Friday, October 30, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: La Chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972)

A ragged apartment is explored by a cinematic eye as a camera turns 360 degrees to explore every corner of a living space. None of the objects move, and the question of subject is deliberated by audience and instinctual camera movement. The only thing that changes in the chamber is a woman, presumably the owner of the house, who sits on a bed, stares at the camera and eats an apple. The woman is Chantal Akerman, and she is wrangling with the very ideas of how cinema functions in this avant-garde short. 

Unlike her first film, Saute Ma Ville, there isn't a narrative in La Chambre, and Akerman has begun to twist away from conventional cinematic goals into something both entirely her own, and daringly experimental. In La Chambre, Akerman asks many questions and none of them have explicit answers, but the function of the movie is to get the viewer to think of how they view cinema as a narrative art-form and how we latch onto any tidbits of information that may move a story forward. Akerman has consistently been concerned with stillness in her movies, and how that plays into realism (look at the opening third of Je, Tu, Ill, Elle for example), and La Chambre's only progression is how this singular woman moves, otherwise objects are at rest. But Akerman is just as interested in those resting objects, and her camera makes a point to frame household items such as chairs, an oven, and a dishwasher with the same priority she frames herself. The framing is meticulous, but never boring, and the images never dull due to the function of the camera's constant movement. By placing the camera in a 360 degree pan she's asking audience members to observe how the objects change, even if they don't. The only changes to the objects are in the lighting, and it's only slight, but this is something we must view, because the camera demands their importance with the same centered framing as the subject (the woman). Something interesting happens after the first couple courses around the room though- the camera reverses course as if on audience instinct to move towards the woman. The curious thing about this is why that was needed and what Akerman is saying about narrative subjects. She's just as calm as the chair we've already seen twice. Her movement isn't any more fascinating than how the light reflects off of a wall, but the camera is pulled to her, because she moves. Each repetitive movement of the camera becomes tighter and tighter until the camera keeps the woman in frame for the better part of a minute, but she remains listless as she devours an apple. When the camera finally realizes there is nothing to see here the lens pulls away from her again and the movie ends. What was the subject? Is a subject even needed to produce cinema? These questions aren't definitely answered, but explored and beg to be analyzed by viewers.

La Chambre is just the beginning of Chantal Akerman questioning how cinema functions, and offers a glimpse into more of her instinctive techniques as a filmmaker. While, Saute Ma Ville, may have been an introduction to her feminist themes La Chambre offers more in the way of what we've come to know as Chantal Akerman's form. The attention to space and how movement effects image and narrative were brought to full light in Hotel Monterey, and in that way La Chambre sometimes feels like a test run for a fuller picture, but the attention to objects, rooms and the people within them would be of fascination to Chantal Akerman throughout her career all the way up through Almayer's Folly, where she finally sought freedom from interior spaces. The interior lives of women can be seen in her first two films as well, even if La Chambre rejects any traditional narrative filmmaking technique, and positions Akerman as a subject in her films. Akerman's resolute attention to portraying women came first through portraying herself. By questioning cinema and distancing her filmmaking from a popular narrative mode she gained a reputation as a difficult filmmaker, but she's inviting you into her worlds and into herself, even if whatever she's doing is simple, such is the case in La Chambre.

you can watch La Chambre on youtube here

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Saute Ma Ville (Chantal Akerman, 1968)

"Saute Ma Ville is the mirror image of Jeanne Dielman"
Chantal Akerman

In Jeanne Dielman there is a woman who lives her life through rituals. She cooks and cleans every single day. It's mechanical, perfectly shaped and fills her life with purpose. When there are slight breaks in those tasks the woman of that film begins to fracture. Jeanne Dielman shows a structure to live in. Saute Ma Ville seeks to destroy those structures.

Saute Ma Ville is a phoenix film. It is destroying the old guard to bring life to a new generation. In this case it is the women of the 1960s not wishing to live the types of lives their mothers, aunts and grandmothers were forced to endure. While Jeanne Dielman is a more radical statement by tapping into the mental state of women and delivering a portrait of time and procedure Saute Ma Ville is more like a blunt instrument. The title even infers a simple act of destruction: "Blow Up My Town". In that respect Chantal Akerman's first film feels similar to the energy and exuberance of Vera Chytilova's Daisies, but Akerman's technique is different and entirely her own, even if Daisies and Saute Ma Ville are sisters in arms.

Chantal Akerman was only 18 when she made this film, but her filmmaking is already developed. Her insistence on framing around tight spaces and entering into the mindset of specific characters is present, and she is adept at capturing poignant moments of singularity- a recurring theme throughout her entire career. The parallelism of her camera to her characters is one of her trademarks and in Saute Ma Ville it strengthens Akerman's chaotic turn as an implosion. Her camera is energetic which contrasts heavily with the work she would do in New York a few years later (the work her reputation as a difficult filmmaker is built upon), but the excess of movement calls for what she wants to convey. Her character is a blitzkrieg and can never stay still for more than a couple of seconds so the camera follows her. Her voice echoes over the images in a lilting, angelic humming that clashes with the violent nature of the acts she is committing to totems of femininity of the past. The brooms are broken, the lotion is everywhere and the soap is on the floor. Everything is out of place, because it must be to start anew, and Akerman's zipping camera work personifies her character with resolute confidence.

Chantal Akerman stars in this picture, and in her own words she's a Charlie Chaplin-esque kind of character whenever she is in her own movies, this one included. Akerman is jovial, singing, a smile forever attached to her face as she moves around the kitchen knocking anything in her path to the floor. This is a death dance, but instead of being somber it is celebratory, because the end of this prison is liberating for Chantal and speaks to a larger theme on the kitchen as a woman's place. In 1968 Saute Ma Ville could also easily be seen as an oncoming storm, a film that literally represents the dawning of second wave feminism. When Chantal writes in lotion on a mirror with her hands "IT'S ALL OVER" she doesn't mean her life, she means the past. When she finally kills herself on top of an oven in the final frames of the short she's destroying the idea that a kitchen is a woman's place while also damning the kitchen as a place of life lost for those women who toiled away in that confined space. The women Chantal watched growing up, and the women she'd make movies about for the rest of her career.
As a first statement Chantal Akerman came out of the gates swinging with a rough snapshot of feminist thought. She'd never accept those queer or feminist labels that are key to her work, but I believe she was absolutely aware of the type of cinema she was making. She wouldn't return to this type of work again until 1974 with Je, Tu, Il, Elle and her filmmaking acumen would evolve as she was introduced to experimental cinema, but as it stands Saute Ma Ville is an interesting first chapter for one of the great filmmakers and an introduction to everything Akerman would give the world.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Yakuza Apocalypse

 In an older review I posted this year for Takashi Miike's "Fudoh: The New Generation" I stated that if there is one unifying theme in Miike's work it is that violence begets violence. Nearly twenty years after Fudoh came out the man is still grappling with those same ideas in his most recent picture Yakuza Apocalypse. Miike has been making yakuza pictures his entire career, and they make up the greater amount of his early v-cinema contributions when he was a director for hire in his earliest days as a director. He's still a director for hire, but in a bigger Japanese blockbuster system. He's still making yakuza pictures in his own brand, and even with more restrictions on what he can and can't do with more money involved he's still raking the coals of puncturing violent cinema with both comedy and a mournful approach that tackles the subject head-on.

Deadly Outlaw: Rekka

In a recent interview with the A.V. Club Miike stated that he does not like violence. When Miike begins to assess the truth of his characters they become violent. Miike is not a cynical filmmaker for these preoccupations with violence, but an empathetic one. In Miike's first golden period he made a handful of films that would be known as the Dead or Alive Series as well as another masterpiece in Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. These are violent pictures, but Miike handles the theory of violence in an interesting way. For Miike violence is a tangled web his characters get lost in. They're products of their environment rather than essentially violent people. Yakuza Apocalypse follows in those footsteps, even if it's a much lesser achievement than that series of movies Miike put out in the early 2000s.

Yazuka Apocalypse begins as an analysis of masculinity and how that is intertwined with the nature of the Yakuza. There are specific examples of the absurdity of masculinity as gatekeeping: Drinking blood in front of your overlord, punching each other squarely in the face until another man falls, having your foot stomped and offering the other foot for the same punishment. It's all to prove oneself to some masculine superior in the yakuza- in this case, vampire lord Genyo Kamiura. For our lead character Kageyama the yakuza offers him a role he can fit into, and a fantasy of what he could become. It might even be like the movies, but that all unravels when he finds out his superior is a vampire, and turns him into one as well, making him the new central figure of masculine power. In a later scene Kagayama uses his powers on an otherwise emasculated child who weeps and sobs at not being strong enough, but then after Kageyama turns him into a vampire the child finds himself with his newfound strength. All of these ideas on what it means to be a man are taken to their logical extreme in the black comedy Ichi the Killer, but they are brought back here to round out some of Miike's ideas on the absurdity of the Yakuza.

The vampire mythos is also important to Miike's ideas on masculinity. Yakuza pictures have been done to death, but yakuza vampire pictures are a new layer on the genre. On paper it sounds absurd, but that's Miike. He takes the absurd and levels it in his ideas and his cinema. Vampirism sweeps through Japan when Kageyama begins to turn other people. It sweeps across this setting like wildfire, until finally our vampire lord can walk with an army behind him. When you place this scene beside an earlier scene where an elder discusses the dangers of spreading vampirism too much you get a clearer picture of what Miike is getting at by utilizing genre instead of playing his Yakuza picture straight. The spreading of vampirism is the spreading of the yakuza is the spreading of violence is the end of life, and a great criticism of violence in and of itself.

As dour as Miike can be sometimes he always has a sense of humour, and this is where many people have the wrongheaded idea that the man is simply "crazy". Miike simply doesn't play by rules. This places him closer to cinematic kin of Joe Dante than it does other filmmakers he is often compared to like Sion Sono. At the close of Deadly Outlaw: Rekka a man with long white hair says "Rock n' Roll" and that general idea comes back here when they unravel the mystery of defeating the Japanese folklore Kappa god with a piece of paper that says "Stay Foolish". Miike lets loose in the final third finally delving completely into the Vampire and Japanese Folklore of this genre cinema picture. There are Frogs performing wire-fu, grenades going off, mockery of Sergio Leone and a subtle homage to John Carpenter's They Live. He ignores all pretenses of ending his picture in the classical way he set up the first two acts. Yakuza Apocalypse isn't as interesting when it abandons a majority of it's ideas for something a little more altogether crowd pleasing and what North American audiences expect from Takashi Miike, but it is fun, jovial and loose in a way that recalls that Rock N' Roll man at the close of Rekka. Miike has put out better work this year (As the God's Will), but Yakuza Apocalypse is a wonderful addition to the dense filmography of an often misunderstood master.

Yakuza Apocalypse was recently added to Video on Demand.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Chantal Akerman

As a 16 year old not-out-yet trans girl I had little reason to leave the confines of my bedroom. I wrote in journals about the pain I was experiencing in day to day life just by existing as a false version of myself, the gender dysphoria that seemed the permanently stagnate my every move, and the frustration of knowing that I had no real home to relax in either by body or through family. This intensely introspective period of my life saw my writing flourish at the expense of my mental health, but I figured out the type of person that I was supposed to be, and how I could go about accomplishing these goals of womanhood. I also saw my growth as a cinephile become a fixture of my everyday life. I wasn't going to school, but every day I found something new in cinema to give me reason to wake up in the morning. During all of that time though I could never find something that so resolutely affected me in the way that Chantal Akerman's movies did. The first movie of hers that I ever saw was Je, Tu, Il, Elle and I was struck by the first section where Chantal moves about her apartment writing about herself, and her ideas. This felt like what I was going through at the time. The interior space, the singular experience, the personal writing, the repetition. Chantal Akerman was filming something that felt like my life. I remember jotting down "I wish I could make movies like this" in my diary afterward. This experience kickstarted a love affair I had with her work that I've never had with any other filmmaker.

In the late 2000s there really wasn't filmmaking or television about transgender characters beyond ridiculing those people or having them play corpses. Finding relatable cinema has always been a game of looking for subtext or tonality that replicates personal feelings. My queerness is insular and deeply ingrained in my body. I like to shed my skin when I engage with art and feel reborn into someone that feels prouder of who I am. The lyrics of Donna Dresch and Kathleen Hanna were scribbled all over my walls in places my parents dare not look. My little secret of who I really was, and books by Alison Bechdel brought to me tears, because she was wrangling with anxiety over herself that was a constant feeling for me as well. Chantal Akerman did the same things for me, but in cinema. Her interior worlds felt like they lacked freedom. They were jails. Being closeted was nothing short of demoralizing so to see something so deeply personal reflected in her hallways, small rooms and spaces inhabited by women not made for this world felt like my space. Akerman's cinema was more of a home for me than anything I ever lived through up until last year, and her characters were versions of myself I could see existing.

It has always been baffling to me that Akerman's cinema has been described as detached, because I have the opposite experience with her work. I think back to that quote in Jeanne Dielman about her son not understanding, because he wasn't a woman, and I think this experience could hold true for why her cinema has never been accepted into a generalized canon as much as it should, because film criticism is a field inhabited mostly by men. Akerman has always laid herself out there for the world to see. She is a deeply personal filmmaker whose cinema has always represented her life in some way. The holocaust is a running theme in her work, as much as her relationship with her mother, queerness, art, and movement. She could never be pinned down to one specific type of movie so she's often worked in both narrative and documentary, experimental cinema, musicals, romance- and so much of it vital to her experiences.

Even recently I have found my relationship with Akerman's work expanding into new areas. I haven't seen my mother in 18 months, and our relationship is fractured to say the least, but she sends me letters. She talks about the experience of losing me, and wanting to see me again. She is sad that she hasn't seen me in as long as she has, but she knows I'm working towards living my life in a way that is representative of who I am. She always ends each letter hoping to hear back from me as soon as possible. She worries. I put on News From Home the other day in preparation for a piece on her now final film No Home Movie, and I was moved by the similarities between the way my mother and Chantal's mother reacted to each of us moving away. They're so very similar and it became apparent to me for the first time that maybe this is what a mother/daughter relationship feels like. It's complicated and messy, but there's a lot of love to be shared between us. I cried at that revelation. Akerman's movies have always felt symbiotic- like they come out of some place within her that I feel personally connected to even though I never had the chance of meeting her. The type of effect she had on my life is nothing short of profound, and it has to ring true for other women.

I woke up this morning to the news that she had passed, and from reports it was a suicide. I sobbed into the shoulder of the man who gave me a physical home over the woman whose cinema sheltered me in a cinematic one. I am gutted. I feel like part of my soul was removed when I heard this news. She felt like family. I miss her so much. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

I Want It That Way: Magic Mike XXL

*Analysis of a scene will be a feature on Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I take a look at specific scenes in movies and discuss them. Today I am going to look at 4 moments from Magic Mike XXL and how they tie into the film's central ideas on satisfaction* 

Magic Mike XXL is a film overflowing with life and positive energy. At it's core it is a road trip of friends getting together for one last hurrah, and those pockets of love that spread throughout a group of friends in doing a job. That work is specifically the business of male stripping or as the characters in this movie refer to themselves "male entertainment". Unlike the previous the film there isn't much cynicism to be found here and the camera shifts from the performers to the audience. When I saw Magic Mike with my girlfriends back in 2012 it was a bit of a letdown to everyone in my core group of friends except me, and it was because they were given a movie that didn't satisfy their needs as viewers. They came to watch a stripper movie, but what was delivered was a story about economy. Magic Mike XXL still features some of those same ideas, but they are appropriately slight and only mentioned offhand. The satisfaction of the viewer- specifically the heterosexual women in attendance- is paramount and a few scenes in the movie act as a fulcrum for the type of audience reaction Magic Mike XXL is trying to elicit.

Scene 1: Backstreet at the Gas Station: 

"I bet you can go in there and make her day...That's your goal. Just go in there and make her smile" 

Mike is persistent that the boys change up their routines as they head to Myrtle Beach to the World Summit of Male Stripping Contests, and Big Dick Ritchie is unsure if he should stop doing the fireman routine. He hates fire, the music he dances to, and everything else about the dance, but it works. So, Mike asks Ritchie if he's a fireman to which he replies "I'm a male entertainer" so Mike asks him to go into a gas station and make a girl smile. It's a test, but it also works as a barometer for where the movies heart is at. Magic Mike XXL consistently toes the line between the bro road trip movie and the filmic equivalent of an idea of female satisfaction. Women are first and foremost the #1 priority of the men, and I'll get into that more later, but this is a simple scene where one man dances for a one woman's approval. Approval, being a running theme in XXL.

There isn't a whole lot of room to play around with camera movement or an elaborate dance routine due to the confined nature of the aisles in the gas station, but graceful camerawork, editing, and image selection make the scene pop exactly the way it should. The scene begins with Ritchie being unsure of himself as The Backstreet Boys "I Want it that Way" begins to play over the radio station. Ritchie begins to sway his hips and ass in tune with the song to get her attention, but she's still preoccupied with her phone. The camera sweeps back down the aisle and when the songs first drums kick in Ritchie does a turn and pops open a bag of cheetoes all over the floor. There is a cut to his face and hers. The mess finally got her attention. She seems unamused, but Ritchie's going for it. At the very least he's livening up her mundane day. The scene follows Ritchie to a pepsi machine, and there's a subtle zoom on Mike and the boys cheering him on. This is his moment to really take a chance. He takes a water bottle out of the machine and simulates ejaculation with the bottle right when the song is hitting the biggest part of the chorus. Perfect. Ridiculous. His boys think this is BRILLIANT in all caps and Mike is screaming "yes! yes! yes!" outside as Ritchie dumps water all over himself. The camera follows Ritchie right back up the aisle as he takes his shirt off for the girl (who still appears unimpressed) and now he's as vulnerable as he can be, until he starts humping the floor. She stares down at him, he looks up into her eyes. Ritchie thinks he has things in the bag. This is what girls want right? He finally asks her how much for the cheetoes and water, and then she smiles. Mission Accomplished.

I love a handful of things about this scene, but especially the absurdity of the male idea of female sexuality. The biggest moment in this sequence is the simulated ejaculation. These guys can't stop thinking with their dicks. Mike and the rest of the crew lose their shit when he faux ejaculates in the gas station. She never smiles at this moment. She only smiles at his comment asking about the cheetoes and water, because it's so absurd and played straight. The sheer audacity of this guy to do all of this in her store is eventually what makes her crack, not the dancing. It also just barely opens the door for the sort of lengths they'll go to satisfy women in this movie, which remain pretty ridiculous.

Scene 2: Serenading a Queen 

"Queens, ain't she beautiful?" 

Magic Mike XXL is inspired in part by fourth wave feminism. Women are often referred to as "Queens" and each man in this movie seems like he reads the Critique My Dick Pick blog set up by @moscaddie. There is a softening of masculinity in each of the male characters here that shows masculinity not as something toxic, but vulnerable, nurturing and sensitive while still being hard enough to not make men lose what makes them so appealing. Andre (Childish Gambino-Donald Glover) raps about this.  The very first thing Andre does is ask Caroline her name and after hearing that she is named after her grandmother he asks "what she do". He remarks that Caroline's grandmother was a strong woman. He respects women.

And then he freestyles. He sets Caroline down and stares right into her eyes and delivers a message about how she's worthy of being loved, and then the chorus happens. Caroline, this could be something special, this love of mine it will never let go, ooh if I could make you mine I would treat you so special, be mine Caroline. She smiles. Once again, the endgame of the men in Magic Mike is to bring a smile on a woman's face. Caroline was just out with her friends trying to have a good time and she did. Andre put her feelings out there in the open for everyone to see, but instead of being the ridiculous almost laughing response from the woman in the gas station this one is of genuine affection.

Much has been said of how Soderbergh's digital cinematography equalizes skin tone in Magic Mike XXL and makes everyone stunning, and that isn't just something happening in the colour. What's so radical about this is that the images are also backing up how everyone is lit to look. There is one scene earlier on in this section of the movie where former pro football star Michael Strahan dances around a woman who is black, and fat, but that woman's enjoyment isn't treated any differently than any of her white or skinny counterparts. Her arousal, her happiness is put on equal footing with everyone else. That's beautiful. That's not just lip service for calling women in the film "queens", because when you're calling women who usually aren't represented in movies and treated as beautiful "queens" that's something remarkably feminist, and rare.

Scene 3: Heaven

"We're healers."

Andre and Ken (Matt Bomer) talk about the joys of making women happy in a scene preceding the one in the above screencap. Andre says "We can be healers. We can give these women what they want just by listening to them. Their boyfriends and husbands don't but we do.". All of that is put into effect directly in the next scene. Mike and the Boys meet back up with a group of girls they befriended at the beginning of the movie, because they needed a place to crash. What they find upon arriving at the lavish mansion is that the Zoe's (Amber Heard) mom (Andie MacDowell) and her girlfriends are having a girls night out. They're all drunk. They're all impressed with the men that have just walked in their door, but what could have been an awkward situation quickly turns into communion.

 Everyone in room begins to have a conversation about sex- more accurately, the women talk and the men listen. When Ken finds out that Mae (Jane McNeil) is upset that her husband never wants to have sex with the lights on he begins to ask her why and about her fantasies. Ken, being the "healer" that he is does his best to re-enact what this woman said she wanted. Like Andre, Ken has a budding music career so he sings her a song. He looks into her eyes and holds her. The distance that she had been feeling with her husband is still there, but this encounter gives her the confidence to know what she wants. It's some facsimile of pure joy.

A fascinating thing about Magic Mike XXL is that the episodic nature of the road trip is given weight by a cyclical narrative. Everything eventually comes back around to mean something greater later on. The healer conversation is one example, but the final act is even more resonant. Mike invites Zoe to Myrtle Beach, because she's depressed. He tells her he's going to win back her smile after they have a long conversation about cake versus cookies and her personal life. The line about cookies comes back around in his song selection for that final dance, and even Ritchie's fireman routine is dropped in favour of an earlier mentioned marriage proposal dance. Every little thing in Magic Mike XXL gets a payoff, but the greatest of all these moments are when happiness is given back to women, and by effect to the audience.

Scene 4: All I Do is Win

"I'm a cookie monster"

The most lavish sequence in the entire movie is the final set piece where 2 dancers mirror each others moves in a sequence that's like if Cocteau and Minnelli decided to craft a scene around stripping together. It is gorgeous, perfectly choreographed and resonant. Despite all of the attention paid to dancing one thing becomes clear, Zoe's face is the true focal point of the action. She's always lit just a little bit brighter than everything around her and the framing and choreography work around her reaction. There is one moment where Mike picks her up and places her head between his legs and there's a zoom in on his face, but then goes right back to her own reaction. The camera pulls out from the action to showcase the symmetry and dancing, but always comes back looking for her approval by focusing on her face. She goes from embarrassed to flattered to enraptured by the time things close up and Mike asks her if she got her smile back. She did.

The stark difference between the first movie and XXL is the intended audience of the dance. In Magic Mike XXL the women are always key instead of the act of stripping itself. Soderbergh's movie was never about getting a warm reaction out of the audience members, but Gregory Jacobs picture is obsessed with earning a smile. DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win" plays over the films closing moments, and winning in this instance was about approval from the woman in the gas station to Zoe and in the audience. This was about making women happy. It made me happy.