Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.
Kimber Lee is a ballerina, a bartender, an American, and an artist, but at heart she’s a wrestler. There’s a defiance in the title of this documentary that pushes back at preconceived notions of what a woman can be when she steps inside the ring. She’s a wrestler. Not eye candy, not a prop, not a model or a valet. She’s here to kick-ass and tell a story, just like all of the men who enter into this sport of gonzo theatrics and ineffable heart.
Kimber Lee states that she’s always had to prove herself, because she’s a woman. Wrestling is still held back by lecherous ideas of the extent of what a woman can do in the sphere of the sport, and this documentary centers that understanding through narrative and framing. In the opening frames Kimber is seen as a solitary figure backstage- a lone woman in a sea of men. The images used here speak volumes of the disparity in gender in wrestling. Kimber is outnumbered in all possible frames, and director Kenny Johnson focuses on this attitude by using wide shots to truly capture the environment. Large, bulky men tower over Kimber, but she’s resolute in what she does, and she hopes to foster change and prove that women can hang with men inside the ring and out. Wrestling hit its zenith in popularity in the late 1990s where it wasn’t uncommon to see women, frequently playboy models, “compete” in lingerie pillow fight matches and even more degrading examples like mud wrestling and bra and panties matches. Wrestling earned a reputation that at the time was deserved of being barbaric, offensive, and trashy. The World Wrestling Federation plunged to the depths of good taste to compete against rival company World Championship Wrestling and in doing so saved their company and made wrestling reach a level of popularity it has not seen since again, but in doing so they severely damaged the possibilities of women who wanted to be wrestlers. Today, wrestling has dropped the easy, gutter-trash programming (mostly) in favor of competitive theater, but women in wrestling, and wrestling in general are still fighting to be seen as respectable.
Kimber Lee’s mom forbid her from watching during the late 90s, and no one can really blame her, but nonetheless Kimber fell in love, and after her career as a ballerina closed she decided it was time to become what she admired to be so much when she was younger. It’s telling that even in standing beside men who dwarf her in size Kimber looks like she belongs. In wrestling acting is paramount and Kimber’s body language is of utmost confidence. She stands right in the face of her competitors and knows she can take their best shot and give it back to them tenfold. Kimber is an independent wrestler and sometimes competes in matches against men, called Intergender Wrestling. As Wrestling is theater and predetermined it can skirt a lot of the more troublesome implications of seeing a man hit another woman. In wrestling equality can be found through combat, and women can fight back and win. Intergender wrestling is complicated, because it so frequently can falter and merely reaffirms gendered notions of men and women, but when it is merely treated as wrestling and the competitors are equal it can be divine.
She’s a Wrestler utilizes implications made famous in the television drama Friday Night Lights. Wrestling is made special by showing it as a gathering. Fans are seen climbing into seats, the lights are being set up, the wrestlers linger around stretching and later putting on their gear. It’s a production, but it has the vibe of a small town bonding over sports. The Independent wrestling scene offers something unique in the ability to showcase what younger fans see as superheroes with a real chance to feel them up close. Not fifteen or twenty feet away you can see Kimber’s determination, her pain, her grace and her strength as she fights back. She’s wrestling for herself, but every other little girl (or little boy) who needs to see someone be strong in the face of bullying or aggression.
The film eventually eschews its ground-level filming of the action and the vibe of the independent wrestling show in favor of documentary techniques like talking heads, but Kimber’s words inform the strength behind these original images and give them more context. Kimber distinctly understands that she’s more than just a wrestler, but also an activist. There is no untangling the political from women’s wrestling and she knows that she’s on the front-lines of an evolving business as not just an independent wrestler, but a figure for little girls everywhere to enact change within an industry so dominated by men that it isn’t rare to see independent shows hold one women’s wrestling match for every six or seven by men.
There is one final image that brings together the thesis of why Kimber wrestles and it is Kimber signing a balloon in front of a girl who attended the show. In voice-over Kimber states “I’m this girl who just stood up to this guy, and she thinks “oh my gosh I can do this too”. I’ve always said, like, if I have one little girl somewhere, or little boy, I don’t care, that says “I want to be like Kimber Lee”. If I inspire somebody I’ve really done my job.” She’s a Wrestler.
When I was growing up I was yearning for a figure like Wonder Woman to come by and sweep me off my feet and give me something resembling confidence and strength to make it through day to day life. But Wonder Woman wasn’t around. I was forced to try and understand Batman and Robin or the Power Rangers and that feeling of identification was never present in my childhood until I found Sailor Moon. I thought I was over finding strength through characters when I was in my twenties, but something curious happened when I found professional wrestling. I started watching Shimmer Women Athletes right around the time when I came out as a transgender woman, and here were these women who were so profoundly strong and confident and they were all different from one another. I realized that my body type wasn’t all that different and I could be whoever the fuck I wanted to be with conviction. I found my own Wonder Woman in Sara Del Rey, but the great thing about wrestling, and the great thing about Kimber Lee is that she’s making it so that you don’t have to be in your twenties to see that you can be strong. It’s for kids and adults, and in her own small way she’s making it okay for little girls and even young women to say I want to be a wrestler. I want to be like Kimber Lee. I can do this. I can do anything.
Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.
[TW: Discussions of Rape, Rape Revenge Movies and Rape Culture]
Exploitation cinema addresses difficult subject material with a directness not usually gifted to mainstream filmmaking. At its best these kinds of movies ask questions of viewers and unsettle their cultural ideas of sex, race, gender and class. Rape is not a stranger to cinema, but it is uncommon that this topic is handled with immediacy, concern and grace. Rape-revenge movies must have an understanding of the psyche of the abused, and facilitate this through camerawork and character depth. The person’s (almost always a woman) fight for justice needs to be paramount, and their agency within the narrative has to be a concern. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies don’t always understand how to go about balancing their exploitation duties to pinku cinema, and rape-revenge to their righteous women’s anger, but frequently they find a balance of expressiveness and strength at the centre with the help of Meiko Kaji (Scorpion). Kaji (Scorpion) is a performer whose eyes emote more than dialogue ever could and her stoicism, determination and weathered life experiences gift the Scorpion films a character who viewers can identify with and follow, even when scenes are hard to bear. It is in her eyes that the Scorpion films find their power as vengeance pictures, and in Jailhouse 41 Scorpion evolves into a figure whose acts of reprisal become mystical. What is only hinted at in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion becomes gospel as Scorpion becomes the blade for all women.
Director Shunya Ito understands that this is Scorpion’s movie and nearly always has her point of view in mind. In the first moments of Jailhouse 41 Scorpion is hog tied once again in the pits of the prison in what I described as “dank hell” in my first piece on these movies. Scorpion is seen dragging a spoon across the rock floors and refashioning it into a primitive knife. She does this knowing it might be her one way to escape or to strike back at the warden who captured her and sent her back to prison at the close of the first movie. In these scenes the camera is looking up, just as Scorpion would be and the image is of the Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his men standing above Scorpion. When it is announced that Scorpion would be taken outside along with the other women to meet a dignitary from the state who is coming to check up on the prison she is “cleaned” with a fire hose. Her face breaks in these moments and she shows vulnerability. The cracks in Scorpion’s armor are important to make her a relatable figure instead of a superhero and amplify the anger audiences are supposed to feel with the cruelty of the warden and his men. Ito smartly frames the hose sequence no different than Scorpion’s introduction and the lens is filled with splashes from the water. The camera takes the place of her body.
The effect of Scorpion’s previous escape from prison has made her a legend in the eyes of the women alongside her. Tales of the revolt that came at the hands of her unwillingness to break in the face of the steepest of punishment have spread and they speak of her in hushed tones like a god waiting to be unleashed from her shackles and roam free again. She represents the possibility of being free and unburdened with the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of the men who oversee them in jail. She is a perceived god of possibility and an arbiter of their future. Scorpion is a slippery figure who seems to find her way wriggling to freedom when given an inch of room to run, and the women inmates know this fact about their fellow incarcerated sister. When they see her emerge their faces are of shock, jubilation and excitement. Already Scorpion is becoming a leader among women, but there is one woman named Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi) who remains unimpressed with Scorpion. She carries a scowl on her face and contorts herself into broad theatrical expressions throughout the movie. A natural rival to both Kaiji and Scorpion.
After a failed murder attempt on the warden with the knife she carved during the opening credits Scorpion and the other women are sent to a biblical punishment of dragging rocks tied to their backs and in Scorpion’s case carrying crosses. The blocking in the punishment sequences is always fascinating, because it carries the sense of space and the hierarchy of the inmates versus the guards. Notice in the first screencap the men are all standing high above the women with guns held high in standard police uniform. They’re perfectly coiffed and untarnished by the dirt, dust and clay of the rock field. The women, in contrast are hunched off, caked in filth and below the men. The scorpion films use blocking to investigate hierarchy and these are most striking in large spaces. In the first film Scorpion is asked to dig a hole until she drops and like this scene with the rocks she is literally underneath the feet of her oppressors.
Scorpion’s cross-carrying is no small coincidence either. Her presence as a saviour to the masses is well known and this alignment with Christ gives her iconography that is known worldwide. Scorpion, however, is not a martyr or a saint. She’s a murderess with a justified hand. But even the punishment of Christ is not enough in the eyes of Chief Warden Goda. Goda insists that Scorpion must be broken, and a punishment not befitting of her will only turn Scorpion into an idol. Goda orders his men to publicly gang rape Scorpion in front of the other women.
Scorpion’s gang rape is the most difficult scene to witness in the movie, but it gives fire to her later actions. It is made more cruel and vile, by Goda’s decision to force the other women to watch Scorpion be publicly raped. One woman, who is unnamed, falls at the sight of this, because it’s too much to bear. Ito treats the sequence for the horror that it is by never shying away from the vileness of the act. The woman who breaks is key to understanding how much of a struggle it is to watch scenes like this as a female viewer. It’s a meta-decision that informs the women who view this film that Ito understands this is despicable to view, and it also works as a plot mechanism because it undoes Scorpion’s hero status in the eyes of the women, because she is brought down to their level through the gang rape. Formally, the rape is shot similarly to rapes in the first film with a focus on Scorpion’s face and the continued usage of the camera as a point of view tool. The rapists are never given control over the image and whenever they do appear in frame their faces are demonic, crushed under pantyhose and sniveling. They show no human characteristics. There is also never a clear frame of penetration in this scene, but in the sunglasses of the warden four figures are seen moving around Scorpion. The mind makes the scene far worse, because of the implied nature of the act. By suggesting the violence of the rape Ito sidesteps sexualizing it leaving it up to viewers to think about what’s happening and question our ideas of what rape looks like and what rape is, which is a far more complex shot than bluntly showing the act of sexual violence. It is also a smart usage of the camera to artfully sidestep what is expected of the genre expectations of the film. At the close of the scene in slow zooms and cuts Scorpion locks eyes with the warden and as is her carrying card she marks him for utter vengeance. The act of extreme close-up gives Scorpion some level of agency in a scene where all agency is taken. Her eyes signal a foreshadowing that this scene will not go unpunished.
To fully break the girls spirit warden Goda tells two of his men to kill Scorpion while they’re headed back to the prison, but she thwarts their attempts and Scorpion’s rival Oba kills the second guard. Preceding their escape there is a difficult scene of the other women attacking Scorpion. With their faith in Scorpion’s ability to lead them to safety they kick her repeatedly. The camera spins around their attacks quickly, blurring the image, and their screams and frustrations are heard. This isn’t a direct attack on Scorpion, but an attack on their patriarchal situation. This is an assault of failed hope and dashed dreams, and Scorpion’s relationship with these women is flawed from this assault. The Female Prisoner Scorpion films address infighting between women, but do so by framing it as a product of men stoking the flames of their relationships. Men have access to the power in these movies, and represent an abusive, evil, patriarchy and the women in these movies fight for what little amount of privilege is granted. The women are prone to hierarchy and judgment and when confined within a closed space such as a prison fighting is natural.
Before the women flee they make a scene of one of the guards who tried to kill Scorpion. They maul his body, disrobe him and with legs splayed they plant a giant plank of wood directly into his genitals. It’s a graphic image, and perhaps the bloodiest in the series. It’s an image of specific meaning due to the camera’s lingering presence. It’s lit in a way that makes it clear blood is gushing up from his wound and we see the full extent of his mangled body. In the Female Prisoner Scorpion films when women are raped the camera rejects the sexualization of the subject by never showing the full extent of the act of rape, but instead uses reaction shots and close-ups. Those scenes are made disturbing by the power of the actors faces, and that is a clear rejection of typical filmmaking techniques for rape that focus on the female body. This image of a defiled man is made powerful by contrast in the the destruction of his body in a physical, visible way. It’s angry, violent, impure, but radical in context of the rape-revenge movie and in how Scorpion functions as a series of movies in this genre.
Unlike in the previous Scorpion film the surrounding characters of Scorpion are given a backstory. In Jailhouse 41 this is accomplished through a psychedelic fantasy sequence that utilizes traditional Japanese theatrical techniques and beautiful high-contrast colours. The seven escaped prisoners come upon an old woman in their journey and when they fall asleep later that night she narrates their story. Each woman has been sent to prison due to a crime associated with men. Some of the justification for these crimes hasn’t aged as well, especially the one regarding jealousy, but all of these stories fall in line with the universe of Scorpion where men do women wrong. Oba gets the the densest of these revelations as she murdered her children when she caught her husband cheating and couldn’t bear to know she brought something of his into the world. Oba’s narrative is the most complicated, and her later actions make her evil in a way that requires a true test of empathy from Scorpion. She too has been wronged, but she has done some wrongdoing herself. For Scorpion to be an avenger of all women she has to be an avenger of a woman like Oba as well.
When the old woman eventually dies the next day she gives Scorpion a blade that endows her with mystical ability. Scorpion takes the blade and rakes it across her eyes in a fluid motion (Ito’s homage to his own favourite director Luis Buñuel), and this image would be her rallying cry for movies to come. Scorpion’s hair rises and she’s lit in a flame scorched orange silhouette, but unlike the scene from the Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion this scene signals her mystical powers as a vengeful reaper of all women, and not merely a tool for her own vengeance. The balance of Scorpion’s heroism and vulnerability tips over in this sequence. From this point forward Scorpion would be less of a Woman and more of a symbol. It’s a bold choice for the complicated people she must fight for, and the reliance on her earlier vulnerability makes her a hero who deserves power. She is an underdog who has risen into a force.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies have a deft eye for critical evaluation of their audience. Being in the pinku genre Ito knows the audience who would go to this movie and casually inserts an image of an offended woman overhearing men discussing sex with women who had just escaped form prison. Her look of disgust is the moral heart of these movies. At their centre the Scorpion films pay notice to the women characters and how they interact with men. Not to let the men see her reaction she quickly reaches for a smile to diffuse any possible negative outcome, which is something women are trained to do in the company of unbecoming men when we grow up.
Oba is perhaps a character who exists as criticism of the women in the audience who view Scorpion as a hero. Oba is the likely scenario of how offended men would view Scorpion in the first place so her more brazenly evil tactics are a focus. Oba works as a counter-point to Scorpion’s righteousness. She is more coarse and complicated in her hatred of not only men, but human beings. Oba strips women, steps on men and uses hostages as target practice in their lengthy escape. She’s an individual who is beyond damaged and throws Scorpion to the police to save her own ass later in the movie. It is perfect that Oba and Scorpion would stand together in the end as Scorpion learns to have compassion for someone who hated her guts.
Scorpion’s compassion for Oba is beautifully rendered in their final moments. Before Oba dies she relives the moment that sent her to prison. Her face is less severe and she carries a deep grief in her expression as she plunges a knife into her womb aborting her unborn fetus. In a striking image of abortion stigma a net is thrown over her and people prod her with sticks as she bleeds out. When Oba comes to Scorpion catches her and for a second Oba drops her defenses and rests in Scorpion’s arms. Finally, she lets down her armor and breathes, because she knows her torment is nigh over. Scorpion stares at her and their eyes meet. Scorpion didn’t have to catch Oba, but she did, and despite all of the vicious things Oba had done in the past she helped a woman in need. In her great empathy Scorpion carries Oba until she expires. She closes her eyes and lets her move onto the next world and Scorpion weeps. The message of unity among women crystallizes in this moment, because everyone has a backstory and moments that cause their own problems. It’s our duty to try to understand why.
The blade from the old woman was always ours to share, and the blood of our peace washes us clean. Scorpion sprints in the final moments of Jailhouse 41 with an army of women behind her. Her evolution into feminist totem carries weight in this moment, because she isn’t seen as a solitary figure reckoning with her own personal needs, but the needs of many. When the blade passes hands it’s a symbol of not only our collective spirit towards a common goal, but that we cannot do this alone. It would take all of us. It’s an empowering fruitful image to end a movie on and an undeniably feminist one in the context of the world this movie exists within.
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.
*Analysis of a scene is a feature on Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I take a look at specific scenes in movies and discuss them*
Jacques Rivette smartly evades the weight of Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc by never trying to emulate or tap into the same filmmaking techniques that bluntly created one of the most devastating portraits of personhood in all of Cinema. Dreyer focused on the weary, crumbling presence of Maria Falconetti’s face in close-up, but Rivette’s picture avoids those comparisons by never actually focusing on the trial or lingering on the tragedy. Instead, Rivette opts for a portrait of Joan as a person who was persecuted not only because she was considered an idolatress, but because she dared call into question the place of women in society by subverting her gender role and dabbling in masculine presentation.
Joan giddily darts a pair of scissors across her unkempt straw-like hair in order to please god and herself. She chooses a mirror of armour, a masculinizing of vanity. Her reflection reveals an evolving self. In order for Joan to go into battle she must adopt the roles of men. If she is going to be with the men she must be a man. Her first task is to remove the long hair that paints her as feminine. She mutters to another woman who works nearby that she must look like a boy, and in an attempt to make her haircut more appropriate the woman offers to even up her look. This early scene paints a portrait that continues throughout the rest of the film, and it is one of women helping Joan achieve her goals. Whether those women know that Joan is only merely doing these things because she sees messengers of god or they envision a woman breaking barriers of gendered norms is irrelevant. They help her regardless. The same woman who cuts her hair finds her a suit of armour made from hand-me-downs of smaller boys.
Jacques Rivette shoots his adaptation of Joan of Arc with documentary style realism. There are insertions of talking head shots to deliver the exposition of the narrative. These scenes are coupled with recreations of the events certain characters discussed moments previously, and the majority of the first act is Joan’s acceptance of her task and the battles she wins for her country and for God. Along the way many men question the legitimacy of Joan’s combat and military skill, often chalking any setbacks to her gender, and whenever she succeeds men say “I’ve never seen a woman do that before” or “You’re pretty good for a woman”, to paraphrase. These exchanges of soldiers finding their notions of gender challenged further establish a theme on Joan’s breaking of binary ideas on what a woman can or cannot accomplish. Even a woman can die for her country, and her beliefs.
This particular version of Joan’s story is split into two parts and while the first film is relatively triumphant the second part brings about the inevitable tragedy that is nestled inside of this story. The tranquil pace of the first picture begins to evolve in the final hours, as that same pacing mutates from peaceful to brutally anxious. Every viewer goes into the film knowing that Joan is a martyr, but Rivette alters this narrative slightly, and presents a wrinkle on Joan’s doom that is far more powerful in day to day life than the religious persecution that colours Dreyer’s masterpiece. In Rivette’s film her martyrdom would be one of the illusion of choice for a woman who lives in an uncaring patriarchal environment.
Once Joan is captured by the English they begin a trial based around her idolatry, which Rivette only briefly engages, but the reasoning behind the trial is clearly the deep-seated misogyny behind the men who would be furious that a woman defeat them in a battle. If battle is not man’s sport anymore then what does he have left to conquer? But it’s more than that as well. There is a hatred in how easily Joan was able to try on a masculine identity, and worse how natural a fit it became on her body. The bible states in Deuteronomy that any man or woman who would wear the clothing that wasn’t associated with their gender would be considered an abomination, a disgusting thing, a wicked creature. Joan came through God, but was challenging the very notions of his perceived word. There would be no evolving of ideas on a gender binary. There would only be fire to put out an idea.
That idea would spread in subtle ways. In one digression a mother is frustrated her daughter’s hair is tangled. The girl doesn’t want to straighten or comb her hair, and after spending a short amount of time with Joan she seems to have grasped towards that freedom Joan was exhibiting in her presentation, even if that just meant letting her hair become slightly messy. This one scene is the fissure in society caused by Joan’s gendered rebellion, and in a cinematic context it is all the evidence one would need to know Joan was causing change in the ideas of the women around her. Maybe I didn’t have to spend so much time on my appearance?
Joan took the dress under the condition that she would be sent back to a prison in her home country and if she would be given female prison guards to attend to her needs. That final detail is important, because Joan knew that women, in this telling of the story, would have her back. Throughout this film women have been helping her along the way, whether that be the woman who helped her find the armour or the girl she befriended before trial. They were Joan’s true angels. When the prison guards rip her of her masculinity and force her back into the more traditional femininity that she was seen wearing in the first scenes of the film it spells her doom. As a prisoner she was left to the will of the men around her, because there would be no female prison guards. Only men who saw a vulnerable woman who they could have their way with on repeated occasions. They wrap her in chains. Her dress exposed. A metaphor for the place women held in society during Joan’s period of life. The only way to push back the rapist prison guards was to dress like a man again after they loosened her shackles. It was the only protection she had against rape. And as soon as they saw she was dressing this way again the priests decided she had rebuked god, but they weren’t acting in the law of god. They were acting in the law of man. The law of man that would say a woman should stay in her place and lest she get out of line she be put back where she belonged. For Joan that meant ash.
“Saute Ma Ville is the mirror image of Jeanne Dielman”
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.
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.
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 Misbehavior isn’t much of a movie. I’ve watched a lot of documentary-esque features lately and it all becomes a bit wearying when they drop the pretext of cinema and movies just become an interview. Female Misbehavior falls into that category of talking head essay driven feminist documentary neatly, and it’s much to the film’s detriment this time around. It’s not that these four stories aren’t needed or these lifestyles are not valid, but in the context of creating a portrait of women who don’t fit into the neat mold of what is generally seen as appropriate behaviour it doesn’t really work. Instead this more loosely resembles four separate videos that have been taped together with the pretense of making a grander statement on how women are supposed to act, and how they buck those trends with how they treat their bodies, sexuality and choice of gender presentation. On paper it’s a tantalizing subject, but Truet doesn’t seem to have much in the way of an eye for images, or even insertion shots to break up the monotony of the constant talking heads, and only one of these subjects is truly transgressive, and its placement in this movie is a statement of misgendering.
The film begins with Annie, a performance artist who uses her body as a means of economic support while finding her exhibitionism thrilling to the point where she has complete control of it. She cites that she loves “tit art” and invites people up on stage to take a look at her cervix. It’s the shortest segment in all of Misbehavior, but it’s brevity is much appreciated, and Annie remains chipper and an engaging presence throughout. The next two segments are poor. The first is a long often repetitive account of a woman who found pleasure in s&m, and the detheorizing of sexuality though pain and pleasure. She talks about how this unlocked her own body, and how much she wants to bring other women to her side of things, but a long take of her accounting what brought her to S&M amounting to her just standing in front of a mirror and trashing the uptightness of female sexuality does not a fascinating subject make. It would be arduous to recount the loose colonialist, and sexist ramblings of Camille Paglia so I won’t bother. But there’s one segment in this film that cuts through the rest of the filler, and it’s entirely devoted to a trans man named Max simply recounting the story of how he came to be. Max discusses identifying as a lesbian, but it never fitting right, always feeling like a boy, and eventually the medical transition he is going through in order to align his body with his internal mael gender identity. It’s very simply told, and for the early 90s to have a trans man discuss his life is something entirely new and different. When Trans Women were starting to get some level of visibility people like Max were still largely invisible in the public eye, and while no one saw Female Misbehavior the fact that Monika Truet gave him as much time as Paglia is noteworthy, and her understanding in not speaking over Max was impressive. This is just his story, and by recounting it Truet stumbled onto something actually definitively ordinary, but ultimately rebellious, but it was in the narrative of a man not a woman, and there in lies the problem of including Max in this picture. I’m sure Max agreed to participate knowing this was a movie about women, but his story clashes strongly with the rest. His presence here alone is bothersome, not because of anything he said, but because he is a man, and any other assertion strikes me as being transphobic, even if it was unintentional. Unfortunately this unfairly casts a pall over the wonderful final segment in this otherwise forgettable documentary about Women.
I love films about the relationships women have with one another. The sheer willingness to do anything for another woman, and the strength that comes through in knowing you have an un-severable bond guided linked through a connection of soul. Sisterhood, the very words mean a close relationship among women based on shared experiences, concerns, beliefs. That definition opens up the doors to experiences of women both far and wide, and on the basis of activism, within feminism, sisterhood means a lot. A connection through a struggle and a constant push and pull to unravel oppression. For Marianne and Juliane their sisterhood is through blood and through activism.
I’m struck by the relative simplicity of Von Trotta’s imagery. Her openness and empathy in showing power of sisterhood through ongoing support. The recurring image of Marianne and Juliane is one of sisters embracing when they need it. It’s an image of love, of power, of purity. When Marianne goes to jail for terrorist activities related to her feminism her sister supports her without any reservations. She’ll put her hand up to glass dividing them as they discuss her incarceration, and make a joke about how her sisters hands feel cold, relieving the tension of her stressful situation. In a flashback sequence both sisters meet up in the girls bathroom of their schooling to shed tears over Holocaust footage, knowing their people did this. Their activism is born in this moment, but it also shows Von Trotta’s humanity towards the girls as they know they must never allow this to happen again, but through it all they would have each others support. Another moment of sisterly interaction has both women swapping sweaters after Marianne visits her in prison for the first time, and Juliane needing something warmer. This act of giving what was on her back to her sister is emblematic of their relationship. They would do anything for one another at all times. It’s a simple moment, but speaks to a larger loving relationship between the two, and Von Trotta’s ability to get across meaning through workmanlike imagery is essentially what makes Marianne and Julianne such a striking, devastating film on relationships, sisterhood, feminism, systems of oppression, and motherhood.
That strength in imagery carries over into all facets of the film’s political intentions. The scene I mentioned above about the holocaust showed actual footage in a classroom demonstration, but Von Trotta does not shy away from her countries history of violence. It is curious then why Marianne chooses to fight for her own rights through means of violence. When she weeps with her sister in the girls bathroom after seeing these images one would think she would lean towards pacifism in her own activism as these images seriously affected her, but she becomes a terrorist. It may then make sense that she sees those who were oppressed at the time of World War II and identified with them so greatly that she assumed the only way to fight this level of violence is to then work with those tools. This is a question the film doesn’t answer, and the ambiguity of her activism is interesting to me, and more powerful than a straight response, because it opens up debate among viewers.
Marianne and Julianne’s feminism is equally interpreted through simplistic, raw, but nonetheless affecting imagery that she also gave to their sisterly relationship. In one flashback sequence when Julianne is writing about Marianne’s upbringing the film shows the two of them at a dance. A dance that Marianne had trouble going to because she refused to wear a dress, but eventually gave into. When the DJ begins to mutter over the microphone it’s time for a boys and girls dance she approaches the dancefloor, but not with a boy, by herself. The looks of confusion that spread across the adults faces at this dance show this act as something of a rebellion. She didn’t need anyone. She’d be an independent woman. Von Trotta chooses to close this scene with an elderly woman smiling on at her as if to say feminism has always been present in Germany. Marianne’s later death in the movie is given the same raw treatment that she has shown throughout all of the movie. When Marianne’s decaying corpse is opened to view for the public she hasn’t been made beautiful, but instead her body is wrecked with decomposition, and her face frozen in an image of terror. Von Trotta doesn’t sugarcoat that Marianne’s death is a political one, and by showing Marianne’s broken body for what it is, the tragedy of the scene overflows. Julianne’s grief is also delivered in a similar manner with consistent close-ups of weeping, moaning and sorrow. The scenes between the two sisters early on code the grief of the picture as something significant, but the acting of Jutte Lampe is something else entirely, tapping into Rowlands-esque levels of emotiveness. Von Trotta is wonderfully laid back in these moments, and let’s Lampe act out her breakdown, and this creates another lasting, straightforward, blunt image. That’s the lasting effect of her camera, and the thing I’m most impressed with. She shows no inclinations towards breaking the mold, but she knows how to get across the message she intended to by simply showing and not overdoing.There’s simply no need to shoot something differently when a close-up of a face gets across everything you’d need to know about the pain of the scene.
The final feminist coded strand of this picture is within motherhood, and choice. The film is bookended by abortion and choosing to raise a child. Marianne and Julianne begins with an introduction of Julianne as a feminist woman. She is fighting for the right to choose through her abortion activism. At the beginning she is seen making signs and handing out pamplets to get the word out to other German’s about her personal choice to have children whenever she wants, something all cis women should have. Her sister Marianne has a child, but hasn’t seen him since he was two years old, and ultimately decided she wasn’t in the right place to become a mother at the time. We see the child throughout, but he’s used more as a totem for a woman’s choice than an actual character. If the movie has any weaknesses it’s in this segment where Von Trotta’s falls prey to cramming a bit too much into her movie. The connective notions of choice are tied up a little too cleanly in the closing moments when Julianne chooses to adopt Marianne’s long lost son after losing her sister. This could have maybe ended on a stronger note with the loss of Marianne and having Julianne fight for her sisters reputation as a great woman, but nevertheless Von Trotta pulls a final great moment out of this otherwise loosely connected storyline issue in the final frames. When Marianne’s son and Julianne sit down for the first time he tears a picture of his mother up, because he resents her having left him, much to Juliane’s dismay. She tells him that she was a great woman, and he listens. He wants to know everything. Julianne looks at him and the film closes on a still image of her face. Women are always telling the stories of other women. Our history isn’t buried when we’re talking about each other. I’m brought back to something Kathleen Hanna once said about creating art for women and fighting through the difficulty of it all. In The Punk Singer, she simply said “Women would understand”. Von Trotta made a picture that answers that call, and in her images she made a movie women would understand & relate to whether you’re an activist or not, a mother or not, a sister or not. This film is implicitly about women, and I’m grateful there are movies about that connection we have as women to people like ourselves.