Film Reviews

Women and Power in Western History

The Femme Fatale and the Liberated Woman

In one weekend, I was given a fast-forward fictional portrayal of the femme fatale in Saint Saens’s Opera Samson et Delila and a film version of the beginnings of the modern liberated woman in the movie, Colette

The film was based on brilliant writer who eventually broke away from a patriarchal husband who used her writing talents, under his name, to gain personal fame.

Colette reaches a tipping point when she discovers that her husband sold the rights to novels she essentially wrote.

It is her moment of truth when she storms into his office and confronts him with the tragic reality of what he has done to her: completely sold her artistic identity to someone else— the final and unforgivable transgression, in her mind.

On her arduous journey of independence, she discovers she no longer needs her husband’s name and power to succeed as a writer. Her talent is enough.

Seduction as Power, the Adulterous Lover, the Fleshless Saint

With some glowing exceptions (Queens Elizabeth and Victoria), it seems to me the only power women in the West have been allowed to have is the power of seduction.

Innocence, sanctity, maternity, and mediation found in the cult of the Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages reduced women to fleshless creatures of domesticity, quiet piety, and silent submission to God’s will (at least that’s the orthodox Christian version).

The courtly love tradition portrayed women as moaning lovers writing love letters hinting at a poetically inspired sexual tryst when a lover returned home from war or a military obligation (Granted the courtly love tradition may have been more myth than reality).

The women as seductress, however, seems to have been a constant in Western mythology, especially in the Old Testament. That role appealed to men because it obviously gave the male the innocent-victim status.

“The devil made me do it,” as an old tv comic character used to say. And the sexual devil was always in the form of a woman—- Salome, Bathsheba, Delilah, Jezebel

So, women it seems were given power in Christian myths as seducers (whores, most likely) or as adulterous, but bloodless lovers by mutual consent in the courtly love tradition.

On the dry side, women were permitted to have some iconic status as saints or martyrs, but, as we’ve seen with the cult of Mary, only as fleshless domestic servants of God.

Women and the Arts

On the other hand, in the arts, women really had no power. Their roles were to reproduce, to cook, and to clean. Or to help with the farming.

What we think of as their nurturing role may have been non-existent given all their harsh duties, not to mention how many births they had to have just to make sure that a few of their children would survive.

In any event, prior to very modern times, most women didn’t have time to compose an oratorio, to write a a play, or to paint, especially for a living.

Even if they married into wealth, they were prohibited, by tradition, from either exposing their talents (unless to “perform” as a vocalist or pianist in a salon setting) or establishing an independent career in the arts.

Colette certainly broke that tradition as an independent writer.

Thanks to her, thousands of women have been inspired to find their unique power in the arts as fiction writers.

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“The Post,” a Review

Recently saw Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.”

Brought back a lot of memories of those hectic days, especially the lies so many Presidents told Americans about the Vietnam War.

Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. They were all in on it.

We need to be reminded that it was the press which took risks in revealing those lies. And it was the solidarity of the newspapers that challenged the government’s age old threat of “national security.”

First it was “The New York Times.” Then “the Washington Post,” the central subject of this film. Then, other papers chose to reveal what US governments had hid from Americans for years—that the Vietnam War was not only a disaster but unwinnable.

What started out as a military engagement to stop the domino effect of Communism in Southeast Asia ended up being a war to save face, all at the expense of tens of thousands of American soldiers.

The central focus of the film, “The Post” is about the huge pressure “The Washington Post” was under in publishing top secret information, the infamous Pentagon Papers, about the Vietnam War.

In the real time of the film, “The Post” is family-owned paper. After its owner suddenly dies, his wife, the famous Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), decides to go public with the newspaper.

When her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), has a chance to secretly obtain the same top-secret information about the war that the “New York Times” has, Graham is caught in a multilayered psychological battle—she is a woman in a totally man’s world of journalism and business; she has never really had to make any major business or editorial decisions; she is personal friends of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense; she abhors conflict; she does not have an assertive personality.

The “New York Times” was already under a court injunction not to publish the material. Because the “Post” had the same source, it, too, would run the risk of a court injunction.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham makes her an easy target for Bradlee, who, as Hanks plays him, has the investigative journalist’s fire-in-the-belly to publish the top-secret information. He does mellow and expresses his sympathy to her over the pressure she is under.

Throughout most of the film, Graham is a passive owner and eventual controlling stockholder of the newspaper. She has never had any kind of business administrative responsibility, having played the role of bourgeois housewife, mother, and societal party-gatherer and dinner arranger.

The climactic moment in the film happens when she decides to risk everything and print the Pentagon Papers. In solidarity with the Post, several US papers also publish the papers. From a dramatic point of view, Graham now comes into her own as a confident newspaper magnate and administrator.

More importantly, Katherine Graham and her editor, Ben Bradlee, end up being on the right side of history in risking their careers and the newspaper to defend the freedom of the press.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 vote, decides in favor of the Post. The rest is history.

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“Wind River,” a Review

Movies with a multicultural theme are always difficult to write about without appearing to be a self-taught expert. If you’re a white male writer, it becomes even riskier because, then, the stereotype of the “mansplainer” is a label easily used to discount everything you say.

Well, here goes.

Wind River is a gripping crime thriller that takes place on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming in merciless sub-zero temperatures.

Cory Bannon, a US Fish and Wildlife agent discovers the body of a female Arapaho teenager whom he recognizes as the daughter of a close friend. We find out later that part of Bannon’s life seems to come at him in a surreal rush because he lost his own daughter, Emily, who was of mixed ethnic heritage–her mother is also Arapaho (she and Bannon are currently going through a divorce).

A rooky FBI young woman, Jane Banner, is called in to investigate the homicide. Along with the local tribal police, she and Bannon eventually take the villains down, after, of course, a brutal cops-and-robbers shoot out (about and hour-and-a-half later, in movie time)

For what it’s worth, this is what I discovered about this film

(1) The film takes some risks in giving us portraits of heart-felt grief, both male and female. I might add here, there are some strong male-bonding scenes that are particularly poignant because they cross over ethnic lines.

(2) The male-as-avenger seems to be a stereotype that Hollywood film directors can’t seem to escape.

(3) The film makes some attempt at giving a woman a leading equality role as a police agent fully capable of taking physical and mental control. At the same time, she has a necessary psychological role in identifying with the plight of the young Arpaho woman and her mother.

(4) All the “reservation” social issues come at us as if they were as commonplace as a red-light at a busy city street corner—-drugs and alcohol; the number of  missing  and murdered Native American women; Indian sovereignty;  under-staffed tribal police; poverty; imprisonment as the invevitable fate of many young male Native Americans;  and the relentless brutal winter, not to mention the loss of livestock because of the many wandering predatory animals in search of food.

(5) There is a strong message in the film about the Native American ability to endure hardship. Bannon makes the point to Banner, early in the film, that the young female victim probably ran much beyond any normal human being’s ability to endure the sub-freezing weather in spite of having been brutally raped.  And it is clear, in the final poignant scene of the film, that the young women’s father and mother will eventually survive.

Have to admit I was hooked, particularly at the breath-taking visuals. There may be some criticism, however, about the violence. It is very, very graphic, although I’m not quite sure it was gratuitous given the frontier setting of the film in the wintry Wyoming wilderness and the painful reality of so many Native American women murdered and missing.  

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“Maudie,” a Review

Maudie is a tour de force of acting by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.

Hawkins plays the quirky Novia Scotia self taught artist, Maud Lewis. Hawke plays her social isolationist employer, her Benedict-like rival, and her eventual lover and husband, Everett Lewis.

I loved the intimacy of the film, which at times, becomes almost claustrophobic inside a small rural house with a one room kitchen/dining/ art space room, and a miniature bedroom in the attic (the claustrophobic feel of the film is relieved by the beautiful coastal waters, the icy winter scenes, the open landscapes, and the village homes in the small town).

Maud is hired by Everett as a live-in housekeeper. After a volatile beginning in their relationship, they settle into a kind of uneasy routine as Maud begins to take on the traditional duties of a wife and to gradually change the home’s physical environment with her painted images on the walls.

Over time, one of the locals, a wealthy New Yorker, recognizes Maud’s talent as a painter. Maud’s reputation begins to spread and Everett struggles to accept the public spotlight that her talent brings

Two things struck me about this intimate film.

For one, Maud’s severe rheumatoid arthritis makes her a physical oddity in the village. Her own angular, shy, downcast facial mannerisms and her under-the-breath sarcasm, however, begin to take on a force of their own. She never loses those idiosyncrasies as a character. In fact, they are what make her such a draw as a screen presence.

Maud’s persona, initially, poses a threat to Everett, who, from the beginning, resents what he sees as her invasion of his territory, both physical and emotional. He sees himself as a life-long bachelor and patriarch. Over time, she wins him over.

The tension between Maud and Everett could easily be described as a kind of Beatrice-and-Benedict “battle of the sexes” prototype. But Maud’s gentle quirkiness and Everett’s persona as a hard-edged social misanthrope give this film a much different, even more modern feel than Shakespeare’s classic sexual rivalry.

Secondly, I also loved the small-world intimacy of the film. The setting is in a small Novia Scotia village (I understand, for whatever reason the film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador). It becomes smaller inside Everett’s home. The initial conflict between Maud and Everett is kept within a very small physical range (It seldom moves outside the home).

And the main love-story’s development is held within a very tight circle of activity —-eating soup together, killing a chicken, initiating sex, putting in a screen door, small-framed shots of Maud painting, the close-ups of Everett’s emotional reactions (fear, rage, hurt, grief, confusion). Not to mention, of course, the fact that Maud and Everett, themselves, have their own kind of psychological insularity as social rebels, (even “misfits,” by the town’s standards).

I would add, by the way, that Maud’s paintings add to the small cosmos of the characters’ worlds. They are either miniature post-card sized prints or on small wood frames.

The environment in the cramped spaces of the home may have been the determining factor here for the kinds of paintings she produced. And I would not call any of the images she painted on the walls of the small home, by any stretch of the imagination, frescoes—-a more traditional venue for large, epic-like images on urban or industrial walls.

To avoid any “spoiler alert,” I’ll skip over any hints about the ending.

Check it out. It’s a refreshing antidote to the prototypical Hollywood romance.

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Moonlight, A Review

“Moonlight,” won “best picture” award at this year’s Oscar’s after a traumatic envelope mixup. It is a one-of-a-kind film about a coming of age black young man who discovers, early in his fragile life, that he is gay.

As a pre-teenager, Chiron’s gay identity comes down on him like a falling meteor when his alcoholic-drug addicted mother, in a fit of self-loathing, screams “faggot” at him.

In high school, Chiron is bullied, taunted, and beaten but has a spontaneous, first-kiss and consummated sexual experience on the beach with one of his classmates.

Many years later, he ends up being a drug dealer mirroring the behavior of an older man who became a kind of surrogate father to the younger Chiron teaching him to swim and who, with his girlfriend, occasionally offered the young boy a place to hang out, eat, and escape from his cocaine-addicted mother.

Unexpectedly, Chiron receives a night phone call from his high school buddy with whom he had his first and only sexual experience. He eventually decides to take the road trip to make a surprise visit. After his friend makes him dinner, Chiron awkwardly admits he has never been touched by anyone else, as his friend cradles him in his arms in a final tender scene.

What I loved about this film is that it is not rushed. Each scene is given its moment, sometimes painfully, sometimes tenderly, without stealing or overshadowing the other. Although the central character’s life choice to sell drugs gives the film an ominous tone of fatalism, the restrained optimism of the narrative has more than its day in court—-Chiron eventually forgives his mother after she ends up in a rehab and at least two sets of characters are on Chiron’s side: the young couple who offer him refuge from his addicted mother and the high school friend who, even after his own marriage and separation, is still emotionally attached to Chiron.

Chiron’s character has heavy layers of loneliness, isolation, introversion, and painful shyness. But, in the end, the movie gives us an emphatic sense that he’s a survivor. And, viewers leave the film feeling Chiron has at least one moment of psychological relief in his friend’s obvious emotional and physical affection.


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Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann  a German-Austrian production about a father and adult-daughter relationship. The father is a playful eccentric who loves to impersonate. The adult daughter is an up-tight, angst-driven corporate executive trying to succeed in a male dominated work environment.

Her father, impersonating an executive, uses the interventionist, in-your-face approach by invading her corporate world.

The psychological clash between the two of them vacillates between her rage and frustration with her father’s antics and an occasional surrender to the playful world and love of life he is trying to convince her has more intrinsic worth than all the compromises of self-worth she has to make in the corporate world.

Does the father succeed in winning her over to his side of life? Well, let me just say the movie’s ending gives you an ambiguous clue.

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Bicycle Thieves, a Review

Images and Story: Call and Response

Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.

I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.

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“Winter Sleep,” A Review

 

Winter-Sleep2

Winter Sleep, 2014
Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Interiority, Pathos, Survival

There are many things to like about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s exquisite film, “Winter Sleep.” (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Film Festival, 2014).

First of all, it is a very interior film. Ceylan manages to create a strong inner sensibility of pathos, an aching sense that life, in the end, is cruel, relentless, and merciless. Inside of that psychological cosmos, however, is the other half of Ceylan’s Sisyphean fatalism: people do manage to survive in spite of the quiet desperation of their lives.

There is little question that Aydin, the central character, is the personified form of Ceylan’s world of pathos. And he is also a survivor, not unlike Hidayet, his lower-class assistant, who does all the managerial tasks and is Aydin’s personal chauffeur. (Hidayet’s constant, but strong background presence in the film appears to be Ceylan’s way of reminding his audience that the poor and the service class, in their uncomplaining stoicism, will always be with us.) Continue reading

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Clouds of Sils Maria, A Review

Surrendering to Age

Aging. For some of us, it is a gradual process of surrender. For others, it is a panic-driven free-fall into mortality.

Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche), in the latest Assayas film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” is a middle aged actor who is thrown head-long into the realities of her age. After some grueling moments of rage in learning the lines of an aging lesbian character in a play she once starred as the older woman’s younger lover, she eventually, but reluctantly, takes the role.

She takes on the elder lesbian character only after being prodded by her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and more forcefully by two other characters in the movie, particularly the new director (Lars Eidinger) of the play, who replaces Maria’s long-time friend and director who dies unexpectedly. Continue reading

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“Last Train Home,” a review

Prosperity and the Good Life

“Who doesn’t want to see their kids prosperous?” says the mother of Qin and Yang in the documentary, Last Train Home. This is a refrain begun earlier by the grandmother: “But who doesn’t want their children to live a good life?”

If we are to believe the mother and the grandmother, prosperity and the good life are the two goals of all families. China appears to be no exception to this rule in Lixin Fan’s brilliant documentary of one family’s attempts to achieve some form of prosperity in the new hypercapitalist China.

But it is a prosperity that has a profound emotional price tag. Over a period of thirteen years, the Zhang family becomes fractured when the mother and father leave their two children home with the grandmother as the parents pursue the Chinese dream to succeed.

And they don’t just leave home to go to a nearby city. They travel a little over 1300 miles to work in a makeshift factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guandong Province. Like the other 130 million migrant workers working in cities all over China, the Zhang couple returns only once a year to their small village.
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