Run Away With Realiti: Texture in the Music Video

Realiti and Run Away With Me open with introductions that clearly define the shape of the song and the music video to come. Realiti is like a city-made watercolour painting dripping with cerulean, tangerine, mauve, lemon, periwinkle and navy. The establishing shot of Grimes amidst the eastern architecture has an effervescent quality from the musician’s starburst bangs and amethyst sunglasses down to the swirls and tails on the kimono pictured behind. This attention to colour creates texture of vibrancy which directly contrasts the chilly atmosphere of the song, but effectively embodies the soul of the music. Run Away With Me’s video begins with something a little more sweeping and epic. The image of Carly Rae Jepsen twirling in a summer dress on a park bench has a forever quality that resembles attic memories and eternal love. It pairs perfectly with the epic horns and promises of tomorrow. Jepsen dares viewers to come with her as an outstretched male hand clasps her own and they’re off.

After these rather different establishing moments that reveal the tone of their music videos Realiti and Run Away With Me intertwine and follow a similar path conveying an idea of freedom through movement. Both videos introduce a city, and a landmark where Jepsen and Grimes perform respectively.

The major difference between the two is that Jepsen is among people and Grimes is solitary, which speaks to the different moods created in the songs. Realiti is a song of internal recollection while Run Away With Me is an underneath the bleachers-star soaked sky-track of deeper love and possibility. Run Away With Me is a song of the present and Realiti is a song of the past. Jepsen grasps a hand. Grimes cradles herself.

Run Away With Me is strong at cultivating a mood of ample freedom and careless anarchy that’s only possible when you’re head over heels in love. Realiti is a little trickier, with an ever-present wistfulness and lyrics that more closely resemble Bjork’s Hyperballad. Realiti is a composite of tour footage and quickly thrown together performance, but like Run Away With Me it’s a sensory experience tied to the action of a memory. For Grimes it is an actual tour and for Rae Jepsen it’s narrative.

Both women use their bodies through dance to further the texture of their music videos. Grimes’ dancing is more solitary and keeps in tune with her song. She rocks her shoulders from side to side on an electronic beat, she glides her hips when the synths slither into position for the chorus and jumps when the chorus reaches its climax. The editing of the video is pristine in combining these shots into a cohesive full picture of various settings (Fountain, Forest, Cave, City, Boardwalk) that are united through the dancing created by this song.

The forward momentum created by the jostling camera, Grimes dancing and the window-shots of cities through cars in movement make the video feel like its a living, breathing organism, and the colours are amoeba-like and comforting, always resting in a present glow as if the lights never go off. It’s Michael Mann-esque in its execution of the digital nightlife of the city as a place of pure beauty. In Realiti the city doesn’t sleep, because the city is alive. It’s as much of a statement for the architecture of cultures as it is a snapshot of tourism during Grimes tour of Asia.

Similar patterns arise in Run Away With Me, but because dance is a subjective outlet for expression Jepsen favours something more direct, running & spinning. In Frances Ha during one key moment of expression Frances runs to her then apartment accompanied by David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. It’s an exhilarating moment cloaked in a loose bit of irony, but when Frances runs she spins, because her expression of happiness is to twirl. Jepsen does the same thing here, but without the irony.

Like in Realiti architecture is used to show the depth and beauty of the world, but in Run Away With Me the world is made small by falling in love. The structure of the song oozes longing and need over verses that come together in the falling stars and fireworks of a chorus that delivers a promise that the world can hold us and we can make that world ours. That the barriers could slip away and everything would be attainable in an act of self-declaration. “I’ll Be Your Sinner in Secret. Run Away With Me“.

The music video can be a cinematic mirror to the song. Realiti and Run Away With Me find the soul of the music in the images they present, and project a clear visual interpretation of what the song means and what the song conveys. These videos elaborate on texture, movement and emotion to amplify certain elements of music to connect with the viewer. When music and cinema intertwine there is an inherent magic in the symbiosis of the two artforms coming together to maximize into one whole. Too frequently music videos try to be cinema by way of narrative storytelling, but the strongest music videos find reality in the abstraction of images coming together to evoke a feeling instead of a story. Realiti and Run Away With Me are striking in their visual similarities, but tonal differences. They follow similar structures and image progressions, but because the songs have different focal points the music videos feel differently despite their sameness. They are sister films, and two examples of the possibility of the music video as an art form of image based reflection.

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.

Top 50 New to Me Viewings of 2015

The biggest change in my viewing habits from 2014 to 2015 was the centering of specific auteurs, which is much closer to the way my boyfriend watches movies than I choose to experience cinema. I usually take a sampler platter approach to the way I engage with cinema, but by living with someone who is far more organized than I my viewing habits were altered to some degree. His changed as well and my attitude of picking films on a whim became present in his life. We even kept a hat around this year with specific movies on slips of paper we’d draw that we’d eventually end up watching (an idea of mine). However, we scrapped that hat when we started an Alfred Hitchcock project, which you’ll see visible in this list. Cinema always remains interesting. The movies I watched this year had their strengths and weaknesses, and there are certain goals I did not keep (50-50 gender split, which ended up being close to 35/65), but cinema is always the highlight of my year. This top 50 represents the best and brightest of those viewings I had in the previous year. At the top of the list is Robert Altman’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” which has been on my mind more than any other film in the past twelve months. It even has Cher. The other 49 movies do not carry that distinction so that made the choice for #1 ultimately easy to land upon. Here’s to hoping 2016 is as fruitful, and I’ll finally hit that 50/50 gender gap in viewing. (As always new releases and rewatches are excluded from the list)

1. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)
2. Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung, 1984)

3. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
4. Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985
5. The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, 2000)
6. Hookers on Davie (Janis Cole & Holly Dale, 1984)
7. New York, New York (Martin Scorsese, 1977)
8. The Story of Marie and Julien (Jacques Rivette, 2003)
9. Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)
10. Green Snake (Hark Tsui, 1993)
11. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
12. All About Eve (Joseph L. Makiewicz, 1950)
13. Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985)
14. Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer, 1974)
15. Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991)

16. Dance, Girl Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)
17. Peking Opera Blues (Hark Tsui, 1986)
18. Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007)
19. Birds (Takashi Miike, 2000)
20. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
21. Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)

22. The Blade (Hark Tsui, 1995)
23. Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung, 1975)
24. A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Hark Tsui, 1989)
25. A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)
26. Needing You (Johnnie To, 2000)
27. Le Pont Du Nord (Jacques Rivette, 1981)
28. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
29. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar-Leung, 1984)
30. The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
31. No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1994)
32. Monsieur Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin, 1947)
33. Katie Tippel (Paul Verhoeven, 1975)
34. Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)
35. L’invitation Au Voyage (Germaine Dulac, 1927)
36. Sheer Madness (Margarethe Von Trotta, 1983)
37. Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (Takashi Miike, 2009)
38. The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)
39. I Was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks, 1949)
40. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979)
41. Jour de Fete (Jacques Tati, 1949)
42. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
43. Stagefright: Aquarius (Michele Soavi, 1987)
44. I’ll Take You There (Adrienne Shelly, 1999)
45. Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)
46. Once Upon a Time in China I-III (Hark Tsui, 1991-1993)
47. Merry-Go-Round (Jacques Rivette, 1981)
48. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)
49. Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)
50. Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)

The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

Iñárritu is a unabashedly simplistic filmmaker, and he knows that to be true so he covers up his inability to say anything of profundity with showmanship. Emmanuel Lubezki is his perfect partner, because like Iñárritu his images over-compensate, and at two and a half hours their abilities begin to wear thin, and what you have is two filmmakers grasping at how to reign in a film that has fallen completely out of their control. In a way it is fitting that their intentions to make The Revenant as realistic as possible left both men lost in the woods of their own ideas.
And those ideas remain simplistic as well. The Revenant attempts to channel something evocative of Apocalypse Now, but it isn’t nearly as complicated as Coppola’s dense war picture. The Revenant is a simple moral tale of revenge. When Iñárritu goes for narrative beats he cannot help but make distinctly clear these are the good guys and the bad guys. Instead of complicating his characters he fashions one of them as a murderer with no redeeming qualities whatsoever- that would be Tom Hardy in yet another role where he, like Iñárritu shows his lack of ability by overperforming in every possible scene. But the tale of revenge isn’t the only idea stewing in Iñárritu’s pot of shit. He also wants you to know about the plight of Native Americans so he tacks on a plot about a chief’s daughter being taken by a group of white men and then refuses to elaborate further on that story. There is also man against nature which is probably the most interesting of these threads that barely make up a movie, but Iñárritu knows no delivery other than sledgehammer obviousness so everything is made out to be cold and brutal, as much of a nightmare as the bloodstained corpses is the fact that there is no escaping the grip of death through the frost. It functions as a metaphor, but has all the grace of a series of Game of Thrones scenes featuring the always dull Jon Snow.
Poor Leonardo DiCaprio turns his body into Iñárritu’s clay and is met with the violence inherent in the man’s cinema. However, DiCaprio is much too boyish and iconic to pull off a role of this “toughness”. He squints, grunts and screams his way through visceral terror for a man who is giving him nothing back. If he does win an Academy Award for this role we will hopefully be blessed with the sense that one of our greatest actors no longer has to make himself a martyr for cinema- poor cinema at that.
The Revenant contains one good sequence, and it is at the beginning of the film and the selling point of the trailer. Lubezki and Iñárritu finally coalesce into something memorable with tracking shots that closely resemble the final confrontation in Children of Men, but once the film slows down, and DiCaprio has to trudge through the snow, to crawl to his vengeance, the film becomes tiresome. A series of punishments, and a resolution that finds one man calling another man’s son a girl. God bless masculinity.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

The Force Awakens could more appropriately be called A New Hope, but not just for the fact that the plot follows many of the same beats and narrative trajectory as the film everyone fell in love with from the seventies, but because The Force Awakens has granted a generation that grew up on the notoriously hated prequels the optimism to believe in Star Wars again. In many ways, The Force Awakens is merely an introduction, and an attempt at a palette cleanse by going back to the basics of what made the original trilogy beloved in the first place, and for the most part J.J. Abrams and company succeed. The Force Awakens isn’t the only film to use familiar imagery and plotting of a previously beloved picture to kickstart a new franchise this year. 2015 has given us both good (Creed) and bad (Jurassic World) examples, and while The Force Awakens isn’t as successful as Creed at recontextualizing a franchise around new characters of different genders and races it adequately introduces a more diverse Star Wars that feels fresh by opening up their universe a bit to extend beyond a faultless white male protagonist.

Ultimately these new characters makes this installment of Star Wars worthwhile, because they offer a new wrinkle on old ideas. Finn (Jon Boyega), Rey (Daisey Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are introduced with such confidence that these characters already feel iconic and stand alongside the old guard (Solo, Leia, Chewbacca) admirably. Finn is a former stormtrooper who cannot abide by a fascist state, Rey is a farmgirl scrapping for parts to put enough food on her table to make it to the next day, and Poe is a fast talking ace fighter pilot. All three get a potentially iconic moment of introduction, Finn’s Stormtrooper helmet covered in blood, Rey cave diving (the films only effective 3D moment) and Poe’s confident back and forth with R2D2 replacement droid BB-8, but it is Finn’s that introduces the newest idea to the franchise that links the prequels and original trilogy in a fascinating way. The blood on the helmet is such a simple, perfect image that it conveys the real sense of violence in this regime. Later on, it is mentioned that the stormtroopers are brainwashed children who have grown up to die for The First Order. This ties back into the Clones in film number two, and while I’m unsure if they ever intend on asking the philosophical questions of a Stormtrooper’s innocence, and the nature of war it is something of far more depth than this film often presents. Woefully, this is as far as it goes so it almost renders that potentially loaded image as mute.

There is also Kylo Ren, at once both a stand in for Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, and the trickiest role to pull off of the new characters. The riskiest bit of writing in The Force Awakens comes by the way of taking inspiration from the prequels and making Kylo Ren a figure who is being torn apart by a decision, much in the same way Anakin Skywalker was in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Ren mopes, he explodes at any little thing going wrong, and he is deeply insecure about his abilities. He talks to a Darth Vader helmet, and wishes he could be like the legend. It’s all embarrassing, but Adam Driver flourishes in these complexities that on the surface could singlehandedly sink this revival. Driver is working on a level that no one else even touches. Isaac, Ridley and Boyega are all enthusiastic about being in Star Wars, and it shows through effervescent reading of the dialogue, and if Driver were to take the same path his performance would be hammy, but instead Driver comes off as complicated, which is something those other three characters lack at the moment.

J.J. Abrams has also never been better. His employment of crane and tracking shots throughout the aerial combat sequences is some of the finest in the series, and through all of this action he doesn’t lose sight of the image. While my screening was compromised by the background neutralization of the image it was easily identifiable that Abrams was working with a concentrated effort to make this film beautiful. Some of his choices get lost once the plot has to be engaged, and the next film set-up, but credit where credit is due, there are a bevy of striking, emotional compositions throughout The Force Awakens most notably of which involve Rey flying a vehicle across the sandy plains of Jukka with the fallen imperial ship in the background, and a long shot of an embrace between two characters in mourning while the rest of the world celebrates. Both of these images contain depth and resonance, one being the other side of war, and another being the image of the film- a rebirth, a new dawn.

From time to time The Force Awakens falls under the weight of obligation by having to set up the next film. Too often plots are given simple resolutions and the more interesting aspects of this film are sidelined to tackle the singular goal of destroying the Nu-Death Star, complete with Triumph of the Will imagery in one of the films more cringe-worthy moments. Jogging to get to the next plot point never really gives anything the space to breathe in the final third, and the fact that all of our heroes except Poe are attached to a separate far more interesting plot makes the conclusion feel unbalanced. A lightsaber fight in the snow with our main hero and villain is going to be more interesting than the side quest 100% of the time. If there is also intention on giving layering to the stormtroopers as brainwashed innocents then the ra-ra victory of destroying them unequivocally means that this ending is not one of pure celebration. There simply has to be more dissection if that is going to be introduced, and to ignore that is to dishonour that original writing for Finn. Star Wars, was after all supposed to be in some effect a response to the Vietnam War as stated in the Making of Star Wars, and to render that idea in such an unexplored fashion makes me squeamish about the body count. Is this then just a war spectacle if we aren’t even going to examine that idea? I’m willing to give it a pass for now since this is the first chapter of three, but that plot point lingers afterward much stronger than anything that gave a thrill. As Star Wars moves forward, it is in my deepest hopes that some of these flaws are cleared up. The hardest part is already out of the way, and that was to gain our trust, which I think The Force Awakens easily achieves.

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: 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

I Want It That Way: Magic Mike XXL

*Analysis of a scene will be a feature on Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I take a look at specific scenes in movies and discuss them. Today I am going to look at 4 moments from Magic Mike XXL and how they tie into the film’s central ideas on satisfaction* 

Magic Mike XXL is a film overflowing with life and positive energy. At it’s core it is a road trip of friends getting together for one last hurrah, and those pockets of love that spread throughout a group of friends in doing a job. That work is specifically the business of male stripping or as the characters in this movie refer to themselves “male entertainment”. Unlike the previous the film there isn’t much cynicism to be found here and the camera shifts from the performers to the audience. When I saw Magic Mike with my girlfriends back in 2012 it was a bit of a letdown to everyone in my core group of friends except me, and it was because they were given a movie that didn’t satisfy their needs as viewers. They came to watch a stripper movie, but what was delivered was a story about economy. Magic Mike XXL still features some of those same ideas, but they are appropriately slight and only mentioned offhand. The satisfaction of the viewer- specifically the heterosexual women in attendance- is paramount and a few scenes in the movie act as a fulcrum for the type of audience reaction Magic Mike XXL is trying to elicit.

Scene 1: Backstreet at the Gas Station: 

“I bet you can go in there and make her day…That’s your goal. Just go in there and make her smile” 

Mike is persistent that the boys change up their routines as they head to Myrtle Beach to the World Summit of Male Stripping Contests, and Big Dick Ritchie is unsure if he should stop doing the fireman routine. He hates fire, the music he dances to, and everything else about the dance, but it works. So, Mike asks Ritchie if he’s a fireman to which he replies “I’m a male entertainer” so Mike asks him to go into a gas station and make a girl smile. It’s a test, but it also works as a barometer for where the movies heart is at. Magic Mike XXL consistently toes the line between the bro road trip movie and the filmic equivalent of an idea of female satisfaction. Women are first and foremost the #1 priority of the men, and I’ll get into that more later, but this is a simple scene where one man dances for a one woman’s approval. Approval, being a running theme in XXL.

There isn’t a whole lot of room to play around with camera movement or an elaborate dance routine due to the confined nature of the aisles in the gas station, but graceful camerawork, editing, and image selection make the scene pop exactly the way it should. The scene begins with Ritchie being unsure of himself as The Backstreet Boys “I Want it that Way” begins to play over the radio station. Ritchie begins to sway his hips and ass in tune with the song to get her attention, but she’s still preoccupied with her phone. The camera sweeps back down the aisle and when the songs first drums kick in Ritchie does a turn and pops open a bag of cheetoes all over the floor. There is a cut to his face and hers. The mess finally got her attention. She seems unamused, but Ritchie’s going for it. At the very least he’s livening up her mundane day. The scene follows Ritchie to a pepsi machine, and there’s a subtle zoom on Mike and the boys cheering him on. This is his moment to really take a chance. He takes a water bottle out of the machine and simulates ejaculation with the bottle right when the song is hitting the biggest part of the chorus. Perfect. Ridiculous. His boys think this is BRILLIANT in all caps and Mike is screaming “yes! yes! yes!” outside as Ritchie dumps water all over himself. The camera follows Ritchie right back up the aisle as he takes his shirt off for the girl (who still appears unimpressed) and now he’s as vulnerable as he can be, until he starts humping the floor. She stares down at him, he looks up into her eyes. Ritchie thinks he has things in the bag. This is what girls want right? He finally asks her how much for the cheetoes and water, and then she smiles. Mission Accomplished.

I love a handful of things about this scene, but especially the absurdity of the male idea of female sexuality. The biggest moment in this sequence is the simulated ejaculation. These guys can’t stop thinking with their dicks. Mike and the rest of the crew lose their shit when he faux ejaculates in the gas station. She never smiles at this moment. She only smiles at his comment asking about the cheetoes and water, because it’s so absurd and played straight. The sheer audacity of this guy to do all of this in her store is eventually what makes her crack, not the dancing. It also just barely opens the door for the sort of lengths they’ll go to satisfy women in this movie, which remain pretty ridiculous.

Scene 2: Serenading a Queen 

“Queens, ain’t she beautiful?” 

Magic Mike XXL is inspired in part by fourth wave feminism. Women are often referred to as “Queens” and each man in this movie seems like he reads the Critique My Dick Pick blog set up by @moscaddie. There is a softening of masculinity in each of the male characters here that shows masculinity not as something toxic, but vulnerable, nurturing and sensitive while still being hard enough to not make men lose what makes them so appealing. Andre (Childish Gambino-Donald Glover) raps about this.  The very first thing Andre does is ask Caroline her name and after hearing that she is named after her grandmother he asks “what she do”. He remarks that Caroline’s grandmother was a strong woman. He respects women.

And then he freestyles. He sets Caroline down and stares right into her eyes and delivers a message about how she’s worthy of being loved, and then the chorus happens. Caroline, this could be something special, this love of mine it will never let go, ooh if I could make you mine I would treat you so special, be mine Caroline. She smiles. Once again, the endgame of the men in Magic Mike is to bring a smile on a woman’s face. Caroline was just out with her friends trying to have a good time and she did. Andre put her feelings out there in the open for everyone to see, but instead of being the ridiculous almost laughing response from the woman in the gas station this one is of genuine affection.

Much has been said of how Soderbergh’s digital cinematography equalizes skin tone in Magic Mike XXL and makes everyone stunning, and that isn’t just something happening in the colour. What’s so radical about this is that the images are also backing up how everyone is lit to look. There is one scene earlier on in this section of the movie where former pro football star Michael Strahan dances around a woman who is black, and fat, but that woman’s enjoyment isn’t treated any differently than any of her white or skinny counterparts. Her arousal, her happiness is put on equal footing with everyone else. That’s beautiful. That’s not just lip service for calling women in the film “queens”, because when you’re calling women who usually aren’t represented in movies and treated as beautiful “queens” that’s something remarkably feminist, and rare.

Scene 3: Heaven

We’re healers.”

Andre and Ken (Matt Bomer) talk about the joys of making women happy in a scene preceding the one in the above screencap. Andre says “We can be healers. We can give these women what they want just by listening to them. Their boyfriends and husbands don’t but we do.”. All of that is put into effect directly in the next scene. Mike and the Boys meet back up with a group of girls they befriended at the beginning of the movie, because they needed a place to crash. What they find upon arriving at the lavish mansion is that the Zoe’s (Amber Heard) mom (Andie MacDowell) and her girlfriends are having a girls night out. They’re all drunk. They’re all impressed with the men that have just walked in their door, but what could have been an awkward situation quickly turns into communion.

 Everyone in room begins to have a conversation about sex- more accurately, the women talk and the men listen. When Ken finds out that Mae (Jane McNeil) is upset that her husband never wants to have sex with the lights on he begins to ask her why and about her fantasies. Ken, being the “healer” that he is does his best to re-enact what this woman said she wanted. Like Andre, Ken has a budding music career so he sings her a song. He looks into her eyes and holds her. The distance that she had been feeling with her husband is still there, but this encounter gives her the confidence to know what she wants. It’s some facsimile of pure joy.

A fascinating thing about Magic Mike XXL is that the episodic nature of the road trip is given weight by a cyclical narrative. Everything eventually comes back around to mean something greater later on. The healer conversation is one example, but the final act is even more resonant. Mike invites Zoe to Myrtle Beach, because she’s depressed. He tells her he’s going to win back her smile after they have a long conversation about cake versus cookies and her personal life. The line about cookies comes back around in his song selection for that final dance, and even Ritchie’s fireman routine is dropped in favour of an earlier mentioned marriage proposal dance. Every little thing in Magic Mike XXL gets a payoff, but the greatest of all these moments are when happiness is given back to women, and by effect to the audience.

Scene 4: All I Do is Win

“I’m a cookie monster”

The most lavish sequence in the entire movie is the final set piece where 2 dancers mirror each others moves in a sequence that’s like if Cocteau and Minnelli decided to craft a scene around stripping together. It is gorgeous, perfectly choreographed and resonant. Despite all of the attention paid to dancing one thing becomes clear, Zoe’s face is the true focal point of the action. She’s always lit just a little bit brighter than everything around her and the framing and choreography work around her reaction. There is one moment where Mike picks her up and places her head between his legs and there’s a zoom in on his face, but then goes right back to her own reaction. The camera pulls out from the action to showcase the symmetry and dancing, but always comes back looking for her approval by focusing on her face. She goes from embarrassed to flattered to enraptured by the time things close up and Mike asks her if she got her smile back. She did.

The stark difference between the first movie and XXL is the intended audience of the dance. In Magic Mike XXL the women are always key instead of the act of stripping itself. Soderbergh’s movie was never about getting a warm reaction out of the audience members, but Gregory Jacobs picture is obsessed with earning a smile. DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” plays over the films closing moments, and winning in this instance was about approval from the woman in the gas station to Zoe and in the audience. This was about making women happy. It made me happy.

Queerness and Corn: Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2014)

The two images above offer a snapshot of the stylistic differences one can come to expect from Xavier Dolan’s attempt at stripping down his aesthetics to suit the text surrounding his queer thriller, Tom at the Farm. In Laurence Anyways and Mommy, Dolan’s style could be more easily associated with fashionable romanticism and blunt metaphorical imagery (especially in the case of Laurence). Tom operates on a different level; replacing the vibrancy of colours with muted browns, and grandiosity substituted for something more altogether minimal.

What is most fascinating about the sudden shift for Dolan is how it plays into how queerness operates on a metropolitan and regional level. In some ways, arriving in this small town, and in making this movie Dolan has closeted what has distinctly made him a remarkable filmmaker to date, and that is perhaps the greatest metaphor he could have offered in visualizing the differences between small town and metropolitan queerness in Canada. It doesn’t completely work, but it’s a fascinating idea. When push comes to shove Dolan can’t help, but overemphasize things. Aspect ratios shift, Tom’s (played by Dolan) hair matching the cornfield exactly as he sprints in a breath-taking sequence, and the karaoke flashback seems more appropriate in his previous films. The closet then, cannot hold Dolan, just like it cannot hold Tom.

From a form perspective Tom is perhaps Dolan’s greatest achievement, because it doesn’t falter nearly as frequently as his previous movies when matched up against the themes he wants to present. Tom is about sheltering queerness, and the danger of the closet. The violence present throughout the movie and threat of more violence is most present when Tom is confronted with his dead lovers (Tom is attending his lovers funeral) brother (Francis) who is doing the best he can to keep his brother’s bisexuality a secret from the other citizens of this small farming town. In a scene later on Tom is talking to a bartender who tells him about a time that Francis ripped another man’s mouth open for even bringing his brothers sexuality up. This is made even more interesting by the sense that Francis is also queer. There’s a real attraction between Tom and Francis that ponders the idea of this picture becoming closer to a persona/swap narrative than a thriller based around the reveal of queerness.

There are moments of softness between the two, like this moment where Francis helps Tom wash the blood off of his hands after helping deliver a baby calf. They share a dance together later on, and Tom even admits to wanting to stay at the farm house and help Francis run the place. Is this some attempt at delivering themes on stockholm syndrome or has he fallen in love with Francis because he reminds him of his dead lover? There, however lies the problem of Tom at the Farm, it’s too overstuffed, despite being an exercise in Dolan’s minimized style, to deliver on many of the ideas that are presented in the script.

The ultimate undoing is vagueness. Dolan has previously laid things on incredibly thick to get a point across. He does that in an incredibly beautiful way in Laurence Anyways, but when that is inverted into a chorus of maybes and almosts as it is here it feels like a betrayal. Perhaps, that is the ultimate point of Tom at the Farm and why the eventual ending feels closer to relief  rather than catharsis, but it feels unsatisfying to leave so many of these ideas about internalized homophobia, small town bigotry, and the parallel love/hate between Tom and Francis barely explored. Instead when Tom finally gets away he buries everything behind him. He’ll never fully understand this week, and we won’t either.

Madness and Women: Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

 I’m excited. A final still frame of Elisabeth Moss trapped in laughter gives way to credits and I feel disheveled, invigorated, surprised and unsure. I want to say what I experienced was something close to amazement, but everything is hard to grasp, because Queen of Earth is the type of movie that one cannot place their fingers upon fully at the close. It’s a little too vague in every way imaginable to simply be about one thing, and Perry is a genius at structuring his pictures so that narrative feels resolutely important to the proceedings. In Queen of Earth‘s case the one-day-for-a-full-week horror movie as anti-vacation at a Lake House recalls the first act of Je, Tu, Il, Elle refashioned through Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, which makes things feel familiar, but altogether different from the disciples it so obviously takes from.

Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) are best friends, but they seem to hate each other. They share every last detail of their lives in long conversations that link them as spiritual sisters. When Catherine’s father dies after killing himself Catherine shuts herself off from the world to rehabilitate herself and her career as an artist at Virginia’s vacation house that belongs to her parents (they both benefit from nepotism in some regards). While spending the week in this cabin things begin to unravel for Catherine as the vacation from herself becomes a series of avoiding contact with other people, bodily breakdown and an evolving sense of inwardness that leaves her in a panicked state of depression. The same thing that eventually killed her father.

The narrative of how close these women are slightly indulges in the persona/swap trope made famous by Mulholland Dr., 3 Women and godmother picture Persona. Moss and Waterstone at first seem to only exist in front of one another, and a long take sequence of a conversation physically links them. “This makes us the same”, Virginia says at one point. Catherine enters in one frame and Virginia reappears in another. This is all perhaps just a smokescreen though, as a means of perpetuating the idea of female friendship as both endearing and toxic that Perry seems to buy into. The yin-yang quality of good and evil and love and hate seems to exist in every moment between the two. It’s ludicrous, but quickly twists into a singular experience, and the picture that had once presented itself as a sister to those others becomes Catherine’s film entirely.

That movie would not work if Elisabeth Moss were not on fucking point throughout. Her ascension as one of the best actors working today began with Mad Men, and has brought us other fine performances such as Top of the Lake and another Alex Ross Perry picture, Listen Up Philip, but it is here in Queen of Earth where her skills as an actor have been brought to the forefront and should, hopefully, guarantee her the chance to play any role she desires in the future. There’s one scene in this movie where Catherine has been sabotaged, and her reclusion has been disrupted by a party that Virginia is throwing. Something seems off though, and her anxiety in being around others forces her to have a panic attack and she envisions them touching her body. She’s been discussing with Virginia the pain her bones are causing her previously so this is at the apex of her uncomfortability around people. She cannot handle this in the slightest, so the following morning when another woman innocently touches Catherine’s face, it is a moment of utmost horror, and Moss’ reaction to this is devastating. I could barely breathe in this moment, and it was then that I knew the insular nature of her character was something I was completely enveloped in due to Moss’ performance.

Queen of the Earth is also a testament to the power tone can have over a horror movie. Perry has cited Roman Polanski’s The Apartment Trilogy in interviews when discussing his work here, and it shows, and as he considers these movies to be comedies in one way or another his movie isn’t without moments of bleak laughter. This however, is an unsettling movie, and with each passing day of Catherine waking up in the same outfit with the garbage of barely eaten food piling up around her the claustrophobia of the setting overtakes any sense of black comedy and Queen lurches towards pure horror. There’s a disorienting effect surrounding Perry’s camerawork and Sean Price Williams incredible super 16 cinematography. Perry astounds with his ability with a camera, creating split screens out of real space and framing bodies in opposite ends of functionality in one moment and dissolving imagery of the nature that surrounds them the next. I’m most impressed by his ability to shift gears when the film calls for it, because when Queen of Earth moves into the depression fueled failings of Catherine after a male neighbour (Patrick Fugit in a role that undoes his Almost Famous popularity) is interjected into the plot he deftly captures her inability to function by altering his lens from Catherine and Virginia’s shared mental state to just Catherine’s. His repetitious framing on her ever-dirty nightgown and unkempt hair, the dirtyness of her body, the bed she lays in, and the cave she is building around herself creates a sense of isolation within the character and the viewer and with the power of Moss’ note for note perfect performance Perry can achieve everything he set out for.

This is a great movie, maybe an amazing one, but that’s unknown after a single viewing. At current times the feeling of being overwhelmed takes over me. The thought of chasing this movie and trying to pin down what it means or how it gets there is an ecstasy. Unlocking a picture can bring with it its own merits, but unraveling the mystery of why a film is so effecting towards you personally is something else entirely. Queen of Earth feels like the sort of luggage I’ll be carrying with me for the rest of my life.

Queen of Earth will be in limited release August 26, 2015.