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…..

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

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When I bought this DVD, the cover informed me that this was ‘The best vampire film ever made’. Wow, I thought, those are some very big shoes to fill. But this is no ‘Inteview with the Vampire’ or ‘Lost Boys’. It is a completely different beast. It doesn’t ever need the bloody shoes, it’s leaping gleefully barefoot into unchartered territory. Upon it’s release most critics agreed that Amirpour had invented a new genre altogether. The Iranian Vampire Western. Too niche, you ask? I mean, Katherine Bigelow already covered Vampire Western with ‘Near Dark’. But bear with me, it IS different, it totally works and it is amazing.

Shot entirely in black and white, it is set in ‘Bad City’, a fictional place in contemporary Iran. An industrial backdrop of oil fields and factories lend it a lonely, frontier town feeling. It is populated with pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes and junkies. Bodies lie rotting in open mass graves. Sheila Vand plays Girl, the cities avenging angel. A hipster vampire devouring pop culture in her basement who dons a chador at night and ventures out to terrorise the male inhabitants. Arash Marandi plays……… Arash, a lonely guy dealing with the death of his mother and the erratic behavior of his junkie father. This is the story of an unlikely love that transports them both into the unknown.

Sheila Vands Girl is one of the oddest vampires I’ve ever encountered. She is just as powerful and terrifying a presence as any of your favourite vampire characters. Her kills are lightning quick, brutal, vengeful blows. But despite never cracking the slightest smile, or uttering more than about 10 lines in the whole film, she is an undeniably playful character. Amirpour says that when she first tried on a chador, she immediately felt like a badass and wanted to go skateboarding in it. That experience has given life to one of my favourite scenes in this film where Girl cruises under the streetlights on her stolen skateboard, chador billowing behind her. It’s as though, after hundreds of years of living, she’s become so bored of the world and the depths of degradation humanity can sink to that the skateboard, and Arash, come as a complete surprise to her. She can’t quite organize her feelings but she’s willing to follow wherever they take her. I have a great affection for her.

Arash Marandi has been described as an Iranian James Dean but the smoldering eyes and all too earnest delivery made me think more of Nicolas Cage in Wild At Heart. So when I heard Amirpour was so obsessed with David Lynchs film that she’d channeled it in the making of ‘Girl’, I felt very smug indeed. His softness and sincerity is the perfect foil for Girls implacable silence. At their first meeting he is stumbling home from a costume party and is dressed as Dracula. The simplicity of it is perfect. Their burgeoning love is touching, electric, utterly compelling.

The other character definitely worth a mention is the local Pimp, Saeed. Dominic Rains has done an outstanding job of playing Amirpours charismatic, pumped up, misogynistic thug. He is intimidating but his sheer narcissism is kind of hilarious. And he gets his comeuppance in a scene that I like to think would make Feminist Film Theorist Barbara Creed do a little dance of excitement. Vand is the epitome of Creeds Monstrous Feminine or female castratrice. With the mirroring of a sex act performed on the lucky pimp earlier in the film, Vand suggestively sucks his finger before biting it clean off and taunting him with it before finishing him off on the floor of his plush apartment. Pure vampiric GENIUS.

In terms of style, theres a definite B movie/spaghetti western feel to it but it’s also incredibly ‘cool’ like a Tarantino movie. It’s weird and abstract in the way that a David Lynch film can be. It’s playfully grotesque in the way that a Tim Burton film can be. I also get glimpses of the New Queer Cinema director Greg Araki in the epically desolate, industrial landscapes. Amirpour has obviously had an absolute ball making this film and it shows. It’s a lot of fun to watch. There are loads of brilliant contemporary references. The spaghetti western music in particular, by Collin Hegna of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, sets a playfully disorientating tone.

Some critics have disputed the validity of calling this an Iranian movie when it was shot in California and produced by an American production company. But I feel this is just petty nit picking. Amirpour, daughter of Iranian immigrants, has made a film that mirrors her dual identity. It’s set in Iran, the dialogue is in Farsi and the actors are all of Iranian descent. But more importantly, Amirpour points out that there are very few films set in Iran, with Iranian characters that don’t just centre around the Iranian experience. She’s made a film, set in Iran, where the characters all just ARE Iranian and yet that is not the main focus. Just like American films don’t need to constantly examine the American experience.

In writing and directing ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’, Amirpour has created something totally unique, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I was constantly surprised by it, I laughed out loud, I leaned closer to the screen in wonder, I hid behind a pillow in suspense. It is surely destined for Cult Classic status. AND it passes the bechdel test. Total WIN.