Saturday, April 25, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Female Misbehavior (Monika Truet, 1992)

Female Misbehavior isn't much of a movie. I've watched a lot of documentary-esque features lately and it all becomes a bit wearying when they drop the pretext of cinema and movies just become an interview. Female Misbehavior falls into that category of talking head essay driven feminist documentary neatly, and it's much to the film's detriment this time around. It's not that these four stories aren't needed or these lifestyles are not valid, but in the context of creating a portrait of women who don't fit into the neat mold of what is generally seen as appropriate behaviour it doesn't really work. Instead this more loosely resembles four separate videos that have been taped together with the pretense of making a grander statement on how women are supposed to act, and how they buck those trends with how they treat their bodies, sexuality and choice of gender presentation. On paper it's a tantalizing subject, but Truet doesn't seem to have much in the way of an eye for images, or even insertion shots to break up the monotony of the constant talking heads, and only one of these subjects is truly transgressive, and its placement in this movie is a statement of misgendering.

The film begins with Annie, a performance artist who uses her body as a means of economic support while finding her exhibitionism thrilling to the point where she has complete control of it. She cites that she loves "tit art" and invites people up on stage to take a look at her cervix. It's the shortest segment in all of Misbehavior, but it's brevity is much appreciated, and Annie remains chipper and an engaging presence throughout. The next two segments are poor. The first is a long often repetitive account of a woman who found pleasure in s&m, and the detheorizing of sexuality though pain and pleasure. She talks about how this unlocked her own body, and how much she wants to bring other women to her side of things, but a long take of her accounting what brought her to S&M amounting to her just standing in front of a mirror and trashing the uptightness of female sexuality does not a fascinating subject make. It would be arduous to recount the loose colonialist, and sexist ramblings of Camille Paglia so I won't bother. But there's one segment in this film that cuts through the rest of the filler, and it's entirely devoted to a trans man named Max simply recounting the story of how he came to be. Max discusses identifying as a lesbian, but it never fitting right, always feeling like a boy, and eventually the medical transition he is going through in order to align his body with his internal mael gender identity. It's very simply told, and for the early 90s to have a trans man discuss his life is something entirely new and different. When Trans Women were starting to get some level of visibility people like Max were still largely invisible in the public eye, and while no one saw Female Misbehavior the fact that Monika Truet gave him as much time as Paglia is noteworthy, and her understanding in not speaking over Max was impressive. This is just his story, and by recounting it Truet stumbled onto something actually definitively ordinary, but ultimately rebellious, but it was in the narrative of a man not a woman, and there in lies the problem of including Max in this picture. I'm sure Max agreed to participate knowing this was a movie about women, but his story clashes strongly with the rest. His presence here alone is bothersome, not because of anything he said, but because he is a man, and any other assertion strikes me as being transphobic, even if it was unintentional. Unfortunately this unfairly casts a pall over the wonderful final segment in this otherwise forgettable documentary about Women.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Marianne and Juliane (Margarethe Von Trotta, 1981)

I love films about the relationships women have with one another. The sheer willingness to do anything for another woman, and the strength that comes through in knowing you have an un-severable bond guided linked through a connection of soul. Sisterhood, the very words mean a close relationship among women based on shared experiences, concerns, beliefs. That definition opens up the doors to experiences of women both far and wide, and on the basis of activism, within feminism, sisterhood means a lot. A connection through a struggle and a constant push and pull to unravel oppression. For Marianne and Juliane their sisterhood is through blood and through activism.

I'm struck by the relative simplicity of Von Trotta's imagery. Her openness and empathy in showing power of sisterhood through ongoing support. The recurring image of Marianne and Juliane is one of sisters embracing when they need it. It's an image of love, of power, of purity. When Marianne goes to jail for terrorist activities related to her feminism her sister supports her without any reservations. She'll put her hand up to glass dividing them as they discuss her incarceration, and make a joke about how her sisters hands feel cold, relieving the tension of her stressful situation. In a flashback sequence both sisters meet up in the girls bathroom of their schooling to shed tears over Holocaust footage, knowing their people did this. Their activism is born in this moment, but it also shows Von Trotta's humanity towards the girls as they know they must never allow this to happen again, but through it all they would have each others support. Another moment of sisterly interaction has both women swapping sweaters after Marianne visits her in prison for the first time, and Juliane needing something warmer. This act of giving what was on her back to her sister is emblematic of their relationship. They would do anything for one another at all times. It's a simple moment, but speaks to a larger loving relationship between the two, and Von Trotta's ability to get across meaning through workmanlike imagery is essentially what makes Marianne and Julianne such a striking, devastating film on relationships, sisterhood, feminism, systems of oppression, and motherhood.

That strength in imagery carries over into all facets of the film's political intentions. The scene I mentioned above about the holocaust showed actual footage in a classroom demonstration, but Von Trotta does not shy away from her countries history of violence. It is curious then why Marianne chooses to fight for her own rights through means of violence. When she weeps with her sister in the girls bathroom after seeing these images one would think she would lean towards pacifism in her own activism as these images seriously affected her, but she becomes a terrorist. It may then make sense that she sees those who were oppressed at the time of World War II and identified with them so greatly that she assumed the only way to fight this level of violence is to then work with those tools. This is a question the film doesn't answer, and the ambiguity of her activism is interesting to me, and more powerful than a straight response, because it opens up debate among viewers.

Marianne and Julianne's feminism is equally interpreted through simplistic, raw, but nonetheless affecting imagery that she also gave to their sisterly relationship. In one flashback sequence when Julianne is writing about Marianne's upbringing the film shows the two of them at a dance. A dance that Marianne had trouble going to because she refused to wear a dress, but eventually gave into. When the DJ begins to mutter over the microphone it's time for a boys and girls dance she approaches the dancefloor, but not with a boy, by herself. The looks of confusion that spread across the adults faces at this dance show this act as something of a rebellion. She didn't need anyone. She'd be an independent woman. Von Trotta chooses to close this scene with an elderly woman smiling on at her as if to say feminism has always been present in Germany. Marianne's later death in the movie is given the same raw treatment that she has shown throughout all of the movie. When Marianne's decaying corpse is opened to view for the public she hasn't been made beautiful, but instead her body is wrecked with decomposition, and her face frozen in an image of terror. Von Trotta doesn't sugarcoat that Marianne's death is a political one, and by showing Marianne's broken body for what it is, the tragedy of the scene overflows. Julianne's grief is also delivered in a similar manner with consistent close-ups of weeping, moaning and sorrow. The scenes between the two sisters early on code the grief of the picture as something significant, but the acting of Jutte Lampe is something else entirely, tapping into Rowlands-esque levels of emotiveness. Von Trotta is wonderfully laid back in these moments, and let's Lampe act out her breakdown, and this creates another lasting, straightforward, blunt image. That's the lasting effect of her camera, and the thing I'm most impressed with. She shows no inclinations towards breaking the mold, but she knows how to get across the message she intended to by simply showing and not overdoing.There's simply no need to shoot something differently when a close-up of a face gets across everything you'd need to know about the pain of the scene.

The final feminist coded strand of this picture is within motherhood, and choice. The film is bookended by abortion and choosing to raise a child. Marianne and Julianne begins with an introduction of Julianne as a feminist woman. She is fighting for the right to choose through her abortion activism. At the beginning she is seen making signs and handing out pamplets to get the word out to other German's about her personal choice to have children whenever she wants, something all cis women should have. Her sister Marianne has a child, but hasn't seen him since he was two years old, and ultimately decided she wasn't in the right place to become a mother at the time. We see the child throughout, but he's used more as a totem for a woman's choice than an actual character. If the movie has any weaknesses it's in this segment where Von Trotta's falls prey to cramming a bit too much into her movie. The connective notions of choice are tied up a little too cleanly in the closing moments when Julianne chooses to adopt Marianne's long lost son after losing her sister. This could have maybe ended on a stronger note with the loss of Marianne and having Julianne fight for her sisters reputation as a great woman, but nevertheless Von Trotta pulls a final great moment out of this otherwise loosely connected storyline issue in the final frames. When Marianne's son and Julianne sit down for the first time he tears a picture of his mother up, because he resents her having left him, much to Juliane's dismay. She tells him that she was a great woman, and he listens. He wants to know everything. Julianne looks at him and the film closes on a still image of her face. Women are always telling the stories of other women. Our history isn't buried when we're talking about each other. I'm brought back to something Kathleen Hanna once said about creating art for women and fighting through the difficulty of it all. In The Punk Singer, she simply said “Women would understand”. Von Trotta made a picture that answers that call, and in her images she made a movie women would understand & relate to whether you're an activist or not, a mother or not, a sister or not. This film is implicitly about women, and I'm grateful there are movies about that connection we have as women to people like ourselves.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: REALiTi (Claire Boucher, 2015)

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

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

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

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

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