Certain Women (US, 2016)

‘Hostage situation? No problem.’

It has taken over twenty years for writer-director Kelly Reichardt to complete seven features; not a terrible average for a mainstream director but an excellent one for someone who ploughs a distinctively indie furrow that doesn’t compromise. Her previous film, Night Moves, was more generic that Certain Women but I much preferred the latter. The film before that, Meek’s Cutoff, was a western filtered through Reichardt’s feminism. I haven’t seen her first four films.

From what I have seen it is clear that Reichardt’s concerned with women’s experiences and Certain Women gives us three tales that, tangentially, cross. Common to all are women’s battles against their lot where the dice are loaded against them by patriarchy. Laura Dern’s lawyer (Laura), in the first tale, finds a recalcitrant client only understands that his situation is hopeless when a male lawyer tells him. She later finds herself trying to talk down this client, who’s holding a hostage at gunpoint. Amongst the wintry landscape, dominated paradoxically by a distant Montana mountain range, there is deadpan humour. When it’s suggested that Laura is not qualified to deal with a hostage situation, the chief of police looks at her and she shrugs and says, ‘Well I’m here!” and goes ahead. Laura finds it difficult to deny men.

‘Why does it have to be so hard?’

Michelle Williams (Gina), in a narrative I struggled to follow somewhat, has to battle the passivity of her husband (who’s being unfaithful to her with Laura) and an alienated daughter. At a party (celebrating the Superbowl?) Gina hands her husband food, he’s watching the game, and he tells her to “stop working” and promptly asks for a beer.

‘I’m successful. Right?’

Kristen Stewart also plays a lawyer; she’s newly qualified and finds herself travelling for eight hours twice a week to deliver an evening class. Stewart’s exhaustion is writ large in the bags under her eyes but she is charismatic enough to catch the attention of a lonely ranch hand; astonishingly played by Lily Gladstone. The nameless ranch hand looks to have Native American Indian ancestry, further reinforcing the western references. You’ll have noticed it is a stellar cast but it is Gladstone that shines the most.

A glowing Gladstone

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women is a western; or rather a ‘Twilight’ western. The melancholic post-19th century take on the end of America’s ‘manifest destiny’. Trumpism is the complete disavowal, in its insularity, of America as a place of freedom; however, this isn’t a new phenomenon because once the frontier of the ‘wild west’ closed the institutions of society necessarily constrained freedoms. This conflict may explain much of what is wrong with America: from guns to libertarianism.

Reichardt’s ‘certain women’ are trapped by their circumstance as are the men; Laura’s client has been shafted by his company; the second Laura’s husband reeks apathy. After seeing Certain Women I watched Elle for a second time and I was struck more forcibly by the men’s pathetic attitudes. Reichardt’s vision certainly influenced mine.

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Eden (US, 2012)

Men's entitlement to women

Men’s entitlement to women

A film about sex trafficking would fit readily into exploitation film and so it was a relief that director Megan Griffiths, who also co-scripted, avoided the potential for salacious representation and simply focused on the degradation. It’s based on Kim Chong’s, a Korean-American, true story of abduction and induction into sex slavery in the American South. Ex MTV-presenter, Jamie Chung, brilliantly fills the role from bewildered teen to one who will do whatever is required to escape. The fact that the other women are under-characterised may be intentional and reflect their submission to their exploitation. Matt O’Leary is similarly excellent as the guy running the operation, under Beau Bridge’s corrupt eye; O’Leary captures the junkie’s twitch brilliantly.

Ostensibly the film is a thriller, however Kim’s resistance is long-developing which works against the genre. Correctly, the ‘real life’ source material over-rides the genre’s prerogative and any audience frustration that Kim isn’t fighting back enough works to enhance the feeling of entrapment. Griffiths is excellent in her representation of men, most of whom have no interest in women other than as sex objects and recipients of their ejaculate. Men are shown to feel entitled to the women. It seems that society socialises men to believe they are better than women and any woman who challenges that needs ‘taking down’; hence the bile of trolls against any feminist discourse. The fact that all of these men are pathetic in some way, because they cannot take being challenged by a woman, is something that inevitably escapes them.

Eden works both as a thriller and a feminist film that attacks complacency regarding the position of women in our society.

I recently caught up with a brilliant BBC documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes; a look at the comments below the YouTube video (link) gives a clue as to some men’s inability to understand feminism. Laughably (well it’s not that funny) many of them suggest it is men who are victims. The merest challenge to their entitlement of superiority sets them off on egregious rants. I do sense we are at a tipping point, as in the ’60s and ’80s, when feminism is going to make a big impact and, hopefully, not be recouped by patriarchy.

 

Gone Girl (US, 2014)

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel and she has adeptly written the screenplay, directed by David Fincher. I didn’t bother with the film in the cinema because Fincher’s movies have disappointed me since Fight Club (US, 1999) and I didn’t fancy two and a half hours of a narrative I knew. However, primarily through the power of Rosamund Pike’s femme fatale, this is an adaptation well worth watching. Fincher’s mise en scene, with his characteristic flat, antiseptic shooting of bourgeois modernity, is ideal for the film and Ben Affleck, as the slightly vacant hunk, is perfectly cast.

Although I’ve tagged the film ‘feminist’ I’m not sure it is; the debates are well summarised on Bitchflicks. I think the film is an exceptionally ‘open’ (or writerly in Barthes’ terms) text and so what follows is my reading although I’m conscious that this is exceptionally personal (by that I mean, although all readings we make are ‘personal’, with open texts our understanding of the world is likely to have a greater impact on the reading).

As Megan Kearns points out, on the Bitchflicks site, the ‘cool girl’ speech that Amy makes is key:

“The cool girl. The cool girl is hot. Cool girl doesn’t get angry. … And she presents her mouth for fucking.”

This is accompanied by shots of women (chosen by Fincher) and so suggests women are complicit (which they are) in allowing the ‘cool girl’ trope to be exploited by men. However, men are more complicit because of patriarchy, and Fincher should at least have included men within the mise en scene for this speech. Spoiler alert: also, the use of rape by Amy (Pike) to frame a man is contentious however I read her psychopathology as being the result of being pressured to be the ‘perfect woman’ (which began with her parents cannibalising her life as Amazing Amy). So although her murder of controlling millionaire Desi Collins isn’t justifiable in moral terms, I felt it was the right thing for Amy to do in her circumstances (that is, in the plot of a film and not reality). Amy does what it takes to take control of her life in a patriarchal world and, as such, is a feminist character.

This is a femme fatale that destroys the man who falls for her without destroying herself; although that was her original intention.

Flynn’s work is also a brilliant takedown of the romance of marriage; the roles and games we play that are not sustainable. This brings us back to Fight Club (which was a very faithful adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) which similarly excoriated 21st century, bourgeois existence and Gone Girl is Fincher’s best film since then. His ‘cool’ visual style is a perfect accompaniment for the soullessness of modern existence.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Aus-US, 2015)

What's cookin'?

What’s cookin’?

‘It’s a long time since I enjoyed a Hollywood summer movie,’ says the jaded fifty-plus blogger who’s seen too many samey films. Mad Max is samey; the originals were made 35 plus years ago and I vaguely remember them. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is different because it’s a fabulous, unironic two hours of action with dashes of character development and a hugely welcome dose of sexual politics that sees women on top (at least some of the time). Charlize Theron’s fantastically named Imperator Furiosa harks back to Ripley of the alien series with her haircut (from Alien3) and her indomitable refusal to let men get in her way.

The original Mad Max creator, George Miller, returns and uses Warner’s millions to get it right spending the dosh on old skool stunts, though there are obviously also lashings of CGI. It takes a lot to get me excited in action cinema, but Miller pulls it off by ensuring we are always clear who is where and doing what to whom. My only quibble is the 3D – though that’s my fault for choosing the format – as it made all objects and characters look flat in a three-dimensional narrative world. It was no better than the way Georges Melies created the waves 110 years ago.

It’s not just positive about women, we can see Furiosa’s disability in the picture above, old age gets a welcome action cinema re-write too. These differences, alongside great stunts (those poles are fantastic), make Mad Max: Fury Road a go-to movie for anyone who likes chase movies.

Klute (US, 1971)

Typically misogynist noir

Typically misogynist noir

Klute is one of the feted films from New, or Renaissance, Hollywood; the fews years at the start of the ’70s when the studios backed films ‘with something to say’ as well as making entertainment. I recently watched the same director’s, Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View (US, 1974), and found it had dated badly though its paranoia about large corporations is extremely sane now. Klute stands up far better with brilliant cinematography from Gordon Willis and Jane Fonda’s exceptional performance in the lead. Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a would-be actor and part-time prostitute, who is investigated by Donald Sutherland’s (exceptionally wooden) John Klute who’s looking for a missing friend. To be fair Klute is meant to be ‘a straight’, hippy for ‘boring’, but Sutherland’s usual charisma is severely lacking. Fonda’s high powered performance, however, is sufficient to make the film to be worth watching. Klute was an important film for feminists at the time, Diane Giddis, for example, in ‘The Divided Woman: Bree Daniels in Klute’, argued that it that it foregrounded women in a way that was new to Hollywood. Others, such as Christine Gledhill in ‘Klute 2: Feminism and Klute‘, pointed out that the film wasn’t quite as progressive as feminists hoped. Gledhill is right. For a start the film isn’t called Daniels, making Klute the supposed centre of the narrative suggests the primacy of the male experience and he does get to play the usual Hollywood knight rescuing the damsel. However, I think it is better to think of Daniels as the true protagonist, in a way that Giddis meant even if she misread the film, because it makes the film far more interesting. It is a psychological portrait of a ‘liberated’ woman of the time who is anything but liberated as she has to sell her body to get control over her life and requires a ‘good’ man to save her. Although the film seems to think it is being progressive it is mired in the misogyny of the time and does not free itself of patriarchy. There’s an excellent Senses of Cinema article here. Pakula offers us striking widescreen compositions and the dark heart of 1970s  America  is caustically exposed.

10 Films for International Women’s Day

Vera Chytilová, writer-director of Daisie

Vera Chytilová, writer-director of Daisies

10 cracking movies made by and about women; in alphabetical order:

  1.  Antonia’s Line (Antonia, Netherlands-Belgium-UK-France, 1995)
  2. Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechosolvakia, 1966)
  3. Dance Girl Dance (US, 1940)
  4. The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, Iran, 2000)
  5. Frida (US-Canada-Mexico, 2002)
  6. Ginger & Rosa (US-Denmark-Canada-Croatia, 2012)
  7. Meshes of an Afternoon (US, 1943)
  8. The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993)
  9. Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?, France-Lebanon-Egypt-Italy, 2011)
  10. Winter’s Bone (US, 2010)

 

Orlando (UK-Russia-Italy-France-Netherlands, 1992)

Gender bent

Gender bent

Sally Potter’s celebrated 1992 is on at the BIFF next week, as is Ms Potter herself. 20 years after its first release, albeit on a poor DVD copy, the film seemed to me to somewhat dated; though why I’m struggling to fathom. Maybe it was Tilda Swinton’s/Orlando’s constant breaking of the ‘fourth wall’, a Brechtian device to ensure we are thinking about what we’re watching, was a contributory factor. If I’m sounding critical, I don’t mean to be, as the film is excellent in its feminist outlook, performances and set design.

Orlando skips through the centuries, from 1600 until now, and across genders, engaging us in Elizabeth’s court (a superbly cast Quentin Crisp above), a colonial adventure in ‘Arabia’, and – as a woman – being the butt of patronising men of literature.

The narrative might sound SF, but it’s time traveling protagonist is an obvious didactic device rather than a narrative one. By 1992, the ‘now’, Orlando has become a dynamic, and independent, mother; though still patronised (by her publisher). Maybe this is where I feel the film has dated; now (2014) feminism is as needed as much as it was in the 1980s. If we read the film’s conclusion as a triumph for Orlando, then the last 20 years can only have been a disappointment.

As usual, Tilda Swinton, is a powerful presence and Potter stretches her £2m budget brilliantly. There are some great ‘frozen Thames’ scenes, shot in Uzbekistan. Billy Zane is well cast as the paper thin character hunk who must ‘adventure’ elsewhere.

Orlando is the film that put Potter on the (near) mainstream map and allowed her to attract ‘talent’ (such as Depp) for her later films. It’s a period piece, with added time travel, and a piece from when feminism had made great strides. I think now we have gone backwards.