I’m of two minds about Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, the awards-bait-y new drama starring John Hawkes as devoutly religious poet Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his adult life breathing with the assistance of an iron lung and who, at age 38, set out to lose his virginity (with the blessing of his priest, played here in a thankless role by poor William H. Macy). On the one hand it’s refreshingly frank in its attitudes toward sex, and for a while it looks as if it wants to dispense with many of the middlebrow romantic clichés to which Hollywood and Indiewood films so often cling. On the other, it ends up capitulating to those same clichés, because it can’t find any other way to be about its subject matter—it’s trapped by its own inability to imagine a sexual narrative that isn’t shot through a gauzy filter to the sounds of tinkling piano music. Devoutly religious audience members need not worry about being affronted by the film’s premise, because by the end any potential for subversion has been neatly contained. It’s a fundamentally safe film that only thinks it's being risqué and forward-thinking.
Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, which I had the great good fortune to see back in April at the Boston Independent Film Festival, is finally arriving in theaters this Friday, so I thought I would take the opportunity to write about it at greater length than I was originally able to do. A visually stunning account of an engaged couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains with a Georgian guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), the film was by far the most accomplished of the ten or so features that I saw at the festival. It begins as a leisurely paced, somewhat unassuming travelogue and ends up as a quietly shattering relationship drama in which Bernal and Furstenberg’s knowledge of themselves and each another is suddenly and unexpected thrown into question. Without spoiling the deceptively spare plot, I’ll say that it turns on a single instant, the after-effects of which ripple out tremulously for the remainder of the film.
A year or so ago I wrote a series of posts in which I sought out ten well-known films I’d never seen before. Because it was such a rewarding project, I’m repeating it now. This time I decided to begin with Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958), partly because my unfamiliarity with Ray’s work is embarrassing, partly because The Criterion Collection recently put out a beautiful new edition of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Last spring, when Queen Meryl was making the rounds at the awards circuit for her performance in The Iron Lady, shifting back and forth between false modesty and genuine modesty, she started doing this thing where she would go “stop paying attention to me—there are all of these great up-and-coming young actresses who are more deserving of recognition than I am!” Then she would drop the names of said great up-and-coming young actresses, as if to say, “look, I’m handing the crown over; take it and give it to someone else.” (She did the same thing a few years ago after making Doubt; at one awards ceremony or another she singled out Viola Davis’ performance in that same film, begging Hollywood studio executives to “give this woman a movie.”) This time around the actresses she singled out were Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) and Adepero Oduye of Dee Rees’ Pariah (2012), pictured above. The film—Rees’ first feature—is an intimate character study of a Brooklyn teen (Oduye) whose emergent lesbianism causes conflict in her relationship with her religious conservative mother (Kim Wayans). It’s a watchable film, if not always a sure-footed one, and the performances are mostly solid (I preferred the raw, violent edges of Wayans’ to Oduye’s quieter, more subdued work, though the film is clearly designed to showcase the latter, and Oduye will no doubt go on to bigger and better things. She’s already slated to appear in Steve McQueen’s next film, Twelve Years a Slave).
It occurred to me while watching Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2005) that all of her films to date (last year’s Meek’s Cutoff being the most recent) are minimalist variations on the road movie. With Old Joy, a kind of lyrical hipster bromance, Reichardt explores the homosocial tensions that lie beneath so many road movies in which men attempt to escape feminized civilization by seeking out a wild blue yonder of their own. This yearning for an escape into masculinized nature is pretty much one of the grand narratives of America’s cultural history: we see it in the Hollywood Western and in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and in all of Hemingway and in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and in countless other cultural texts. It’s interesting to see this story told from the vantage point of a female filmmaker (though, all told, I found to be Old Joy the least successful film of hers that I’ve seen; “interesting” is about the highest praise I can lavish on it).
Argo, a bang-up political thriller about the stranger-than-fiction true story of the rescue of the six Americans taken hostage by Iranian political extremists in the last days of 1979, is a small miracle of a film: it’s an example of how exciting a thriller can be when it’s told straight-forwardly and with levity. Unlike the bloated, two-and-a-half-hours-plus action epics that have lately become the norm, Argo is lean, swift, and funny. It benefits from a smart screenplay by Chris Terrio and direction by Ben Affleck that’s workmanlike and unfussy. He may not have the makings of a visionary filmmaker, but at least he doesn’t make us suffer by pretending to be one. Hopefully, the success of this film—and it promises to be very successful—won’t go to his head and cause him to start making heavier, more self-important fare, as has been the case in the careers of such talented but self-indulgent directors as Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson, for example. Affleck’s talent (I say this having seen none of his other directorial efforts) seems to lie in his brisk, no-nonsense approach to material that’s solid enough that it doesn’t need a lot of elaborate scaffolding. You don’t feel him straining for greatness, nor do the big emotional moments in the film feel belabored. It’s effortlessly good.
Roger Ebert wrote in 1993 that Jane Campion had not yet made an uninteresting film, and I think that’s still true nineteen years and four films later. She’s such a smart and daring filmmaker that even her failures and her missteps are fascinating to watch. In the Cut (2003) is a case in point: a long and intricately layered suspense thriller about misogyny and sadomasochism (with Meg Ryan, of all people, playing the bottom to Mark Ruffalo’s top), it’s a film that’s not afraid to go feverishly off the rails. Little wonder that it tanked critically and commercially. There’s no way a film this dark, this strange, and this densely theoretical could have been successful in the U.S. (nor could its shocking close-ups of fellatio have gotten past the MPAA; it was released unrated). For one thing, the film assumes that its audience is at least smart enough to engage with its ideas about female passivity, victimization, the allure of sexually aggressive or dangerous men, the relationship of sexual arousal to fear, the cultural power of marriage plots and the semiotics of murder mysteries. (Campion is an example of the literary-minded female director I described in a previous post; In the Cut, like nearly all of her other work, is deeply informed by, though not always a mouthpiece for, feminist literary theory.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most charismatic young actors in the movies: having begun his career some fifteen years ago as a shaggy-haired kid on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, he’s matured into a sensitive and intelligently sexy leading man. In the ultra-hip opening scenes of Rian Johnson’s Looper, as he saunters through a dystopian city of the future, studying French in his spare time, he almost recalls Belmondo. Gordon-Levitt inspires the same cool frisson that Belmondo did, and he has the same mixture of hardness and softness. Now in his late twenties, Gordon-Levitt has adopted a man’s swagger but still looks boyish. What’s attractive about him is that we’re able to see the delicate underside of his own tough-guy act.
Above: a shot from Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), a film that resembles a nineteenth-century novel in its intricate, tapestry-like portrait of an entire social world, as well as in its engagement with that most reliable of conceits, the marriage plot. Granted, Nair has her share of fun scrambling that plot in various ways. But Nair’s familiarity with the conventions of the marriage plot—as well as her decision to adapt Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 2004 (though unsuccessfully, in my opinion)—proves that she’s a filmmaker who’s done her homework, which is to say that she knows her literary history. This got me thinking about the relationship between women filmmakers and literature. I know that when I embarked on this project I mentioned that I often bristle whenever people make generalizations about particular artistic demographics (ex. the notion that all films by women are necessarily about female community, etc.). But I’m tempted to float out a theory about the general, if not essential, literariness of the female filmmaker. It’s been my experience that films by women often show a deep knowledge of and interest in literature, and that this informs their attitudes toward filmmaking as a narrative medium.
When Office Killer (1997) first came to my attention a while back, completely by accident, my first thought was, “Cindy Sherman made a movie?” On one level, it makes perfect sense. Sherman, who qualifies as one of the most important visual artists of the past fifty years (if you don’t know her work, you should), is obviously well versed in the visual language as well as the semiotic codes of cinema, to which many of her photographs attest. She understands that movies work by combining familiar tropes and types, and she references them in her witty, strange pictures. I was immediately intrigued at the thought of her having authored a full-length film. But the fact that it had never before shown up on my radar gave me pause.
I’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master twice now, and while I’m still trying to get a handle on it critically (whatever that means) I’m more and more convinced that it’s a truly great film, certain to be one of the best of the year, and one that will continue to puzzle, entrance and obsess viewers for some time to come. It marks the latest in a career-long run of great films by Anderson, whose early work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) was characterized by a kind of hysterical romanticism. With this and his previous film, There Will Be Blood, Anderson has begun to experiment with more cryptic themes, more enigmatic characters; the passionate intensity of the early films now roils suggestively beneath a prestige-picture veneer. These are sinister, unnerving period pieces, visions of American history made up of hucksters, charlatans, sociopaths. In The Master, set in 1950, Anderson gives us an image of postwar Americans in desperate search of spiritual transcendence, eager to be seduced by charismatic pop-prophets like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose philosophy combines tenets of psychoanalysis, New Age mysticism and faith healing. His interlocutor throughout the film is mentally addled Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who stumbles onto Dodd and his cult of followers and, pleased by the attention they pay him (not to mention devoid of any other prospects), becomes one of Dodd’s pet subjects. The two characters are so closely entwined that it’s possible to see Phoenix and Hoffman, both remarkable, as giving a single staggering performance (they won a joint acting prize at the Venice Film Festival.)
Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994) is faced with the problem of translating a proto-feminist but by contemporary standards scarily conservative nineteenth-century sentimental novel into a late-twentieth-century feminist film. The solution? Turn the March family’s stern, no-nonsense matriarch into a mouthpiece for women’s rights. As written by Robin Swicord and played by Susan Sarandon, Mrs. March (better known to her daughters, and to devoted readers, as “Marmee”) arrives on the screen by way of Betty Freidan and Catherine MacKinnon. The problem is not that this feels to be a more staunchly feminist Little Women than the one penned by Louisa May Alcott over one hundred years before; the art of adaptation always involves a bit of tailoring. The problem is rather that the seams show. Marmee’s primary function in the film is to go around dropping clunky feminist one-liners at opportune moments. As her moniker suggests, she’s a schoolmarm perpetually stuck in lecture mode. When a neighbor raises his eyebrows at the girls having a snowball fight, Marmee retorts, “Young girls are no different from boys in their need for exertion. Feminine weakness and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework and restrictive corsets!” When Meg confesses to what we might call an “I feel pretty” moment, Marmee cautions, “If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful work inside your mind, your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.” Having not read Alcott’s original novel, I can’t say whether these speeches have been invented for the film. I can only say that they feel conspicuously planted. Talented actor that she is, Sarandon does her best to naturalize these lines, but we’re left with a film that’s painfully anxious about proving its feminist relevance. Handsome but exhaustingly didactic (even with all that rhetoric of Christian piety taken out), Armstrong’s Little Women is not so much an adaptation as a retrofitting, tricked out with the slogans and tiresome political platitudes of our own era. As with so many literary adaptations, it’s been tastefully updated, made inoffensive and “relevant” in accordance with “modern views.” Little Women is fun for the whole family—if you can stomach it.
Above: rogue feminist academic Camille Paglia, posing with an Egyptian tombstone in the first segment of Monika Treut’s documentary Female Misbehavior (1993). Treut’s film is comprised of four short profiles of badly behaved women, the last of whom has “defected” from the female gender altogether. These consist of Paglia, whose contempt for mainstream second-wave feminism is unabashedly vitriolic (“these women are losers […] let them suck raw eggs and eat my dust!”); porn star and performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who turned the exhibition of her cervix into a wildly popular stage show in the early ’90s; Carol, a lesbian dominatrix who explains her attraction to the art of bondage; and Max, a transgender man who candidly details the history of his transition from female to male.
The French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has been making the same film over and over again since 1976. I mean this not as a criticism but rather as an observation that tells us much about her work. The realization occurred to me as I watched her 36 Fillette (1988) earlier this week (the title refers to a size of girls’ clothing, presumably a size that the protagonist will soon have put aside, along with other such childish things). In the film, 14-year-old Lili endeavors to lose her virginity while on vacation in Biarritz with her parents and older brother. She meets an older man in his forties; he says that he has little patience for teenage girls, but he flirts with Lili and eventually brings her back to his hotel room, where a teasing seduction unfolds. The film is structured around Lili’s tortured vacillation between her hesitant curiousity about sex, her strong desire to cast off the burden of her virginity, her repeated willingness to enter into dangerous and confrontational situations, and her fear of exposing her vulnerability to others. Lili plays out these feelings in her interactions with a number of different men in the film (her would-be seducer, her father, her brother, a boy her own age), but as Breillat makes clear in 36 Fillette, Lili’s virginity loss is not about her relation to a male object. It is about her relationship to herself, and about her own clumsy attempts to make sense of herself as a sexual being in the world.
Back in 2010, as Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, debates swirled about her war drama The Hurt Locker and about her body of work as a whole. Both detractors and supporters were quick to point out that the aesthetic of Bigelow’s films was decidedly unfeminine. She didn’t make romantic comedies, nor did she seem to be allied with the feminist avant-garde or indie circles. Her films weren’t about women “finding themselves” or the bonds of sisterhood or the paradoxes of female sexuality. They were mostly about…men. One notable exception is her gynocentric cop drama Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis; but even here, Bigelow could be accused (and was by some, I’m sure) of quite literally dressing up a strong woman in male clothes, casting her into the masculine genre of the police thriller.
In continuing my tour of films directed by women, I’ve come to what one might call the golden age of Western feminist filmmaking, which roughly spanned the mid-1960s through the early 1990s. Abroad, the work of Akerman, Duras, Chytilova, Potter, von Trotta, Armstrong, Breillat, Nair, Campion, Varda; at home, Kopple, Loden, Clarke, Dash, Seidelman, Anders, Borden. Coming out of second-wave feminism, American films like Working Girls (1986) were greatly concerned with issues of materiality, power, and collectivity. Working Girls is a strikingly intelligent film, probably the shrewdest filmic representation of prostitution I’ve seen. Not to be confused with Mike Nichols’ commercial office comedy Working Girl (1988), it’s an office comedy of a different sort, set over the course of a single day in a tastefully appointed New York apartment that serves as a high-class brothel. The independent feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden (her professional name, a nod to the famous murderess, suggests her desire to shock and provoke her audience) wrote the film after conducting six months’ worth of interviews with real women working as prostitutes. A sharp antidote to Hollywood’s tales of whores with hearts of gold (a cliché to be apotheosized the following year in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman), Working Girls is, as its title suggests, not so much about the ethics of prostitution as its mechanics—about how it works. As a result, the film doesn’t waste time preaching. It is motivated by a much more basic and yet also more epistemologically sophisticated goal: to watch what prostitution is, how it operates as a system, whom it involves, and why people participate in it.