Sunday, July 26, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

 I cannot speak objectively with movies about dance. There is no greater sense of joy than the intersection of music, plus cinema, plus movement. The moments where characters simply decide it's time to move and are accompanied by song stick with me like nothing else in all of filmmaking. The final frames of Beau Travail, Frances running through the streets to "Modern Love", Gene Kelley stomping through the rain, The Red Shoes: that's my cinema. So when Dance, Girl, Dance begins with eight lithe, graceful women in top hats, all moving symbiotically in frame to a jaunty tune I knew I'd love this movie, but it offered so much more than just dance.

It's ironic that a movie "dance" in it's title wouldn't be a traditional musical, but instead a comedic drama, but either way Arzner and Ernst Mantray have a resolute interest in capturing the beauty of movement. Arzner's blocking is incredible throughout and becomes especially significant whenever she is shooting the dancing sequences. Whether individualistic or in group movement her cinema becomes minimal and so defined by the shifting of legs, arms and hips when song begins. The action is completely linked to how they get around the room. The shadows fill out the picture, and the windows, chairs and mirrors give layering to how the dance takes up space. When Maureen O' Hara dances, as seen above, Arzner's lens accommodates her symphony by never over cutting or turning the entire event into directorial virtuosity. Instead Arzner humbly hands her camera over to O' Hara who simply moves. That's all the movie needs here.

Once again, Arzner sits back and let's O' Hara's movement dictate the emotional heft of the scene, as this time she begins to work as a stooge to Lucille Ball's more brash and anti-ballet burlesque performer "Bubbles" and in doing so is booed relentlessly.

She does the same for Lucille Ball's more playful sequences while never shaming her body or her decisions. This is important as it doesn't betray the film's final moments by throwing Lucille under the bus for O' Hara's character. Her image making is of equality. They just move for different reasons.

If this were just a film about a series of consecutive dance sequences I would still love it, but it far exceeds the confines of formal craftsmanship and digs into something much deeper when O' Hara longs to exist in show business. There's a sequence of images throughout that show O' Hara's base desire and sadness at not having what she wants. Seeing the angelic light on the dancer in the production she covets, the morningstar: the dream, the sadness at applying make-up for a job that doesn't give back. One woman scratching and clawing and climbing to survive with the help of only a few others and working as hard as she possibly can. That is the greatest humane quality of the picture. She never gives up, and this boils over in one stridently feminist and eye opening moment in the closing moments of the picture.

She gets a twinkle in her eye right before she decides to speak her mind. They've been tormenting her for months, and while she appreciates the kindness her friend offered her with this job has turned out to be a thankless one where she is depreciated night after night. But she always danced, because her tutor told her to in her dying breaths. She's had enough though, and the booing must stop. She lets go and finally lambasts the men for ogling women in a way they can't even their wives, she criticizes their enjoyment of haranguing a hard-working woman for a peek at titillation. She detests that they seek to commodify her body when she wants to be celebrated for it. She moves with grace, but she's treated like swine and for what reason? Because she doesn't take off her clothes. One woman stands and claps at the close of her speech. I wanted to join her.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Female Filmmaker Project: Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)

Rachel Talalay wanted to make an action picture that was like nothing else currently on the market. She was fed up with the idea of female action heroes whose characteristics were identical to that of men, but transferred to a female body. She loved the Tank Girl comics and with it saw a chance to make good on that promise of a completely unique woman action hero with an adaptation of that text, and in some ways she completely succeeds, but the film as a whole suffers from some unfortunate pacing and narrative decisions that nearly undo an incredibly unique character.

The 1990s saw a birth of grrrl power and riot grrrl aesthetic that informs the type of character Tank Girl exists as. Part Wendy O. Williams and Mad Max with a riot grrrl mix tape in her walkman the titular character is a punk ideal while exhibiting the same underground comic aesthetic she was birthed from in the 1980s. To say the least she carries the entire world of her movie on her back, and the film lives and dies by her frequency on screen. Lori Petty perfectly encapsulates the kind of character Tank Girl needed to be and appropriately sets herself apart from every other woman character in the history of the comic book to film medium. Often, women characters are relegated to being love interests even in the best comic book adaptations (Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) , but this is Tank Girl and this is 100% her movie up until the narrative is blindsided by a handful of Kangaroo mutants (who are present in the comic) who I would lovingly refer to as Jar-Jar's by just how much they disrupt an otherwise good movie.

Tank Girl is at it's very best when it is loosely jamming many different parts of cinema (comic book animation, dance sequences, music video montage) together into a jumbled mess that fits the kind of thrown together look of the titular character. Riot Grrrl is an easy thing to come back to when discussing the form here, but the collage like nature of Tank Girl is reminiscent of zine culture that came out of Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s. Tank Girl's feminism is most present in how the main character carries herself, and as a production it's one of the few pictures of the time that seems actively influenced by the form of riot grrrl music and art. It's ironic then that Courtney Love was the mastermind behind the soundtrack as she always kept the genre at arm's length due to the limitations of the genre's Stepford quality in bands cannibalizing each other and none of them being able to stand apart, whether that be true or not is an entirely different issue. Sprinkled throughout the set design are even more remnants of that music's influence on the preceding's as "Lunachicks" stickers are taped all over Tank Girl's hideout. This all mirrors the look that Arianne Phillips put together for the lead as her ripped stockings, paint brush fingernails and goggles is a constructed look that exists totally for the inner self of Tank Girl and no one else. Her clothes don't really match, they don't fit perfectly and they are tattered, but it completely works, because really there are no rules as to what is or isn't an acceptable look, and if her clothing wasn't optimal it would betray the attitude Petty gives off in her performance. It's similar to another film I looked at earlier this year, Desperately Seeking Susan, where so much of the film's visual language comes from the fashion of Madonna. Both of these film's wouldn't work nearly as well if the clothing wasn't on point, but in both cases these characters became fashion icons in distinctly different ways.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Naomi Watts (Jet Girl) whose short time here accompanies Lori Petty's performance remarkably well. Watts is a side character but as a Velma to Daffney or even Jane to Daria she is absolutely perfect, and their friendship works so well because they're extremely different from one another, but end up banding together and bonding to survive through the post-apocalyptic wasteland  of Australia (also centered around water if you want to get back to Mad Max comparisons). Malcolm McDowell seems to be having fun as well as a tongue in cheek villain who literally would dissolve his henchmen into water and drink them on sight to intimidate his fellow employees.

Tank Girl cannot sustain it's eccentricities, energy and formal decision making throughout though, and as Talaly described, studio edits ran amok of her vision. I truly believe her, as the third act sees a detour into silliness that doesn't really feel tonally acceptable to the first two acts. Jet Girl and Tank Girl take a detour to stay with the rippers (The Jar-Jar's) for a while and the movie gets side tracked and slows to a crawl. The narrative leans further away from Tank Girl and Jet Girl and the movie loses complete grasp of pacing and trudges towards the credits until finally things are resolved and Tank Girl rides off into the sunset. Talalay also struggles with shooting competent action so the final third isn't in her forte of zingers, verbal comedy and music. As much as I dislike the last 30 minutes of the movie though the first 90 or so showcase something that Talalay truly wanted to make, and one that feels unabashadly 90s in a way that situates itself firmly in a time of third wave feminism. Today's comic book heroines could learn a thing or two about how Tank Girl carries herself......even though I'm pretty sure no studio would be willing to greenlight a superhero character who happens to be a woman, and give her this much freedom twenty years later, and knowing that regression makes me sad. It also makes me appreciate Tank Girl despite finding it heavily flawed, because there really isn't anyone else like her.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

My Favourite Examples of Filmed Media of the Half Year: 2015

(this is a still from Jools Holland, not the 9:30 club, but you get the point)
Sleater-Kinney: Live at the 9:30 Club

The news of Sleater-Kinney's resurrection surfaced sometime in early October. There were rumblings of an unmarked single containing a new song being featured in their box set "Start Together" that set my corner of the internet abuzz. When those reports were signaled as true it was a cherry on top of what was the best birthday I had experienced in my entire life. I was looking at a cake that for the first time had my real name, I had a ribbon pinned to my chest that said "Birthday Girl", and there was a 5 second clip of a new Sleater-Kinney song on youtube. I couldn't have been happier at the prospects of new music from a band that felt less like a trio of musicians and more a reflection of something that apparated out of my soul. I knew that I'd never get the chance to see them live so I held onto any and all clips that surfaced on youtube, but then NPR announced they'd be streaming an entire show. This was going to be the closest I come to seeing this band that I love so dearly. I turned the lights off, put my headphones on and turned the volume up to unhealthy levels and wept at the first notes of "Price Tag". I wasn't there, but it felt like I was and when Corin Tucker lifted her hand out into the audience during "Gimme Love" and sang with the ferocity that made me fall in love with her I reached out too.

Dean Ambrose becomes WWE World Heavyweight Champion....sorta

1...2...3...and I jumped what felt like 10 feet. I squeeled and repeated over and over again he did it! he did it! I was lost in the moment of my guy conquering the man who betrayed him and as a consolation prize he was becoming world champion. Only the moment was taken away seconds later to my eventual cries of "what just happened? why did they do this?". Emotional Whiplash. Dean Ambrose pinned Seth Rollins in the middle of the ring clean, but before all this happened Seth pulled a referee in front of Ambrose as he hit a diving elbow. That referee was unconscious afterward so another ref came out to count the pinfall. When the unconscious ref awoke he threw the match out and ruled it a disqualification. Dean Ambrose had won, but it didn't count. My emotions did though, and the teasing of that moment was downright cruel, but Ambrose decided to take the belt anyway, and I can't blame him, because he did earn it in that specific moment. I rode the highs of Ambrose holding that belt for the next 2 weeks even though in the back of my mind I knew this was false. Dean Ambrose has been yanked and pulled around by WWE decision makers for the better part of 8 months now, and despite his organic ascent to becoming one of the most popular wrestlers in the company they refuse to give him much in the way of anything to celebrate. Even as I type this he has suddenly slid back into the middle of the card after a few weeks of flirting with the main event scene. It's brutal being a Dean Ambrose fan, and even this moment which made me fall back in love with WWE isn't exactly real. Dean Ambrose never became champion, but it felt like he did for about sixty seconds, and in that sixty seconds I felt a joy that can only be administered from professional wrestling. I've never leapt into the air at the close of a film. I did when I thought Dean Ambrose won.

Fury Road: Autuerism, Minimalism, Feminism

For all we've talked about the feminism or the bombastic over-saturated colour scheme we haven't discussed Fury Road's minimalism. This is a straight line. As soon as Furiosa heads east there are no divergences from that path. When she turns and goes outside of the course she has been set everything becomes a chase predestined towards forward momentum. We're heading home, to the green place, away from oppression. The movie never wavers from this thesis of lunging forward as Furiosa and her gang of women (plus Max and one Warboy) push through the dust and the dirt and the rocks towards an area of peace, but as soon as they get there they realize there is no serenity to be found in running away. So they double back on that straight line they traveled at the beginning of the movie and attempt to make peace with where they're from and create a heaven of their own, but they're still moving forward. They're just heading back. All the while Miller is riffing on the same action sequence that he introduced at the close of the first Mad Max, and through years of restructuring and building upon that forward momentum of a straight road stampede of engines he perfected his craft. It's even more astounding he did this in Hollywood where branding has been centralized over auteurism in years of late.

Madness and Magic: The Abstract in Adventure Time

When Adventure Time announces an episode featuring The Magic Man it always graces the creators of the show reason to become abstract and imaginative in a way that other episodes do not offer. Magic Man is a creature of pure chaos whose only limitations are his desires at the moment. With his magical power he can transfix any given scenario into something horrific, and here we finally see his backstory as well as the next chapter in Ice King's unraveling as Adventure Time's most sympathetic character. Magic cannot exist without madness in the land of Ooo and when you give yourself over to that power you lose control of yourself. Magic Man's hat, like Ice King's crown, is the origin of his destruction. He is not an evil man, but one being controlled by external forces. When his hat is removed later in the episode by Betty who had been working as Magic Man's assistant  she also becomes infected with magic, and she is now in the same boat as her former lover Simon (Ice King). If this all sounds convoluted it's because it is impossible to explain the complexities of Adventure Time's backstory as it goes far beyond the depth of most shows by consistently building upon narrative threads and characters, sometimes even seasons apart. What truly makes "You Forgot Your Floaties" a classic episode of the shows willingness to engage with the absurd. In a dream sequence Betty finds herself in a monochrome world of black and white (resembling a soulless Yellow Brick Road) before slowly being sucked into the mouth of a statue resembling Magic Man after she dons a mask of his deceased wife who is later revealed to be at the center of his need to meddle with magic. Monsters appear later, and they sift in and out of phases of dreamspace, meeting up with gods and rulers alike, until finally coming upon Ice King's muted voice speaking in severe close-up (in an homage to Robert Altman's 3 Women of all things) about the presence and core of magic. Betty takes that risk of madness to try to save Ice King when she steals magic man's hat. She already suffers under the effects as her eyes glaze over and her sense of self drowns in power. This is all setting up a later confrontation between Betty and Simon where they will likely confront their past and their future, and a storyline that Adventure Time has been playing with since the beginning of the show may finally come to a close. ,

Bitch Better Have My Money: Taking Back the Anti-Hero

Mikki Kendall (follow her on twitter, @Karnythia) tweeted shortly after the video for "Bitch Better Have My Money" dropped that Black Women hardly ever occupy the space of anti-hero outside of the music video space, and she's absolutely right. Only Pam Grier comes to mind when I think of the Black Woman Anti-Hero, but many more come to mind when asking the question of white women, and one would need to go no further than looking at last year's Amy Dunne from David Fincher's Gone Girl. It's appropriate to bring up Gone Girl, because the image of a woman caked in triumphant blood bookends both this video and the height of Amy Dunne's revenge. The image of a woman taking back what was hers by becoming violent can be a powerful image, and I think Rihanna's extreme close-up is one of the best single images in all of cinema this year. Rihanna shows a clear understanding of the types of influences that are sprinkled throughout Bitch Better Have My Money like Nicholas Winding Ref's penchant for neon coloured violence as seen in Only God Forgives, the seaside excess of something like Wolf of Wall Street or the Tarantino-esque still captures of characters like Mads Mikkelson's "The Bitch" as seen here. Rihanna refashions all these cinematic tools into a point blank statement that is only strengthened by her song's directness. It's totally cinema of her power, and what happens when you get in her way. It's anti-heroic, and it's also exhilarating. God only knows what else Rihanna might have in mind when it comes to movies, but if this is any indication she has the talent to take the world by storm.

Other Movies, Television Shows, Music Vidoes, etc that will stick with me
Michael Mann's "Blackhat"
Takashi Miike's "As the God's Will"
Sean Baker's "Tangerine"
Peter Strickland's "The Duke of Burgundy"
The Wachowski's "Sense8"
Bjork's "Stonemilker"
Grime's "Realiti"
Mad Men: "The Milk and Honey Route"
Penny Dreadful: "Fresh Hell"
Better Call Saul: "Marco"
NXT: "Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch" 
NXT: "Hideo Itami's Wrestlemania Experience"
"Wrestling Isn't Wrestling"