Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Female FIlmmaker Project: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

Taken on it's own "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is a very striking title. It conjures up real world horror of being a woman and existing after the sun is down. However, the film belies any notion of investigation into those very words and the complex dangers of being a woman. Instead of delving deep into feminist text or analyzing the horror of violence against women it brandishes itself as vampiric cinema, and tends to have more in common with conventional boy meets girl romance despite it's interest in terror. If anything this is closer to quirky cinema, and wouldn't make a bad double feature with Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive considering both films follow similar narrative structures, but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels like the first chapters of a budding relationship between two loners instead of the stagnant problems of eternal life.

The first thing one would notice about this movie is the stylization of the image. Night time cinematography gives way to dusty digital black and white in what has to be one of the first usages of B&W digital to grand effect. Lights feel hazey and street lamps decorate streets row upon row as far as the eye can see creating a sense of almost suburban trappings meets the old west. Amirpour's intentions of making the picture feel like a western aren't lost on her sensibilities to reach back to cinema of the past to give weight to some of her ideas. The urban streets traveled by no one except a cloaked girl aren't entirely separate from wanderers of the old west like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. The old drunk trope is replaced by an elderly relative stricken by grief and hooked on heroin. These are tropes certainly, but Amirpour works well within them, and her knowledge of cinema past increases the effectiveness of her concrete wasteland. Aside from those western locales there is an intense interest in interior design with each room signifying the attitudes of specific characters. Her first victim lives a chic lifestyle that is coded by tacky animal print everywhere. The Vampire lives in a basement with paintings of Madonna on her wall, and the rest of her room seems to be corroding around her. The insertion of character dynamics via interior design and cinematography that doesn't feel watery like other BW Digital work (Frances Ha) are some of the more impressive feats here.

 Scenes of violence tend to forgo the western and dip back into horror, and occasionally feminist horror. The black and white of Abel Ferrara's The Addiction is handled with much more chaotic-frenzied-brutality than this picture, but The Addiction came to mind specifically in feeding sequences while I was watching this. Lily Taylor's vampire intellectual and Shelia Vand's vampire, misandrist, queen both have no predisposition towards softness, and their killings often revel in the sensuality of the feast. Vand's vampire specifically only attacks men, and I think that codes this with some feminist text, even though the picture refuses to analyze these things much deeper than her only killing males (though the way she does kill the first man in this picture is reminiscent of Teeth). It can be read that she is cleansing the streets, but that's only the case until she falls for a boy dressed as dracula.

The romantic angle often gets bogged down by the male character's problem life at home or his persistent blandness, but Amirpour manages to wrangle their story into something cohesive by the end. The meet-cute (meet-fang?) of their first time spent together is very sweet. Dracula finds someone he can relate to, and she finds a boy she doesn't want to kill...yet. They end up heading back to her place on a skateboard she just stole from a boy who consistently behaved badly in the neighbourhood. They don't have a ton in common, but they enjoy each other's silence and there is a level of comfort between the two. The grandest scene of the entire movie comes just a little bit later with the two of them back at her apartment. The vampire stands to the far right, a disco ball twirls in the room sprinkling light all over, and as the boy approaches her as music washes in and out in ever quiet waves she stares into his eyes, and then his throat. We know that she is a vampire so the precedence of this scene has viewers asking Will she kill him or kiss him? She eventually puts her head on his shoulder, and it's the finest scene in the entire picture. A moment where Amirpour's rough, but often interesting vision coalesces into a purely perfect moment.

 Amirpour's horror picture isn't the groundbreaking feminist picture it's title implies, but it doesn't need to be. There are some ideas about patriarchal violence, and images that back up the strength of a female figure daring to push back at this, but this is mostly a gorgeous amalgamation of ideas she struggles to tie together. There's enough here though to warrant further explorations into the future work of Amirpour and plenty talent on display to be excited about what her next movies may look like.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Kristina Talking Pictures (Yvonne Rainer, 1976)

Virgina Woolf's To the Lighthouse comes to mind when viewing Yvonne Rainer's Kristina Talking Pictures. Woolf is even mentioned, along with Jean Luc Godard, in the films opening segment. Woolf's prose in that text focuses on specific ideas about aging, depression, sexuality, and womanhood and the story of the novel is delivered in a 24 hour time span in complete stream of consciousness thought. Yvonne Rainer isn't a direct descendent of Woolf, but Woolf is definitely present in her work. She is present in the specific sequences that focus on aging, make-up and the deterioration of the body.  She is also a descendent of Woolf in how radical she pokes holes in the formal qualities of her art form. Woolf wrote a book completely in stream of consciousness, Rainer completely dismissed any notions of cinematic form.

Then there's Godard. Godard was early in his puncturing of the idea of "What can a film do?" at this point, but Rainer seems to be on a similar wavelength. Her filmmaking style brings up the avant-garde, but even moreso how it intersects with feminist thought. Feminism in the 1970s was going through what we would now call the second wave. Women's Liberation was at the forefront, and Rainer considered herself a staunch feminist. This comes through in her picture's allegory of Lion Taming to conjure an idea of capturing masculinity and using it for your own benefit. This falls in line with second wave thinking as well, when that movement so expressly wanted women to enter the workforce and take on more masculine professions. Women can do any and all of these things, as well as in cinema as anyone else. As well as Godard.

The transgressive nature of the picture's creation is most apparent in how it's structured. There are many sequences of characters sitting and talking, followed by more characters sitting and talking, but none of this is ever in support of a significant plot. One would perhaps even call Rainer's picture plotless. IMDB would tell you the plot is that "a woman who is a lion tamer wants to become a choreographer", but that isn't expressed significantly throughout the film. Instead, the picture focuses on ideas, theories, and discussion. Rainer's thesis is about oppression and how it effects one another. The ideas of post-war-Vietnam come up often, and characters will often spout statements about art not capturing the climate of Vietnam or wartime situations. Art is softening the events to sell entertainemt. This is something Godard would grapple with his entire career, especially in pictures like Histoire(s) Du Cinema. Art should have a reflective, aggressive effect in capturing something of livelihood, but has always failed to stop war. How can art stop war? How can art stop oppression? What is the power of art? Artists like Rainer struggle to unearth these questions, and in a filmic context she only asks these questions, never answers them. That's all we can do.

The Avant Garde is expressly present in every frame. Those frames are filled with negative space. Rainer shooting away from characters. Flinching at their very existence. Dialogue careens from somewhere, but Rainer is focused on a note on the floor or underwear sitting on a bed. It's almost as if she's negating her very characters in favour of something more elemental with her focus on objects. That very same dialogue comes and goes as well. When a record skips you lose a moment in the song, and the voices in this movie do the same. Audio pops and hisses, these theories characters are discussing about war, art, abortion, aging, bodies. Are they even that important if Rainer is willing to slice words out of their speech in favour of formal experimentation? Rainer coined the No Manifesto in dance which sought to purify movement and devalue the cliche. She attempts to do the same here, but in cinema. Cinema is a visual form, but Rainer seems to have little interest in creating image. She manipulates the voices of her characters, and tears away at everything that makes cinema what it is. A new definition, a statement, a level of bluntness is what she's aiming for, and occasionally she succeeds like when she completely abandons her own film to produce still frames of a woman posing or when people lie in a pile in the floor. These are dualities, and while her images often run from any expressive meaning the notions of life and death come through here perfectly.

I do wonder though what kind of use this film has for the majority of people. If Rainer is so beholden to completely eradicate form then the content of her cinema, becomes more elusive. Cinema cannot have a widespread changing effect if you limit your audience to the same people who would buy into your philosophy in the first place, and I think that makes the feminism or social ideas of this picture muted in a way that only strokes one's ego. It's gloriously rebellious, but at the cost of an audience who would otherwise see this picture. The difficulties of being transgressive to the art form and finding an audience are not questions I or anyone else has any answers for, but one wonders if Rainer's simplicity and pureness of the No Manifesto she aimed for in her dance are lost in the over-complications of her experimental cinema. Either way, Kristina is very fascinating, politically inclined, and thought provoking to those willing to grapple with it's complexities.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Jupiter Ascending (Lana and Andy Wachowski, 2015)

*Two things of note before I begin this entry. I am including Jupiter Ascending in the female filmmaker project despite one half the directing crew being male. I find it important to take a look at films made by a diverse group of women and Lana Wachowski is the only Transgender Woman filmmaker on my original list. If you know of more women who are trans making movies please let me know. The second thing to note is this entry will have a lack of screencaptures, because the film is still in cinemas. 

Science Fiction has a big problem with it's treatment of women. Often times Women are either completely ignored or simply play a love interest. You'd be hard pressed to find a science fiction film before Alien where women were the focal point. Alien is an amazing film, and should be praised for being such, but it should also be noted the kind of effect it had on the writing of women in science fiction pictures left a lot to be desired. Alien created a ripple effect with the emergence of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley that gave many blossoming writers a blueprint to write women in their space pictures. This isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself, but the majority of these writers left out a lot of the intuition, empathy, backstory, and human emotion that made audiences of all genders connect with Ripley. Instead what became a current trend was coined as the strong female character, and it became all encompassing as the idea of women's places in these movies was strictly linked to their ability to kick ass. Women like that should exist, but not at the expense of every other type of woman who may be written in science fiction or even action pictures.

Along comes Jupiter Ascending. A science fiction film so expressly for women that it's baffling just how poorly it went over with audiences and critics. It's a transgressive picture in just how expressly it levels it's themes in women's interests, and wears it's encompassing dorkiness on it's sleeve. You see, this picture has more in common with Dune and Young Adult Literature than it does any science fiction totem. The Wachowskis did not go out of their way to make a film about a male power fantasy or state violence, but instead focused on one girl who wishes for something more in life. In that way it also has more in common with fairy tales than your typical dystopian science fiction parable. The film doesn't ignore science fiction in the least, but it's just as much young adult and fairy tale as it is space opera.

The Earth along with other planets are being harvested by the elite. Their residents are gathered and their essence drained to create a youth serum so the privileged may stay perfect forever. After the death of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax passes away her riches must be given away to her family. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a resident on Earth who bears a strikingly real resemblance to this ruler mother so she becomes the rightful owner of Earth. Because she is such an important figure to the hierarchy of this universe she is a target for those who wish to kill her to become next in line of possession of this planet. Jupiter doesn't know anything of her claimed royalty until she comes into contact with a protector, a fallen angel of sorts, named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). She eventually comes to know about her possession of the earth, and the problems that come in the bureaucracy of the rich, and the evil that comes at the price of that level of class privilege.

What makes Jupiter Jones such a fascinating hero is the fact that she doesn't pick up a gun or a sword to defend herself, and she firmly doesn't kick any ass until the final moments. It is her complete empathy towards the denizens of earth that colour her heroism, and that is completely refreshing. She is not a character with an intensely depressing backstory, and she doesn't brood or struggle with the difficulties of having bought into levels of violence. Her father died at the hands of thieves when she was still a fetus, and the last thing she seems to want to do is fight. Many have claimed that this makes her a damsel in distress, but that would negate the fact that her strength doesn't lie in the physical, but her heart.

This doesn't negate the films problems. Eddie Redmayne is astoundingly awful, and cannot grasp his character whatsoever. The action is often messy when it opens up it's scope outside of close quarters combat, and many plot threads are just dropped without much of an interest in fleshing them out (whether this is a budgetary or scripting issue is another issue). The Wachowskis try their best to wrangle in a world that is honestly too big for this one picture. It makes the film jumbled, but not in a way that necessarily detracts from the stronger aspects, but it does render some of its impact mute. One would wonder if some of these ideas and this would be better suited to a trilogy. All these smaller problems are minimal in the grand scope of just how imaginative this picture is though, and those action sequences while struggling on occasion still have that trademark Wachowski flair. The usage of slo-mo is so overdone in cinema, but there is joy in seeing those who made it popular come back to it. Seeing Channing Tatum skirt through fire as vehicles explode behind him is elegant. Elegant is in fact the word that I think of most when recalling this picture's final moments, and seeing Tatum fly off on his newly minted wings with Jupiter gives me joy and hope that few of these pictures do. It's an unabashed happy ending, and with the increasing cynicism of big budget filmmaking I'm more than okay with flying off into the sunset with the Wachowskis being as dorky as possible.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

February 2015 in Cinema: Or Goddammit Takashi Miike Quit Hogging the Spotlight

The past month was characterized by three significant choices in my viewing habits. The first of which was my continual efforts to both shed light on films directed by women this year, and keep the number of movies I watch this year balanced on a gender spectrum. The other choices were motivated by adorable couple decisions you do when you're in a cinephile relationship. My boyfriend and I attended the digital film festival being held at the local cineplex this year which showed older films in DCP (yeah, yeah, I know actual film prints are better, but that is a privilege not granted to us because of the area we live in), and we ended up rewatching a handful of great films like Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens, Darkman & Kill Bill. The second change of my viewing habits was present in the latter half of the month after we decided to forgo the difficulty of actually selecting a movie for pure change. We tore off 15 pieces of paper and scribbled titles on each parchment and drew movies out of a hat, and it has been excellent. It should be noted we had to ban Takashi Miike from the hat, because he hexed it, and we only drew his films at the beginning. Takashi Miike is a very bad man for cheating.

Best of February
Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007)
No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990)
Dead or Alive 2 (Takashi Miike, 2000)
The Day I Became a Woman (Marziyeh Meshkini, 2000)
Big Bang Love (Takashi Miike, 2006)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Love, 2012)
Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2011)
Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1951)
Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (Takashi Miike, 2010)
Friends With Love (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)
Le Pont Du Nord (Jacques Rivette, 1981)

Best Rewatches
Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/4)
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)
Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2013)
F For Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills    (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)

Gender Tally for 2015
First Time Viewings Only
Women: 22
Men: 24