Showing posts with label feminism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label feminism. Show all posts

Monday, June 9, 2014

Biker Chick Double Feature: She-Devils on Wheels (1968) & Easy Wheels (1989)

Repost from 2011.


She-Devils on Wheels
Dir. Herschel Gordon Lewis || 1968 || USA

Despite some impressive visuals in the few films of his I've seen, I'm not exactly an H.G. Lewis fan. I sort of appreciate Lewis' use of bright colors in his films, even if I tend to like the artwork on the walls in his films more than the films themselves. With this in mind, I watched She-Devils on Wheels expecting the worst and actually ended up liking the film. Lewis made the film after criticism of how women were often treated in his other films. She-Devils on Wheels is about a female motorcycle gang called The Man-Eaters that often fights better than the male motorcycle gangs. The Man-Eaters race each other, and whomever wins gets first pick in "the stud line", a group a men that come to their house. The film makes an attempt to follow newer recruit Karen, but tends to pick up and drop her storyline as it pleases. Karen comes into play only after the gang beats up her favorite "stud" Bill, who they think she's in love with, which is against the gang's rules. She comes into play later in the film when her clean cut ex-boyfriend Ted warns her about the male motorcycle gang that has it out for the Man-Eaters. Ted often implores Karen to leave, but she refuses. I think Ted and Karen are supposed to be the moral center, acknowledging that being in any sort of gang probably is not good, but most of the film makes it seem kind of fun. However, the majority of the film is racing and the stud line parties. Lewis uses the shots of people driving away and parking way too much, but it's kind of a fun film when there is dialogue. The final scenes of the battle with the male motorcycle gangleader is bananas in the most perfect way possible.

Easy Wheels
Dir. David O'Malley || 1989 || USA

Easy Wheels is an odd and occasionally funny comedy with the pedigree of having been written by Ivan and Sam Raimi (Sam writing under the pseudonym Celia Abrams) and being produced by Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell. Like She-Devils on Wheels, it concerns a rival male and female motorcycle gangs, but with added mythos behind each leader. She-Wolf (Eileen Davidson from The House on Sorority Row and the soap operas The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives, and The Bold and the Beautiful) is the leader of the gang The Women of the Wolf. They have been riding around the Midwest and stealing babies. They deposit the female babies to a park so that they can be raised by wolves and they leave the male babies with a baby broker who runs a sleazy bar. She-Wolf was raised by wolves herself and believes that she can create a new and more formidable society of women by stealing babies and having them also raised by wolves. They are tracked throughout the Midwest by The Bourne Losers, lead by Bruce, a Vietnam vet with a steel plate in his head that causes him to have visions. The gang's goals are to "find the evil, destroy the evil, and find a really great lite beer." So in real life, they would probably still be roaming around, twenty years later. Of course when they finally cross paths, She-Wolf and Bruce are immediately attracted to each other, causing She-Wolf to want to give up her abstinence (much to the dismay of her more devoted and/or lesbian gang members) so that she and the other members can bear children of free-spirited men. Bruce mostly remains in denial about She-Wolf being a babynapper.

Yeah, for a goofy little comedy, it kind of has a complicated plot. The ending gets a little confused in its message. Both gangs are laughable in their own ways, but I guess it is a given that babynapping is wrong, so The Bourne Losers are given more preference. Unlike The Man-Eaters in She-Devils on Wheels, The Women of the Wolf are a gang not only because they can fight and fight well, but because they are sick of being treated as second-class citizens. But it's hard to view them as "evil" when all they want is to remain independent and have a better society, either at a micro level or at a macro level.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Repost from 2011.

Dir. Amy Holden-Jones || 1982 || USA

For the next month, I'm going to be writing about the Slumber Party Massacre series of films, along with Sorority House Massacre. The Slumber Party Massacre series, along with the first Sorority House Massacre film, were all written and directed by women. The films were also distributed by two Roger Corman companies, New World, then Concorde (or New Concorde). Corman also produced all but the first Slumber Party Massacre film.


Slumber Party Massacre is considered the godmother of feminist horror films. Some credit it as being the inspiration for Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, although the film is mentioned only a few times throughout the course of the book (Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and I Spit on Your Grave are given more consideration). The film is notable as being  the first slasher film written and directed by women. Feminist author Rita Mae Brown co-wrote the script with Amy Holden Jones, who also directed. The film focuses on a group of high school girls that are on the basketball team together who have a slumber party for "old times sake" while the lead girl, Trish Devereaux's parents are out of town. Of course, that very weekend, a serial killer has escaped from prison. Brown and Jones intended it as a parody of slasher films, which in 1982, was still doing well as a genre, although there were already at least two parodies out, Student Bodies and Wacko. At some point, Jones decided to shoot the film as straight-forward, although there are a few amusing moments throughout the film. Brown later disowned the film claiming that the film added more to the problem rather than turning slasher films on its head, while Jones claims in the documentary Going to Pieces: the Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film that she remains proud of the film.

I think the feminism, as well as the horror and the humor in Slumber Party Massacre is more in the little details rather than the big picture. Upon second viewing, I forgot how T&A filled this film is, and between watching the second film and reading a little about the third film so far, it is my understanding that the T&A becomes less gratuitious and copious as the series wears on. Since the first SPM comes roughly 14 years after the height of the Second Wave feminist movement, it's a bit bizarre having to wonder if the braless-ness is due to feminism or due to wanting to appeal to guys. In retrospect, it seems like one of the rare times feminism and sex appeal intersect, but in the odd realm of the time before Third Wave feminism where people were sometimes more comfortably combining the two (of course this makes me wonder why bra burning is still not considered a tenet of feminism, whereas not shaving and constantly talking about not shaving is considered a rite of passage for most baby feminists). Watching the basketball scene early on in the film, I noticed both the braless-ness (logically, wouldn't that chafe while playing sports?) and that the actresses were perhaps not that great at pretending to play basketball, although most of the actresses are tall. Even with all the bouncing and nudity, the film still occasionally carries the air of an old Summer's Eve commercial.

Then there are the other little details. Besides the fact the film is about a girls basketball team, which is rare not just in horror films, but in other types of films; the film also features a telephone repairwoman and a general handywoman. All the girls seem obsessed with sports statistics, a point driven home quite often throughout the film. The most petite member of the team flips her much larger boyfriend after he sneaks up on her. The ostracized new girl, Valerie, and her younger sister Courtney, read Playgirl while occasionally keeping an eye on Trish's house (signaling that Brown and/or Jones are not anti-porn feminists). Trish did invite Valerie over, but Valerie overheard the snobby petite girl saying mean things about her and declined the invitation. These scenes sort of play as the anti-Carrie, displaying that some teenage girls can be nice and appreciative towards classmates who are talented and pretty and not make everything a competition.

The thing that has stood out for me with both viewings is that once they understand that a killer has been hanging around the house, characters both inside of the house and outside of the house make a valiant attempt to work together so as many people as possible are saved. The two goofy male classmates of the girls who came to the house to spy on the party seem to understand that in their attempt to go find help outside of the house, that they may not make it back alive. They're normal dorky teenage boys, they do not pretend to have machismo. Valerie has an intuition that something is not right and calls their coach as well as checks out the house herself, both from afar and eventually, up close. The film has this communal feel to it in these scenes as well as earlier ones where the girls do not fall trap to the usual horror trope of "I'll be right back, I'm gonna go check out the fusebox in the garage" by having everyone go check the fusebox together. Yeah, the kids do fall victim anyway due to things like not locking the garage door and not keeping all the window and doors in the house closed and locked, but there are interesting attempts to buck the tropes a little.

The humor in the film is somewhat amusing. Throughout the film, there are sort of faux-jump scares. They do not work, but I'm not sure that they were intended to most of the time. This mostly consists of assorted male (and sometimes female) characters coming up behind one of the girls and inadvertently scaring them. The weirdest attempts at humor come towards the end of the film, as one of the girls decides that fear makes her hungry and that eating will make her feel better, and she starts eating a slice of pizza atop the dead pizza delivery guy, much to the disgust of the other girls. There's also the scene where a girl searches for a suitable deadly and threatening tool in the basement, and charges up the stairs with a plugged-in circular saw.

I was flipping through my copy of Clover's book, and she mentions in the afterword that a lot of horror filmmakers do read Freud, and that some other directors had changed their films a bit after reading the first and early-released chapter of her book, including the director of Slumber Party Massacre III. So yes, everyone knows that the drill that the killer uses is one absurdly huge phallic symbol. As is the machete that one of the girls uses to dispatch the killer. While I haven't read Clover's book in years, I have the vague remembrance that she discusses the sort of fluid sexualities of most slasher film killers. I think the killer in SPM is perhaps no exception. Yes, he kills a couple of women at first, but for a good stretch of the film, he mostly kills males. However, there is the feeling that he is killing the males just to be able to get to the girls easier. The killer is psychotic to the point where he kills a person in a front yard, so he is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of the girls. I don't think he is telling the males that they are pretty and that he loves them and that is why he has to kill them, but then again, Brown and Jones do not have him utter a word until the final scene of the film.

Slumber Party Massacre is not the greatest slasher film, but it is an interesting one and deserves its place in horror history. The characters are likeable. The way the film is shot is gritty and more technically adventurous than most female directors' first films. While perhaps not a straight parody, it has a lot of different details to it and it was attempting to buck the tropes a decade or two before the most recent horror trend of neo-slashers playing with the tropes and usually with middling success.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007)

Repost from 2011, when I was probably still working out my past in zines and feminist art collectives. I have been spending a lot of time lately reworking and rewriting a paper I wrote last year on Born in Flames and while I still think Itty Bitty Titty Committee is a cute, friendly film, it really is kind of gutless compared to Born in Flames. Then again, most things are.

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Dir. Jamie Babbit || 2007 || USA

Jamie Babbit's Itty Bitty Titty Committee at times feels like a lighter, more focused and coherent (and let's face it, whiter, especially for a film that takes place in Los Angeles) post-riot grrrl millenial version of Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. The film focuses on a Los Angeles feminist art collective called Clits in Action (CiA) and their ambition to spread the word about feminism and their collective while dealing with a whole lot of lesbian drama. Having been in a few creative feminist collectives myself, I would say that the film does a decent job of displaying the frustrations of doing such activities; but at the same time, it's lacking a few elements, like haters who never do any work and meetings that just turn into long bitch sessions (not to be confused with Consciousness Raising). Former supermodel Jenny Shimizu strolls around once an act with a snide comment, but she's not a part of the collective, she just lives in their warehouse headquarters.

At the same time, I want to say that this is a truly escapist film for feminists and lesbians. There is a scene around the end of the second act or beginning of the third act where Meat, who supplies most of the art for the collective tells the other members that the only people looking at their website is them. The group is already tense due to an uptick in lesbian drama and the fact that their most outspoken member Shulamith got them in the news for brawling with a Christian woman at a gay marriage rally (where CiA went to try to tell everyone that marriage altogether should be abolished, thereby having the media portray them as anti-gay [marriage]). Of course the group disbands in the next scene, and of course our protagonist Anna comes up with an outlandish plan to get the collective back together as well as make it notorious. Parts of the last act of the film are eerily like the last act in Born in Flames, but much giddier and silly with presumably no deaths for the national monument that they destroy. The collective apparently grows and expands, everyone's happy! In real life, the entire group would be arrested on terrorist charges or the collective would not have banded back together at all to begin with. See, Itty Bitty Titty Committee is good escapist fare!

From an old organizer and promoter perspective, I think what the CiA lacked was self-awareness. They were a painfully insular group, and I say this having been in some painfully insular collectives and subcultures myself. They have zines and fliers made up promoting the collective, but the only new member brought in for the entire film is Anna and maybe Calvin, an honorably discharged female soldier and explosives expert they pick up on the way to the gay marriage rally in Sacramento. Then they complain that no one is paying attention to them and their acts of guerilla art, but they're not shown posting fliers around town. The zines that they have aren't even stapled or rubberbanded (but at least the insides looked like a real zine...and the film's opening credits are based on zine and '77 punk aesthetics). I know Los Angeles in the past decade has not been a bastion for zinemaking, but there are several scenes in the film where the women are at some punk bar that has shows with female musicians and are full of women. That element I know was somewhat true of Los Angeles in the past decade, so why not hand out fliers and zines there? For all the old riot grrrl music played throughout the film, you would think they would pick up on some old riot grrrl promotion tactics. To their merit, Anna does slip the CiA's zines into the beauty magazines in the lobby of the plastic surgery clinic she works at, which is an old riot grrrl tactic. But when she later tries to convince a client who wants a boob job (Melanie Lynskey from Heavenly Creatures) not to go through with it, she gets a blank stare. This film somewhat caters to some basic Feminism 101 ideas, so there are no gray areas for their to be room to say "well, if you're into letting a woman choose what to do with her body as far as babies go, then you kind of have to accept the idea that some women want to put silicone, collagen, and other weird things into their bodies too." And considering this film came out in the mid-2000s, let's face it, they needed a Myspace page. That's how you spread the word about stuff in 2006 or 2007, even if Myspace was on its way out by early 2008. But there was not even an obnoxious rant about how Rupert Murdoch owns Myspace and it is therefore a tool of the conservative patriarchy. But then again, having Myspace in your film is how you automatically date it, even 3 or 4 years later ('sup Diary of the Dead?).

Itty Bitty Titty Committee is a fun little film.  It's friendly to young feminists and lesbians while not being a total bore for ones that are a little older (if anything, some of Shulamith and Anna's behavior made me cringe - I remember being that obnoxious about certain issues in my early 20s). The only thing that grated on my nerves is that the soundtrack was too dedicated to two musical projects each by Kathleen Hanna and Corin Tucker. Radio Sloan of The Need "composed" the soundtrack. Yes, both women have had some cool bands (and some better than others - Le Tigre hasn't aged well) for the past 15 years, but there are other bands out there! It doesn't and didn't start and end with Kathleen Hanna and Corin Tucker!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

(Film) books, check 'em ouuuuuuuuut!

Repost from 2011, pre-grad school days. I re-read the two middle books at least twice during the course of my graduate education. The nitpicking may still stand, but I can discuss the theoretical issues with the two books pretty well when I want to.
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Here are some of the film books I was reading a month or so ago. Other than the Jonathan Lethem book, I felt the need to start out with some classics and basics

Feminist Film Theorists (Routeledge Critical Thinkers Series) - Shohini Chaudhuri
I think the number one thing I learned from this book is of the divide in early feminist film criticism that was American (sociological) versus British (psychological). And for the most part, this book puts forth the more psychological theorists. It's a minor fact, but it sort of explains why I do not absorb the psychological aspects too well. I was very close to minoring in sociology during various points in college as well. This book is mostly good as a starting point, but not much else.




Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle - Vera Dika
This was released roughly a year before Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover's book is more in-depth. Dika has some fleeting good ideas and it's not too bogged down with psychological theories; but it's a basic book that monotonously outlines the monotony of slasher/stalker films by discussing the plots of about a dozen films; in particular the Jamie Lee Curtis ouevre. Dika's jumping off point is Psycho, but from there she goes straight to Halloween, while only giving passing and brief references to Peeping Tom and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My problem with this book and Clover's book is that it skips over Black Christmas. I do not know the history of Black Christmas past what Wikipedia tells us, and it wasn't a film I remember seeing around often in video stores when I was a kid and teenager. Was Black Christmas that obscure? Did Dika ignore it because it was Canadian or because it had an experienced cast in John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea; a post-Sisters, pre-Superman Margot Kidder, and a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin? Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas do not completely fit in the checklist of plot occurrences that Dika outlines for the films she discusses in this book, but neither does Psycho. By and large, The Burning seems to be more obscure than Black Christmas, yet that film receives a section in this book.

Other issues I had with this book: the frequent misspellings and typos. She misspells Steven Spielberg's name quite often. It was also hard to tell whether or not Dika was approaching these films from a feminist POV (and then a feminist POV as to whether or not slasher films can be feminist). And the way she used a Freudian binary system to declare characters as valued or devalued did not sit well with me. It's not a terrible book, but it has some issues that made me twitch.


Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film - Carol J. Clover
I have read this book twice now and in regards to the first book I reviewed in this post, I am perhaps still finding trouble absorbing most of the psychological criticism in this book. The only thing I feel as if I better absorbed this time around was the chapter on possession films and the chapter on the sort of meta horror films that concern viewing horror films (Peeping Tom, Demons). I did check out a lot of the films mentioned since having first read this book in 2006, like the oft-mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, I checked out so many of these films that I could parse out some of Clover's mistakes (wrong dates, the implication that Motel Hell was inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 when Motel Hell was released six years before that sequel - also TCM2 is a terrible movie and I don't understand why anyone would want to write at length about it). I can't get too mad at Clover about them though, because for one thing, she's an expert in something like Nordic history. Film is not her primary academic interest, although the dates thing bugs me a bit because most VHS boxes back in the day did have dates on them, and it's not that hard to figure out dates from the roman numerals on copyrights at the end of films. And again, nary a word on Black Christmas, although at least Clover does cover Peeping Tom extensively. Also, for better or for worse, I can't shake off the fact that it is acknowledged by Clover herself in the Afterword that the writer of Slumber Party Massacre 3 changed the story significantly after reading the first chapter of her book, which was released in an academic journal in 1987; making for that film's ugly and brutal third act three years later.


Proof of my marginalia in Men, Women, and Chainsaws.




Deep Focus #1: A Novel Approach to Cinema: They Live - Jonathan Lethem

They Live is the first book in a new series of books published by Soft Skull press that allows fiction writers to discuss their favorite films. I haven't read any other books in the series yet, so I don't know if all the other writers take the same approach as Lethem. Lethem writes about John Carpenter's They Live on a almost shot-by-shot or scene-by-scene basis, each with a timecode reference. Some scenes receive only a paragraph of discussion, others receive up to four pages. It took me awhile to get used to this approach as I was sort of expecting something akin to the short books the British Film Institute publishes on films (although it is mostly film critics and academics who write those) that are long essays or treatises on a certain film. But after getting used to Lethem's approach, I found that he does have some interesting things to say about They Live, especially in connection to the art of Jenny Holzer and Shepard Fairey.



Thursday, May 8, 2014

Flesh for Frankenstein & Blood for Dracula (a.k.a. Andy Warhol's Frankenstein & Andy Warhol's Dracula) (1974)


Dir. Paul Morrissey || 1974 || US-Italy-France & Italy-France  

It is advisable to watch Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula back-to-back if possible. It is how they were made and both have the same main three actors (Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Arno Juerging) in similar roles - Kier as Dr. Frankenstein, then Dracula; Dallesandro as the proletariat servant-gigolo, and Juerging as Frankenstein and Dracula's assistants. Although the films appear to take place in different time periods, they also seem to be similar in atmosphere...and that atmosphere is bizarre, trashy, and campy. These are not adaptations to watch if you are looking for faithful adaptations of Frankenstein or Dracula. Both of these films seem to take place in some realm either before or after those stories, or almost a netherworld just outside of the original stories. It is a world that takes some adjustment because while it is laughable in Frankenstein that an actor with an Italian accent and Joe Dallesandro with his heavy New York accent are supposed to be lifelong friends who grew up together in some European countryside; by the time you get to Dracula you just kind of have to accept that Dallesandro is going to stick out like a sore thumb. Udo Kier takes some adjusting as well, although he fits into these films easier than Dallesandro, especially Dracula. For at least the first half-hour of Frankenstein, I could not shake the notion that Tommy Wiseau has been fooling us all along and is just doing a very extended impersonation of a young Udo Kier in Frankenstein. Except Udo Kier actually seems to be mentally present in his scenes, and not in space like Wiseau. 

While Flesh for Frankenstein ends on a note similar to Twitch of the Death Nerve, I find Blood for Dracula more interesting and prefer it a little more. In Blood for Dracula, Dracula and his assistant have traveled to the Italian countryside so that Dracula can find a bride, preferably a virgin. They take up with a family with four beautiful daughters who have fallen on hard times due to their father's gambling problems. They are able to keep their villa, but the daughters must do the farming. They only keep one servant - a handyman played by Dallesandro of course.  And of course the mother is insistent on allowing Dracula and his assistant to stay with them, although almost all of the daughters find him to be creepy and too sickly to marry. The family has two virginal daughters who are actually virgins; and two wild daughters who lie about being virgins, because they have both been having sex with the handyman, and apparently with each other. The wild daughters are steadfast about their lying, even when Dracula tries to insist that he does not mind if they are not virgins and that it is just something his family insists on. Dracula  finds himself poisoned as soon as he tries to drink the blood of the two wilder daughters.

What I find interesting about Blood for Dracula is that the daughters' situation or prospects is beset on all sides. Dallesandro's Socialist handyman character insists that the aristocracy is dying and perhaps the girls should learn how to work; which is not a terrible idea, except for the fact that Dallesandro's character is a rampant misogynist and a rapist. Blood for Dracula takes place in the early 20th Century, not the 19th, so it is a bit odd that there is the insistence of keeping up appearances with the mother, although it is often remarked that the family has not had visitors in years. If that is the case, then there is no need to worry about shocking society if the daughters do not marry an aristocrat or a wealthy man. The other side to this is that other than perhaps the youngest daughter, the daughters seem to be settled into the idea that they should marry up (just up, not middle or down or even for love really) and that there are no other options because that is how they were raised. The father (played by director Vittorio de Sica) leaves the film early on for London, leaving the mother and daughters to fend for themselves (i.e., remain willfully ignorant of how dangerous Dracula is). Only the handyman catches on to Dracula's nature which leads to the gory and over-the-top fight sequence at the end of the film. And Dracula is not a romantic hero, he is a conservative traditionalist and a rapist as well considering that he attacks the daughters often in mid-conversation. While one could find the end of Blood for Dracula a bit more hopeful than the ending to Flesh for Frankenstein (or see it as the Socialist/proletariat killing off one more crumbling aristocrat), I do not believe that the survivors are much better off with the handyman. The film seems to be more concerned with the Socialist argument with just a bit of subtext thrown in to acknowledge the changing times, but it does not appear that it wants to give the female characters in the film too much choice in the matter. 


And this is just creepy. 
(I am not commenting much on the hand that Andy Warhol had in making these movies, because it seems as if it was in name only; besides the presence of Joe Dallesandro, who was one of his people. If one was expecting a set of films with pop-art sensibilities, they would be somewhat surprised that both films were shot in neutral tones. I guess better to see the eventual blood, gore, and Udo Kier's blue eyes with.)

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 14, 2014

Quick Notes on Representation and Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?


Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Dir. William Klein) is centered around an American fashion model in Paris named Polly Maggoo, of course. The film never quite settles on what is fantasy and what is reality until the end of the film. It is also hard to say what type of P.O.V. the film is taking. Third person? A documentary of a TV documentary crew? Klein builds Polly as a construct from the beginning and Polly sees herself as a construct of sorts. The TV crew and especially the producer follow her around just because she is not being forthcoming enough, all the while constantly editing her piece in a positive, negative and almost irreverent fashion depending on their feelings towards her. One crew member is bent on depicting her as a Cinderella story while at the same time showing the darker version of the fairy tale and connecting it to the fashion industry.

The fantasy storyline concerns Prince Igor, a European prince who pines for Polly just based on her photos and apparently some Hollywood-based notion of what American women are like, mostly based in Classical Hollywood musicals (Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers...although I have no idea where the brief shot of Polly chained to a wall wearing a leather bikini means or comes from in terms of Classical Hollywood musicals).

The TV producer, full of self-loathing (while directing some loathing towards Polly) performs some pop-psychology tests on her asking what type of plant she would be, etcetera, who she would rather have sex with (lists various historical figures), "reading" her face and walk. He seems no closer to understanding her, and she tells him so. He, and the rest of the documentary crew keep insisting that she does not know who she is - that is debatable because we rarely see Polly alone partially because of the crew that follows and stalks her.

The ending sets up Polly's fall, at least her "public" fall - the magazine editor sees her as a "Cinderella"-type, not a "rocket"-type (although Polly claims on her test that she would like to be a rocket) and hires a different model behind her back. Prince Igor arrives to Polly's apartment moments after she leaves, meets Polly's similar-looking neighbor and instantly falls in love with her. People on the street do not find Polly's pictures attractive. The TV producer stops hating himself, professes his love to Polly and turns into a prince, but that is not mentioned at the very end, where Polly is roaming the streets happily with the crowds who are awaiting the arrival/parade for Prince Igor. Titles at the end feature a sad song about Polly's end.

Again, this is her fall in the eyes of the public, while Polly is very happy with herself because she is not under scrutiny anymore. This film is bizarrely progressive in this matter.

PS - This film is available on Hulu+ under the Criterion Collection. And yes, the opening scene is referenced in the video for "No You Girls" by Franz Ferdinand.


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.