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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female Filmmaker Project: SuperDyke (Barbara Hammer, 1975)

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

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

Female Filmmaker Project: Menses (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

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

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

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

Female Filmmaker Project: Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

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

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

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

You can watch Dyketactics on Vimeo here

Female Filmmaker Project: Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)

Girlhood. The very title is more than any movie could handle, and being brandished with such a huge name would speak to the very complexities that girls go through as they reach womanhood, and the difficulties of portraying that in a film. The idea of a universal girlhood is a misnomer as no such thing exists. Girlhood is then chiseled down into something singular. Girlhood is what you make it. Girlhood is a film about one teenage girl growing up, but the connotations of her narrative speak to the type of movie that isn’t as easy to pin down as an exhibition of sisterhood, as Vic’s tale is more important than the relationship she has with her friends along the way. Bande de Filles is then a misleading title as Bande de Filles turns into the story of Vic, but it was always only about her, even with diamonds by her side through much of it.

Celine Sciamma’s film is a portrait of a young girl fumbling through adolescence without a lot of options. Marieme (soon to be redubbed Vic by her friends) is refused the chance to retry the last year of schooling she failed, her home life is constricting to her internal sense of freedom, and she doesn’t appear to have any sort of connection with anyone except her younger sisters, and a rocky relationship with her brother. That all changes when she befriends a group of girls who give her life a spark, and some sort of meaning. She gains confidence through the group’s overall strength and eventually starts to find her footing. It isn’t perfect, but then what life is? The group engages in petty crime and sometimes fighting, but it’s all through the guise of youth. These tools have always been extensions of films about white characters, but in the hands of characters who aren’t white there’s often this sense of concern trolling over where their lives are headed (in Hollywood this often means the inclusion of a white saviour, even though the white saviours kids participate in the same kind of victimless crime, look to Dazied and Confused and Boyhood for similar instances of Adolescent Crime), and it’s refreshing to see Sciamma giver Vic the space to explore her age and her choices.

In one transcendent scene Vic reaches the apex of her teenage years, and finds an identity through her friends and a song. That song is “Diamonds” by Rhianna. Sciamma frames the sequence in close up shots of her friends respectively, and doused in shimmering blue (the films colour palette is extremely strong). They begin lip singing to the track in the dresses they just took from a department store. In this one moment the entire world takes a back seat to a singular emotion and the film itself also becomes secondary to the song that it cuts a hole through everything, movie included. It’s the sort of thing that sounds regular on paper….”And then the girls sing a song together”, but when treated as the single most happy moment of growing up it becomes something else entirely. In a moment of finality Sciamma takes the close up angle away from her friends and onto Vic’s face as she contemplates letting herself go completely and singing along to Rhianna with her friends. She decides to join in, and in doing so closed one chapter of her life and opened another. When the moment ends the film struggles to gain back that momentum, but it speaks to the importance of seemingly small moments being the most memorable in growing up.

Girlhood‘s narrative feels so fresh, and Sciamma’s confident filmmaking are joys to watch, but despite remaining fascinating throughout Girlhood struggles to maintain consistency When the film takes a steep right turn in act three and becomes a narrative of personhood and choice after she sheds her gang of friends to move forward with her life the movie seems to be confused of where to go. This could partially be seen as an unsureness on Vic’s part, but I think it has more to do with Sciamma having 2 parts of 2 separate films. On it’s own the third act, which cycles back into Sciamma’s queering of gender (See chest binding above & which relates to gendered presentation in Tomboy) is strong, but within the context of the first two acts there’s a real struggle to find it’s footing once more. That isn’t to say that the final 20 minutes aren’t worthwhile, because they absolutely are, but there’s an aimlessness that makes the final third feel more plodding than it should. Which is a shame, because Sciamma is entering into  Fassbinder territory by way of her own applications of gender that are really interesting. Vic’s hyperfemininity in her new job, the rejection of said hyper-femininity in favour of masculine presentation in her home life, and the possibly queer relationship between her and another girl are all threads left stranded that could have been made more interesting if she gets to this segment of the film a little quicker.

More cinema like this should exist, because it’s unfair to be burdened with the weight of an entire group of people to deliver something resonant. We don’t often ask that question of films about White, Straight, Cis Men, because they’ve been given the chance to be everything they could possibly be in cinema. Those same opportunities haven’t been granted to other kinds of people. Girlhood isn’t a perfect movie. It’s far too shaky in it’s delivery to be given the highest of accolades, but it’s very good. If cinema is to reach it’s truest heights then Girlhood needs to be bested time and time again. Cinema humanizes in a way that is like none other. It makes the different relatable, and gives life to those without a voice, but those voices must first be heard. Hopefully Girlhood will be the first in a trend instead of an outlier in a sea of adolescent pictures of white boys. Who knows, maybe even one of those hypothetical films about a black girl will have her become a boring photographer heading off to college, and we’ll all call it a universal masterpiece. I hope cinema gets there.

Female Filmmaker Project: Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

Abstract Images, Dual imagery and a focus on bodies through intimate gestures in Point Break are used to represent the paralell arc of both Bodhi and Johnny Utah. Once they crossed paths they were destined to both be the love of each others lives, destroy each other and ultimately unleash a chasm of similarities between both men that made them starcrossed romantic figures at the center of this action movie. Kathryn Bigelow’s camera is lithe and graceful through the eyes of Utah as he watches on in idol worship towards Bodhi, a man who is unshackled by the boundaries of rules or society, or so he says at least. Bigelow puts these magnificent images through the surf, finding a way to track the sun and the body into one fluid motion capturing the beauty of Bodhi as a figure, and through a personification of his personality while he cuts through the earth on a board. Like Icarus he is framed through the sun as he soars ever higher, moving in a way that seems both sexual, alien and god like.

In a moment of bonding Bodhi teaches Utah his way of life. Point Break’s spirituality comes through it’s closeness towards the water, and how we use it to our benefit. When Bodhi takes Johnny on a rendezvous surf lesson in the dark of night Utah reaches something akin to nirvana, and Bodhi could not be happier for his friend who he grows ever closer to by the day. Swayze’s face ellicits an emotion of happiness, and radical joy. Bigelow slows the camera down to lock into Swayze pumping his fist, because Utah gets it, and afterward his girlfriend says Utah finally seemed like he dropped his pretenses and let himself flow with Bodhi, her, and surfing. Bigelow’s imagery never becomes more abstract in these moments as the surfers and waves roll in and out of one another often jumbling their movements with waves that are inching closer towards a camera to crush the image and the surfers.

Bigelow frames surfing as a spiritual act, but doesn’t shy away from it’s sexual connotations as well. After Utah’s transcendence into Bodhi’s religion Bigelow cuts to the morning after where Tyler (Lori Petty) and Utah lie on a beach caressing one another. Their bodies are shot in a loving, warm way and the afterglow of sex is apparent through the imagery of having all of this taking place directly after surfing, but instead of sex it was this ritual which in turn had become an equal to sex, but Bigelow never shows sex in Point Break. Instead, surfing replaces the act, but the following bedside manner follows it up.

But the romance of Point Break is not exclusive towards Utah and Tyler, because Bodhi exists at the center of this narrative. Bodhi and Utah are on opposites side of the law, but share personhood. Utah understands Bodhi on an intrisic level, and from their first encounter on the beach playing football, until their last encounter on the beach as he whisks Bodhi off to fly too close to God they share a romance. Bigelow uses body language and mirrored imagery to explain Bodhi and Utah’s closeness. In one sequence Bodhi and Utah both lose grasp of their respective plans, with Utah being the cop and Bodhi being the robber, and lose someone close to them. They share an identical reaction.

Body language is even more important to Bigelow’s framing of their bond. A lot has been said about the relationship between characters who exist as a found family in the Fast and Furious pictures, but they are merely disciples of Bigelow’s cinema, and even going back further than that to movies from John Carpenter and even Howard Hawks. She uses Bodhi and Utah romantically, and they grasp each other often. This is how they show their love. They won’t let go of one another no matter what. In dual sky diving sequences placed in the 2nd and 3rd acts Bigelow showed Bodhi and Utah holding each other’s hands as they fell towards earth. She calls back to this in the 3rd act freefall when Utah doesn’t have a chute, but Bodhi still clutches at his drawstring to save them both, even after he feels betrayed by Utah working for the FBI. Utah pulls the chute to save them both, but Bodhi’s hand is right there.

 Neither of these sequences is the greatest example of their love towards one another. That scene would be the on foot chase after the failed bank robbery of Bodhi’s crew is interrupted by Utah and his FBI partner played by Gary Busey. Utah has Bodhi dead to rights. He is pointing a gun dirctly at his face. Bigelow cuts back and forth between the two zooming in on their facial reactions and the gun. Will Johnny Utah murder his best friend? It’s the most anguished moment of the movie, because he is torn between his job and someone he has grown to love. Bodhi is just as hurt. You can see it in his eyes. His best friend trapped by a duty to uphold a badge. It’s not radical. But Utah does not kill his best friend. He lets him go, but he’s hurt. He knows he’ll be forced to make this same decision again later, because it’s the nature of these things. They’re cursed to fight each other, because of the lines they’ve drawn in life.

and he is faced with the same decision in the closing moments of the movie, but putting a bullet in his greatest friend’s head isn’t nearly as bad as sentencing a bird to a cage. Bodhi remarks back to Johnny “I can’t live behind those walls man”, and Johnny knows this. Earlier in the film Bodhi talks about wanting to ride the greatest wave that only comes around once every fifty years due to nature’s cyclical habits, and they are both staring right at this opportunity. He has a moment to let his friend go and release him once more to the world, and because he loves him he does. Bodhi surfs into the void, being swallowed up by what he loves and dying as he lived. Johnny Utah tosses his badge into the ocean and says goodbye to his past life and his very best friend. The rain falls all around them. It’s appropriate that it would rain at a funeral.

Female Filmmaker Project: Fashion in Susan Seidelman’s SMITHEREENS & DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN

I stood, staring in the mirror at a Target in Philadelphia after I slid on a pair of ripped skin tight jeans and a simple blue and white stripped top with an open neck and it felt right. I had been wearing clothing cut for girls since I was a child, but I always did it in secrecy and it was never something that I had actually picked out. It was always clothes belonging to my mother, exaggerated Halloween costumes or dress-up with the few friends I had who I could trust with my being a transgender girl. The instances of trying to find an appearance that lined up with how I felt internally when it came to gender was never something resonant in the clothing I tried on until I bought some myself with my own money. I dove into fashion very slowly, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I loved the idea of clothes mirroring my personality or my mood. I didn’t jump in head first and buy dress after dress or layer up with earrings, necklaces and other accessories, because I’m still a very jeans a tee shirt kind of girl, but the power within finding yourself and your identity through clothing and finally reconciling a part of your gender identity that had long been denied was powerful. Those jeans don’t fit anymore, and I hardly ever wear that top for the same reason, but I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of those clothes, because they were “me” in a time when I was first finding myself, and when I was figuring out what kind of a woman I wanted to be. Fashion has been a huge part of that. Now, whether I’m wearing skirts or jeans, black or white, flats or heels I’m always myself, and that freedom was resonant in the first year of my coming out. Now clothing is just a normal everyday part of my life, but I still get a thrill out of finding something that is so resolutely me that I must own it, or at least try it on, and I’m still obsessed with gazing at clothing.

What I find most interesting about these two Susan Seidelman films is their insistence upon fashion being a defining characteristic for these women and for her lens.

When Seidelman shoots her characters often times it is from the feet up, but it’s not about a sexual gaze or the leering of bodies, but instead it’s to get a full look at an outfit. Her lens becomes a mirror that moves from heels to hose to dress to necklace to make-up to hair, and it’s almost always shot through the eyes of a character who happens to be a woman. There’s a lovingness in gesture towards this camera movement that screams “Look at this outfit!”, that personifies a covetous feeling that is most present in Desperately Seeking Susan‘s role model as New Wave Goddess imagery through Madonna, and it’s entirely about the ensemble instead of the body which makes Seidelman’s lens feel intrinsically linked to clothing. In turn this makes the way she shoots women to feel both a celebration of women and femininity.

 In Desperately Seeking Susan Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) is a housewife stuck in a boring marriage reading books about unlocking her sexuality and trying to figure out how to love herself. She gets swept up in the romanticism of following a woman who seems to live the life she wants in the classified ads containing the oft repeated phrase “Desperately Seeking Susan”. Who is Susan? What does she have that I don’t? When she finally runs into Susan she’s the embodiment of everything Roberta is not. She’s carefree, cool, in complete control of her life, and rebellious in a way that that Roberta seems to want. So she follows her constantly and begins to adopt her look to get a taste of what these clothes feel like, because if she couldn’t be Susan she could at least feel like her through clothing. She even goes as far as buying a jacket that once belonged to this chic-woman of the street, and begins to feel like herself after she adopts Susan’s wardrobe. This isn’t that different from finding yourself through pop culture or your look through women in television which is something I’ve often tried to repeat myself with the likes of Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, because I too was looking for myself through the fashion of another woman. I wasn’t happy until I finally started being myself, and that wasn’t until I started to try and adopt the characteristics of fashion from someone whom I admired. It took a long time, but I found my own voice, and the accessories that ended up becoming Willow Maclay, but there still remains hints of Gilmore throughout my look. The pink coat below being one such example. Roberta does the same thing with Susan.

Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan also share women who break out of the screen through effortless cool with Wren & Susan respectively. Both of these women become models of affection towards everyone around them, because both the characters in the movie, and audiences are drawn to how comfortable they are within themselves & the “boom” of their look. Wren and Susan stand apart within crowds due to their fashion, but also how they carry their fashion. Notice the differences in how Roberta and Susan wear the same clothes, but the clothes do not have the same power for Roberta, because she’s unsure of herself until the very end of the movie, but with Susan she controls every pair of eyes in the room with her sparkling boots, and dissonant black/pink ensembles. Wren is less put together than Susan, but that’s also a part of who she is, and just as effective. Her look seems to be haphazard which is perfect for the dying NYC punk rock scene she inhabits, and those oversized t-shirts, dresses, Blondie sunglasses and ripped hose aren’t anything different from what everyone else is wearing in the movie, but she carries it like she’s the greatest rockstar in the world. So does Susan, even when she’s drying her pits in the ladies room.

To put it very simply Wren and Susan completely control how they’re presented, and even if their looks seem very devil may care they are always precisely on point, and that is what draws audiences and people alike to them.

Susan Seidelman’s first two movies are also ahead of the game in terms of Selfie culture, and once again Wren and Susan are the focal points of this activity. Wren plasters her face all over punk clubs in an act of self promotion, but in the comfort of her own living space, and even others, she is not shy to take out a polaroid camera and take a picture of herself. This isn’t an act of vanity as much as an act of self confidence. Susan similarly carries around a polaroid camera and takes snapshots of her appearance whenever there’s blank spaces in time. The Selfie as a revolutionary act of self love for women specifically who are constantly told by society that their appearance isn’t good enough, is something I adhere to so it’s interesting how this is captured in a movie as early as the 80s, and being done by women as cool as Wren and Susan. The Godmothers of the Selfie if you will.

Susan Seidelman’s first two films are an argument for her auteurism through fashion and her muses are these bohemian new wave 80s icons. Madonna has never been presented more lovingly, and in the first phases of her career it was no surprise that her look captivated a nation of millions of teen girls looking for an idol just as strongly as they did with a frustrated New Jersey Housewife (Roberta). Wren did not carry with her the cultural cache of Madonna’s Susan, but her look is altogether just as impressive in a grunge-y gutter punk vibe that would echo the coming fashions of people like Pat Benatar. As time capsules of the fashion of the 80s these pictures are remarkable, but evenmoreso these are great women’s pictures emphasizing something often seen as unimportant in the cinematic world, but Seidelman treats fashion as power, and the Women who create these outfits as figures of importance.

Female Filmmaker Project: Female Misbehavior (Monika Truet, 1992)

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.

Female Filmmaker Project: Marianne and Juliane (Margarethe Von Trotta, 1981)

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.