Friday, May 29, 2009

Ramble on Female Directors

Since “Jeanne Dielman,” “Kahensatake” and “Celia” makes three in a row, I might as well just declare May to be my “salute to female directors” month. In a perfectly gender-equal world this streak would have a relatively common rate of occurrence; 12.5% if math serve me correctly. So considering the number of reviews I’ve written to date, the fact that a 3-film female-directed streak hasn’t previously occurred would have odds around 0.0000000036%. Clearly there is a great deal of bias at work, but even as the numbers paint me as patently sexist (admittedly, some level of subconscious bias on my part likely exists), it seems clear that the film industry itself needs some scrutiny.

Anyone who’s studied the film industry and auteur history, or just kept track of major filmmakers, can testify that women are sadly underrepresented in the director’s chair. Women directors have certainly created a hefty share of masterpieces (see below), but they tend to be infrequent staples within the Hollwood mainstream and, to an extent, even in the European cinema spheres. Careers as long and varied as, say, Alfred Hitchcock or John Huston are even rarer still.

I’m not entirely sure why this is, other than that the heavily male-dominated industry is reluctant to cede many opportunities even when female talent is available. But is it entirely a production issue, manifested by sexism amongst producers and investors? Are there, for whatever reason, fewer women interested in directing? Are audiences somehow less interested in films made by women? Is popular cinema’s reliance on male gaze too fundamental to marketing and sales to be excised, or even counterbalanced? I’m curious rather someone better qualified than I can take a stab at these issues.

In more ways than one, the minority of female directors has led to a self-perpetuating cycle that’s carried over from long before the feminist movement. It likely discourages some would-be and up-and-coming women directors who knew they have to fight against the tide. It may also fool producers into believing that female talent is riskier than it really is.

Even in film criticism, the battlefield is rarely level, with films made by women often interrogated excessively for feminist readings. Once found, this layer of the film is inevitably given disproportionate attention, often overlooking both personal themes and broader achievements. All too often mainstream film reviewers (not to mention those with particular interest in feminism or its backlash) fail to ask whether gender themes even apply. Consider, for example, films like the Shakespeare adaptation “Titus,” the submarine thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker” or the slacker comedy "Wayne's World." If half of all films were made by women, would we really be hunting out gender issue undertones in these films?

But at the same time, from the perspective of a female filmmaker, I can see how the underrepresentation of the feminine voice, perspective and means of production would only increase the interest in tackling these issues head on, or at least addressing them. Members of a minority are obviously more sensitive to the danger of blindly accepting the status quo (like male action leads or throwaway romantic interests), but consciously rejecting the male-oriented system draws attention and risks focusing consideration away from other themes you’re dealing with. Do it enough times and suddenly you’re no longer making a “mainstream” film, but a “feminist” one. Even if you’d done nothing more than made a female-centric version of a traditionally male-centric scenario, investors, the media and the public will doubtlessly see it, first and foremost, as a feminist work. (I don’t mean to suggest here that making an intentionally “feminist work” is in any way a bad thing, merely that it can become a very limiting label.)

It’s a bit of a catch 22 with certainly no easy solution. For anyone actually versed in gender studies, I’m doubtlessly making a very naïve and amateurish retread of the topic, but I’m endeavoring to think through the issue plainly and for myself, without a complicated theoretical framework to get snarled up in. I find this useful not just in my desire to be more understanding of multiple perspectives, but because males (yes, even lowly ticket-buying and movie-blogging males who are not directly part of the power nexus of the industry) have a responsibility to be part of the solution and not just the problem.

I’m acutely aware that even if I came up with any insightful conclusions, it would be hypocritical of me to try and set guidelines or even advice for female directors. It would just be another male voice (however enlightened I might imagine it to be) telling female talent what to do. Other than to say that I think female directors should just make whatever films they feel driven to make (towards whatever commercial, artistic or social goals they choose) and wear down the male-dominant industry until gender representation is more level, I really don’t have any profound plan for how a change might be affected.

I can, however, offer some advice to men making films, by reflecting on how I’d go about it. Let’s say I’m making a film that isn’t specifically dealing with gender. I’d first write the script entirely in line with my vision, just focusing on what comes naturally even if I know that I’m inflecting it with gender bias and whatnot. Then afterwards I’d flip a coin (or write a computer randomizer) to assign/reassign the genders of all the characters. Then I’d rework the script as needed (hopefully as little as possible) to make sure the story still made sense.

There might be some compromises (like for historical settings or plot points involving pregnancy and birth), but I’d even consider changing important elements of the story if need be. The same thing could be done to assign race, sexual orientation, age and so on. Since these things are usually and often necessarily important to a character’s heritage, personality and circumstances, I’d have to be flexible with reworking the screenplay, but it would be a challenge that could ultimately improve it and weed out lazy clichés and assumptions in the original writing. This system has its own share of problems, but I think it has promise. I understand that it’s similar to how “Alien” (1979) was made.

All that being said, I’ve yet to actually make a film or even write a script. Hopefully, that will one day change, but in the meantime, I need something else to do my own small bit. The most obvious is the vote-with-your-wallet method, to seek out more films created by women directors (or with female writers, cinematographers, etc.) and avoid exceedingly chauvinistic male-directed films. I have to admit the former is easier for me than the latter, since I don’t like to rule out watching any film that might have some redeeming value and, if I’m completely honest, my hormones occasionally chime up. Plus, you'd more or less have to pull gialli from my cold, dead DVD player.

I also try to give a fair amount of coverage to female-directed works on my blog, though in retrospect there are fairly long dry patches on it.

Anyway, after all my complaining about the film-and-gender situation, I’d like to end on something more positive. The fact that a great number of brilliant films by women from around the world are already out there offering a huge variety of perspectives needs to be acknowledged. So I’d like to finish with a list of some favorite films directed by women. The fact that so many are quite recent seems to bode well for future growth.

Across the Universe (2007) by Julie Taymor
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger
After the Wedding (2006) by Susanne Bier
Antonia's Line (1995) by Marleen Gorris
Ascent (1977) by Larisa Shepitko
American Psycho (2000) by Mary Harron
Big (1988) by Penny Marshall
The Bigamist (1953) by Ida Lupino
Broken English (2007) by Zoe Cassavetes
Brothers (2004) by Susanne Bier
Celia (1989) by Ann Turner
Children of a Lesser God (1986) by Randa Haines
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) by Agnes Varda
Clueless (1995) by Amy Heckerling
Craig’s Wife (1936) by Dorothy Arzner
Daisies (1966) by Vera Chytilova
An Education (2009) by Lone Scherfig
Fat Girl (2001) by Catherine Breillat
Frida (2002) by Julie Taymor
Friday Night (2002) by Claire Denis
Germany Pale Mother (1980) by Helma Sanders-Brahms
The Gleaners and I (2000) by Agnes Varda
Good Work / Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis
Grace of My Heart (1996) by Allison Anders
Harlan County USA (1976) by Barbara Kopple
The Hitch-Hiker (1953) by Ida Lupino
The Holy Girl (2004) by Lucrecia Martel
The Hurt Locker (2008) by Kathryn Bigelow
I Am (2005) by Dorota Kedzierzawska
Innocence (2004) by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
The Intruder (2004) by Claire Denis
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by Chantal Akerman
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) by Alanis Obomsawin
The Kids Are All Right (2010) by Lisa Cholodenko
Lost in Translation (2003) by Sofia Coppola
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) by Margarethe von Trotta (and Volker Schlondorff)
Lovely and Amazing (2002) by Nicole Holofcener
Madchen in Uniform (1931) by Leontine Sagan
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944) by Maya Deren
Microcosmos (1996) by Marie Pérennou (and Claude Nuridsany)
Monster (2003) by Patty Jenkins
My Twentieth Century (1989) by Ildiko Enyedi
A New Leaf (1971) by Elaine May
The Night Porter (1974) by Liliana Cavani
North Country (2005) by Niki Caro
Olivier, Olivier (1992) by Agnieszka Holland
Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter (written by the great Virginia Woolf)
Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi (and Vincent Paronnaud)
The Piano (1993) by Jane Campion
Please Give (2010) by Nicole Holofcener
Ratcatcher (1999) by Lynne Ramsay
Salaam Bombay! (1988) by Mira Nair
Sita Sings the Blues (2008) by Nina Paley
The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) by Germaine Dulac
The Swamp (2001) by Lucrecia Martel
Take Care of My Cat (2001) by Jae-eun Jeong
Titus (1999) by Julie Taymor
Trouble Every Day (2001) by Claire Denis
Vagabond (1985) by Agnes Varda
Waitress (2007) by Adrienne Shelley
Walking and Talking (1996) by Nicole Holofcener
Wanda (1971) by Barbara Loden
A Whole Night (1982) by Chantal Akerman
Winter's Bone (2010) by Debra Granik
Working Girls (1986) by Lizzie Borden
Yes (2004) by Sally Potter

My top favorites so far: Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, Lucrecia Martel, Sally Potter, Julie Taymor and Nicole Holofcener.

Other famous female directors who don’t make my personal list (but might after I get to know more of their work): Gillian Armstrong, Gurinder Chadha, Marguerite Duras, Nora Ephron, Lesli Linka Glatter, Catherine Hardwicke, Emily Hubley, Daniele Huillet, Vicky Jenson, Agnes Kocsis, Caroline Link, Samira Makhmalbaf, Nancy Meyers, Leni Riefenstahl, Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Betty Thomas and Lina Wertmuller.

I still hope to do reviews on some of the films listed and I’ll try to keep it updated as I remember more and see new ones. I’d also love to see your own lists, hear your thoughts on the subject and get some recommendations.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review of Celia

Coming-of-age stories set in 1950’s suburbia are a pretty tough sell for me, conjuring images of stuff like “Leave it to Beaver,” “Dennis the Menace” and “A Christmas Story” (Please don’t comment saying I’m off by a decade; I know.) that are colored by stale moralizing and contrived high jinks. Worst still are the creepy retrogressive utopias envisioned in such works as “The Family Circus” that yearn for a fictional past plastered with frozen smiles, bland conformity and frightening simplicity.

1950’s retrophelia aside, coming-of-age tales (or bildungsromans if you will) are just too often susceptible to white-washing nostalgia; a desire to see the childhood as a time of unproblematic innocence and maturing as a clear-cut linear progression. When depicting conflict, it is thus almost always externalized as a force opposing the fun-loving purity of the youth, like a bully, over-strict father or elderly crank (often a neighbor or teacher). “Celia” (1988) includes all three of these elements, but manages to energize the clichés by focusing more on the protagonist’s complicated internalized reactions, which are often times at odds with adult morality.

“Celia” (1988) takes place during Celia Carmichael’s ninth year, primarily during a summer in 1950’s Australia. Celia is an only child, whose natural assertiveness makes her the leader of group of neighborhood kids that develop an elaborate set of games and rituals. Her rampant imagination and initiative runs beyond the containment of her parents, deeply-flawed and sometimes brutish Ray and quiet, tentative Pat. They love her and try to raise her the best they know how, but their own failings and the vagaries of the era lead Celia through an emotional chaos that increasingly causes her to lose touch with reality.

There are two historical circumstances in particular that play a major role in the story. The first is the growing red scare in Australia, a particular preoccupation of Ray, who associates the threat with a wartime trauma (only hinted at) he experienced at a young age. Celia’s grandmother, whose death opens the film, was an ardent academic communist and has predisposed Celia to whimsical idealism, if not the actual theory and practice of Marxism. She’s much more interested in lying amidst her grandmother’s keepsakes and artifacts then actually reading the sizable book collection that Ray later burns.

[Image: Celia’s private rituals often echo her observations of the world around her. Ray’s bonfire of her grandmother’s Marxist books, for instance, has a warped reflection in one of Celia’s noturnal rites where she burns a makeshift effigy of her father.]

Ray has periods of calm between his misguided furies, but never really understands the emotional-spiritual connections that his daughter forms to things that seem of little consequence to him. The misunderstanding works both ways, prompting Celia to sometimes reject her parent’s instructions because she sees them as quite nonsensical.

Things are complicated by the arrival of the Tanners (Alice, Steve and their three children), friendly neighbors who are eventually revealed to be communist activists. The film being largely apolitical, this issue is of importance only to the extent that it affects Celia, who only vaguely comprehends the fuss that her parents make over it. Unlike the older Tanner boys, for instance, Celia doesn’t link Ray’s overkill reaction with his attraction to Alice. When Ray fulfills Celia’s long-held dream of owning a pet rabbit, in exchange for her promise to cease playing with the Tanner children, he inadvertently sets in motion a much greater tragedy than whatever he was trying to avoid.

[Images: Ray and Alice.]

Here enters the second unfortunate historical circumstance of note. In 1859, Thomas Austin imported some 24 rabbits into Australia saying, "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting." By the 1950’s, rabbits had become a catastrophic plague, threatening to wipe out the country’s agriculture and provoking extreme responses from the government. One response was a law banning citizens from owning domestic rabbits. Celia is forced to take Murgatroyd to a crowded zoo pen where it can be kept while a grassroots campaign protests the absurdity of the law.

In the aftermath, Celia commits a shocking act of violence towards the man she holds responsible for her misery.

This last event triggered a great deal of mishandling over the course of the film’s minimal release history. The poster art and video releases attempted to market the film as an exploitation horror film along the lines of “The Bad Seed.” But the film shares more in common with films like “Valerie and Her Weeks of Wonders” (1970), “Paperhouse” (1988) and “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), where the theme of a young girl’s internal world spun dangerously out of control is treated sympathetically. Indeed, the ending of “Celia” may imply that our hero has even managed to productively overcome her crisis, though disturbing overtones and the continuation of the eerie soundtrack (incidentally, another highlight of the film) leave doubts.

Director Ann Turner does an admirable job rejecting the shortcut of villainy. What antagonists there are exist largely off screen (the Australian governor for instance) or are known to be acting in reasonably good faith. That’s something of a rarity in coming-of-age films since they are often expected to target children and so “must” be kept as black and white as possible. In “Celia,” the struggle over what’s best for her is more a conflict between Celia’s own intuitive, imaginative understanding of the world and the adults’ learned, systematic perspective.

Beyond Ann Turner’s excellent direction, it’s Rebecca Smart’s performance as the central character that make the film succeed. She handles the difficult balance of confidence and confusion that make Celia’s character interesting. She also manages to express Celia’s powerful surges of emotion and subtle habits (like her timid inability to lie when asked a question point blank or her heartbreakingly vulnerable attachment to her rabbit, spelled out most effectively merely in the way she carries it) with equal delicacy, while never overexposing what is an essentially enigmatic character. The 12 year old Smart ultimately gives a performance far better than many adult actresses ever achieve, and that’s coming from somewhere who frequently announces his hatred for child-actors to complete strangers.

“Celia’s” only distracting fault is in its somewhat dry presentation. Turner’s original script called for several sequences that were apparently cut or changed for budgetary reasons, but the story is largely unharmed by the modest variety of everyday settings. Turner shows a great deal of judgment in terms of knowing when to go in for a close-up and knowing when to back off, using her camera placement to impose a tinge of claustrophobia without making it too strong a metaphor for her character’s suffocation. However, her warm sun-clad sets want for a little more visual panache. The film’s moments of darkness, where Celia’s nightmares come alive, prove she’s clearly capable of more fantastical leanings, but I suppose her restraint is wise. By putting the emphasis on reality, the viewer is in the same position as her parents: we care about Celia, but our desire to pull her out of her private world may not be doing her a favor.

[Image: An abandoned quarry, one of Turner’s best a set pieces, manages to be both monumental and banal. The type of place where a child’s imagination runs wild.]

Walrus Rating: 8.5

The always-reliable Second Run UK released Celia on R2 DVD about two months ago. “Celia” has held a decent reputation in Europe, but very little following in the US due to unavailability, so I’ve been a bit lonely in my anticipation of this release. I’d flirted with the VHS and a very tattered bootleg for while, but this is a much cleaner print and comes highly recommended. With the clever cover art, essay insert and interview with the director on the Second Run release, I think the film is finally getting the treatment, and wider audience, it deserves.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

On our plane ride into Heathrow, Katie sat next to a small, unassuming lady in her late seventies. As they did a little talking, it turned out that she was Alanis Obomsawin, a well-regarded aboriginal American filmmaker from Canada (neither of us had heard of her, but I probably should have) on her way to London to introduce one of her documentaries at the British Museum. On our final day in London, we made an effort to visit the museum and check out the film. It surpassed my every expectation.

“Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance” covers the Oka Crisis, a confrontation between Mohawk Indians living on a reserve near Oka (not far from Montreal) and the Canadian military. A local land development interest gained government approval to expand a 9-hole members-only golf course onto a burial ground and sacred pine grove belonging to the Mohawk nation, reigniting a 270 year battle to officially regain their territory.

The Mohawks blocked incoming construction equipment and Quebec Security was called in. After shots were exchanged, a police emergency response team bungled the situation, firing tear gas that the wind swept back into their own position, forcing a retreat. In the chaos, the Mohawks seized an abandoned bulldozer and used it to crush police cars and push them into a barricade. Other Canadian first nations pledged support and the nearby Kahnawake reserve captured a major highway bridge. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and eventually the Canadian military took over, leading to a 78-day high-tension standoff.

Alanis Obomsawin arrived early in the debacle and was one of the few filmmakers or journalists to evade the military-enforced media blackout, chronicling the incident from within the heavily-patrolled, razor-wire perimeter. While Obomsawin covers the history and context behind the incident, the power of her documentary comes from her extensive firsthand footage.

Obomsawin rarely appears in front of the camera and her interview style is minimalist and encouraging, allowing her subjects to open up and express themselves. Although the scarcity of leading questions might have threatened to make the film lose focus, the editing keeps things tight and smartly relevant. Her unobtrusive use of irony and humor points out the absurdity and hypocrisy of the Canadian government’s reaction (like running razor-wire underwater) without trivializing the complexity of the situation and the emotions involves.

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of the film is the way it captures the clash between colorful individuals standing up for their modest rights and large institutions, especially the Canadian military. The individual soldiers hide behind the usual unthinking platitudes like “I’m just obeying orders” and “I have a mission to accomplish” instead of relying on their own moral compasses. The result is that their behaviors are akin to mental illness symptoms, including denying verifiable facts, showing indifference towards the suffering in front of them and adopting self-induced stone-faced autism as a way of avoiding questions, confrontations and emotional involvement.

The military is seen using fear and intimidation tactics, suppressing press coverage and frequently breaking promises. And yet hardly any soldier openly expresses dissatisfaction with their vocation or the institute they serve, and certainly none try to redress the wrongs. While this isn’t surprisingly to anyone familiar with military psychology or history, it’s disturbing to see it occur in modern society and within the armed forces of well-regarded democratic country. One has to wonder whether the military can be too effective, especially when it removes the ability for self-analysis and self-correction through the use of individual consciences and becomes merely a tool in the hands of political and commercial powers.

But I’m getting into the dangerous territory of mixing my own interpretation with the film’s less-pointed, less-systematic approach. In truth, while the directing and editing take a very sympathetic viewpoint, the film is not overly wrapped up in a private agenda and truly seems committed to honesty. Obomsawin covers the death of a police officer by the Mohawks and shows occasionally unflattering footage of individual Mohawks who, at times, lack maturity, temperance or eloquence. She depicts their internal struggle with balancing self-respect with survival, the fractured opinions on how to handle the situation and the difficultly in controlling feelings of anger and vengeance.

Obomsawin is of Indian heritage herself (albeit a different tribe), but her own vested interest is really much wider than purely first nation issues and concerns the larger scope of human rights for voiceless minorities everywhere. I hadn’t even heard of the Oka Crisis prior to seeing the film, but she draws us into the fate of Kanehsatake Mohawks in a way that is quick and natural despite the fact that many viewers will have little in common with the tribe. My own circumstances are much closer to the non-Mohawk suburban community of Oka, who are seen in the documentary reacting with outrage, apathy, paranoia, racism and even violence primarily over the mere inconvenience of traffic jams caused by the barricade. It’s a bit sobering to reflect on how I might have reacted had I been in their shoes.

On a less serious level, the movie is action-packed and well-crafted, making for a riveting two hours that doesn’t suffer from the “talking head” and “clipart” syndromes that drag down many otherwise noble documentaries. The film isn’t susceptible to the self-indulgence and cult-of-personality accusations that plague Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock and its sincerity is refreshing without being cloying. It’s informed, impassioned, judiciously paced and just about everything else a documentary should be.

In retrospect, I wished I’d spent my plane ride interviewing Alanis Obomsawin about her work, goals and future plans rather than watching “Twilight” (2008) as an in-flight movie. Damn my social awkwardness and vulnerability for vampire drivel.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

You can watch the entire film here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

London and Belfast

Sadly, I’m now back in St. Louis after my family trip over to London and Belfast. The two cities were quite different, but both are well worthwhile. In keeping with Film Walrus policy, I’ll contrive to tie my summary of the vacation into something film-related. If you don’t care to hear me gloat about how much fun I had in Europe, just skip ahead to the next post.

In the three days I spent in London, I managed to experience quite a lot: The Museum of National History, Prince Albert Hall, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The London Eye, a Salvador Dali exhibit, the Sherlock Holmes pub, Trafalgar Square, London’s Chinatown, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the Tate Modern Gallery, Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the British Museum. I got to see such wonders as the British crown jewels, the Rosetta Stone and a public transportation system that actually works.

One thing that probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but did, was the unseemly number advertisements, especially for Hollywood films, that plastered every surface. It kind of made me feel guilty, like visiting a third-world country and finding out that America is dumping nuclear waste there. Only this was London and a different variety of trash. Presumably many Brits enjoy American blockbusters (though probably not the ads), but I can’t help thinking British culture is better off without “Night at the Museum 2” and “Angels & Demons.” I’m uncomfortable with this level of cultural imperialism even as it gets a warm welcome. Anyway…

Belfast may be a city famous for its miserable weather, internal strife and its construction of the largest ship to sink on its maiden voyage (locals defend the Titanic by noting that “It was fine when it left here”), but it has its perks as well, including beautiful countryside and botanical gardens. I got to meet dozens of relatives I didn’t even know I had. Meeting us at the airport, they pointed to Katie, the only one not related, and said “Now there I see the family resemblance.” My family eagerly discussed everything our tour books advised against, like religion, politics and whether there’s a difference between British and Irish cuisine (the Irish relatives argued that theirs involved more potatoes and was indefinably better).

Speaking of food, I surveyed a variety of local dishes like Beef and Guinness Pie, Ulster Fry, Bangers and Mash, Chicken Tikka Masala, Banoffee and Irish Stew. The food was great absolutely everywhere, but especially memorable was my last night, dining in Belfast’s oldest pub, the Crown Liquor Saloon. The ridiculously opulent establishment features stained glass, ornate wood-carvings and lavish detailing by Italian craftsmen brought to Ireland to build cathedrals. The booth we ate in at the Crown was just a few feet away from the one James Mason ducks into while bleeding to death in the classic Belfast noir, “Odd Man Out” (1947).

Ah… and now we get around to film. But I’m not going to go into “Odd Man Out” right now, though it’s a must-see often neglected in the states by comparison to Carol Reed’s better-distributed “The Third Man.” Instead, I’m going to talk about “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance” (1993). I’ll explain how it tied into my vacation and do a review within a couple of days.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

For those of you in or around St. Louis, you might check out the Chantal Ackerman exhibit, “Moving Through Time and Space” at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum. It opens tonight and runs until August 2, 2009. It’s a rare (and free!) opportunity to see the work of one of the great sleeper-hit avant-garde filmmakers. I'll try to be there, but if I’m not I won’t be able to see it for at least a couple of weeks, because I’ll be merrily tromping about in London and Belfast. (So don’t expect any posts for a while!) I’ll try to put up some sort of update after I have a chance to check it out.

The works in this exhibit include “From the East: Bordering on Fiction” (1995), “South” (1999), “From the Other Side” (2002), “Down There” (2006) and “Women of Antwerp in November” (2007). Several of these combine multiple screens at once, like the screening of Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” (1966) that the contemporary did a while back. Ackerman, by contrast, is much more socially conscious.

The exhibit brochure linked above begins its bio with, “Chantal Akerman is widely regarded as one of the most important directors in film history.” That’s a fairly bold statement that smells to me of museum propaganda, but it’s a shame that there are few chances for cinephiles to decide for themselves. Her work has rarely seen region 1 release (Update, 2010: Thanks to Criterion this is now no longer true. See comments section.) and is most often experienced through museum and university presentations. That said, my single experience with Ackerman’s work, a not-altogether pristine bootleg of “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), impressed me a great deal.


“Jeanne Dielman” is Ackerman’s most famous work and is rightly cited as a landmark of both feminist and experimental cinema. It’s self-assured, challenging, controversial, intimidating and so arty it explodes if brought into contact with summer blockbusters.

The plot, what little there is of it, consists of a day-to-day, often minute-by-minute, visual transcript of a single mother’s life, presumably the Jeanne Dielman of the title (played by the wonderful Delphine Seyrig). The film’s structure is as rigid as its protagonist’s routine, relying on long static takes only occasionally broken by rectilinear editing. We watch Jeanne Dielman cook, clean, shop and prostitute in uninflected, somber semi-silence.

For about three and a half hours…

If you have dabbled in experimental art appreciation at all then you are doubtlessly already familiar with works about nothingness, next-to-nothingness, abstraction, minimalism, meditation, sensory-deprivation, self-conscious boredom and so on. These works of art, while terribly profound in the mind of their creators, tend to strike me and the rest of the ignorant public as dull, lazy, uninspired and, in the age of postmodernism, played out. Nor are our enthusiasms particularly reinvigorated when told that “such is the whole point of the piece.”

So I hope you can appreciate the level of cynicism with which I approached “Jeanne Dielman” and the surprise when I found myself actually drawn into its rhythm. This is a very difficult work and I admit that I found my attention drifting and my opinion wavering throughout; even to the point where at times I started pre-composing the pithy smackdowns I planned to issue should I write a review. Ultimately I came to see its point and, more importantly, to feel that the point was not trivial (as it is in, for instance, Andy Warhol’s 8-hour shot of the Empire States Building).

Yes, “Jeanne Dielman” purposely bores us, intentionally repeats things and stubbornly refuses to give us emotional catharsis or intellectual access with regard to its lone protagonist. But there is something powerful in the way it accomplishes both detachment and intimacy. A certain camaraderie builds up as we share Jeanne’s stifling monotony and one traverses a range of reactions through recognition, resentment and resignation that allows us to empathize with her existence in a way that is not possible in packaged entertainment or even traditional tragedy.

Our ability to distinguish details is, at times, heightened by the length we spend staring at flat mundane slices of her lower-middleclass apartment and at the same time diminished as our vigilance (trained by traditional cinema to expect cues telling us what is important) gradually wanes. Ackerman plays on this softly, by gently introducing glitches into the well-established pattern. These deviations during our third day within Jeanne’s world, at first as minor as dropping a spoon, build towards a brutal climax. It is an ending both unexpected and yet foreshadowed by hours of uncomfortable, almost subconscious, tension.

Far from being lazy, Ackerman’s film is painstakingly crafted to deliver a mixed reaction that is actually insightful, nuanced and just as compassionate as it is cruel. I’m not sure I fully appreciated the film or that I was paying enough attention by the final third to understand the ending or that I’d ever want to see it again. I know that doesn’t sound like a rave review, but if you have the right mix of patience, open-mindedness, curiosity and masochism, then this is a film that may yield unexpected rewards.

Walrus Rating: 3.0 and 8.0 (the two rating existing simultaneously within me)

Note: In case I did not make it clear, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is not one of the films showing at the Contemporary. In case the review only scared people off, I’m told the works at the exhibit are shorter, more accessible and more documentary in approach.

Update, later the same day:
So I made it out to the exhibit with my two sisters and a friend. The multi-video displays were definitely the most engaging. "Women of Antwerp in November" features black and white and color screens (1 large and 4 smaller on the opposite wall) depicting scenes of women smoking. It has wonderful atmosphere and texture (like very fashionable vintage noir) with a intuitive feel for mystery and sensuality, but not a great deal of meaning or substance as far as I could tell. It certainly succeeds as a collage of themed images, but I doubt many stay through the full 20 minute loop.

The next two rooms contained "The Other Side" a series of snippet on over a dozen flat-screens that contain a narrated documentary on illegal immigration. The directness of the approach and the experience of walking through film as an actual journey through space was an excellent metaphor and Ackerman makes strong symbolic and literal use of the wall running along the US-Mexico border. The audio, which emanates independently from each TV interferes with itself too much to add much, especially amidst the noise of the opening night crowd. I may have to return to experience "The Other Side" fully, but it definitely worked on a viceral level.

My favorite piece was a similar 24-screen room called "From the East: Bordering on Fiction" which was described as an exploration of Ackerman's East European Jewish identity. It is largely expressed through graceful tracking shots showing crowds of people standing and waiting around on streets, in train stations, etc. The juxtaposition of people, camera movements and old world settings made for arresting combinations, perhaps coincidental, but no less striking for being so, that held me for longer than the other displays. From reading the expressions in the grim crowds to observing the way lighting lends different emotional weights to similar scenes, there was plenty to ponder in the long, spacious gallery.

"South" is a feature length documentary on James Byrd, the victim of a racially motivated hate killing in Jasper, Texas. "Down There" is also feature length and plays on the same screen at different times. These films were a little less appropriate to the museum setting where few attendees will be able to sit and watch through the whole work. The exhibit closed about ten minutes after I arrived at the room. Perhaps another time...

Anyway, it's well worth the visit if you are in the area. Chances to see Ackerman's work are not likely to come this way again anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review of The Locket (1946)

The 1946 film noir “The Locket” hasn’t been released on disc anywhere outside of Spain, causing it to slip ever further into the status of footnote, unvaryingly and almost exclusively during discussions of flashbacks. That’s not without reason, as “The Locket” features an outwardly intimidating triple-layer flashback structure, but the film has much more to offer including a very Hitchcockian treatment of tension, suspicion and psychology.

The film begins with John Willis about to marry Nancy (Laraine Day), a mysterious but charming woman that the Willis’s extended family knows next to nothing about. The prenuptial party is crashed by psychiatrist Harry Blair (who has the poor taste to reduce the wedding to mere framing device) who claims that Nancy is his ex-wife and a deeply unstable murderess. Dr. Blair relates how he was visited in his office by a Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), an uncompromising artist who was once very much in love with Nancy until he began to suspect she was a compulsive kleptomaniac who once killed to cover up a theft. He traces her disorder to a childhood incident she once confessed (via flashback once again) in which she was falsely accused of stealing a locket from a rich girl.

The story, even as vague as I’ve outlined, may seem needlessly complex. After all, the plot could have been told in chronological order from Nancy’s point of view growing up and dealing with her troubles or from the perspective of an investigator hired by Willis’s family to determine the background of John’s fiancée. By nesting flashbacks inside each other, however, the film effectively reverses chronology. The journey deeper into Nancy’s past becomes a probe into her mind, peeling away layers on a quest for the truth behind her pleasant and unassuming exterior.

The flashbacks also cause the earliest scene to be literally the centerpiece of the film; elevating it to the importance it is due with respect to cinema’s infatuation with Freudian psychology. The title also lends weight to this crucial childhood incident. Thankfully, director John Brahm does a fine job of the scene, taking what may seem a minor incident and using it as the kernel from which much strife will germinate. While the child actors are about what you’d expect in terms of talent, Brahm builds just the right tone out of the condescension of adults, the emotional fragility of children and the overwhelming trauma when young innocence first confronts bald injustice.

Of course, the movie wouldn’t be any fun if simply recalling the original trigger event cured the present repercussions, the all-too-common anticlimax of several similar films (gialli, I’m looking at you). “The Locket” instead ramps up the tension, by showing how knowledge of Nancy’s kleptomania only causes her successive lovers to be beleaguered with doubt. As we gradually backtrack out of the nested flashbacks, each man loses Nancy, finds their clueless successor and infects him with a tale that is treated with initial skepticism, but spreads like a viral paranoia.

[Images: Brahm likes his brooding window shots.]

This is where the Hitchcock feel really kicks in. John Brahm, whose frequently overlooked noir credentials include “The Lodger” (1944) and “Hangover Square” (1945), constructs plenty of delightful scenes in which the hapless menfolk remain just out of reach of confirming their suspicions about Nancy, but fail until some perversely unexpected moment. Meanwhile, Nancy, who compulsively and often convincing lies to cover her tracks, has the infuriating tendency to believe herself. She’s like an inadvertent femme fatale who isn’t even aware of her own crimes or bizarre agenda.

It’s a fun plot with little excesses that fans of film noir will appreciate (amongst them, one of my favorite filmic suicides in recent memory), but far too much contrivance to please the straight drama crowd. The screenplay is quite talky, especially with all the layers of flashbacking narrators, and although it doesn’t rely on crackling wit, the dialogue relishes in the clashes between characters. It brings out the theme of disparity between certainty and truth that is seen in Nancy’s self-serving delusions, the men’s defense of her honor and the fatal accusation that set it all in motion.
"The Locket" is the type of screenplay that somehow has Robert Mitchum as a sensitive painter discussing his artistic integrity, where it’s inevitable that the cocky psychiatrist will be driven crazy and that doesn’t mind telling you point blank that the locket is just a symbol for the unconditional love Nancy needs (the source novel is even called “What Nancy Wanted”). Oh, and for a film noir, it’s odd that we never actually see a gun. Is it great writing? Maybe not. But it’s awfully good storytelling.

Walrus Rating: 8.5