Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. 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.

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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 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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tank Girl (1995)

Dir. Rachel Talalay || 1995 || USA

I remember liking Tank Girl as a teen in the 1990s, but looking at it now, it's easy to see what a mess this film is. It's not an odd or even fully enjoyable mess, and it's only occasionally amusing. It can't be chalked up to inexperience or disinterest in the source material, qualities that tend to factor into the better comic book films; because Talalay was an experienced director at this point and did like the material. But by all accounts, there was a lot of studio interference with the film because up until this past decade, very few people knew what to do with comic books or graphic novels as source material. The film is live action, but it also has clips from the comic books and animation sequences.

Most post-apocalyptic films tend to have a timeless quality to them, no matter what decade they were made in. Tank Girl is so 90s it hurts. The situation that the film takes place in is timeless - where a comet hit Earth and it hasn't rained in 11 years, so water is high in demand and only a select few has access to it. But everything else is 90s. Considering that one of the first places I was introduced to Tank Girl was an article in Harper's Bazaar, the fashion magazine (yeah, I read this as a teen, what?), the film is very high on costume changes (IMDB counts 18 for Lori Petty as Tank Girl) and it's all very punk-grunge-pseudo-riot grrrl. Even The Rippers dress in 90s clothing (flannel shirts and t-shirts, one Ripper looks like a half-man-half-kangaroo member of Color Me Badd). It's funny that in the comic's revival in the mid-2000s by IDW Publishing, Tank Girl was drawn as wearing a lot of 1980s power suits because the reasoning was along the lines of "a lot of people still dress like Tank Girl from the 1990s, it's no longer edgy." The soundtrack, supervised by Courtney (Love, Love-Cobain, whatever she's calling herself now) is sort of a mix of good 90s music and music that never made it past that decade, along with some bizarre covers (like Devo covering Soundgarden's cover of Devo's "Girl U Want", or something).

Tank Girl is an overwhelmingly cartoon-y film. And yeah, Tank Girl is a cartoon character even in the comics, but on film it's ridiculous. The film just meanders. The sense of urgency towards saving the little girl that lived with Tank Girl is never there because of all the side missions that are jokes and costume changes. It would almost be a parody if the film could settle on anything whatsoever, other than being a valentine to Tank Girl as a fashion icon of sorts, and occasionally her other positive attributes; like being a good friend or being a loud-mouthed and brave woman.

The one thing that I will give the film is that for much of the film, Tank Girl and Jet Girl (Naomi Watts!) have realistically post-apocalyptic water shortage greasy hair. Do you know how rare that is in post-apocalyptic films? Although Tank Girl's makeup rarely smudges, even when being in a torture chamber for what seems like a couple of days.



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.