Tag Archives: feminist

Eavesdropping at the Movies:127 – Häxan

A 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film in the form of a semi-dramatised lecture, we had absolutely no idea what to expect of Häxan, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. And what a great surprise it was, as we discover an extraordinary, perceptive, original, bold, witty piece of work that details the history of witchcraft, visualises medieval beliefs in wild set-pieces, and draws interesting parallels with modern-day institutionalisation of “hysterical” women.

The projection was out of this world, a 2K 2007 restoration by the Swedish Film Institute with unimaginable clarity, sharpness and contrast. It was unbelievable to look at. (Thanks to Holly Cooper for finding the technical details out for us.) And the film is full of images that benefit from the restoration; Bosch-esque dramatisations of Satanic seductions, a Witches’ Sabbath, and unholy births of demonic creatures. It was the most expensive silent film to ever emerge from Scandinavia, and it shows. Though neither Mike nor José is an expert on horror, and indeed despite Häxan‘s fundamental differences from horror, in its imagery its possibly foundational influences on several subgenres of horror is palpable.

There’s a remarkably sceptical, anti-clerical theme that runs throughout the film. While not strictly atheist, Häxan says clearly from the start it will discuss what folks in the Middle Ages believed without asking us to buy into it. Indeed, there’s a frankly dismissive tone: “Of course, this is all nonsense”, the film effectively says, “but let’s learn about it anyway, shall we?” This set-up, while unexpected, arguably creates a lack of direction and drive until the final chapter, in which we are brought into the modern day (of 1921) and Christensen draws direct links between the superstitions of old and what real-life events, phenomena and afflictions they may have been responding to. And that would be interesting, but the film goes further, talking about this all as not just a difference in the understanding of the physical world between people of different eras, but as a continuum of oppression and abuse of women. Burning at the stake, Christensen says, has been replaced by the mild shower of the mental institution, but how much progress does that really represent? Women are now considered to be ill or troubled rather than in league with the Devil, but is the difference between murdering and imprisoning them really so great? Not only does it pose these insightful and powerful questions, it even proposes things as specific as institutional sexual abuse keeping women in an inescapable cycle of incarceration and continued abuse; assaulted by the very men charged with running the system that’s supposed to protect them, they are left permanent victims, unable to plead their cases, for anything they say will be considered symptomatic of their hysteria, just as women on trial for witchcraft had no escape from torture and murder in a system that was ostensibly just.

We could go on. And in the podcast, we do. The 2007 SFI restoration we saw is available through Criterion, and you owe it to yourself to see it – it’s available on DVD and digitally on Amazon and iTunes, though the Blu-Ray appears to be available only in North America, unfortunately. Brilliant film.

(P.S. José would like to apologise for saying silent films ran at 8 frames per second, when they actually had frame rates that varied from 16-24 fps and often changed due to being hand-cranked.)

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 96 – Skate Kitchen

First of all, huge thanks to the Electric Cinema in Birmingham for not only screening a preview of irresistible hangout flick Skate Kitchen, but for hosting a Q&A with director Crystal Moselle and some of the cast – not professional actors, but girls who genuinely hang out and skate in New York City under the name “Skate Kitchen”, and whose daily lives form the basis of the film. A chance meeting on a train led to Moselle shooting a short film with them and ultimately this feature. Moselle has been here before: her debut, The Wolfpack, also came about due to her curiosity about a group of people she came across in New York, but that was a documentary, and Skate Kitchen is narrative fiction.

Indeed, the narrative works to bring out the best of the setting and people, structuring the documentary aspects to avoid losing much focus while bringing out observations of these girls’ lives that feel deeply authentic, pointed, and original. It follows a teenage skater with a rebellious streak becoming part of the Skate Kitchen collective, the changes to her life as she grows up away from home, and the inevitable conflicts between the girls and the boys who dominate the skate culture they want a part of.

We discuss the nuances in the film’s construction of a divorced family in which both parents are nonetheless present, and in which the child is given agency over her relationships with them; the wholesomeness of the girls’ interactions, particularly with one of their dads; the dimensionality of the boys, particularly in terms of sexual desire and their interactions with girls – and the way the girls’ bodies are displayed not as passive, simply intended to look sexy, but as active and really, really fucking talented. Watching them skate is, just like watching the horse breaking in The Rider – also played by non-professional actors using their real-life skills – a pleasure in which the film allows us to indulge deeply.

Finally, Mike wants to apologise for the sound quality in this episode. He forgot to plug the mic in.

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The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.