Female Filmmaker Project: REALiTi (Claire Boucher, 2015)

 I still remember everything about arriving in St. Johns by airplane in September last year. I was on the way to finally live with the person whom I had been in a relationship with for years, and I distinctly recall the the feeling of purity that seemed to fill up my entire body. I’d check the time and know that with every passing minute I was another mile closer to the person that I loved, and reaching towards a place I could finally call home. For some reason I remember the chill on the windows of the aircraft and the fog that had crept over the city the most, and as it became darker and darker it felt like I was entering into a black hole, but when I came out on the other side I knew I’d be in paradise. The headphones that I had snuggly around my messy, blonde hair were feeding to me sounds of warmth, even if I was heading into an area more commonly associated with brutal cold. My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” swept over me in wave after wave of sonic distortion making my ears feel like pillows, and my body feel like mush in the airline seat. Still, I kept looking out the window knowing I’d soon be in a place where feelings of easiness, serenity, pleasure, and safety were boundless and the constrictions of growing up transgender in the American South would finally be unshackled from my subconscious. More importantly though, I’d feel his arms around me for the first time in my life. We skyped as often as we could, often drifting into a haze-y area of sleep as we watched each other through computer screens knowing someday this would all become physical. It would be the single greatest moment of my life. I built it up that way, and I knew it wasn’t going to disappoint me. I just had to get there. Cocteau Twins was next, and then something shimmered in the distance of the window through the impossible density of the fog, a tiny light, a slight burst of angel’s breath through the darkness telling me I was here. I couldn’t contain myself. The cliche of losing control of one’s body is not something I believed in until that moment when I started giggling to myself, and the smile didn’t seem to end on my face, but instead wrapped me up like a blanket. I still think back to this day of that music selection I had at the time, and the dissonance of feeling absolute warmth and stepping off the plane into a land of bitter cold. But I never felt the cold, because he was here. I was here. And his arms were as good as I thought they would be.

A funny thing happened the other night. I felt the shockwaves of that initial arrival once more, but it came with the images of a music video and a song that felt like a spiritual successor to the band I was listening to upon arrival in Newfoundland, and again I couldn’t push down the joy that seemed to be seeping out of my body. I felt that effervescent billowing of purity that I had only experienced once in my life. This music video triggered those feelings, and Claire Boucher’s stunning love letter to her fans in Asia is a testament to kindness and sincerity within art that felt connected to the type of love I was inundated with since arriving in Canada. REALiTi was never supposed to see the light of day, and this music video is mostly made up of shots Claire captured throughout her tour. It’s a scrapbook, but it’s also a statement to love, home, and people.

REALiTi is autumnal music. The kind of song that would play in a movie as two people desperately in love, clinging onto each other in this world finish their day and walk home. This is the essence of a hand outreaching for another or getting your hair pushed back long enough for a lover to bend in for a kiss. The anticipation of moments like that is REALiTi’s core structure musicially. Those hazing synths just eek out of the fibre of the song and Claire’s layered voice push everything up into the sky. Her voice is not one you can decipher lyrics from upon first listen, but words like scared, beautiful, love and home are enunciated and elevated for importance, and all those words connect to romance. Those words along with the icy, tenderness of the music paint REALiTi as something stunning. Claire never finished the song. She lost the original file so mixing and mastering never took place. It’s rough around the edges, and the chorus feels incomplete, but isn’t a pause important to the uncertainty of emotion? It only makes the song feel even more reflexive of humanity. And then there’s the video, a testament to colour, tone and architecture.

The bombast of the video’s colour palette in digital handheld cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary. Claire stands on a ledge at the beginning of the video only to be surrounded by lavish purples and golden street lights, her orange hair announces itself in the midst of all of the colour. As if it were her soul brightening in the face of all the mistiness surrounding her. There’s an abstract quality to her simply standing and existing within frame due to the offsetting colour of her hair and the decisions of her placement within the video. In another frame she stands with her back against a kimono painting that seems to swirl into her body that recalls the abstract. The most striking function of all the images throughout though is the relationship between nature and architecture. Grimes is shown dancing through jungle at some points, standing with the ocean to her back at others, and bathed in neon concert halls only moments later or shown moving up escalators into towering buildings. The beauty of what we have created and what we live in is not lost either way. Claire extends a level of interest in all of her subject matter and imagery finding them all equal of her lens as well as her body. Everything is worthy of being a dancehall or being shot on film with an eye for love, because this is our home, and she feels comfortable here among people with whom she’s never even met. That spark of humanity runs throughout the video, especially in the closing moments where specification on Grimes as a performer turns into Grimes as a uniter of people as they dance in the rotating yellow lights of a concert venue and join together in a singular moment of shared enjoyment.

There’s a moment in the video when everything begins to feel overwhelming where I get to the point where I’m about to cry and it’s closer to the end in the repeated lines “I go back alone” which sounds like “I go back home”. At this point Grimes is just dancing, moving her body to the music, and the video cuts to skyscrapers and fan reaction shots. Her music is her home, and the connection she has with these fans is the place where everything becomes perfect. I’m reminded of figuring out my place as well when watching this video. Since arriving in Newfoundland I’ve walked the streets, I’ve loved the people, and I found my place. My humanity was always locked up in this island rock of ice, because the person I feel truly connected to is located here. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a place separate from earth, like I lurched into some other existence that day, that I transcended my past life and was reborn into something different, because my heart’s full of love these days, and I had never felt that before. I want art that reflects the love I have for existence, and the warmth and joy we should have for the earth, each other, and the work we create right now, and Claire Boucher’s music video for REALiTi is informed by all of those things.

Female FIlmmaker Project: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

Taken on it’s own “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is a very striking title. It conjures up real world horror of being a woman and existing after the sun is down. However, the film belies any notion of investigation into those very words and the complex dangers of being a woman. Instead of delving deep into feminist text or analyzing the horror of violence against women it brandishes itself as vampiric cinema, and tends to have more in common with conventional boy meets girl romance despite it’s interest in terror. If anything this is closer to quirky cinema, and wouldn’t make a bad double feature with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive considering both films follow similar narrative structures, but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels like the first chapters of a budding relationship between two loners instead of the stagnant problems of eternal life.

The first thing one would notice about this movie is the stylization of the image. Night time cinematography gives way to dusty digital black and white in what has to be one of the first usages of B&W digital to grand effect. Lights feel hazey and street lamps decorate streets row upon row as far as the eye can see creating a sense of almost suburban trappings meets the old west. Amirpour’s intentions of making the picture feel like a western aren’t lost on her sensibilities to reach back to cinema of the past to give weight to some of her ideas. The urban streets traveled by no one except a cloaked girl aren’t entirely separate from wanderers of the old west like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. The old drunk trope is replaced by an elderly relative stricken by grief and hooked on heroin. These are tropes certainly, but Amirpour works well within them, and her knowledge of cinema past increases the effectiveness of her concrete wasteland. Aside from those western locales there is an intense interest in interior design with each room signifying the attitudes of specific characters. Her first victim lives a chic lifestyle that is coded by tacky animal print everywhere. The Vampire lives in a basement with paintings of Madonna on her wall, and the rest of her room seems to be corroding around her. The insertion of character dynamics via interior design and cinematography that doesn’t feel watery like other BW Digital work (Frances Ha) are some of the more impressive feats here.

 Scenes of violence tend to forgo the western and dip back into horror, and occasionally feminist horror. The black and white of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction is handled with much more chaotic-frenzied-brutality than this picture, but The Addiction came to mind specifically in feeding sequences while I was watching this. Lily Taylor’s vampire intellectual and Shelia Vand’s vampire, misandrist, queen both have no predisposition towards softness, and their killings often revel in the sensuality of the feast. Vand’s vampire specifically only attacks men, and I think that codes this with some feminist text, even though the picture refuses to analyze these things much deeper than her only killing males (though the way she does kill the first man in this picture is reminiscent of Teeth). It can be read that she is cleansing the streets, but that’s only the case until she falls for a boy dressed as dracula.

The romantic angle often gets bogged down by the male character’s problem life at home or his persistent blandness, but Amirpour manages to wrangle their story into something cohesive by the end. The meet-cute (meet-fang?) of their first time spent together is very sweet. Dracula finds someone he can relate to, and she finds a boy she doesn’t want to kill…yet. They end up heading back to her place on a skateboard she just stole from a boy who consistently behaved badly in the neighbourhood. They don’t have a ton in common, but they enjoy each other’s silence and there is a level of comfort between the two. The grandest scene of the entire movie comes just a little bit later with the two of them back at her apartment. The vampire stands to the far right, a disco ball twirls in the room sprinkling light all over, and as the boy approaches her as music washes in and out in ever quiet waves she stares into his eyes, and then his throat. We know that she is a vampire so the precedence of this scene has viewers asking Will she kill him or kiss him? She eventually puts her head on his shoulder, and it’s the finest scene in the entire picture. A moment where Amirpour’s rough, but often interesting vision coalesces into a purely perfect moment.

 Amirpour’s horror picture isn’t the groundbreaking feminist picture it’s title implies, but it doesn’t need to be. There are some ideas about patriarchal violence, and images that back up the strength of a female figure daring to push back at this, but this is mostly a gorgeous amalgamation of ideas she struggles to tie together. There’s enough here though to warrant further explorations into the future work of Amirpour and plenty talent on display to be excited about what her next movies may look like.

Female Filmmaker Project: Kristina Talking Pictures (Yvonne Rainer, 1976)

Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse comes to mind when viewing Yvonne Rainer’s Kristina Talking Pictures. Woolf is even mentioned, along with Jean Luc Godard, in the films opening segment. Woolf’s prose in that text focuses on specific ideas about aging, depression, sexuality, and womanhood and the story of the novel is delivered in a 24 hour time span in complete stream of consciousness thought. Yvonne Rainer isn’t a direct descendent of Woolf, but Woolf is definitely present in her work. She is present in the specific sequences that focus on aging, make-up and the deterioration of the body.  She is also a descendent of Woolf in how radical she pokes holes in the formal qualities of her art form. Woolf wrote a book completely in stream of consciousness, Rainer completely dismissed any notions of cinematic form.

Then there’s Godard. Godard was early in his puncturing of the idea of “What can a film do?” at this point, but Rainer seems to be on a similar wavelength. Her filmmaking style brings up the avant-garde, but even moreso how it intersects with feminist thought. Feminism in the 1970s was going through what we would now call the second wave. Women’s Liberation was at the forefront, and Rainer considered herself a staunch feminist. This comes through in her picture’s allegory of Lion Taming to conjure an idea of capturing masculinity and using it for your own benefit. This falls in line with second wave thinking as well, when that movement so expressly wanted women to enter the workforce and take on more masculine professions. Women can do any and all of these things, as well as in cinema as anyone else. As well as Godard.

The transgressive nature of the picture’s creation is most apparent in how it’s structured. There are many sequences of characters sitting and talking, followed by more characters sitting and talking, but none of this is ever in support of a significant plot. One would perhaps even call Rainer’s picture plotless. IMDB would tell you the plot is that “a woman who is a lion tamer wants to become a choreographer”, but that isn’t expressed significantly throughout the film. Instead, the picture focuses on ideas, theories, and discussion. Rainer’s thesis is about oppression and how it effects one another. The ideas of post-war-Vietnam come up often, and characters will often spout statements about art not capturing the climate of Vietnam or wartime situations. Art is softening the events to sell entertainemt. This is something Godard would grapple with his entire career, especially in pictures like Histoire(s) Du Cinema. Art should have a reflective, aggressive effect in capturing something of livelihood, but has always failed to stop war. How can art stop war? How can art stop oppression? What is the power of art? Artists like Rainer struggle to unearth these questions, and in a filmic context she only asks these questions, never answers them. That’s all we can do.

The Avant Garde is expressly present in every frame. Those frames are filled with negative space. Rainer shooting away from characters. Flinching at their very existence. Dialogue careens from somewhere, but Rainer is focused on a note on the floor or underwear sitting on a bed. It’s almost as if she’s negating her very characters in favour of something more elemental with her focus on objects. That very same dialogue comes and goes as well. When a record skips you lose a moment in the song, and the voices in this movie do the same. Audio pops and hisses, these theories characters are discussing about war, art, abortion, aging, bodies. Are they even that important if Rainer is willing to slice words out of their speech in favour of formal experimentation? Rainer coined the No Manifesto in dance which sought to purify movement and devalue the cliche. She attempts to do the same here, but in cinema. Cinema is a visual form, but Rainer seems to have little interest in creating image. She manipulates the voices of her characters, and tears away at everything that makes cinema what it is. A new definition, a statement, a level of bluntness is what she’s aiming for, and occasionally she succeeds like when she completely abandons her own film to produce still frames of a woman posing or when people lie in a pile in the floor. These are dualities, and while her images often run from any expressive meaning the notions of life and death come through here perfectly.

I do wonder though what kind of use this film has for the majority of people. If Rainer is so beholden to completely eradicate form then the content of her cinema, becomes more elusive. Cinema cannot have a widespread changing effect if you limit your audience to the same people who would buy into your philosophy in the first place, and I think that makes the feminism or social ideas of this picture muted in a way that only strokes one’s ego. It’s gloriously rebellious, but at the cost of an audience who would otherwise see this picture. The difficulties of being transgressive to the art form and finding an audience are not questions I or anyone else has any answers for, but one wonders if Rainer’s simplicity and pureness of the No Manifesto she aimed for in her dance are lost in the over-complications of her experimental cinema. Either way, Kristina is very fascinating, politically inclined, and thought provoking to those willing to grapple with it’s complexities.

Female Filmmaker Project: Jupiter Ascending (Lana and Andy Wachowski, 2015)

*Two things of note before I begin this entry. I am including Jupiter Ascending in the female filmmaker project despite one half the directing crew being male. I find it important to take a look at films made by a diverse group of women and Lana Wachowski is the only Transgender Woman filmmaker on my original list. If you know of more women who are trans making movies please let me know. The second thing to note is this entry will have a lack of screencaptures, because the film is still in cinemas. 

Science Fiction has a big problem with it’s treatment of women. Often times Women are either completely ignored or simply play a love interest. You’d be hard pressed to find a science fiction film before Alien where women were the focal point. Alien is an amazing film, and should be praised for being such, but it should also be noted the kind of effect it had on the writing of women in science fiction pictures left a lot to be desired. Alien created a ripple effect with the emergence of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley that gave many blossoming writers a blueprint to write women in their space pictures. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but the majority of these writers left out a lot of the intuition, empathy, backstory, and human emotion that made audiences of all genders connect with Ripley. Instead what became a current trend was coined as the strong female character, and it became all encompassing as the idea of women’s places in these movies was strictly linked to their ability to kick ass. Women like that should exist, but not at the expense of every other type of woman who may be written in science fiction or even action pictures.

Along comes Jupiter Ascending. A science fiction film so expressly for women that it’s baffling just how poorly it went over with audiences and critics. It’s a transgressive picture in just how expressly it levels it’s themes in women’s interests, and wears it’s encompassing dorkiness on it’s sleeve. You see, this picture has more in common with Dune and Young Adult Literature than it does any science fiction totem. The Wachowskis did not go out of their way to make a film about a male power fantasy or state violence, but instead focused on one girl who wishes for something more in life. In that way it also has more in common with fairy tales than your typical dystopian science fiction parable. The film doesn’t ignore science fiction in the least, but it’s just as much young adult and fairy tale as it is space opera.

The Earth along with other planets are being harvested by the elite. Their residents are gathered and their essence drained to create a youth serum so the privileged may stay perfect forever. After the death of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax passes away her riches must be given away to her family. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a resident on Earth who bears a strikingly real resemblance to this ruler mother so she becomes the rightful owner of Earth. Because she is such an important figure to the hierarchy of this universe she is a target for those who wish to kill her to become next in line of possession of this planet. Jupiter doesn’t know anything of her claimed royalty until she comes into contact with a protector, a fallen angel of sorts, named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). She eventually comes to know about her possession of the earth, and the problems that come in the bureaucracy of the rich, and the evil that comes at the price of that level of class privilege.

What makes Jupiter Jones such a fascinating hero is the fact that she doesn’t pick up a gun or a sword to defend herself, and she firmly doesn’t kick any ass until the final moments. It is her complete empathy towards the denizens of earth that colour her heroism, and that is completely refreshing. She is not a character with an intensely depressing backstory, and she doesn’t brood or struggle with the difficulties of having bought into levels of violence. Her father died at the hands of thieves when she was still a fetus, and the last thing she seems to want to do is fight. Many have claimed that this makes her a damsel in distress, but that would negate the fact that her strength doesn’t lie in the physical, but her heart.

This doesn’t negate the films problems. Eddie Redmayne is astoundingly awful, and cannot grasp his character whatsoever. The action is often messy when it opens up it’s scope outside of close quarters combat, and many plot threads are just dropped without much of an interest in fleshing them out (whether this is a budgetary or scripting issue is another issue). The Wachowskis try their best to wrangle in a world that is honestly too big for this one picture. It makes the film jumbled, but not in a way that necessarily detracts from the stronger aspects, but it does render some of its impact mute. One would wonder if some of these ideas and this would be better suited to a trilogy. All these smaller problems are minimal in the grand scope of just how imaginative this picture is though, and those action sequences while struggling on occasion still have that trademark Wachowski flair. The usage of slo-mo is so overdone in cinema, but there is joy in seeing those who made it popular come back to it. Seeing Channing Tatum skirt through fire as vehicles explode behind him is elegant. Elegant is in fact the word that I think of most when recalling this picture’s final moments, and seeing Tatum fly off on his newly minted wings with Jupiter gives me joy and hope that few of these pictures do. It’s an unabashed happy ending, and with the increasing cynicism of big budget filmmaking I’m more than okay with flying off into the sunset with the Wachowskis being as dorky as possible.

Female Filmmaker Project: The Day I Became a Woman (Marziyeh Meshkini, 2000)

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman
Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir’s words come to mind when viewing The Day I Became a Woman. Their philosophies are inherently linked, and while de Beauvoir’s words can mean different things to different women, especially in regards to trans women, I think the root of it’s radicalism is in how it analyzes socialization in a world driven by patriarchy. Meshkini’s film The Day I Became a Woman is also about expectations brought upon women by simply being, and it lies in the intersection of women living in the middle east, which is a narrative that isn’t as common in wider feminist film discussion.

The film is broken up into three vignettes, following three different women, and chronicling all three at varying ages. It’s within this linear storytelling that you get a sense for how women in the middle east have to navigate the seas of patriarchy through different stages of life, and it begins from the onset of birth, because simply being a girl you’re expected to live life in a very specific way. The beauty of this film is that these girls and women have to live within these expectations, but they strive and fight for what they want. What’s even greater about this is that Meshkini never loses grasp of the complexities of Iranian Women’s lives in her realist lens. It’s her narratives of how these women negotiate agency through oppression that truly make the film’s feminist intentions important, because the film never forgoes their struggles for an easier happy ending, but it does show how they live through these difficulties.

The first vignette is about a young girl named Hava. She spends most of her days playing with a local boy her same age, eating ice cream, and digging through sand on the seaside, but upon her ninth birthday she must give all of this up. Her mother and grandmother profess that she is a woman and she must put those things aside. She must cover herself and stop interacting with boys, because she’s too old for these things now. Hava understands the complicated situation she is about to enter into, but she uses the last hour before her birthday to do what she always does. This segment of the picture is minimalist realism as it’s subdued tone, nature and imagery are showing just how regular Hava’s life is at this point. The moment she shares a final piece of candy with her best friend while they make goofy faces at each other is especially joyful. Both of them carry a childlike innocence, and for Hava that’s about to end simply because she is a girl. The image of Hava being framed around what look like prison bars is the only moment where this vignette goes beyond it’s subtleties into something more blatantly political, and it’s one of the stronger images in the film. The stories final moments of her ditching her chador so other boys can build a sail for their homemade ship is perhaps an allegory for her rejecting the kind of role she’s expected to engage in, but it’s all just vague enough that Hava could have simply done this because she’s good natured and willing to help out her friends, and by making it vague Meshkini implies that those women who do accept the chador are not inferior.

The next woman (Ahoo) featured in this movie is in much more dire straits as she’s being followed by the men in her family on horseback. She has entered into a bicycle race with other women, and her husband forbids it. He follows her (filmed in Meshkini’s dazzling tracking shots) and shouts back at her that the devil has control of her. Meshkini frames Ahoo’s determined face as she ignores her husband, and actress Shabnam Toloui’s stoic, exhausted expressions spell a narrative of draining sexism. This bicycle race is allegorical to her running away from those constrictions of her marriage and family, and it’s even more striking that this is specifically a woman’s race so while she snakes in and out of competitors the image is framed by these women in chador’s barreling forward towards something. Maybe freedom. Maybe just a sense of having completed the race. This story is the most accomplished of the three from a visual standpoint as Meshkini works in long shots, longer takes, aerial work, close ups and tracking shots to get as much as she can both out of this race and the movement of this multitude of cycling women. The segment ends with the men of her family running her down and taking her bicycle from her as shouting can be hard in the distance. The image moves further and further away from them and the question of whether she finished the race is left completely up in the air. 

The final entry focuses on an elderly woman and her desires to finally acquire the material possessions she always wanted in her life. It is in this narrative that the film lets go of it’s burdening realism and goes into the fantastical, and for this woman it’s a kind of happy ending she always desired. Once she purchases all of her items (a fridge, a dresser, a bed, a television) she settles on a beach and treats the sand as home. The boys who helped carry all of her items there play with everything she purchased including makeup and dresses, and it’s all very rogue in the face of middle eastern gender roles. If anything the films mission statement would see those freedoms to be of utmost priority, and the focus of happiness those lessening burdens of gendered law have on these people. The film eventually wraps around back to the first girl. Hava sees this older woman getting what she wants and as she sets off for see Hava, cloaked, stares at her. It’s a beautiful moment of realization for one girl who has just become a woman in the eyes of the society she is growing up in, and the freedoms expressed by this older woman, even if they are simply material, are something she can gravitate towards. 

The notion of the feminist film is often bastardized to mean anything featuring women in significant roles, and while I agree that representation matters I think for a film to be feminist it has to have the intentions of unsettling something in culture through art. The Day I Became a Woman is truly feminist in these regards. Meshkini never damns the women in her picture for the sake of saying one way of life is better than another, and her lens simply exists to give these three women’s stories a place to be told. The film is expressly political in it’s intentions, but more than just being about a woman’s place in society it’s about life as a woman. Often the film veers off from this trajectory to linger on a moment. Hava shares candy, Ahoo looks into the eyes of another competitor in the bicycle race and shares an understanding, the elderly woman talks about the twist ties on her hands. The film is fiercely political and stridently feminist, but it’s also an empathetic, and marvelous look at women. That’s the film’s greatest achievement.

Female FIlmmaker Project: No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990)

Denis creates a cinema of either utmost beauty or total effecting horror, and often these modes are interchangeable in her visual language. In Beau Travail the male body is a canvas, but the film becomes increasingly suffocating as characters go further and further down a rabbit hole of increasingly difficult regimens in the sculpting of those bodies. In Bastards the sensual style that she created around lingering bodies, and intimacy was turned inward into something horrifying as it dealt specifically with sexual assault. Denis is no doubt a filmmaker of bodies, but her films often explore themes around how those bodies navigate a world that isn’t exactly fair to them. In No Fear, No Die she goes back to the well of established ideas in her debut Chocolat in oppression through colonialism. While Chocolat‘s ideas are presented in an autobiographical narrative (Denis grew up in South Africa), No Fear, No Die places the camera distinctly on the lives of those most intensely effected by a white supremacist world.

Dah (Isaach De Bankole’) and Jocelyn (Alex Descas) are trying to make their way in France as cockfighters. It’s a quick way to earn a buck, and they are skilled at training their birds in combat. Jocelyn struggles with this task as he shows saturating love for the birds he is sending to their deaths, and as the film goes on he has a harder time adhering to his superior’s requests to up the violence of the cockfights by including weaponry not natural to a chicken. They are struggling for cash so they succumb to their bosses demands, and this seems to send Jocelyn into a depression.

What’s so remarkable about Denis’ work in No Fear, No Die is how effortlessly she seems to navigate through these ideas of being owned while still capturing an eerie beauty of the process of loving & raising one of these rooster’s in the art of combat. Jocelyn sincerely cares about the fate of his birds, and while it’s silly of him to care this much about these animals & be in this profession he gives them love and care. Denis shoots these scenes similarly with compassion. Jocelyn will hold his birds close to his chest and pet them for significant amounts of time while Denis gives us close up of his hands. These scenes are also often presented in a softer, richer light than the dingy underground of the cock fighting world. It isn’t a leap to think the metaphor of the cockfighting can be seen as pitting black men against one another while white men profit from their work. The metaphor for this is backed up by how she shoots the cockfighting. It’s almost as if these chickens know they are tangled metaphors. She shoots in extreme close up on their bodies, emphasizing their quick jumping movements as well as the claws they use to destroy each other (no animals were hurt in the making of this movie, but it’s still extremely difficult to watch). At the end of the day these chickens are sentenced to death before they even entered this arena, and one can’t help but feel Denis feels a similar empathy to those who enter life with the deck stacked against them, much like Jocelyn and Dah.

There’s a sense of fatigue in this movie. Denis shoots these grimy underworlds in constricted spaces. Ceilings hang low, hallways are tight, and small rooms are filled to the brim with men smoking, drinking, and cheering on this destruction. Bankole’s eyes speak volumes in the films final moments as he watches his friend stumble further into the destruction of this sickening profession. He stands with his back next to a red painted wall, it’s intensely foreboding to his friends fate, and the blood on their hands for the creatures they raised to die for a quick buck. It’s an incredible moment of acting and direction coinciding for a brilliant visual moment sold by an actor’s face.

No Fear, No Die is a mournful picture, coloured by past history & shrouded in death. The world is broken for these men, and Denis captures this in her emotional painting. Chickens spill blood, Humans spill blood. In this film the cost is all the same. Money stands in the way of peacefulness. It always has.

Female Filmmaker Project: Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007)

Waitress came into my life a few years ago when I became fast friends with Sara Freeman. I discussed very lightly with her some of my favourite movies over an email once and she brought this movie up. I was curious to view it someday, and I finally got around to that recently. I couldn’t have fallen more head over heels in love. There are a lot of reasons why I adore this movie, but the signature reason is it’s unbridled love for women, their struggles, the place they carve out in the world, and the reliance and support they give one another in times of need while still loving each other enough to disagree. The centrality of women in this picture is more than just refreshing, it’s invigoratingly pure in what it can represent for women in cinema. 
The film is framed around the struggles of one normal, American woman in the deep South whose one true passion is making pies. Jenna (Keri Russell) deals with an abusive husband and an unexpected pregnancy, and while her life seems to be in a rut she’s always reaching towards breaking free from her bad marriage and constricting day to day existence. She dreams of romance, as we all do, and shortly after becoming pregnant she meets a doctor (Nathan Fillion) who she gives her something resembling compassion and love. On paper this seems like a typical cliche romantic comedy, but director Adrienne Shelly isn’t interested in men in this picture, and she doesn’t give you the ending of a prince charming running away and saving Jena’s life. That would be far too rote for a picture of this magnitude in the place of Women’s Cinema. 
Waitress is about one woman above all else, and the choices she makes along the way to save her own life. She’s an artist first and foremost, and she has modest dreams of opening her own pie shop. The film beautifully gives Jenna a “happy place” of imagining the creation of pies whenever she is dealing with her oftentimes difficult life. She’s friendly with everyone around her by making them unique pies to suit the specific situation, and overall she just seems like a genuinely good person. When Jenna becomes pregnant it actually gives her life the push she needed to break way from her husband who is anything, but loving in the way she is. He is destructive, smothering, and needy above all else. Her friends are with her along the way as they guide her and give her emotional support even with their own life problems. The back and forth they have is rich, and filled with compassion towards one another, and feels accurate to the back and forth in day to day friendships between women. 
Jenna has no connection with the fetus inside of her, but she begins to formulate plans to get away. In the triumphant final moments of the picture she finally takes complete control of her life, and flatly tells her husband she’s leaving him. She’s taking her daughter and going very far away, and if he ever comes back into her life there would be consequences. Fuck yeah. Importantly though, Jenna also doesn’t want anything else to do with the man she had been sleeping with during the pregnancy as both of these men are blurred out in one of the best images in the film with a clear focus on Jenna and her newborn daughter Lulu. She eventually rides out of the hospital with her two best girlfriends beside her, and her newborn daughter. 
The epilogue is what cements the movie as a personal favourite though, as it showed the type of love she had for her piemaking with her daughter. When Jenna discussed her childhood earlier in the film she talked about making pies with her mother, and remarked on it being the happiest times of her life. She wanted to do the same for her daughter, and there’s a wonderful callback that shows Lulu and Jenna creating pies in her kitchen in the new restaurant she opened. Which she lovlingly dubbed “Lulu’s Pies”. Jenna did it, she carved out a place for the life she wanted. It’s meager, and modest, but it’s hers. She’s an artist with a venue, she has all the people in her life she needed, and all the love in her life was filled up by a daughter. It’s a feel good ending for sure, but it feels completely earned, because of Jenna’s struggles. Good things should happen to good people.
Waitress more than anything else represents the kind of optimism that should be able to be found in Cinema. It’s pleasant cinema, but it completely accomplishes it’s goals of creating investment around Jenna’s journey to self realization by showing just how hard she fought to get where she is at today. It also subverts a few of the romantic comedy trappings that befall the genre by having her choose herself in what feels closer to a Broadcast News kind of ending rather than your run of the mill love triangle narrative. There needs to be more movies like this, and there needs to be more of a place in cinema for women to hone their craft, because the world needs more films like Waitress. Cinema needs films with this much humanity. We need an Adrienne Shelly. 

I’d like to take a moment now to bring up the Adrienne Shelly foundation. Before this movie was released in cinema Shelly was tragically murdered, and cinema lost a vibrant, important young voice. That tragedy will never be erased, but you can honour her memory by donating or supporting the foundation that was created in the aftermath of that senseless crime. The foundation’s goal of supporting Women in film is one that I greatly agree with, as this blogs entire goal this year is to bring to light films directed by women. So please check out the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, her movies, and more films directed by women.

Female Filmmaker Project: Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female Filmmaker Project: Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)

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

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

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

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