber. A quadruple threat—actress, screenwriter, director, producer—Weber’s directing credits number 138, and the quality of her work was ranked regularly alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille during her heyday in the 1910s. The social consciousness that marks many of her films derived from two years working as a social activist and a Church Army Workers missionary among prostitutes and the down and out in Pittsburgh and New York City, and her continuing desire to influence humanity for the better.

Weber adapted Shoes from a story Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine that itself was inspired by a novel about prostitution by the “mother of social work,” Jane Addams. Weber’s own scenario gives her plot away right from the start by paraphrasing the Addams’ quote below from A New Conscience for an Ancient Evil:

When the shoes became too worn to endure a third soling and she possessed but 90 cents toward a new pair, she gave up the struggle; to use her own contemptuous phrase, she ‘sold out for a new pair of shoes.’

Teenager Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren) has a heavy burden to bear. She works at a five and dime for $5 a week, which she dutifully brings home on Saturday night so that she, her parents, and her three sisters can make it through another week. Her father (Harry Griffith) isn’t too keen on working, preferring to stay in bed reading and smoking his pipe. Her mother (Mattie Witting) is busy keeping home and hearth together, and looking after her younger children.

Eva has been trying to keep her tattered shoes going for months. The new pair of shoes she’s been eyeing is far out of reach, even though it costs only $3, because her pay barely covers the rent and groceries for her family. Her coworker, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has been supplementing her income by sleeping with “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong), who has taken a shine to Eva and invites her to the nightclub where he sings—and, of course, to accept his “hospitality.”

Because we learned the outcome of Eva’s dilemma at the beginning of the film, her eventual decision to sell herself for new shoes takes a back seat to examining the conditions under which she and her family struggle. Eva and her family live in a dirty tenement in a rough part of town; in a moment of almost throwaway but effective emphasis, a shady character loitering on the doorstep ducks inside the building vestibule when some cops come by. Her mother washes clothes in a pot of boiling water on the stove, and there is never enough meat to go around—characteristically, Mr. Meyer gets more than his fair share of it.

Eva wears the same clothes to work day after day and has no umbrella to shield herself or the cardboard inserts in her shoes from wilting under several days of pounding rain. Close-ups of Eva’s worn shoes are juxtaposed with her daydreams of wearing the shoes of her dreams. A group of well-to-do ladies walk past Eva as she is taking her lunch in a nearby park, and her POV shot focuses not on their dresses or hats but rather on their shoes.

The performances in the film are generally good, though most of the players work in the broad style common in silent movies. Mong leers, Arnold broadly flirts and overemphasizes the new watch she has on after a night with Charlie, and Witting’s grief over Eva’s fallen status is overdone. Griffith, however, seems very comfortable as an oblivious idler who takes his privileges for granted, reading at the dinner table and spending whatever he wants on a new book.

Weber rightly focuses the film on Mary MacLaren, whose heartfelt performance made this an incredibly moving experience for me. Her wonderfully sad face and natural acting style make it easy to identify with her and her emotions. When Eva passes by her parents’ bedroom and sees her father reading with pillows propping him up against the footboard, her look of contempt reaches us right through the screen; even when she’s not looking at him, her poor regard for him oozes out of every scene in which they appear together. While Mrs. Meyer gently prods her husband to look for work, Eva has already given him up as a lost cause.
Her attempts to avoid Charlie’s advances eschew the usual head shaking and extended back bends most movie damsels in distress employ. Instead, she leans slightly away, walks away, looks down—in other words, she does what most women would do. Even while internally disgusted, she allows Charlie to touch her in the cabaret without looking at him, but also without cringing or pulling away.

Her finest moment comes when she tires of trying to mend her shoes and finally makes up her mind; we can almost see the switch thrown. There is no anguish on her face, just a settled determination. She changes into a sheer blouse, the only change of wardrobe we’ve seen, shimmies her skirt down to her hips to cover her shoes, shakes her braids out and brushes her hair into an upsweep. She tells her mother she’ll be overnight at Lil’s and needs carfare. She doesn’t blame her mother, but this small demand for money strikes us as ironic.

Weber was interested in showing what pushes women into prostitution, though she melodramatically underlines it with a deathly image of “Poverty.” The daily indignities, carelessness, and misery are bad enough, but Weber also shoots fantasies of what Eva dreamed her life would be like to underscore the death of those dreams as Eva surrenders to a grinding reality. Lest anyone think that the film takes a moralistic tone about sex, Eva’s mother cries over the loss of her daughter’s virginity in this degrading manner, but without any hint of condemnation; it truly is a wretched circumstance.

The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands had the only known print of Shoes and completed a two-year digital restoration of it in 2010. The film was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. This year, Milestone Films will release a DVD of the film with a score by veteran silent film composers and musicians Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The screencaps for Shoes in this review come from several sources, so I can’t swear for the veracity of the color screens, but I can assure you that this is a film well worth catching from a filmmaker you should know.

Shoes will screen Saturday, April 1 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, April 3 at 6 p.m. as part of the “Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker” series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.


15th 03 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Eva Nová (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Marko Škop

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas [1995] and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow [1955], and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur [1981] and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses [1963]). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.

Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.

The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.

This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.

Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.

Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.

Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.

Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.

Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


20th 08 - 2016 | 1 comment »

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Director: Jack Arnold

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.

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The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.

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Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench. Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.”

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In Scott’s case, his body becomes one of a child, reduced to dependence and an infantile relationship with his wife. When he shrinks to the size of a doll, he takes up residence in a dollhouse, a feminizing situation, with his wife’s face looming over him like the overbearing mother’s in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989). When he becomes even smaller, he must rely on primitive instincts and strategies to survive in a once-familiar but now alien and threatening environment.

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Based on Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man offers the usual thrills of a Jack Arnold film and a sexual tension that can be found in many of his works—most notably, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—and present in this one by the changing dynamic between Scott and Louise and Scott’s abortive attempt to return to a normal heterosexual relationship with Clarice (April Kent), a midget he befriends and from whom he flees when he discovers he is still shrinking. Voiceover narration by Scott somewhat preserves Matheson’s fractured timeline, though the film proceeds chronologically.

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Arnold’s brilliant use of oversize furniture and props, as well as optical printing to put Scott in the same frame as the enormous beings who surround and threaten him, create a convincing world through which we can empathize with Scott’s struggle. I was particularly taken with the gentle cat for which the Careys show obvious affection, and its transformation into a dangerous beast chasing its own master seems the perfect metaphor for the destructive force of nature human beings unleashed upon themselves. With global warming filling our skies with the moisture of melting glaciers that cause mammoth hurricanes and biblical floods, the timeliness of The Incredible Shrinking Man cannot be overstated.

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Arnold preserves some hope for humanity’s survival as we watch Scott improvise a house from a matchbox, a grappling hook from a pin, and a flaming arrow from a match. Arnold takes his time filming Scott in the cellar of his house trying to scrounge for food. Scott’s attempt to grab a piece of cheese from a mouse trap, as well as to reach some bread crumbs on a high ledge now guarded by a spider in its web are both painstakingly tedious and fraught with tension. His duel with the spider taps into the arachnophobia many people feel, providing audiences with a genuine fright.

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It is in these final scenes that Scott’s attempts to reclaim his life and his privacy from the legions of curious people and probing reporters when he was, if small, still human-sized, completely fall away and move him—and us—into a contemplation of existence. It’s not entirely clear, but it appears that Scott will keep shrinking to the size of an atom, the perhaps logical end for exposure to atomic radiation, or disappear altogether to join the cosmic dust from which the universe sprang. Arnold ends his film with a vision of our galaxy, the alpha and omega of humanity. Don’t we all feel small in the face of that!


20th 09 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Le Amiche (1955)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) is an interesting early Antonioni that shows the master starting to refine his focus. Presaging his mature themes of ennui and the alienating effects of modernity, this tale of the Italian way of loving strikes a surprising feminist chord that shows the trap women can fall into by embracing the false notion that work and relationship must be mutually exclusive pursuits.

The opening introduces us to the main point of audience identification, Clelia (Eleanora Rossi Drago), who is running a bath in her hotel room when she is interrupted by a maid who cannot get into the adjoining room through the hall door and wishes to use the pass-through door in her room instead. Clelia obliges and starts to dress only to be called next door by the maid’s scream. Decked out in a frothy evening dress, a young woman we will learn is Rosetta Savoni (Madeleine Fischer) is laying unconscious and near death on the bed from a deliberate overdose. Clelia calls for a doctor. Soon, Rosetta’s friend Momina (Yvonne Furneaux), puzzled why Rosetta is not answering her call from the lobby, goes up, and stunned to learn her friend is on her way to the hospital, prevails upon Clelia to accompany her. Clelia, who is in Turin, her native city, to open a branch of a Rome clothing atelier, goes as far as the shop that is being refurbished for that purpose, but Momina and her group of idle rich friends will draw her into their circle, initially because she dresses more smartly than working women usually do. Clelia jumps at the chance to make friends with her future clientele, but she will soon grow disenchanted with their aimless, shallow lives and casual cruelty to each other—particularly toward the fragile Rosetta—as they begin and end flirtations, love affairs, and marriages in almost random fashion.

Antonioni was from a prosperous family whose patriarch was a self-made millionaire. The director admitted a feeling of simpatico with the working classes, especially its women, and apprenticed as a filmmaker on neorealist films. His turn to domestic dramas among the people in his social sphere—artists and the wealthy—might have been his version of “write what you know,” but his acute eye for the hollowness of upward mobility seems a kind of longing for the simple pleasures of simply doing work that has some immediate utility and living in close communality with family, friends, and neighbors.

One scene that shows what a chasm the social gap can be is when Carlo (Ettore Manni), a building foreman with whom Clelia is having a stress-reducing dalliance, takes Clelia shopping for furniture. He wants her to look at some office furniture at a dealer he likes, but she refuses to even climb the stairs of the shop, saying her tastes run to a more elegant 18th century style. “I want to create an atmosphere,” she says to the practical-minded Carlo, a place where she and her clientele can reside in luxurious nostalgia. They walk through their old neighborhood in Turin and talk about what would have happened had they met each other when they were young; Clelia thinks they might have married and stayed in the neighborhood instead of being as they are now—separated by class, though she pretends the difference is only a matter of taste.

But what awaits Clelia should her assimilation become complete? Momina lives apart from her husband—a marriage of financial convenience for her, it seems—and dallies with Cesare (Franco Fabrizi), the architect on Clelia’s project. Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani) is boy-crazy and has a make-out session with Cesare during a beach outing to spite Momina; she later decides to marry her boyfriend because she wants to buy a wedding dress shown during the opening fashion show at the atelier. Rosetta fell in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a second-rate painter, while he was composing her portrait because his close gaze during their sittings gave her some reality. Nene (Valentina Cortese), a successful ceramics artist married to the envious Lorenzo, thinks letting her husband do anything he wants and sacrificing her success are ways to show she loves him, thus abdicating her responsibility to enter into a real relationship with him.

When the inevitable happens, Clelia strikes out at Momina at the atelier for pretending to be Rosetta’s friend, declaring self-righteously that she did more for the woman by trying to get her involved in life by offering her a job—though Rosetta’s repeated failure to show up for work she doesn’t need indicates that Clelia had even less of a clue about how to help Rosetta. Sure she has lost her job, Clelia reaches out to Carlo, thinking that she can fall back on marriage. However, when her career-woman boss (Maria Gambarelli) offers to send her back to work in Rome, she books a train ticket immediately and lets Carlo down perfunctorily. Clelia hasn’t any more use for love than her clientele has; she has cashed in her feelings to “make it,” though her career is in commerce outright rather than in the social commerce of her betters.

Antonioni’s work to create his symbols and compositions are a bit obvious, showing up most glaringly in several continuity errors. For example, when Clelia accepts a ride from Momina to the shop, she is coatless; when she steps into the shop, she is wearing an enormous ocelot fur coat, as though mere exposure to the materialistic Momina were enough to transform her into a predator. In another scene, the friends go slumming, blocking a narrow street fronting a dive trattoria with their big cars. When Lorenzo leaves the trattoria after instigating a fight with Cesare, Rosetta follows him into the dark street, where the cars have vanished, the better to create the composition Antonioni wanted. The director’s use of mirrors to suggest the insubstantiality of his women is effective, but a bit overdone. In fact, this entire film is a whole lot of “too much,” particularly when compared with his mature works, and can be seen as him throwing everything he wants to say on the wall and then starting to remove the unnecessary, a film at a time.

The restored 35mm print I saw allows the viewer to really appreciate Antonioni’s brilliance with light and shadow and in capturing the human face and form. The girlfriends pose with the self-conscious awareness of their allure that the models at the atelier assume when showing a clothing line. Women as young as these are still trying on identities, and this is something that can’t be avoided by any person. We grow into ourselves, and the tragedy is that we sometimes get stuck in one of our poses like a real mannequin in a window. The final scene suggests that Clelia might be heading south in more ways than one. l

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22nd 07 - 2010 | 17 comments »

Oleanna (1994)

Director/Screenwriter: David Mamet

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Oh to be in Oleanna,
That’s where I’d like to be
Than to be in Norway
And bear the chains of slavery.

Little roasted piggies
Rush around the city streets
Inquiring so politely
If a slice of ham you’d like to eat.

Beer as sweet as Muncheners
Springs from the ground and flows away
The cows all like to milk themselves
And the hens lay eggs ten times a day.

This satirical folk song about the failed utopia Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull tried to set up in 19th century Pennsylvania is the obscure and pretentious origin of the name of David Mamet’s play Oleanna—and perhaps that pretension was part of Mamet’s game plan. The idea of Oleanna certainly makes sense to the aspirations of the play’s two characters—a smug professor about to grasp the gold ring of guaranteed employment and freedom of thought that is tenure and a working-class, somewhat dull female student of his who has sacrificed to realize her supposed promise at the expensive, exclusive university at which the play is set. The tragedy of their Oleanna is that neither are true believers in the power of education; instead, their cynical pretensions barely conceal that they have each put their faith in power and hierarchy to get ahead.

Tellingly, the play premiered in 1992 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a stoning’s throw from Harvard, and not so far from Worcester, Mass., the home of College of the Holy Cross, where then-newly minted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas matriculated in English literature 20 years earlier. Thomas almost certainly inspired this examination of sexual politics, as the term “sexual harassment” (ha-RASS-ment or HAR-ass-ment was the pronunciation dilemma of 1991) was ubiquitous following testimony at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing by Anita Hill. Hill, Thomas’ special assistant when they both worked at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said he had spoken in a sexually inappropriate manner to her on several occasions. Testimony by Angela Wright, another Thomas aide, that “she had not considered the behavior to be sexual harassment, but that others might” seems to have informed Mamet’s construction of the play. Mamet’s obsession with language and meaning gets a workout in this play, as interpretation of the text/subtext of the first act leads to a radical and ruinous shift in power in the second.

The play was moved to the screen with little consideration for cinematic possibilities by the man who created it in the first place. That is not pleasing for the more cinematically inclined members of the audience, but the virtue of this approach is that we are really forced to consider the movie’s text—how language can be flattened of nuance by committing it to paper (presaging the rampaging misunderstandings that take place every day in online communications), how interruptions in conversation can destroy understanding, and how social position (teacher/student, male/female) can create a very different experience for the participants in a conversation.

During the first half, John (William H. Macy) is meeting in his office with Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a student of his who is doing poorly. Repeatedly, Carol says she doesn’t understand a word he is saying, that she can’t follow the discussions, and that she has tried and failed to understand his point of view in the book he has written and is using as a classroom text. John takes the blame for her lack of understanding, and offers to have intensive one-on-one sessions with her to help her succeed. He offers a reassuring arm around the shoulder, and reveals a bit of his personal life, perhaps as a way to build rapport or perhaps simply because he is constantly interrupting their conversation to take phone calls from his wife and real estate agent. John explains that he is awaiting an announcement that he has made tenure and is buying a house to go along with his new job security and salary increase. As befits their respective positions and prospects—imminent success and looming failure—John is magnanimous, a rush of erudite words and concepts, and only slightly regretful that he has to take call after call during their meeting; Carol is sheepish, desperate, bewildered, and frankly kind of annoying in her repeated, emphatic “I don’t understand” and commands that John explain his $10 words in plain English.

During the second half, the tables are turned—John is the sheepish and desperate one. Carol has filed a complaint against him for sexual harassment and racism (using the term “the white man’s burden”) and submitted a report to the tenure committee detailing his abuses. What? This is as unexpected for audiences as it is for John, but Carol has written everything down from their meeting. When read out loud, it sounds like what she accuses him of:

He said he liked me, that he liked being with me. He’d let me write my examination paper over if I could come back oftener to see him in his office. He told me he had problems with his wife and that he wanted to take off the artificial stricture of teacher and student. He put his arms around…

Carol has fallen in with a “group,” which given the elite university setting suggests women modeled on Mary McCarthy’s characters in The Group (at least, that was a fun and useful way for me to imagine how Mamet might have conceptualized them while writing the script). Her group has apparently instructed her in the error of John’s ways and helped her draft a list of demands that could possibly save John his job, if not guarantee his tenure; one of the demands includes the banning of several books from the curriculum, including his. His indignation at this affront pushes him from cajoling to defiant. The last straw, however, is when John learns from his wife that Carol has charged him with attempted rape; witnesses heard her yell for him to let go of her and saw her run frantically from his office at the end of the first half. “You think that you can destroy my life after how I’ve treated you,” he yells and begins slapping and hitting her, stopping just short of pummeling her with a heavy chair. The final words, as he recoils from himself in horror, are “Oh my god.” “Yes, that’s right,” says Carol. The ambiguity of that final sentence is interesting to ponder—has John finally had his consciousness raised about his own monstrous prerogatives, or has Carol become the new god in his universe(ity).

Sorry for all the wordplay, but Mamet’s language is always very carefully chosen for its depth of meanings. Of course, he takes kind of cockeyed aim at the political correctness that was spreading through campuses at the time; John is skewered for the historical and relatively innocuous phrase “white man’s burden.” Perhaps, tellingly, the example of another professor in Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain being dismissed for using the word “niggardly” in class points to the larger problem of the decay of vocabulary in American society.

But vocabulary is the least of it. Although Carol doesn’t understand a few words John uses, such as “paradigm” and “predilection,” she is not inarticulate, and she clearly understands that John is a hypocrite. Her protests that she doesn’t understand refer to how it is possible for John to bite the hand that feeds him, criticizing in his book and in his lectures the assumption that higher education is necessary. John and Carol are moving at opposite purposes toward social mobility—John is already at the top and so declares that one doesn’t have to go to college to achieve, whereas the still-striving Carol sees he wouldn’t be saying such things if he hadn’t already succeeded and resents his condescension. He pretends to question social constructs like higher education, and yet when faced with a construct he is not consciously aware of—his male prerogatives—he is relatively defenseless and reduced to animal aggression to defend himself.

What I find most interesting about Oleanna is that it seems to be an exercise in Mamet trying to figure out women. He has, in my opinion, never written a wholly successful woman character; in fact, some of them have failed miserably. His early, most successful plays revolved around the rituals and relationships of men. His abstract expressionist verbiage isn’t very user-friendly for actors or audiences and requires a strong grasp on the feelings and motivations that underlie it in order for a character to truly emerge as a person. William H. Macy, a cofounder with Mamet of Chicago’s now-defunct St. Nicholas Theatre, originated several of the playwright’s roles and has learned to climb into this difficult skin. He knows how to punch Mamet’s words like a pointillist painter to create the image. He also can let us know a dozen thoughts with a look. For example, when Carol is about to reveal a part of herself she has “never told anyone,” the phone rings; he knows he should let it ring, but he really doesn’t want to become her confidant and cares more about his pending home purchase anyway. The guilty/apologetic/offhand look Macy assumes is exactly right and forms a crucial link in the vehemence of Carol’s attack on him in the second half.

Eisenstadt fares less well. Not only can’t Mamet write women, he can’t really direct them. He has her use props to signal her mental state, putting on her glasses and pulling her hair back when she becomes defensive and rejects mercy for John. He has her sounding as stupid as she thinks she is in the first half with inappropriately punched repetitions of “I don’t understand.” The flatness in her voice, certainly as directed by Mamet, robs her of her intelligence and nuance and does not adequately convey her fear of failing John’s class and intimidation about her privileged surroundings. He forces her to find her identity in her group, as though she had no mind of her own, and seems to turn her into a Cultural Revolutionary with the anti-educational act of proposing a ban on certain books. Eisenstadt strives to individualize Carol, but she can’t overcome the deficits Mamet has hung on her.

So, in the end, Oleanna is something like a Socratic dialog, where we get to judge the “he said, she said” evidence and render a verdict. Mamet stacks the deck against Carol, and it’s hard not to think she completely overreacted and is actually a virulent danger. Turning John into an abuser at the end is the only way Mamet knows to balance the scale, but there’s an ever-so-slight hint of “she deserves it.” The film is a stilted, stagebound misfire, but it’s still fascinating, thought-provoking, and a snapshot of America’s recent culture war at one of its most intense moments.


10th 06 - 2010 | 4 comments »

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Spike Lee

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Everyone who reads me knows my great admiration for Melvin Van Peebles, whose ground-breaking films have created an authentic, modern voice for the African-American experience. His heir apparent is, of course, Spike Lee, the most enduring of the African-American directors to emerge in the 1980s. His debut feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, is a derivative affair—one is constantly reminded of Woody Allen while watching it—but at the same time, it has all the vitality and fizzy, alchemic mix of amateurism and professionalism our best directors demonstrate in their juvenilia.

She’s Gotta Have It is structured in a documentary style, with its central character, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), telling the audience that this film will set the record straight about who she is and what she’s about. Nola, a sexy, attractive, independent woman, lives alone in a large apartment in Brooklyn and makes a living in graphic design. She got that apartment, we learn from her friend and former roommate Clorinda Bradford (Joie Lee), when Clorinda complained about all the strange men she would find using her bathroom in the mornings after their evenings with Nola. We go on to meet the three men Nola has settled on since moving out: Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee). Each man, like Bradford, is introduced with his name overlaid on the screen, and given the chance to tell his version of his relationship with Nola.

Jamie, who seems to have the inside track with Nola, followed her after seeing her on the street and basically threw himself at her feet. He’s solid, sincere, and romantic; when they make love for the first time, it is sensuously choreographed to the wonderful jazz score Spike’s father Bill wrote for the film, with all of the candles on Nola’s many-shelved headboard blazing and melting.

Mars is a nebbishy Woody Allen type, with insecurity and immaturity written all over him. He wears a large, gold, autograph necklace around his neck, rides his bike everywhere, and repeats sentences over and over like he is trying to jackhammer himself into Nola’s consciousness (his famous plea, “Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please,” has been a staple on t-shirts since the movie came out). Nola likes him because he is funny and brings out the kid in her, and he seems to have known her a long time from the neighborhood. Their sex scene seems to emphasize Mars’ childishness by focusing closely on him sucking on her nipple in a contrasting style of arthouse chic.

Greer is successful, narcissistic, and lives in the center of the universe—Manhattan. He tells us that he molded Nola, taking her out of her raggedy-ass self and teaching her refinement. She is always very chic in his company, and a scene where Nola and Greer’s exercise routine gives way to sex is a small comic gem. Nola seductively lowers the straps of her leotard and gets into bed. Greer slowly removes each piece of clothing and painstakingly folds it while Nola grows increasingly bored and impatient. This comedic set-up is followed by overhead shots quick-cut to humorous effect as Greer moves under the covers and around the bed almost like an aerobic workout.

But, predictably, the men in Nola’s life don’t like sharing her. Jamie is particularly persistent in trying to become her one and only, literally offering her a song and dance—the only part of the film shot in living color—as proof of his devotion and then taking up with the female in the dance duet to make Nola jealous. In what can only be described as the act of a clueless woman, Nola invites her three lovers over for Thanksgiving, emphasizing that it’s the very first Thanksgiving feast she’s ever cooked. The men squabble—Mars makes fun of Greer’s preference for white meat—and Nola leaves them to their own devices as she goes to sleep. Jamie cradles her on the bed as Greer and Mars finally give up and go home.

Lee seems to have gathered all his friends and family for this one, casting his sister and having his father play Nola’s father. I have to think that Raye Dowell, who plays a lesbian who is interested in Nola, was cast because she was a family friend—she is without question one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen and spent half of her short acting career in other Spike Lee Joints. Johns is as fine as the men in the film say she is and is very likeable and intriguing in this role, even though her line readings reveal that she probably wasn’t a trained actress either—this was her first film. The male actors have substance, with Spike as the best of them, his energy and sarcasm enlivening the proceedings.

Lee may have latched onto a Woody Allen theme (male insecurity), format, and environment, but he’s a modern man who accords women their own agency, as a number of the better films of the 1980s did, most notably Sea of Love (1989). Jamie, frustrated with Nola’s insistence on following her own desires, rapes her, and Greer sends her to a psychiatrist (S. Epatha Merkerson, the only actor in the film to have made a recognizable name for herself), who declares Nola completely normal. Nola breaks up with Greer and Mars, but can’t make a go of it with Jamie, who we see from the very beginning is too possessive. In the end, Nola declares “It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.”

The film incorporates a collage of styles Lee must have studied in the Tisch School of Arts’ film program. There’s a little bit of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) in Lee’s use of photographic stills, shot by his brother David, to create certain montage scenes, a technique he seems to echo in the collage Nola creates on her wall. He’s goes the full-color route for the dance duet in the park as an apparent homage to the great Technicolor musicals Hollywood churned out in its Golden Age. And his architectural landscapes reflect both Antonioni and Allen’s Manhattan.

Lee would return with more force to the subject of love and independent agency in subsequent films, such as his superlative School Daze (1988) and Jungle Fever (1991), as well as the intraracial politics in the African-American community that he subtly explores here. His body of work is polished, accomplished, and important, but She’s Gotta Have It is an exuberant, homestyle film that deserves respect and affection.


23rd 05 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Offside (2006)

Director: Jafar Panahi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As many people in cinematic and Iranian circles know, noted Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been incarcerated by the Iranian government for nearly three months, where he has been tortured and, until a couple of days ago, denied an appearance before a judge and visits from his lawyer and family. The jury of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, on which he was to sit, left a chair empty in symbolic protest and was one of the first bodies in the film community to protest his imprisonment. There can be no doubt that he was jailed to prevent a repeat of his highly visible protest of the repressions of the Iranian government at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival. The government started to bow to pressure when the world reacted to Panahi beginning a hunger strike to the death last week; he said in his letter announcing the hunger strike: “I will not tolerate turning into a lab rat, where every minute I am accused of the most insane crimes and where I am under constant mental and physical torture.” Another Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, has undergone similar treatment for an even longer period, and his sight has been damaged from the severe beatings he has endured.

These two men and every other Iranian filmmaker who wishes to make films in their own country must endure censorship and restrictions. None of Panahi’s films can be shown in Iran because he has filmed around the restrictions, and his defiance of government repression is what has placed him in his current predicament. Besides joining groups calling for his release, I decided to write about Panahi’s work that by posing questions by example, illuminates what sorts of “insane crimes” ordinary Iranians are being accused of these days and allows us to reflect on the customs and religious dogma that harm and oppress women not only in Iran, but also throughout the world.

The plan to make Offside came to Panahi when his daughter was refused admission to a soccer match. With Iran in contention to make the finals of the 2006 World Cup, Panahi took his chance and filmed clandestinely at Tehran’s Azadi stadium during the match between Bahrain and Iran to determine which national team would go to Germany to play for the championship. He chose nonprofessionals to portray the soccer-crazy girls who try to sneak into the stadium, the soldiers providing security, and the male fans.

We find ourselves inside a car in which an older man (Mohammed Moktar Azad) tells an unseen driver to catch up with a bus and block it from continuing. He gets out of the car, saying he won’t be long, and looks up and down the bus for his daughter, who has taken off to see the big game. The car he started out in takes off, and the bus driver lets him ride to the stadium so he can search for his daughter. “You know what they’ll do to her if they catch her.” That sounds ominous and makes us worry about a girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) on another bus whose disguise fools no one. A young man on the bus is sympathetic, as is the vendor who takes the risk of selling her a ticket, but overcharges her for it and forces her to buy one of his posters as well as a cover for their conversation. She watches another girl get in using her elderly father as a cover, and attempts to attach herself to some others going through the gate, but balks when a soldier goes to frisk her. She runs, but is apprehended and taken to a holding area, already occupied by several other girls and guarded by one soldier from a rural area near Tabriz (Mohammad Kheir-Habadi) who barks orders at them and another, a city boy from Tehran (Masoud Kheymeh-kabood), who can see the game and narrates it for them.

Between the play-by-play coverage, the arrival of another disguised girl, personal histories, and the screams of an angry father, a very interesting conversation takes place between the rural soldier and one of the more defiant and masculine girls (Shayesteh Irani). Clearly intimidated by his city setting and concerned about threats to his father’s farm, we see how the government works in the outreaches of Iran. The Tehrani girl openly smokes and has cut her hair. She learns that foreign women are allowed into the stadium, even though they will also be exposed to the coarse language and naked arms and legs of the men attending the game that are the excuses the soldiers give for the exclusion of Iranian women. They also will be sitting with strange men around them. “But they will be with their brothers and husbands,” the soldier shoots back, not considering that this could also be the case for the detained girls. “So, the only reason I can’t go in is because I’m Iranian,” the girl says, hitting the nail on the head. It’s all about government control, of course. As Panahi has said in an interview, there is no law saying women can’t attend soccer matches. It has become an unwritten law that through intimidation is becoming custom. As long as Iran remains under religious rule, laws will not matter and interpretation of religious law will be at the discretion of the few men who hold power.

Offside explores these deep issues the way reasonable people might, through conversations that could be taking place in coffee houses, dorm rooms, or dinner parties anywhere in the world. The film also takes some very well-aimed pokes at the absurdity of the situation at hand. One of the girls (Ayda Sadequi), a soccer player herself, has to use the rest room. Of course, there are no rest rooms for females, so the Tehrani soldier disguises her by taking the first girl’s poster of a soccer star and turning it into a mask—one the girl can’t see out of because the holes he cuts in it don’t line up with her eyes. The scene in the bathroom is hilarious, as the soldier tells the girl not to read the graffiti-speckled walls, pushes an ever-growing crowd of men wanting to relieve themselves away while she’s in the rest room, and overhears a strange conversation in one of the stalls that sends the soldier from door to door, listening and finally bursting into one stall, only to find an old man having his wheelchair adjusted by his grandson. The girl takes her chance to run away while the soldier is surrounded by men wanting to use the facilities, and as he looks through the stands for her, we get a glimpse of the soccer match. At this moment, it dawned on me that I felt as deprived as the girls at not being able to see the action on the field—an interesting bit of empathy Panahi slyly put in motion from the moment we reached the stadium.

Because the game was real, Panahi and his cast had two possible endings, for victory or defeat. Either, I’m sure, would have been great, but victory allows us to see the street demonstrations of a proud nation and the jubilant yells of the girls—all real soccer fans—as they are being hauled off to the Vice Squad along with a boy who was detained for his repeated use of fireworks at soccer matches. Beautifully, he lights a firecracker in the paddy wagon that the soldier missed during his search, and produces sparklers. When the soldiers are compelled to join the revelers in the street, the prisoners file off the bus holding the lit sparklers. This moving last scene offers Panahi’s hope that the Iranian people will eventually emerge victorious into the light. I’ll be lighting a candle of hope for him as well. l

JAFAR PANAHI is the group on Facebook that is providing information and updates on him and Mohammad Nourizad. BREAKING! Panahi is being released on bail!


15th 03 - 2010 | 3 comments »

Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue, 2009)

Director: Catherine Breillat

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1697, French author Charles Perrault published Bluebeard, a dark fairytale of a rich nobleman with the bad habit of murdering his young brides. Perrault is credited, more or less, with inventing the fairytale, and in 1901, the man credited with inventing motion pictures, Georges Méliès, filmed Perrault’s story. Since then, a number of filmmakers have approached the tale, sometimes following Perrault faithfully by sparing Bluebeard’s latest child bride, sometimes sending her to share the tragic fate of his previous wives. Regardless of the ending, however, Bluebeard is a tale affirming the power of patriarchy and the danger women face when they disobey the rules of men.

Now Catherine Breillat has unleashed her feminine point of view and cinematic ingenuity on Perrault’s invention. An acknowledged personal project of the veteran director, Breillat has two young actresses play sisters reading Bluebeard for the upteenth time—stand-ins for the children she and her older sister were in the 1950s—and intersperses their play and conversation with scenes from the tale. It seems more than likely that Breillat was exploring her own childhood fascination with the story while slyly poking at gender politics that infuse various traditional stories, from Cinderella to Salome.

Adventurous and imaginative Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and her timid older sister Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) enter an attic filled with artifacts from their parents’ and grandparents’ earlier lives. They’ve been told not to go into the attic, but Catherine disobeys because playing there—which they’ve obviously done several times before—is so much fun. Catherine wants to read Bluebeard again, but her sister, claiming sensitivity, balks. Nonetheless, the headstrong younger girl persuades her and begins reading the story aloud.

We are transported to a choir of schoolgirls dressed in ridiculously severe white wimples that cover every strand of hair and, incongruously, grey dresses that expose their legs. One of the students, Anne (Daphné Baiwir), is fetched by Sister Barbe (Suzanne Foulquier) to see the severe Mother Superior (Farida Khelfa). Anne’s sister Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) has eluded the old nun, to Mother Superior’s annoyance, and she is sent again to retrieve “the bad seed.” Once Marie-Catherine arrives, Mother Superior informs them that their father has been run over by a carriage as he leapt to save a small child from its wheels, and is now dead. With a quick prayer for the father’s bravery and a stern admonishment for the girls to stop their blubbering, Mother Superior banishes the now impoverished sisters from her uncharitable school.

As the sisters watch creditors cart away anything of value in their home—from furniture to a picture taken almost as an afterthought off the wall—Anne curses her dead father for acting without a thought for them and bellows at her ineffectual mother for dyeing all of their dresses black. Mary-Catherine has a much different reaction when viewing her father laid out on his bed—he looks more handsome, she thinks, and no longer intimidating. The very different attitudes of the girls—the older and prettier one much more conventional, the younger, darker one more reflective—will prove decisive when they are called to a party at Bluebeard’s castle where the lord will pick his new bride.

The young people gathered for the party dance and disparage the ugly Bluebeard. Mary-Catherine, younger than the rest, has gone off by herself; she plays with a grasshopper and walks in the woods. There she meets Bluebeard reclining against a tree. He tells her that people call him an ogre, so that is what he has become. Mary-Catherine is not afraid of him, nor does she think he’s an ogre. This is the first of several touching scenes between the two, together in their isolation and thirst for knowledge.

Breillat has a tricky balancing act in structuring a film with two rather fanciful, parallel stories. Although the girls in the attic represent the real world, they come from an earlier time, one in which a conversation about what a homosexual is, though charming and funny, is a little too modern. She also has a number of points to make—not only is she taking a look at masculine and feminine power, but she also has a go at sibling rivalry. By making her points in several ways, she ran the risk of diluting the film’s power.

And yet, Breillat pulls it all off magnificently well. She knows how to tell both stories in an engaging and appropriate way, using two extremely likeable little girls to keep us in the modern story, and casting the mesmerizing Créton as Mary-Catherine to humanize her stylized approach to the fairytale. Her fabulous locations for the Bluebeard story, particularly at the convent school, are like an instant time machine, with the authentically medieval office from which the authentically severe Mother Superior ruled without an ounce of humanity creating the threatening ambiance of the best fairytales right from the start.

Breillat graphically illustrates Catherine’s imagination to signal her attitude toward the characters, particularly the two sisters. When the girls are being carted back to their mother’s home, a single, angelic tear hangs under Mary-Catherine’s eye, while Anne has two disgusting columns of snot affixed between her nostrils and upper lip. Anne is shown to be bratty, disrespectful, and vain, rather like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella. And like that fairytale, although Anne is prettier, Bluebeard chooses Mary-Catherine on whom to bestow his love and riches, emphasizing a theme Breillat has said she wanted to bring out—the competitiveness of siblings and how that competitiveness can play out in unexpectedly good or tragic ways.

Marie-Catherine matures quickly following her wedding, assuming the mantel of mistress of Bluebeard’s chateau seemingly effortlessly. She has the enormous Bluebeard wrapped around her dainty little finger, scolding him for putting her child-size bed at the foot of his own. “I’m not a dog,” she complains, and has the bed moved into a broom closet that is the right size for her and from which all persons but she are excluded. This space seems to contain her true Self, a place from which she can venture and feel her way toward adulthood. She does this on her wedding night, when she tiptoes silently across the ancient, wooden planks to watch secretly as her husband removes his shirt, exploring a sexuality she will have to grow into.

Marie-Catherine is always honest, and Bluebeard assures her that as long as she remains truthful, she will never have anything to fear from him. But when he returns from an extended journey to find party guests at the castle—something he encouraged Marie-Catherine to do—he grows cross and jealous. He cannot overcome his primitive nature, and chooses almost immediately to test his new bride. He gives her the gold key to the room that, unbeknownst to Marie-Catherine, contains the bloody corpses of his previous wives, but admonishes her not to use it. Ah, the weakness of Eve! Marie-Catherine’s curiosity sets up the grisly scene of three decaying corpses nailed above a huge pool of blood, which the horror-loving Catherine wades into, muttering “I’m not afraid” to herself as she passes between the discolored legs of one of the women. On Bluebeard’s return only a day later, he asks Marie-Catherine for the gold key, but she lies and says she lost it. Exposed to his violence and his capriciousness in telling her she could invite friends and then being angry when she does, she fears obeying him by being truthful. She has been forced to lie, to betray her own nature to save her life.

This is the way in which Breillat explores the gender dynamics that confront women. Marie-Catherine and Anne’s father was their sole financial support; even when trying to act in the most human way possible, he has compromised the welfare of his family because of the economic structure of their environment and doomed his daughters to a convent or worse because no man will marry a girl without a dowry. Marie-Catherine is a clever and empathetic girl, but she can’t tame the beast of patriarchy represented by Bluebeard. Even though Breillat is careful to show Bluebeard’s ambivalence about sending Marie-Catherine to her death, we are still faced with the entire weight of patriarchy (note Bluebeard’s enormous girth and appetite)—its suspicion of women, its demand of absolute obedience even as it makes obedience nearly impossible to practice, and the necessity of women to be untrue to themselves to survive.

The final two shots set up a parallel between Marie-Catherine and Catherine in an unexpected way. Marie-Catherine, now as wealthy in her own right as she hoped to be, stares vacantly as she gently strokes the severed head of her husband, which rests on a silver platter. This can be seen as a challenge to patriarchy that this film itself represents, but it also serves to reinforce negative stereotypes of women in its parallel with the wanton, amoral Salome. The delightedly “wicked” Catherine, too, finds that imposing her will on her gentle sister results in a form of wish fulfillment that has a price. Breillat provides an obvious moral to men, but an equal caution to women to care for their sisters in arms and avoid the excesses of conquest.


4th 02 - 2010 | 15 comments »

The Chaser (Chugeogja, 2008)

Director: Na Hong-jin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A South Korean film that’s been getting a fair amount of good press and audience reaction is The Chaser. It is described by most as a thriller in which former police detective turned pimp Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), after having several of his girls go missing, tries to track down one of them, Kim Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie), only to find himself in the midst of a serial killer investigation. Like many South Korean films that have murder as one of their prominent ingredients, The Chaser is graphically violent. The serial killer, Jee Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), likes to bash heads in, especially those of prostitutes, who make easy targets. He prefers to drive a chisel through their brains, but he’ll make do with a hammer, a shovel, or a vase when an unexpected need (e.g., snooping neighbors) arises, as it does many times in this film. Joong-ho likes to kick the shit out of people to get the information he needs, and he’s always very impatient for an answer. So far, we’re in Dirty Harry country.

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The features that I believe make this film stand out to audiences and critics alike is the extreme concentration on Eom’s desperate race to find Mi-jin, which builds suspense even as it documents the reawakening of a conscience in a pretty rotten man. As they say, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disillusioned idealist underneath. Even as we start to understand Eom, the killer remains a cipher. Why does he kill? We don’t really know, and that irrationality tickles our fear and offers a welcome level of uncertainty in a genre that seeks to reassure with simplistic psychological profiles and explanations; indeed, this film makes fun of a psychologist who tries to do just that. The film also displays that sideways, absurdist humor for which South Korean filmmakers are justly lauded, offering an ineffectual police force to which Eom hand-delivers the killer that hatches some wacky ways to try to find evidence to hold him before he must be released. The film also displays an ironic contempt for technology, given that the country is both a leader in electronics manufacturing and has a nuclear threat just north of the border. There isn’t a single gun in the entire film, and cellphones, though plentiful and a device Eom believes will help him find Jee and Mi-jin, are ineffective. Scenes on the narrow, steep streets of Seoul provide a visually interesting and noirish atmosphere that suits the film beautifully.

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Nonetheless, none of these qualities were able to cut through the intense loathing this film generated in me. The Chaser trafficks in femicide in a particular grotesque way—to redeem Eom. He was selling women’s bodies and originally thought someone was stealing his “property” to sell into a sex slave ring. That was his motivation to find Jee. Frankly, I’m not the least bit impressed with his slowly dawning guilt, blaming himself for forcing Mi-jin to service Jee when she wanted to stay home to nurse a bad cold. While I won’t deny that people can acknowledge the wrong they do and change, Na’s willingness to indulge his audience’s more prurient appetites and the abuse of a woman to allow Eom to find his soft spot are cheap and exploitative.

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In case we can’t see how thick Eom is, the script bludgeons him with pathos and idiocy to ensure he changes. It lays the guilt on even thicker by giving Mi-jin a beautiful 7-year-old daughter Eom discovers when he breaks Mi-jin’s door down and whom he drags around Seoul with him and eventually has to rush to the hospital after she comes to ill in a dark alley when nobody is minding her. The film floors the pedal on Eom’s guilt when he retrieves a message Mi-jin was forced to leave in voicemail saying she’s afraid of continuing life as a prostitute because he was too busy hoofing it to where he finally figures out Jee lives to answer his cellphone. This, of course, exposes the idiot plot whereby he and the police have been looking all over the district, even looking for bodies on a nearby mountainside, even though they found Mi-jin’s car in roughly the same location where another of Eom’s missing prostitutes had parked her car and Eom has the killer’s house keys.

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Women have been raped, tortured, and murdered for our entertainment with great regularity—and generally without placing these atrocities in a context that respects women—for as long as there have been serial killer movies. This convention is so well accepted that the reviews of The Chaser I’ve read (though, I’m assured, not all) don’t even comment on the femicide, preferring to concentrate on how the film comments on politics, institutions, and Eom’s character development. I noted a similar lack of critical comment about femicide in my recent review of Backyard (2009), even though that was the whole point of the movie.

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In the winter 2009 issue of Cineaste, Christopher Sharret asserts in his article “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” that filmic serial killers seek to teach their victims a lesson in old-fashioned values and decency, with allusion to the government-sanctioned torture of terrorists out to destroy America and its wholesome values of Mom, apple pie, liberty, and justice for all. It’s not a far leap to suggest a similar message in other serial killer movies, including The Chaser, only the lesson not only encompasses sexual and social conservatism (note that when Jee decides to move on after apparently eluding prosecution, he dresses like a businessman) but also continues the fictive efforts to put women back in the place they started to abandon with the dawning of second-wave feminism in the 1970s. I think it’s very telling as our culture wars continue that this film has already been picked up for a Hollywood remake starring Leo DiCaprio as the detective/pimp antihero.

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If there can be a line in the sand when it comes to films, I think I’m finally ready to draw it. Femicide should not be so normalized among film and TV producers that it goes largely unremarked upon. I earnestly ask my fellow film reviewers and audiences to stop ignoring this disturbingly ordinary plot device and bring outrage back into our collective consciousness in written reviews and other public forums. If you’re willing to do it for Native Americans, African Americans, and other put-upon people, it behooves you not to give these kinds of films a pass no matter how much they engage you (see Cinema Styles on Pixar for more).


17th 10 - 2009 | 7 comments »

2009 CIFF: Backyard (El traspatio, 2009)

Director: Carlos Carrera

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

BY.jpgRadio commentator Peralta (Joaquín Cosio) tells his listeners in the greater Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua-El Paso, Texas area the facts about their home. It is the site of 60,000 legal border crossings a day as goods and cheap labor head north to American markets and American boys go south looking to lose their virginity among “our world-famous sex workers.” Ciudad Juárez also is a mecca for the poorest of the poor looking for work in the factories of the multinational companies that find costs quite reasonable; some will make a bid to cross into the United States when the border guards aren’t looking.

To Mexicans and many people around the world interested in human rights, Ciudad Juárez is notorious for its large number of unsolved kidnapping-rape-murders of women—many of them factory workers—numbering more than 1,000 over more than a decade. Keep that number in mind—I’ll get back to it.

The dead women of Ciudad Juárez have been the inspiration for works of art, museum exhibits and lectures, magazine and newspaper articles, a Jennifer Lopez film (2006’s Bordertown), and much, much speculation about serial killers, conspiracies, and sex rings. Now we have Backyard, the film Mexico has chosen as its entry for the 2009 Oscars, that seeks to provide both a narrower and broader perspective on why the women of Ciudad Juárez are dying.

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Ciudad Juárez is welcoming two new women—Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera), a police detective transferring from Veracruz, and Juanita Sanchez (Asur Zagada), an 18-year-old country girl leaving her back-breaking farm work for a freer, more exciting life in the city. Bravo is investigating a murder—a preserved body of a young woman who has been found in the desert with her nipple torn off. She has a gold tooth with the letter “K” stamped in it. Two women who work for a women’s aid organization recognize it as belonging to a woman named Karen, a domestic-abuse victim. Karen’s boyfriend, an Egyptian nicknamed the Sultan (Sayed Badreya), has a record for rape in the United States. Bravo brings him in and suspects that he is a serial killer. Eight more dead women are found in the desert while he is in custody; a case is made linking him to the Cheros gang that runs a nightclub in town where Juanita, called Juana, likes to party on Saturday night. But the aid workers have presented Bravo with hundreds of photos and stories of screams in the night every full moon.

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Back to Juana. The minute we saw her get off the bus carrying her cardboard boxes of belongings, we knew she’d end up among the mourned of Ciudad Juárez. After moving in with her sweet cousin Márgara (Amorita Rasgada), who gets her a job at the factory, she hooks up with a traditional young man from near her hometown in Chiapas. The two converse in their native Indian language, but Juana wants to forget her country roots. The young man goes to the nightclub to meet her, only to find her dancing with someone else. Several men incite him to avenge this humiliation. He drugs her, and the men take her to an abandoned outbuilding, where, much to the young man’s horror, they all rape her and force him at gunpoint to put a plastic bag over her head. She is dumped like a sack of garbage from their van in a scene of unmitigated brutality.

Filling out the stories of these two women are the dirty dealings of the police commander (Alejandro Calva), who only wants to get a desk job in Mexico City, and the governor of Chihuahua (Enoc Leaño), who makes a large show of force to get the story about the murders out of the pages of the New York Times. Convening a task force to brainstorm ways to make the city safer for women, he brings the ideas to Texan and Japanese industrialists with factories in Ciudad Juárez. The two categorically refuse to offer financial assistance to install better lighting or hire more police officers, and actually threaten to take their business elsewhere, where labor is under the $1.08 an hour the Mexican workers earn. Lastly, we are thrown a story of Mickey Santos (Jimmy Smits), a rich Mexican who lives in El Paso and comes to Ciudad Juárez on every full moon to indulge his taste in school girls.

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This film really sounds stuffed with plot threads, but they are handled fairly economically and help director Carrera paint a picture of this community that goes beyond the bogeyman horrors with which it has come to be associated. The fact is that because of a lack of resources and political will, it has become easy to get away with killing women in Ciudad Juárez, and so they continue to die. As Bravo learns, so do we—there is no serial killer or sex ring per se, just the usual femicide with more publicity. This is an important message of this grave film, and Carrera emphasizes this as a worldwide problem not only by bringing the Egyptian into the story, but also by flashing statistics of sex-related murders of women in various other Mexican cities, in South American countries, and ending with the stats for New York City—more than 3,200 dead.

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The film is not entirely successful, however. Throwing in Smits’ character and then letting Bravo pump him full of lead was done to relieve the audience of its frustration and perhaps send them home without really taking the message of the film to heart. While Carrera, who attended the screening, said this film was not made to entertain, this and other touches—particularly the attractive lady detective in the Law & Order mold—are right out of the Hollywood play book. Other reviews I’ve read of this film critique it as a thriller and underplay or ignore its message—a rather chilling commentary on how even the most hideous violence against women has so completely infiltrated the entertainment industry. Looking at this aspect of the film and today’s trends and comparing them with my commentary on I Spit on Your Grave and A Question of Silence, which has become a hot topic again this week on a certain feminist site I frequent, leaves me in despair. We really haven’t confronted the issues I identified in that essay, and if anything, we’ve actually taken a step back.

BY%201.jpgCarrera mentioned that about 150 of the 1,000 cases have been solved, but that the killings continue. “We have a problem with machismo in our culture,” he said, “though things have gotten better, a little at a time.” That’s it, of course. When women are treated as fully human and not targeted simply for the crime of being female, we will finally solve the problem we seem to see only in Ciudad Juárez.


23rd 09 - 2009 | 17 comments »

The Burning Bed (1984)

Director: Robert Greenwald

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It came as an enormous shock to the cultural system when Farrah Fawcett, pin-up supreme of the 1970s, smashed her Barbie Doll image by playing the smashed-up wife of an abusive husband who eventually murders him by setting fire to their bedroom as he sleeps off another drunk. Blondes are supposed to have more fun, right? Fawcett didn’t see it that way, and her choice to take on this savage tale that would see her beauty hidden beneath bruises, blood, and K-Mart clothing was a bold statement about herself, her art, and perhaps even her view of domesticity. The Texas belle herself married and divorced one time only and endured a severe beating at the hands of Hollywood producer James Orr in 1998 after spurning his proposal of marriage. Francine Hughes, the character she plays in The Burning Bed, must have haunted her thoughts in the wake of her own battering.

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Certainly, this made-for-TV film has haunted my memories from the moment I saw it and created a respect for Fawcett in me and many other people that lasted the rest of her too-short life. Viewing it again last night, I am in awe anew over Fawcett’s realistic, powerful portrayal of someone who started off not so different from herself—a pretty, flirty girl of the 50s—who saw her life close violently around her when she found herself in the crushing grip of her alcoholic husband and his enabling family, and trapped in poverty by her lack of education and opportunity.

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The film opens at night. Three children are drowsing in a car. A woman runs out of the house in the background and gets behind the wheel. As she inserts the key in the ignition, a second-floor window in the house shatters as flames leap through it and hungrily grip the sill, walls, and roof. The children scream. The woman drives off. People from around the neighborhood, including the parents of the man of the burning house, run out and urge the fire crew to the rescue, but the house is quickly consumed.

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The driver, Francine Hughes, is taken into custody for the premeditated murder of her husband Mickey (Paul Le Mat). When she meets her public defender (Richard Mazur), she is meek and silent. Only his angry shouts to her to defend herself and presentation of a letter from another battered woman who identified with her rouse Fran to tell her story to him. The rest of the film is told largely in flashback as Fran starts the story of her life from the time she first saw Mickey at a dance in 1963 to the night of the murder in 1977.

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The film takes its time—it has an almost miniseries expansiveness filled with characters and incidents—so that we get a sense of the rhythms of this marriage, a look at Fran and Mickey while they are dating, as newlyweds, as parents, and watch the dynamics that cause the marriage to fracture into violence, apology, forgiveness, violence, apology, grudging forgiveness, and eventually just violence. At first, Mickey just wants to make it with Fran, but she’s saving herself for marriage. He wants her so badly, he proposes. She puts him off. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him and doesn’t want to drop out of school to satisfy his insistent proposals. Eventually, however, she comes to believe no one will ever love her as much as Mickey does, and they tie the knot. They move in with Mickey’s parents Flossie (Grace Zabriskie) and Berlin (James T. Callahan), where Mickey’s semi-chronic unemployment and the birth of their first child keep them for several years. Early on, Mickey strikes Francine for wearing a midriff-baring summer outfit; he says he’s jealous of how attractive she is, convincing her that she should take the slap as a compliment. She lets it slide.

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They get their own house, “nothing much, but it was ours,” Fran remembers. They have a party for some friends, but when Fran contradicts Mickey, he strikes her in front of their guests. She runs into the house, where he follows her in a rage. Later, he apologizes and blames it on being drunk. Their family continues to grow, as does Mickey’s drinking problem and the frequency of Fran’s beatings. It’s always worse when he’s out of work. When Fran applies for welfare, she is told she can’t qualify unless she leaves her husband. Fran, the sunglasses covering her black eye knocked off by her toddler, says her husband threatened to kill her if she ever left him. “The state will protect you,” Mr. Barlow (Fred D. Scott), the case worker, assures her and hands her a form to fill out. “That’s it? I just fill out a form, and I’m divorced?” “Yes,” he answers and mentions a $7 fee. “Seven dollars!” she says, “Do you think I’d be here if I had $7?” Barlow pulls some cash out of his wallet for her.

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As with most divorced parents, the existence of their three kids, to whom Mickey is devoted, means Fran will never really be free of Mickey. Still, she tries. When she rejects his appeals to come back, he drives off angrily and crashes his car. Seeing him helpless, in critical condition, Fran agrees to help nurse him back to health and moves into the house next door to her in-laws’ where Mickey is recuperating. Eventually, they move back together. A couple of good years, during which Fran tastes freedom with a government grant to go to business school, lead to even worse times and the climactic end of their marriage.

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The script is tight and judiciously edited to bring out moments that ring true and lead us through the stages of this tragedy in the making in an economical, yet complete way. Fawcett is absolutely amazing in suggesting the advancing age and deteriorating attitudes of Fran. She is coquettish in her first meeting with Mickey, the very picture of the new bride relying on her mother-in-law for tips on married life, only later realizing that Flossie, a strong supporter of family and patriarchy, will never really back her up. Her own mother (Dixie K. Wade) urges her to return to Mickey when she leaves him the first time—it’s her duty to take the hard with the soft. Despite her strong and sensible instincts, Fran does what women have done for centuries—she toes society’s line. Fawcett shows the inner struggle Fran has trying to conform; it is from this never-expunged struggle that she finally decides to free herself with a definitive break from the rules.

Although it isn’t expressly stated, it is clear that the women’s movement showed Fran options she might not have reached for in another era. Her best friend Gaby (Penelope Milford) is sketched as another divorced mother who has gotten her act together on her own, and Gaby urges Fran to leave Mickey with a no-nonsense attitude that feels distinctly modern.

This film does not make social services out to be the bureaucratic enemy it is in many films. Given director Greenwald’s track record making political documentaries and films, this balance might not be expected, but it is a definite strength. One rather unfortunate distortion is that the film appears to have been set in the South. Several of the characters have Southern-ish accents, and it was mentioned several times that Fran’s mother lived in Jackson, which I assumed was Jackson, Mississippi. The real story on which this film is based took place in Michigan, and that’s where this Jackson was located. I think it is rather dishonest to portray this kind of relationship with a stereotypical Southern white trash veneer; this is a universal story and should either have been located nowhere or clearly in Michigan.

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The most intense part of the film occurs in the short trial sequence at the end of the film. In a very real way, Fran’s legal defense—not guilty by reason of temporary insanity—does seem to be the right one, an extreme emotional response to a brutal beating, choking, and rape. It is this final beating, which Fran relates on the witness stand, that we view in its horrifying entirety. The way Fawcett cries restrainedly when she talks about being raped, and then her physical scrambling, cowering, desperate clutching at Mickey’s hands as he strangles her, well, it’s incredibly, harrowingly real. Both she and Le Mat display enormous courage in this scene. Le Mat, with a less nuanced character, does a creditable, but unspectacular job. But Fawcett is a complete miracle in this film, laying to rest once and for all any doubt that the golden girl from the frivolous “Angels” was a real actress to be reckoned with.

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10th 09 - 2009 | 8 comments »

Girl 27 (2007)

Director/Screenwriter: David Stenn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Many moons ago I worked for a publishing company that had a large door-to-door sales force. Every year, the company would bring them all to Chicago, put them up at one of the best hotels in the city, wine and dine them, and hire top-flight performers like Barbara Mandrell to entertain them. As an editor who helped produce the product they sold, I was paid $12,000 a year to start and saw my income generously climb to $22,000 in the 5 years I was with the company. Our managers never so much as picked up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts for us.

I tell you this so you know that I have a pretty good idea of what a 17-year-old dancer and extra named Patricia Douglas was caught up in when in 1937, she was “hired” by MGM for a motion picture and ended up instead at a private party for the MGM sales force that ended in her rape. In business back then, when I was with that publishing company, and probably still today, “anything you want” (as L. B. Mayer was captured on camera as saying to the salesmen in 1937) was reserved for the people who made the bosses the money; the little people who made the product were all but expendable.

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David Stenn, a television writer who transitioned to books with a respected biography of Clara Bow, was working on another biography, of Jean Harlow, when he happened on a story that had pushed Harlow’s death off the front pages of newspapers of the day. Patricia Douglas had accused a doughy-faced MGM salesman from Chicago named David Ross of raping her at a party. She contended that she and dozens of other girls had been lured to the party by a false casting call. She had reported to the Western Costume Company, been issued a cowgirl outfit to wear, and reported to the Hal Roach ranch, a frequent site for movie shoots, where the party was being held. Stenn, who considered himself an expert on MGM, was floored that he had never heard about this scandal before. He was curious how a story this big had disappeared from view and remained hidden so long. At the urging of his editor on the Jean Harlow book, Jackie Onassis, he pursued the truth. Girl 27 was the result.

Truthfully, this story is not particularly unique or unusual in most respects. The exploitation of economically dependent women by Hollywood studios isn’t even an open secret. Scenes in which aspiring movie stars are asked to show their legs, as well as allusions to the casting couch, can be found in many films of the time, including a favorite of mine, Footlight Parade. Child labor laws seem not to have applied to female extras and dancers, as girls in their early teens dressed in skimpy costumes could be found on many sets. Hollywood studios were well known for controlling their stars’ image and actions, and their influence in a company town like Los Angeles was wide-ranging. It is not at all out of character for a studio to squelch bad publicity and make an inconvenient accusation of rape go away through character assassination and the bribing of a key witness, as happened in Douglas’ case.

What is unusual about this story is that Patricia Douglas spoke out against her attacker and the entire corporate machine to which she owed a livelihood. When her criminal case failed to move forward—David Ross was never even served with a warrant for his arrest—she filed a federal lawsuit against him that bore no fruit. What kind of a woman was Patricia Douglas? Obviously a courageous one, but Stenn never hoped to know the woman herself. Another rape victim who came forward in 1938 and suffered a similar fate to Douglas had killed herself.

As luck would have it, Stenn found Patricia Douglas, 86, living in Las Vegas. A recluse, she only left her apartment to see her doctor. We learn that Stenn has courted her (a word both he and Douglas used) by phone and recorded their conversations, which run as a voiceover to the film. Finally, he persuades her to appear on camera. Awaiting her call in his tacky Vegas hotel room, fussing about his appearance, Stenn answers a ringing phone; full of profuse apologies, Douglas says she can’t go through with it. Sure we’ll never get a chance to see the woman we’ve spent an agonizing time with, she suddenly appears in the frame. Looking into her fully aware, hurt eyes, we see the horror of rape staring back at us.

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From a cinematic standpoint, Girl 27 leaves something to be desired. Stenn cobbles together images from the time and clips from various films that provide a rather cheesy punctuation to the points he is making. He fixates on the fact that rape is as rare in Hollywood movies of the time as someone like Douglas speaking out about it; he unearths a generally unavailable Miriam Hopkins film, The Story of Temple Drake, as a rare film that explicitly deals with rape and uses scenes from it as a kind of stand-in for Douglas’ experience. He repeatedly shows the same newspaper clippings of Douglas, including one in which her face is buried despairingly in her hands, to accompany her pained comments. He also repeatedly shows a clip of L. B. Mayer talking casually in a group of men who greeted the salesmen as they disembarked from a train. Interestingly, Stenn locates David Ross in film of the sales convention and follows him around on the train platform and into the barn where the party took place.

The film’s strengths are in the interviews he obtains, from the children of the MGM security guard who perjured himself for MGM in exchange for a guaranteed job for life to Douglas’ daughter and grandson. He trots out Fox legal commentator Greta Van Susteran and an attorney named Michael Taitelbaum to comment on the miscarriage of justice and how it went down, which gives the proceedings a little bit of a Court TV feel.

But, of course, it is Douglas herself bearing witness to the crime and its cost who completes the tragic picture of this shameful episode in business history. Her “innocence” taken, she cannot utter the words “virgin” or “rape” even 65 years after she was attacked. She has spent a lifetime distrustful, frigid, and without feeling she has ever loved anyone, not even her child. Being raped only 17 years after women won the right to vote in the United States and having a well-oiled corporate machine stamp you a tramp meant Douglas had none of today’s feminist organizations and social services to run to for psychological help and legal redress. Despite the great courage she showed, she handled the fallout friendless and alone.
It is to Stenn’s great credit that he gave her a voice and brought her forgotten story to light. Kudos, too, to Snag Films for making this documentary (and many others) available free of charge on their website. It’s well worth a look. l


5th 09 - 2009 | 13 comments »

Sea of Love (1989)

Director: Harold Becker

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Do you remember
When we met
That’s the day
I knew you were my pet

Female serial killers are few and far between in the movies, but when they hit theatres, they usually create a sensation. Friday the 13th (1980) trafficked in the usual revenge-seeking psychokiller conception of a female serial killer; I Spit on Your Grave (1978) took the psycho part out of the equation, but still gave revenge as the main motive, as did 1983’s Sudden Impact. Basic Instinct (1992) blasted Sharon Stone and her crotch onto the Hollywood map, while enraging feminists, in general, and lesbians, in particular, for perpetuating the stereotype of the man-hating lesbian. Monster (2003), which tells the story of real-life killer Aileen Wournos, garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar for both a riveting performance and her willingness to hide her loveliness under piles of make-up; again, revenge and lesbianism are linked explicitly and implicitly to her murderous ways.

Then we have Sea of Love, a genuine oddity in the history of movie-making. Coming as a reverberating ripple from the tidal wave of second-wave feminism, it plays unironically with the possibility that a straight female is killing men.

Al Pacino plays Frank Keller, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department who is facing a lonely, alcoholic retirement as a divorced and very unattached man. He is investigating a murder in a Manhattan apartment; a man has been found lying naked, face down on his own bed with a bullet in his head. He was discovered by his next-door neighbor who had come to complain about a recording of “Sea of Love” that had been playing in an endless loop on his old-fashioned turntable.

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Keller and Det. Gruber (Richard Jenkins)—husband of Keller’s ex-wife—have no real leads until Det. Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) comes to them with a similar case in Queens. They link the killings to a singles magazine and the fact that the men used poems to attract responses. Keller and Touhey become partners on the case and theorize that a woman is the “doer,” imagining anger/revenge scenarios to explain her crimes. They decide to place their own ad, have drinks with the women who answer it, take fingerprints off their cocktail glasses, and eventually find a match to the prints at the crime scenes. The set-up works fine until Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) takes the seat in front of Keller, sizes him up quickly, decides they have no chemistry, and leaves without even picking up her wine glass.

The investigation continues fruitlessly, briefly detouring to a black grocery delivery boy, until Frank runs into Helen at a convenience store. When she accuses him of not writing the poem he placed as his ad, he tells her he used a poem his father (William Hickey) gave him, one Frank’s mother had written in high school during his parents’ courtship. Impressed, Helen decides to give Frank another chance, and Frank plots to fingerprint her. He ends up falling for her instead. On the verge of asking her to move in with him, he becomes convinced she is the killer, and the film moves rapidly to its climax and denouement.

This sounds like an exciting thriller—and it is—but director Becker and Richard Price, one of the smartest screenwriters around, have something more substantial on their minds than giving audiences a roller coaster ride. Much like Frank’s adoption of a false front to catch a killer, they use the cover story of the murder investigation to explore the state of heterosexual relationships that second-wave feminism had shaken to the core.

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As the film begins, Becker takes us to the old Times Square teeming with strip joints and hookers. This is an interesting way to signal not only the noirish aspects of the cover story, but also the squalor that characterized traditional male-female relationships—the unveiled picture of Dorian Gray, so to speak. It is also smart to feature a man in full midlife crisis as the protagonist. Stripped of his place at the head of a household and a loss of career identity looming, Frank represents Man at his most vulnerable. The men around him in the squad room and among those he questions carry on as though nothing has changed—telling dirty jokes, Sherman celebrating his daughter’s marriage with extended family and friends dancing the night away; it seems only Frank knows that the world has turned upside down. When he and Helen share a sweet moment in bed, he says, “Neither of us lives for our jobs.” Helen answers, “I guess I live for love. What else is there?” Although this may seem like a traditionally female answer, it’s clear that this lesson is something Frank is meant to learn, and learn the hard way. When Frank questions how a guy he barely spoke to in six years on the job could have stolen his wife, Gruber says, “Maybe you weren’t giving her what she wanted.” Disparagement of the emo or sensitive man is nothing but whistling in the wind for a traditional masculine culture that cannot accept that men need to find what is soft and vulnerable within themselves, not locate it externally among their women.

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The film also allows us to see women in a fresh light. We get to see Helen at the shoe store she manages, serving her customers with smooth confidence. She has a daughter, conceived during her bad first marriage; she left her husband as soon as she knew she was pregnant and made a life for them on her own, a move Frank finds incredibly gutsy. She is aggressively carnal; when she and Frank have sex for the first time, she looks as though she is going to devour him. Frank doesn’t even use a crude term to refer to their physical relationship, preferring to say “making love” when he tells Sherman how bad he feels about spying on her.

Perhaps the ultimate recognition of women as they really might be is the fact that nobody at the NYPD questions the idea that a heterosexual woman could be the serial killer. Certainly this is not an equality women might want to accept, but it does recognize that women are capable of the full range of emotions and of acting on those emotions. Tellingly, Sherman and Frank don’t think their shooter was motivated by a hatred of men or really even revenge; they posit that she might not have liked the men’s performance in bed or the fact that they sleep around. That’s a reverse on why men traditionally ditch or kill their wives and girlfriends.

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The performances are quite interesting in this film. Ellen Barkin is at her sexiest; while she does not abandon vulnerability, her embrace of assertiveness ensures that she will not be considered mere window dressing by any but the most obtuse moviegoer. John Goodman is a sympathetic partner, recognizing Frank’s plight and understanding the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.

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But this film really belongs to Al Pacino. He contains his tendency to go too big, while using it appropriately to convey Frank’s confusion, such as when he is about to bed Helen and sees a gun in her purse. Panicked that he almost literally has been caught with his pants down with the killer, he locks her in a closet and must stammer his way to an apology when he realizes that the gun is a starter’s pistol that she carries to scare off would-be muggers. “What this city does to a person,” is all Frank can say in a supremely human moment. More impressive is the undercurrent of mixed messages and motives behind Frank’s actions. Frank betrays himself in a drunken moment when he chides Helen for dating through the personals and reveals that for him it was part of his job. Later, he lies about the sting as a way to reveal a deeper truth—that he got scared when he realized how attached he was to Helen and tried to foul up their relationship. This performance of duality—distrust of Helen as both a woman and a suspect—adds a complex layer to an already intricately constructed film.

The most telling moment of all—a beautiful scene that seems almost like a throwaway—occurs when Frank spies Helen’s collection of 45s and finds a recording of “Sea of Love” among them. He pulls the record out of its case, only to have Helen surprise him in the act. Shaken by this marker toward her guilt, he asks her about it. She says she hasn’t looked at those records in years. “I kept them to leave to my daughter,” she says. “They might be worth something some day.” Although 50s-style romance with women as pets was dead to these characters, this tidy scene sounds the film’s hope that love might once again be so simple, sweet, and precious.


9th 02 - 2009 | 37 comments »

Avanti! (1972)

Director: Billy Wilder

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Will I be excommunicated from film blogging if I admit that I really don’t like Billy Wilder’s films very much? Yes, even Some Like It Hot. There’s this je ne sais quoi about him—oh, who am I kidding. I don’t like how he treats women. He doesn’t seem to like us very much. He doesn’t usually present us with dignity. His best films tend to be about male courage, male bonding. Hell, he even has Joe E. Brown preferring a fake woman—even when Jack Lemmon reveals his deception—to a real one. “Nobody’s perfect.” That’s right, Billy, including you.

The worst film I’ve seen in some time is Avanti!, so thoroughly reprehensible that I hardly know where to begin. So let’s just quickly dispatch with the plot and then start chewing on Wilder’s fat, little head. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) races from a round of golf, via his company’s private jet, to an airport, and hops a plane to Italy. His father, the very powerful and well-connected head of the family huglomerate, has been killed in a car crash on Ischia, a spa island near Naples.

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On his train trip to his final destination, he briefly and unpleasantly encounters Englishwoman Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) and insults her dowdy appearance, and she very believably takes pains to point out to him her overstuffed figure. They find out they are staying at the same hotel, and are on the same mission; Pamela’s mother was in the car, too, and as it happens, shared the suite with Armbruster Sr. that Jr. now occupies for the past 10 years. Some nonsense about paperwork, various attempts at blackmail, recreating 24 hours in the life of the deceased couple including dinner, dancing and a nude swim in the morning, a crime of passion, the inevitable clinch between the children of the elderly lovebirds and the promise to continue on in their parents’ illustrious tradition. Isn’t it just so moving? Doesn’t it just bring a tear to your eye? Or maybe that was just a spitball.

Avanti%208.jpgSeriously, folks, this is the worst kind of misogynistic, stereotypical crap I’ve ever seen in my life! First, Wendell is the quintessential ugly American tycoon, spouting orders, trying to hurry everyone up, hush everyone up, and offend everyone (up?). He’s unbelievably rude to Pamela, commenting openly on her “fat ass” and other insults. Of course, he’s not entirely wrong. I’m not sure they could have found a more revolting travel outfit for her if they had ripped the sackcloth off of Buñuel’s beggars in Viridiana. When she “blossoms” at the dinner she is supposed to be sharing with Wendell, (bringing her own apple to adhere strictly to her diet, what a laugh riot!)—he in one of his father’s suits, she in one of her mother’s dresses—they put her in a long, flowing example of the best faux-hippie attire the Sears catalog had to offer. Her finest wardrobe avanti%20nude.jpgmoment was in her altogether, basking on a rock in the Bay of Nipples, I mean Naples, where it is more than obvious that she is not only not fat, but actually has one of the best figures a woman could want. To be fair, Wilder makes sure Lemmon has his nude scenes, too, though all we get are some skinny ass cheeks. To keep the male audience interested, Wilder throws in a gratuitous topless scene of Anna, a moustachioed, Afro-haired Sicilian maid (Giselda Castrini) who’s having it on with Bruno (Gianfranco Barra), the hotel valet who landed at Ischia after being deported from America.

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The solicitious, duplicitous concierge Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) bobs and weaves to ensure that Senor Armbruster gets anything he bellows for and remains in the dark about his father’s long-term infidelity, pulling out pictures of the family back in the U. S. of A. to put on the nightstand and spiriting the late Mrs. Piggott’s luggage to Pamela’s room—the latter falsehood exploded fairly early by the unfortunate Miss Piggott. Carlucci and staff wax poetic about the graciousness of the deceased couple; Carlucci even offers them both graves in his family plot to obviate the need for all the permits Pamela and Wendell need to get the bodies home, available land, of course, being no problem on a tiny island.

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When Wendell refuses to pay the Trotta family $3,500 for damages to their vineyard from the crash, the bodies vanish from the morgue. Wendell is spirited away by a one-eyed man to a nighttime bocce ball tournament and introduced to the Missing Link team, aka, the Trotta family (no women—it seems they sprung from sea sponges). Wendell is further blackmailed by Bruno with nude photos of his father and mistress and with those of him and Pamela in exchange for a visa back to his beloved America to get away from the pregnant, marriage-minded Anna. Of course, the Sicilian spitfire plugs him in Pamela’s room, forcing Carlo to move her into Wendell’s room to avoid police questioning—it is, of course, the only solution in a large hotel, and the police would never check the guest register to see who was staying in the room.

There’s a lot more nonsense, including a phone call from Wendell’s wife asking when the body will arrive for the state funeral she has planned. Pamela answers and spoils Wendell’s lie that she’s an interpreter. When Wendell gets in hot water with the missus, Pamela grabs the phone and tells her not to worry: “I’m short, I’m fat, and I’m not very attractive.” That works for Mrs. Armbruster, who knows how superficial her husband’s taste in women is—after all, he married her. Bruno gets shipped home instead of Wendell’s father. Wendell considers that a good thing—Bruno is finally getting what he wanted: a trip back to America. And the happy new adulterers will find their way back to Ischia every July 15–August 15 for their “health.”

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Billy Wilder has dealt with adultery before, most notably in The Apartment, again with Jack Lemmon. In both these films, the heroine has very low self-esteem, and Lemmon is a blustery, overbearing oaf. However, in The Apartment, there is much more humanity and much sharper satire on the American way of doing business. Here, we get nothing but types that, to be fair, are universally insulting and utterly unfunny. The Italians are crooked, shakedown artists who hold adultery in the highest regard. The one Sicilian is ugly and trigger-happy. And poor Pamela is willing to settle for the same life as her supposedly honorable mother had (never letting Armbruster Sr. set her up in London as a kept woman because she “was in love”). Mum kept her manicuring job at the Savoy Hotel, and good ole Pamela will be no trouble to Wendell either. “I’m not all women’s lib,” she says, “I don’t mind being considered a sex object.” In 1972, this sentiment is laughable and aggressively anti-feminist. It is certainly no triumph that a perfectly attractive woman who earns her own living is ridiculed for her imaginary weight problem and pushed into a “happy ending” of long-term adultery, and 11 months of pining away.

The rating for this film on IMDb is 7, which is pretty good. I hope that rating is only for the beautiful scenery. I would hate to think that modern users of IMDb really think this is a good movie. I applaud the three under-18 women who gave it a 1. Right on, sisters!

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19th 12 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Vera Drake (2004)

Director: Mike Leigh

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule that favors “conscience rights” over the law. This rule protects healthcare providers from being denied employment or being fired for refusing to administer abortions, emergency contraception, or certain forms of birth control on religious or moral grounds—essentially giving pharmacists, physicians, and other healthcare providers conscientious objector status.

Hundreds of thousands of comments opposing this rule were submitted to HHS, in part because the rule does not require healthcare providers in private practice to inform women of their options. All supporters of a woman’s right to an abortion and the contraceptive method of her choice fear that reproductive health will be compromised and that unsafe, back alley abortions could again multiply. Those favoring the rule believe, at the very least, that it is wrong to discriminate against caregivers who cannot in good conscience prescribe birth control that takes place after conception, such as the morning-after pill or an IUD, or practice abortion. The perennially contentious battle over reproductive rights makes Vera Drake, a brilliantly realized tragedy set in England in 1950, a perennially timely film that looks at the issue from all sides with a good deal of—though not complete—objectivity.

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Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a woman in her 60s who is the “heart of gold” at the center of her happy, working-class family. She is in a loving, 27-year marriage to Stan (Philip Davis) and has a close relationship with her grown son Sid (Daniel Mays) and her plain-Jane daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly), both of whom still live at home. Stan works for his beloved younger brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough) at Frank’s auto repair shop. Frank’s wife Joyce (Heather Craney) is an upwardly mobile housewife who forces Frank to spoil her and disdains her husband’s working-class family.

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Vera cleans the homes of the well-to-do, looks after her homebound mother, and unbeknownst to her family, “helps” girls who are unhappily pregnant “start their bleeding” again. Vera’s “partner” in this endeavor, Lily (Ruth Sheen), schedules Vera’s carbolic soap abortions to fit between her work and her domestic duties. Lily charges the abortion seekers two guineas; Vera takes no money at all for what she sees as a benevolent service and has no idea that Lily is profiting from it. Lily “pays” Vera by offering her discounts on hard-to-find foodstuffs in an England still recovering from World War II; she buys the goods with her abortion fees.

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Vera has played matchmaker for her daughter by inviting the thoroughly decent, but shy Reg (Eddie Marsan) around for dinner. Reg and Ethel’s relationship prospers, and by Thanksgiving, both Stan’s and Frank’s households are in for some good news. Reg and Ethel are engaged, confounding Stan’s belief that they’d be courting for years, and Joyce and Frank are expecting a baby. The family is in the middle of their celebrations when a knock at the door changes everything; the police have come to arrest Vera for performing an abortion on one Pamela Barnes (Liz White), who developed serious complications that brought her near death.

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Vera Drake is one of the very rare films that presents a social issue on thoroughly human terms. Vera is an efficient, energetic presence, happily making the rounds of the homes she tends and the sick she nurses. Mike Leigh and Imelda Staunton set the tone at the very beginning of the movie as his camera follows her on her rounds—she walking crisply up stairs, her rapid, decisive footfalls reflecting her sense of purpose, her insertion of keys into door locks just as crisp—a telling detail indicating the trust her charges place in her. In each home, Leigh lingers longer than other directors might to emphasize that Vera isn’t just rushing through the day, but rather takes time to provide sustenance for the souls of her invalids. Even in the home of one of her wealthy employers, Mrs. Wells (Leslie Manville), she chats pleasantly to the half-listening lady of the house as she vigorously polishes brass fireplace irons while on her knees. The physical positions of the two women in this scene are no accident.

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Leigh wishes to contrast the treatment of a wealthy girl in trouble with that of the poor girls Vera tends. Mrs. Wells’ daughter Susan (Sally Hawkins), is a quiet, proper girl who is raped by a drunken date. When she finds herself in trouble, she contacts an acquaintance (Fenella Woolgar) and tells her the “a friend of mine” story before dissolving into frightened tears. Her acquaintance provides her with the name of a doctor and advises her to invent a crazy aunt; the psychiatrist to whom the doctor will refer her will want proof of mental instability to recommend a therapeutic abortion. For 100 guineas, Susan is set up in a private nursing facility and tended to by an efficient staff of nurses.

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By contrast, Vera’s girls are a mixed bag—from young girls, to an adulterous wife, an overburdened mother with an already large brood, and a woman who uses abortion as after-the-fact contraception. Her first client in the movie is frightened but compliant, and has to slam the door on the man who knocked her up—the suggestion is that he might be abusive to her—as Vera is leaving. The second is a “darkie,” probably a prostitute who will be unable to earn a living if she’s pregnant, who is all alone and afraid something will go wrong. Vera reassures her in a rather clipped manner using language we hear again and again over the course of the five abortions Leigh films. The caring depersonalization shows us how Vera maintains a psychological distance that allows her to break the law and keep her activities entirely secret from her family. It also allows her to say to the police, when they interrogate her, that none of her girls has ever gotten sick before. Perhaps she really believes it. She doesn’t seem to know any other abortionists with whom to compare notes; it is only in prison that she learns from two other abortionists that their girls died and that they are in for a second stretch.

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The police detectives and female patrol officer (a wonderful Helen Coker) are extremely decent in this film. After finding out from Pamela Barnes’ rather uncooperative mother Jessie (Lesley Sharp) about Vera—the coincidence of Vera and Jessie working at the same laundry 20 years before does her in—they spend time in the Drake home talking with Vera in private. “I know why you’re here,” she says in a quiet, choked voice. We watch this seemingly angelic woman crumble right before our eyes. Her movements become slow, her gait unsteady, her back stooped, her voice muted. Completely in character with her desire to help people, she is utterly compliant with the police and produces her abortion kit without complaint.

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Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight) does his duty and believes in preventing young girls from dying at the hands of amateur abortionists—how he feels about the act of abortion itself is never explored—but he’s aware of the tragedy of the situation. He is as gentle with Vera and her anxious family as he possibly can be and guesses that Vera defines abortion as helping girls because she herself was in trouble. Vera never confirms this, and we know that she doesn’t know who her father was, so it may be that she is simply the product of an unintended pregnancy, possibly through incest. Nonetheless, Vera has in some way walked in the shoes of the girls she tends and feels that without her, their lives could become intolerable. She’s probably right.

Seeing the contrast between the experience of Vera’s girls and Susan emphasizes the two-tiered justice of the haves and the have-nots. Neither abortion is legal, but Susan’s does exemplify the exception for which conservatives seem to make a bit of room—rape or incest. Money buys safety, and the social position of reputable doctors goes a long way in guaranteeing their safety from investigation. Still, Vera has been providing abortions for “a long time,” so the community she serves also wishes to protect her. She’s all they’ve got. Without money or influence, they either have to give birth or try to perform an abortion on themselves, which usually is ineffective or has dire consequences. (A picture I saw of a dead woman, Gerri Santoro, who did just this haunts me still.)

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From the point at which Vera is arrested, the film is extremely hard to watch. All of the actors give soul-searing performances; I’ve got a lump in my throat now just thinking about their anguish, about how a happy family was destroyed by the legal and financial barriers to abortion that made Vera do what she did. Yet, she is not an innocent in this drama. Whether or not you think abortion is murder, there’s no question that even well-meaning abortionists kill women—and let’s face it, illegal abortionists weren’t and aren’t the angels of mercy Vera seems to be (see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days [2007] for a more realistic look at an abortionist). It is for this very reason that so many worked so hard to make abortion legal, and continue to fight to keep it available. It’s a fact that women will always seek abortions if they feel they need to; as a society, we continue to grapple with the question of whether they have the right to an abortion or whether they ought to be left to stew in their own juices. Vera Drake presents the issue of abortion and the conditions under which women seek one and asks its audience not to argue and picket, but rather to step into their shoes and understand their pain and frustration.


4th 11 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi, 2001)

Director/Screenwriter: Babak Payami

Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon

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This post is part of the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by Jason Bellamy at The Cooler.

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s Election Day in the United States, a day that has been hyped across the country and around the world as either the beginning of Hope and Change or the continuation of Bad Old Bushism. If Barack Obama is elected president, it will certainly be an historic moment for the African-American community, but will it really make the kind of difference the true believers think it will?

Having your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground is always the prudent thing to do, especially in a representative democracy, and especially in one as large and diverse as the United States. An object lesson in the wisdom of this advice can be found in Secret Ballot, a film that premiered just a year after the Election Dysfunction of 2000 that shows us the beauty and limitations of democracy in a gently satiric way.

The film opens on a visually stunning image of an airplane flying during the rising of the sun. A box emerges from the plane’s open cargo doors, its white parachute flapping and then filling with air, making perhaps a very intentional parallel with the “miracle” from which cargo cults arose. The box floats like an angel down to a barren land on the edge of an ocean, touching exactly where it was intended to land—at an army patrol site. In this remote island location, the site contains little more than the two infantrymen who work in shifts, taking turns sleeping in the bottom half of a bunk bed and sharing one gun to use as they patrol for smugglers working among the islands.

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The night-shift soldier pries open the box and reads an enclosed letter. He then wakes his comrade (Cyrus Abidi) and tells him that it is Election Day in Iran and that he will be escorting an agent around the island collecting votes from its inhabitants. Then, the night-shift soldier prepares for a good day’s sleep. The idea that anyone could sleep out in the open in a desert during the day is only the first absurdity of life on the island. We’ll encounter more as the day goes on.

About half an hour later, a boat pulls up to the small dock at the soldiers’ post, and a woman alights. In contrast to the pillowy white parachute that delivered the box, she is a whirlwind wrapped in a black chador that billows in the strong ocean breeze and the wake of her own energetic movement. She is the election agent (Nassim Abdi), and the soldier refuses to escort a woman around. “I’m in charge here,” retorts the agent as she eagerly goes through the contents of the box. She shows the soldier the written orders he has to follow and then spreads out the map of the areas they need to reach. Off they go, the soldier grumbling all the way.

The first person they see is a man who is running along the road. The soldier is sure he’s a smuggler and is quick to put his hand to his rifle. The agent says he’s a voter and must feel free from intimidation. She orders the soldier to catch up with him. When they pull in front of him, the soldier demands to know why he was running. “Is running a crime?” the man asks defensively. Of course not, the agent says and goes into her election day rap; the man wishes to vote, but not with the soldier hanging around. “I want my vote to be secret,” which the agent assures him is his right. The absurdity of chasing a voter has a familiar ring to any voter who has ever been pandered to or identified as part of a crucial voting block.

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The rather menacing next scene shows a large truck chasing after the agent and soldier. The truck stops, and a man emerges; he has brought voters from another island to cast their ballots. One by one, women in colorful but very severe chadors, some with masks that hide their faces from prying male eyes, climb out of the back of the truck. The truck driver orders the soldier away, saying their husbands would not like them “consorting” with a strange man. “What about you?” the soldier retorts. “They know me.” The women swarm the agent as she explains the process. When one of the women produces her ID, the agent rejects her for being under the legal voting age of 16. One of the other women says “She can marry at 12. Why can’t she vote?” Stumped, the agent pauses and then just repeats, “I’m sorry. It’s not allowed.”

So far, voting is going smoothly. The soldier still can’t see the importance of voting, thinking that you can get much more done with a gun than a ballot box. Unswayed, the agent confidently answers all of the soldier’s objections, saying that when people vote, it helps their government improve things. She’ll be singing a different tune when she starts running into roadblocks.

The agent’s quest for votes takes her to the beach, where fishermen are mending their nets. Although they come from another country, they tell the soldier that there are Iranians on the boat from which they came. The next hilarious scene shows the soldier rowing the agent out to the boat. From a distance, we see the men on board line up and a power boat buzz by.

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Cut to the agent and soldier back on the road. They have a passenger, a young woman who was trying to run off with a foreigner who was arrested as a smuggler. The soldier, his Iranian manhood offended, says, “Maybe they can make a law so our women can’t go off and marry foreigners!” The agent counters, “Maybe they’ll make a law that lets a woman marry whom she likes.” In a small gesture I didn’t see coming, the young woman tries to give the agent her ID while they are driving so she can vote. “Not here,” the agent says. “We’ll do it when we get you home.” “They won’t let me vote there,” the young woman says. Sure enough, the women in the compound will not vote without the consent of their men, who are at a funeral in a cemetery that no women—not even the widow—can enter. These feminist concerns are laced throughout the film, though it isn’t heavy-handed and is usually emphasized unpolemically through actions.

Another stop for the moving polling place is a compound run by Granny Baghoo. The agent’s knocks on doors remain unanswered, perhaps on Granny Baghoo’s orders. A peddler sitting outside the compound agrees to show the agent his ID if she buys something; so dedicated is she that she agrees, essentially, to buy his vote. When she chooses a doll, he produces his ID. “You’re not Iranian. You can’t vote,” she complains. “All I said is that I would show you my ID.” Things continue on this way in the compound until she finally finds a man and starts her rap on the importance of voting. He keeps shaking his head at all her arguments. Finally, he spits out, “I don’t speak Farsi.” The agent returns to the jeep. “They don’t need to vote,” the agent says, much to the soldier’s surprise. “Granny Baghoo has a government all her own.”

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The soldier and the agent finally come to a real and metaphorical crossroads when he stops the jeep as her deadline for returning to the post to catch her boat approaches. “Why have you stopped?” the agent asks impatiently. “The light is red,” he says and points to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. This scene, I learned, is a lampoon on Imam Khomeni’s edict forbidding drivers from blowing through stoplights, an action taken to curb the horrible driving habits of Iranians. Obviously, this order makes no sense in a place with maybe a dozen cars all told, yet the soldier obeys the law the agent has been singing the praises of all during their journey. In her panic to see that the votes she collected are not invalidated because she missed the boat, the agent gets out of the car and screams that the law doesn’t matter in a place like this, in a desert with no real streets or traffic. The absurdity of the light even being there and the contradictory concerns of the agent are comments on how out of touch the central government can be with the needs of all its citizens, a fact that has been voiced over and over again by the voters the agent tries unsuccessfully to persuade to exercise their franchise. In the end, both the agent and the soldier will understand more than they did when the day began.

It would be easy to see the soldier and the agent—both unnamed—as props in a political system the director uses to make his points. But the script is so smart in weaving its messages into believable encounters, conversations, and wry situations that it never feels forced. It is such a pleasure to learn something valuable while being extremely entertained.

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It’s rather interesting how many male Iranian filmmakers have made or collaborated on films sympathetic to the plight of women in their country, for example, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Pahani, Kambuzia Partovi, and Babak Payami in this, his directing debut. Even more startling is the fact that Iranian women, such as Samira Makhmalbaf and Rakhshān Bani E’temād, have come to prominence as directors working today. Payami mines the rich vein of contradiction in Iranian society, observing the repressiveness of religious dogma contrasted against the promise of a democratic voting process promoted, not surprisingly, by a female election agent. Nonetheless, the failures of the feminist movement, the most prominent example of a social issue this film addresses, serve to remind the agent and others who believe the government will solve all their problems that they need to take action on diverse fronts.

To keep this moment in American history in perspective, the delightful and wise Secret Ballot is must-viewing after the election.

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6th 10 - 2008 | no comment »

2008 CIFF: Beautiful (Arumdabda, 2008)

Director: Juhn Jaihong

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in 1996, a delightfully depraved film from South Korea called 301, 302 took on the effects of rape on a survivor and the person who tries to help her. The rape victim holds down a responsible job but succumbs more and more to her anorexia. Her neighbor, a shallow woman who only knows how to interact with her husband through sex and gourmet cooking, ends up losing him. She fills the void by trying to cook the perfect meal to heal her self-starving neighbor. The ending of the film is shocking but somehow appropriate, providing each woman with an outlet for her rage. Significantly, 301, 302 was written by a woman, Lee Suh-Goon.

Unfortunately, first-time director Juhn Jaihong looks every bit the unskilled neophyte. A protégé of Kim Ki-duk, a much-lauded director of the Korean New Wave who provided the story on which Beautiful is based, Juhn shows no subtlety or understanding of the deeper problems of women in Korean society that were explored to such great effect in 301, 302. Beautiful takes the dilemma faced by beautiful young women in a society that disrespects women at a very basic level and turns out a less graphic version of slasher porn. Kim Eun-yeong (Cha Su-yeon), the lovely victim in Beautiful is no match for the gawkers and stalkers she tries unsuccessfully to evade. She is for them and for the makers and audiences of this film an object to be abused, laughed at, blamed, and ultimately destroyed by the obsession of her self-appointed savior.

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We first meet Eun-yeong in a café where she is waiting to meet her friend Mi-yeon (Lee Min). Several school girls notice her, remark on her great beauty, and ask her for her autograph even though she is not an actress or anyone famous. Actually, Eun-yeong doesn’t seem to exist in this film except to be a victim. We don’t see her work or go to school. She has one friend, Mi-yeon, but no boyfriend or, it appears, anyone else in her life, including family. Her beautiful, expensive-looking apartment is devoid of any personal photos; only a couple sketches of a nude woman—presumably Eun-yeong—garnish the décor. Is what she’s about to go through a comment on Eun-yeong’s essential narcissism?

So what does she go through? She’s harassed constantly by men—those she knows, like Mi-yeon’s boyfriend, but more often strangers on the street. Her distant admirers send her bunches of flowers, which she has the doorman of her condominium toss in the trash. She makes the mistake, however, of taking a single lily up with her as a simple decoration. This act encourages her stalker Eun-cheol (Lee Chun-heui) to declare his love by faking his way into her apartment as a meter reader. When she tries to brush him off as she has done with every one of her ardent admirers, he throws her around, slaps her unconscious, and rapes her. Then he takes pictures of her.

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Remorse sends Eun-cheol to the police to confess. The police call Eun-yeong in to the station and ask why she didn’t report the crime. Humiliated and traumatized, she barely speaks. One jackass detective accuses her of leading men on by dressing in short skirts and, well, being so damn pretty. Indeed, her attacker said that she raped him with her beauty. Eun-yeong certainly does seem to have a hypnotic effect on men. Detective Kim (Myeong-soo Choi), a decent police officer who shields her from his partner’s rudeness becomes obsessed with her, too, copying tapes her stalker made of her and jacking off to them. He then abandons his job (an extended vacation, he says) and starts following her around.

Eun-yeong barely notices that he always seems to be around. She’s too busy trying to make herself unattractive. She dresses in long, concealing clothes. Then she gets the idea to gain weight from watching a fat girl she spoke with one day wolf down a large lunch. Eun-yeong’s binges, however, only shock her system, and she ends up in an emergency department with an inflamed stomach and a doctor who tries to feel her up. When she leaves the hospital, she collapses, and, in a somewhat comical scene, is swarmed by men fighting to be the one who takes her home in a taxi. Detective Kim again comes to her rescue. Then she decides to lose weight and look skeletal, but her constant exercise and near fasting causes her to collapse before her body can adjust to a starvation regime. Again, she ends up in the hospital.

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As Eun-yeong grows more and more insane, decides to become a hooker, and vomits almost nonstop, she starts to see her rapist everywhere and nearly stabs a man she sees enter a men’s room. Fortunately, discreet stalker Detective Kim prevents her from striking the man she thought was her attacker. More of this tiresome craziness ensues until the film ends in a bloodbath.

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If it had bothered to take Eun-yeong’s problems seriously—or even made her into a believable character with a real life—Beautiful could have some interesting things to say about women. Beauties are often swarmed by besotted men who scare, more than flatter, them. Rape does make women feel ashamed, complicit in their own attack, and desperate to fade into the background so they won’t be targeted again. Without a proper support network, rape victims do become emotionally unstable. Many young women are not taught self-defense or self-respect, and more importantly, many young men are not taught to respect women. But Beautiful does not wish to explore Eun-yeong’s relationship to her own power as, say, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher or I Spit on Your Grave do. She says repeatedly that she wants to live and that she can’t go on as a victim anymore. But the director and screenwriter would rather let Detective Kim call the shots and force her fate on her like a second, more deadly rape. Eun-yeong’s allure seems more that of a sorceress than a fresh-faced young woman, and we all know what happens to witches.

This film’s pinpoint devotion to the mechanics of obsession is so clumsily handled that it neither illuminates that compulsion nor comments effectively on what it means to be beautiful in a misogynistic society. “Beauty is destiny,” someone says to Eun-yeong. According to this movie, being a beautiful woman means being reduced to a raving crone who is destroyed without any reason or poignancy. This is a huge step backward in Korea’s films about women. Let’s hope this new director finds another direction; he’s completely out of his depth in the feminine world.


26th 08 - 2008 | 24 comments »

Gender Attitudes in Two Revenge Tales: I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and A Question of Silence (De stilte rond Christine M, 1982)

Directors/Screenwriters: Meir Zarchi/Marleen Gorris

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

During the late second-wave feminist movement in the United States and its slightly lagging reverberations in Europe, two films of female revenge premiered: I Spit on Your Grave (whose innocuous original title was Day of the Woman), a primal, graphically violent film that was lumped into the popular exploitation genre, and the Dutch film A Question of Silence (literally translated as The Silence of Christine M.), an avowed feminist film with a very civilized veneer in which the murder at its center is never explicitly shown.

These two films with a common theme could not look more different. The former film was roundly trounced as the most disgusting film ever made, was banned in several countries, and has lived on in infamy. The latter film, decidedly more “artsy,” cerebral, and, well, foreign, made the festival circuit and quickly vanished. Regardless of their superficial differences, however, these films try to make exactly the same point and in this attempt, fall into a trap of patriarchy that neither of them fully recognizes.

In this essay, I will summarize the plots, attempt to describe the basic gender dynamics at work in the narratives of these two films, reactions to the films, and ways to reframe these narratives to accommodate more advanced ideas about gender roles.

The basic plots

I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a would-be novelist from New York City who rents a riverfront house in a small town as a quiet, isolated place in which to work. Before seeing her temporary home for the first time, she stops for gas and encounters four buddies: ringleader Johnny (Eron Tabor), lackeys Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleemann), and mildly retarded Matthew (Richard Pace). After a slow, tension-building start, the film kicks into high gear, as the men encounter Jennifer floating in a rowboat, grab her out of it, and take her into the woods so that Matthew can have his first sexual encounter. He hesitates, and for the next 45 minutes, we watch Jennifer raped and sodomized by Johnny and Andy in the woods, stalked to her home, raped by Matthew, and beaten savagely by Andy. Matthew is given the task of killing her, but unbeknownst to the others, he only coats the knife he has been given in blood from her face. After two weeks with no discovery of her body, the men go back to the house, one by one, to investigate. One by one, Jennifer kills them. One is hung, another is castrated and bleeds to death, a third gets an ax in the back, and the fourth is shredded by the propeller of an outboard motor. The film ends with Jennifer motoring down the river, with only the water divided by the bow visible under the closing credits.

A Question of Silence introduces three women, a housewife and mother named Christine (Edda Barends), divorced waitress An (Henriette Tol), and unmarried secretary Andrea (Nelly Firjda) as each goes about her daily routine. One by one, policemen come and take them away. They are being charged with the heinous murder and mutilation of the manager of a women’s clothing boutique. None of the women knew each other or the manager. Psychiatrist Janine van den Bos (Cox Habbema) is engaged to interview the women to determine if they are mentally fit to stand trial. As she goes about her work, Janine learns that each woman has been demeaned by the men in her life. The murder also unfolds episodically throughout the film, and we see four women of different ages and races observe the murder without lifting a hand or voice to stop it. Janine comes to understand the women—even Christine, who can speak but, like Bartleby, prefers not to—and pronounces them sane. The prosecutor can’t understand how a sane woman could have done such a thing, at which point the defendants, Janine, and the women who observed the murder and are now in the gallery of the courtroom, burst into uncontrollable laughter. An outraged prosecutor and panel of judges remove the defendants from the courtroom and hold the trial without them. Janine walks out and faces the bystanders to the murder. All look silently, understandingly, at each other.

Gender dynamics

The period in which these two films were released marked perhaps the lowest point in male/female relations in the 20th century. Legislative gains made by first-wave feminists were being followed up by challenges to the social and psychological order of things. Consciousness raising, which women engaged in throughout the 1970s, helped to uncover the unconscious, internalized structures supporting patriarchy in America and other societies and provided tools for women to wield in their social relationships. Eventually, these challenges to the social order would create a “backlash” men’s movement that would attempt to organize male rights in an effort to achieve balance in the face of uncustomary female assertiveness.

Within this context, it is not surprising that films featuring the savage rape of a woman and the equally savage murders of men by women would appear on the cultural landscape. Yet, both films reflect the still-unconscious understanding of traditional male/female roles.

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In I Spit on Your Grave, a context for Jennifer’s rape is not given. Just like the murder of the shop manager in A Question of Silence, none of the rapists and would-be murderers knew Jennifer or had any personal reason to hold a grudge against her. Her only “crime” is that she is a woman, and the men claim their control over her body almost as a right. It is only when the shoe is on the other foot that the men trot out the usual excuses that hide the real motive for their attack. No one in the audience at that time would have been puzzled about why an attractive woman like Jennifer would be attacked. Then, rape was still seen primarily as a sex act, therefore, the audience might have been puzzled if the men had attacked a homely woman without provocation. This film might have gone some ways toward demonstrating that rape is a hate crime, however, thus performing a service for some audience members at the time and viewers in the ensuing years.

Both movies, and particularly A Question of Silence, take pains to provide a context and justification of sorts for the actions of their female protagonists. Revenge is the basic motive, of course. Audiences of I Spit on Your Grave generally feel that Jennifer’s mass murder of her attackers is justified. The film wisely ends at the completion of the last murder. To bring in the law at this point would remind audiences that Jennifer did not attempt to redress her grievances through the criminal justice system. According to director/writer Zarchi, he was moved to make this film after trying to help a real gang-rape victim seek justice, only to find the justice system unhelpful and unsympathetic. Given his fantasy of the justice of “natural law,” the film could not have ended any other way. (In a strange move that I will in no way try to interpret [sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar], the director cast his own wife as Jennifer.)

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In sharp contrast, A Question of Silence occurs almost entirely under the aegis of the Dutch legal system and serves as a consciousness-raising experience for Janine. None of the accused women resist arrest or deny that they murdered the shop manager. Since there is no apparent motive for the crime or the women’s alliance, the courts assume that the women must be insane. Indeed, Janine’s psychological evaluation seems to be a mere formality. When she comes to see how male prerogatives have denied these women opportunities for financial security, professional advancement, and equality in marriage, she discovers that her own rage matches theirs. Her good marriage to a doctor fractures as the case exposes his self-centered, male entitlements.

Again, Gorris needs to emphasize the complicity of silence about the second-class status of women in Dutch society. She emphasizes that men seem deaf and blind to women’s plight. In one scene, Andrea, who routinely does all the work and research for her boss, gives a reasoned rundown of their company’s unfavorable position in the North African market. A couple of beats later, a man sitting to her right repeats exactly what she said; Andrea’s boss compliments the man on his ideas. The scene would be funny to me if I hadn’t actually witnessed similar scenes over the years and as recently as 2005.

The courtroom scenes exaggerate the buffoonery of the law and its representatives. Certainly the women are angry—so angry that they make a corpse that is unrecognizable and, like Jennifer, engage in castration. Nonetheless, these deliberately ordinary women have contributed to the complicity of silence. Indeed, Christine refuses to speak because, Janine reasons, no one ever listened to her. A Question of Silence may be the first voice of feminist Dutch filmmakers, but aside from refusing to participate in their own trial—like the Chicago 7 refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court—they give up on trying to educate their society and therefore continue to submit themselves to patriarchy. All they got was a temporarily satisfying revenge. The hint of a revolution to come, however, adds a measure of hope to this first shot in the dark.

Reactions to the films

In a recent review of I Spit on Your Grave, Sam Jordison of the UK’s Channel 4 writes:

“It is strong stuff, not for the weak-stomached. It’s also over the top and the frequently clumsy dialogue (which is sometimes even inaudible) and suspect camerawork mean that this film will never be viewed as high art. However, behind the excesses there is a seriousness of intent from writer-director Meir Zarchi, a willingness to confront boundaries and an incisive questioning of the justification of revenge.”

Roger Ebert’s review of I Spit on Your Grave is extremely negative but very astute about the film’s reflection of cultural norms of the time. He writes:

“A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters…

“How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud. After the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That’ll show her!’ After the third: ‘I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best.’ When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: ‘Cut him up, sister!’ In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.

“I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine. I wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”

An anonymous capsule summary of A Question of Silence at Channel 4 says:

“Despite—or because of—the climax, this is a disturbing and sombre movie, raising questions from a severe feminist stance and not suggesting any easy answers. It makes for gripping entertainment thanks to Gorris’s abundant skill in handling a complicated structure and her four central performers.”

Janet Maslin wrote of A Question of Silence:

The feminist cause will not be well served by A Question of Silence, a Dutch film that tells of three women who stomp, kick and pummel to death a male shopkeeper. … Why? Well, apparently because he is a man, and the three shoppers have all been ill treated by other men that they know.

It’s a little skewed to choose reviews from a UK site because gender roles have not moved as far as they have in the United States. Unfortunately, reviews of A Question of Silence are hard to come by, and I was struck by what Sam Jordison had to say.

In assessing I Spit on Your Grave, Jordison stresses the extreme nature of the violence and how that might push an audience’s buttons, as well as whether revenge might be justified in this case. Nowhere does he suggest that there is something to think about with regard to the underlying attitudes of the men in the film. His thoughts are turned to judgment of the woman.

Roger Ebert gets at the underlying assumptions of the film that are so repellent, but fails to appreciate the film as anything but an obscene pile of trash. In his own way, he is trying to suppress what the film has brought to the surface—the animosity, even hatred, between men and women shown at its most extreme.

As for A Question of Silence, I think both reviews also reflect an antipathy for the anger of women in male-dominated societies. Janet Maslin is simply dismissive of the film, perhaps believing the old saw that feminists hate men. Hers is a thoughtless, careless appraisal. While the anonymous reviewer acknowledges that the film is thought-provoking, he or she emphasizes that the film represents an extreme feminist point of view. Historic cultures, such as ancient Greece, always gave the devil her due as evidenced by Medea’s murder of her own children to show her displeasure with her husband. I prefer an “extreme” feminism to one that is more polite and, therefore, fairly toothless.

Moving ahead

Progress has been made to some degree in the cinematic arts and in life. Numerous articles and scholarly works have been devoted to a reappraisal of I Spit on Your Grave, perhaps most notably Michael Kaminiski’s article “Is I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE Really a Misunderstood Feminist Film?” However, feminist film theory still seems to lag in discussing underlying patriarchal attitudes in many of today’s films and forming alternative neutral or female-centric ethics that provide alternatives or eliminate bias altogether.

Younger filmmakers may lead the charge for change. Kevin Smith is quoted in This Film Is Not Yet Rated as saying he’d like films where women are raped and put in danger slapped with an NC-17 rating. Questioning the moral police of the MPAA in itself is an act of rebellion against movies sculpted to reflect a narrow point of view.

Ultimately, filmmakers and filmgoers must make the “you understood” underlying the assumptions they use and witness to assess what points of view are consciously and unconsciously being promoted. For example, if kickass women in films are always beautiful (as, indeed, they are), we haven’t progressed very far from the sentiment expressed in Jerry Harrison’s 1986 song “Man with a Gun”:

A pretty girl, a pretty girl can walk anywhere
All doors open for her
Like a breath of fresh air, her beauty, it precedes her
Wrapped in her beauty, everywhere, she is welcome
First class on the plane, closed door of the club.

In 2010, audiences will be able to see a remake of I Spit on Your Grave. Perhaps that film will be the real litmus test of how far we have or have not come.

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21st 07 - 2008 | 11 comments »

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966)

Director: Věra Chytilová

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read numerous summaries of Daisies, a seminal film of the Czech New Wave, as well as a few analyses, and I must say that I feel rather dissatisfied with all of them. Among the many labels attached to this film is that it is feminist. I’ve mulled this experimental piece of pop art quite a bit, and darn if I can find anything particularly feminist about it. I guess that’s just a boilerplate assumption about movies directed by women. Certainly, if I had to characterize the approach Chytilová takes with this film, it would be feminine, not feminist. She’s a delightful, spirited girl who likes nothing better than to misbehave. She scribbles all over her coloring book, imaginatively making things the wrong color, and moves her “dolls” through various pretend-to-be-adult games, like going on a date with father, having grown-up drinks in a nightclub, and being a beautiful woman with whom all men fall in love.

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The film opens with an aerial view of bombed-out buildings, then moves in on a machine grinding through its gears. Two sisters, Jezinka (Ivana Karbanová) and Jarmila (Jitka Cerhová), sitting in bikinis against a wall, move mechanically with machinelike sounds emanating from each bending joint and wonder what to do. They get up and walk through a very green thicket to a large tree hung with brightly colored fruit. Each pulls a piece of fruit off the tree and chows down. The girls then head into the world for a series of madcap adventures.

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Jezinka is at a restaurant with an elegant older man, when Jarmila comes in and makes herself at home. She orders with abandon and eats like a horse. The old gentleman is taken aback by Jezinka’s sister, but tries to be polite. Jezinka worries about her train. The trio race to the train station and play a game of Chinese fire drill. The train carries the man off without Jezinka. The sisters are gleeful at pulling this trick off, but Jezinka worries that Jarmila will tell that she goes around with old men. The pair pulls this stunt several times in scenes Mack Sennett would have been proud to include in his Keystone Kops comedies.

The girls go to a nightclub, entering through a backstage door and disrupting the tango dancers on stage. They take a booth, start drinking, and begin jumping up and down in their box (surely a trampoline is hidden below), while the dancers glare at them and soldier on to the end of their act. The drunken sisters are escorted out and go home.

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“It’s so nice to be home,” they say, using one of several cliched lines that pop up throughout the film. Their home looks like a little girls’ room, with pictures pasted on the walls. Paper streamers and apples are strewn about. They paint their eyes with long slashes of a paint brush, the kind of improvised make-up kit girls would use to be like Mommy.

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Jarmila goes out on a date. She enters her date’s room, which is covered wall to wall with butterfly specimens. Jarmila removes her clothes and holds two cases, one with two butterflies and the other with one, over her breasts and genital area. She moves coyly across the room when the man plucks the lower butterfly out of its frame. He whispers words of love as he does so. Jarmila runs back home with the words echoing around her as she sits with Jezinka on their bed. We can imagine the echo comes from all of the “butterflies” in the man’s collection, and Jarmila is completely unmoved by them in her remembrance. Nonetheless, she takes a pair of scissors and cuts Jezinka’s dress to pieces, saying, “You don’t mind, do you?” This line is repeated several times until they light the contents of their home on fire in an aggressive scene of destruction.

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The climax of the film is the food orgy. The sisters smuggle themselves up a dumbwaiter into a banquet hall resplendent with elegant and exotic dishes and proceed to eat, throw food at each other, and smash dishes with abandon. After this epic food fight, they end up swinging on the crystal chandelier hanging above the table. They suddenly must repair everything they have broken, placing pieces of dishes together like a mosaic and piling cakes back into something like the shape they started in. The busy-bee buzzing of the voices of the girls working at this pathetic repair are frantic, mechanical, with the film speeded up. When they finish their task, they lay down in the center of the banquet table. The chandelier comes crashing down on them, and we switch to another aerial view of carpet bombing.

Daisies%20cut.jpgDaisies is the kind of film that just sweeps one along in its antic merriment. The eye-popping cinematography and editing of Jaroslav Kucera and Miroslav Hájek, respectively, are a dazzling array of color, super-quick cutting, and strong close-ups that envelop the viewer in the detail of the moment. One scene, in which the sisters cut each other with scissors, is a riot of floating heads, limbs, and torsos. Karbanová, as the dark-haired sister, seems slightly more demure than Cerhová, her daisy-crowned sister, who subtly acts as the leader of the pair. Her playful sexual awakening seems to unleash a certain aggression, escalating to the banquet scene–a painful act of destruction that is, nonetheless, a lot of fun to watch. I felt very happy to spend time with these girls.

The Czech government was not at all amused, however, wondering how public funds could be thrown away on “trash” that made no sense. They also didn’t like the display of wasted food. Chytilová was unable to make films for years until she wrote an impassioned and lengthy letter vowing her dedication to socialist principles and explaining that the film was meant to show how small acts of destruction can build up and create an atmsophere in which greater destruction can take place. Well, this is one way to look at it, and since she’s the director, I guess she ought to know. What I tend to think is that she let the genie out of the bottle, bringing vibrance and life to what had become a drab existence under Communism. Her playfulness, sexual freedom, and flower power attitude are very much in keeping with the Czech films I’ve seen (especially I Served the King of England by Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel) and still have their allure today.


20th 01 - 2008 | 5 comments »

Persepolis (2007)

Directors: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I admit I have a lot of trouble writing about animated feature films. For me, art is an interior experience, a far more subjective exercise in viewing and absorbing than looking at a movie with real settings and live actors. Animation gives me complete access into the writer/illustrator’s vision—no famous faces and places mitigating that experience—and that fact puts another layer of contemplation into how I see these movies. I welcome the challenge, however, when the film provides me with a rich and honest canvas of images and emotions.

Persepolis, an animated film of the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is a truly extraordinary anime in the spirit of adult anime we have come to associate with the Japanese. Satrapi is an Iranian who has been living in self-imposed exile in France for some time. Persepolis was the ancient capital of Persia (now Iran) that was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and now lies in ruins. The film chronicles Marjane’s life in the current capital, Tehran, under the Western-backed Shah, through the Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and on to the strict Islamist government that replaced it. The journey on which Satrapi takes us is both back in time through her life as told in voiceover flashback, and to the echoes of ancient Persepolis and its sad fate repeated again in the 20th century AD.

The film begins at an airport, where an adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is asked for her passport and ticket. She looks dumbfounded at the ticketing agent, then adjusts her veil on her head and walks away. She sits and the full-color illustration turns black and white as Marjane reminisces about her life.

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As a child, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is exuberant and outspoken. Her hero is Bruce Lee. So is her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux). Her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are against the Shah, who imprisoned Marjane’s Uncle Anouche (voiced by François Jerosme) for being a communist. When the Shah is overthrown in 1979, the Satrapis and most of the rest of the country rejoice, including Anouche, who has been freed from prison.

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Unfortunately, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism brings a different kind of repression to the country. Not only are communists persecuted, but also anyone who challenges the authority of the mullahs and the fundamentalist Muslims who take over the instruments of government. When Marjane’s aunt applies for an emergency visa for her husband, who desperately needs open-heart surgery in Europe, she complains that her former window washer turned her away, saying only that if Allah wishes it, she will have her visa. Marjane’s uncle is buried three weeks later. Anouche, as a former communist, returns to prison and eventually is executed.

Marjane, still outspoken, takes risks to preserve her former way of life as best she can. She borrows money from her mother to buy Western music from black marketers who are standing along a street. As she walks among them, she hears whispers of “Michael Jackson,” “The Beatles,” and finally the one she wants, “Iron Maiden.” Marjane takes a jacket, paints “Punk Is Not Ded” on the back, and dons it over her chador. Two teachers accost her and warn her parents that all will not be well if they don’t bring their daughter into line.

Eventually, worried for Marji’s safety, her parents decide to send her to stay with a cousin in Vienna. After their tearful farewell at the airport, Marjane walks away; she turns back in time to see her mother collapse in her father’s arms and be carried away. Once in Vienna, Marjane is quickly sent from her cousin’s home and to a convent school. Her uneasy stay comes to an end when, after the nuns have used a racial slur against her, she says, “Is it true that all nuns are prostitutes first?” Marjane bounces from home to home and finally ends up in with an older woman and her dog Muki, the latter of which humps Marjane’s leg at every opportunity.

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Confused and longing to fit in, Marjane takes up with a group of punks. Through them, she meets her first love, but finds him in bed with another woman one day. Depressed, she rejects him in her mind in a series of riotous fantasies of him covered with pimples, picking and eating his snot, and slavishly giving in to his mother. Marjane goes home and throws herself on her bed. When the old lady gives her a hard time, Marjane explodes. She insults the woman and her dog and leaves. She decides to return to Iran, but once there, she feels like an alien in her own land. She remains outspoken as ever at her university. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran for France, probably for good.

I had a leg up in understanding Marjane’s story because I had read the remarkable memoir of these very times, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, an educated woman and university professor who described poignantly the lot of women under the mullahs and the variety of choices they had to make depending on their level of devoutness and Westernization. None of the horrors Nafisi described are missing from Persepolis. Satrapi describes the waste of the 8-year war with Iraq, the bombed houses, the executions. A particularly affecting story has Marjane’s father try to secure a fake passport for Anouche; later, he and Marjane learn that the forger’s residence has been raided, his equipment trashed, and a woman he had been hiding arrested. We see the woman in silouette standing in front of a hangman’s noose, awaiting execution. The forger flees the country.

We also get a bit of a history lesson about the first and second shahs, whose deals with the West to modernize Iran included persecuting dissidents against democracy and Western influence. Although the repressions were often brutal, they also were contained; the imprisonments and executions increased 100-fold under the mullahs.

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Perhaps surprisingly, the film is also quite lighthearted. We laugh when Marjane and her friend make fun of an ABBA album in class. When Marjane illustrates her growth spurt, with each part of her body suddenly ballooning and toppling her one way and another, it’s a true revolution in the depiction of puberty. The absurdist-humanist eye that started when Marjane doodled her first caricature is fully developed in the straightforward lines and painful memories she creates for Persepolis.

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For Marjane, honesty is the most important value. She betrays that code to save her own skin at one point, bringing down the wrath of her grandmother. “Always be yourself, know yourself,” admonishes her grandmother, who says it’s the only way to endure the lousy facts of life. This sounds like good advice, but to a woman trying to make peace with living in another country that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, clinging steadfastly to her Iranian identity is no small feat. The shock of her ordeal stays with her, a rip in her heart over her lovely, lost land, hidden but never healed. She never wanted to be a citizen of the world and still seems to feels adrift, as this honest interview she gave to Bookslut in 2004 demonstrates. As long as Marjane continues to write and draw her simply wrought, honest graphic novels, we’re sure to learn how her grandmother’s advice plays out in the long run. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.


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