Female Filmmaker Project: Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Lynne Ramsay is a visual poet, more concerned with the meaning behind her images than the machinations of plot. In her work she evokes specific moods with colour palettes or lingering imagery.We Need To Talk About Kevin would douse itself in reds to symbolize a tying together of childbirth and violence. Morvern Callar focuses on textures, beauty in hyperfocused imagery of Christmas Trees and Club lighting as well as others. Ratcatcher is hazy, filled with browns and death seeps out of the sides of the picture. It is ironic that Ramsay infuses normal life giving or transitional narrative modes (Childbirth in Kevin, Adolescence in Ratcatcher) with her preoccupations of decay or destruction, but they exist in her work (Callar deals with suicide), and she is first and foremost a visual filmmaker.

The film begins with the death of a 12 year old boy in an accidental drowning due to play fighting. Ramsay uses close up shots of his hands, and the reaction of a mother who fears it is her own child through a window to convey this loss, but even more than the blunt imagery of a pale ghostly hand she created a world of rigor mortis in Glasgow. The air seems thick with poison, and the world is depleted of it’s colour. Rats infest the streets as garbage workers are on strike and the unwanted items of houses get tossed out to fill up the streets. And it is a world of seemingly endless sorrow with it’s lack of anything resembling vibrancy. Glasgow is in a transitional place in this picture with many occupants being moved around slowly into better housing, and garbage men are fighting for more significant rights to better their own lives. It mirrors James’ growing up from boy to teenager. Everything should be progressing for James and Glasgow, but Ramsay-to the film’s strength- is more interested in the current harsh conditions of the area and the guilt of having been involved in his friends death than a feel good narrative of improvement.

James isn’t the only character struggling to make it in Glasgow. He befriends a girl (Margaret Anne) early in the picture who does sexual favours on the side, but is mercilessly mocked for this reason, her weight, and her need to wear glasses. In their relationship the film finds some of it’s few happier moments. James and Margaret Anne share many significant scenes and seem to have an instant bond. She finds him more trustworthy than the boys he sometimes runs around with (as he treats her with common respect), and he doesn’t have to put up his guard and act hypermasculine to impress her. He even attempts to retrieve her glasses from a pond at one point despite his post traumatic fear of water. He has a similar relationship with his sister, and while they fight as siblings do they shelter each other from the harshness of their sometimes violent father. The humanity and character interaction of James with the various women in his life are often the films sweetest moments. The presence of the gang of boys his age who are more interested in violence, teasing and making it with girls seems foreign to him after the events of the drowning earlier in the picture. His greatest betrayal growing up is even when one of his few male friends, who had a fondness for animals, begins to exhibit violent behaviour to those creates he once loved ,and James finds his friendship with him crumbling. In these ways Ratcatcher exhibits traditional ideas of masculinity as being toxic to male development, and it backs this up with the abusive relationship he has with his father whose only interest for James is to become interested in sports despite his hatred of Football.

James does find solace though, and Ramsay gives him these happier moments by taking him to a safe zone. It would be his future housing, and doubly a look at the future Glasgow has in mind for it’s poorer residents. In these moments James explores, he loses himself in a field, and the shooting style changes from one of decay to life. The sun seems to arrive for the first time in the picture, and colour finally fills up the frame with deeper blues and rose-y golden fields. He’s like a kid here, not worrying about the future problems he’d find in adolescence and adulthood. He seems to have a way out in this luxurious house (at least compared to his old one), but the films final scenes are worrying. In a moment of inevitability he plunges himself in water and he begins to suffer the same fate as his friend. If this is to be read as metaphor then there was no way out of growing up for James, and his housing situation wouldn’t take away the grief that came from his maturing, and for Glasgow improving housing would only be a temporary fix to a rat’s paradise.

Female Filmmaker Project: Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)

***note:This film was not part of the scheduled 52 movies for this project, but after viewing it I decided to review it for this project***

More than anything I think this film cements the importance of sex work as a viable job for some women. Legislators and lawmakers that are so protective towards these women do more harm than good, by cutting off their source of income as they find their way onto the streets without a job. That is the case for Begging Naked’s Elise Hill whose life begins to unravel after Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani wiped out the sex shops and prostitution that used to make up the culture of 42nd Street in favour of the now disneyfication of the area. Elise Hill’s life wasn’t pretty when she was stripping for a living, but it was still a life worth living, and in putting her out on the streets she was cut off from a world she had much to give to.
Elise Hill was a runaway at age 15. Her household was physically abusive, and she ran off to New York to be an artist. She wanted more than anything to go to art school, and found her way into sex work once she arrived. She struggled for a very long time, and started using heroin to cope with her life, but she came to a realization during those difficult years, kicked those drugs and put her way through art school by selling paintings on the side. When the film begins it’s seven year journey she goes back to stripping at the age of 30 to support herself, but continued to paint. She was an artist first and foremost and took great pride in the work she was creating, which at this time was portraits of the slimy men and beautiful women of these clubs. She had great compassion for her friends she was painting, and in 1997 seemed to have her life put together even if she was living a very small life. Regardless it was a happy one. Then the streets she grew up on were painted in a different kind of capitalism and she lost everything.
This eventual spiral is what makes up the majority of Begging Naked’s narrative as the camera mostly just follows Elise around from place to place as she attempts to sell her art, as her life begins to come apart at the seems. It’s a difficult narrative to take in, because all of this was preventable, but in trying to clean up the streets of New York City, Giuliani only crowded them with good people. 
Elise was one of those good people, and it’s downright tragic to see her lose control of her mind towards the end of the picture. She struggles with feelings of paranoia mostly, and begins to think that the CIA are listening in on her, but she finds a kind of solace in that belief as she begins to jot down everything in a journal. She thinks they are listening and one day what she’s writing will be available for everyone to read, because they will post it on the internet. In a way this film is that journal, and director Karen Gehres gave her that wish.
The most striking aspect of this film is it’s depiction of homelessness not as something that happens to specific people, but a thing that can happen to anyone. Gehres’ humanity towards her friend comes through as she doesn’t paint Elise as a tragic figure, but one of perseverance. We see the moment she gets kicked out of her apartment, but it doesn’t end with a cut to black and then her on the streets. We see Elise fight for her possessions that she holds dear and the cat that’s been living with her, whom she loves. She takes her paintings as well, because this is her lifeblood and later on even when she is on the streets she is creating art. It’s good art too, as her paintings symbolize a confidence in portrait as she painted a type of person who isn’t shown as beautiful very often: the women of the capitalist sexual world who are doing jobs just to get by. She has a kinship with those women, because she is one of them, and Gehres respects that. The movie states that her art today resides in a stocking room warehouse collecting dust, and Elise is still living in Central Park.

Female Filmmaker Project: Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)

Catherine Breillat’s career has been a treatise on sexuality and womanhood, even her films that aren’t explicity sexual like Sleeping Beauty or Abuse of Weakness are informed by things like menstruation and sub/domme flourishes. Romance falls easily in line with pictures of her past like A Real Young Girl as it is very overtly about a woman’s sexuality and how it connects itself with her feelings of love from her celibate (unless for child rearing) boyfriend whom she loves dearly, but becomes increasingly frustrated with as time passes. Her relationship with him leads her into many trysts with her other men that finally ends with her on the other end of sexual punishment with a man whose ideas of sexuality and of women are incredibly toxic, but she finds the brutality in him that is missing in her otherwise flaccid boyfriend.

Breillat’s thesis on sexuality is handled mostly through voice over as it plays out over scenes of sex. Marie discusses her ideas on men and what she wants out of a relationship with them in terms of carnality and by placing us inside of her head for the entire film as well as navigating alongside her with the camera. There are many close up shots of her body during scenes of foreplay, masturbation, and sex. All these things make it feel more like a first person unraveling of one woman’s sexuality than it does a statement on women as a whole. Which is promising, because sexuality is an extremely tricky business, and Breillat’s raw, unflinching look at pleasure wouldn’t be pleasurable to some, but with Marie sex is more forceful, erect, strong and violent than consensual or even symbiotic. One wonders if sex is even about pleasure with her as the word “Orgasm” is not mentioned one time throughout the duration of this film. Marie likens herself as a hollow, disposable form when discussing the idea of perfect sex, and the more inward and disassociated with her body she becomes the better she feels. These ideas are never more present than in the visual language of a dream sequence late in the picture with Marie’s body being split in half. In two rooms her body is divided, the lower half of herself is spread open, in lingerie in a smoke filled room with naked, lustful men,  and the walls are covered in red. The upper part of her body is located in a headache inducing room of whiteness as her celibate boyfriend sits beside her. The disassociation of brain and body, sex and love are ideas at play in this movie and in that one moment they became distinctly clear in her language. The scene closes with a humorous match cut of a man ejaculating on Marie’s stomach followed by her pregnant belly being covered in gel for an ultrasound.This, as well, is the difference between sex in terms of pleasure (the orgy) versus love (the child).

Marie’s sexuality is at it’s most dangerous when she comes into contact with an older teacher at the school she works in and begins engaging in violent S&M. She finds herself drawn towards this man who believes all women secretly want rape; that asking for sex is never appropriate, but taking is what women especially want. Breillat was never exactly easygoing about her film’s sexual nature, but in his monologues the film becomes increasingly difficult to view. He introduces her to being tied up; something she always wanted to do, and gagging her during sex. He enjoys inducing pain in his partners and she finds herself drawn to it. The rooms she has sex in during these moments are closer to that red colour of the orgy in the dream sequence, and are in direct contrast with the stark whites of her boyfriends apartment. She unlocks her sexuality with this dangerous man who has claimed to have slept with over 10,000 women and eventually leaves her boyfriend to be with him.

Despite all of the views of the man I mentioned above, and her decision to be with him I find the film’s feminism to be enticingly rich. It’s strongest feminist text is by simply being about one woman’s sexuality from her viewpoint and her’s alone. She doesn’t make any apologies about what she wants, and what she likes, and she goes after it. She loves her boyfriend dearly, but she’ll cheat on him to get the sex that she needs to find fulfillment. She’s not a nymphomaniac. She’s just a woman, and in killing her boyfriend in the films final moments Breillat’s ideas come full circle that you cannot have love without sex even if they are disparate ideas for Marie. She chose sex. She chose herself.

Top 50 New To Me Films of 2014

My year in cinema was characterized by auteurist spurts and my tendency to seek out cinema with themes that are of interest. It is ironic that 2014 was the year when I abandoned the idea of auteur theory being strictly linked to directors, and yet my list is rife with filmmakers who I decided to explore this year. The biggest director of 2014 was Chantal Akerman. Her cinema of inward, slow moving beauty connected instantly and while I had been a fan in the past this was the year she possibly became my favourite director. Queer Cinema has a strong hold on this list with the likes of Paris is Burning and John Waters films making appearances. Dance is strong as well, as my interest in ballet intensified this year when oddly enough I became interested in wrestling. The two share components of filming bodies in action and Wiseman and Akerman found the beauty of movement in “Ballet” and “One Day Pina Asked”. John Carpenter and Jean Luc Godard were of great interest to me last year as well as I finally undid my preconceived notions of Carpenter’s lesser discussed works and found them to be just as strong as anything else he ever made. Starman may even be his best film, as he’s never been more human telling the story of an alien. Godard’s work in the 80s, along with Notre Musique, delighted me last year as my appreciation for his breaking down of form while keeping with familiar languages clicked in a way that opened him up to me in a way he had previously been closed. However, the crown jewel of last year was Paris is Burning. A film made of portraits, of beautiful people who long to exist and express themselves.

One note: Films from 2013 and 2014 are banned from the list. Every other year is eligible.

1. Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
2. Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981)
3. Female Trouble (John Waters, 1974)
4. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To, 2011)
5. Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)
6. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)
7. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
8. Hotel Monterey (Chantal Akerman, 1972)
9. Take Care of My Cat (Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

10. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
11. Notre Musique (Jean Luc Godard, 2004)
12. Something Wild (Jack Garfein, 1962)
13. Ballet (Frederick Wiseman, 1995)
14. The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)
15. Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman, 1982)
16. King Lear (Jean Luc Godard, 1987)
17. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990)
18. Hard, Fast & Beautiful (Ida Lupino, 1951)
19. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

20. Deadly Outlaw Rekka (Takashi Miike, 2002)
21. Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
22. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1988)
23. Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976)
24. The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919)
25. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)
26. Martin (George A. Romero, 1976)

27. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
28. Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993)
29. Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)
30. Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)
31. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944)
32. Bound (Lily & Lana Wachowski, 1996)
33. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
34. One Day Pina Asked (Chantal Akerman, 1983)
35. The Immortal Story (Orson Welles, 1968)
36. The Great Muppet Caper (Jim Henson, 1981)
37. The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953)
38. The Long Day Closes (Terrence Davies, 1993)
39. D’est (Chantal Akerman, 1993)
40. The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)
41. Five Deadly Venoms (Cheh Chang, 1978)
42. High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968)
43. Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966)
44. L’Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004)
45. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
46. Ace Attorney (Takashi Miike, 2012)
47. First Name: Carmen (Jean Luc Godard, 1983)
48. Outrage (Ida Lupino, 1950)
49. Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986)
50. The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick,, 1957)

Female Filmmaker Project: The Gold Diggers (Sally Potter, 1983)

I find it charming that the first film I ended up viewing for this project in 2015 was helmed by an entirely female crew (outside of some actors), and specifically about the intersections between women and capitalism. Sally Potter finds herself creating a kind of dystopia, but one born out of real life problems faced by women, and in the context of today’s “Lean In” feminist discourse it remains all the more searing about capitalism’s blatant misogyny. Men follow our two women leads (Julie Christie and Colette Laffont) doggedly even though these women try to escape. Metaphorically linking the problems of breaking free from a patriarchal society and how that ties up in capitalism. Many of the same men that follow these women into back alley’s and up stair wells appear as their bosses in other scenes. In one moment Laffont is working inside of an office surrounded by desks and computers (this is reminiscent of The Trial in a modern setting in how it’s framed and how terrifying those rows of desks appear. The terror of the mundane is also present in 1991’s undervalued The Rapture), as she asks one question “What do these numbers mean?” her white boss speaks down to her and the film moves into a dream sequence where the men of the world literally sit on desks that appear ten feet in the air as any woman would have to look up to him just to get a response. It feels as if Terry Gilliam even references some of these same visual ideas a few years later in Brazil as this dream sequences is also made of shapes, cubes and also feels as thin as paper.

The film also has a fascination with how money effects celebrity. A matriarchal figure appears in queenlike fashion towards the end, but it isn’t so much a scene of success on her part for having broken through this system as it feels like a moment where her celebrity gives her the privilege of existing without the issues of finance. Men carry her around and preach about gold, but it doesn’t effect her. This is one of only two real scenes where women are seen as being above men on a visual level. The other scene features a dance, and echoes a “what if” scenario as women unshackle themselves from dancing men and embrace each other instead. They twirl around and the black/white colour scheme no longer fills the screen, instead it’s filled with transcendent whites as the men hit the floor and the women run off to do whatever they want. It’s a real sense of freedom, and plays opposite to the scenes where our two female leads cannot escape men.

Gold Diggers doesn’t exist exclusively in the role of woman though, even if it’s more consistently about them. There are scenes where the problems of how our financial system effects men as well. The name of the film takes it’s cue from the recurring image of men hiking along a hill in the dead cold of an ice-y winter just trying to make ends meet for their families. The monochromatic colour scheme is only pierced by the clothes on their back as they hike and hike. They appear to be absolutely miserable; cogs in a machine, and ultimately working towards their own dead end as they walk into nothingness. The other scene where men find themselves sympathetic is in the dream sequence I mentioned above in the computer workspace. One man continually does the motions of his superior. He mimicks his voice, his actions, he sits beside him, and this once again conveys a sense of being a cog in a machine. He’s kissing ass for forward mobility.

The Gold Diggers ultimately leaves me asking myself the questions of what does a capitalist system ultimately benefit, and the thesis of the picture would have you believe it is oppressive, and more specifically to women.