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Archive for February 2016

it felt like love

No. 3 – It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman, 2013)

The budding sexuality of teenage girls is always an alluring prospect in media, but the reality is often a holy mess. Teenage girls are supposed to have an unquenchable spring of seductive powers. How often do we see books, soap plots, newspaper comment sections, full of accusations, of an honourable man felled by an unrepentant Lolita, just now trying out the limits of her power? As though their youth and beauty comes automatically with knowledge of control, the belief that they are invincible and irresistible, and all men, and the world, can be theirs.

I’m not sure why society seems to think that is the case. Being a teenage girl is strange, messy and frightening. They have no more control over their sexual appeal than they have over other people’s desire towards them, and more often are victims of this desire. But more insidious is the image fed to teenage girls, that nothing defines their identity more than the appreciation of other people. We struggle to live up to impossible visions of celebrities, try to be beautiful, try to earn the admiration of those around us, try to survive the physical and emotional viscera of puberty, get told our clothes are too revealing, get told our clothes are too dowdy, learn we are too prudish when we don’t put out, find out if we were attacked that we led him on. Teenage girls know what they are doing, we’re told. Though I certainly didn’t then. I barely do now.

Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love challenges the conception of the teenage honeytrap, confident in her sexual prowess as though it’s something inherent within. Lila, fourteen, feels plain and juvenile, especially next to her outwardly confident and self-possessed friend Chiara. They spend their summer at the beach where Lila, a sunscreen-coated third wheel, witnesses the good and bad of Chiara and future guido Patrick’s courtship, their raw, seemingly endless sexuality, the paranoia and fights. But still she wants what they have. She is an observer for much of the film, seeing the young people around her falling in lust and exploring their sexual desires, and yet that aspect of her life still seems unattainable for her. She is constantly framed outside locked doors, across fences, or outside rooms where the scene’s key action is taking place, watching, listening, learning about what seems to come so effortlessly to everyone else, but leaves her in psychic turmoil. Even Nate, her younger neighbour and confidante, playfully sprays a girl his age with a hose, a beginner’s guide to flirting.

Lila’s first steps into her sexual identity are all echoes of Chiara’s behaviour. She quotes Chiara’s experiences of oral sex as though they are her own. She gets Chiara to dye her hair, a similar red to her older friend (though Chiara is hesitant, admiring Lila’s natural colour, suggesting that as much as Lila envies her maturity, Chiara is equally nostalgic for what she has left behind). And after Patrick accuses Chaira of hooking up with Sammy, a college boy who “fucks anything that moves”, Lila becomes interested. Lila goes to Sammy’s job, awkwardly flirts with him, turns up at his house, interrupts a boys’ night of weed and porn, putting on an unconvincing façade of confidence, announcing that she considered working in porn because she heard the pay was good.

Throughout the film, Lila’s idealised version of sex and adulthood is constantly undermined by the grim reality, often in the most humiliating way. Trying to impress Sammy with the illusion of her sexual adventurousness, she allows his friend Devon to spank her with a ping pong paddle, her face registering pain, confusion and regret with each strike. At another visit, after Sammy has grown bored of her, Devon dares her to suck all their dicks, and each pull down their trousers as she kneels before them, with Sammy goading her about how she hasn’t made him hard. It is the most brutal of the indignities she experiences, although perhaps the cold awakening and the deglamourising, of Sammy and of sex itself, is essential for her to learn.

Early on, Lila joins a dance rehearsal, their routine aggressive and erotic, almost uncomfortable to watch. Lila hangs back, slower, less conviction in her writhing and thrusting moves, eventually stoppings altogether to observe the others. The girls pause to preen, posing in the mirrors, stretching, playing with their hair, admiring and critiquing their bodies. But the boys’ bodies are equally, if not more fetishised, with the camera lingering over hard pecs and abs, tattoos, nipples and tans. And for all the idealised perceptions of Chiara – she is beautiful, older, desired and experienced, with a wealthy family who love her and throw her a lavish sweet sixteen party – she too is victim to expectations, as Patrick berates her for speaking to other guys, and condemns her for having been with more people than him. Only three, as she insists, but he tells her that three is a lot, when you think about it. One key to Hittman’s film is that it doesn’t forget that, for all Lila’s insecurities and social pressures on teenage girls, there is equal pressure and expectation on teenage boys. Sammy could equally be accused of leading Lila on (a claim usually thrown at girls), and Lila acting like a stalker (a supposedly masculine reaction to being dumped).

A more unsettling aspect of It Felt Like Love is Lila’s isolation from society. Late in the film, we learn her mother died of cancer, and it is clear throughout that her father has dialled out of existence, seemingly unemployed, disinterested in housekeeping, and openly admitting how pointless it is to care what Lila does with her time, assuming she would do what she wanted regardless of his opinion. It is cliché to look at what the absence of a mother and the distance of a father does to a teenage girl’s ability to navigate through relationships, but there is a sense in the film that Lila longs for guidance. After a failed seduction of Sammy, where he fell asleep drunk and she stripped and slept beside him, in the hopes he would think they had slept together, Lila meanders home in the early morning light, and stops outside her door to speak to Nate. She’s stayed out all night and her dad’s going to kill her. Call the cops if you hear screaming, she says. On entering, her dad drinks coffee in the kitchen, unimpressed, but unconcerned. Later, she heads to Sammy’s work hoping to reconnect. My dad freaked out, she tells him. It’s one thing to perform your sexual experience. It’s another to perform your place in the world.

 

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west of memphis billboard

No. 2 – West Of Memphis (Amy Berg, 2012)

A few weeks ago, a friend on Facebook posted about Serial season 1 and its deficiencies, namely its lack of a definitive conclusion, use of a real life murder as entertainment, and that Sarah Koenig, as a journalist with no background in law, was the wrong person to report on such a complex and emotive event as the murder of Hae Min Lee, which saw her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed jailed. I didn’t get involved in the discussion, mostly because I was already three days late by the time it appeared on my feed, but also because I’m an inelegant debater and know my opinion is of no interest to anyone, myself included. But I did disagree.

The appeal of true crime specifically to women is not a new phenomenon. The strange attraction of the so-called fairer sex to accounts of grisly murders and unsolved mysteries has been dissected for years. Maybe it’s a reaction against a patriarchal society forcing them into an illusion of delicacy and gentility, or because the victims are so often women themselves and crime stories become a guide to what-not-to-do – don’t travel alone, don’t answer the door, don’t make him angry. Or maybe we’re all ghouls. Who the hell knows. But between Serial’s first series and Netflix’s Making A Murderer, female-led documentaries on crime are in vogue.

It was my own ghoulish interest that led me to West Of Memphis, a 2012 documentary by Amy J Berg following the more recent events of the West Memphis Three, three teen outsiders jailed for the hideous, supposedly satanic murders of three young boys in 1993. The infamous case gained traction thanks to HBO’s Paradise Lost series, attracting high profile supporters including Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Eddie Vedder in an attempt to get the convictions overturned. In West Of Memphis, Berg investigates the investigation, highlighting possible missed leads, and following the appeals process to a conclusion that sees Damian Echols, his friend Jason Baldwin and an acquaintance, Jessie Misskelley, released, but not exonerated, and as yet, no further convictions for the murders of the three young boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

As with Making A Murderer, the controversial account of Steven Avery, an unpopular local man wrongly convicted of rape and suing the county, who is subsequently jailed for the murder of Theresa Halbach, there is the suggestion that the West Memphis investigators, so horrified by the odious crime, may have decided on the culprits early on, and found themselves shaping the evidence around their suspicions. Confirmation bias is sadly not uncommon in police work (how often do TV cops solve a crime on a “hunch”), but equally, rarely deliberate. Making A Murderer hinges on the fact that if Avery is innocent, then the Manitowac County force falsified and planted evidence to convict him, which is a hugely terrifying suggestion. In reality, confirmation bias is more insidious, and often unintentional. Who wouldn’t be suspicious of someone who stands out by not fitting in? Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were noted in West Memphis for their Metallica t-shirts and disregard for authority. Steven Avery and his family were known for their lower social status, the messy houses and bad reputations. Adnan Syed, though not the only Pakistani-American student in his school, was the son of immigrants who had demonstrated displeasure at his americanisation (Serial recounts his mother pulling him out of a school dance, and how his relationship with Hae was kept secret), and his arrest came at a time when distrust of Muslims in Western countries was increasing post-9/11. It is not so hard to imagine the police forces, the DAs, the communities and the media taking note of how different these people all were, and, consciously or otherwise, wondering, looking a little closer at them than the initial evidence would suggest, and starting to find coincidences that might be something more – a cut hand here, a violent fantasy in a journal there – but might be nothing at all. A murder investigation is not an easy job. People are not infallible, and confirmation bias can leak in when every step of the investigation is under the microscope of the media, a frightened community, and a bereaved family. Most of the time, the police get it right. But sometimes speed becomes more vital than care when solving a crime, and in that case, what happens to due process? But, and it must be noted, I do not have legal training. Who am I to make these assumptions, or try to tell this story?

Authorship in documentaries has always been a contentious subject. Every film student knows Nanook Of The North was staged for dramatic effect, and Super Size Me’s findings have not held up when others have tried to recreate it. Why are documentaries viewed as the gold standard of human endeavour, rather than another form of entertainment? Doesn’t everyone have a point of view, after all? Why does my friend criticise Sarah Koenig for not conclusively solving the murder of Hae Min Lee? Would it not be worse for Koenig, a journalist specialising in American politics and society, to definitively come down on one side or another, make Serial into a J’Accuse statement and point a finger, knowing she had the ears of a large audience (the first episode of Serial was broadcast as an episode of NPR megaforce This American Life, where each podcast episode alone is downloaded 750,000 times, never mind the additional radio listenership)? Unlike Serial’s ambiguous approach, West Of Memphis takes a harder stance, saying no specifics but undoubtedly demanding we look closely at Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, accused of having a violent temper, a man who took a break from searching for his missing stepson so his friend could teach him Roy Orbison songs on guitar. Does Berg’s filmmaking style force us to question Hobbs more fervently than we would otherwise? Or is the evidence she presents so strong? Berg is an invisible presence in the film, giving us no voiceover or leading comments. The film only shows us what happens, dispassionate, detached…or so it seems. After all, Berg and her editors have chosen what to film, what to include, when to cut a quote. Everything on screen has been deliberately chosen by the filmmaker – as with every documentary, as with every film, as with everything. Objectivity is really a myth.

To criticise Koenig, and other documentary makers, for undertaking subjects about which they have minimal background knowledge and inescapable biases is to misunderstand the nature of documentaries. Lawyers don’t make films. Police officers don’t podcast their investigations. It’s not the same thing. Koenig and Berg and Making A Murderer’s Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos are qualified to make documentaries on any subject, so long as they present facts (as they see them) and the audience understands this to be the case. Serial may be “about” Adnan Syed, but it is really about so much more – the unreliable nature of memory, the American judicial system, how the act of investigation often uncovers more questions upon questions. The one thing Serial is not about is whether Syed murdered Hae Min Lee. I do not have a problem with this.

More damningly, however, Serial is not about Hae Min Lee.

The issue that has always turned my stomach about true crime documentaries, and my own interest in them, is how the victim is forgotten. Always. When true crime becomes entertainment (albeit by asking broader questions than “did x kill y?”) it loses the emotion. The suspects and investigators become characters on a screen. But they are not, and we need to remember this. West Of Memphis treads a finer line – whereas Hae Min Lee and Theresa Halbach’s families decline to participate in their respective documentaries, West Of Memphis has a surprisingly wide scope of interview subjects, including Stevie Branch’s mother Pamela Hobbs, the aforementioned Terry Hobbs (who does himself no favours, not least when suing Dixie Chick Natalie Maines for reporting that new DNA evidence had implicated him – his suit was dismissed, because no force on Earth is more powerful than the Dixie Chicks), and, eventually, the West Memphis Three themselves. This could be down to the high profile nature of the case or the three previous HBO documentaries having prepared the community for media interaction. Pamela Hobbs in particular is a compelling subject. The film depicts her horrible journey alongside the West Memphis Three – harrowing news footage of the moment she hears the bodies have been found, her rage and hatred towards the West Memphis Three at their trials, and her gradual questioning of the convictions and calling for the case to be reopened (alongside the father and stepfather of Christopher Byers – when even the victims’ families are not on your side, it’s a bad sign).

West Of Memphis’s final act focuses on the campaign for and eventual release of the West Memphis Three, and alleged ringleader Echols in particular. After 18 years on death row, he was facing higher stakes, and his eventual wife, Lorri Davis, acts as a guide to the nuances of the legal battles the three men faced. Eventually they are offered an Alford Plea, which allowed them to accept a plea deal without admitting guilt – essentially setting them free without giving them the option of suing the state for their wrongful imprisonment. While Echols and Misskelley quickly agree, Jason Baldwin holds out. Baldwin is an elusive figure throughout the film, and his noble character is revealed in these moments. While he wishes to be freed, he can not bear that his conviction will stand, and the implication of his guilt to remain. It is then revealed that during the initial trial, Baldwin was offered a plea deal in return for incriminating Echols, which he, the 17 year old facing life imprisonment, refused. After panicked phone calls, Baldwin agrees to accept the plea, so that his principles don’t stand in the way of his co-defendants’ freedom. It is extremely moving, but equally depressing, watching someone who stayed true to himself under such great pressure in an unimaginable situation for nearly 20 years realising that this uneven deal, rooted more in legalese than correcting wrongs, was as close to justice as he would ever get.

But for all the voices heard throughout Berg’s film, the victims are still in the background, juggling too many threads over its considerable runtime to fully engage with the three murdered eight year olds. But perhaps that is a grim inevitability of true crime – beyond restating the facts, what more can a documentary reveal before it becomes a memorial video? And yet it leaves a sickly taste in the mouth.

West Of Memphis makes one small move to adjust our perspective. The film’s end credits finishes with an old photo of a billboard for the West Memphis Three tip line, depicting the faces of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley and requesting information that may lead to their exoneration. In the final shot of the film, the image fades out and their faces are replaced with the faces of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. There is another West Memphis Three, after all, and there are still questions to be answered about their fates.

 

 

fort tilden header

No. 1 – Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, 2015)

My first #52filmbywomen viewing came unintentionally, which is pleasing. I watched Fort Tilden last week, and only today when I went back, I saw it was co-directed by a woman, Sarah-Violet Bliss with Charles Rogers. Of course, there’s no way to tell a film has a female director. They bring no extra sensory nuance that male directors lack, nor do they shut down production five days each month to be swaddled in duvets with chocolate and the Meg Ryan back catalogue. There is no difference, except for the difference that exists between all directors of all backgrounds, which makes the lack of opportunity in the film industry even more egregious. Try telling Kathryn Bigelow or Michelle MacLaren that women can’t handle action sequences or political conflict, or Wes Anderson or Todd Haynes that men can’t handle visual beauty or emotional nuance.

Fort Tilden fits nicely into the 2010s movement of Young Female Disasters that has emerged post-Girls. Women are no longer awkward-but-honourable, overcoming insurmountable odds to gain respect and, usually, a man. Now, we have these beboobed idiots, flawed messes with misplaced but easily shaken confidence, bluffing their way through life, worried that they are going to be found out – in other words, human. Instead of virgin/whore/madonna, they are some combination of the three. Fort Tilden’s leads, Allie (Claire McNulty) and her spoiled roommate Harper (Bridey Elliot) walk this line as they wind their way from Brooklyn to the titular beach destination to meet up with boys from the previous night’s party, trailing chaos over themselves and everyone they encounter on the way.

The girls are compellingly awful in different ways. Harper is charming and arrogant in the way that only beautiful New Yorkers get away with. Her cool façade belies how her lifestyle as an alleged artist is funded by her rich but distant father, while she remains defiantly ignorant of his shady business practises in India. Her primary concern is why her ex-boyfriend has stopped sending dick pics, and whether this will prevent him from selling her Molly. Allie, nervy and subordinate, is preparing for a Peace Corps trip to Liberia, but frustrated that people are more concerned about how dangerous it is than how impressive her plans are. Not that it matters, since she has been procrastinating on essential travel documents, and spends the film avoiding her frustrated supervisor’s calls by feigning illness. The girls feed off each other, and neither wants to face the fact of their separation. Allie sulks when Harper invites another girl to view her soon-to-be empty room, while Harper frequently assures others that Allie won’t actually follow through with her plans. Harper goads Allie into skipping her responsibilities for a day of adventure, perhaps intentionally sabotaging her. Allie lets herself be talked into it, perhaps sabotaging herself.

Their friends, privileged and pretentious millennials to a man, treat Allie and Harper with either cloying insincerity or open hostility. Only they can truly tolerate each other, sending snarky texts throughout the grim party that opens the film, and half-heartedly defending the other from criticisms, even if they sort of agree. The girls clash with each other over which of the boys prefers them, and later, which of them is the bigger fraud, but ultimately they are hooked on each other, more willing to put up with the other’s bullshit than anyone else. Throughout the film, they drag each other through horrible events and let their humiliations be swiftly forgotten. Survival, with or without dignity, is imperative. In the end, they are safe in their conspiracy of silence – or mutual delusion. In the film’s most memorable scene, they stand in a shop queue as Allie’s bike get stolen, hypnotised by the unfolding theft, their detached commentary doing nothing to stop it happening. They are observers in their own lives. As the astonished woman in the queue behind them tells them, “I just watched you watch that boy steal your bike.” After that, they decide to abandon the other bike, borrowed from their upstairs neighbour, in an unfamiliar lot.

Some of the best friendships are built upon what two people are willing to leave unsaid. As women going nowhere, they are content to continue avoiding responsibility, so long as the other does the same. Harper and Allie may bring out the worst in each other, but they are stronger together. Allie avoids discussing Harper’s father after an unpleasant encounter gets them kicked out of a cab. Harper convinces Allie to run away rather than face a yuppie family’s fury after a near-miss with their pram and Allie’s bike. They both, shamefully, silently acknowledge and ignore the fate of the kittens they found and returned to an upright dustbin, just before a storm hits. By the end of the film, nothing has changed – they have no jobs, no boyfriends, and no Molly. They are stumbling through their haphazard lives, but they are not doing it alone, and for now, that is the most they are capable of. We should all be so lucky, but holy shit, do these girls deserve each other.

 

Vera Chytilova

vera chytilova

I am a slave to lists and I am a slave to my own reflection. I save links to articles on female directors, thinking I’ll read them later, then forget. Or if I do read it, and make a mental list of my own, films I should see, should seek out, and then…forget. I procrastinate when I should be evolving into the well-rounded, culturally informed entity I pretend to be. We’re all frauds, after all.

 

And I’m vain. I want to see film about people like me, with my point of view, or my accent or shape. I try to buy cinema tickets for worthy films, to support films that mean something to me, or to the film industry. Maybe my ticket is the one that lets it cross the line from breaking even to bone fide hit, and allow the filmmaker to get funding for their next endeavour. I want films about women, written by women, made by women. Films with women who have characteristics beyond stripper, prostitute or perfectly tolerant love interest. I’m at the point where I actively avoid films about young white men, even the good ones. I don’t want to see Boyhood because every film is Boyhood. The same experiences, tone, perspective, beats, moments. And it’s not that every film demands a strong female character in its place, or even to pass the Bechdal test. It doesn’t make sense to have a dynamic lead female in The Revenant. But when all we have are Revenants and Boyhoods, you get tired. They get tired. We explore the male psyche so much that it becomes white noise. The homogenisation of cinema hurts everyone.

 

#52filmsbywomen came at the right time for me. I need to do more than grab the opportunities when they arise, or berate and dismiss the work of others just because they happen to come from white, y-chromosome privilege. After all, a man’s voice is no less worthy, just because it’s louder. But until all voices have equal resonance in culture, we must actively seek out work by female and female-minority filmmakers. The film industry won’t believe these voices should be heard until they realise we’re listening.