Tuesday, September 20, 2016
All the World's a Stage and Sexuality is All You Really Need: House of Little Deaths (Scout TaFoya, 2016)
In the opening scene a near static camera shows a woman named Victoria (Alexandra Maiorino) prepping herself for a night of work. She pulls at the lingerie and runs her skin through her fingers trying to make herself as presentable as possible for her (mostly) male customers. When interrupted by another woman the camera follows her and the rest of the women are seen doing the same. TaFoya focuses on these smaller internal moments of preparation to the film's benefit. It's a trick in the Chantal Akerman handbook to showcase time spent. These scenes don't have the length or the intention to truly reckon with Chantal, but they do give the audience a brief feeling of moments that are often too short or concise in other movies of this type. When TaFoya holds his camera on Victoria to show her using foundation, blush and mascara we ride with her through those tasks and it creates a sense of interiority that is beneficial to creating the closeness needed to ponder what actually goes into the job that makes it central to these women.
A newcomer to the job (Cassie played by Michelle Siracusa) frequently asks the other women for help in her appearance and act. During one scene she asks one of her co-workers for outfit tips and their conversation immediately begins to break down into girl talk. "What do you like?" "What do you like to wear?" and so on. It's a nice moment where the wall of the job comes down and they can just be, but it becomes more complex when thinking about the task of picking those clothes they're discussing, because they aren't necessarily dressing for themselves but others. Their need to both find themselves in their dress while also compromising for their job is their moment of artistic control over their work. There is a perceived uniform, but you can make it your own. They wear the clothes and the make-up, but it's done by their hand. That too ties into the process of theater and cinema and the question of ownership in art.
Mustang, but where House of Little Deaths fumbles is in the simplification of the image through reconciliation. It's an image that can only have one meaning, and that is acceptance of her pregnancy. It's a crowd pleasing note to cap off on in a movie that usually requires more of the audience, but even with missteps in the final act House of Little Deaths features a lot of engaged filmmaking and TaFoya is someone to keep an eye on.
You can support House of Little Deaths here by becoming a fan of the film.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Exploitation cinema addresses difficult subject material with a directness not usually gifted to mainstream filmmaking. At its best these kinds of movies ask questions of viewers and unsettle their cultural ideas of sex, race, gender and class. Rape is not a stranger to cinema, but it is uncommon that this topic is handled with immediacy, concern and grace. Rape-revenge movies must have an understanding of the psyche of the abused, and facilitate this through camerawork and character depth. The person's (almost always a woman) fight for justice needs to be paramount, and their agency within the narrative has to be a concern. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies don't always understand how to go about balancing their exploitation duties to pinku cinema, and rape-revenge to their righteous women's anger, but frequently they find a balance of expressiveness and strength at the centre with the help of Meiko Kaji (Scorpion). Kaji (Scorpion) is a performer whose eyes emote more than dialogue ever could and her stoicism, determination and weathered life experiences gift the Scorpion films a character who viewers can identify with and follow, even when scenes are hard to bear. It is in her eyes that the Scorpion films find their power as vengeance pictures, and in Jailhouse 41 Scorpion evolves into a figure whose acts of reprisal become mystical. What is only hinted at in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion becomes gospel as Scorpion becomes the blade for all women.
first piece on these movies. Scorpion is seen dragging a spoon across the rock floors and refashioning it into a primitive knife. She does this knowing it might be her one way to escape or to strike back at the warden who captured her and sent her back to prison at the close of the first movie. In these scenes the camera is looking up, just as Scorpion would be and the image is of the Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his men standing above Scorpion. When it is announced that Scorpion would be taken outside along with the other women to meet a dignitary from the state who is coming to check up on the prison she is "cleaned" with a fire hose. Her face breaks in these moments and she shows vulnerability. The cracks in Scorpion's armor are important to make her a relatable figure instead of a superhero and amplify the anger audiences are supposed to feel with the cruelty of the warden and his men. Ito smartly frames the hose sequence no different than Scorpion's introduction and the lens is filled with splashes from the water. The camera takes the place of her body.
Scorpion's cross-carrying is no small coincidence either. Her presence as a saviour to the masses is well known and this alignment with Christ gives her iconography that is known worldwide. Scorpion, however, is not a martyr or a saint. She's a murderess with a justified hand. But even the punishment of Christ is not enough in the eyes of Chief Warden Goda. Goda insists that Scorpion must be broken, and a punishment not befitting of her will only turn Scorpion into an idol. Goda orders his men to publicly gang rape Scorpion in front of the other women.
Before the women flee they make a scene of one of the guards who tried to kill Scorpion. They maul his body, disrobe him and with legs splayed they plant a giant plank of wood directly into his genitals. It's a graphic image, and perhaps the bloodiest in the series. It's an image of specific meaning due to the camera's lingering presence. It's lit in a way that makes it clear blood is gushing up from his wound and we see the full extent of his mangled body. In the Female Prisoner Scorpion films when women are raped the camera rejects the sexualization of the subject by never showing the full extent of the act of rape, but instead uses reaction shots and close-ups. Those scenes are made disturbing by the power of the actors faces, and that is a clear rejection of typical filmmaking techniques for rape that focus on the female body. This image of a defiled man is made powerful by contrast in the the destruction of his body in a physical, visible way. It's angry, violent, impure, but radical in context of the rape-revenge movie and in how Scorpion functions as a series of movies in this genre.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies have a deft eye for critical evaluation of their audience. Being in the pinku genre Ito knows the audience who would go to this movie and casually inserts an image of an offended woman overhearing men discussing sex with women who had just escaped form prison. Her look of disgust is the moral heart of these movies. At their centre the Scorpion films pay notice to the women characters and how they interact with men. Not to let the men see her reaction she quickly reaches for a smile to diffuse any possible negative outcome, which is something women are trained to do in the company of unbecoming men when we grow up.
Oba is perhaps a character who exists as criticism of the women in the audience who view Scorpion as a hero. Oba is the likely scenario of how offended men would view Scorpion in the first place so her more brazenly evil tactics are a focus. Oba works as a counter-point to Scorpion's righteousness. She is more coarse and complicated in her hatred of not only men, but human beings. Oba strips women, steps on men and uses hostages as target practice in their lengthy escape. She's an individual who is beyond damaged and throws Scorpion to the police to save her own ass later in the movie. It is perfect that Oba and Scorpion would stand together in the end as Scorpion learns to have compassion for someone who hated her guts.
Scorpion's compassion for Oba is beautifully rendered in their final moments. Before Oba dies she relives the moment that sent her to prison. Her face is less severe and she carries a deep grief in her expression as she plunges a knife into her womb aborting her unborn fetus. In a striking image of abortion stigma a net is thrown over her and people prod her with sticks as she bleeds out. When Oba comes to Scorpion catches her and for a second Oba drops her defenses and rests in Scorpion's arms. Finally, she lets down her armor and breathes, because she knows her torment is nigh over. Scorpion stares at her and their eyes meet. Scorpion didn't have to catch Oba, but she did, and despite all of the vicious things Oba had done in the past she helped a woman in need. In her great empathy Scorpion carries Oba until she expires. She closes her eyes and lets her move onto the next world and Scorpion weeps. The message of unity among women crystallizes in this moment, because everyone has a backstory and moments that cause their own problems. It's our duty to try to understand why.