Showing posts with label riot grrrl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label riot grrrl. 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!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

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


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

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

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

Anyway...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Tyranny of Static Shots in Queer/Feminist Punk Documentaries

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

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

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

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

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