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No. 6 – The Sisterhood Of Night (Caryn Waechter, 2014)

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The Sisterhood Of Night has a dreamy, ethereal tone that I would have eaten up as a teenage girl. Unfortunately, I’m old as balls now, so I couldn’t help being shaken out of reverie by the occasional spotty moments. But I would still mark this down as a sweet film for teenagers to watch, one of those noble attempts of filmmakers to understand and depict contemporary teenage girls, but there’s something elusive and ephemeral about those girls, something that’s nearly impossible to capture with any accuracy. By the time you think you have them figured out, they’ve grown up and gone, and the next group appear with a new language and set of references and dreams. The Sisterhood Of Night does an honourable job, and yet something is missing. Which, for a film which attempts to do SO much, is a shame.

The film is told in a mix of flashbacks and faux-documentary talking heads, in a way that is slightly muddled and confusing. It dives right into the battlegrounds of social media, where so many other films are reluctant to engage, because Robert McKee doesn’t explain how in Story. (Start noticing how many films involving someone losing / forgetting / breaking their mobile phone early on in a plot that would be easily solved with a quick call, and prepare to be infuriated by many, many horrors films and thrillers of the past fifteen years.) The film initially sets up a rivalry between Emily, a lonely blogger desperate to be part of the in-crowd, and Mary, an intriguing and charismatic student who decides to go quiet on social media. Mary then decides to start a secret society of girls, selected by invitation, with an aim that isn’t immediately clear. Emily follows the group out one night, and later writes a blog post outlining the abuse she suffers at the Sisterhood’s hands, starting something akin to a witchhunt that escalates throughout the town. The Sisterhood are sworn to secrecy, so refuse to comment, adding fuel to the fire.

At this point, the different story threads spiral out like a hydra, and never quite come together. A society of isolated teenagers echoes Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire (beautifully filmed by Laurent Cantet in 2012). The mass hysteria surrounding the group recalls The Falling by Carol Morley (which I’ll be watching within the next few weeks). Emily and Mary’s rivalry recalls any number of teen films. Other, more minor strands would have been an interesting primary forcus – Emily’s blog compels other girls to open up about the abuse they have suffered, Lavinia is vexed by her mother’s dating activities and her own emergent sexuality (she borrows a copy of The Joy Of Sex, a book which has not been read since 1976 but nice try, set designers) and is then brutally catfished by her schoolfriends, Catherine refuses to visit her sick mother since she lost her hair, school councillor Gordo Gambhir’s attempts to reach out to the Sisterhood led to him losing his job over a perceived inappropriate relationship with Mary. Any one of these storylines would have a place as the A story in a hammy after-school special, or a touching indie film. It is almost a shame to have them as such small plot points. The Sisterhood Of Night suffers from too many ideas and too much ambition – and that is an honourable way to fail.

But The Sisterhood Of Night has some unique aspects to it as well. This is a rare – and non-judgemental – depiction of a religious community. While it feeds into the mass panic, the focus is more on how the town is tightly-knit and aware of each other’s business, rather than mocking the theists. Likewise, it walks a fine line in the depiction of female sexuality. While Lavinia is shamed and mocked for her desires, the film treats her with more dignity – most films view as a cause for punishment, or the most emotional, moving moment of a woman’s life, and both are equally unrealistic interpretations. Mary’s relationship, another minor thread in the film, is treated sincerely but as an afterthought. She loses her virginity on her terms, and is happy with her decision, which remains private. Throughout the film, privacy and silence is a revolutionary act, particularly in a world of noise, where nothing goes unnoticed or unread by the people around you, and that itself is refreshing.

 

 

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No. 4 – Middle Of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay, 2012)

In light of last week’s Oscars, it seemed apropos to look back at the work of Ava DuVernay, who is probably the most notable female director working at the moment, and also the origin of 2015’s #Oscarssowhite movement. With a year passing now, it seems inexcusable that a future classic like Selma eked out merely two nominations in a field that saw nominations for forgettable films as Unbroken, The Judge and American Sniper (a box office hit that I literally forgot existed). DuVernay herself has become a modern-day icon, in a way that has eluded her director peers such as Tom Hooper and Michel Hazanavicius, but the fact that Mattel has made a Barbie version of her has not diminished her into a mere image of a dreadlocked beauty in a director’s chair. The facts are clear: DuVernay is the most exciting director working in Hollywood right now. A mere three features into her career, her skill and significance is such that she will doubtless be present at many Oscar ceremonies in the future, and, most likely, at the podium herself.

DuVernay’s second film Middle Of Nowhere brought her one step closer to the mainstream. A Sundance success, it won multiple awards and nominations including a strong showing at the Independent Spirit Awards, centred around DuVernay’s writing and directing, and her excellent cast, led by the luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby. Ruby is a determined young medical student putting her life on hold while she waits for her husband Derek to get out of prison (“five good years,” she makes him promise). As the years tick by and her family question what, precisely, she is waiting for, Ruby begins to question her husband’s commitment, and her own, in the face of the interest of bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo, later Selma’s Martin Luther King). To Ruby’s surprise, Brian doesn’t ask questions. He waits for people to confide, he tells her, and points out his ex used to complain about it. Ruby tentatively opens up to him, lets him into her life, then pulls away, still tied to Derek and the life she thought they were going to lead.

Middle Of Nowhere is an atmospheric and captivating character piece, focusing on 3 black women whose lives have stalled for various reasons, intentional or otherwise. If intersectionality teaches us anything, it’s that few groups are as ignored or misrepresented as the black woman. Ruby, her mother Ruth and sister Rosie, are not the finger-snapping, fiery and sassy women of Hollywood cinema, but real characters in a way that is so sorely lacking in the mainstream. It is a film that does not hold its audience’s hands, with much of the narrative left to implication, with DuVernay demonstrating a refreshing confidence in the intelligence of her viewers. These are women who are surviving, but struggling against external forces, and their own expectations for themselves. They are in each other’s lives, but each separate. The film’s thesis may be the loneliness of the black woman. Derek, an equally atypical depiction of the young black criminal, is more downtrodden and hopeless than deceitful, his sense of his own failure leading to more mistakes and betrayals, as though deliberately pushing away Ruby, a woman who stubbornly sees “we” where he sees their distance and isolation.

It is primarily a film of silence. We aren’t told the specifics of Derek’s crime (late in the film, Ruby concedes a single word “guns”), nor the prison fight that extends his sentence, or the nature of the sexual assault on the prison guard. We don’t know the cause of Rosie’s tension with her mother, though there is some suggestion that she was a tough parent. In a more textual way, we are told Ruby takes night shifts so she can stay home and not miss Derek’s calls, yet we hear many of his calls as answerphone messages. Voices are heard, but at a distance. Ruby and Rosie have a rare, open conversation about love, but find they can’t relate to each other, as Rosie admits she feels jealous of Ruby as, even though her husband is in prison, she still has a man thinking about her. Ruby doesn’t contradict this, though she doesn’t open up either. The key scene sees Ruth, played by the incredible Lorraine Toussaint, berate her daughters for their self-imposed isolation – why Ruby has given up her med school dreams, why Rosie refuses her help to care for her grandchild – and yet nothing is really resolved, Rosie leaving before the conversation can unveil any truths. “Why don’t you say anything?” she demands of her remaining daughter.

Ruby’s prison is one of silence. She is framed indoors, under harsh hospital lighting, or hiding at home from the daytime behind the gauze curtains which cover the windows. The film is filled with brief flashbacks out of time, further adding to the ambiguous nature of the narrative – are they Ruby’s memories or her dreams? In the end, Ruby’s voice is powerful when she wields it. An out of character outburst at Derek’s lawyer’s office achieves a desired compromise when it seems like his lawyer might drop his case. Similarly, she calmly, gently tells Derek that she will not spend the remainder of his imprisonment with him. The film ends with a letter to Derek in voiceover, emphasising the traps they all find themselves in, and Ruby’s determination not to be caught the same way. The scene is overlaid with shots of Ruby and Brian arm in arm (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?) and of Ruby and Derek, washing dishes side by side (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?), but ends with Ruby at the bus stop, alone, responding to a stranger’s greeting. The film’s resolution is ambiguous, but the film is impactful, and its atmosphere lingers for a long time after.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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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.

 

A little overdue self-promotion: I wrote an article for the November (I know) issue of the spectacular Pop Bitch Magazine app on K-pop, J-Pop and a little madness therein. Focussing mostly on idol culture and the pressures felt by young popstars, and the press hysteria over even the most minor “scandal”. It was a really fascinating topic to research and also incredibly grim. The Pop Bitch app is available from all good app stores, and if you’re not already subscribed to the weekly email, you are seriously missing out.

A brief extract:

Girl group f(x) got in trouble in July for burning a book in the opening shot of their video Red Light, which was immediately identified as the Bible, presumably as it’s the most flammable text in the world. Other fans suggested that it was a telephone book, in keeping with imagery later in the video, but that’s exactly the sort of thing the Illuminati would want you to think.

So you’ve watched and loved The Artist. You liked its smooth leading men, charming ingénues, black and whiteness and best of all, none of that god damned talking. Well, great news, because there’s decades of early silent cinema just like The Artist for you to seek out and enjoy. Here’s my selections for a gateway to the delights of silent cinema.

City Lights

And why not start with the most famous? Chaplin’s little tramp made a simple transition from silent to talkies but didn’t need a voice to make the world laugh, cry and generally feel some serious emotions. In fact, things seem a tad sentimental in the age of cynicism, but that doesn’t take away from the deft storytelling and endearing antics. In City Lights, the tramp falls for a blind girl, and finds himself negotiating the world of work to pay for her operation.

The General

Full feature
While Chaplin is the icon, for my money, Buster Keaton is the genius. Famed for his poker face, Keaton’s films have aged remarkably well. In The General, Keaton is a railroad engineer rejected from the Confederate army for being more valuable in his current role, and is then shunned by his girl for cowardice. He and his train, the titular General, end up stuck between the two armies, and he has to warn his compatriots and rescue his kidnapped love. Combined with treacherous stunts and dry humour, The General is a film out of time, one of the greatest films of any decade, and somehow a huge flop on its 1926 release.

It

It wasn’t only the men who were headlining classic comedies. Clara Bow was one of the biggest stars of the silent era. Her flirtatious naivety and knowing sexuality sets the tone for every female screen comedian since, including Berenice Bejo’s Peppy Miller. In It, the original It girl is a sassy shopgirl who falls for her boss – a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in any romcom today. Bow’s flapper joie de vivre went out of style after the Wall Street Crash, and her thick Brooklyn accent ended her career on the coming of sound, but for a while, Bow was the shining star of the silver screen.

Safety Last

The last of the Big Three screen comedians, Lloyd is responsible for one iconic image – dangling from a clockface off a skyscraper. The enthusiastic go-getter to Chaplin’s wide-eyed tramp and Keaton’s stone faced irony, here Lloyd attempts to make it in the big city, and fails at every point, until he meets a challenge to climb a skyscraper for $1000.

The Girl With The Hat Box

The glory of silent cinema is how easily a film with no dialogue translates across territories, and of course, it wasn’t just the US churning out classics. Amongst others, Russia had an extremely healthy kino industry, more than just newsreel and propaganda but social issue pictures and the occasional delightful romcom, such as this, starring Anna Sten who would go on to make a name in Hollywood. Sten works in a hatshop, and longs for a railroad worker while pursued by a student. Meanwhile her boss has just won the lottery but the ticket has disappeared. Proving convoluted plots could be just as charming in any language, and indeed, no language, The Girl With The Hat Box is as fresh as anything made over 80 years later.

Bonus: Les Voyage Dans Le Lune

It’s not just The Artist that has been raising the profile of silent cinema. Hugo is the culmination of Scorsese’s passion for the form, examining the mechanics and history behind the birth of cinema, and specifically, the work of the visionary Georges Melies, who depicted fantastical worlds with more originality and verve than most directors working today. This is a good use of your time.


No one thinks Wes Anderson is just okay. He may be the ultimate love/hate director, his oeuvre inspiring passion one way or another. It’s not hard to see why. The textbook definition of an auteur, you can spot a Wes Anderson joint at forty paces. The Futura font, mannered performances of well-off, well-dressed, well-meaning idiots stumbling through social interactions in beautifully decorated surrounds, every frame is an artwork. The dialogue is staid, awkward, stagey, witty but tinged with cruelty, sometimes so imbued with deeper significance that it is laughable. Depending on where you stand with Anderson, this is part of his charm or the reason to walk out of the screening. 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited is the most indulgent of his films, a gloriously shot road movie in technicolour, detailing three brothers’ attempts to reconnect following the death of their father. That it is set in India is almost incidental, nothing but a beautiful backdrop to the quibbles and neuroses of three rich white Americans. Enjoyment of the film depends almost entirely on how much you are able to forgive this fact.

There is, however, one scene that moves beyond the typical Anderson fare. Kicked off the titular train for a masterclass in bad behaviour involving pepper spray, a brawl over a belt and an escaped, highly poisonous snake, the brothers witness three young boys fall into a river, and rescue two. “I didn’t save mine,” Peter says.

Gone are the backdrops that seem like paintings. The brothers, Peter carrying the boy’s body in his arms, are led into an isolated village, the horizon disappearing into a mirage of nothingness. The father, played by the Indian Brando, Irrfan Khan, rushes forward to receive his child’s body. The brothers are ushered away by an elder. A series of vignettes follow as the village prepares for the funeral, marginally disrupted by the presence of their American visitors. Their luggage is piled together near the livestock. Jack helps make garlands of white flowers. Francis silently communicates with one of the children. Peter, previously filled with doubt over his pregnant wife, nurses a baby. The soundtrack rumbles with keening women. The father sits alone, desolate in a darkened room. He washes his son’s body. He watches, and waits. As the brothers go to leave, they are called back to attend the funeral, and, in standard Anderson slow-mo, join the villagers in white, before the action moves predictably to a flashback of their journey to their own father’s funeral the year before. The film is, after all, about these rich Americans. But for a moment, it transcends their concerns and becomes something atypically simple, uncontrived, honest.

Irrfan Khan is a huge reason for the sequence’s resonance. In a tiny role with no dialogue, he dominants the screen. In comparison to Schwartzman, Wilson and Brody’s performances, all suitably mercurial for an Anderson film, Khan is less affected, depicting raw devastation with such quiet dignity that he makes the three movie stars look like parodies.

But Anderson too deserves plaudits for displaying an unusual subtlety. The Darjeeling Limited, after all, centres around three brothers who are literally dragging around luggage belonging to (about) their father. But in this sequence, he shows admirable restraint. Here, there are no quirky music cues or staged tableaux. The three brothers wear simple white clothes, a marked removal from Anderson’s totemic use of objects and clothing to embody character (the Team Zissou uniforms, or Chas Tenenbaum’s tracksuits, for example). The sequence is practically dialogue-free, unlike the wordy natterings of the rest of the film. The film has gone from the rumbling speed of train travel to the languid pace of quiet village life. For a director so idiosyncratic, Anderson’s decision to show such restraint makes the sequence particularly memorable, allowing the action to breathe and linger.

Anderson takes an observational approach, allowing the action to speak for itself without explaining it for the audience, because it is not important. This creates a universal effect, not getting distracted by traditions a Western audience may not immediately understand. This avoids an intrusive, anthropological eye on the Otherness of Indian culture, thereby allowing the viewer to appreciate the deeper meaning, how a village pulls together to survive a tragedy such as this, the death of a child. Anderson’s delicate treatment makes this the scene to remember once the credits have rolled.

Everyone knows Blondie as one of the most iconic acts of the new wave spectrum, famous for a litany of hits, experiments with different musical styles (disco, punk, rap) and a photogenic steely-eyed blonde called Deborah Harry. Their greatest accomplishment is sadly forgotten, however, as the primary inspiration on the later musical career of the actor Joe Pesci.

More famous for playing a series of terrible haircuts in film classics such as Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino and JFK (this is not a man who suits hair), Pesci’s showbiz career was originally more music-focused, with the release of the depressingly-titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing in 1968. After this first sweet taste of musical infamy, its follow-up came a mere thirty years later, with an album called, according to its unfortunately designed cover, IMAGE LINK Sings Just For You Vincent LaGuardia Gambini (his character in My Cousin Vinny). It is with this album that the Blondie/Pesci rivalry comes to a head, with its most notorious track, a Rapture-sampling ode to the gangsta way of life called Wise Guy.


(better sound quality here)

Any novice music fan can find many differences between the Blondie classic and young upstart Pesci’s rap track. But is it truly fair to compare creative expression? How dare we judge them on anything other than individual virtue? And yet, by his specific choice of musical backdrop, Pesci himself seems to challenge us to draw a comparison between these two musical giants. Did not Vanilla Ice release Ice Ice Baby with the sole purpose of laying claim to his own place on the pantheon alongside Queen and David Bowie? Well, perhaps not.

Rapture became an unlikely pioneer of the rap format, becoming the first rap single to reach number one in the US Billboard charts, thereby proving that anything black people can do as an expression of their marginalisation in a white-dominated society, white people can do with less rhythm and more emphasis on alien invasion. Despite namechecking Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash, the crux of the song focuses on a tale of aliens coming down to earth, eating people, buildings and a variety of cars, all delivered in Harry’s patented detached, slightly angry delivery.

Pesci, however, chooses to tell a very different story. Some people think that, as an actor, the tough guy schtick is simply a performance, a façade, an Oscar-winning façade, but they would be wrong. Pesci, the star of Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, is that self-same fuck shit up badass motherfucker from off of the films*, as he proudly explains in Wise Guy, it’s a lovely day in the neighbourhood for a driveby. You see, Pesci proclaims, he is a prolific murderer. Over the course of the rap, he claims responsibility for the death of five people (providing the brother being hit by a truck proved fatal), as well as numerous threats, largely aimed at the listener, including a promise to turn up with some men to “take your eyes”.

However, Pesci preserves his most rampant rhymes for those wiley hos. It’s the bitches that’ll gitcha, Pesci imparts repeatedly, making up a term for get you (plural) that no one has used before or since, because that’s how Joe rolls. Pesci, having clearly had a rough time with the ladies in the past, possibly due to the poor calibre and quality of wigs sported in his filmic output (speculation), and this has left him wary of the fairer sex. There are six instances of violent aggression towards ex-girlfriends, rich supermodels, and generic bitches. Fortunately, Naomi Campbell (cast as “brunette chick whose father Pesci heard had stocks and bonds, leading him to fuck ‘em up and leave ‘em floatin’ in a pond” ) seems to take it in good stead, possibly appreciating how Pesci also gives back to the community, as well as murdering and assaulting select members, as demonstrate in the opening moments of the Wise Guy video where he hands out dollar-dollar bills to street urchins on account of them staying in school.

It’s not all egregious acts of violent misogyny and mafia-related murderisation. Pesci’s is also teaching us the ways and means with which to live the High Life. The President, then Bill Clinton, everyone’s favourite cheating, morally-questionable saxophonist, calls him, presumably for some advice on the proper care and management of reeds, causing Pesci to claim that he will call him back, proving that all men are equal in the eyes of Joe. Pesci celebrates the fact that he never gets a ticket, probably on account of his fine driving skills, or the fact that there’s rarely enough space to park a limousine in high traffic areas. He enjoys visiting sporting events and fine millenary, and values intellect and respect, which conveniently rhyme. He assures us he does not do crack, thereby keeping a clear head to commit acts of massive violence.

It is clear that there is a subtle double-meaning to the song’s title, not simply a reference to his characterisation in Scorsese’s ouvre and indeed the stereotypical of the Italian-Americans in the media, and their unfair association with the mob. Indeed Pesci is a Wise Guy, an individual with a unique and compelling world view with much to teach us in the ways of living and rhyming flyyy tunes. I shall leave you with the most charming quadruplet, that sums up Pesci’s whole attitude, the balance of street smarts and sophisticated eloquence, the yin and the yang, that embody the complex, engaging vitality that ensures he remains at the forefront of our cultural and sociological lexicon:

Her mother didn’t like me, I never gave a fuck
Her brother didn’t like me, I hit him with a truck
Her sister was a rip, everybody got a ride
Her father was a rat, so I buried him alive

* It may or may not be worth noting that Joe Pesci does not appear to have a criminal record.


c. Kit Ryall 2010

One of the hardest things about being an aspiring writer is other writers. Specifically, the highly motivated, self-promoting kind, who know how they should be marketed and the sort of people who should know their name. Literary events are a breeding ground for it. They watch the crowd at literary events, scoping out the right people to crawl over on their way to the top. Facebook friends applaud as the promoters introduce their mates, or someone they went to uni with, or someone they high-fived after comparing identical opinions on late period David Foster Wallace (but they call him Dave). The audience then endures an evening of self-satisfied and mediocre performances because they have come to expect no better. I get it. It’s not how you write, it’s who you know. That’s how it works. That’s how everything works.

But as a reader who loves literature, I had given up on finding a literary evening of merit. I wanted emotion, I wanted art, I wanted to hear people who were passionate and fresh and TALENTED. I didn’t want the organiser’s mates, shared backgrounds and trite metaphors, yet this is the attitude permeating the spoken word scene. Familiarity over quality. “You can read your shitty poem at my event because you let me read at yours”. The snake eats its own tail.

Then, in happier times, I moved to Kilburn and discovered wordPLAY. wordPLAY wasn’t a forum for smug connections and insularity. wordPLAY wanted beautiful things. It attracted a wide range of writers, poets, musicians and spoken word artists to perform, who were talent spotted and had a diverse range of mediums, perspectives and attitudes. The atmosphere wasn’t one of wet-lipped schmoozing and behind-backed criticism but of enthusiasm and excitement for the written word carved and coiffed and spoken out loud. The organisers weren’t looking to promote themselves, the performers weren’t looking for an agent, and the audience weren’t looking to spot the next big thing. Everyone was there for the love of good writing, and that’s what they got.

When wordPLAY ended in May, everything looked a bit duller. Going out on a high, the team had attracted a varied and impressive range of headliners from Laura Dockrill, Kate Tempest, Bernadine Evaristo, Edinburgh award-winning comedian Tim Key, TS Eliot-winning Poet George Szirtes, author of ‘Return to The Hundred-Acre Wood’ David Benedictus, and an eclectic array of less established, unpublished and wonderful writers, from traditional poets to MCs, beatboxers and freestylers and prose writers and storytellers.

The good news is that wordPLAY returns on Tuesday 23rd November for a one off charity event in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. I am very happy to say that I’ve been asked to help organise this glorious return to the literary scene. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that organising an event is shitting hard work. I have great found respect for anyone who manages to run any kind of evening, even the dire ones, and I now see the appeal of getting your friends in to fill out the bill. But the trick is not to give up. Amazing writing is out there, waiting to be discovered by an audience who wants to listen. Working on the new wordPLAY event has taught me not to give up and resort to favours or settle for someone reliable but dull. Once a month for over a year, wordPLAY met the challenge, and sought out the exciting, unusual and interesting voices to perform. They crafted one of the most accessible, entertaining and unpretentious spoken word events in London.

Keep 23rd November free. It’s going to be amazing.

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