Showing posts with label documentary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label documentary. Show all posts

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Girls Rock! (2008)

Repost from 2010.

Dirs. Arne Johnson & Shane King || 2008 || USA

Stories of the Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls have always warmed the cockles of my dying post-riot grrrl heart. The documentary Girls Rock! is no exception. The film follows four girls aged between 8-18 as they spend a week at the original camp in Portland, Oregon in 2005 (the camp has since spread to have locations in other parts of the US - including Tennessee, NYC, and Washington, DC, if I remember correctly). The camp teaches the girls who attend to play instruments after they form bands (it seems as though the camp is split into two different age groups, so the eight year olds aren't playing with the high school girls) and they practice for a week that culminates in a bit show with an audience of 750 people. There are also workshops for self-defense and zines (barely shown because watching people cut and paste and do layouts is boring, plus you know, zines are forever the lowly art when compared to being in a band). Camp counselors include Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Excuse 17, STS of The Need and Shemo, and Beth Ditto of The Gossip.

Each of the girls that the film follows has had some sort of serious issue in life. The youngest has divorced parents, has moved around a lot, has a baby brother with Down Syndrome, and is already experiencing chronic anxiety to the point where she misses school every other day. The oldest is a girl who used to be in a gang, has parents who deal with drug addiction and mental illness, and was living in a group home during filming. The film is actually pretty good in showing girls who come from different race and class backgrounds.

Interspersed throughout the film are statistics about self-esteem and body image for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. Most of the studies are cited in the end credits of the film, but it's a little disheartening that most of the statistics are 20 years old, especially when juxtaposed against the subjects, like the eight year old with chronic anxiety issues, or the eleven year old who is already dealing with mean girls and frenemies (something I relate to - it still does not seem out in the open yet that it is possibly middle school that is a warzone, not high school).

Also interspersed are the retro short films about being a girl. This is something that always seems to be done in independent documentaries concerning DIY/punk rock feminism. There is one instance where the Le Tigre song "They Want Us to Make a Symphony Out of the Sound of Women Swallowing Their Own Tongues" is played over the stock footage that is surprisingly effective.

The only issue I had with the film is the sort of trite introduction where we get a quasi-history of late-20th century of the role of women in rock music. It plays like "everything was A-OK until Britney Spears came along!" Granted, this isn't a documentary on that time period, but like everything else, it wasn't that easy, or cut and dry. It was the Spice Girls' popularity in the mid-90s that begat the rise of boy bands, then Britney Spears, not to mention they left out the rise of macho bands like Limp Bizkit as a reaction to the women-friendly music that populated the 1990s. I definitely wouldn't blame Britney Spears, she has enough problems of her own that could possibly be correlated to some of the issues that this film discusses. Besides doesn't everyone know that musical styles are cyclical? Blaming a pop star just seems too easy and a total cop out, and frankly, isn't this what Eminem does on the majority of his records?

It seems like one of the forgotten lessons of riot grrrl was that it is unnecessary and un-feminist to hate on other women just because they do not belong to the same subculture as you. I was flipping through my copy of Bikini Kill #2 recently and there was something about how grrrls should not hate on other women for being cheerleaders or strippers or whatever because they are soldiers in the girl army too. I have a longtime zine buddy who recently closed her zine distro and who has often said that there are a lot of neo-riot grrrl zines that do have a lot of girl hate in them, and she wouldn't pick them up to sell at her distro.* In the film, one parent cries on camera because she loves how the camp teaches the girls how to get along, and that there are no mean girls.

Part II: It was all a dream, I used to read Sassy Magazine

What I liked about the camp in the film is that they hold mediator services for when the bands are fighting, which seems inevitable when you're put together with strangers and are in a sort of high-pressure creative environment. One band is fighting about changing the name, and the band with the eight year old is upset because she punched another member of the band (in a mis-use and misunderstanding about what the self-defense classes were about) and believes that she gets to make all the decisions because she is the lead singer. It's a good and perfectly understandable idea to have these mediator services. But to me, it also radically defies the promoted idea that once all women and/or feminists come together, everyone will get along and things will be okay. I've been through enough (mostly failed) feminist or feminist-driven collectives in the past 10 years of my life to know that isn't the case. It makes me wonder if the camp organizers feel the same way, since some of them were around in the original riot grrrl days through the semi-recent Ladyfest era. I think when it comes down to it, we're going to be humans with flaws first, no matter what. **

* See C's post on Jennifer's Body and the horror and feminist horror communities initial reactions.
** The only other recent work I've seen that does this is the Y: The Last Man series of graphic novels, written by Brian K. Vaughan, who works on Lost sometimes. It does make a good case that even if all the males in the world die, women are going to react in different ways, with different motivations.

There are now Ladies Rock Camps for women over 18 too. In Portland, and I think I've heard of one in NYC as well.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made (2004)

Repost from 2010. I now realize that this movie is a listicle in moving image format.

Dir. ???? || 2004 || USA

The Netflix Autoplay function is a both a blessing and a curse, particularly for its latest platform on video game systems such as the Wii. The game systems versions give you a limited amount of options, which means you still have to rely on the Netflix website to add films you want to watch on the game systems. There is no search function on the Netflix Wii. While you can of course access your instant queue, it's not like the options on the game system is giving you a ton of good movies to choose from. You may see a few of the films from the Criterion Collection, some actual enjoyable films, and actually a lot of pretty good TV shows; but mostly, you're seeing stuff you've never heard of and/or some truly bad movies. So it's really the equivalent of walking through a Blockbuster video store, just without the entire walls featuring fifty copies of whatever last summer's big movie was. That and I get the feeling that even Blockbuster would not even carry some of these films.

The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made is a short "documentary" that is a list of yeah, the 50 worst movies ever made. It features no talking heads, just clips of these films with the occasional interesting factoid, such as the director of Robot Monster attempted suicide after realizing what a terrible film he made, or that Burt Reynolds auditioned for the lead role in The Crawling Hand twice, but was considered too terrible to be cast. The film mostly focuses on films from the 1940s through the mid-1980s, and at least a third of the films were films featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 at some point (the narrator even sounds like J. Elvis Weinstein from MST3K and Cinematic Titanic, but it's not him). It lists no source as to where this list comes from or who decided that these were the worst films ever made. It lists Troll, but not Troll 2, which is known as being considerably worse. And the fact this was made in 2004 and cuts its choices off in the mid-1980s allows it to miss say, The Room, The Picture of Dorian Gray (2002/2004), Zombie Nation, Silent Night Deadly Night 2, and The Happening. Not even Manos: Hands of Fate is on the list. I kind of have to wonder if this list was partially based on what films they could get clips for.

The documentary holds a particular bias and disdain for bad films where the monster is just a guy in a cheap gorilla suit. The only film it claims to be "so bad it's good" is TNT Jackson, a blaxploitation-kung fu film from the 1970s. All in all, it is not a bad way to spend an hour watching if you're bored, and some of the film clips are kind of fun, but this is not a particularly groundbreaking documentary on bad films, or why people watch them.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Roller Derby Double Feature: Hell on Wheels (2008) and Whip It (2009)

Repost from 2011.

Hell on Wheels 
Dir. Bob Ray || 2008 || USA

Hell on Wheels is a documentary concerning the travails of the early formation of the Texas Rollerderby Lonestar Rollergirls in the early 2000s and the offshoot league, the Texas Rollergirls. And yes, there is a difference, which this movie painstakingly shows. It's indeed more about the politics and administration of the teams and why there are two separate leagues rather than playing the sport itself, and it proves that it takes a lot just to get any event or organization off the ground at a single city basis. It's like The West Wing, but with more static shots and for Austin roller derby. It's quite possibly the most honest film I have seen about starting and organizing an event with a group of women. Given that the sport does feature sexy outfits and is often violent, the women on the teams acknowledge the line between "sexy and slutty" that the teams have to take to make the sport entertaining; but towards the end, that line becomes very uncomfortable as one league is forced to wrestle in oil at a bar to promote the upcoming game.

The film and sound quality for Hell on Wheels is not the greatest, and I'm pretty sure this film was made for a small budget, with cheap equipment, and took several years to come out. There are subtitles for some of the meetings, not because of dialects, but because of where some of the meetings took place (the patios of restaurants with miniature waterfalls). It's still an interesting film to watch if you have any interest in the sport or the recent history of it. Despite all the drama that goes on in the film, it has a happy ending because both leagues became the inspiration for the formation of other leagues all over the US and the rest of the world.



Whip It
Dir. Drew Barrymore || 2009 || USA

In Whip It, Drew Barrymore makes the conscious choice not to follow the politics of being on a roller derby team or a part of a league and instead focuses on what can make the sport so inspiring and fun. The film is based on a young adult novel of the same name by Shauna Cross, who played roller derby in Austin and Los Angeles. The plot primarily concerns Texas alternateen Bliss leading a double life between becoming a new roller derby player and a beauty pageant contestant, something her Mom has had her do her entire life. It is a coming-of-age tale of sorts and I don't want to give much away because it is a good movie with some positive messages. Drew Barrymore has an eye for talent and what makes a good movie (most of the time, your mileage may vary with the Charlie's Angels films she produced and starred in) and I wish she would do more producing and directing work rather than acting in crummy-looking romantic comedies at this point; although she has a small and funny role as Smashley Simpson, the most accident prone of the roller derby players.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Notes on Shulie (1997/2000?)...


Originally posted in December 2011. I actually read The Dialectics of Sex shortly after writing this, and used it as the critical basis for an insane paper I wrote my last semester of grad school concerning the Twilight films.

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Dir. Elizabeth Subrin || 1997/2000 (?) || USA

I am in the process of making up the viewing and work for my Experimental Film class this past quarter. It was the only class I had to completely stop attending because the films tended to cause relapses with bad headaches and nausea. Since my professor tended to show films that were actual film prints, some of the films I will never be able to see. So she gave me an alternate list of sorts for anything that was not on VHS or DVD. Shulie was one of the alternate films. In this class, I have tended to enjoy the films made by women or LGBT people more than the other films. Looking at my journals I had/have to keep for this class as apart of the coursework, I occasionally made or make the correlation between some experimental films and my old medium of zines. When I made, read, and distributed zines I tended to prefer ones made by women and LGBT people. Both mediums tend to be done as art for art's sake, and not to make money...although some experimental film makers like Kenneth Anger wanted to be mainstream and never totally got there. Not too different from some people in zines, although those people tend to be frowned upon, if not downright shunned. Both have their own distribution networks or similar set-ups. Another theme of my journal entries tended to be varying levels of indifference towards the films, which is basically my attitude towards zines for the past five or six years to the point where I rarely read them now. I owe a lot to (post-riot grrrl) zines for helping me develop critical thinking skills, but it's those same skills that kind of make me unable to read zines much now.

Anyway...

[SPOILERS AHEAD...although you can probably only find this film at university libraries...which are open to the public, I might add]

Shulie is an odd film. Its set-up is that it is a found-footage documentary on feminist Shulamith Firestone that was shot in Chicago in the late 1960s while Firestone was about to receive her BFA in painting. This hearkens back to the idea that a lot of women's creative work has to be found or re-discovered, which was a big part of the second wave feminist movement that Firestone was a part of. In turn, at least in literature and sometimes in art, this allowed  more women to become a part of the canon. This film may also be pointing out that this needs to be done with Firestone...which while I have heard of her occasionally, I admit to have never read her work. After watching this film, I would like to, but her most famous book is out of print and used copies on Amazon cost anywhere from $35-500. 

But eventually, the found footage concept has some holes poked into it. When Firestone is being asked about being apart of the "Now" (NOW? Is this a play on words/later organizations, perhaps?) generation, and she gives an indifferent answer about how she only occasionally stops by protests; there are shots of people in the park putting on facepaint and they look somewhat modern and a bit crust punk-y. Subrin then has a shot of a kid playing basketball in a very modern Chicago Bulls jersey. I am not totally sure what this scene is supposed to convey. Firestone never speaks of feeling alienated from the protests in the film, so I am not sure if this a commentary on the romanticizing of the 1960s that went on in the 1990s or what. I cannot think of or remember much of what people would protest in the 1990s except the WTO...but then again, I was a teenager in the 1990s.

Another issue as that time goes on, you notice how charmingly, then oddly self-aware Firestone is. Like any young person, she kind of hates where she currently lives. She speaks early in the documentary about wanting to move to NYC to live with the other outcasts. She speaks of art school making her more inarticulate at the age of 22 than she was at the age of 18 (I strangely feel the same way about grad school). But there edges of radicalism that likely became more pronounced when she published The Dialectics of Sex at the age of 25. So perhaps this is an attempt to make her more human and relatable, since there is this tendency in feminism to mistakenly think that the more popular or famous feminists are not really human or to treat them as if we own them (not too different from any fandom really). I had an English professor who freaked out when Gloria Steinem got married. Ten years ago, people were more freaked out that Kathleen Hanna* of Bikini Kill/Le Tigre** was dating a Beastie Boy because the Beastie Boys second album was sexist. But anyway, self-awareness was a 1990s thing, no?

Then there is the scene where Firestone's artwork is critiqued by a group of her (male) professors. There is something odd and uncomfortable about this scene, and it hearkens back to the scene earlier in the film where Firestone explains her current inarticulateness. Part of me wants to claim that this scene is over the top, but perhaps it is not, given the time period. Another part of me is sympathetic to Firestone in this scene just because well, similar scenes are in my future as a grad student.

And then there's the twist...that this entire film was a recreation of that documentary. I still have not decided how I feel about this. Subrin does a remarkable job with making much of the film look like it was shot in Chicago circa the late 1960s (all hail the Super 8!), and if it was on purpose, gradually pulling the curtain behind the fact that it was a recreation. It is only in the last 15-20 minutes of this 37-minute film that the issues start to pop up. But I am still trying to work out this "twist"...

* Kathleen Hanna is given a shout out in the credits of this film.
** Sadie Benning, ex-Le Tigre band member, makes experimental films as well and worked on this film. I consider her the Matt Sharp of Le Tigre, since the band suffered on a few levels after she left, including music-wise.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Tyranny of Static Shots in Queer/Feminist Punk Documentaries

One of the things I was frequently told working as a screener for a local film festival was that "anyone can make a good looking film these days." This was said with the implication that we would have to pay closer attention to the other elements of the films and not become distracted by the shiny, shiny HD. I am only occasionally a formalist, and it is either when I want to be or when something in a film's form is particularly salient or egregious. This is why it increasingly pains me to watch documentaries on queer and/or feminist punks which all seem to be shot in the same or very similar styles. In one night, I watched Hit So Hard (2011, Dir. P. David Ebersole), the documentary on ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel and From the Back of the Room (2011, Dir. Amy Oden), a documentary on feminist punks. It was somewhat painful.

Dynamics versus Static
Hit So Hard had at least some dynamicism to it, from old handheld video footage Schemel and her girlfriend made in the 90s and Courtney Love's interview portions, where she managed to bust out her old Kinderwhore makeup to the extreme and ate cookies while talking. It was actually entertaining, although it may have been the only entertaining part of the film that did not involve clips or shots of Schemel drumming. Her drumming is naturally dynamic. But ultimately, Hit So Hard could have been a bit shorter. Contrast this with all the interviews in From the Back of the Room, which was mostly filmed in medium-long shots with the camera completely planted and still. Talking heads, everyone sitting completely still. Live shots of bands performing are rare, even if the film seemed to be conscious in not just featuring women who played in bands, but also zinesters, artists, promoters. The only person who moved their hands or had any animation in them whatsoever was Cristy Road. And her parts were mostly at the end of the film, which seemed neverending because of its staticness. I already felt like I was watching it out of obligation to my past as a punk promoter and zinester - I was acquainted with some of the interviewees and I was going to screen this film (sight unseen!) in a course that I was going to teach, but was ultimately canceled. Frankly, I would have felt bad and embarrassed if I had screened From the Back of the Room to undergrads, at least in its entirety.

Photo by Chris Boarts-Larson/Because she's a fellow Richmonder and this picture is forceful, as are most of her photos of live bands.
Use the Force!
I know making films with a low budget is hard, especially for those with little experience, but good ideas. And at its core, a film like From the Back of the Room is a good idea and it means well, even if the film is a bit insular at times. But punk is supposed to be dynamic. My memory is failing me, so I believe "Girls to the front!" was the old saying attributed to Bikini Kill, encouraging girls to move closer to the stage by pushing if necessary. But maybe the phrase "from the back of the room" fits there as well. So why make a completely static film? Where is the force? The film just seemed like an overlong school essay committed to film.

Because there are other female punks out there besides Kathleen Hanna and feminist punk did not die in the late 1990s...
The only interesting and refreshing part about From the Back of the Room is how little it dwells on Riot Grrrl. Kathleen Hanna and Alison Wolfe are not centerpieces or the focus of the film. They were blips surrounded by "I didn't get into punk through Riot Grrrl." Despite the complete staticness of the form of the film, this functions as a move forward instead of dwelling on the past and is the only gauntlet thrown in the entire film. It completely and rightfully insists that there are still women in punk after the fall of Riot Grrrl in the late 90s. This film knows and thinks that you know that there are other documentaries on Riot Grrrl and you can look to those if you need to. Released in 2011, this film was likely in editing as people were discussing a "Riot Grrrl Revival" both in mainstream and underground press. This babble was mostly influenced by the release of Sara Marcus' 2010 book Girls to the Front. The "Revival" was mostly hype or wishful thinking on one or both sides, and died out by 2011 either to a stalemate or lack of actual interest.

These are not the worst examples...
This is not to say that Hit So Hard and From the Back of the Room are the only documentaries on queer punks, punk women, or punks in general to suffer from the problem of static medium or medium-long shots and talking heads. They are not even the worst examples. The only two or so dynamic punk films I have seen are Afropunk, the short Grrlyshow which splices in a lot of retro footage. Even D.I.Y. or Die has some motion or variety of shots in it. I just do not understand why one would make a film on punk and not feature at least a tracking shot of a band dragging their equipment into the venue, at the very least. Or even live performances.