52 Films by Woman – Week 12

So after a few weeks off to transition, and then go to the SXSW film festival, I’m happy to be back with weekly updates with the 52 films by women project.  This week, I finally caught up on Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” after Criterion released it online.

Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson, 2015)

Laurie Anderson’s experimental documentary “Heart of a Dog” was something that I’ve been looking forward ton since I started hearing reviews mid last year.  I’ve watched the film twice now, and I’m not sure what exactly I think of it.  I found that most of it was a magnificent meditation, but there were some parts that I found confusing and unnecessary.

Laurie obviously had a lot of passion for her late dog Lolabelle, and the parts focusing on that love were remarkable.  The stories she tells about her experiences with Lolabelle strike a familial chord with anyone who has had a similar love of a pet.  As the film progressed, she started focusing on death as in addition to her dog she had recently lost her mother and husband (Lou Reed).  She imagines the journey that Lolabelle takes through the bardo after her death.

The only part that I found unnecessary and what keeps me from giving it a perfect score is a few seemingly unrelated sections of the film where she discusses the state of New York after 9/11.  I failed to understand what these scenes brought to an otherwise personal story.

The style of the film would not be for everyone.  It is important to remember before going into the film that it is an experimental documentary.  The style fluctuates between sketch animations and staged footage with none of it looking traditionally spectacular, but all fitting appropriately with the style.  Similarly, Laurie Anderson composed the music herself and while I don’t know that I’ll be purchasing the album, it works well.  Slight misgivings about the 9/11 portions aside, the film creates a perfect picture of Anderson’s feelings.

SXSW Day 1 – 52 Films By Women Week 9

I’m going to play some catch up on the 52 Films by Women project while I’m at SXSW since I missed last week with my transition.  I’ve seen one film so far today, but my next one won’t get out until Midnight so I’ll talk about it in my next post.  This is my first attempt at blogging purely from my iPhone so forgive the short form format.

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

Created out of 25 years of archival documentary footage, cinematographer Kristen Johnson presents “Cameraperson” as her memoir.  Mixing stunning photography with offhanded comments never intended for public consumption, we get a surprisingly personal picture of Kirsten despite no traditional storytelling tactics.  The film jumps for location to location while still maintaining a coherent feel.  Extremely emotional scenes are intercut with jovial bits of behind-the-scene joking which keeps the pace crisp despite the non-narrative nature.

Given that nature, I’ll admit that this film is not for everyone, but if it’s for anyone it’s made especially for me.  If I could restart and have any profession, I’d love nothing more than to be a documentary cinematographer.  Sitting behind a camera and capturing human emotions in as candid a way possible intrigues me.  Johnson has been successful doing this her entire career, and amazingly manages to capture what it’s like to live her life without ever turning the camera around.

52 Films by Women – Week 8

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The Girl in the Book (Marya Cohn, 2015)

The Girl in the Book seemingly fell through the cracks of the collective consciousness in 2015.  I watched about 75 films last year, and kept abreast as best I could on many others but I never heard of it until I randomly saw it on Netflix.  The film only grossed $5,000 so I get the feeling that I wasn’t alone in missing it.

I really enjoyed this film.  Granted, I have a predisposition to liking a girl’s coming of age story, but I think this one holds up regardless.  The film depicts two parts of its protagonist’s life.  We primarily focus on Alice as a 29-year-old working in publishing (played by Emily VanCamp).  When a famous writer Milan Daneker (Michael Nyqvist) enters the agency, we’re introduced to 16-year-old Alice (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) and told her story of how she came to know Milan.  The reunion throws Alice’s life, which had reached a level of equilibrium into chaos.

While the other acting performances are neutral to flat, Emily VanCamp is phenomenal as the lead.  I believe every emotional turn that her character takes.  And more than just that, she feels like a real person.  Even when dealing with the emotional torture VanCamp avoids over acting, and keeps the performance grounded.  I felt a lot of nuance in her performance that would be easy to lose, and unfortunately her supporting actors lacked.

While I won’t go into spoilers, the plot of the film is easy to guess, especially if you frequent the genre.  The juxtaposition of the two timelines does give The Girl in the Book its own identity.  Supplement that with the fact that the genre is completely underserved, and the film should settle well into its role.  I think that the proximity and similarity to the better film Diary of a Teenage Girl may be what ultimately relegated this film to the depths of the Netflix algorithm.  It’s a shame that it ended up there.  Hollywood seems to have an unlimited capacity for male coming of age stories, but female ones, especially ones dealing with female sexuality fall through the cracks.  Marya Cohn put together a solid to good film depicting a struggle in another woman’s life, and deserves more respect.

52 Films by Women – Week 7

This week I continued my exploration into Kelly Reichardt’s filmography with Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves.  With these films, Reichardt’s budgets increased from a couple hundred thousand to a few million dollars.  With this increase in budget the production value increased, and she managed to get some known actors.  The stories she tells also venture into slightly more traditional narrative, escaping the Dogme 95 feel of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, but her style remained uncompromised.

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Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt)

With Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt produced her spin on a western.  Genre aside, it still feels much more like a Kelly Reichardt film than a John Ford film.  While most westerns revel in their masculinity, Meek’s Cutoff is definitively from the women’s point of view.  The film follows a group of three families and a guide as they wander the Oregon desert lost in desperate need of water.  After days of wandering to no avail, they come across a Native American whom they capture.  The men, specifically the guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) want to kill the man, but through the urging of their wives are convinced to use him as a guide in hopes of finding water.

Michelle Williams returns after her performance as Wendy to play Emily Tetherow the centerpiece of the film.  Despite portraying a woman in the 1840s she obviously holds a lot of social clout in the small community, but not in a way that feels anachronistic. Her quiet control is the highlight of the brilliant film.

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Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt)

Night Moves is an interesting entry into Reichardt’s filmography.  It was still critically praised, but not well received from the public.  I get why this happened.  In 2013, Jesse Eisenberg was a major star, and Night Moves had a plot synopsis that could be a standard studio film.  Unsuspecting viewers wouldn’t be prepared for the pacing and extended silence that are the hallmarks of her films.

Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning star as environmentalists who destroy a dam.  Reichardt, like in all her films, is more interested in her character’s thoughts than the actual written plot.  This film does still include some traditional plot developments, specifically with a major turn in the last few minutes.  I’m still at this point not sure how I felt about that specifically, but I do think that the fallout on the characters was handled well.

And my new found love with Kelly Reichardt is unfettered.  I think she is one of the poster children for this project.  She makes amazing films, that I don’t think could be made by a man.  Her films have a quietness and intimateness that feel distinctively feminine.

I did also watch one more film by a woman director.  See my post from Tuesday to see my feelings on Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong.

52 Films by Women – Week 6

Kelly Reichardt is an indie darling director who has been a large blind spot in my personal film catalog.  With this project, I was excited to finally have the excuse to dig into her work.  Fandor has 3 of her films available for streaming, and I caught up on the first two of them this week.

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Old Joy (2006, Keely Reichardt)

Old Joy is a very small simple film about a pair of old friends going on a camping trip and to a spring in the Oregon Cascades.  The men while obviously once close are in very different places in their lives.  Mark (Daniel London) is about to become a father while Kurt (Will Oldham) continues to live the hippie lifestyle it seems he once shared with Mark.

I loved Old Joy’s ability to avoid every trope that one would expect given this setup.  It wasn’t a comedy where Kurt convinced Mark to relive his old life.  It also wasn’t a moral tale telling Kurt to grow up.  Instead we just watch these two men interact in the way we actually expect two men would.  No revelations, just two days’ worth of conversations between two people who were once friends.  The simplicity of everything is what made the film endearing.  The raw truthful relationships were welcoming in a world of overwritten unbelievable screenplays.

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Wendy and Lucy (2008, Keely Reichardt)

Wendy and Lucy is a moving story of a woman drifter named Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy.  Wendy’s car breaks down in a small Oregon town on her way from Indiana to Alaska in search of work.  Strapped for cash, she gets arrested for attempting to steal a can of dog food.  She’s taken to the police station and processed.  When she returns she finds that Lucy is nowhere to be found.  Her bad luck continues when she learns her car is broken beyond repair and she’s stranded.

Reichardt follows Wendy as she eats through the last bit of her saved money in search of her companion.  She puts her goals on hold and slowly descends into desperation.  She relies on the kindness of one stranger, but is constantly betrayed by others.  I was in tears by the end as Wendy came to accept her predicament.

 

I’m now completely in love with Kelly Reichardt.  Both of these films shot into the top 10 of their respective years, and will end up in contention for the best of the first decade of the 2000s.  Meek’s Cutoff and the lesser regarded Night Moves are both available on various streaming services, and while I’m trying to diversify my directors, anticipate those as next week’s entries.

52 Films by Women – Week 5

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

I missed the one week stint that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night had in theaters locally, and despite my interest in the film didn’t manage to sit down and stream it until this week.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a black and white Iranian film from 2014 and the first feature by Ana Lily Amirpour.  While frequently plugged as “Iran’s first vampire film”, calling it a vampire film is a little misleading.  The film is more accurately a mood piece about a town where all is lost.  Action is severely down played for a vampire picture while the feeling of desperation is enhanced.

The cinematography, by Lyle Vincent, is the main selling point of the film.  The black and white composition is beautiful, and every single shot is a work of art.  The mood of the film permeates throughout each scene due in large part to Vincent’s work.

The screenplay, in contrast, is a bit of a mess.  Character connections, outside of the two leads, exist on surface level only.  I have a hard time believing in the world of Bad City, but I still give it a pass.  Amirpour didn’t try and create a realistic world, she set out to build a surrealist dream world, and in that she succeeded.

I very much enjoyed the experience of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and like many of it’s surreal peers I anticipate a second viewing in hopes of understanding it further.

 

52 Films by Women – Week 4

This week, as planned, I did some digging into my Agnès Varda box set.  I had previously only seen Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved, so I was excited to see more.  While now my Varda count is only up to 4, I feel confidant saying I’m hooked.  Varda’s feminist take on film is refreshing.  Her films show a simple but realistic female view in contrast to her male peers.  I look forward to watching her entire filmography.

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La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955)

For as much as I now love Agnès Varda, this film alone would not have been enough to get me there.  While there’s nothing wrong with film, it very much feels like a first film from someone with no prior experience.  I enjoyed the premise, a study of a small town and the people who lived there, and the fish out of water story of a Paris socialite being introduced to the small town was also intriguing.

What I found lacking was the discipline and voice that a director should bring to a project.  The plot had potential to be brilliant, but the inexperience outweighs the potential.  After this film, Varda’s second outing was Cleo from 5 to 7, so it obviously didn’t take her long to find her groove.

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Le Bonheur (Agnès Varda, 1965)

After La Pointe Courte and Cleo from 5 to 7, I would not have expected this.  I think this film is absolutely brilliant.  We’re presented with a perfect family of 4 on an idyllic summer day.  We then follow the husband as he meets and starts an affair with another woman.  In his mind, he is doing nothing wrong as he has so much love to give, but his wife despite initially feigning understanding can’t handle the betrayal.  After a short period of mourning, he ends up continuing his idyllic family life with the mistress as a replacement wife.

Le Bonheur possesses a level of satyr and metaphor that the other films in this set lack.  Her other pieces show us the thoughts and experiences of their characters, and each character has a depth that we get to explore.  I feel a connection to each character.  With Le Bonheur, in contrast, no one stands out.  Instead of focusing on character, it examines familial roles, specifically that of a wife.

While never outright funny, a strong level of satire permeates the entire piece.  Between the over-the-top, but appropriate, score to the interactions between each character, nothing is quite life like.  This artificiality is used to attack the stories portrayal of a woman’s role in life as an interchangeable wife.  Varda quite obviously did not believe in that idea, and created a memorable piece of satire to that extent.

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Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)

Vagabond, the final film in the set, comes 20 years after Le Bonheur, and is a return to the character driven narrative.  Bookmarked by her death, Vagabond follows the last few weeks of a Mona’s, a drifter, life.  Mona is a lone soul traveling with no home and no direction, but is perfectly fine with that decision.  It’s the people whom she meets that project insecurities and weakness on her.

Despite the lack of ambition and judgement of those around her, the film doesn’t judge her.  We get to follow her, and if not understand her at least see how she chooses to live her life despite the opportunities given by others.  We learn nothing more about why she chose this life, but I feel for her, and the emotional and physical abuse she had to endure during her last few weeks, let alone what she must have gone through before.  With Vagabond, I feel that Varda has returned to where she started, and what she set out to do.  To be a female voice telling the stories of women in a world dominated by men.

52 Films by Women – Week 3

My original plan for this week was to catch up on all of the Agnès Varda that I have sitting on my shelf unwatched.  I did watch her first film, La Pointe Courte, but I’m going to wait to discuss that film until next week when I can do a fuller picture of Varda’s work.  I did thankfully watch a second film by a woman this week.  I do a monthly film club with a group of coworkers that jumps through different themes, and this month the chosen film happened to be directed by a woman.

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Now and Then (Lesli Linka Glatter, 1995)

While I was around the appropriate age for this film when it came out, I never saw or heard of it.  The early to mid-90s were filled Stand by Me clones, and this one did not reach any screens I watched.  I’ll admit that having been socialized male may have had something to do with that, but the film does blend in well with the glut of similar films.  Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the female presence that does leave it an outlier.

Every other pre-teen adventure movie that came out in the decade following Stand by Me tried to replicate the feeling exactly, to the extent of keeping the all-male cast.  Now and Then while falling into many of the pit traps of the other clones, choses to focus on a group of girls instead of boys.  This decision allows the characters to develop more emotionally than many of the similar pictures.  Glatter didn’t need to worry about isolating her audience with these emotions because she was targeting a female audience instead of a male one.

Unfortunately, the refreshing focus on girls instead of boys wasn’t accompanied by a good script nor exquisite direction.  Between the stilted dialogue and disjoint plot, Now and Then failed to deliver as the female answer to Stand by Me.  Lesli Linka Glatter only went on to make one more film, but she does have director credits on many highly acclaimed TV shows to her name.  I choose to assume that she was just the victim of a poor screenplay in tired genre.  While it was a pleasure to see a female twist on a familiar film, the stumble in execution leaves Now and Then’s legacy as a misfire.

52 Films by Women – Week 2

I only managed to see one woman directed film this week, but in all fairness with Out 1 taking over my weekend and then being sick a lot of the week I didn’t get to see many films at all this week.  I will try to get these numbers up in future weeks, but this one film has given me plenty to write about.

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The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)

2011 was when my complete dedication to film began, so I ended up missing this one when it came out.  In fact I had heard nothing about it and was surprised to look up its critical acclaim.  I eagerly fired it up on Netflix in hopes of finding a gem.

I have mixed feelings about this film.  I thought the premise was interesting: two children wanting to reach out to their biological father having been raised by their lesbian mothers.  I thought that the majority of character interactions seemed genuine and the emotions real.  I, however, can’t get over the fact that the major conflict in the film did not sit well with me.  Needless to say, spoilers to follow.

Jules’s (Julianne Moore) affair with the sperm donner Paul (Mark Ruffalo) struck me as pure male fantasy from this woman written and directed film.  The idea of a lesbian being enthralled with a man to the extent of having a physical affair with him is something that I would expect from and look down upon a male director.  Now, Cholodenko did handle pieces of the affair well.  Using it as a symptom of more personal relationship struggles was a welcome reasoning for the affair, but I still found myself having troubles accepting it.

Immediately after watching the film, I was confused as to what I was going to write about this film as a female directed film.  I struggled to see what set this film apart from any of the other Sundancesque family dramedies.  I think that my issues with the conflict may have blinded me to some of the female driven aspects.  The movie’s actual purpose was to show the struggles of a marriage decades in, and in that it succeeds.  I genuinely feel for Jules and Nic (Annette Bening).  The struggles on their relationship feel like the outcome of years of living together.  Using the affair as a metaphor for these problems instead of the actual issue was welcome, and really shows an understanding of the character’s feelings.  I do think that this film has the potential to exist as a strong look into the personal lives of an under portrayed group, but I personally can’t get past the male fantasy of the major conflict.

52 Films by Women – Week 1

I recently found an inspiring movement online for female representation in film.  #52FilmsByWomen is a commitment to watch at least one film directed by a woman each week of the year.  I’ve taken the pledge and am excited to hold myself to this agreement.  I’m also going to chronicle my journey here.  Every Friday from now until the end of the year, I’ll be writing an entry about 1 of more films by a female director.  If you’d like to commit as well, you can pledge here.

There are many women directors that have been on my list to view their filmography, but I’m going to make it my goal to do more than just that for this commitment.  I don’t want to resort to watching nothing but Varda and Ackerman and calling it good enough, though do expect their names to come up quite a bit over the next year.  I also want to make sure I’m watching at least 1 new movie a week.  No getting lazy and putting in Lost in Translation for the 100th time.

This week’s film selections highlight the range that is possible for this project.  Starting with an avant-garde, silent, surrealist short from the 1940s and then moving to a Prestige picture from 2014.  The only thing that these films have in common (aside from the gender of the director) is the level of respect garnered from the critical community.  This disparity in everything except for quality should serve as a starting point to prove that women are just as qualified as their male counterparts when it comes to the creation of film, but for some reason are criminally underrepresented.

 

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Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

While only 14 minutes long and being more of an avant-garde experiment than a narrative feature, this is one of the most canonical pieces of women’s film.  It’s one of very few films directed by a woman to make the Sight and Sound top 250 films of all-time list that was published in 2012.  I had only heard of this film a few days ago before realizing that it was on a box set that I had somewhat recently purchased, and after figuring that out eagerly put it in.  Maya Deren was definitely inspired by Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, but Meshes of the Afternoon takes on a more personal meaning.  The household imagery grounds the film more than its purely surrealist counterpart, and the circular repetition that shows Deren viewing and meeting herself hints at serious self-discovery, not all of which proves to be positive.

 

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Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Selma was the prestige film the slipped through my to-watch list in 2014.  When the time comes, if I have to miss out on one, I always tend to choose the year’s prestige biopic as the one to miss.  While there were other films from 2014 I did end up liking more, writing this one off as a basic biopic would be doing it a great disservice.  DuVernay brings a special touch to this story.  While a simpler director would focus on the marches and the violence that they were met with, DuVernay juxtaposes those scenes with ones of King at home with his wife.  She shows King emotionally struggling with consequences of his actions and weighing the pros and cons of continuing the uphill battle.  It’s this sense of personal emotion instead of purely playing off of the audience’s reaction to violence that elevates Selma as a film.