Posts Tagged ‘Women Directors

15
Dec
11

Dead Hooker in a Trunk

Back in October, Vicky and I went to GeekGirlCon down in Seattle, a convention “dedicated to promoting awareness of and celebrating the contribution and involvement of women in all aspects of the sciences, science fiction, comics, gaming and related Geek culture.” We had a great time, obviously, and saw a lot of badass female geeks, nerds and dorks discussing everything from atheism to comics, Doctor Who to horror movies. One of the more memorable panels we attended was Beyond the Scream Queen, moderated by Hannah Neurotica and featuring Jenna Pitman, Jessica Dwyer, Shannon Lark and the Soska sisters Jen and Sylvia. While it was undoubtedly Shannon Lark’s short film Lip Stick that stole the show — an incredibly visceral examination of self-destructive sexuality featuring the world’s most uncomfortable sex toy — it’s Jen and Sylvia Soska’s much more crowd-friendly Dead Hooker in a Trunk that we’re looking at today.

Let’s start with the trailer:

The acting is wooden and awkward in the best film student tradition, the plot and characterization veer wildly between non-existent and insane, and there’s gore everywhere, all of which are Dead Hooker’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. It’s deeply unsatisfying as a story, because you’re never really given a reason why any of this is happening or why everyone involved seems to think it matters, but I don’t think the movie’s really concerned with any of that. The Soska twins started out intending to be stuntwomen, not filmmakers, and so they make only the slightest of concessions to anything that isn’t going to be balls-out awesome or crazy or crazy awesome. Characters are so sketchily filled in that they don’t have names, only vague cognomens like “Badass” or “Junkie.” Plot is just something that happens on the way to chainsawing an arm off, popping an eyeball out or drop-kicking a cowboy pimp in the chest. While the Soska’s clearly have a love on for Robert Rodriguez–that’s El Mariachi’s Carlos Gallardo as a taxi driving “God”–Dead Hooker is much closer to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead than anything else. Minute for minute, there’s a lot of bloody humor crammed in here: a sequence at the very end of the film has the main characters dumping body after body into the same body of water. As they stand against the setting sun, one of them observes, “I can’t believe there weren’t any repercussions from any of that crazy shit.”

I’m not sure what to make of the gender politics at work here. According to the probably reliable IMDB, actor CJ Wallis was a last minute addition to the cast, as the actress formerly cast in his role dropped out at the last minute. The four principals were originally all women, adrift in a mostly male world. As it is, the villains are all male — ranging from religious serial killers to corrupt cops to the aforementioned Cowboy Pimp — but if that’s part of some larger statement it’s not made explicit. There’s a constant cycle of reciprocal, gendered violence: a hapless trucker rips the Junkie’s arm off accidentally and the Badass takes him down with one brutal fist; a shadowy male figure knocks the Geek’s eye out and they torture him to death; two uniformed policemen try to blackmail the Badass into fucking them, and she knocks them out and handcuffs them together. In a film that took itself slightly more seriously all of this would seem like transparent revenge fantasy; here, everything’s so disconnected and chaotic that none of the violence seems truly systematic. Early on, there’s a scene where the twins’ father accidentally murders their mother and is then killed by the eight-year-old Badass. On paper that sounds as simplistic as Zack Snyder’s similarly, er, archetypal Sucker Punch, only where Snyder milks child abuse as a lazy way to flag his villain as truly villainous, the Soskas seem content to use it to establish that their characters have always been what they are. Badass kills to revenge her family or friends — never protect, mind you, always revenge — while the Geek is detached from everything, literally in another room, incidentally playing with a tarantula.

It’s that willingess to subvert convention without letting that subversion get in the way of the fun that elevates DHIAT. Evil Dead took the idea of the Scream Queen or Last Girl and inverted it: Ash is cowardly, stupid and sexually promiscuous, but survives everything in spite of himself, in defiance of horror movie conventions, but that never becomes the point of the movie the way it does in Wes Craven’s Scream. Dead Hooker in a Trunk plays with tropes in the same way, but it never lets any of that slow it down. Badass just kills and Junkie just lights up and no one ever feels the need to point out that THESE ARE LADIES YOU GUYS, and really who cares? There’s blood to spray and arms to reattach!

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12
Nov
11

Grace of My Heart

Allison Anders is one of my favorite directors and I was really excited to finally watch Grace of My Heart which I’ve been wanting to see for forever. While I didn’t like it as much as Mi Vida Loca or Gas, Food, Lodging and it does have some structural flaws, it is an incredibly feminist movie in lots of ways and I think it is a more successful effort than Things Behind the Sun.  The inspiration for the movie came from the Brill Building era of American popular music, when the songwriters, producers, and recording studios were all working in the same building, just across the hall from each other, and churning out a new hit record every week. The movie follows Illeana Douglas as an aspiring singer turned song-writer, Edna Buxton/Denise Waverly and travels through several decades of music history along the way.

There were so many things that were refreshing and amazing about this movie. It is chock full of a laundry list of lovely feminist touches. Edna is not conventional, Hollywood pretty. Instead, she is intelligent, talented, funny, and ambitious. The movie follows her story and is told from her perspective. It is so rare to see such a well-developed female character at all, much less a film that follows her journey and lets her drive the plot. On top of that, it is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that was really about a woman’s career and her ambition more than her love life. While Edna’s relationships are important components of the story of the film, they’re important because they develop her character and give her life fullness for us, not because that’s the whole focus of all the movement in the film, which is exactly how romance is used in most movies about male main characters.

The strongest relationships Edna ultimately has are the friendships that she builds with other women trying to succeed in the business and her boss, played really wonderfully by John Turturro. The strength of the bonds that exist between women is a recurring feature in Anders’ movies and it was especially well done in this movie, especially because Anders also shows the initial rivalry and jealousy that can exist between women in the professional world and then shows the women breaking through that. So. Amazing.

Additionally, the movie also lightly touches on the racism, poverty, and homophobia of the time, which gives the movie a lot of extra merit that could have easily been left out or watered down by another director. I especially really loved how Anders included a riff on Lesley Gore’s experience as a lesbian recording artist during that era. She also shows what Edna goes through as a single mom and it is one of the few movies I’ve seen where the children don’t just disappear mysteriously into the background immediately after they’re born. Instead, we actually see Edna’s daughter through the whole movie, we see Edna being a mother while also having a career and dating and living a well-rounded life as most moms do. We see how she has to arrange for child care and we see poignant moments with her little girl. Again, this is something you just NEVER see in movies.

Where the movie kind of falls apart for me is when Edna becomes involved with Anders’ riff on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The real heart of the movie is in the Brill Building and when she leaves New York for L.A., the movie drifts away from its real strengths. Brian Wilson’s whole bizarre personality and life story could clearly be a movie all its own and it feels awkward to have it added on. It takes the drive of the story away from Edna and we lose all the beautifully rendered color and energy of the Brill Building. With that said, it is definitely well worth seeing and it makes me really wish that Anders would make another movie soon.

11
Aug
09

An Angel at My Table

an angel at my table

With my recent discovery of another sprawling, chaotic video store to haunt, I finally tracked down a scratchy VHS copy of An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion, which has been surprisingly difficult for me to find considering that it was recently released by Criterion Collection. As usual, I’m sure the fact that it was directed by a woman and is about a woman writer has NOTHING to do with being unable to find it anywhere.

Anyway, the film is a biopic about New Zealand-born writer, Janet Frame, which starts with her working class childhood, extends through her adolescence, and on into her early adulthood with three separate actors for each phase. I really liked the movie, although I do have a couple complaints. For one thing, I did not have the benefit of closed captioning/subtitles while watching it, which caused me to miss a fair chunk of the dialogue between the thick accents and the poor quality of the VHS copy I watched. I would definitely recommend trying to get the DVD version if you can because I imagine subtitles will make it much easier to follow.

Secondly (and no doubt relatedly), the scene changes in the film are often pretty abrupt and several times I got confused about what was happening and who different characters were. There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along.

There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along. The edges become a little blurry in terms of how much time is actually passing from scene to scene, what the relationships between different characters are, etc. At a certain point, you kind of just have to let go of understanding a lot of the background particulars.

With that said, it was impossible for me not to identify with the main character and to feel compelled by her life story. As a card-carrying introvert, I always really appreciate movies that focus on people who are painfully shy, even if they make me cringe intensely. This movie is an intense, sensitive portrayal of the character that manages to pull her inner life out through a lot of subtle details in the landscape, the framing of the shots, the narrative choices, and last, but definitely not least, absolutely fantastic acting. I think Campion must have left a lot of blanks in the movie in terms of the story, not only for practical reasons, but also because this style forces the audience to watch the movie in the hyper-observant way that Janet Frame lived her whole life. By the end, you feel like you’ve really been inside her world, with all its beauty and pain. Much recommended.

03
Aug
09

Yes Madam, Sir

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The IFC Center is hosting Docuweeks in NYC this month, which is a festival of documentary films from all over the world which are screened here and in Los Angeles to put them in the running for the Oscars. This weekend I went to see Yes Madam, Sir, profile of Kiran Bedi, India’s first female police officer. After refusing time and time again to compromise with a corrupt, networking/politically-based system, Bedi is dumped in numerous unwanted, nightmare positions and manages to make some powerful reforms in a notoriously ill-run prison she oversees and at a police academy which has been allowed to be lax in its discipline and training regimen before her arrival. It is a very interesting portrait of a strong, passionate woman who has always pursued what she felt was best. While there are obviously some very meaningful feminist components to the film, I appreciated the fact that the movie does not hit you over the head with them and that it realistically portrayed the difficult choices many ambitious, principled women must make as they seek success in a patriarchal world.

While watching the film I couldn’t help making comparisons between Kiran Bedi’s life and my mother’s. She is a similarly strong-willed, ambitious woman who started out (at least during my lifetime) as an LDS housewife and went on to go to a prestigious law school and fulfillment in her career. I think one thing that struck me during the movie was how, beyond the nobility of relentlessly sticking to her moral code, there are deeper reasons why Bedi’s opinions had to be so firm and her assertiveness so unbreakable. For many women, particularly women who are trying to make progress in a very male-dominated field, compromise is not an option. While certain compromises might soften you in the eyes of some, they will ultimately be unforgivable to those who judge women much more harshly and will use any opportunity to undermine their authority and strength.

A significant subplot in the film revolves around Bedi’s relationship with her daughter and other members of her family. As is common for so many strong women, it seems like Bedi has been forced to neglect her family as she pursued a larger agenda for the betterment of her country. Toward the end, you can see very clearly both how painful it’s been for her daughter to grow up without having her mother as much as she wanted, but also how much respect she has for her mother and how she would not have wanted her to back down from the numerous fights she found herself in. I feel the same way about my mom. Whatever sacrifices my dad and I made to move with her to law school were very much worth it to see my mom succeed where others said she would fail. I’ve learned so much from what my mom went through and it makes me want to pursue my career with the same drive and also, just be myself in a way I don’t know I would have the courage to otherwise. It is great to see such a fascinating woman portrayed with real depth and insight into what she faced along the way and I hope this film will have a chance for wider distribution in the near future.

11
Jul
09

The Beaches of Agnes

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Last night I finally got the chance to see The Beaches of Agnes by Agnes Varda, which I have been absolutely dying to see since it first premiered in NY a few months ago and then immediately sold out before I even realized it was here. Varda is far and away my favorite director of all time and it was such a tremendous treat to get to not only see a new movie from her, but a stellar autobiographical one at that. It is also wonderful to see her getting some more press in the States since she’s relatively unknown to most people here and massively underrated, although her fan base has been growing a bit more since the release of a Criterion Collection box set of her work in January of last year. Her lesser works, Les Creatures, Lions Love, One Sings The Other Doesn’t, Mur Murs, Documentuer, etc. remain almost impossible to find in America, something that aggravates me to no end and I’m hopeful that this new movie may nudge some of her other works toward being re-released here.

Getting past my rambling fangirl hyperventilation, her latest film is really great. I can imagine for someone who is not familiar with her work, it may not be quite as enjoyable as it was for me, but there is still a lot to like about it even without the context. For one thing, it is a refreshing change of pace to get a window into the life and thoughts of a successful female artist in her 80’s. Plenty of movies and endless buzz and fuss are made about the big contemporary male artists, directors, writers-cum-hipster deities (Bukowski, Pollack, Warhol, Godard, Kubrick), but so few of the great female creatives ever get their due and its ironic this film comes from the artist herself. It remains all too true that unless women artists do the often messy, awkward work of glorifying themselves, few others will.

The list of women artists whose works have often focused on themselves is suspiciously long, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, and Sylvia Plath being just the tip of the iceberg. About a year ago, when I attended the “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” exhibition at MOMA (also available as a book, if you’re interested), it was amazing to see what a high percentage of the works incorporated images of the artists themselves. Since historically women have always been forced to play object to men’s subject, muse to their artist, a logical step in the development of many female artists has been to grapple with this paradox head-on by blurring that boundary. This was especially true during the big re-emergence of feminism when consciousness-raising was encourage so many women to question their roles and the self they wanted to choose for themselves. It’s a complicated process though. Even as women artists take control over the image of themselves that they produce, on a certain level they are still offering their image up to the gaze of the viewer which leaves it open to interpretation, titillation, appropriation, colonization, etc. At the artist’s most powerful moment of self-assertion, self-expression, self-invention, they are potentially also at their most vulnerable.

What I appreciate about The Beaches of Agnes, is how gracefully Varda remains in control while walking this line. With a tone of playfulness and aplomb, she manages to create an autobiographical account of her life and her works that both entertains and moves the viewer without being heavy-handed, narcissistic, or cringe-inducing. Instead of talking heads and old photo montages, she glues the movie together out of little stories and asides, artistic whims, silly reenactments, and movie clips with an overall effect that feels true and intimate without being overly revealing. She eschews a linear, chronological progression and focuses more on a landscape of memory with a cat glued in here, a friend or two stuck in there, and a generous sprinkling of humor. She’s edge-of-the-knife intelligent and a passionate observer of people, places, and times and you leave the movie being jealous of her colorful history. Just check out this picture of her in her youth at Cannes when Cleo from 5 to 7 debuted:

Young Agnes VardaShe is like DARING you to question her awesomeness.

Anyway, all this gushing about Agnes Varda and getting a glimpse of her inspiration for different movies makes me want to do a mini-retrospective of the rest of her works (at least the ones available in the U.S.), so be on the look-out for some other posts about her over the next few weeks.

11
Jul
09

Princes and Princesses & The Adventures of Prince Achmed

princesses_1

I came down with a terrible cold over the 4th of July weekend, which definitely put a damper on my celebration, although it did have the upside of causing me to seek out a good, old-fashioned comfort movie to take my mind off my misery. Whenever I have a bad cold for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, the only positive thing about being sick was getting to stay in bed watching the most charming, soothing movies possible. The Princess Bride, any of the Muppet movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know the kind. This time around I was restricted to what was available via the internets, and since I am a late hold-out against the onslaught that is Netflix (I could write a whole ridiculous, curmudgeonly post about that), I did not have a ton of options with the caveat that I recently found out about the glorious website: The Auteurs, which allows you to watch a ton of old, foreign, arty type movies on the internet for a mere $5 a pop.  Princes and Princesses by Michel Ocelot was one of the few animated and non-Svankmajer films available on the site, so I gave it a whirl and it was exactly what I needed. Compared to the whizz flash of most modern American animated films, it’s sort of mind-blowing to me that Princes and Princesses was made as recently as 2000. It feels like a much older movie from a more innocent cinematic time, way before 3d and digital color and talking sidekicks, a time when kids were satisfied with straight-forward fairy tales.  The stories in the movies are wonderfully crafted, with fantastic twists and funny dialogue, with a silhouette-visual style which lends an elegance often lacking in animation. I also think the silhouette format is brilliant because in a world of constant  stimuli bombardment, this is one movie where the children watching have space to imagine the details for themselves. They can create the character’s expressions, the colors of the clothes, the fantastic settings in their own minds for once.

Naturally this movie reminded me of one of my favorite animated features of all time, which also happens to be credited by many as the first animated film ever made, The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger:

PrinceAchmed

This movie was also done in the silhouette style, but if you can believe it, each and every character, every set, every frame in the hour-long masterwork was painstakingly cut out by hand by the director back in 1926. On a pure, visual level, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more artistic, stunningly detailed, mindblowingly-intricate piece of film-making. Even if you had to watch the film without any of the dialogue, it would be completely worthwhile to see it. Even better though, it’s based on stringing together various stories in The Arabian Nights into one, long beautiful tale that includes everything you could want in a fantasy movie. Needless to say, I recommend you go rent it if you ever get the chance, although it can be a little tricky to find. If you can’t, Princes and Princesses is a fitting modern tribute 74 years later.

24
Sep
08

Two Friends

I saw Two Friends by Australian director, Jane Campion last night. Not a masterpiece exactly, but a well-executed slice of life movie that captures the de-evolution of a friendship in an intriguing way. The film is structured as a series of progressively earlier flashbacks, so it ends with the scene that happens in the characters’ lives the earliest. Admittedly this is a gimmick, but I feel like it did emphasize the nostalgia that tends to permeate my own reflections back on my adolescent friendships. There is a nice, implicit feminist tone to the film, as you might expect from a movie chronicling a friendship between two girls, without being too cliche or overwrought. The whole film is done with an amazingly light, understated touch which allows the relationship between the friends and the mother and daughter in the movie to unfold in a way that feels very genuine. I recommend it, especially for people who have enjoyed other works by Campion.

–Vicky Vengeance