Female Directors

Two Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007)

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2 Days in Paris

A charming tale of a couple’s visit to Paris: he’s an American interior decorator; she’s a French photographer; they’ve already been together for two years; but not in her culture, not in her hometown, not with her parents, not in Paris. The film has genuinely funny moments of culture clash, and it’s definitely an intelligent woman’s take on romance. I found it an enjoyable film to see even though it’s not quite good. Adam Goldberg is totally charmless and very badly cast. Daniel Brühl appears as an eco-terrorist who might be gay. I suspect the woman in the audience will laugh out loud and all the men who don’t find Delpy adorable will feel unable to utter the ‘ouch!’-es they’ll so acutely feel. The film doesn’t know how to end, so a contrived voice-over is meant to wrap up what should have been left open and painful. Too bad….but a very promising directing debut from Delpy nonetheless.

José Arroyo

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/ Ireland, 2012)

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A  clever and funny film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology  basically amounts to an illustrated lecture on ideology taking excerpts from a wide variety of films (The Sound of Music, The Searchers, They Live, If, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick, also two from Forman, Loves of a Blonde and Fireman’s Ball) as case studies with which to illustrate aspects of Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on the subject.

The readings of the films are always entertaining but unsubstantiated and he could easily have said the exact opposite had he chosen to —  he offers no proof either way. One can imagine him adding to the ‘perversity’ of it all by saying something completely different about the films and being just as funny, just as provoking and just as clear on his own thinking; the choice of films is amusing but so personal and idiosyncratic as to seem ad-hoc.

The exposition of the thinking, however, is always stimulating and almost too Cartesian, beginning with a central idea, breaking it down, juxtaposing it with its opposite and then guiding one through a dialectic that sees no contradiction in bringing together desire and historical materialism, the self and the social, the unconscious, the repressed and the other invisible forces that act on us, materially, such as forces and relations of production, and us once more, this time via the social, through the circulation of value in commodity culture.

And why would Žižek of all people seek, much less find, such contradiction? As far back as 1989, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek was already writing that, ‘there is a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud – more precisely between their analysis of commodity and of dreams.(p. 11).’ They’re both attempting to make manifest what is otherwise invisible and which not only act on us but in effect create the us we think we are. Movies are almost an embodiment of such issues and concerns: the dream commodity, the viewing machine that commodifies our dreams, the dreams that commodify our desires.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology has a really interesting exposition of how the first part of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ has been used as a unifying anthem throughout the political spectrum, internationally, and across the twentieth century. At the end of the film, there’s an equal interesting speculation on the notion that ‘without God, everything is permitted’. Žižek claims that the debate prompted by the notion was begun by Sartre in the 40s (in Existentialism is a Humanism) as a central question on Existentialism from a misquoting of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. One can understand why Existentialism with its focus on individual responsibility in relation to ethical action would have to address the issues that religion had previously provided a framework for. However, Andrei I. Volkov disputes that Sartre misquoted Dostoyevsky and makes a very persuasive argument that Dostoevsky did in fact say what Sartre attributed to him  though it shouldn’t be taken as an axiom or even as a hypothesis.

The point here is not to discuss Sartre or Dostoyevsky but merely to note that Žižek is not to be relied upon for facts and rigour. However, as a polemicist, he reigns supreme and the film is funny and thought-provoking.  The way he looks, all crumpled up, as if he fell asleep in his clothes last night and has just awoken, and with huge black circles under his eyes, like he’s read so much his mind is a whirl of almost coherent ideas, is funny; as is the emphatic harshness with which that low and somewhat raspy voice of his enunciates.

I’m also glad that ideology as a concept is once again being discussed after all these years of postmodernist emphasis on the partial, the instertitial, the liminal etc.all of which have a narrower focus and whose purpose is of course decimating grand narratives. He shows how those grand narratives nonetheless persist and affect. He doesn’t do a good job of explaining it all and it’s more the work of a provocateur than a thinker. But I liked the provocation very much.

As an added treat, the film places him within the setting of those movies he discusses, Travis Bickle’s bedroom from Taxi Driver say or the military barrack from Full Metal Jacket, which is a way of setting him in the midst of the desires those films enflamed and the ideas they propagated and is a stroke of genius. Another excellent byproduct of the film is that it makes you want to see the films he’s discussing, some of them again, some for the first time (in my case I’m now desperate to see Seconds, the early Forman films and They Live). So all in all, it’s funny, it makes you think, and it makes you want to see more movies — a successful use of 2 and  a 1/2 hours for me.

José Arroyo

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Humpday (Lynn Shelton, USA, 2009)

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Two friends from college, Ben (Mark Duplassis) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), meet up after several years, get stoned at a party and, as a result of a dare, decide that they are going to make a gay porn film starring themselves engaging in anal sex as an ‘art’ project. The whole film revolves around this question: ‘what would it be like for two men who are really straight to fuck?’ But it doesn’t fully engage with it because its answer is ‘if they’re really straight, why would they want to?’, which is how the film ends i.e. them not ‘doing’ it is just as much proof that they’re unpressured, unbiased, etc. as if they had; after all, they did consider it.

Much of the film’s humour comes from exploring questions such as: Who’s going to fuck whom? Will they be able to get an erection? What does it say about them if they do? etc. Thus the dynamic of desire and power relations, psychic and social, private and public, spontaneous or commodified, in relation to performing, feeling and/or watching, are humorously explored. But of course it is not so unusual for straight people, even of the same sex, to engage in sexual relations of great inequality, sometimes with a will to dominate, and for money. In fact, it’s a whole sub-genre of gay porn.

But if Humpday feels a bit of a cop-out at the end, I in no way found it offensive, which had been my great fear at the beginning.  It’s an interesting, amiable, shaggy film and in its own way a great example of mumblecore cinema.  It gives viewers a good idea of what ordinary people in an artistic community, at least insofar as any artistic community might be considered ordinary, around Seattle might be like (they don’t have the perfect teeth you see in American TV and movies, for example), how they talk (intelligently, sensitively, gently and with humour) and what they talk about (love, politics, sex, gender and homophobia) but one that promises depth it doesn’t quite deliver on. Visually, Hump Day is unremarkable but it’s an engaging dramatization of an idea that is greatly helped by the wit, affability and charm of its director and its performers.

José Arroyo

American Vagabond (Susanna Helke and Mary Morgan, Denmark/Finland/ USA, 2013)

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A feature documentary about a young man, James Temple, barely 18, life made impossible by his family for being gay, who runs away to San Francisco in the hope of finding a gay paradise. Instead he finds hunger, homelessness, and a desperate if short-lived descent into prostitution. The America we see in all kinds of films today is no longer that of the ‘American Dream’. You have to be brave in this America but that’s because it’s no longer free and it’s no longer just. What’s wrong with a family who prefers to see their child hungry, cold, homeless, abused and sold so that they can uphold their ‘Christian’ principles? What’s wrong with a country that puts a nice teenage boy in jail for three years and permanently stains him as a pedophile because he slept with another teenage boy who was under two years younger? What’s worse is that once the boy is put in jail, that family becomes his main source of support. One comes out of this film in a rage against that family, that system of injustice, this shocking, new and barbaric America. Russia is brutalising its gay youth officially; America no less efficiently for being unofficial. In ‘The Swimmers’ a short story written for The Saturday Evening Post ( 19th of October 1929),  F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, ‘France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea…was a willingness of the heart.’ This makes one ask where is that willingness of the heart now in America? Or has that heart withered so  its only willingness is for hurting its young, its poor and its weak? The film is crude, unsophisticated and lacks texture: but it sure does the job.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th, 2013

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Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010)

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Winter's Bone 

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010) is a quest movie with a deadline: Ree Dolly’s father has put up the family home and the land they live off as bond for his bail. As the film begins, we’re told he’s due to go to court but the Sheriff can’t find him. After he misses his court date, the bail bondsman tells Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) she has a week to get her father to turn himself in or the family will be evicted from their property. Barely seventeen, Ree is presently taking care of her mother, who is clearly suffering from mental illness and a residue of drug addiction, and her two younger siblings, who are too young to feed themselves. They currently live off the land and without it they’re lost. There’s a discussion of separating the children and leaving them with various relatives but the film also intimates that this would make them vulnerable to abuse, though whether it’s sex or drugs or violence is menacingly hinted at without being fully articulated. Ree has no choice but to search for her father. This will put her in the path of danger and in turn offer the audience a prime view of a rural American culture ravaged by poverty and crystal meth.

The centrality of the necessity of the father to the very existence of the home and the family is one of the most powerful structuring elements of this film. Without the father, the family will lose land, house, each other. Ree lives in a patriarchal culture, clearly gendered in relation to tasks (‘don’t you have no menfolk who can do this for you?’ she’s asked). But men just fight, drink, strut, abuse their women and leave them helpless. We not only see them do this but the film underlines men’s absence (even when they are there), their uselessness or threatening presence by the way the film photographs them: in acts of aggression towards woman (fig.1.1-1.2), or far away and out of focus to show that they’re not there or simply won’t help(fig 2), or at a low-angle to make their threat a looming one (fig 3), next to weapons (fig 4), or constantly doing drugs.

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Example of Acts of Aggression Towards Women A
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A man is necessary but the family is better off by just bringing his bones in and proving he’s dead. The film shows us this over and over again in the conversation that she has with her best friend Gail(who has to ask her husband’s permission to have access to the family truck); in the names given to the men (most prominently Teardrop and Thump Jessop and the interesting dynamic created by the juxtaposition of those two names), in the gentle songs of suffering (mostly country and bluegrass in relation to women with the odd notes of honky-tonk or thrash metal woven in at low volume in relation to men). Men here are a problem; whether it’s the bail bondsmen, the sheriff, the father himself, or the other patriarchs in the film. They’re threatening either when they are the law (the bondsman, the sheriff) or outside the law (drunk, violent, or repressive), even the military recruiter, who is shown as kind, cannot help (and the help he has to offer is one most of us would refuse. Note how what stands between the patriotism signaled American flags on the right of Fig.8.1 and the recruiting poster which avows that the military’s mission is a better future is the reality of Ree’s conditions of existence and the military recruiter’s advice to heed them). Teardrop, as is indicated by his name, is a kind of bridge between a male figure that enables and a masculinity that destroys; he begins oppressively (‘I’ve already told you to shut up with my mouth. Don’t make me have to say it again’) but eventually helps because of bonds of blood (and guilt?).

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If men are a problem, women are the solution in this movie. Their faces might be ravaged by meth, they might also take a turn at ‘laying on the hurt’ but they’re also the ones that solve every problem all the patriarchal structures put in place of the family’s survival. And it is through women that Ree finds food (from her neighbor Sonya), emotional sustenance (from her friend Gail, but also that final adoring look her helpless mother gives her at the end) and finally even her father’s bones (through the woman who is attached to the gang leader who had her father killed –the film hints he’s head of a bike gang which is a front for a drug distribution business).

 

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These gendered relationships are supported by labyrinthine set of  social mores with extremely codified rules of behavior (depending on gender, kinship, age, and bounded by the school, the military and the law) which we see Ree teaching her younger siblings (e.g. ‘don’t ask for what should be offered’). And they take place in a particular place, the Ozark mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country, here shown as the face of rural America, traditional moonshine land now cranked up and crippled by Crystal Meth. Often we are shown this wintery rural landscape with horses, hay, dead leaves on the floor; a landscape that reaches a peak of beauty in its autumnal dying; and in the midst of this natural setting we’ll see some clothes hanging and a waft of smoke that could be fog before we realize it is really smoke from an illegal lab; the pastoral and the domestic enshrouded and infected by the chemical and the synthetic(see fig 9.1). The culture of the market is seen as a culture of crime (what we see constantly on demand and constantly being supplied is drugs); manufacturing is here shown as only the making of poison and forgetting (there’s a haunting travelling shot following our heroine and another woman through a junkyard full of old cars, a cemetery of an America with no place to go which is very reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Depression photographs of car graveyards, (See Fig. 5.2); education is shown in relation to taking care of babies and marching with guns; American individualism at its most extreme is shown as an underage girl with no social safety net having to risk her life for basic food and shelter.

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In Winters Bone the American century is over. The most striking images in the film are those of decay and here they mourn what America has become. But instead of setting the action in a retro future as in Blade Runner or other futuristic dystopias of a previous era of American Cinema (The Running Man, Total Recall, the Robocop films, the Aliens films, etc.), Winters Bone’s dystopia is constructed from putting an idea of the past in the present rather than in the future. The film is set in the rural heartland and we are made to see it as a problem that not much has changed since the days when Elvis was a child and his mama could only cook squirrel on shortening. In fact the places and faces very much evoke Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs (see Figs 6.1-3)

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We see not a culture of consumption but the remains of one, its detritus is everywhere but the things themselves are no longer affordable. Children ride their old, dirty toy horses on trampolines. But this is a consumer culture where the evidence of an abundance of things is only a sign of the lack of essentials (almost industrial size trampolines but no food; gun rather than book displays at the High School, bars and all-night convenience shops but no churches or other places where people can socialize). We do see a gathering with Marideth Sisco singing but the song is Fair and Tender Maidens (‘To all the fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your man. They’re like a star on the Summer’s morning, they first appear and then they’re gone… I wish to the lord I’d never seen him. Or in his cradle he had died…’).

What hope the film offers is one centered on human will and character rather than institutions (‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going nowhere’, says Ree at the end). Children have to be taught to shoot, and gut animals in order to survive (‘There’s a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of real soon,’ Ree tells her brother). The film shows a regression into a social organization that offers no structures of support except kinship, which it simultaneously posits as the greatest danger to the individual and to the family.

Winters Bone is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rossellini. It’s a rare American film that places a woman at the centre of the action, this is rarer still in that the narrative takes us through a relay of female characters for the action to be completed and it does so through a woman’s point-of-view. But greater still is the film’s creation of a new archetype which Jessie Lawrence embodies with warmth and purpose. For whilst people like Ree might not be new in life, they are rare in mainstream representation: a woman that we first see in the home making breakfast; who takes care of her Mom and her sibling but is good with a gun; who’s ashamed of her father’s dealing and snitching but finds room to love him; who considers joining the army and embarks on her dangerous journey to save her home; this is a representation we’ve not seen much in cinema before: a young girl takes out a gun to nourish her siblings and risks her life to fulfill the obligations her parents cannot meet; her duty and her actions exceed her obligations; and importantly they centre on a domesticity that this film finds courageous.

That Ree is so earthily brought to life by Lawrence, and that this actress playing this character connected with audiences so vividly that the type  was almost instantly reprised in The Hunger Games, is something to celebrate. In it’s mourning for what America has become the film has also created a new idea of person who might yet transform that culture for the better. The film’s dystopia is the culture that now is; it’s utopia is that the type of person who can make it better is a woman, and one who doesn’t need men to keep the house going.

José Arroyo.

Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes, USA, 2012)

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A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.

Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).

He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from  Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.

Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood.  Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?

All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).

The characters in Kiss of the Damned  feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss  of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.

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José Arroyo

Lords of Dogtown (Catherine Hardwicke, USA, 2003)

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This is now, after Twilight and Thirteen, the third Catherine Hardwicke film I’ve seen and the third I’ve liked. Twilight-bashers should have a look all of these films together, particularly so that they can see what was lost by not having Hardwicke direct the Twilight sequels: women’s longing for a romantic ideal, the desiring female gaze, men depicted as quasi-Byronic figures of romance; Hardwicke shows us how men are seen by women who like them. In each of these film she shows a real feel for adolescent yearning and competitiveness, mostly set in working class milieus of one kind or another. She shows an understanding of moms trying to keep things together (Holly Hunter is magnificent in Thirteen; Rebecca de Mornay just as good here, and unrecognizable) and has a lovely way of capturing adolescent beauty on that borderline between innocence and transgression. Hardwicke’s good at depicting rivalry too, particularly between girls.

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Lords of Dogtown has some well-realised sequences (the girls singing to Cher’s  ‘Half-breed’), some lovely performances (Heath Ledger, but all the boys as well) and the director sure has an eye for discovering talented unknowns: Jeremy Renner in an early role, Jimmy Knoxville, Sofia Vergara in what must be one of her first roles also – uncredited, though I swear it’s him, is Jon Hamm as a delivery man. The two leads of Thirteen, Nikki Read and Rachel Evan Wood, play rivals here. There are images of an industrial working-class-verging on sub-prole communities that look as if seen through a seductive drug-hazed glow and help evoke the milieu, place and period in which it is set: skate and surf-boy culture in the Santa Monica area of Dogtown in the 1970s. Lovely.

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José Arroyo

Last Night (Massy Tadjedin, USA, 2010)

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Kiera Knightley and Sam Worthington play a well-to-do couple tempted into adultery. She’s a journalist. He works for a property company. His rival is Gullaume Canet, a writer. Eva Mendes is the alluring femme fatale who does indeed  lure. The film aims for maturity and complexity but fails and feels rather inept. Worthington is charmless. Knightley is almost good but not quite. The film seems prudish both in what it shows physically and what it depicts psychologically and verges on the dishonest. It doesn’t look good enough either and Mendes and Knightley are sometimes shot in what seem to be their worst angles: Mendes with a bottom-heavy face, all round cheeks; and Knightley with an almost masculine, heavily delineated jaw-bone. Last Night aims for louche glamour but just feels a bit cheap.

José Arroyo

W.E. (Madonna, USA, 2011)

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As a director, Madonna’s wonderful with sound and image; she’s got a lovely eye for detail; and the use of objects, décor and costuming here is that of a consummate connoisseur. She can use, draw upon, and create iconic images. A lot of W.E  is shot like video-clips strung together into story. But based on what we can see in W.E,  Madonna has yet to master narrative.

Here she has trouble telling even one of the most famous and oft-repeated stories of the 20th Century; which is to say she has trouble telling even the pre-told: how Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) renounced his throne to marry Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), a smart American woman, already twice divorced, who was too thin, not rich enough, and way too old. What Madonna has to say on Wallis, on the period, even on the wish to be a mother etc. is too trite. And even that triteness is not well-conveyed or shown or told. Why the story of a modern-day Manhattanite (Abbie Cornish) needs to be set up as our conduit into this is so unnecessary it seems baffling; and this attempt at complex dual sotry-telling over-relies on montage and voice-over to such an extent it sinks the film.

Madonna is her own drama, a spectacular one that fascinates millions, but she cannot dramatise the stories of others so as to hold interest much less enchant; she’s able to show but not tell; and her showing is more of an act of hiding than of revelation (it has ever been so with her, even when she took her clothes off, even with Sex). However, W.E. is interesting in that it focuses on the foreigner, the outsider, the woman. Andrea Riseborough was rightfully praised for her performance as Wallis; she convey the nervy, edgy, jazz-age energy and smarts that one associates with Wallis, though her feature are softer than those we see in old photographs and she is perhaps too beautiful for the part. The film is not good but was too severely and unjustly damned. The jewels and costumes alone are worth seeing.

José Arroyo

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008)

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The work of Kelly Reichardt was until recently new to me. I’ve now seen Wendy and Lucy three times and it continues to be a revelation: it gets richer each time. In Film Comment, James Naremore called Wendy and Lucy  ‘one of the most tense and moving treatments of the thin line between poverty and chaos since The Bicycle Thief ‘(Vittorio Da Sica, Italy, 1948). It’s high praise indeed but the film earns it. Wendy and Lucy is a poetic, heartbreaking movie about a young girl on her way to Alaska to get a job. Wendy (Michelle Williams) leaves her dog tied up outside a rural supermarket whilst she goes in to get some things but gets arrested for leaving the shop without paying for a small amount of dog food.

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When six dollars is all one can spare to help

The scene in the supermarket demonstrates the moral complexity this great film is capable of conveying. We know Lucy stole the dog food because we see her very deliberately put a donut in her pocket whilst looking both ways down the aisle. The young man who catches her in the act is self-righteous and pompous and about the same age as her. Nothing much divides them — he’s clearly a working class kid; his mother picks him up after work — except he’s got a job. But in the world of Wendy and Lucy having a job makes for a world of difference, as does being caught stealing a can of dog food. She denies everything. But when they reach into her pocket the find the dog food. The manager is hesitant to call the police on a can of dog food. The young man embodying all the traits of a young Republican, insists on following company policy, under the mantra that the rules apply to everybody. But an application of the rules means that this young, vulnerable woman, goes to jail, gets a criminal record which will inhibit her abilities to get an income in future, the small fine is ten per cent of her worldly wealth, and she’s got a long way to go before she finds herself in a position of gaining any income at all. And when she returns from jail, her dog, which she’d left outside the supermarket, has disappeared. All for a can of dogfood. The gap between following the rules — the law- and any sense of justice is vast in the America of Wendy and Lucy.

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     When Wendy comes out of jail, her dog is gone. Her car breaks down; it’s not worth fixing. A man robs her in the night whilst she’s sleeping rough; her family can’t help her. All she loves in this world is that dog and now Lucy’s lost. Wendy needs every penny to get to Alaska, seemingly the only place offering work, and now she’s got no car, her savings are leaking away and she has to find her dog. Like in melodramas of the 1930s, at the end of the film Wendy finds the dog but leaves her where she found her because Lucy’s now in a better home than Wendy can offer: Wendy sacrifices her wants for the dog’s good and hops on a freight train to try and get some work. Replace child with dog and you have a modern-day Depression melodrama but without the excesses.

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     In an interview with Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant writes on the film, ‘Oh, is it going to happen like that? Where you get a parking ticket and that leads to lifetime imprisonment if you make the wrong move. And that comments on our society, how society is able or not to take care of its people. Wendy and Lucy for me was about our materialistic society. If you don’t have a few bucks, you’re going to have to live in the woods, because Wendy sort of is in the woods.’ In response to this observation, Reichardt tells us that, ‘The seeds of Wendy and Lucy happened shortly after Hurricane Katrina, after hearing talk about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and hearing the presumption that people’s lives were so precarious due to some laziness on their part. Jon (Raymond, novelist and screenwriter) and I were musing on the idea of having no net—let’s say your bootstraps floated away—how do you get out of your situation totally on your own without help from the government? We were watching a lot of Italian neorealism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. There’s a certain kind of help that society will give and a certain help it won’t give. So we imagined Wendy as a renter; no insurance, just making ends meet, and a fire occurs due to no fault of her own and she loses her place to live. We don’t know her backstory in the film but we imagined Wendy was in that kind of predicament.’

Michelle Williams, slight body curled up inward, is like a grief-stricken waif — vulnerable to all the elements but with inner composure; and she makes the audience understand every emotion that Wendy feels; the audience is put in the position of offering this lonely, vulnerable but hard-working and determined girl the empathy her world denies here.

Screen Shot 2012-06-01 at 19.02.32      Reichardt’s sober, handsome and evocative imagery — which I understand has been influenced by the photographs of Joe Deal and Robert Adams — does not spare the viewer. The film abounds in stark, striking images of rural alienation, poverty and want; there’s now a very thin line between poverty and total destitution in the land of plenty.  It’s a world where a little gesture of kindness (here only six dollars) can means so much. The long shots are wide so that you see Wendy traverse the shot, a vulnerable figure amongst broken down houses, tract malls, derelict factories, railway tracks and highways that merely traverse this place people are merely stuck in. The film often places Wendy behind glass so that we see both what’s behind her and what’s reflected in front of her, a corroded unworkable America. The editing often stays on the background a beat after Wendy has passed through it as if to emphasise the emptiness, degradation and isolation. Sheer loneliness lived amongst industrial ruins

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At the end, Wendy ends up where she started but minus dog and car. It’s a heartbreaking story, delicately told, and with an acuity and expressiveness that reverberates like a good haiku. ‘After watching Wendy and Lucy’, says Gus Van Sant, the sense of people being of no use to society..of being a blight like stray dogs, ‘was just palpable. It was so omnipresent. I was part of the film, but the film had stopped. I was actually now in my own version of it, just dealing with my life. It had infused me with its own story. I was still living it, which is a great achievement, and really hard to do. It’s a delicate thing to get somebody into a feeling that they can’t actually get rid of right away’. It’s what art does and art is what Wendy and Lucy is.

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Focus on the eyes amidst the darkness

It’s also worth mentioning how palpable the gender of its director is in the story-telling. Wendy dresses and undresses in the gas station, she changes panties, and the focus is on Michelle Williams thin legs, accenting her deprivation and vulnerability. When Wendy is forced to sleep on the woods and a threatening male approaches her, the threat of sexual danger is palpable, but the camera focusses on Michelle Williams’ face, half-covered by a blanket, so that the accent is entirely on her eyes. I can’t imagine a heterosexual male director de-sexualising the scenes in this way, putting the accent so firmly on dramatising Wendy’s fears and vulnerability.

That actors like Michelle Williams continue to support the making of art in American cinema (not least with their performances) is a great credit to them; that such films are not finding the audience they deserve is a great shame and a kind of indictment of us all.

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A carefully thought-through and consistent look

José Arroyo

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2006)

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With its sharp images, clear light and airy, uncluttered compositions, Away From Her looks and feels Canadian, truly Canadian and it’s beautiful. Julie Christie won all the awards, and she is marvellous, managing to make virtue and integrity seem multi-faceted and sensual; but the revelation for me is Gordon Pinsent; that sad, healthy face, the face of Canada, weary, trying to do the right thing, not always succeeding and feeling guilty about it all because he senses it all springs from privilege. Pinsent has a kind and loving face, one that still gazes at Julie Christie with longing after forty five years of marriage, even after, especially after, she re-discovers an old beau at the retirement home.

Let’s go back to the plot. It’s simple. Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) is getting forgetful, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and makes the decision to go into a home. Her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) protests, tries to change her mind but bows to the inevitable. In the home, she slowly begins to lose her mind. Worse, she meets Aubrey (Michael Murphy), an old beau. Grant begins to question Fiona’s feelings for him during the course of their marriage, even though he was the one who had strayed, often and happily; yet, even in those moments of doubt, he loves her and tries to make her life as easy as it can be under the circumstances. When Aubrey is removed from the home because it’s gotten too expensive for his wife to keep up the payments, Grant does his best to get him to return. This is how he meets Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s wife. She gets him to pretend that he cares for her, even though she knows his true objective is to re-unite her husband with his wife, a prospect she initially finds shocking. In the end, by doing the selfless thing, Grant in turn gets the prospect of some joy and happiness himself.

The film is based Alice Munro’s great short story, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’. In ‘What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself’, Jonathan Franzen’s fascinating essay on Munro, he uses that very short story as an example of why Munro is such a great writer. After a lengthy quote from the passage recounting the meeting between Grant and Marian, he writes: ‘I want to keep quoting, and not just little bits but whole passages, because it turns out that what my capsule summary requires, at a minimum, in order to do justice to the story – the “things within things,” the interplay of class and morality, of desire and fidelity, of characters and fate – is exactly what Munro herself has already written on the page. The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself’. The film makes you feel a little bit like that as well.

Away From Her is directed with great restraint, simplicity and skill by Sarah Polley. It looks like a TV movie but conveys the depth and complexity of feeling of a great work. I found it very moving.

José Arroyo

One Mile Away (Penny Woodcock, UK, 2012)

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I really hated One Mile Away. At the Q&A session after the film, Penny Woodcock, the director, said something like, ‘I wanted to show how there are invisible lines that you or I might not see but that are real to other people living in the same neighbourhood. To them, a street is a barrier and a danger and they could get killed if they cross it. And the problem is not just in Birmingham, but London, Liverpool and internationally. And it’s not just an issue of race; in Liverpool it could be white gangs’. She went on, but really, that’s not how the film comes across. One Mile Away is about the rivalry, one so long-standing no one seems to remember how it started, between the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, two gangs whose postcodes – B21 and B6, are just one mile apart.

The film shows Birmingham as a sort of cross between a British Hell’s Kitchen and a banana republic, with everything ugly, dangerous, lawless; which I think outrageous if one compares crime statistics or criminal justice systems. Also, the film is exploitative: very charismatic leads show up on camera really because they want to be rap stars, they do their little number in exchange for telling something about their lives. And they don’t tell us very much, one cliché after another about not having a father, and being poor, and the system being racist; but then again, I’m not sure they’ll get very much in exchange either.

The film offers very little analysis. Is there so much drugs and crime in that particular community compared to other ethnic or racial communities and if so why? Is the system unfair to them in comparison to Pakistanis or Poles or members of other ethnic or racial communities? Are there internal problems these communities should be addressing? The film avoids these issues. Its treatment of the police I found particularly disgraceful: as if there weren’t people behind those masks.

I so wanted to like it; it’s a rare film dealing with Birmingham ; but it’s a foreigner’s view of the local; actually a patronizing foreigner’s view of the local; a London ‘artiste’ visits the ‘jungles’ of Aston and Handsworth and, heart bleeding, condescends to objectify and vilify the police only to conclude that really everything would be less ugly and dangerous if people would only talk to each other. The film has already won all kinds of awards, more for its subject matter and its good intentions than for its achievements as cinema I should think. Be that as it may, I didn’t’ find it worth my time and I suspect Birmingham City Council will not be thanking the director.

José Arroyo

The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, USA, 1999)

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Sofia Coppola’s first film. The title’s such a turn-off that I avoided it until 2012. I thought it would be depressing but it’s not: I was a fool. It’s an engaging and humorous work with a real feel for teenage female desire and angst. ‘What are you doing here honey’, says a doctor to one of the sisters after a suicide attempt, ‘you’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets’. ‘Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year old girl’. The situation and humour are slightly dark but the story is told with a welcome light touch throughout. The film’s  got depth too: the scene where Trip (Josh Hartnett) leaves Lux (Kirsten Dunst) in the football field without being able to quite comprehend it himself is one of many examples. Plus Coppola’s direction allows for  other pleasures: the callow attractiveness of Josh, the real beauty and skill of Kirsten, James Wood for once underplaying, and a suddenly aged Kathleen Turner, all marvellous. It’s beautifully directed but still falls apart at the suicide. What leads up to it is not quite conveyed. Surely being treated badly by a boy and not being allowed out for a while by their parents is not sufficient cause for it  otherwise so many more of us would be dead. Still, it’s a delight  to see a work of such skill and feeling from a first time director.

José Arroyo

Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2006)

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The story of the tragic queen, a kind of contextual preamble to the French Revolution, shot as a tragic teen film. The film is a sumptuous, lively production, amongst the most beautiful and entertaining films of the last decade, distinguished by its use of music, its beautiful mise-en-scène and its evocation of a long-gone world in a way that makes it timely and relevant. Sets, props, and costumes have to be amongst the loveliest ever. Clearly, a lot of that is due to the period itself, but credit must also be given to the filmmakers in having the wit and knowledge to see the value in conveying it in a way that allows a contemporary audience to understand and appreciate it. The film is wonderful at showing the enervated obsessions with lifestyle, entertainment, shopping and consumption, so similar to that of our own epoch, as a frenzied refusal of unshakeable anomie, one doomed to failure. Everything about the film evokes a delicious dialectic between luxe and loss. Kirsten Dunst, at the peak of her melancholic beauty, is peerless as the tragic queen, doing her dutiful best to please other, and when failing, which is most of the time, at least striving to please herself; but Dunst’s face palpably evokes a foretaste of doom, as if all the palaces, clothes and jewels with which she tries to shoo away boredom and the burden of duty, will not keep her from her fate. Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI is almost as good, though he doesn’t erase the memory of Robert Morley as she does that of Norma Shearer in the 1938 version directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Yet another masterpiece from Sofia Coppola.

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Worth noting that as Rosalind Galt  in her great Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (Film and Cutlure Series: New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) rightly  points out ‘Sofia Copppola’s Marie Antonette (2006) addresses precisely the relationships among rococo style, radical politics, and gender, but its deconstructive deployment of the Versailles decorative regime prompted critical response to view the films as equally clueless as its protagonist. If we regard the film as something other than a discourse on girly frivolity, it is possible to read its emphasis on the decorative image as precisely the location of its political intervention’ (loc 336 on the Kindle edition).

 

José Arroyo

Love is All You Need/ “Den skaldede frisør” (Susanne Bier, Denmark, 2012)

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Love is All You Need is a romantic comedy, one aimed a middle-aged audience which it doesn’t condescend to. It’s interesting because it is a European film, because it’s directed by Susanne Bier and because it’s got wonderful actors one recognises from Danish television and Italian gangster films, actors one loves  but can’t quite yet name, actors who can still pass as real people.  Pierce Brosnan is the film’s real object of desire, and  few 60 year-olds can be as attractive and appealing as Brosnan seen through the haze of so many longing females gazes in front and behind the camera. It’s out now but won’t be for long.