Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bound (Lily and Lana Wachowski, 1996)

Female Filmmaker Project

Despite the majority of the world knowing The Wachowski's for The Matrix and big budget action I think their strongest effort is Bound. This is in large part thanks to their strong visual sense and confident framing. While watching this last night I was highly impressed with what I was seeing, and it's a shame they haven't really made another smaller film like this since they became huge Hollywood figures. After they made The Matrix they have worked exclusively on big budget pictures, but Bound is something different, and I think their best images were created here.

 I love how much the film lingers on hands, both as a sexually powerful body part and as an image for their evolving closeness, love and warmth. The film is never really overtly selling their romance as one for the ages, but it's the subtlety of hands joining instead of grand gestures that punctuates the love they felt for each other. I like the little differences between their hands as well. Corky's (Gina Gershon) nails are cut to the quick with no real emphasis for grooming while Violet's are painted, and while still relatively short, heavily manicured.

The Wachowski's also judiciously frame the film in overhead symmetrical shots. My favourite of these is Corky and Violet in bed together after they make love for the first time without being interrupted. The door is only barely open putting just the faintest of light on their bodies, their black clothing clashing with the floor and they are close together. It's a lovely frame. The image of Corky in the closet bound and gagged, trapped essentially, is a distinctly queer image. While she's trapped due to her problems with the plan and not her sexuality it still calls up the idea of being in the closet and not free with one's sexuality.

 One of the more surprising aspects of Bound's visuals was how much I felt the architecture was inspired by giallo pictures and more specifically Dario Argento. The architecture of the home's is very sleek, floral and edged much like Suspiria but without the colour palette. Instead Bound goes for the traditional blacks, whites and greys of noir, and even colours like red seem muted and only really shine when blood splatters against white.

Sex positive feminist Susie Bright worked on Bound as a consultant during the sex scenes, and in her analysis of the film she'd say that Bound scenes of sexuality are coded as being "wet", and she praised the film for showcasing aspects of lesbian sexuality on film without oversexualizing the characters. There is one scene in particular that in my mind calls up the idea of the film being "wet" and it happens right before Corky and Violet have sex for the first time so I think she's onto something. The point of view of this scene is with Corky and while she is working to retrieve a piece of jewelry for Violet we get a feeling for her attraction for Violet in numerous ways. The camera focuses on Violet's legs for a moment, then shows Corky's hands around a pipe with water leaking out, she'd twist until the pipe loosened and she'd retrieve the jewelry for Violet. When Corky is framed again Violet is standing right next to her and the scene feels steamy because I think the Wachowski's did a good job of visually representing her thought process in the imagery of this scene.

 As much as I love Speed Racer I think Bound is the Wachowski's strongest film in all visual aspects. While their style has developed into something connected with big blockbusters and huge action I think it would suit the Wachowski's well to go back to something smaller. They show a confident understanding of what makes noir and queer cinema work, and I'd love to enjoy another film of theirs as much as this one again. Here's to hoping they do some day!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Dis Moi (Chantal Akerman, 1980)

Female Filmmaker Project

I've watched films without subtitles before and I went into this not knowing what it was about and I assumed Akerman's form would make sense for not exactly understanding what the characters were saying. It does but, this is a film largely about conversations between Akerman and Holocaust survivors. Akerman herself has family ties to the Holocaust. Her grandparents died in Auschwitz and most of her mother's family perished as well. This is a heavy subject for her to confront. I wish that I could know what these women were saying. I'm sure it was heartbreaking, human, and powerful. I hope one day there are subs available somewhere so I can give this a proper viewing. Although I assume learning french might be an easier route.

Aside from the fact that I didn't know what the characters were saying I still enjoyed watching this for the way Akerman constructs images. There is a connection between this and Jeanne Dielman, News From Home and Meetings of Anna in form. The long static takes built around a person and what they're doing in a room are here, as well as the lingering takes on people in a city setting. She also finds ways to frame these women in new ways from interview to interview. In one take she shoots an interview with the glare from a spotless dining room table visible, and the light from a window is shining on her subject. Moments later she uses mirrors to specifically show a reflection of another woman in a dining room symmetrically framed by two plants on either side of Akerman and her subject. There is even an extended section of one of the women cooking which calls up the rigorous camera work in Jeanne Dielman. Akerman's work has always felt like an extension of documentarianism (News From Home and Hotel Monterey) and I found her eye for creating images to be just as strong when she uses the talking head format that most documentaries use. My favourite moment of the film was when Chantal and one of her interviewees sits down for dinner together and Akerman nods off. The other woman wakes her up and they both give each other a little smile. I may have not known what anyone was saying throughout the entirety of this, but that warm moment of recognition between the two transcends language.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Let's Call it Love Part 2: Beginnings

I don’t think there is any argument that Sleater-Kinney’s debut album is their weakest. It really isn’t even as good as previous LP’s by their former bands Excuse 17 or Heavens to Betsy. This album found Sleater-Kinney still honing in on their sound, but for the most part everything is all here. The riffs that play off each other, the harmonies of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and the lyrics that made personal experiences into something political are all on Sleater-Kinney. They would just get better and better as the years went by, but this is a damn good start, and a touchstone record in the riot grrrl genre. 

I mentioned in the last entry that Sleater-Kinney would not often categorize themselves as riot grrrl until later in their career. In 1995 it was an important movement that had sadly been hijacked by corporations and turned into more of a buzzword for fashion than feminism (something they would talk about on #1 Must Have years later). Sleater-Kinney’s roots were in riot grrrl and it’s never more apparent than their first album which could be used as a definition for what the genre is about both musically and lyrically. It has everything from the shoestring production, the raging voices of women, lyrics that centered topics like abuse and oppression of women. It was definitely a riot grrrl record. 

The album begins with Don’t Think You Wanna which is a vague song where Corin speaks about Angels and regret which would not have been out of place on a Heavens to Betsy album. There are a lot of shorter songs on this album that feel more like the band figuring out how to make music together and this is one of them. It doesn’t feature the harmonic qualities of their best moments which makes it a little forgettable. However, they move right into their first bona fide classic song after Don’t Think You Wanna. The Day I Went Away is about leaving. Sleater-Kinney have always written songs about departure of relationships and family with an added twist of frustration due to lack of love (One More Hour on Dig Me Out). This song has all the introspective sadness that Sleater-Kinney is so great at. Carrie pleas in the bridge of the song “please remember me” as she leaves. From a structural standpoint it’s much more advanced than some of the more punk numbers on here that come and go in less than 2 minutes. Corin and Carrie doubletrack the vocals at the end of every line and in doing so the song feels massive. They would get more complicated in how they would mix their voices on the next album. The Day I Went Away was one of the first Sleater-Kinney songs I gravitated towards, because I wanted so desperately to leave a town that was too small for my life. I don’t necessarily think the song is about a relationship between a parent and child but that’s how I took to it, and I still come back to it when I feel lost and frustrated over the fact that my own parents are never going to understand why I can’t be the person they want me to be or live in a place that would reject me. The best songs are those that have personal attachment. This is one of those songs. 

A Real Man calls back Bikini Kill’s Sugar from their 1993 album Pussy Whipped in its lyrics. I fucking love riot grrrl songs that take aim at the idea that women are tools for male pleasure. I loved when Kathleen Hanna sang Oh baby you're so good, You’re so fuckin’ big and hard, You’re such a big man, You’ve got such a big cock, Push it in deeper now, oh deeper, harder, I’m almost cumming, as a total lie. Corin has her own Kathleen Hanna moment here as well when she sings Don't you wanna feel it inside, They Say that it feels so nice, All girls should have, a real man and then responds with I don’t want your kind of love. It’s a powerful statement, and while it may not be the great song it’s something that punctuates the feeling of all riot grrrl albums. 

If there’s one recurring theme on Sleater-Kinney’s debut album it’s a feeling of damage in the midst of strength. The guitars sound muddied and broken, only to come alive in choruses to fight back with sharp edges to their sound. In a way the vocals take on this same quality where Corin or Carrie talk-sing only to scream at the right moments. HerAgain is a song that epitomizes all these qualities. There’s a feeling of sadness that engulfs this song and many others here. I think it’s one reason why I loved this album from the start. Joy Division’s totemic sadness was never something I could relate to, but Sleater-Kinney was something that clicked. Their music fights back on sadness instead of wallowing in it. Corin’s voice is aggressive here and when I was younger I needed something to voice my frustrations and her voice was everything. 

The middle of the album has the band running back over themes of sex in How to Play Dead (Carrie's take on "A Real Man"), Sold Out,  and Be Yr Mama. What’s especially great about these songs is the guitar work, and it is at its most playful and complicated on Be Yr Mama. The band would make this song a live staple and it’s easy to see high with its high energy and the escalating riffing from Carrie and Corin. 

Slow Song is my favourite song on Sleater-Kinney’s first album. Music is at its most important when it can reflect a personal feeling in a person. I think that is what makes it feel more personal than other art forms. Your favourite bands and songs become a part of you. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Slow Song. It was on every Sleater-Kinney playlist I ever made. There is one line in this song that on paper seems so simple, but the lyric has always struck me as huge (there’s a similar moment on Don’t Talk Like on The Hot Rock). That line is “feeling so down, I’m feeling so down” and it’s just a moment where Corin spoke for me. She does that often. I don’t even know why this song is important to me. I’ve never been able to figure out why this song latched onto my soul. It’s just a slow song. 

Laura MacFarlane’s tenure in Sleater-Kinney is rarely talked about, but she was their drummer on the first two albums. Most people associate Janet Weiss with Sleater-Kinney when they think of drummers but Laura came first and she was always solid. Lora’s Song is the only song where she sang lead vocal, and it’s kind of awesome. She has a very different voice than Corin or Carrie, but it’s powerful nonetheless. The chorus is especially strong when her voice seems to break free and soars. It would have been interesting to have seen the future of Sleater-Kinney as band with three rotating vocalists but it wasn’t meant to be, and I wouldn’t trade Janet for the world. 

There are three classic songs on their debut album and the last of these is The Last Song. It is also one of the very best songs in the history of riot grrrl. It’s a song about breaking free of a harmful relationship. It’s closure in the screaming, gnashing, powerful voice of Carrie Brownstein. She gets final say in how this ends and tells on the person that was hurting her. It’s the greatest personal as political moment on Sleater-Kinney’s first album. It deserves a place on any riot grrrl best of playlist as well as Sleater-Kinney.

Monday, May 12, 2014

L'Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004

Female Filmmaker Project
What's remarkable about Claire Denis' L'Intrus is that at a structural level it is maybe her most cinematic feature to date, and I don't mean that in terms of big or sweeping. I think cinema as a medium is visual at it's core. It is about telling a story through images and L'Intrus is built up entirely on images. The narrative is stated in any expositional terms by any character, but shown in every frame. This makes L'Intrus her most basic achievement in cinema and her most difficult statement, because it's entirely interpretational. I'm not sure if what I'm seeing is a vision, a dream or reality but in every image there's meaning both obvious (dogs eating a heart) and cryptic (I'm still not sure what the dogs mean). This makes L'Intrus feel challenging, but in truth everything is laid out there for you to have as you will.

 After recently viewing Chantal Akerman's Hotel Monterey I also thought about this as a film about the idea of home, but instead of it being only about the nature of a home as a place it is about the body as a home. Louis Trébor (Michel Subor) is a man who needs a heart transplant, and with the heart being an essence of life and perhaps even a metaphor for the soul does that mean without his heart is he now homeless within his own body? I think Denis' film points towards yes. After his heart transplant he wanders aimlessly. He isn't quite himself anymore. He moves from country to country and nothing feels quite right for him. He cannot settle and even his family feels different.

Denis has always been a filmmaker of bodies and the tone of her films often appear in the way she shoots those figures. She's always close, framing them closely into the lens, and often focusing on one body part. She'll move the camera over one's body and depending on how she does all of this she creates different tones of physique. In Vendredi Soir the human body is sensual, alive with passion and free. In Bastards she took sexuality and used it for horror. In L'Intrus Louis body feels cold and in a way dead. He has a scar running up and down his chest and every time we see his frame it's draped in this cool grey or blue lighting or he's hooked up to a machine. There is no warmth in his soul after he loses his original heart. He's essentially homeless in his own body. This is in stark contrast to the way Louis’ grandson is shot earlier in the film when his face is covered in sunlight and has a smile on his face. He has his original heart after all.

This makes me think Denis' film is also about aging and regret. Louis' has never been a good father. His entire family is estranged and he doesn't even know his grandchildren. Despite his heart transplant he is sickly and even if he continues he doesn't have the warmth of life in him. He doesn't have a family so in one of the more absurd scenes a group of people he's living with hold auditions to be his new son. While on his death bed he has one final vision of his son with the same scar running down his chest, he sees a coffin later and Louis is then on a boat. I think this signifies his son being the one thing he lost in life that he wishes he could have back.

What makes L'Intrus so fascinating is how flexible it is, and how someone else could easily come up with something different. In the power of cinema as an artistic medium I think a viewer can see what they want to and go on their own path. L'Intrus is one of those films. It feels expansive and in it's imagery so very human. We all have dreams that we're unsure of the meaning and one of the coolest things about cinema is that it can sometimes act as a function of those dreams. Where everything is endless and definition is mutable.

Monday, May 5, 2014

March/April 2014: Cinema

I held off on a monthly report for March because of a lack of viewings, but I'm back to doing the monthly thing now combining the past two months. I made a few cinematic memories over the past two months, and my favourites were from Ernst Lubitsch and Jean-Luc Godard. I also finished the filmography of Elaine May who has to be one of the most under appreciated directors of all time. She only made four films and each one of them is very good and Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf are masterpieces. I finally got a start on new films as well in the past 61 days with Stranger By the Lake and Only Lovers Left Alive. The highlight of the past two months was writing for The Vulgar Cinema again. I loved Johnnie To's, Don't Go Breaking My Heart and it is one of the very best films I've seen this year. My interests outside of cinema have mostly been consumed by wrestling, but I did start up on classic era Simpsons and it's as good as everyone says. 2014 is shaping up to be a fruitful year in cinema even if I'm working at a much slower rate than I have in past years for personal reasons. May is already off to a great start, and I might have big positive life changes this month as well. Things are looking mighty swell for Willow. I hope they are for you too.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To, 2011)
The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919)
Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004)
Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986)
The Fruit of the Paradise (Vera Chytilova, 1970)
Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976)
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2014)
First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, 1983)
 Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)
The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
Tokyo Drifter (Sejin Suzuki, 1966)
La Chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972)
The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)

Best Rewatches
Whip It (Drew Barrymoore, 2009)
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2004)

Labor Day (Jason Reitman, 2014)
Proxy (Zack Parker, 2013)
Devil's Knot (Atom Egoyan, 2013)
Goats (Christopher Neil, 2012)


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Hotel Monterey

 Female Filmmaker Project
A home feels eternal. It's that one place you run to for safety, warmth and solace in the wake of everything else that is wrong with the world. You can always count on a home to be there for you. It exists in a place separate and unique and it is yours. They are also fragile and with time can evolve into hotels. When your home becomes a temporary residence it feels like you've lost a loved one. That safety and place just for you is gone and it isn't easy to find a new one. Losing your home is a kind of death, and hotels have always felt like graveyards. The residents shuffle about only temporarily like wayward ghosts and then they're gone. The rooms are all made up for residents who will never truly love them and these beds are never more than places of temporary comfort. Time passes in Hotels like still slowly beating clocks until you can leave this place and return to what you would call home, but what are you supposed to do when everything is a hotel?

Chantal Akerman's Hotel Monterey is a dissection of an empty palace. The rooms are perfectly kept together waiting for someone to welcome, but no one comes. The camera sits in long static shots of the architecture that was built to house people on their way as a temporary home, but the walls echo sadness. The point of view of the camera is seemingly trapped in this world staring at these walls. These beautiful, decaying walls built as a substitute to a real home. Elevators move up and down and people enter their rooms and occasionally peer out at this lost soul but never say anything. They are only here for a short time of course. We move up through this labyrinth of partial respite and peer out the windows looking for escape, and maybe that true home lurks out there somewhere. When the darkness of the night finally lifts and we stand on the roof peering out over the city an additional sadness pours over our viewpoint. The same houses and windows we've been longing for are reflected once we got out. The windows are boarded up, cracked and broken and the buildings look filthy. This isn't the warmth of what a home should look like. We peer 180 degrees looking for something but only find more hotels and nothing resembling a home.

Chantal Akerman's film is brilliant at capturing that loneliness of having nowhere to head for comfort, and not having that can feel like the end of the world. It's a depressive state as bleak as those murky walls that cover the hotel, and it can feel never ending. I'm still reaching for a home that I will find some day and being in that in-between state is a trapped feeling. A feeling that is evoked perfectly in the halls of Hotel Monterey

reposted on Letterboxd