Posts Tagged ‘female directors’

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Director Ondi Timoner’s new biopic turns the camera on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist who revolutionized art photography in the 1970s and 80s, raising controversy with his images of hardcore BDSM juxtaposed against tender portraits of calla-lillies and celebrity portraits. Mapplethorpe looks at the life of the artist from his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), his time at the Hotel Chelsea, fascination with gay BDSM, and the permutations of his art until his death at the age of 42. Through his images and relationships with friends, lovers, family, and ultimately to the art itself, Mapplethorpe attempts to elucidate a contradictory, contentious subject.

Matt Smith’s performance as the central character is Mapplethorpe’s greatest strength. He embodies the conflicts that the film lays out. He’s charming and funny, vicious and unkind, loving to his subjects and exploitative of them in the same breath. He toes the line between exploitation and appreciation, such that it seems he does not fully understand his behavior. As he ages and becomes ill, he delves deeper in the light and dark, becoming more demanding of those around him and crueler in his behavior. Smith’s physical investment in the role is almost Expressionist, recalling Conrad Veidt’s total embodiment of his parts. Mapplethorpe blends with his own images, pressed between the light and the dark, the violent and the tender. The film’s often spectacular cinematography lends itself to this portrayal, as the colorful vibrancy of New York in 1969 gives way to black and white palettes of the 1980s that finally wash out the central character, turning him into a walking specter. Smith forces us to acknowledge the brilliance of the artist and the gentleness of his touch while at the same time seeing his cruelty and self-interest. And the film doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s behavior – it simply seeks to represent it.

But for a film about so revolutionary a subject, Mapplethorpe remains oddly chaste in its onscreen depiction of male nudity, homosexuality, and BDSM. While it doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s image, in effective intercuts of the actual photographs, it coyly cuts away from sex scenes, avoids filming Matt Smith (or almost anyone) in full body shots, and reduces Mapplethorpe’s friends and lovers in the BDSM community to barely realized characters. Surely these men were more than just images, either to Mapplethorpe himself or in their own right. Surely they had personalities, thoughts, experiences of their own. In the middle of the film, a friend tells Mapplethorpe, “They must really trust you,” but we never see how he earned that trust, how his friendships developed, or how he staged these images in the first place. The film’s unwillingness to truly engage with Mapplethorpe’s subjects, and thus avoiding dealing with its own subject, makes it feel slight – the people photographed become just images, body parts, and we never see them as full characters.

In fact, the entirety of Mapplethorpe is slight, avoiding too much investigation of who Mapplethorpe is or what his art meant, either to himself or to the wider culture. His relationship with Patti Smith flames out, and she almost immediately becomes a nonentity, a person solely there to drive him from one aspect of his art to the next. There are little indications of the artist’s psyche—he relates the conflict and symbiosis between his Roman Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality and interest in bondage, and more than once remarks that his art must be viewed as a totality, hardcore images as well as the more “palatable” flowers and portraits. The juxtaposition of his portraits of celebrities and still-lifes of flowers with hardcore images, his interest in photography “as an artist” that never extends to learning how to develop the photographs himself, the very light and dark of his images…all of them provide interesting fodder for an exploration of a deeply conflicted artist producing deeply conflicted art, yet the film never follows through on any of them, instead leaving the deeper themes at the peripheries, content more to delve into one man’s suffering than to examine his work. While I don’t think we needed an explanation of Mapplethorpe as a person or an artist—those are always pat and ineffectual, even in the best biopics—there needed to be greater exploration of what he meant as an artist, what his art meant to the developing scene of the 70s and 80s, what furor he caused. We are told he was revolutionary, but we never shown why.

In some ways, Mapplethorpe is as much a contradiction as the man himself, a film that wants to investigate both art and artist, and yet can’t quite come to terms with either. There is so much hanging at the peripheries, begging to be examined, that one wishes the camera would shift focus just a little, to look at those people, themes, desires, fears that made Mapplethorpe what he was. Maybe it’s impossible to truly reveal the artist through a different medium than the one he employed, maybe the art must simply speak for itself. But it would’ve been nice to see this film try.

Mapplethorpe is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Love, Simon has brought the teenage rom-com into the 21st Century, finally giving us a funny and heartfelt story about the difficulties of coming out (and falling in love). The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Love, Simon’s more serious sister film, a coming-of-age drama about teens sent to a camp to undergo conversion therapy. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and is now making its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) as her aunt ships her off to God’s Promise, after she’s caught having sex with another girl on prom night. Cameron meets a host of other teenagers, there to “recover” from their same sex attractions through the dubious therapies of Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), himself a supposed success story of his sister’s methods. But Cameron is resistant and begins to develop a set of friendships within the camp, particularly with Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), who help her learn to perform her therapy without letting it truly affect her.

The film strikes a surprising degree of nuance and sympathy for all the characters—the misguided adults included—highlighting the sense of confusion and anger as the teenagers try tto change their own sexualities. Flashbacks and dreams show Cameron’s romance with her friend Chloe, as well as the reasons her fellow campers have been sent away to “get better.” Without focusing too heavily on the suffering of the embattled teens, the film delves into the evangelical mentality of “fixing” homosexuality with a combination of faith-based teaching and misapplied psychology. Cameron is encouraged to figure out what in her past “made her gay,” and thus purge herself of her same-sex attraction. The film exposes not just the wrong-headedness and damage caused by such a blending of badly applied scripture and twisted therapies, but also the degree to which the people using those therapies truly believe that they are helping. Reverend Rick has also been forced to alter and repress himself, his cheery smile concealing a pain that he cannot fully repress. Each of the teens handles the therapy in their own way, some coming whole-heartedly to the belief that they are broken and in need of God’s love, while others (like Cameron and her friends) come to recognize that there is nothing wrong with them to begin with. Coursing through the film is the uncertainty—that maybe something is wrong—as each therapy session and Bible verse is twisted to imbue in them a sense that they are sinning simply by existing,

Although the focus is ultimately on Cameron and her experience, the film encircles her with a host of other characters, each of them played with intimate nuance. There are boys rejected by their fathers for being too “feminine,” and girls desperate to fulfill their parents’ notions of femininity. The intensity of teenage desire is multiplied among teenagers who are constantly being told that they’re wrong, confused, damaged, sick; that they cannot be loved by God and be gay, or even be anything other than a very narrow understanding of what “correct” gender looks like. And the film doesn’t so much fault religion as it faults the abuse of religion—in a particularly powerful scene, a boy passionately quotes a Bible verse as he begs to be loved for his “weakness” in loving men. Director Desiree Akhaven proves herself a deft touch in this film, which allows for the explicit expression of sexuality (there are more than a few love scenes) without turning them into a mere titillation for the audience. These are teenagers just awakening to their sexualities, both aware of what they want and frightened of what it means. The insidiousness of evangelical teachings permeates everything, yet the film doesn’t dwell in darkness or suffering. It is, in its own way, about purification, about final acceptance of who and what we are, despite what we’re told to the contrary. The teenagers can’t leave God’s Promise, even when they want to—their parents or families might decline to take them back if they’re not sufficiently “cured.” And if they are changed, then they must live their lives denying themselves and who they truly are.

I won’t go into spoilers, but it’s worth noting that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not about the suffering of LGBTQ teens. There’s a humor—sometimes an uncomfortable one—that runs throughout and helps to keep the narrative from dropping too far into the darkness. The strength of friendship, the searching for identity in a world that contains only narrow definitions of it, expands the story, giving it heart and understanding and even sympathy for the adults imposing their warped fears on teenagers who actually do know better. But the true heroes are still the teenagers, especially Cameron herself, who tries to survive without denying who and what she is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post will have its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22.

The Stolen Heart (1933)Most film buffs know Lotte Reiniger as the pioneer of silhouette animation and the creator of the first feature-length animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a combination of One Thousand and One Nights stories that predated Walt Disney’s Snow White by over a decade. Reiniger was the creator of more than forty films using silhouette animation, a technique initially borrowed from the Chinese shadow puppet tradition that utilizes paper dolls to form silhouettes, then animated and photographed frame by frame. Reiniger is one of the frontrunners of stop-motion animation.

While Prince Achmed is certainly her most famous and ambitious work, Reiniger also made a number of shorter films, including The Stolen Heart, a 1933 short about a town populated by lovers of music who lose their instruments to an old demon. The thematics of the story involve the triumph of joyful music over evil, as the demon is eventually conquered not by anger, but by joy.

Films like The Stolen Heart make a passionate argument for Reiniger’s place in the pantheon of animation greats, a symbol of the power of female directors. There is no dialogue, and Reiniger’s storytelling depends on the combination of the visual and the use of music and song. The film comes off as an anti-fascist parable, reinforced by depiction of the demon as a gigantic old man, looming over the tiny village and robbing the people of their joy. But joy in itself is stronger than oppression and it is the action of the instruments themselves that liberates the people – the music echoes across the landscape, awakening the villagers from despair and eventually crushing the oppressive shadow. Reiniger’s silhouettes meld and transform, and give the impression of witnessing real life through a curtain, warmth and love radiating even as sorrow nearly cows the people.

Reiniger tends to come off as a footnote in animation history, partially because of her gender, and partially because silhouette animation is now largely a lost cinematic art. But it is hard  to watch The Stolen Heart and fail to be moved by it. Reiniger is an artist, a director of the highest caliber, and anyone who fails to seek out her work has done a disservice to themselves and to the history of cinema.

Outrage (1950)

Between 1949 and 1953, actress/writer/director/producer/general badass Ida Lupino directed five feature films, making her the most prolific female director of her era. She was only the second woman to join the DGA, and she learned to direct during one of her extensive suspensions from Warner Brothers, where she wandered the backlots and watched directors at work. She was vocal about the need for more female directors, for directors to take on more taboo and out of the way subjects. And, like so many of her fellow female stars, she was far smarter and more talented than she was probably ever given credit for.

Outrage was her third film as a director, and in it we can see most clearly the development of the talent that she would hone to perfection with The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. And like those films, Lupino takes on a deeply taboo subject with an unforgiving clarity of vision that transcends the film’s somewhat pat third act.

Outrage deals with rape and sexual assault with explicit attention (for the era) and a degree of sympathy that’s as refreshing as it is surprising. The film focalizes itself not through the pain suffered by those surrounding the victim, not through the search for the attacker or the machinations of the family, but through the victim almost exclusively. Lupino makes use of multiple POV shots to drive home the audience’s sympathy with the violated woman, her sense of fear and shame and undirected anger, and how she finds a way to cope with the trauma of her assault.

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young woman working as a bookkeeper, with a boyfriend who becomes her fiance (Robert Owens), a loving family, and a normal, middle-class future. As she leaves work late one night, she’s followed and then attacked by the man who works the concession stand near her workplace, and who we see early on hitting on her with no response. Ann runs and then blacks out before the attack; she can’t recall the face of the man, remembering only the scar on his neck. Her sense of shame around her family, her fiance, and her fellow workers eventually drives her out of town, fleeing to the countryside where she finds a kind of solace with the help of Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). But her assault continues to haunt her, even as she tries to repress it, and her terror soon takes a darker turn.

Outrage has so many interesting elements that it’s difficult to pick up on a single one. Lupino treats the subject with sympathy, but also photographs it as a film noir. When Ann flees from her hometown, she does so with the air of a criminal – she hides her face when her disappearance is talked about on the radio, and begins to act guilty when she’s introduced to a local sheriff. She changes her name, and declines to talk about where she came from or why she left. All of this is part of the recognizable tropes of film noir – the man or woman on the run. But Ann is the victim, not the criminal; her shame was something that was forced upon her. The film takes pains to avoid placing any blame on Ann for her assault. She hardly knows the man who attacks her; her greatest crime is turning him down, and even then it’s a rejection that carries very little weight. Like many women, Ann is catcalled and whistled at and she generally ignores it or takes it in stride as a simple fact of being female. Up to her assault, Ann is treated as an average woman, without any particular neuroses or anxieties; the sort of woman about to marry a long-time boyfriend, with a family that loves her and a good job that she enjoys. She is, in other words, a normal girl for the 1950s.

This act of rendering a victimized woman completely sympathetic, avoiding even the shadow of blame attached to her, drives several points home. The terror of the assault is that it really can happen to anyone; Ann’s greatest error is an understandable fear that slowly morphs into panic, which in turn makes her make bad decisions and errors as she runs. In Lupino’s work, victimized women are not “asking for it;” they are not “fallen women,” they do not “lead men on.” They are normal, average women victimized not just by a single man, but by the expectations and taboos of the culture surrounding them.

The film’s strongest and most terrifying scene is the lead up to the assault, as Ann’s eventual rapist pursues her through an empty urban landscape. Ann’s walk through the empty streets and industrial yards is at first relaxed; it’s quite obvious that she has done this often, and she’s comfortable in her surroundings. As her attacker pursues her, occasionally whistling or calling out, her panic develops. She’s clearly aware that she’s alone, isolated, and under threat. Lupino’s camera draws away from her into overhead shots combined with medium close-ups, emphasizing her isolation. Belatedly, Ann begins to do what most women are instructed to do in such situations – she heads for a cab, that quickly pulls away from her, and then begins banging on windows, calling for help. But no help comes. Ann finally resorts to hiding from her would-be attacker, but fails at the last to escape him. This combination of panic and an attempt at clear-headedness is believable – as any woman who has ever been followed by a man will tell you – and reminds us that most women who don’t actually fight their rapists are not actually consenting. Ann is terrified, she runs, she finally blacks out to defend her mind from the attack. It’s heart-breaking partially because the story is all too familiar.

As the film goes on, Lupino develops the terror that men can be for women, including ones that technically “mean no harm.” Ann’s fiance Jim at one point chases and grabs her, trying to convince her that they should run away and get married barely a week after her assault. Late in the third act, another man attempts to kiss Ann, despite her repeated denials. Ann’s horror at men and the prospect of being married, is part of her trauma, and the film doesn’t blame her for it. The men that she’s able to connect to following her assault are the ones like Bruce, who do not obviously view her as sexual, and who do not attempt to touch or coerce her.

Outrage’s greatest weakness is in providing a kind of solution to Ann’s trauma via Bruce, a reverend and a former Army chaplain who attempts to break through Ann’s reticence with a recounting of his own traumatic experience. The film relies on a pat combination of psychological and religious salvation that jars a bit with the earlier, noir-ish tone. In this, however, Outrage shows its generation more than anything. There are really only two solutions for Ann in the 1950s – salvation, or condemnation, and there was every possibility that the film would err on the more recognizable side of the “fallen woman” trope and plunge Ann into a life of vice or prostitution. But Lupino does have a defter hand than that. If the film somewhat shirks in its otherwise clear depiction of rape culture in the final act – including a decidedly post-war explanation of the attacker’s warped psychology – I think it can be forgiven.

Outrage is very much a film of its time, but it renders a sympathetic, complex understanding of the aftermath of rape, told through a woman’s eyes and with a woman’s camera. While Lupino would make technically better films, she probably never made a more significant one.

Also showing in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block is Blood Sisters, a humorous entry from director Caitlin Koller that entertains, even if it doesn’t completely stick the ending. Two young women spend an evening doing what all young women do: watching movies, drinking vodka, and performing blood rituals. The pair cut each other’s hands and chant incantations to become “blood sisters,” but soon find that things have gone wrong when they won’t stop bleeding.

The humor is strong here, as the two girls debate going to the doctor and attempt to fix things themselves. The punctuation of horror with laughs works well, for the most part, and undercuts the scares without totally relaxing the tension. The final few minutes, however, don’t really pay off, as the girls come up with an idea to stop the bleeding. It feels like the film needs to be five minutes longer to develop their reasoning, rather than jumping from one event to the next without a clear connection. At the same time, though, it’s a well-made short, with good performances from the two women, and a sharp script. It just needs to be a bit longer.

Blood Sisters will show in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block of Final Girls Berlin on February 2.

I’ve now remotely covered Final Girls Berlin for two years, and each year I’ve found one short especially that stands out to me. Last year it was Goblin Baby, and this year…it’s What Metal Girls Are Into. The first was because it was an intriguing and sharply realized film (that still needs to be a full length feature), and the second is because, in this time of #MeToo, it is deeply satisfying.

What Metal Girls Are Into comes to use courtesy of director Laurel Veil, and tells the initially familiar story of three young women on vacation who stumble into their own personal hell. In this case, it’s three metal-heads, heading to a heavy metal music festival, who are staying at an isolated house somewhere in the desert. There’s no cell service (of course there isn’t), no wi-fi, and the proprietor is creepy and over-solicitous, opening his first conversation with the girls by asking them why they’re not smiling. When the three find something disturbing in their freezer, they decide to wait to call the cops…and of course, things go wrong from there.

The strength of this short is the use of horror tropes that establishes the situation, only to be skewered. The dialogue and attitudes – young women dealing with a creepy dude, trying to ignore his behavior because they just want to have fun, and the dude in turn becoming insulted when they won’t respond to his overtures – is on point, horrifically reminiscent of way too many conversations that pretty much every woman has had. The women themselves are unmitigated badasses, and the performances here excellent, a combination of humor and terror that is both entertaining and believable. I won’t spoil the final line, but it’s…satisfying.

As with Goblin Baby last year, I want to see this one as a full-length horror film, featuring this cast. All the ingredients are there, and they’re perfectly delicious.

What Metal Girls Are Into is showing as part of the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block on February 2.

It’s that time of year again – time for a reminder that women are still pushing the boundaries of horror filmmaking. The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which began yesterday, provides a showcase for both shorts and features, directed (and often written by) talented female filmmakers. If you ever wondered about my constant assertion that women are the future of horror, then check out some of these films and be educated.

First up for me is Black Coat, part of the festival’s “Mind Games” shorts block. Directed by Tatiana Vyshegorodseva, the film wends through a nightmarish fantasy as a young woman awakens by the side of the road, with no memory of who she is or why she’s wearing someone else’s black coat. Picked up by two strangers who insist on being paid for the lift, she finds herself plunged into a circuitous nightmare.

The film aspires to a fascinating if somewhat obscure kind of surrealism, weaving a dark narrative that only clarifies within the last few minutes. It’s visually reminiscent of the sparseness of Ducournau’s Raw, though in this case it’s decaying architecture and evocations of homelessness that drive the horror. Pursued by terrors, the protagonist has to find a way out of the nightmare’s spiral, repeating events and actions until she can finally open her eyes. There are some shorts that feel like they’re templates for features, but Black Coat functions best as a short, a quick, sharp piece of terror that confounds and finally resolves. While I almost hoped for clearer elucidation of the film’s imagery, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that any further exposition would have damaged the film’s final moments. It’s a short story (literally based on one), reliant on visual language, and can only be resolved through visuals. An example, in other words, of pure (horror) cinema. 

Black Coat shows as a part of the “Mind Games” block on February 2.