Tiny Furniture – Lena Dunham, 2010

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I’m wary of people who write, direct and star in their own films. It smacks of someone who doesn’t collaborate well. And, on the whole, I’m usually more interested in the creative communities and rich work that collaboration often results in. However, at a time when women are so marginalized in the film industry, it cannot go unacknowledged that for Lena Dunham to tell her own story, in her own way, without the industry demanding that a man hold her hand throughout the process was a massive coup. And the indie arm of the industry is just as susceptible to that sort of behavior as the giant studios are.

This is an almost totally autobiographical story about a girl who returns home after graduating to her family home in Tribecca, with no idea what she’s going to do with her life now. The drive and ambition of her wildly successful artist mother and her high achieving younger sister only serve to throw her listlessness into a harsher light. Suffering from intense boredom and constant badgering from her mother, she finds a shitty job so that she has something to do. Reigniting childhood friendships provides some release from having to face any real world decisions but that distraction can only last so long before the real world starts to close in again. Love, and a purpose are what she longs for but neither make an appearance.

The good thing about this film is how honest it is. This really is a warts and all story. I should confess now that I haven’t seen ‘Girls’. Yes, I have been living under a rock for the last 5 years and yes, I mean to remedy these unfortunate circumstances as soon as humanly possible. But as I understand it, true ‘honesty’ is what Dunham is so often concerned with. For example, there’s a near-total honesty about what a bored, 20-something white girl in a crisis actually looks like. Dunham wanders around in her tatty pants, tummy stretching her t-shirt, cellulite-y thighs, skin blemishes and greasy hair lying in lank waves. It’s just really normal. So thank god for Lena Dunham because I have NEVER seen a woman on film look like I do when I’ve got a day off and end up watching Buffy for 12 straight hours and eating all my meals in bed. It shouldn’t be rare and courageous act to show that on film, it should be totally commonplace, but it feels daring so I think Dunham might be leading the revolution.

Also, the story is not airbrushed. Not many people would have the courage to have their real life sister, scream “…you’re so desperate, it’s disgusting, and you put yourself on YouTube so millions of people can see you, and the homeless guy who was staying in our house wouldn’t even fuck you…” in your face in the kitchen of your own real life mothers loft apartment. I mean, she could have left that bit out and painted herself in a slightly better light. But she lays it all out there for us to see (and cringe at).

But it’s the honesty and normality of it that is also its failure as a film. The fact that, just as so many privileged girls in their 20’s fail to appreciate their comfortable circumstances, Dunham drags herself round New York for 98 minutes without a single thought for how bloody lucky she is. Yes, she has no idea what to do with her degree, she’s been dumped, she’s working a dead end job and she has to deal with shitty men who use her for their own gains but she’s living rent free in the sweetest apartment in the most exciting city in the world and can basically do whatever the hell she likes. So I tend not to have much sympathy for her. She’s naïve, lacking in imagination and frankly, a bit pathetic. She’s like a more intelligent, less manicured Made In Chelsea character. And just like so many graduates (especially arts graduates) her middle class existential crisis finds no resolution during that time. Mine lasted for about 10 years. I’d need a 13-hour, Jacques Rivette style epic to get to bottom of it. So perhaps it’s absolutely right that during the snapshot of her life we are witness to, she doesn’t find her way out of her rut. But on film, it’s just really boring. Technically I should identify with her, being a white, middle class woman who also found herself in the proverbial cul-de-sac that is being an arts graduate (albeit in much less material comfort than Dunham). But I just find her irritating. Maybe it’s the fact that I do recognise her situation that makes it so easy for me to criticise it.

The only character I have a real affection for is childhood friend Charlotte, “Tribeccas solution to Marianne faithful”. I was worried for a while that I liked her because she is beautiful and glamorous in a world where the women are real and recognizable (which would make the case for ‘real’ women on camera even stronger to re-train our brains out of our addiction to beauty). But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because she’s fun. And that is what this film is seriously lacking. It’s just not that much fun watching Dunham feel sorry for herself. So thank god for Charlotte, who could so convincingly already be a character from Made In Chelsea.

So I’ve learnt something about myself here. I’m not as much of a purist as I’d like to think. Evidently, I don’t just watch films to be educated or in order to empathize with someone else’s experience. I need a little bit of escapism, or failing that, inspiration. Who knew?

It does pass the Bechdel test though…..

The Virgin Suicides – Sophia Coppola, 1999

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This might be the hardest film I’ve found to review so far. I was 16 when it was released and I instantly fell in love with it. It spoke to me of my own stiflingly female, melancholic, teenage experience. It’s beautiful, it’s nostalgic, it’s dark, it’s all my favorite things. But having now watched Deniz Gamze Ergvens ‘Mustang’, I’m wondering whether I ever really saw it for what it was. And that might not be such a bad thing.

Adapted from Jeffrey Eugenes novel, the story is set in an affluent Michigan suburb in the mid 70s. The narrators are four sensitive, inquisitive boys growing up in the neighborhood. They become fascinated with the mysterious Lisbon sisters and the regime of religious austerity that governs their lives. Therese, Bonnie, Mary, Lux and Cecilia Lisbon are kept on a short leash by their mother who dictates what they can wear, who they can socialize with and what media they can consume. The boys spend much of their time inventing ways to interact with the girls without arousing Mrs Lisbons suspicions and as the household regime becomes ever more extreme the girls finally seem to respond to their attempts at connection. However, things don’t quite turn out the way the boys were hoping they would.

The cinematography and art direction are gorgeous. Greens, sepias, blues and smoky tones dominate the aesthetic and create the films darkly nostalgic atmosphere. Most of the soundtrack is by Air and feels dreamy but with a sinister undertow (other great musical moments include Hearts ‘Magic Man’ heightening the teenage lust factor). It’s basically a very well crafted film where all aspects, and some brilliant acting, come together and support each other to bring the story into sharp focus.

My newly discovered issue with it is to do with the way the story is framed. I always regarded the novel as troublingly voyeuristic but I thought that Coppolla had managed to bypass that in the film by letting us into the girls world more than Eugenes ever did. There are dirty stockings draped over the bannisters. The bathroom is crowded with bottles of perfume, lotions, makeup and boxes of tampax. There is female paraphernalia scattered everywhere. We witness moments of tenderness between sisters that draw us into their world. But of course, at its heart, it’s an utterly voyeuristic story because it’s never told from the girls perspective. The male gaze is completely dominant and all those touches of intimacy, seen through the boys eyes, just add to the girls mystery. Their inaccessibility from across the gaping, unknowable chasm that is womanhood is what makes them so desirable. Just like the boys, we are onlookers who can never know the girls in any meaningful way or truly understand their motivations. And I only really realized that after watching Mustang and getting to know each sister and her individual personality so well.

As a teenager watching it, I didn’t feel as though I needed much information about the girls in order to connect with them. In fact the boys just seemed to be cute but essentially unimportant characters who didn’t drive the story. I wonder if that is the same for any woman watching this film. Could any woman understand the girls because Coppolla teases out deadpan stares and the limp, lifeless body language of a teenage girl with the weight of her own gender dragging her down? Is shared experience enough to enable women to understand the Lisbon sisters on a very fundamental level which needs no direct communication? In which case, how do men relate to the sisters? Can they understand them in the way I did at 16? And if not, does that mean the film is unsuccessful? I worry it further vindicates the notion that women are from Venus.

This worry is compounded by the gender observations the boys make and how achingly saccharine they are. Their discoveries go as follows:

We felt the imprisonment of being a girl. The way it made your mind active and dreamy and how you ended up knowing what colours went together. We knew that the girls were really women in disguise. That they understood love, and even death and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.’

I’m going to stick my neck out and say, I can’t imagine a woman writing that. I want to see the film where they steal dads car, spend a long road trip hashing out why it’s shit being a girls AND boys and then set up a utopian, genderless commune in the desert.

Lux is the most fetishized of the sisters. With all the closeups of her lips, her eyes, her neck, she becomes such a powerful totem of desire for the boys (and us). She is the playful, confident, sexually daring sister. It’s easy to see her as just a bored, horny 14 year old but I think she embodies a dichotomy that all women struggle with. She has been taught to believe her worth lies in her beauty, chastity and ability to please men (the half of the population she’s been led to believe are more important than her). She believes it’s the only currency she has to trade with. So, of course, she tests it to see where it gets her. But when Lux finally cashes it in and looses her virginity, an entire system of belief comes crashing down around her. She is carelessly discarded and suddenly realizes her currency has plummeted, she is worth nothing. The only option left to her is a sexually risky path to self-destruction. It’s something that most women struggle with, especially when all images of women emphasize the fact that we are valued for our sexual appeal and that if you withhold it you’re frigid and if you give it up you’re a whore. But I’m not sure whether a man would understand her motivations for suddenly becoming so promiscuous. The boys in the film don’t.

It’s a great film for atmosphere but from a feminist standpoint it’s maybe a little problematic. It does pass the bechdel test but I feel this is one case where the test isn’t all that effective. Perhaps I’m over thinking it or I’m just becoming too critical in my old age but I now find myself disappointed that Coppolla chose to tell a story where we learn nothing new from seeing women through mens eyes.

Mustang – Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2016

 

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Knowing I had taken the 52 films pledge, a friend sent me this film as a present and I’m so glad she did. It’s a remarkable film that I think all women can powerfully relate to. Co written by director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour (director of ‘Augustine’ and ‘Disorder’), the story follows the lives of 5 orphaned sisters growing up in the Turkish countryside and deals with the sexualisation of young girls, internalized misogyny, abuse and the bonds of sibling hood.

Told from the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale, the story begins as the sisters leave school at the beginning of the summer. They are beautiful and carefree. In celebration they race down to the beach with the boys, plunge into the water fully clothed and spend the afternoon reveling in the freedom. But the prying eyes of their community are watching and news of their flagrant disregard for propriety quickly reaches their family. The girls find themselves prisoners in their own home under the supervision of their grandmother and tyrannical uncle. All items that could corrupt them (phones, computers, lacey underwear, makeup) are removed and locked away. Invasive virginity examinations are ordered for the 3 older girls. Lessons in cooking and cleaning ensue as granny turns the house into a ‘wife factory’ and starts to arrange marriages for them. Lale watches as the future of her sisters is decided for them and becomes more and more resolute in her belief that escaping a life of tradition and submission is the only choice left to her. As the situation worsens it becomes a matter of life and death.

Despite the fact that the film deals with circumstances specific to Turkey, it’s themes are universal. I’m sure any woman watching this film can relate to the feeling of shame and injustice at their first experience of being told their behavior is ‘unladylike’. It might be to do with their first flourishing of sexuality, or it might be to do with being too boisterous, it might just be to do with being too outspoken. There are myriad reasons young girls are made to feel that part of their nature must be repressed in order to please family or community. Most women can pin point a time when exploring, being free, ‘being themselves’ suddenly became shameful because it was unseemly. The ensuing policing of how they dress, how they move, what they say, feels like a betrayal. It’s the early suppression of the female spirit and it is at the heart of this film.

The regime the girls find themselves under is invented and enforced with violence by men but it is meted out on a daily basis by women. The internalized misogyny of the situation definitely feels like a betrayal. However, there are moments of solidarity between the older generation of women and the sisters. And the films gaze is decidedly female. The more shocking or intimate incidents are never actually shown on camera which give them more gravity and concentrates the attention on how the girls are effected by them. Ergüven never paints them as victims either, she concentrates on how resilient they are which makes the film much more uplifting than you’d expect. With every new attack on their autonomy, they always find a way to claw back some freedom and remain defiant.

Ergüven spent months auditioning girls of all ages and backgrounds to find the perfect group with the right chemistry. Her casting is absolutely impeccable. It was so well judged that she described them during the filming process as having become a ‘five headed body’. Of the five girls (Llayda Akdogan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Doga Doguslu and Gunes Sensoy) only Iscan had any previous acting experience but they all give utterly convincing, completely individual performances. Gunes Sensoy in particular harnesses such determination, strength and bloody mindedness in playing Lale. She is one of the most courageous female characters you’ll ever get to know.

It is also a really poignant portrayal of sisterhood. To an extent it’s a relationship anyone with siblings can relate to in the way the sisters are dismissive towards each other, the way they tease and belittle each other but also how they rally together against a common enemy or defend each other without question. Ergüven and Winocour also explore the power of imagination and invention that comes so naturally to children and that is suppressed as we grow up. But specifically this is a story about the unique relationship sisters experience, even if they sometimes don’t get on. They are very physical with each other in a more nurturing way than brothers are. And they share the very specific experience of being a girl and becoming a woman. They talk about everything, their first sexual experiences, their hopes, their fears, their plans, their opinions.

I haven’t seen a better exploration of the betrayal of women by society since the Virgin Suicides. But this film makes Sophia Coppollas look like a voyeuristic and slightly romanticized depiction of female repression. It tackles the subject head on with courage and without apology. It, and Ergüven, have been attacked with violent criticism in Turkey but it’s not just an indictment of Turkish attitudes towards women. This film serves as a wake up call to all of us to look at our treatment of women and girls. It’s the best film I’ve watched this year.

And it passes the Bechdel test with ease.

Triumph Of The Will – Leni Riefenstahl, 1935

 

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And now for something a little different. This is a controversial one. It’s been called one of the most technically brilliant films ever made. The trouble is, it’s a Nazi propaganda piece about the 1934 Nuremburg Rally. What is remarkable is that the director, Leni Riefenstahl, was an actor and dancer who had only recently discovered directing. She had made one feature film which came to Hitlers attention and led to a close friendship. She may have been green but she had the instincts of a great director. She got full financial backing from the National Socialist German Workers Party, with all the resources and manpower that came with it, and was able to follow those instincts to create a groundbreaking film.

The film documents the 4-day rally and features speeches by some of the most prominent Nazi figures including Hitler, Goebbels and Hess. The first section captures Hitlers arrival in Nuremburg, his journey through the city to his hotel and the candlelit vigil that took place outside that night. In the second section the Army is camped out in a vast swathe of tents near the rally site, the opening speeches are delivered and the Labour Service perform an outdoor display. The third section starts with the Hitler Youth rally, continues with a military display and ends with the one-year commemoration of the party coming to power. The final section is the climax as Hitler addresses the SA and SS and delivers his closing speech. Riefenstahl concentrates heavily on children and young men in the film which mirrors much of the content of Hitlers speeches at the rally.

It is held in such high regard as a piece of filmmaking because it is technically brilliant. Riefenstahl was employing techniques that were relatively new at the time like montage, cross fade and panning. All the grandiose rhetoric and insignia of the Nazi party is there but there is also a very subtle artistry to the way Riefenstahl employs the camera. Hitler wanted propaganda material that would appeal to the emotions of the German people rather than to their sense of reason. He chose Riefenstahl specifically because he believed she could deliver a film which was ‘artistically satisfying’ in this way. He was right.

In the beginning, the audience is transported on a serene flight through columns of fluffy white clouds that part to reveal the historic city of Nuremburg stretching out below. It’s like the sweeping aerial shots of Salzburg in the opening of The Sound Of Music, but filmed 30 years before. It’s really captivating until you see the huge lines of soldiers marching in unison below. Then the plane lands and you realize you were on the same flight as Hitler. He’s just disembarked in front of you and is now waving at the frenzied crowd. During the first motorcade scenes we are practically in the car with him. He occupies one half of the frame and we watch, as he watches, the hordes of people joined in salute to him. It’s as if they’re saluting US. The panning shots make you feel as though you’re in the parade ground, rather than looking through a fixed perspective. Riefenstahl draws you in and puts you right at the center of things so you find it difficult to maintain your objectivity and not get swept up by the spectacle of it all. If I were a German watching this in 1935 I’d be thinking, ‘Wow, what an exciting time to be alive.’ If I were British and watching this is 1935 I’d be thinking ‘Bloody hell, we might be in trouble.’

The montages are artistic, beautiful sequences. It brings to light just how emotionally manipulative film can be. Which is a terrifying and fascinating idea in itself. The fact that this manipulation was used to celebrate and promote of one of the worlds most callous and destructive political movements is utterly chilling. I find it equally impressive that Riefenstahl manages to weave a clear narrative from the goings on. All this combines to make the events of the film seem like a dream. Like it’s not actually happening, it’s just a really good story. Which is why I think it should be mandatory viewing for all schoolchildren as an aid to developing critical thinking skills. In fact, scrap that, it should be mandatory viewing for everyone as a lesson in how insidiously manipulative media can be.

The down side is that it is very repetitive. It’s two hours of motorcade journeys, marching soldiers, speeches and cheering crowds. It’s not a film to watch if you’re just a bit curious. It requires an iron will to make it through to the end. It’s the great cinematic flourishes that make it worthwhile. But in any case, I’d recommend watching this to cheer yourself up afterwards.

Leni Riefenstahls relationship with the Nazi Party was the one thing that put the brakes on her career. Despite her refusal to publicly admit her support for them, she was an ardent admirer of Hitler, many of her films were funded by the Party and there were even rumors that she used concentration camp prisoners as extras in her films. Triumph of the Will won several awards in different countries for its technical excellence but Riefenstahl had nailed her colours to the wrong mast and never achieved the status she might have been capable of. Ultimately, women directors sometimes make bad films. And sometimes they make very good films, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Punk Singer – Sini Anderson, 2016

 

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Here she goes again, another music film. I know, I can’t help it. Especially since the BFI spent the whole of August screening a season of films for Punk London, a year of exhibitions, gigs, talks and films celebrating 40 years of Punk heritage and influence. However, whereas venues like The British Library have put together exhibitions and events which concentrate predominantly on the golden years of British Punk in the 70s, the BFI curated a much more eclectic season. It featured established punk favourites like ‘Jubilee’ as well as less well know films like Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation’. It was a brilliant line up but the one I was especially excited about was this one, ‘The Punk Singer’, a documentary exploring the life and career of one of Punks most prolific female contributors, Kathleen Hanna. Never heard of her? Well now’s your chance.

Let’s start where the film starts, in Olympia, Washington, in the 80s where Hanna attends the Evergreen State College. Having discovered feminism at an early age through her mother, she starts performing her own feminist poetry at spoken word events and sets up a feminist gallery with some friends after the college start to censor her artworks.

At Evergreen she meets Toby Vail and Kathi Wilcox and one of the most exciting bands of the 90s evolves into being, Bikini Kill. With Hanna as the front-woman their music is political, personal and fundamentally feminist. There is some brilliant footage of Bikini Kill playing live where Hanna can be heard to order all men to the back so that women in the audience can occupy the front. In fact the archive footage is absolutely excellent in this film, anyone who loves Riot Grrrl and the scene in Olympia in the 90s is in for a treat watching this. It will make you want to start a band immediately.

Anderson also explores the huge amount of pressure Hanna faced from the music press who gloried in pitting female musicians against each other and twisting their words. As the pressure mounts and Bikini Kill starts to implode in the late 90s, Hanna begins to evolve as a musician and records an album in her bedroom, the genius masterwork ‘Julie Ruin’. After a spell of soul searching she meets Johanna Fateman and forms Le Tigre. Feminism starts to get an electro pop makeover. Every project Hanna embarks upon is fresh and different but with her distinctive style stamped on it. When I said she’s prolific, I really meant it. The film also touches on her activism on behalf of pro-choice and anti-abuse organisations.

The heartbreaking part of the film explores her battle with late stage Lyme disease. The injustice of such an energetic, passionate woman being subdued by this illness is so frustrating and really upset me at points. But she continues to be utterly courageous and carries on performing with her current project ‘The Julie Ruin’ despite the debilitating effects of her illness.

I love how the story of Hannas relationship with, and marriage to, Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys) is explored. From their initial meeting, through existential strife, marriage, friendship and illness the arc of their relationship is so touching. It’s also very honest and left me feeling a great amount of warmth and affection for them both. After the death of Brangelina, these two are my new role models. They’re totally boss-ing the marriage thing.

I’d say one of the best things about this film is how many women are in it, which did not happen by coincidence. Hanna has since said that she didn’t want the film to find validation through the opinions of prominent male figures. The only men interviewed are Hannas husband Adam, Bikini Kill guitarist Billy Karen and Lyme disease expert Leo Galland. The rest of the testimonies come from a host of brilliantly accomplished women. Featuring Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Corin Tucker of Sleater Kinney, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson of Le Tigre and Alison Wolfe of Bratmobile this is a total treat for anyone who loves Riot Grrl or is interested in women in music in general.

If you’re not a Riot Grrl, Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fan, Hanna can be an acquired taste. Her distinctive singing voice is nasal and her manner can come across as slightly arrogant. But as you watch, you can’t help but fall a little bit in love with her. As an experiment I took my best friend to see this film to judge whether it would appeal to someone who didn’t love the music. We’ve been friends for 13 years and the reason it works so well (I think) is that we are very different in a lot of ways. The one reason for suspecting she might like it is that she’s a massive feminist. And I was right, she did. She got so involved she almost cried (sorry Emma!!).

My one criticism would be that the film moves very fast and often there is text scrolling and people talking all at the same time so you feel as though you’ve probably missed bits by the end. There’s just an awful lot happening at the same time but in a way it matches Hannas frenetic energy.

I already had massive amounts of love for Kathleen Hanna, but now my cup it overfloweth. Anderson has done an incredible job presenting such a well-rounded portrait of a woman with so many strings to her bow. It’s fast paced, you’ll never get bored and it’s heartbreakingly honest. In fact, I’m going to watch it again, immediately.

Portrait of Jason – Shirley Clarke, 1967

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Shirley Clarkes avant-garde feature is an invitation to witness the unraveling of a flamboyant character, Jason Holliday, and to question the roles of performer, director and audience. Filmed in Clarkes penthouse apartment in the Chelsea Hotel on a winters night in 1967, the 12 hours of recorded conversation between Holliday, Clarke, her cameraman Jerry Sopanen and her partner, the actor Carl Lee, were subsequently edited down to 2 to form this ill at ease film.

Have you ever been to a party where the early hours of the morning have crept silently in through the cigarette smoke, the mood in the room has become lethargic and one incredibly charismatic, narcissistic person takes to the floor and begins to hold court? Well this film is like watching the last 2 hours of that party draw to a close. It’s even shot as though the viewer is slipping in and out of consciousness. Clarke sometimes lets the camera go out of focus so that all you can see are grey shapes pulsing on the screen every time Jason comes to the end of an anecdote. Sometimes the sound is rolling without the film so you can hear Jason but you can’t see him. It will pick up again maybe straight away, maybe sometime later and he floats back into focus again. Just like an inebriated viewer drifting pleasantly in and out of consciousness, head lolling over the side of the sofa, unable to piece together the stories in any coherent way. You might have been asleep for a second, maybe an hour. Who knows. The elasticity of time is something that Clarke is particularly interested in.

Pacing back and forth between the divan and a sheepskin swathed armchair, Jason tells stories of his experiences as a houseboy, his desire to be a cabaret performer and his experiences of being a hustler. He is flamboyant, defiant and equivocal. Clarke and Lee guide the narrative by asking Jason to recount certain stories or experiences. They ask him to perform with the props he has brought and he channels characters like Mae West, while pouting at the fireplace wearing a large black hat. Towards the end of the film however, things turn sour as Lee starts to accuse and berate Jason, reducing him to tears. It is an attempt to reveal the person behind the mask but as Clarke later admitted, ‘…you realize whatever pressure you put him under he’s going to cry and they’re going to be crocodile tears…..’. Jason, it becomes clear, doesn’t even know himself so he is unable to reveal the truth she’s seeking.

She is also concerned with the merits and limits of the Cinema Verite style of filmmaking, where the director seeks to present the ultimate truth through film. This piece is an exploration of the dichotomies inherent in Cinema Verite. To expose truth rather than to entertain or distract the audience, there’s no set, no special lighting, no script, no formality and no set structure. It is entirely improvised. It is obvious that everyone involved is ‘aware’ of the camera, as are the audience. Clarkes voice, and that of Carl Lee, can be heard at intervals behind it. It’s almost televisual in it’s interview style. But Clarkes intention is also to show that it’s almost impossible to witness absolute truth on film. By manipulating the conversation, she sets the agenda, so it can never be truly objective. Equally, you can’t force your subject to reveal what is hidden. And by the very act of editing, the film inevitably becomes a skewed version of events.

Race, class and sexuality are also strong themes in this film but to be honest, I’m not actually sure how to interpret the messages Clarke is trying to communicate. It’s obvious that Holliday is being manipulated for Clarkes cause and that made me feel uneasy. He’s been selected as her dancing monkey. She knew he’d be narcissistic enough that he’d jump at the idea of having a film made about him. It’s quite clear that she doesn’t actually like Jason and her willingness to tear down someone so vulnerable makes it uncomfortable viewing.

I think she is trying to make a point about how degraded the American Black man had become at the hands of white American society. As she saw it, Jason had adjusted to it by constantly apologizing, begging, hustling and covering his pain with humor. Whilst Black men were afforded no respect or autonomy she felt they would forever be kept down and forced to respond in a similar way to Jason. And not only is Jason black, but he’s also a homosexual to boot. So perhaps she’s saying anyone who identifies as ‘other’ in this society is forced into an impossible situation, forced to play the part that white society has cast them in and be forever imprisoned by it. Which, to an extent, still chimes true today and so makes this film an unsettling watch.

And it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.

 

 

 

 

 

Frida – Julie Taymor, 2002

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Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek both ‘get’ Frida Kahlo. That much is immediately obvious. When making a biopic of one of the most vibrant and fearless artists of the 20th century you’re going to need a team who understand how to bring the same originality and sincerity to the film as Kahlo did to her painting. These two women were more than capable of that task and their collaboration is nothing short of magical.

It tells the story of Frida Kahlos life from 1922 when she was a teenager living with her family on the outskirts of Mexico City to her death in 1954. It takes in the accident that left her with lifelong injuries when she was just 18 years old, the evolution of her work, her turbulent relationship with the artist Diego Rivera and her involvement with the communist party. This is not the life of an ordinary person, this is the story of an incredible woman. It is a study of love, sexuality, trust and above all, true fearless expression.

As well as co-producing the film, Salma Hayek is astounding in the role of Kahlo. It’s like a fire has been lit inside her, I’ve never seen her do anything like this (admittedly my knowledge of her filmography is pretty basic and I’ve only ever seen her play the sassy sexpot role). I imagine it to be a pretty intimidating gig, embodying such an iconic and complex figure. But she absolutely nails it. And it’s not just the look (which is pretty near perfect while we’re on the subject) it’s her physicality. She manages to channel a jubilant, mischievous, awkward teenage Frida before transforming into the fiery, determined woman of her later years. It is one of the most complex portrayals of a character I’ve ever come across. We watch Frida falter and break down, make defiant stands, question her own judgment, form strong friendships, fall in love, grapple with her disabilities and try to make sense of herself. It is a truly remarkable performance

She also portrays Frida as an extremely sensual woman. The scene where she dances a tango with Ashley Judds Tina Modotti is one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen between two women. It’s subtly exciting in a way that women can really be with each other. I suspect that if a man had directed that scene it would have been more overt and charged, more aggressive. Instead it’s very playful, they are delighting in one another.

Julie Taymor is a powerhouse of artistic endeavor. She has won countless awards for theatre and opera direction as well as for set and costume design, including two Tony awards for the Lion King on Broadway. She was a great choice to direct a film about such a bold artist because she had the vision with which to make it so visually exciting. She has chosen to bring a taste of the surrealism in Fridas work into the fabric of the film. Our journey into Fridas head during her hospitalization following the accident becomes a kind of hallucination of day of the dead skeleton doctors. Shot in shuddering stop motion animation, it is just as jarring and confusing as the experience must have been. The culture shock of Fridas trip to America with Rivera is brought to life in chaotic collaging of American pop culture. Numerous times paintings come to life and life slows to become painting, mirroring the inextricable link between Fridas life and work. The production and costume design are good enough reasons alone to watch this film.

The characters are all so vividly portrayed. Each one is given the opportunity to really come to life. Fridas father, sister and Riveras ex wife Lupe are particularly fascinating. Also, it would have been easy to portray Rivera as a womanizing cad who couldn’t keep it in his pants, but that would have forced Frida into a victim role. Instead Taymor allows us a more complex relationship of Rivera. He is disarming, suave, intelligent and passionate. He and Frida have a great mutual respect for each other as individuals and artists but they also share a sense of fun and a lust for life. So it is obvious why she falls for him and marries him despite his assurances that he cannot be faithful. When he disappoints her, we feel her frustration in herself as well as in him. We continually feel her lingering hope that he will change as well as the deep-seated knowledge that he never will.

It’s a wonderful, vibrant film that I could watch over and over again and never get bored. It’s the kind of film that restores all your strength. If you’re ever in doubt or life just seems a bit hard, watch this film and ask yourself ‘what would Frida do?’

But frustratingly, it doesn’t pass the bechdel test…..