Showing posts with label indie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label indie. Show all posts

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.


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 20, 2014

Smithereens (1982)

Repost from 2011.

Dir. Susan Seidelman || 1982 || USA

Recently, there have been a few films that have popped up on Netflix Watch Instantly from the 1980s that concern young women trying to become famous via punk music. So far Smithereens has been the only one I have watched (unless you count Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains). The premises of Smithereens and the like films kind of boggle my mind, but I came up in a post-punk, post-Ian Mackaye, post-hardcore, post-riot grrrl world where one is not supposed to get into punk or zines or whatever for fame, money, or even glory really. Punk and its various subcultures now are perhaps overly earnest, naive, and insular; things I'm realizing more and more as I get older and more distanced. I was a year old when this film was released, but it is my understanding that punk was already on the decline by 1982, and that is the world that Smithereens somewhat reflects. It's also one of those New York City films that could never be remade today. This film and The Howling are two films off the top of my head that show how decrepit NYC was 30+ years ago.

Smithereens is about a 19-year-old girl named Wren from the North New Jersey suburbs who comes to NYC to yes, seek fame in punk music. She works in a copy shop where she makes fliers of her face to post around the city. She constantly claims to be busy trying to get bands together, but it never happens. She's rarely seen actually speaking to musicians who might want to be in a band. She's blown off by a band who plays frequently at The Peppermint Lounge. She gets involved with Eric (Richard Hell) a has-been singer from a one-hit wonder band called The Smithereens. From Eric she learns that most of the punks have left NYC for Los Angeles. So she schemes to somehow get enough money to leave with Eric. In the mix is Paul, a cute guy traveling through NYC from Montana who sleeps in his van and eventually wants to settle in New Hampshire. He's enamored of Wren, but she blows him off and generally just toys with him until he gets tired of it, which takes awhile.

Wren is not a sympathetic character. She's manipulative and is basically a bum in both the sense of constantly couch-surfing (or bed-surfing, or van-surfing), borrowing money to the point where even her family refuses to loan her anymore, and being a social climber of sorts. And yeah, people like her do exist in punk and zines. Although she goes as far as acting jealous and fighting other women Eric speak to and ruining "business" Eric is trying to attend to so he can further his own career; you do feel sorry for her sometimes, especially at the end of the film. But despite how unlikeable almost every character in the film is, Smithereens is a interesting and fairly compelling movie. Seidelman gets bonus points for having The Feelies' "The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness" as the main and recurring theme for the film. The Feelies' Bill Million helped with the soundtrack.

PS - I was finding it weird that the film was called Smithereens, after Eric's band, when Eric is a secondary character. But it is perhaps an appropriate title to the film because of the phrase "blown to smithereens", which is what Wren's life is throughout the entire film.

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.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What I have been watching lately: Jean Rollin, Red State, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story...

Repost from November 2011.
I should be working on papers right now, although I took an extension on them for Winter Break because of intermittent severe headaches and vision problems leftover from my concussion in October. I have no control over when they happen, and unfortunately they keep happening when I want or need to write or do research. My papers, as I predicted in October, are on Jean Rollin, classical French film theory, and I also have one on Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon that I have been sitting on, unfinished, since the day before my concussion. I have been on a French film and surrealist bender this quarter. I have been watching a lot of Jean Rollin's films this year and this past month. While my paper will only be focusing on The Rape of the Vampire and The Night of the Hunted (one of his three "zombie" films), I have still been watching anything of his that interests me or that I can get my hands on. The only one of his films that I cannot recommend at any level is Zombie Lake, which oddly enough, is his fairly straight zombie picture...I say "fairly straight" because it does have a story line where one of the Nazi zombies has reunited with his pre-teen daughter...although the Nazis were assassinated during of course, World War II by the villagers, and the film seems to take place in 1980, which makes no sense if the daughter is ten years old. Zombie Lake was also one of Rollin's lowest budgeted pictures, and that's saying something if you have ever seen any of his movies or read much on his films. It is one of the few Rollin pictures where you can tell that it seemed impossible to make the most of what little money there was.

Yeah, I don't know either. At least the Italians made their zombies look all arts & craftsy, what with the papier mache faces.

I think I discovered Rollin at a good point, considering for the past couple of years or so, I have been quite bored with horror at times. While Rollin has his obsessions that anyone will notice if they watch enough of his films, including how entrenched he is in surrealism well after its time as an art movement was over; I like how unconventional his films are. His endings are rarely happy and even if certain films end relatively well for the characters, there is still a sense of melancholia or even a looming sense of death. 

Speaking of unconventional horror films, I watched Red State last weekend. I am not a Kevin Smith megafan. I liked his movies when I was a teenager, but now I tend to see every other one if it sounds kind of interesting. Red State is not a perfect film - it is not subtle in its message, it's final message is kind of mixed, Melissa Leo's acting was over the top, and the opening scene at the high school bugs me to no end because that is not how a public school teacher acts in any era; but it is unconventional. It is almost like Full Metal Jacket how abruptly it switches gears, tone, and the characters we follow. Who we expect to live just based on horror conventions, likeability, or even logic is defied. The only other good thing I can say about the film is that John Goodman is awesome in it. I have missed seeing John Goodman in movies.

I have been watching a lot of bad TV this past week since last Monday night I had the worst headache I have had since hitting my head. My doctor says it is okay if I watch stupid things. So I was bedridden for a couple of days watching nothing but the second season of The Walking Dead so far and whatever episodes of American Horror Story I could find on Hulu. 

I was not a total fan of the first season of The Walking Dead. I maintain that the first episode was wonderful. But if I have to remain diplomatic at some level, I will say that the even numbered episodes were terrible, while the odd ones were better. Other than Rick being Sheriff Exposition for the first five minutes of the second season premiere, the first episode of this season was pretty good. Unfortunately, it has become tedious and like a spinning tire*. I look forward to this week's episode if it means opening up the zombie barn and maybe losing a few more characters. The series likes to project things, then take several episodes, if perhaps another season to get to the issue and/or resolve it. Lori's pregnancy for example. What is being projected this year from the main characters and secondary or even tertiary characters is Rick's leadership, the issue of neglect, and the idea of splitting up the group. Shane and Andrea, obviously. Daryl in last week's episode (and Daryl truly needs to ditch the group, even if it means taking boring old Carol), and in the second episode, T-Dog, even if he reneges on the idea later. What I find weird about T-Dog's "fever" thoughts is that he is right - he, Dale, and sometimes even Glenn are sidelined because of their age (Dale) and races (T-Dog and Glenn). Women on this show are sidelined altogether. The Walking Dead is not exactly Lost, where we learn about each character every week. Granted, Lost was not a perfect show either and harped on the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle for several seasons, but at least each character got his or her individual episodes! And maybe The Walking Dead is going in that direction a bit this season, where we followed Shane and his adventure to get medical supplies to help Carl, and last week's episode with Daryl in the woods, but it was too little and did not establish much beyond what we already knew: Shane is likely deranged, and Daryl is a badass...and oh, he's not as racist as his brother Merle because he has saved T-Dog at least three times by now**. I think they fired last season's writers and replaced them with even worse writers. But yeah, the group will at least temporarily disband before the season is over. And maybe Lori will finally tell Rick about her pregnancy and/or her time with Shane, and maybe The Walking Dead will finally have a Maury Povich-based episode. And I guess Daryl better watch it since characters played by noted indie character actors do not live forever on this show, as this season has shown yet again.

We know that Shane is crazy because of the shaved head, vacant stare, mouth agape, and furrowed brow.
American Horror Story is at least fun-bad and thoroughly entertaining. It is truly the most batshit live-action television show I have ever seen. The pregnant wife eats a brain like it's no thing! There is a teenage boy stuck in 1994 who frequently speaks of Kurt Cobain (just Kurt Cobain, never Nirvana), Quentin Tarantino, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro; and the depressed neo-Blossom Russo-dressed teenage daughter of the family nevernever asks him his opinion on the more recent and terrible movies Pacino and DeNiro have been in! I have never been one for haunted house stories, but American Horror Story takes your average haunted house story and amps it up several times over and then combines it with at least one other horror story or trope every week, usually more than one! It is hard to say if there is a bigger meaning to this show, I doubt it even knows. The classmate who told me about this show said it was Ryan Murphy's gay revenge on America. We keep discovering the lives of the previous inhabitants who are now ghosts of the house. There is the drunk surgeon-turned-abortionist-turned-mad scientist and his wife, two nursing students, a gay couple, a woman who was raped, the pregnant mistress maybe, the male redheaded twins...but we also have the people from the home invasion episode, and rubber man who may or may not be a ghost. I mean, I guess redheads have been persecuted throughout society. Some people believe that everyone on this show is a ghost! We will eventually find out that the house was built on an Native American burial ground, because why not?

American Horror Story is also fun because most episodes feature at least one "hey, it's that guy!/lady!" moment. 

Rubber Man, Rubber Man. Does whatever a rubber can...except not.
* Yesterday, I read this post at the TCM Movie Morlocks blog that discusses how bloodthirsty zombie movie fans and movie characters are these days. I would not say that I am a bloodthirsty zombie fan or that the characters on The Walking Dead are bloodthirsty (although that is another inconsistency, especially with Rick). I would like The Walking Dead to be a watchable show that like in the first episode, does consider that the zombies were people once. Overall, I would like a good story and some characters I could care about and who are maybe more thoughtful or intelligent. The only thing The Walking Dead has been somewhat good at displaying is the tried-and-true story method of humans being just as dangerous to humans as zombies are, if not more so.

** 2011 seems to be the year of the (good) redneck in horror. I finally saw Tucker and Dale vs. Evil a couple of weeks ago because it surprisingly came to the indie theater in town (I guess because it takes place in West Virginia, and I live about 40 minutes away from the West Virginia state line now). I was worried that it would not meet my expectations because I have been anticipating this movie for almost two years, but I also had no idea what the film was about past the trailer. It was a good, fun movie that was surprisingly sweet and had some interesting twists to the story and characters. And yes, the film was quite gory at times. So there are surprises out there every once in awhile. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Crazy Theory #1: Thor: The Dark World and Nymphomaniac (NSFW/NSFWish)

Welcome to Crazy Theories, where I discuss weird theories I have about films for no particular reason.

Image taken from Honest Trailers: Thor: The Dark World
In November, already having seen the short trailers and character posters for Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, I went to see Thor: The Dark World in theaters. I am not really a Thor fan, but I figured I would give it a try. Stellan Skarsgard's Erik Selvig spends part of the film running around naked before being placed in a psychiatric facility and bailed out by Jane and Darcy. I want to believe that this is Marvel's way of helping promote Nymphomaniac, a smaller film, although one generated by controversy because it is a Lars von Trier movie. And Lars von Trier is going to Lars von Trier.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Conflicted Romantic Protagonists in (500) Days of Summer and +1 (Plus One)

Spoilers ahead for +1, the newer film. 

(500) Days of Summer (2009, Dir. Marc Webb) and +1 (2013, Dir. Dennis Iliadis) are both a part of a somewhat recent spate of films that involve romantic male protagonists that if you think about it enough, are completely unsympathetic characters who paint their girlfriends or ex-girlfriends as villains simply by the will of their own states of denial and imaginations. The other similarity between these two films is that they deal with time - (500) Days of Summer through memories and filmic time, and +1 by virtue of being a science fiction film that involves doubles/alternate universes and time. +1 is bizarrely the more linear film. Despite the trailer making it appear to be something along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is more about what happens when and if doubles encounter each other at a gigantic college party where each person attending has a double. The "why" part does not factor in to +1, it is more of a tale about fear of being replaced and morality.

David, the protagonist of +1 has been recently dumped by his girlfriend of two years, Jill, after she finds him accidentally kissing her similar-featured fencing opponent after a match. She is also unhappy that David appears to be content with staying in the town they grew up in and stagnant. They both of course end up at the large party, with David intent on winning Jill back. David, his two friends, and another party guest are the first two notice the existence of doubles after the lights mysteriously flicker on and off due to a faulty transformer. Actions are being repeated. David manages to subdue his double. But with each electricity flicker, the repeated actions of the doubles start to get closer in time to the current actions of the original attendees. This eventually results in confrontation because both groups of people are confused and scared. David, in the melee, of course tries to repair his relationship with Jill. Failing to win her back with one conversation, he tries it again on Jill's double, this time saying the "right" things and the couple appears to get back together. But like a wacky romantic comedy with an extreme dark side, David has to keep second Jill away from "original" Jill. This ultimately does not go well for "original" Jill. The final shot of the film is the party's host and various attendees walking around shocked, devastated, and crying, while David and second Jill make out beside the estate's pool house. Granted, one might want to feel uneasy about the protagonist being played by Rhys Wakefield, the creepy blond preppy killer from last year's The Purge, but he does well with playing normal for most of the film.

(500) Days of Summer is the more complex film that has been subject to different interpretations. I have heard the sentence, "You can tell a lot about a person about who they think the villain is in (500) Days of Summer." I think sometimes interpretations are based on depending on who you find to be more attractive, Joseph Gordon Levitt or Zooey Deschanel, since some people have a near-rabid hatred towards Deschanel and her image. This film makes a weak attempt to have her play against this image, but the sheer Etsyness of some of the aesthetics of the film overpowers this attempt. Joseph Gordon Levitt has had to comment about people who think Tom is the ideal boyfriend, stating that Tom actually is not a good boyfriend at all. Whenever I watch this film (which has been two times now), I watch it with my brow furrowed. I do not think it is a very funny film. It is sad and a little scary more than anything. It is also a 90 minute indie music compilation that also doubles as an IKEA advertisement. Who goes on dates at IKEA? She's wearing a dress and he is wearing a shirt and tie (under a hoodie) to IKEA!

What is odd about the film is that while it wants to point out that Tom and his friends are maybe not that great, and that Tom's perception and memories of Summer were filtered through his own point of view and selfishness, (500) Days of Summer has an ambivalence about both Tom and Summer that constantly switches until the last half hour or so of the film. In the last third of the film, while it wants to show that both Tom and Summer changed from their quasi-relationship, the film propels itself to the requisite happy ending for Tom, and an inscrutable ending for Summer. There are multiple interpretations of whether or not she is actually happy being married. The film sets this up to an extent by showing the ending to The Graduate twice in the film, which also features an inscrutable ending. The first time the ending of The Graduate is displayed to show that Tom thought it was a happy ending, especially when he was younger. The second time, the ending is shown to display that Summer finds it to be a sad ending, to the point where she is crying in the theater. This is also what seems to spawn her decision to break up with Tom.

(500) Days of Summer also attempts to align itself with French New Wave films from the 1960s and briefly with Ingmar Bergman. This accounts for not only the shallow comedic parodies that Tom seems to mentally project onto a movie screen while at the theater after the breakup, but with the nonlinear time structure of the film. Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad is also a film about the issues of memory and denial unfurled out in an even more nonlinear, repetitive fashion than Days of Summer. (500) Days of Summer at least flashes what day of obsession Tom is on throughout the course of the film. Typical American romcom structure, even filtered through an "Indiewood" production, still demands a happy ending and some clarity.

Despite the film being a commentary on modern relationships and how filtered they are through greeting cards/greeting card holidays, films of any sort (Star Wars and Ferris Bueller's Day Off are also referenced in the film) and even music, the commentary for the most part falls flat. The film tries to either take an ambivalent or neutral stake in the relationship and eventual break up of Tom and Summer, but it is unclear in its attempt to do so. This is the ultimate failure of the film. The film ends with the sentence of someone (the screenwriters? the director?) calling an ex-girlfriend a "bitch", thereby canceling any sort of neutral stance built up in the film. They are no different from Tom and his friends at their most unbearable in the film, with their preconceived, gossipy notions of Summer being a "stuck up bitch" or a "skank" before they even talk to her. (500) Days of Summer, despite being filtered through the maximum Etsy "cute and quirky" filter, is ultimately a film about awful people both in front of and behind the camera, but who only have an inkling about how insufferable they are. The cluelessness is not played up by anyone or for anyone except for Tom on occasion. I get it, these people have faults, but this film seems to think its more charming about it than it actually is.

In some ways The Break-Up is a more radical film than (500) Days of Summer because it at least puts forth the idea that Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's characters are okay being single, apart, and moving on with their lives by the end of the film with little regrets. That film, if I remember correctly, also seemed to give equal share to the couple's individual point of view. (500) Days of Summer denies Summer a point of view, and that is why this movie fails to some degree in any vague attempt to take a neutral stance on Tom and Summer's relationship. Summer, wholly intentionally or no, is just built up as an object - from her initial physical descriptions (we are not given the height, weight, and shoe size of Tom) to her apparent influence (all with the implication it is because of her beauty)  - and remains so for the film. Despite the "edgy" attempt to break stereotypes and to have her be the more reluctant person in love and not wanting a relationship (and stating this quite a few times), it rings cheap and false because we are not given much reason insight to why she thinks this way other than her parents divorced. Even with the expense of making the film 30-45 minutes longer, would it have hurt to feature Summer's point of view more?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Found Footage Horror Project: Diary of the Dead

My response paper on Diary of the Dead from my Spring 2012 Independent Study is below, complete with bibliography this time (my professor sometimes asked for one, sometimes did not). This is also somewhat where I began to look at the more formalist elements of Found Footage Horror.

There appears to be no solid terminology to describe Diary of the Dead. The film typically is considered a found footage horror film, but unlike Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Cloverfield, there is no framing device stating that the footage has been found upon the demise or disappearance of the characters. The film-within-the-film has been uploaded to the internet, and there are mentions made throughout the film of uploading it to Youtube in pieces as it is being edited. Randy Laist, speculating on what “the Dead” in the title Diary of the Dead could refer to, comments that perhaps “the Dead” means that the three survivors shown at the end of the film are dead, that they died sometime after Debra uploaded the-film-within-the-film, “The Death of Death.” But even with this speculative idea, is footage purposefully uploaded to the internet by the filmmakers for the public to see “found footage”? If so, wouldn’t that make the vast majority of online videos “found footage”? Adam Lowenstein calling Diary of the Dead (as well as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield) “camera confessional” films is no better. The term “camera confessional” seems better associated with reality television shows or films about reality television, since the majority of reality television shows have “confessional” rooms for contestants to express their feelings or complain about other contestants to the camera. Diary of the Dead rarely features confessional scenes. Jason, the film student making “The Death of Death” only makes his friends speak their names and feelings about the new situation to the camera early in the film. Succeeding that, the characters are often bickering or whining while on camera when they are not fighting or running away from zombies. Their disdain for Jason in particular is not secretive, as they complain about his actions (or lack thereof) to the camera that is attached to his face. Jason never turns the camera on himself, but the final scene of the film does feature Jason in front of the camera, perkily giving his mission statement for documenting this new situation of the dead rising. His upbeat attitude is disturbing, but it is hard to determine whether this sequence is an afterthought or not. This late inclusion of Jason being on screen doubles as both an “in memoriam” sequence and an ironic sequence, as Jason is rarely seen in the film, and most glimpses of him do feature him with a camera to his face. However, there are DVD extras for Diary of the Dead that do feature “confessionals” by the characters. Kevin Wetmore alternates between referring to Diary of the Dead as a “first-person camera pseudodocumentary,” “metacinema,” and “citizen filmmaking.” He only comes close to justifying the “pseudodocumentary” comment, by discussing how “The Death of Death” is a construction by Debra, Jason’s girlfriend and editor of the film upon his death, and that documentary films are just as constructed as narrative films. Wetmore claims that we do not see the events as they happened, and the editing occasionally points out what has happened off-camera or left out of the film. Randy Laist’s article comes closest to supporting the idea that Diary of the Dead is a piece of “metacinema,” despite the humorous allusions to both Jason and George Romero as cybernetic beings because they have cameras attached to their faces. He mentions scenes of “cameras filming cameras filming cameras,” and hearkening back to early writings on cinema, when cinema was seen as a way of having life beyond death:

As a visual representation, the zombie personifies the living death of the filmic image. As a filmmaker, the zombie movie cameraman becomes a participant in the conversion of living subjects into living-dead ghouls. As a viewer, the zombie movie filmgoer experiences both the vicarious zombieism of sympathizing with the events on the screen and the immediate zombieism that creeps up from within as a result of his participation in a videotaped mass-culture defined by moving pictures; inanimate things brought to post-biological life, living subjects Internet-facilitated culture of consumer generated video content in which everyone is always simultaneously subject, filmmaker, and audience (104).

This later supports Laist’s suppositions of what “the Dead” in the title of the film refers to: the shown survivors of Debra, Tony, and Professor Maxwell (who may be dead after the films are over); the zombies – as Diary is supposed to be a re-boot or re-imagining of the Dead series, complete with a somewhat new origin story for the disaster; all the characters; dead in the “abstract sense” while making the film; “…the filmic reanimation of our heroes”; death itself. The W.J.T. Mitchell piece on “metapictures”, while concerning two-dimensional works of art, discusses how “metapictures” thrive on multistability and the ability to be viewed several different ways. The multistability of Diary of the Dead is its saving grace, as it can be easily read as an unsubtle allegory for the dangers of an overmediated society.

The majority of the footage in the film is constructed, but it comes from a variety of sources: Jason’s footage, footage the characters found on the internet (including the opening scene of the film from a news cameraman), security camera footage from two sites visited in the film, constructed news footage, and footage found on a camera that was found in the hospital the group visited for help. All of the footage is digital. But amongst all the constructed footage is real news footage, primarily news footage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This is the film’s single foothold in the current world and the world where the films’ spectators will come from. This footage is watched within the film on a variety of sources: laptops, the cameras themselves, televisions, and a flip phone. So not only are there multiple ways to create media in Diary, but unlike Night of the Living Dead, there are multiple ways to consume this media. It is not just an issue of finding a television or radio anymore in times of crisis. The internet appears to be given more privilege in Diary than any other medium, although it is debatable as to whether or not the internet would remain up for very long in an international crisis. The cell phone coverage is realistically spotty in Diary, not just because of the crisis, but also because the characters are driving through rural Pennsylvania for much of the film.
Surveillance footage or security in general plays a small part in Diary. The warehouse compound of Stranger, the ex-National Guard member and his community is full of surveillance cameras, as is the mansion belonging to Ridley’s parents. The house of Debra’s parents does not have surveillance, but she has to disengage the security alarms upon entering the house. There is no surveillance recounted from Debra’s dorm or the hospital, places that would logically have security cameras. But in Diary, surveillance is used to protect things and property – it is never used to find zombies. After one of Stranger’s people dies of a heart attack and disappears, they have to find him to put him down. They never use the security cameras as a way to find him. It is merely implied at the end of the film that Debra, Tony, and Professor Maxwell finally use the extensive security camera system at Ridley’s to figure out where the zombies are and how much time they have to shut themselves into the panic room. And although Diary exists in a world where no one has ever heard of zombies (any jokes about horror film clich├ęs are directed at horror films in general), no zombies approach Debra or her parent’s house before she disengages the security alarms. The general reasoning in zombie media is that zombies are attracted to loud noises.

Audio also comes from a variety of sources, although Debra has voiceovers over the majority of the audio: film, constructed news, radios featuring celebrity voice cameos, internet, the CB radio in the hospital, and even audio news footage from the original Night of the Living Dead. It all serves as a form of static, almost as something that can be easily ignored because it is not visual. Since Debra speaks over most of the audio pieces in the film, it is as if she is treated as the voice of authority amongst even reports that may be valuable or at least more interesting to listen to. One of the major points of Diary is how the media will play up or downplay a situation on any particular whim. But as “citizen media” is portrayed as not much of an improvement either, what are the characters to do? They appear to have an incomplete moral compass or a lack of survival abilities. The first response or idea many of the characters have to the situation is to want to go home to their parents.

Randy Laist brings up the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity in Diary. The opening scene is unedited footage from the news cameraman at the scene of the apparent first sighting and zombie attack. He uploaded the footage online, of course. Debra edits “The Death of Death” to make it a horror film, complete with horror music cues. She claims that “The Death of Death” is meant to scare “you” and to show you to not make the same choices that their group did. This brings up two questions: Could Debra be a stand-in for Romero? Or is Romero covering his bases because he is making a film, a (somewhat) commercial product in the horror genre?

Bibliography – Diary of the Dead

Laist, Randy. "Soft Murders: Motion Pictures and Living Death in Diary of the Dead." Generation            Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Ed. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and, 2011. 101-12. Print.

Lowenstein, Adam. "Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film." Representations 110.1 (2010):       105-28. JSTOR. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.    <>.

Mitchell, W.J.T. "Metapictures." Picture Theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1994. 35-82. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. "Diary of the Dead." The Pinocchio Theory. Steven Shaviro. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.            <>.

Shaviro, Steven. "What Is the Post-cinematic?" The Pinocchio Theory. Steven Shaviro. Web. 13    Apr. 2012. <>.

Shen, Sigmund. "Issue 18: Film Reviews: Diary of the Dead." Scope. Department of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.          <>.

Wetmore, Kevin J. ""Isn't That What We're Doing? Pretending to Be Alive?": Land, Diary, Surviving and the World of the Dead." Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of Their times. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and, 2011. 201-25. Print.

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.