Female Filmmaker Project: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

In the book of Genesis Adam and Eve live in the garden of Eden among many temptations that God has laid before them to test their faith. One such temptation is the “Tree of Knowledge” or the tree of life. The tree of knowledge is a metaphor for free will, and if anyone eats from the tree of knowledge they become “like god”. Eve eats an apple from the tree after great temptation from Satan in the form of a snake and she is made into a scepter of fallen grace, because she dared question her rulers who “knew better” and convinced Adam to do the same. Eve is every woman who ever sought liberation, and like Eve the women who suffer and languish under strict patriarchal rule in Mustang also take of that apple.

Mustang begins as a breezy summer picture. The girls have ruffled sleeves on their blouses and smiles on their face as they cheer out “Let’s walk, the weather’s nice”. The end of school begats horseplay in an inviting ocean as summer arrives and nothing could appear to be dangerous about this situation, but they made the mistake of having fun with boys. When word got out to their grandmother and uncle that they had been engaging in this activity it meant handcuffs, cages and control, because a woman who plays with boys eventually has sex, and in this small patriarchal community nothing could be more abominable.

Director Deniz Gamze Erguven does a good job of introducing visual confinement over her motion picture. The grandparents are from an older way of thinking where a girls chastity was tied into her value as a wife, and in their panic to preserve their granddaughters they slowly begin to build walls around them as they sell their five adopted children off to eligible bachelors. In the beginning of Mustang the camera has an elegance in frame that mirrored the young girls personalities, and when the walls go up the camera remains intuitive to their perspective but instead of the curiosity of the world inviting exploration the eye is dominated by mundane household activities and an introduction of rhythm and repetition in the girls lives, as every woman in their community has taught them this is their definitive role. There is no safe space in the home of this sisterhood either, and all five girls eventually start striving for their own spots in the house-jail to relax. The older siblings sunbathed through a crack in the exterior. The youngest girl literally plans an escape just to go to a soccer game, which coincidentally was attended by only women after rioting caused by male attendees ruined the national team’s previous game. This notion of a safe space is in the visual language and finding a fracture inside of their of their home built upon an architectural chastity belt becomes paramount. As the walls become more densely layered with steel and spikes the house begins to resemble something between a castle and a prison- a blunt metaphor if there ever was one, but appropriate in its usage here- and the only truly safe space becomes the arms of the sisterhood. In many frames the camera lingers on their symbiotic relationship. The girls are a tangle of limbs, a web of skin providing support where there otherwise was none and it becomes a recurring visual motif as the web is untangled and their sisterhood altered as each girl one after the other, getting younger and younger is married off to a suitor.

“You’ll learn to love your husband” but what if they never wanted one in the first place? The compulsory decision making of their uncle, and to a lesser extent their grandmother a representative of a larger cultural problem all around the world where views on women are archaic is driving force of the conflict. In a previous film I watched for the Female Filmmaker Project, The Day I Became a Woman, there is a long section of the film devoted to one woman who escapes her husband by disobeying him and competing in a bicycle race. In that movie the feminist text of the film is refashioned into an action picture through long tracking shots, overhead camera work and an attention to detail that makes the escape invigorating, terrifying and personal. Mustang goes for something similar in the latter half of the movie when the feminist text becomes genre by adapting the prison break trope. It’s a relatively standard idea considering the already in place prison metaphor, but it works because of a smart decision to align the escape with the wedding of the second youngest child. There are legitimate stakes in what the two girls are trying to elude at this point as we’ve already seen the previous sisters suffer under sexual violence in their marriage or plan their own much more dire escape through attempted suicide. This is their last chance to make it to Istanbul. To find their own liberation. Erguven’s choices as a director in these final moments are solid. The foliage and cages become peepholes and escaping the maze of steel is like a lesser version of the climax in The Shining. There is never a clear view of the Uncle as he trudges through the steel walls behind them, and the camera stays almost exclusively in the girls point of view which only makes the final moments more tense and worthy of its genre rhythm.

Mustang is a film whose text is woven into feminist theory as well as personal women’s narratives, but it also functions as a folk tale. “The girl(s) who have been locked away in the tower” has been around literature and cinema for a very long time. In the older Disney animated pictures there would need to be a prince to whisk the innocent maiden off to safety, but those narratives were always reliant on good men earning a prize. It was a male hero’s journey instead of a self actualized story about women. The metaphorical dragon in Mustang is an ingrained culture of men making decisions for women and having abject control over their respective bodies. But in Mustang there is no prince. The sisters have to be their own saviours, and while that seems to blur into the strong female character archetype that oftentimes reduces women in action pictures here it is an inborn strength through desperation, and not one achieved through violence. Mustang comes from a Turkish mindset first and foremost, but there are other similar narratives throughout cinema that prove dominance over women is bound to Earth in various forms of severity. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya are two others on the same family tree as Mustang, and the list goes on and on all the way back through the history of cinema whether the director was Kenji Mizoguchi or Ida Lupino. Cinema is a mirror into reality, and one doesn’t need to look far to see that often in movies women are struggling under the control of some force whether it be societal or personal just because we ate of an apple.

Female FIlmmaker Project: Joanna Arnow: Cinema of Herself

“It seems so shallow”

“You are so self involved”

These two phrases pop up in Joanna Arnow’s Bad at Dancing and i Hate Myself :), which begs the question is Joanna Arnow a self-indulgent filmmaker and is that a bad thing? Arnow is at the subject of each of her films, both behind the camera, and in front of it, and her lens functions as a way to release her own anxieties about herself out into the world. These could easily be called vanity projects, but Arnow isn’t a filmmaker of minimal self-obsession. She is a self assured publisher of personal cinema that unleashes a torrent of inward complexity that marks her as a unique voice in a currently overstuffed cinematic climate.

Joanna Arnow’s voice is singular. There are many screenwriters and directors who tread some of the same ground as Arnow, like Lena Dunham, and Greta Gerwig, and many of the one size fits all men of the mumblecore scene, but none of these voices are as difficult to pin down as Arnow.  Dunham, far too often goes for self inflicted humour that contains no long-lasting bite, and Gerwig is a sentimentalist at heart, but Arnow presents herself in a fashion that has no preconceived notions of whether or not she is pleasing. She just is. That alone is a maximizing quality that would lift even the most banal filmmakers, but Arnow is not banal. She is exciting, because she is unpredictable, uncomfortable, and unpolished in a very real way.

Her first feature, i Hate Myself 🙂 is especially impressive as she asks herself the question “Is my relationship with my boyfriend healthy?”. What is initially a portrait of her aggressive, oftentimes drunk, racist boyfriend becomes a portrait of herself, and her film works as therapy. Her editor (who does his job completely naked) asks her difficult questions about herself, and her relationship. He is a phallic therapist who doesn’t mince words with Joanna. (“Do you like it when he degrades you? I think you do”.) Joanna has no concrete answer for that question, and while it is obvious that her boyfriend James could very well spell trouble for Joanna she never quite lets go of her relationship. The audience at any point is likely screaming for her to run as far away as possible, but Arnow isn’t asking for our approval. She just presents herself, lets us make up our minds, and then she chooses her own path regardless of what we may think, and that’s bold. The final moments contrast in emotionally difficult ways that complicate her filmmaking, and leaves the viewer at a loss at how exactly one should feel. There is a level of fearlessness in that kind of craft, and while the documentary aspect of the film makes the ending inevitable, the fact that she never once softened her story only further proves her guile as a filmmaker.

In Bad at Dancing, Joanna Arnow is once again presenting herself, but this time she is fictionalized to a degree. She is essentially playing herself, as her mannerisms, speech patterns and behaviour mirror her real self in i Hate Myself 🙂 . Bad at Dancing is a little difficult to watch at times, but the escalation of tension in her previous film is replaced with awkward humour set around the staging of her body in any given scene. The most significant of these jokes happens in the bedroom of her best friend and her boyfriend where she insists on interjecting herself in their most intimate sexual activities. Arnow never asks to participate in sex, but she wants to be close to them at all times. Her body is consistently framed a bit to the left or right of the centre of the frame and the subject of Arnow’s images is more frequently the roommates that she is making uncomfortable. Even when her best friend begins to play a song on guitar to try and capture an older moment of sisterly bonding Joanna can’t help but interject or cause the moment to stop. Her body, her voice, her actions are always fracturing the frame. She is terrified of losing her best friend, and that makes the situation humorous, because Joanna Arnow, the character, cannot help but get in her own way. Surely enough the film ends with her alone, touching herself as her friends go to have sex in another room. It is an image of deep introspection. Arnow’s body, much like her anxieties and quirks are on display. No rules. She will use all of herself. She carries the same attitude in her direction. She is Tina Belcher with a movie camera willing to put every single aspect of her life into her work of personal cinema.

Female Filmmaker Project: Hotel Monterey (Chantal Akerman, 1972)

In Chantal Akerman’s previous short film La Chambre she experimented with big ideas on the nature of cinema and what constitutes as narrative in spaces. She takes that idea to its logical endpoint in Hotel Monterey. Monterey is a film made up mostly of static observational shots on the people who reside in a run down hotel in New York City. Hotel Monterey is rigorous to say the least, but there are these pockets of narrative surrounding the residents and the all encompassing oppressive look of the hotel is very deliberate in creating a specific feeling of dread. In my previous review for Hotel Monterey I likened the film to a thesis on the idea of a home, and how hotels are inherently these soulless institutions, because they are rarely the home of anyone. They exist only to be a substitute of the warmth that comes from having a home so Akerman’s filmmaking feels ghostly and cold. I still think that’s very present in Hotel Monterey as my ideas on what hotels represent hasn’t changed in the last year, but what has changed is my understanding of why exactly this film connects with me so deeply.

On a more basic level Hotel Monterey is simply about documentation, but the word simple never really conveys the maximal qualities of Chantal Akerman. This hotel is seemingly falling apart, the hallways look like they’ve been beaten down, white paint has turned yellow over the years, and rooms have garish furniture, but Akerman uses these tools to create a portrait. Her documentaries in this mode (Monterey, D’est, South) are in some way or another about the people who wander into her lens, but they are just as much about the rooms they occupy, and the images they end up creating in those rooms. One such image is that of a woman sitting in solitude with her back to the camera. It could be an image from any one of her movies, but this is the first time Chantal Akerman has used that picture. She is interested in how women, especially, occupy space over time. She brought this idea to perfection in Jeanne Dielman, but the women of Chantal Akerman’s films could star in any of her movies with little changes in substitution. Chantal Akerman makes Chantal Akerman movies and her movies feel like something primal in my very soul.

There is one image (it is the first screencap in this post) that I had forgotten about, but upon seeing it again brought out an internal pang of loneliness inside of my body. The pregnant woman in clear view who shines in perfection through the grime of the hallway walls. The door and the angular framing position her as a focal point and bring an image of deep blues and whites to contrast with her humanity. She seems so very far away though, there is no close-up, Akerman would hardly ever move the camera in this film so this is the only image we get. The only glimpse of her narrative and her life is this hallway, and her body piercing the frame and so clearly it ruptured the entire film for me on an emotional level. This image came along on the recent news that scientists believe trans women may be able to get pregnant within the next five years. I latch onto that glimmer of hope, and see this idea of who I want to be, and what I want my future to look like and Akerman’s cinema gives me an image of a pregnant woman within reach. Akerman’s cinema has always felt as if it has evolved around my mental state whenever I decide to watch one of her films, and that one example has left me in a state of bittersweet devastation upon coming into contact.

However, there is a deep irony in that image of the pregnant woman as it contrasts so severely with the rest of the picture. While the pregnant woman represents a semblance of life or a future the majority of the images in Hotel Monterey show a barren existence. Akerman spends the majority of time on the emptiness. There’s no sound, no life, just a bit of reflected light bouncing off the walls and showing these blank dead doors and the lack of a subject within. Even when people are front and centre to the camera, like in the elevator sequence at the beginning of the picture, they’ll often move out of the way of the frame as to not get in the way of whatever it is Akerman was shooting. This assumption that whatever it is Akerman was filming was more interesting than that person is unsettling, because even when Akerman was pointing the camera into dead space the people of Hotel Monterey would resist the camera and the idea of becoming the subject of her movie. In that way the humans of this hotel more closely resemble ghosts slipping in and out of frame and hardly effecting it in one way or another. The only people in the film who remain corporeal are the pregnant woman, the woman in the chair and the singular man, who we know almost nothing about. His face is eerie, and in some ways he could also be a ghost.

When Akerman finally does move the camera it is after nearly forty minutes of immobility, but it’s so slow and unsure of movement that it more closely resembles being sucked into the hotel itself at first. It is another simple camera movement, like the reverse of direction in La Chambre, that emphasizes her great attention to detail over time. When she shifted her mode of storytelling she began to more visibly move upward through the hotel rather than linger on the walls. It is in these final moments when she reaches the rooftops that she finally reaches New York City, the skyline is pearl, the city is just waking up, and the traffic is already building, it seems peaceful. It seems like at once an afterlife and a home. A new dawn brings light through the dreary hotel and maybe it’s residents will call this city their home. For Chantal Akerman she found a hotel, her first of many.

Female Filmmaker Project: La Chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972)

A ragged apartment is explored by a cinematic eye as a camera turns 360 degrees to explore every corner of a living space. None of the objects move, and the question of subject is deliberated by audience and instinctual camera movement. The only thing that changes in the chamber is a woman, presumably the owner of the house, who sits on a bed, stares at the camera and eats an apple. The woman is Chantal Akerman, and she is wrangling with the very ideas of how cinema functions in this avant-garde short. 

Unlike her first film, Saute Ma Ville, there isn’t a narrative in La Chambre, and Akerman has begun to twist away from conventional cinematic goals into something both entirely her own, and daringly experimental. In La Chambre, Akerman asks many questions and none of them have explicit answers, but the function of the movie is to get the viewer to think of how they view cinema as a narrative art-form and how we latch onto any tidbits of information that may move a story forward. Akerman has consistently been concerned with stillness in her movies, and how that plays into realism (look at the opening third of Je, Tu, Ill, Elle for example), and La Chambre‘s only progression is how this singular woman moves, otherwise objects are at rest. But Akerman is just as interested in those resting objects, and her camera makes a point to frame household items such as chairs, an oven, and a dishwasher with the same priority she frames herself. The framing is meticulous, but never boring, and the images never dull due to the function of the camera’s constant movement. By placing the camera in a 360 degree pan she’s asking audience members to observe how the objects change, even if they don’t. The only changes to the objects are in the lighting, and it’s only slight, but this is something we must view, because the camera demands their importance with the same centered framing as the subject (the woman). Something interesting happens after the first couple courses around the room though- the camera reverses course as if on audience instinct to move towards the woman. The curious thing about this is why that was needed and what Akerman is saying about narrative subjects. She’s just as calm as the chair we’ve already seen twice. Her movement isn’t any more fascinating than how the light reflects off of a wall, but the camera is pulled to her, because she moves. Each repetitive movement of the camera becomes tighter and tighter until the camera keeps the woman in frame for the better part of a minute, but she remains listless as she devours an apple. When the camera finally realizes there is nothing to see here the lens pulls away from her again and the movie ends. What was the subject? Is a subject even needed to produce cinema? These questions aren’t definitely answered, but explored and beg to be analyzed by viewers.

La Chambre is just the beginning of Chantal Akerman questioning how cinema functions, and offers a glimpse into more of her instinctive techniques as a filmmaker. While, Saute Ma Ville, may have been an introduction to her feminist themes La Chambre offers more in the way of what we’ve come to know as Chantal Akerman’s form. The attention to space and how movement effects image and narrative were brought to full light in Hotel Monterey, and in that way La Chambre sometimes feels like a test run for a fuller picture, but the attention to objects, rooms and the people within them would be of fascination to Chantal Akerman throughout her career all the way up through Almayer’s Folly, where she finally sought freedom from interior spaces. The interior lives of women can be seen in her first two films as well, even if La Chambre rejects any traditional narrative filmmaking technique, and positions Akerman as a subject in her films. Akerman’s resolute attention to portraying women came first through portraying herself. By questioning cinema and distancing her filmmaking from a popular narrative mode she gained a reputation as a difficult filmmaker, but she’s inviting you into her worlds and into herself, even if whatever she’s doing is simple, such is the case in La Chambre.

you can watch La Chambre on youtube here
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AGakyb3eBU

Female Filmmaker Project: Saute Ma Ville (Chantal Akerman, 1968)

“Saute Ma Ville is the mirror image of Jeanne Dielman”
Chantal Akerman

In Jeanne Dielman there is a woman who lives her life through rituals. She cooks and cleans every single day. It’s mechanical, perfectly shaped and fills her life with purpose. When there are slight breaks in those tasks the woman of that film begins to fracture. Jeanne Dielman shows a structure to live in. Saute Ma Ville seeks to destroy those structures.

Saute Ma Ville is a phoenix film. It is destroying the old guard to bring life to a new generation. In this case it is the women of the 1960s not wishing to live the types of lives their mothers, aunts and grandmothers were forced to endure. While Jeanne Dielman is a more radical statement by tapping into the mental state of women and delivering a portrait of time and procedure Saute Ma Ville is more like a blunt instrument. The title even infers a simple act of destruction: “Blow Up My Town”. In that respect Chantal Akerman’s first film feels similar to the energy and exuberance of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, but Akerman’s technique is different and entirely her own, even if Daisies and Saute Ma Ville are sisters in arms.

Chantal Akerman was only 18 when she made this film, but her filmmaking is already developed. Her insistence on framing around tight spaces and entering into the mindset of specific characters is present, and she is adept at capturing poignant moments of singularity- a recurring theme throughout her entire career. The parallelism of her camera to her characters is one of her trademarks and in Saute Ma Ville it strengthens Akerman’s chaotic turn as an implosion. Her camera is energetic which contrasts heavily with the work she would do in New York a few years later (the work her reputation as a difficult filmmaker is built upon), but the excess of movement calls for what she wants to convey. Her character is a blitzkrieg and can never stay still for more than a couple of seconds so the camera follows her. Her voice echoes over the images in a lilting, angelic humming that clashes with the violent nature of the acts she is committing to totems of femininity of the past. The brooms are broken, the lotion is everywhere and the soap is on the floor. Everything is out of place, because it must be to start anew, and Akerman’s zipping camera work personifies her character with resolute confidence.

Chantal Akerman stars in this picture, and in her own words she’s a Charlie Chaplin-esque kind of character whenever she is in her own movies, this one included. Akerman is jovial, singing, a smile forever attached to her face as she moves around the kitchen knocking anything in her path to the floor. This is a death dance, but instead of being somber it is celebratory, because the end of this prison is liberating for Chantal and speaks to a larger theme on the kitchen as a woman’s place. In 1968 Saute Ma Ville could also easily be seen as an oncoming storm, a film that literally represents the dawning of second wave feminism. When Chantal writes in lotion on a mirror with her hands “IT’S ALL OVER” she doesn’t mean her life, she means the past. When she finally kills herself on top of an oven in the final frames of the short she’s destroying the idea that a kitchen is a woman’s place while also damning the kitchen as a place of life lost for those women who toiled away in that confined space. The women Chantal watched growing up, and the women she’d make movies about for the rest of her career.

As a first statement Chantal Akerman came out of the gates swinging with a rough snapshot of feminist thought. She’d never accept those queer or feminist labels that are key to her work, but I believe she was absolutely aware of the type of cinema she was making. She wouldn’t return to this type of work again until 1974 with Je, Tu, Il, Elle and her filmmaking acumen would evolve as she was introduced to experimental cinema, but as it stands Saute Ma Ville is an interesting first chapter for one of the great filmmakers and an introduction to everything Akerman would give the world.

Female Filmmaker Project: Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

 I cannot speak objectively with movies about dance. There is no greater sense of joy than the intersection of music, plus cinema, plus movement. The moments where characters simply decide it’s time to move and are accompanied by song stick with me like nothing else in all of filmmaking. The final frames of Beau Travail, Frances running through the streets to “Modern Love”, Gene Kelley stomping through the rain, The Red Shoes: that’s my cinema. So when Dance, Girl, Dance begins with eight lithe, graceful women in top hats, all moving symbiotically in frame to a jaunty tune I knew I’d love this movie, but it offered so much more than just dance.

It’s ironic that a movie “dance” in it’s title wouldn’t be a traditional musical, but instead a comedic drama, but either way Arzner and Ernst Mantray have a resolute interest in capturing the beauty of movement. Arzner’s blocking is incredible throughout and becomes especially significant whenever she is shooting the dancing sequences. Whether individualistic or in group movement her cinema becomes minimal and so defined by the shifting of legs, arms and hips when song begins. The action is completely linked to how they get around the room. The shadows fill out the picture, and the windows, chairs and mirrors give layering to how the dance takes up space. When Maureen O’ Hara dances, as seen above, Arzner’s lens accommodates her symphony by never over cutting or turning the entire event into directorial virtuosity. Instead Arzner humbly hands her camera over to O’ Hara who simply moves. That’s all the movie needs here.

Once again, Arzner sits back and let’s O’ Hara’s movement dictate the emotional heft of the scene, as this time she begins to work as a stooge to Lucille Ball’s more brash and anti-ballet burlesque performer “Bubbles” and in doing so is booed relentlessly.

She does the same for Lucille Ball’s more playful sequences while never shaming her body or her decisions. This is important as it doesn’t betray the film’s final moments by throwing Lucille under the bus for O’ Hara’s character. Her image making is of equality. They just move for different reasons.

If this were just a film about a series of consecutive dance sequences I would still love it, but it far exceeds the confines of formal craftsmanship and digs into something much deeper when O’ Hara longs to exist in show business. There’s a sequence of images throughout that show O’ Hara’s base desire and sadness at not having what she wants. Seeing the angelic light on the dancer in the production she covets, the morningstar: the dream, the sadness at applying make-up for a job that doesn’t give back. One woman scratching and clawing and climbing to survive with the help of only a few others and working as hard as she possibly can. That is the greatest humane quality of the picture. She never gives up, and this boils over in one stridently feminist and eye opening moment in the closing moments of the picture.

She gets a twinkle in her eye right before she decides to speak her mind. They’ve been tormenting her for months, and while she appreciates the kindness her friend offered her with this job has turned out to be a thankless one where she is depreciated night after night. But she always danced, because her tutor told her to in her dying breaths. She’s had enough though, and the booing must stop. She lets go and finally lambasts the men for ogling women in a way they can’t even their wives, she criticizes their enjoyment of haranguing a hard-working woman for a peek at titillation. She detests that they seek to commodify her body when she wants to be celebrated for it. She moves with grace, but she’s treated like swine and for what reason? Because she doesn’t take off her clothes. One woman stands and claps at the close of her speech. I wanted to join her.

Female Filmmaker Project: Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)

Rachel Talalay wanted to make an action picture that was like nothing else currently on the market. She was fed up with the idea of female action heroes whose characteristics were identical to that of men, but transferred to a female body. She loved the Tank Girl comics and with it saw a chance to make good on that promise of a completely unique woman action hero with an adaptation of that text, and in some ways she completely succeeds, but the film as a whole suffers from some unfortunate pacing and narrative decisions that nearly undo an incredibly unique character.

The 1990s saw a birth of grrrl power and riot grrrl aesthetic that informs the type of character Tank Girl exists as. Part Wendy O. Williams and Mad Max with a riot grrrl mix tape in her walkman the titular character is a punk ideal while exhibiting the same underground comic aesthetic she was birthed from in the 1980s. To say the least she carries the entire world of her movie on her back, and the film lives and dies by her frequency on screen. Lori Petty perfectly encapsulates the kind of character Tank Girl needed to be and appropriately sets herself apart from every other woman character in the history of the comic book to film medium. Often, women characters are relegated to being love interests even in the best comic book adaptations (Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) , but this is Tank Girl and this is 100% her movie up until the narrative is blindsided by a handful of Kangaroo mutants (who are present in the comic) who I would lovingly refer to as Jar-Jar’s by just how much they disrupt an otherwise good movie.

Tank Girl is at it’s very best when it is loosely jamming many different parts of cinema (comic book animation, dance sequences, music video montage) together into a jumbled mess that fits the kind of thrown together look of the titular character. Riot Grrrl is an easy thing to come back to when discussing the form here, but the collage like nature of Tank Girl is reminiscent of zine culture that came out of Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s. Tank Girl’s feminism is most present in how the main character carries herself, and as a production it’s one of the few pictures of the time that seems actively influenced by the form of riot grrrl music and art. It’s ironic then that Courtney Love was the mastermind behind the soundtrack as she always kept the genre at arm’s length due to the limitations of the genre’s Stepford quality in bands cannibalizing each other and none of them being able to stand apart, whether that be true or not is an entirely different issue. Sprinkled throughout the set design are even more remnants of that music’s influence on the preceding’s as “Lunachicks” stickers are taped all over Tank Girl’s hideout. This all mirrors the look that Arianne Phillips put together for the lead as her ripped stockings, paint brush fingernails and goggles is a constructed look that exists totally for the inner self of Tank Girl and no one else. Her clothes don’t really match, they don’t fit perfectly and they are tattered, but it completely works, because really there are no rules as to what is or isn’t an acceptable look, and if her clothing wasn’t optimal it would betray the attitude Petty gives off in her performance. It’s similar to another film I looked at earlier this year, Desperately Seeking Susan, where so much of the film’s visual language comes from the fashion of Madonna. Both of these film’s wouldn’t work nearly as well if the clothing wasn’t on point, but in both cases these characters became fashion icons in distinctly different ways.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Naomi Watts (Jet Girl) whose short time here accompanies Lori Petty’s performance remarkably well. Watts is a side character but as a Velma to Daffney or even Jane to Daria she is absolutely perfect, and their friendship works so well because they’re extremely different from one another, but end up banding together and bonding to survive through the post-apocalyptic wasteland  of Australia (also centered around water if you want to get back to Mad Max comparisons). Malcolm McDowell seems to be having fun as well as a tongue in cheek villain who literally would dissolve his henchmen into water and drink them on sight to intimidate his fellow employees.

Tank Girl cannot sustain it’s eccentricities, energy and formal decision making throughout though, and as Talaly described, studio edits ran amok of her vision. I truly believe her, as the third act sees a detour into silliness that doesn’t really feel tonally acceptable to the first two acts. Jet Girl and Tank Girl take a detour to stay with the rippers (The Jar-Jar’s) for a while and the movie gets side tracked and slows to a crawl. The narrative leans further away from Tank Girl and Jet Girl and the movie loses complete grasp of pacing and trudges towards the credits until finally things are resolved and Tank Girl rides off into the sunset. Talalay also struggles with shooting competent action so the final third isn’t in her forte of zingers, verbal comedy and music. As much as I dislike the last 30 minutes of the movie though the first 90 or so showcase something that Talalay truly wanted to make, and one that feels unabashadly 90s in a way that situates itself firmly in a time of third wave feminism. Today’s comic book heroines could learn a thing or two about how Tank Girl carries herself……even though I’m pretty sure no studio would be willing to greenlight a superhero character who happens to be a woman, and give her this much freedom twenty years later, and knowing that regression makes me sad. It also makes me appreciate Tank Girl despite finding it heavily flawed, because there really isn’t anyone else like her.

Female Filmmaker Project: SuperDyke (Barbara Hammer, 1975)

If Themyscria is a supposed feminine ideal and a place of paradise for Amazonian Women in Wonder Woman then Barbara Hammer’s movies seek out to create Themyscria for lesbians within her cinema. SuperDyke specifically works as a document to a very specific time in queer rights where the mainstream was just starting to get wind of queerness and a post-Stonewall, Second Wave centrism on lesbian feminist identity was becoming more pronounced. The idea of SuperDyke extends beyond the political though as Hammer’s lens once again finds its greatest meaning in the personal, quieter moments of sexuality instead of the more on the nose examples of women kissing in front of a bus with words like “Lesbian Express” scrawled across the front. Those moments, however, are not brought down by the superiority of Hammer’s more sensual, individual eye as they remain fun, tongue in cheek and at the time radical because of their intention of taking the queer space and extending it into the public eye. Another fun moment which calls back to it’s comic book title is a scene where two women kiss in a phone booth, don vibrant yellow tank tops which say “SuperDyke”, and step out into the open. The image is both interesting for it’s cute call-back to the Amazon signs at the beginning of the picture to represent a Wonder Woman, as well as being a lesbian version of Clark Kent to Superman, and the political context of it meaning a coming out of the closet.

Hammer keeps the filmmaking interesting as well, and it’d have been easy for her to go back to the quick cutting and dissolve heavy imagery of her previous shorts Dyketactics and Menses, but here she goes for home video, with fleeting moments of interaction between her lesbian superwomen to create a portrait of life, love, happiness, and rightful personhood. The film is structured into a few sections, “On the Street”, “In the Home”, “In the Court”, “At Macy’s”. Each representing a facet of life as seen through the eyes of her filmic figures. In the House is the most impressive as Hammer focuses on the foreplay of two women in a way that calls back to the way she shot sex in Dyketactics, but without the aggressive abstraction of constant dissolves. Here, she focuses on the smaller moments of sex, like the rubbing of shoulders, the look in another woman’s eye when being in a complete state of effervescence, and the thrill of existing within one another. In that moment queer cinema never feels more present and alive. Away from the tragedy of Hollywood martrydom, and fetishization of the unknown, queer cinema lives and breathes in Barbara Hammer’s worldview, and it’s beautiful.

Female Filmmaker Project: Menses (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

There’s this Heavens to Betsy song that surfaced out of the riot grrrl movement entitled My Red Self , it’s an angry anthem about how menstruation is treated as something to cover up and hide by society at large. In that song Corin Tucker would sing “So you make me hide the truth from you” and it’s a direct attack on how a normal bodily function is treated as something to shield away and how unfair that is to those who menstruate. That song was recorded in 1993, nearly twenty years after Barbara Hammer made a short film with the same intentions. It’s embarrassing that nothing had changed in nearly twenty years. Second wave feminism led into third wave feminism, and today things are very much still the same. Only a few days ago Canada lifted their taxes on menstruation hygiene products, much to the chagrin of men who felt the tax should have stayed in place, even though the taxing of such products is ridiculous when if anything it should be a human right to have those products. Even then it’s been 41 years and nearly nothing has happened to de-shame menstruation cycles so Barbara Hammer’s, Menses still feels very relevant.

In style Menses feels connected to her previous feature Dyketactics, but her intentions are much more blunt this time, and instead of creating something sensuous and graceful in motion Menses prods at viewers aggressively. She still uses the dissolve technique and the nudity of women is present in almost every frame, but otherwise the sunny, warm textures of Dyketactics are replaced with dark reds that fill up the frame and in one case, at the close completely fill up the frame in a mural of women connected through a menstrual cycle. Menses is at its strongest when dissecting the notions of period blood as horror and turning it into a badge. In one frame a woman exists as a sanitary napkin completely covered with blood gushing out of her and staining the napkin before she rolls down a hill, and in another a woman stands before a white towel before droplets begin to form underneath her. She then takes the towel and drapes it around herself. This is a part of her, and not something she should be ashamed of, and that’s the general message of Menses whether it be conveyed through the dismantling of a Kotex box or through a blood mural in the final frames.

Barbara Hammer week at Curtsies and Hand Grenades continues tomorrow with Superdyke. 

Female Filmmaker Project: Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

Dyketactics: tactile cinema by way of lesbian expression and complete reclamation of the body in the face of a longstanding history of male gaze upon women’s bodies and the fetishization of queer women’s sexuality. Notice how Hammer subverts the idea of nudity in imagery throughout art in her insistence to show the vagina in extreme close up instead of the more male associated fixation on breasts. As Hammer would recall in this interview with BOMB magazine, at one screening for Dyketactics in the 70s a man screamed at the close of the movie upon being shown a vagina to which the women in the audience replied “Haven’t you seen one before?”. One can infer that he had not been this close and personal before seeing Hammer’s short, and there in lies the power of the image. The meaning of saying “This is my body, and it is not for your consumption or your sexualization, but instead it is my reality”. This also supports the theory that this is not cinema made for men, but with it’s everflowing love towards lesbian sexuality and the female body it would reject all things male, and it does. The recurring image of the camera in the hands of women taking pictures of their own bodies is another example of the control in which women have here, and the lens being shown focused specifically on genitals and breasts shows a specificity towards taking control of parts of women’s bodies that men otherwise seek to control (breasts through the male gaze, and genitals through reproductive lawmaking).

Dissolves are the most consistent cinematic technique on display here with images surging in and out of one another with an ease and grace that is only empowered by the insistence upon showing fleeting moments of touch. A foot glides up against a calf, a hand runs through a blade of grass, a mouth clasps over areola, and everyone is nude or in an embrace through all of this. Hammer drops all semblance of the dissolve in the final minute and instead shows two women in the process of having sex. Her camera glides through the sweeping curves of their bodies and slides around limbs and crevices of flesh. Closing on an image of two women wrapped up together as close as they can possibly be, symbiotic, as one.

Barbara Hammer week at Curtsies and Hand Grenades will continue tomorrow with a look at Menses.

You can watch Dyketactics on Vimeo here
https://vimeo.com/101192467