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strange colour 1

No. 17 – The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)

Sometimes when I’m watching films for this project, I’m so inspired that I’m dying to get writing about it. And other times, I struggle to find an angle to drag out a few paragraphs (I’m looking at you, Desperately Seeking Susan). And then there’s The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears, where I need to turn off all electrical equipment and sit in a darkened room for a while, because I have no clue how to write about this film. Though it does make me feel uneasy in a darkened room.

Dan returns from a business trip to find his wife Edwige missing. He asks around the building and is invited to the seventh floor where a veiled woman tells him how her husband also disappeared after being lured upstairs by strange screams and murmurs, then seemingly being murdered, which she partially witnesses by peeping through a hole he had drilled in their bedroom ceiling. Frustrated, Dan leaves and encounters a naked woman called Laura. The next day he is visited by a suspicious police inspector. This is the last point where the film seems to be interested in making any narrative sense. After that, it’s a free-for-all, with acres of possible hallucinations, hidden rooms and mysterious strangers that emerge in a visually stunning kaleidoscope of moments, few of which seem to relate to (what we thought was) the story before it became apparent that the story was not really worth thinking about. This film is to be experienced, more than understood.

The film clearly has its roots in the Giallo movement, even lifting some of its soundtrack from European horror classics. A number of brutal scenes are rendered irresistible by the astonishing production design. Knife wounds and pools of blood become erotic, their beauty almost dissolving the horror. There is a fetishistic aspect to many of the images, a nipple being teased and threatened by a knife blade, the slick leather gloves of the killer, a man’s naked torso being caressed and tortured with broken glass. Even better is the sound design, the metallic vring of knives being traced along their victim’s flesh, the deep squeak of leather, the heavy wooden roar of furniture being dragged across the floors. The woman upstairs tells her story in an eerie croak, the film suggesting she screamed herself near-mute. Dan’s door buzzer rings interminably through one sequence, to the point of audience distress, as he gets caught in a loop and seems to be spying on himself. Voyeurism recurs throughout the film, with numerous shots of eyes peering through cracks or widening in horror. The characters watch and observe each other without making any meaningful connection – Dan’s voicemails to Edwige go unheard. He follows a lead to a man who admits to travelling through the false walls in the building to live in the apartments of tenants on holiday, but will only speak to Dan through a closed door. The apartments are gloriously designed, the best and brightest of 1970s kitsch florals and dizzying geometric shapes, mustards and reds that distort and confuse the eye. We get lost within the apartment as the walls seem to curve, which is appropriate given the number of false walls and hidden rooms revealed throughout the story, and the scenes of characters hiding behind wallpaper or tearing down the walls to get at the labyrinthine space within.

There is no question that the husband and wife team of Cattet and Forzani are stylish, exhibiting impressive knowledge of cinematic history and enough of their own perspective to twist their references into something unique and memorable. But such strong imagery alone becomes somewhat tiresome when the promising narrative dissolves in favour of a succession of striking but eventually repetitive shots. Perhaps this would be less frustrating without the first twenty minutes setting up a genuinely intriguing mystery (Dan and Edwige’s apartment locked from the inside, the tenants who resist answering his questions, the inspector who suspects Dan but reveals that his own wife is missing). Leaving the plot not only unanswered but essentially ignored seems less like a bravura choice than a missed opportunity. It almost seems that the directors were too enamoured by their mise-en-scene to engage with their story, and you can only imagine how incredible the film would be if they had maintained the narrative tension alongside their aural and visual skills. It’s clear that there is a narrative thread in the film, but myself and many more qualified writers are unanimous in their inability to parse the film. The clues are there – something underlying about isolation, with characters communicating by voicemail, speaking through doors, and repeatedly seeming to have a clear connection with each other but refusing to get involved (Dan’s anger at the old woman’s story despite it seeming to provide clues about Edwige’s disappearance, the squatter knowing about the building’s hidden interiors but refusing to assist Dan). Perhaps the walls within walls represent Edwige’s hidden desires, the intrigue of doppelgangers (a threatening voicemail is revealed to be not a man but his wife, slowed down for a deeper tone, and one review counts the appearance of four different Lauras) tying in with her supposed new identity, itself echoes in the drawing of his wife being revealed as a copy of the painting in the infamous Apartment L.  There’s no doubt that Cattet and Forzani have something in mind, but their film is too dense to reveal it, and the directors clearly want it that way. Maybe the greatest clue lies in the doubling of the film’s title. In the English version, it’s ambiguous as to whether it means “tears” like crying or “tears” like wounds, though the original French confirms the former. However, the film’s end reveals another new title without explanation – “L’étrange douleur des larmes de ton corps”, or “The strange pain of your body’s tears”. Not that it explains things either.

 

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marjoe

No. 16 –Marjoe (Sarah Kernochan, Howard Smith, 1972)

Marjoe is bad, not evil, and this unusually structured, Oscar-winning documentary doesn’t need too many stylish techniques to tell his strange, compelling story. Marjoe Gortner – his first name a portmanteau of “Mary” and “Joseph” – was a child prodigy in the bizarre world of Charismatic Christianity, and his parents toured him around the USA showing off The World’s Youngest Preacher to adoring crowds. However, Sarah Kenochan and Howard Smith’s documentary sees Gortner at a much different time in his life, when, tired and cynical, he decides to reveal himself, and the entire Charismatic Christianity movement, with its faith healing and speaking in tongues, as a fraud.

The film begins with Gortner narrating a general overview of his life to date and his early entry into the world of evangelism, as trained by his parents in the overenunciation and rolling Rs of the preacher lingua. He was a controversial figure, performing a marriage ceremony at 5 years old, prompting accusations that the child was a sideshow act or at worst, a grotesque corruption of what Christianity should be. His memories are intercut with footage of him surrounded by the film crew, shaking us out of our expectations of the documentary form, as we see Gortner relaxed, fooling around with the young radicals with long hair and flares, a shooting schedule hastily scrawled on a crumpled page. Gortner briefs them on how to infiltrate a tent revival without standing out too obviously, as the truth becomes clear. Gortner is ready to expose the lie he has been living. Gortner had approached Howard Smith with the idea of a behind the curtain look at evangelicalism, but Sarah Kenochan convinced Smith to attempt the film themselves rather than pass the idea to the more experienced Mayles brothers. Kenochan struggled throughout the production, despite being its driving force (Smith wasn’t a filmmaker but a journalist), as she was dismissed as Smith’s younger girlfriend. If things are bad now, imagine being 25 in 1972 and trying to control a mostly-male crew of hippies and burnouts.

The remainder of the film intercuts between Gortner’s memories, the footage of the tent revival, his conversation with the crew as he outlines the tricks of the trade, and personal footage of Gortner’s non-preaching life, where he looks and acts like any other young, famous counter-culture man in the 1970s, with a string of admirers basking in his glow. Gortner enjoys the attention, or else he is so used to being in the spotlight that his default mode is to command a room regardless of the audience. He is charming, self-aware, arrogant and at times vicious, and yet there is a wall there, even when recounting the horrors of his youth, how his mother would beat him making sure the marks wouldn’t be visible to the press or hold him under water if he made mistakes in his memorised sermons. His façade rarely breaks, and the preacher persona is second nature to him. He easily slips into the dialogue for the camera crew, mocking his own performances and predicting everyone else’s, boasting about stealing moves from Mick Jagger, and showing off for his new girlfriend as he pretends to cast out demons from their labrador. His sermons are learned, not felt – they are just a performance for him, whereas his audience is feeling it so deeply that they believe he can heal their ailments. He describes the secret codes his mother used to guide his sermons, saying “glory be to God” to signal he was running long, and choreographing his routines, opening arms each time he says  Jesus, taking an emphatic step forward when he refers to the devil. Gortner seems more like a retired child star than an interlocutor of Christ.

Gortner hates the church, not the people. He relates to the congregations he visits and the joy they feel in his words. He enjoys the singing and celebration of the Pentecostal services, what he calls the “glory je to besus” angle, rather than the fire and brimstone. He says he feels guilty that every time he quits preaching, he returns for one last tour once the money runs out, and the documentary appears to be a deliberate attempt to severe his connection to the Charismatic movement altogether. He sees religion as an addiction, not just for him, returning to the guarantee of money and adulation every few years, but for the worshippers that surround him. He outlines how the church celebrates individuals who have sacrificed to donate money, giving special prayer slips to people who skipped meals so that they can give the money to Gortner or his fellow preachers. But at times his boastful nature overwhelms him, and he lapses into a dismissiveness that verges on cruelty. One scene sees him post-performance, shirtless on a bed counting the collection money, the sound of crinkling notes overwhelming the soundtrack. He laments that he doesn’t earn as much now as when he was an adorable child, and how his mother used to sew extra pockets in his suit for the admiring old ladies to fill with dollars. He mockingly performs the laying on of hands on a pretty girl, and reveals faith healing as psychosomatic, that once one or two people are convinced, other people follow.

At least Gortner is well aware of this hypocrisy. He complains how hard it is to switch between worlds, that people comment on his flamboyant clothes. We see him recline on a waterbed and laugh along to drug references. For all his guilt towards his followers, he has absolved himself of his childhood deceit, since he had no input and no choice. He criticises his father frequently, that they have no relationship, he is distant, and makes no attempt to communicate with his son. These are the only moments in the film where his façade seems to peel away. Late in the film, he attends a service where he is introduced by his father. Gortner‘s demeanour is totally different, sitting stoically as his father recounts a tale of Gortner as a boy, receiving baptism in the bath. Gortner reacts as though it is a typical, embarrassing dad story, but there is a great tension underneath. He has previously revealed to the camera that he never believed in a God. Even as a child, religion was a business.

The film won the Oscar, but it faded quickly from public memory, in case you hadn’t noticed that the Pentecostal movement’s as strong as ever. This is perhaps due to its lack of a release in the South, but definitely not helped by the fact that for a long time the film only existed as a poorly aged copy of a copy of a print. While Kernochan fought for years to be properly credited for the project, it was her temerity that ensured the film continued to exist. After buying back the rights, she was contacted by the Library of Congress who by chance had a pristine copy. Marjoe had risen again.

Throughout the film, Gortner returns to a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of his childhood infamy, maybe showing it off to the crew, maybe nostalgic himself. He explains that his parents earned millions of dollars off his performances, but he never saw any of it. But he says he has let go of bitterness towards parents and his involvement in the Charismatic movement. After all, now he believes in karma.

mustang

No. 12 –Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

You wait all year for one female-directed-film-in-the-cinema-experience, then they all come at one go. Or, well, I got to enjoy my second in two weeks with the added pleasure of the woman behind me chatting with her friend and kicking my head throughout. Two female-directed films at the cinema in two weeks might not sound impressive, but think back to 2014, where analysis of UK and US releases showed that female directors worked on less than 14% of films released (even including co-directing with a male collaborator). Maybe things are looking up. Still, by my count, this is only the 6th film this year to receive a UK release. Good thing it’s a wonder.

Lale lives with her four older sisters and their grandmother, who is horrified to hear about their school-end celebrations with local boys. Concerned for their reputations, she beats them then drag them to the doctor for an emergency hymen check. Despite proof of the girls’ “honour”, they forbid the girls from leaving their house, and seek to educate them in the ways of good Muslim womanhood – cooking, cleaning, modest clothing and eventually, marriage – the house becoming a “wife factory” according to Lale. So far, so Virgin Suicides (as many reviews have pointed out). But Mustang is more heavily weighted than its American counterpart – perhaps because of Ergüven’s more realist approach, her skill at burying into the girls’ point of view rather than people watching them, or maybe our sickly awareness that situations like this are really happening to girls who act like girls rather than statues or property.

At first, the girls find ways to survive their summer indoors, adapting their shapeless dresses and sneaking out to attend a woman-only football match. But as the summer ends, the girls realise they’re not returning to school, and their uncle’s terms become ever more extreme. The house is not just locked, but bars soldered on the windows to prevent the girls leaving. Soon, their grandmother is arranging marriages for the older girls, with Sonay demanding to be matched with her existing boyfriend, leaving Selma to take her place with a more conservative family. The double wedding marks a turning point in the film, where the sisters’ joyful collaboration ends and the three remaining daughters are at the mercy of their uncle. The action moves almost entirely indoors as he discovers more little acts of rebellion and takes measures to prevent the girls’ independence, sealing off all remaining escape routes and closing them off from the outside world. As the house empties, Lale starts dreaming of escaping to Istanbul, knowing her favourite teacher has moved there, and finding her uncle’s keys, she tries to work out how to operate his car with little success.

One of the strengths of the film is the universality of the story. Despite being based in a Muslim community in the outskirts of Turkey, the story is sadly familiar. The standards to which girls are held across the world, in secular and non-secular communities, lead to situations of imprisonment (literal, as in this film, as psychological and emotional elsewhere). There are numerous scenes of the house becoming a prison – keys turning in locks, hammers, drilling and workmen, the high walls surrounding the patio, the gaps in windows getting smaller, getting broken up by bars going up, and the girls looking out of closed windows into the world they can’t reach. The audience feels their world closing in. The girls are punished for something they hardly seem aware of – we see them play, we see them in their underwear, they wear makeup and their white school shirts turn see-through in the sea, revealing the modest vest tops worn underneath. These are not provocative girls (not that they’d deserve the punishment if they were) – they are provocative simply because they are girls. The girls’ sex education is a dog-eared book discreetly slipped to the engaged sisters as their grandmother prepares their marital chest. Selma and her husband panic over the lack of blood on their sheets on their wedding night as his parents knock expectantly on the bedroom door waiting to see confirmation of her former virginity, eventually taking her to A&E thinking there is something wrong with her. Selma tells the doctor she has had sex lots of times, but he confirms that her hymen is still intact, and asks why she lied. Selma, who has been quietly desolate since her engagement was announced, and sneaks the dregs of the men’s drinks at her reception, knows that the truth is irrelevant, and all that matters is how other people view her, regardless of how she behaves. Virgin or whore, she remains imprisoned by perceptions.

The film takes another sickly turn as Uncle Erol is revealed to have been raping first Ece, then the painfully young looking Nur. It’s unclear whether this is Erol’s opportunism in an emptier house, or whether Lale, who has been narrating throughout and as the youngest is naturally the most naïve, sexually and otherwise, and has only realised what the night time bed creaking means, after having sneakily read the sex book. While it’s a sad reality for many girls and boys, in Mustang it reads a bit melodramatic, coming seemingly out of the blue. We’re already aware that Erol’s bad news, it just seems like a cheap attempt to ensure no one in the audience has any sympathy for him, and it’s a big subject to just throw in. But it’s a minor complaint, given the ending of the film is so strong, turning into a high-tension breakout. Turning Erol’s scheme against him, Lale helps Nur to lock out her wedding party, turning their prison into their own fortress. While Erol attempts to remove the window bars he spent so long erecting, Lale and Nur race around the house, packing a getaway kit, making a forbidden phone call, and escaping the arms reaching through every window like a nightmarish home invasion. Their escape, as Lale finally manages to drive them away, is proof that the girls’ irrepressibility was never able to be stifled by social expectations, and that even under such extreme duress, they need nothing more to escape to their uncertain future than belief in themselves.

frozen swing

Oh guys, be really careful searching for Frozen on Tumblr, people seem to be working through some interesting feelings on there.

No. 9 – Frozen (Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, 2013)

By now, it seems pointless to start a conversation about Frozen. It propelled itself into the canon within a year of its release, surpassing critical and financial expectations when the lights of Disney seemed to have dimmed since its mid-90s glory days. Frozen has been the axis around which so much of culture has revolved, be it appreciation of feminist credentials, turning away from stereotypical tales of princess and one true love, or think pieces on unsettling eye to waist ratio, a triumph of traditional animation, a shot of adrenaline to Disney, alarming levels of merchandise, memes about building snowmen, the bane of karaoke nights, and the spectacular introduction of Adele Dazeem. Frozen has permeated so much.

But I hadn’t seen Frozen. And I’m someone who had seen Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I was fairly confident I knew what Frozen was about, unavoidable as it was, and I had heard the Oscar winning Let It Go, the highest charting Disney single since Pocahontas’ Colours Of The Wind in 1995 (unless you count The Climb from the Hannah Montana movie, which no one does) and certainly more worthy than the whole Oscar winning Phil Collins-does-Tarzan oeuvre. But I kept my Frozen ignorance hidden, to avoid being berated by, you know, everyone. Because it’s not just that Frozen is a good film, or that people enjoy it, and their kids connect with it. People love Frozen. People are obsessed with it. It inspires a degree of passion we rarely seen in a film that isn’t a Star War. Loosely based on the Ice Queen tale, then altered to make the titular queen Elsa not a hero or a villain but a frightened, vulnerable woman with no control over her powers or her emotions, crushed by the weight of expectations, then reviled when she reveals her true self. Or at least that’s the subtext, some pretty complex themes for a Disney film. Which is probably why the film is told through the perspective of her devoted younger sister Anna, locked out by her sister and kept in the dark as the powers manifest. But she never stops reaching out to Elsa, never stops trying to connect, and every other aspect of the film revolves around this central relationship. And it is refreshing not just for a Disney film but any film, where sisterhood is woefully underexplored. Anna’s romantic interests, Prince Hans, who she gets impulsively engaged to, who turns out to be the villain searching for a kingdom of his own, and Kristoff, who she falls in like with but not enough to save her from the last act’s conflict – that’s Elsa’s job.

It’s a nice film. The music works, the faux-Finnish setting allows for beautiful scenery and design, the script and acting is good, though the story is spotty at points (who raised Elsa and Anna when their parents mysteriously disappeared? The castle servants, normally a sure thing for Disney characterisation, have only a few lines. How did Elsa keep a secret when only her parents knew? This seemed very badly organised.). But nothing in the film explained to me why Frozen became such a cultural touchstone. It’s nothing wholly unique – the character design doesn’t tickle my personal fancy, though it’s inevitable that the stylised 3d-esque look of Pixar and Dreamworks would emerge as a compromise between contemporary tastes and the classic Disney of yore. Anna and Kristoff are charming but Elsa is kind of characterless and, Let It Go aside, a missed opportunity for a really interesting exploration (though how much psychological realism should we be trying to shoehorn into a kid’s movie?). And those criticisms are minor in filmic terms, but just enough to push it down my list of Disney favs.

I don’t know why Frozen broke through. The real gem in later Disney is The Princess And The Frog, criminally underrated, filled with beautiful songs, memorable characters, Creole/New Orleans design and a firefly that will make you cry. I don’t regret seeing Frozen, but less than a week later, I don’t remember much about it, apart from what I already knew because of its place in the cultural canon. But I do know we aren’t about to stop seeing Elsas at Halloween for a long, long time.

 

jesus camp

No. 7 – Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I read a review of Jesus Camp that described it as hilarious to watch with a group, but deeply depressing to watch alone. That description is utterly accurate.

I watched it alone. Mostly, I felt terrible. Partly, I wondered how I would write about it without lapsing into lazy criticism of religious zealots, despite how often people act like clichés throughout the film. The documentary claims to have taken an unbiased approach to the activities of the Christian summer camp and its staff and attendees, and while, like previous subject West Of Memphis, its directors are entirely unobtrusive and off-camera, I couldn’t help wonder quite how selective the editing had been. And yet, and yet. Nothing in culture convinces me that Charismatic Christianity (all chanting and metaphors and raw emotions) is exaggerated by the film. Intentionally or otherwise, Jesus Camp will only reinforce the stereotypes.

The Jesus Camp itself comes fairly late in the film, which is instead framed by the election of Sandra Day O’Connor’s replacement to the Supreme Court, and the eventual choice of Samuel Alito, himself far more extreme than his moderate predecessor.  It is an appropriate metaphor for the significant split emerging throughout the US in the early 2000s, one that has only become more vivid in recent years. Throughout, a radio host challenges the views of religious extremists, and is the only voice of secular America we hear. The remainder of the film is filled with parents, children and Christian evangelicals. Yes, there are mullets.

Even before the camp, the film has the surreal edge of a mockumentary in places. A mother homeschools her son, where she guides him into an elegant refutation of evolution, wherein he states Galileo was right to turn him back on science and turn towards the Lord. The influence of the Spanish inquisition has somehow escaped from their textbook. A little girl approaches a bemused but polite woman at a bowling alley and gives her a pamphlet, later telling the cameras that God told her to do it. Another asserts how she loves to dance to Christian rock, but is worried that sometimes she dances more for herself than for the Lord. This is, of course, a sin. It is in this aspect that the film churns your stomach – not the religious beliefs, and not the sometimes screwing ways of expressing them, but in the youth of our protagonists, how vulnerable and malleable they seem. These kids, frequently in tears, are really fucking afraid of going to hell.

It’s not for me – or the documentary – to comment on whether such religious devotion gets in the way of children having a childhood. Certainly they seem to enjoy the camp at times, particularly during one laboured lesson on Government corruption which culminates in the children being invited up to smash mugs with a hammer. But who doesn’t want to smash something with a hammer? But even the moments of kids being kids comes with an asterix. Even if God isn’t watching their every move for the hint of sin, the camp staff certainly are. The boys’ bunk, enjoying a boisterous round of ghost stories after bedtime, is interrupted by one guardian, warning that while they might be having fun, God would want them to be truthful, which swiftly dampens the mood. And there’s something sickly at seeing young children being forced into complex and decidedly adult debates – how the Government is a corrupt force, the state of the nation under liberalism, and, naturally abortion (which is, to them, the murder of many possible friends). Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum (and this liberal Catholic feminist is choosing her words with care), it is uncomfortable to watch the range of emotions the children encounter – confusion during the abortion debate, passion when laying hands on a cardboard cut-out of then-President Bush, who, in fairness, did need the prayers, and, repeatedly, fear, despair and sorrow, with numerous scenes of the children sobbing to the point of incoherence, fearing damnation, ashamed of their sins, and told that before they can be forgiven, they will have to “simmer” first.

Regardless of your political or religious views, there’s no doubt the techniques on display are questionable. The kids chant repetitive truisms like “righteous judgement”, are lulled in by friendly pastors whose playful discussions of Harry Potter turn into fire and brimstone accusations of warlocks as enemies of God. The children confess their sins in front of the room. They have masking tape with the word LIFE placed over their mouths to represent aborted children. In the most chilling scene, they take a vow to pray for the end of abortion in American, and warned not to be “a promise breaker” – as though every baby not born is their own personal burden. Who knows how much actual understanding there was – I know at that age I was more concerned with the approval of adults than achieving nuanced comprehension of political touchstones. It feels more like indoctrination than education.

The radio presenter interviews leader Becky, challenging her on the camp’s vigorous methods, but she remains cool, saying they don’t do anything different than any other church. The argument could certainly be made that all churches impress their views on their followers from birth, with various levels of intensity. On the group’s involvement in political causes, including taking the kids to protest abortion in Washington, Becky insists she is not political, since democracy is merely an earthly concern. According to the documentary, 75% of home schooled kids are evangelical, and evangelicals make up 25% of Americans. No matter how much my liberal self recoils, surely the voices of such a chunk of society should be heard? And yet their creationist stance and amateur debate touchstones are uncomfortable to watch.

It’s one thing if the children were guided by honourable people. A late scene takes place at a megachurch, where aspiring preacher Levi meets senior pastor Ted Haggard after a sermon against homosexuality, performed more like a stand up than a religious guide. Ted’s rictus grin is steely when Levi recounts his own experiences, then Ted asks Levi if people listen to him because of his words or because he’s a cute kid. Levi stutters a response. Ted looks proud of himself. Ted Haggard is not a cute kid. For further adventures of Ted Haggard, do Google him, he’s had an exciting few years. But perhaps what Jesus Camp reinforces most of all is that these children, and maybe all children, deserve better leaders than the hypocrites and manipulators on offer.


 

wanda

No. 5 – Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)

The 1970s are considered a golden age of independent cinema in the US, with talents such as John Cassavettes, Robert Altman and Terrance Malick rising up to deliver a cinematic voice unique from the bastions of the classic Hollywood era. Yet this era is defiantly macho, as the dual narratives of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Robert Evan’s The Kid Stays In The Picture demonstrate. This was an era of drugs, defiance and ego, and one where the female voice was largely at the sidelines, if present at all.

Barbara Loden is not a name that would be dropped in the glamorous appraisals of this vital era in American cinema. Wanda was her only feature as director (she also wrote and starred) and, coming at the beginning of the decade, it made little impact on release, though it was warmly received in Europe. I could pontificate at length why an exploration of the interior life of a dissatisfied, lower class woman in contemporary America didn’t enjoy the acclaim and longevity of similarly meandering but male-focused pictures, but why bother? It’s nothing new. Social realism was for the boys. Women’s stories have rarely been their own to tell.

But Wanda is a compelling piece of cinema, and not just because of its proto-feminist credentials, its deserved place in the independent canon, or the mythology around Barbara Loden. The former model, Tony winner and mainstay of the Actors Studio had the misfortune to marry Elia Kazan and died of breast cancer by 1980, ensuring that Wanda was the crux of her legacy. Loden conceded that the film was semi-autobiographical, but it’s not hard to imagine many women seeing their lives at the time reflected in the passive, inscrutable Wanda, or would have, if they had seen the film.

Wanda is a unique protagonist from the off, arriving late to a court date where her divorce is finalised and she gives up parental rights to her young children. She demonstrates little emotion, at this point and throughout the film. She has little money, no job, and no plans. Even now, it would be unusual for a film to begin with the (female) lead renouncing her wifely and maternal duties and expect the audience to willingly follow the subsequent narrative without judgement, but Wanda gives no apologies and makes no concession to the viewer. At one point, she misplaces her wallet in the motel room, but shrugs it off, unperturbed. Mr Dennis, a bank thief who looks like a geography teacher, finds it and flicks through, finding photographs of Wanda’s children, a past life she is seemingly at peace with discarding. The film spends much of its time meandering along with Wanda as she bounces from café to bed to car with no particular aim. The plot unfurls so gradually it’s almost a surprise when it takes a turn into a kitchen sink Bonnie and Clyde when she accidentally hooks up with Mr Dennis.

Wanda feels startlingly contemporary, and has aged much better than a lot of 1970s independent cinema. The low key crime spree that emerges gives the film a lot of momentum that is missing in a lot of character pieces, and a much-needed boost just as the viewer starts to tire of its listless heroine. Wanda as a character is filled with the kind of ennui that is familiar and almost cliché in the independent cinema of this millennial, and while we are receptive and familiar with this type of protagonist now, it must have been surprising in 1970, when a female protagonist at all was a rarity, let alone one not beholden to society’s expectations. There are no attempts to seek the audience’s sympathy, nor raise their ire – Wanda simply is, and the audience’s reaction to her is irrelevant. Before her death, Loden was working on a second film, and it’s a real shame that we missed how her unique and prescient voice would evolve. She wrote:

“There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way…otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”

 

 

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.