Saturday, September 28, 2013

Planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.

Outer space is such a common setting in cinema that we tend to forget about the realities of space travel. As a reminder, Gravity opens with...

After having seen Gravity, it comes as no surprise that director Alfonso Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut. Gravity is a film that is awe struck with the view of earth from space and of humanity's achievements in space. There are numerous satellites, labs, space stations, alongside trash and debris orbiting the planet and Cuaron places his narrative outside one of the stations in this surprisingly crowded landscape.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is in the process of completing a repair at the opening of Gravity, when Houston reports the possibility of incoming debris due Russia shooting down a satellite. Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) is the veteran space mechanic assisting Dr. Stone, mostly with banter meant to entertain Houston, when they receive word of the debris and in a mind blowing, apparently single shot 13 minute sequence, space junk showers down on them, breaking off an arm from the station with Dr. Stone attached and Kowalsky shouting for her to detach, sending her hurling, alone into space.

Gravity follows Dr. Ryan Stone as she faces the challenges of survival in a local that is unfathomably uninhabitable. Makes one pause to consider what astronauts cope with on a daily basis, as the more man puts into orbit, the more essentially immortal space debris collects, posing this precise threat to the men and women tasked with our collective dreams of exploring what lies beyond this tiny corner of the universe. And thus, we watch in helpless horror as she is flung far into space and impossibly collects her wits and determination to survive even as she floats further away from the space station, loses contact with Houston, and oxygen is running out.

Fortunately, Kowalsky is still with her. He helps her by leading the way toward the stations that orbit the earth. These beacons of hope at least can provide some oxygen and perhaps radio contact. So Gravity unfolds as a tense thriller of only two astronauts. And it is exceedingly tense and action packed. But also, the film is much more than a beautifully designed, choreographed, and shot space thriller. Much of the film is spent alone with Dr. Stone, her rhythmic breathing providing the soundtrack as we listen to her monologues as she continues talking to Mission Control, because just because she cannot hear them, doesn't mean they cannot hear her. So we listen as her survival appears impossible and she finds the will to continue to find a way back. The resulting lyricism is a tribute of Sandra Bullock's ability to convey these internal struggles. What does she have to go back to? Is it worth fighting for, or should she surrender to basking the this glorious place, floating in the heavens while watching the sun rise over planet earth.

One also cannot help but marvel at the technical achievements of Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron took a rather simple concept that was rife with technical shortcomings. It took several years to figure out how to make this film, but the results are a testament to Cuaron's place among the greatest filmmakers of today. This film is a huge technical achievement, but unlike other films that have announced advancements in filmmaking, Gravity is also a great film.

And Gravity is the first film that I've seen in 3D, that elevates it beyond a gimmick. The 3D effects made the action unfolding on screen look and feel real. No silly gimmicks of objects flying toward the camera, just the impact of what it might be like to be in a rain of space junk. And thankfully, there were a few comic moments, one involved Marvin the Martian complete with scrub brush helmet floating by. But now I can honestly say that after seeing Gravity, I completely endorse seeing this spectacular film in 3D, which is a first.

Friday, September 13, 2013

An account of First Seattle Erotic Film Festival

In the first installation of "how to start your very own film festival", I only outlined how the films were selected, because that is what making a film festival is about, finding awesome films and then inflicting them upon the unsuspecting public. If only that were true. Turns out there was so much more involved in making a film festival happen.

First, you need a venue. The Seattle Erotic Art Festival was in the process of setting dates for a summer or early fall festival when this process began in May, but one thing was obvious, where ever the festival was going to be held would be appropriate for an art gallery, a store, and maybe even a show, but it would not be appropriate for showing 35mm, 16mm or 8mm film. From the beginning, I knew that Dennis Nyback would be providing content so we needed a venue that still has projectors. There aren't many of those left with the recent transition to digital, so really that left only the Grand Illusion, Northwest Film Forum, and SIFF. Therefore, I booked the Grand Illusion, simply because I have been a volunteer there for several years now. They can seat up to 70 in a theater that is gorgeous. All it took was a quick web-search on the rental rates of the other options to rule them out as venues that we couldn't afford.

Things didn't get really complicated until I sent out the acceptance letters to the filmmakers, because up until that point is didn't really grasp the enormity of the task at hand. That is really when I realized just how much planning goes into putting on a festival of any kind. Once the letters were received, I was immediately flooded with responses from filmmakers asking about hotels, airfare, festival schedules, etc. It never occurred to me that anyone would even consider traveling to the Seattle Erotic Art Festival's first Film Festival, held in a separate venue. And I couldn't even begin to answer any of the questions being asked, as I hadn't previously considered them.

And so I went back to the festival with my head spinning with questions and concerns, but we were still over a month out from the festival and very little was finalized. There would be some sort of hotel sponsorship, but that was still under negotiation. Even the exact festival dates were still in flux, so in retrospect, it isn't at all surprising that all of the festival details were works in progress.At this point, I realized that the Film Festival was a very different beast than the Art Festival. The artists were primarily local, but the filmmakers were scattered all over the globe. The accepted filmmakers hailed from Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, NYC, and the Bay Area. Seattle was not represented. But despite not being local, the filmmakers were often ecstatic about having their film accepted and wanted to participate. Films that explore sexuality in ways that are funny, honest, and realistic, but fall outside of genre conventions don't have an easy path to American film festivals and distribution. It wasn't until gracious directors began taking the time to write about their struggles that I suddenly found myself in the role of activist for erotic cinema and began to take this new role of facilitator for aspiring filmmakers very seriously.

When speaking of erotic cinema, I'm not necessarily talking about films with explicit content. In fact, of the films accepted, only three have any "pornographic" content. Most didn't even involve nudity. The focus of the programming was a mature cinematic treatment of sexuality. The films were varied in subject matter and genre, but what unified them was an unflinching desire to bring little talked about stories to audiences. And I became impassioned with helping in anyway I could, while respecting that these films are not mine to do with what I please.

So then, in the last 4 weeks, the real work started. I needed to get posters made, start getting word out, writing press releases, selling advanced tickets, creating a website, keeping up a social media presence, and so on. And this was really the most challenging part simply because there was so much that needed to be done and it was all on my shoulders. And shockingly, it all mostly got done and the festival happened. Now I realize that the Seattle Erotic Art Festival is a bit of a separate entity from the Film Festival and by next year, should work to have our own staff to handle the social media, press releases, press screenings, ticket sales, event photography, and likely even our own sponsors. And there was so much more I wanted to do, like putting together a festival trailer to show before the screenings and also at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival Art venue. And it killed me to not organized a press screening, but the DVD of the final program wasn't completed in time. Again, the problem of too many eggs in my basket. Some didn't hatch, but yolk didn't get spilled either. I am still in complete amazement that this event happened.

Once the Festival opened on August 2nd, I was filled with terror about all of the things that could go wrong. Would Dennis Nyback show up, or had I forgotten to give him the final dates? Would the ticketing work-out? Would the volunteers show? And what worried me the most was the possibility that no one would come to see the movies.

Friday night was Dennis Nyback's Stag Party Special. I arrived a couple of hours early and the projection booth was already set up for Dennis to run 16mm film. I had picked up the money to make change, but was still very nervous that no one would come since there were very few advance tickets sold. But my volunteer ticket sales help arrived right on time as did Dennis and people came. The only oversight was that I had forgotten to find some appropriate music to play in the cinema before the feature.

And so I tried to relax and watch Dennis' amazing collection of stag film rarities. They were fantastic. I am still surprised by how little has changed in the genre of pornographic cinema. So many tropes were already evident, but what was different was the sexual agency of the women in the films. That and the playfulness. There isn't enough playful sexuality modeled in today's media.

After, I went home and proceeded to be ill. All of the anxiety of the day released after my attempt to have my first meal of the day. And so I gave up my plan to attend the Friday night after party at the proper art festival and called it a night.

But in the morning, I needed to get ready for the second day of screenings. Dennis Nyback was returning with a second program of vintage 16mm films and then, I'd be showing Cheyenne Picardo's movie Remedy. And in checking my email and phone messages from the previous night, I discovered that Cheyenne had been trying to find me and had left the only copy of her movie with someone at the art festival. And thus my panic began all over again. Luckily, I was able to quickly track down who had the DVD, a CD of sexy music was burned, and I attempted some semblance of calm while having some lunch before returning to the Grand Illusion Cinema.

And everything went very smoothly. My volunteer was great and I tried to stay out of her way and not fuss over ticket sales. Dennis arrived and I was even able to watch a bit of his program, or at least enough of it to get to enjoy watching a short that was threaded backwards. I had always wondered what that would be like and it is all upside-down and backwards. Kind of awesome, actually and amazed the audience because people aren't used to seeing film projected anymore. But there were too many people coming in to ask if there were tickets available for Remedy, so I relocated to the lobby to handle festival questions and ticket sales.

Actually, the response to Remedy was outstanding. The filmmaker was in attendance and the theater was 3/4 full of enthusiastic festival goers. The screening even resulted in Cheyenne Picardo being interviewed for an episode of Polyamory Weekly. I tried to hold a Q&A, but sadly, we only had time for a couple of questions. Next year I will want to make certain that we have enough time to hold  proper Q&As after the films, especially if filmmakers are traveling to the festival.

 I had already seen a long cut of the film and was pleased with the final cut, that I was lucky to premiere. Hopefully, the film will do well at future festivals and find a distributor, but it is a marketing challenge. As a film that is very much about the world of professional houses of domination, one wonders if general audiences will connect with the film. But regardless, I greatly enjoyed spending the rest of the night talking to the director over dinner and spending a bit of time at the after party, where I felt a bit underdressed since the attendees were all dancing and showing off their latex finery. 

Sunday was the final day of the festival. The Seattle Erotic Art Festival at the Showbox closed at 4 pm, but I had one final screening scheduled at 5 pm. I was much more relaxed on Sunday and was prepared with a DVD prepared of all of the short films and tried to wait patiently for the audience to arrive. And with the audience, another filmmaker appeared. I had been on the lookout for Paul Deeb of the Pillow Book Gallery as he was the other filmmaker I had expected to bump into around the festival over the weekend, but had heard nothing. But he finally materialized in time for the presentation of his (and partner Tamara Sholl) short film, Trains. Actually, I was a little worried about meeting Paul Deeb, because Trains was the only submission with a real  porn star, Dylan Ryan, so I worried that Deeb could be a porn director that is attempting to break out of the mold a little, but is still a bit sleazy in person. So I had my own biases and reservations. After reading their account of the weekend, it seems like they had a few of those, too.

I was pleased when he and Tamara were awesome. Paul Deeb agreed to a brief Q&A after the films and I did the intro before the nearly sold-out shorts exhibition. Mostly, I was excited to see a few faces in the audience of folks I knew outside of the Erotic Art Festival and even outside of the larger sex-positive community. Watching the shorts it was a relief that the audience was engaged, laughing where they should, and generally acting like an engaged, sophisticated sex-positive audience. And they even had a few questions for Paul after.

And then my job was done. As we all exited the theater the conversations about the shorts continued outside for quite a while before Paul Deeb invited me to join him for dinner. I am so glad I did as I learned so much about "erotic" film festivals. Turns out that most capitalize on the lascivious subject matter instead of treating the film as Art. I still hope to find the time and funds to check out other adult oriented film festivals, but Seattle must be a shockingly mature city as even Dan Savage's porn festival, Hump! is pretty serious in the treatment of the films.

And now that I have returned from my Scandinavian adventure, it is time to begin the process of doing this again next summer.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How to start a festival in 12 easy steps.

This is where the impersonal, cinema blog takes a one-eighty and the personal pronoun gets polished and prominently displayed.

I made a film festival.

Not completely sure how this happened, but it started with a meeting over coffee concerning 19 short film submissions to the Seattle Erotic Art Festival 2013 and culminated in 4 festival screenings at the historic Grand Illusion Cinema, with the words "Erotic Film Festival Aug 2-4" on the marque. The last four months are a blur, but with the help of friends, both old and new, the small number of submissions led to numerous sleepless nights, enthusiastic and oft' unrealistic pipe dreams, until four programs materialized. Not everything went as planned, but in the end, it all came together and there were no casualties.

The first task was the easiest. Watch the submissions. There was only 120 min of video, so that was simple, but this did culminate in the first festival related panic. There is an unrelenting critic that lives in my head, although it might not seem that way from the content of All things perfect and poisonous as I very rarely write about the films that don't impress me. I take little pleasure in sharing the negative responses to cinema and much prefer to champion the cinema that I love. From those initial submission, there wasn't much that I had any desire to champion. I only loved one of the films and only another 3 stood out as interesting, but flawed. Basically, they nagged at me because if I had made them, different choices would have been made. This voice shouldn't irritate me as much as it does, because really what it seems to say is that the films are pretty good, just not the movie I would have made. I should just call this the David Lynch conundrum as Lynch always seems to make movies I want to immediately love, but instead at first I am overwhelmed with frustration, anger, and disappointment and the love and respect comes later. This basically described my initial feelings about these short films.

So the next step was to assemble a jury, to help decide which films stay. This was the first big hurdle as putting together a jury requires asking people for help. First, I don't like reaching out to others for assistance. And second, I never trust people to actually help. But doing the best to ignore the pessimistic voices, I borrowed the cinema in the hours before the first show of the day and hoped that a minimum of 4 potential jurors would show. And to my surprise they did, so I had a jury of 5 and we watched the films together and the conversation that followed resulted in the selection of the three films around which the festival was built.

Then the real work began. The Seattle Erotic Arts Festival has 20 minutes of film that the jury agreed upon, but what to do with only 20 minutes of narrative short films. The obvious answer was to find an erotic average length feature and the shorts would proceed. So I started calling and emailing everyone I could think of to learn as much as possible about how festivals find films.And after a few weeks of sending emails and leaving countless messages inquiring about features that had played Sundance, CineKink, TIFF and never heard back. But I do happen to know a film collector and historian in the Portland area, so I asked for help.

To my relief, Dennis Nyback was happy to help and had more suggestions than I could squeeze into a weekend. So we talked about the proposed festival dates and I relaxed a little, but kept attempting to contact anyone representing a film that sounded even vaguely erotic. I figured I would ask Dennis for a weekend of vintage film programs and probably show the majority of the submissions, despite not loving them.

About the time I was convinced that the first year that the Seattle Erotic Art Festival would show film in an actual cinema, but with a very uneven group of short films, I was contacted by another festival. Germany's Fetsch Film Festival Kiel. They offered 5 films, the best of the festival from 2012 and in exchange, I needed to credit them with a banner on the films. And thus, I suddenly had enough good short films to create a full program and could pick over and use just the very best to create a coherent short film program.

But I still liked the idea of showing a feature. There was one short film that piqued my curiosity. I remember the jury discussion where we agreed one short didn't seem complete, but instead an episode. However, curiosity got the better of me and before I knew it, I was writing the filmmaker to ask for details about the project. Especially, since I'd noticed that the filmmaker had a failed submission with a different title, one that sounded familiar after spending my days searching the web for erotic film projects.

Bingo. The filmmaker explained that the short was an excerpt from her feature and agreed to let me view it. It was too long to attempt to show it with any shorts and wasn't perfect, but it was quite good. Actually, the film, Remedy, was just about to return to the cutting board for a final edit and I would get it when it was done.

So that is how it happened. I was immeasurably lucky and found half of the shorts from submissions, another came from a filmmaker that I had attempted to contact early on in the search, that gave me the thumbs up to include it in the final weeks before the festival, and finally one stunning short film was 'discovered' submitted as visual art instead of film. And so the programs nearly wrote themselves.

Thus, on August 2 - 4, I held the first Seattle Erotic Film Festival at the Grand Illusion Cinema.

And did I mention that I made a film festival?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Cities for People, not Cars.

I've lived in cities most of my life, and I prefer to live in a city. However, there are frustrations with life in the city, but according to The Human Scale and the Jan Gehl, many of issues are due to poor planning, instead of just being inherent to life in the city.

The Human Scale presents the work to architect and city planner Jan Gehl on creating an inviting, safe, sustainable, diverse, and healthy cities. This could have been a dry, intellectual documentary, but I found it highly engaging. Mostly because it was so smart on the problems of cities and how cities can be changed to favor human connection.

Much of The Human Scale can be summed up by saying that cities have changed in the last century to accomodate cars, not people. And as a result, we have become more isolated from each other, less engaged in city life, and significantly less safe.

Out of frustration over the the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle, we bought a home in a condominium complex on the edge of the Central District. The reason was that we found that we left Fremont to hang out in the International District, so it made sense to live where we were spending the our time. Well, there isn't much real estate in the International District, but I now understand why we were drawn to that area so strongly. The International District is a very active community. There are always people shopping for groceries, stopping in at bakeries, going to the temples, playing ping pong in the park, and tai chi near the community center. In addition, you can buy a healthy meal for $6 and during the summer months, there seemed to be street fairs most weekends.

But we didn't end up as close to the ID as we hoped and actually, now I spend more time traveling to downtown for appointments and errands, but once I'm finished, I never stay downtown and head to Capitol Hill.

Well, the mysteries behind my movements were made obvious by the common sense of this documentary. Capitol Hill and the ID are both more inviting than downtown or Fremont. The architecture is on a smaller scale, the shops are open and provide plenty of distraction, catching the eye as one walks by, and Capitol Hill has numeourous outside, public spaces where one can sit in the sun with a cup of coffee and people watch. Apparently it is simply human nature that brings me to this area most days.

Futher more, The Human Scale details the planning behind Copenhagan and how the Danish city became less car centric in favor of humans. It created a situation where people want to walk, bike, and use public transit instead of isolating themselves inside their car or in a home 30 floors above the city. It does this by limiting buiding height, restricitng car infastructure, creating numerous walking paths and car-free zones, and an atmosphere that protects humans from cars. As a result, in Copenhagen, bike use has surpassed driving a car.

I hope that my local officials are paying attention, because these are the sorts of changes that would make Seattle an even nicer place to live. We need wider sidewalks, cycle-tracks, less parking, pedestrian walkways, and even more green spaces. Broadway and Pioneer Square should be closed to car traffic and made pedestrian only. I am so looking forward to visiting Copenhagen in August, to see how the city functions in person. And I plan to get around by bicycle while visiting, just like the locals.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

One story of a city in the desert

It is difficult to throw a rock in Seattle and not hit a burner, at least it seems that way. So many people have told me of the transformative experience of attending this event, held annually in the middle of the Black Rock desert. I've always remained skeptical and tend to see burners as affluent men and women that use the art and personal transformation as an excuse to take a week away from the real world and party. Meaning, I see Burning Man as mardi gras, in the desert. But stunning photography comes out of the festival each year and Spark: A Burning Man Story was an opportunity to challenge this perception.

That said, Spark was a well made film. Long time burner Steve Brown co-directed the film was Jesse Deeter, who brought to the project a decade of experience from working on Frontline. As a result, the film looks amazing. Central to the film are two artists that are creating giant art pieces for the playa, one is a burning man vetren creating Block Rock City's own wall street and a first time artist working to learn the techniques and raise the funds to build a giant, heart shaped metal shelter. Additionally, the filmmakers had access to the festival founders as well as the resulting corporation that works throughout the year to insure that the infrastructure is in place when the burners arrive. As a result, Spark: A Burning Man Story was a fascinating look at the work that goes in to creating the event, both for the organizers and the artists.

However, Spark: A Burning Man Story is just that, one story. It attempted to remain focused on the behind the scenes preparations, but also gave a brief history of burning man, including footage of the first man-totem bonfire on a San Francisco beach. It also touched upon the evolution of the festival marking numerous ways that burning man has changed with time. And the cameras were even present and rolling when the ticket crisis erupted and camps feared that they would no longer be able to participate due to lack of tickets.

But despite access to the insiders, amazing historical footage, and fortuitously creating a documentary while controversy over the ticket lottery raged, Spark never delved into these more controversial story topics. After showing some really frightening footage, I wanted to see an entire film just on the 1996 Burning Man Festival. There was a death, due to a motorcycle accident and several life threatening injuries due to a vehicle running over a tent in the night. But after showing some footage of a burning man festival that appeared out of control and mentioning 96 as a turning point for the festival, the film didn't detail the events of 1996. As a result, it was difficult to understand how the festival changed as a result. Same with the ticketing kerfuffle. There are kernels of excellent documentaries within Spark, but they were glossed over in favor of making a less controversial film. One that is still highly watchable and informative, but I would have rather seen one of the movies that didn't get made.

For the record, Spark: A Burning Man Story did in a way confirm my personal bias that the festival is an elaborate excuse for affluent, white people to party in the desert. The art that was shown was incredible and the filmmakers did a commendable job of keeping the nudity, sex, and drugs out of the movie, but it was still less ethnically diverse than the typical Hollywood blockbuster.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Final Member

In September, I'll be in Iceland for a couple of days, so in preparation I'm doing what all good world travelers do to prepare for immersion into a different culture, I'm watching Icelandic movies.  This is a surprisingly easy task as cinema is the largest industry in Iceland, so even non-Icelandic films have plenty of obviously Icelandic names in the credits. This year at SIFF, there is only a couple of Icelandic films. One of these is The Final Member, a documentary about the Icelandic Phallological Museum and as such essential viewing for a traveler. 

This documentary is centered on Sigurdur Hjartarson, or Siggi as he's called in the film, who was given his first phallus, a bull's penis, as a gift from an instructor which led to this life long habit of collecting penises. His collection of penis bones and jars of preserved members became a bit larger than the typical living room conversation piece and so the Icelandic Phallological Museum was born claiming to contain specimens from every species native to Iceland.  By filming of The Final Member, Hjartarson considered the collection complete except for obvious omission, the human penis. And this is the real subject of this documentary. Siggi's quest to obtain that last perserved specimen for the museum. 

First there was Pall Arason, a famous Icelander, known for being a womanizer. Sigurdsson was pleased that Pall was willing to donate upon his death as it would be fitting to have the first human specimen be from an Icelandic man. But despite Arason being advanced in years, Icelandic men live longer than any on earth, so there is no guarantee that Sigurdsson would live to see the day the Icelandic donation would arrive. But an American, Tom Mitchell, has also contacted the museum and is very eager to have his penis be the first on display. At this point, the documentary takes a strange turn and Sigurdur Hjartarson's passion for collecting penises is demoted to a charmingly quirky past time in comparison to the lengths some will go to insure that their penis will be memorialized for generations to come. 

The Final Member is informative and often very funny. Not only does one learn fascinating facts about the penises of other mammals, but it is also a portrait of some charmingly eccentric people who live in a suitably quirky place. Just the fact that the Icelandic Phallological Museum has been a tourist destination since the 1990s is an amusing fact, but the island country with a population of only 300,000 that is intensely patriotic is equally engaging. I had hoped that seeing The Final Member would allow me to be able to skip a museum, but if anything, it makes me more curious to see Siggi's collection in person.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls...

Where does one begin? Peaches Does Herself is a German concert movie of Peaches. Written by, Directed by and starring Peaches. But how does one describe this experience?

Normally, I skip the Face the Music program of films at SIFF each year, but Peaches Does Herself was described as the queerest film in the festival. As it turns out, I knew exactly one Peaches song prior and still know little to nothing about her, but it didn't matter. I enjoyed the music and most of all, I loved her persona. Her sexuality was on display and was not only unapologetic, but read as loud as if it were a billboard with "fuck normalcy and judgement, this is who I am" in bright pink neon.

To give an overall impression of the film, I've decided just to lay out what happens along with stills. I suspect that is the best I can do for readers to decide whether this is something they should seek out. The film begins in Peaches' bedroom and after the dancers climb through a giant vulva in her bed a very pink clad orgy ensues.

Then there are confrontations and several more numbers that lead to Peaches having an operation that enhances her breasts and gives her a huge penis. And then, Peaches finds love.

So Peaches gets married married, but it doesn't last. Finally Peaches is alone with an exploded penis and popped boobs. But during this narrative of sorts are some great songs, pretty boys, girls, girly boys, gently girls, dancing, the Naked Cowgirl, giant vulvas, and so much more.

And the only song I knew by Peaches before only appears as she bikes away into the streets of Berlin, singing "Huh? What? Right. Uhh.... Fuck the pain away... Fuck the pain away..."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Grrrls in front

I cannot write about The Punk Singer like it is just another SIFF documentary. I always try to look at cinema analytically, but this movie became personal and by the end, I was cheering for all that Kathleen Hanna has done and will do.

There was a period of time when music meant something. In the 80s, I was crazy about Duran Duran which took me to Bowie, The Culture Club... Later Guns n' Roses were huge and I had a metal phase, but after high school, I didn't connect with music the way I did at 15. In college, what spoke loudest was cinema. And this totally makes sense. It was the beginning of the New Queer Cinema and while those movies didn't make it up to Anchorage until years later, the impact on cinema was immediate. It wasn't until probably 1995 when I was finally seeing the movies by Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, and so on, but it was still in the movies where I was finding the stories that spoke to me. The cinema is where my adult identity was formed.

But this all happened in the absence female voices and narratives. The Punk Singer makes me want to go back and time and discover the Riot Grrrl bands during college, instead of hearing about the movement years later and pick up and move to Seattle then, instead of in 20004. However, what was most surprising was the strong identification with Kathleen Hanna. She is only two years older and the series of events that brought about Bikini Kill felt like a parallel universe. About the time I settled into the film as an observer, the narrative progressed to describing Hanna's neurological issues that again, were familiar in that I had personally experienced most of them, although my neurological symptoms began years before Hanna became ill.

So this isn't much of a movie essay and more of a personal one where I second guess my life choices. I understand the need to save face by quitting music before anyone really can see just how sick you are. Seems I've been avoiding forming relationships in an effort to maintain the appearance of health. I don't much like to admit to the bad days that are nearly equal in number to good ones. Had one today that began with an inability to wake up followed by an entire day of not being able to think clearly or motivate myself to do much more than reading news headlines. Maybe tomorrow, my head will feel clear and my old self will return.

So to wrap this up, The Punk Singer was a moving portrait of the figure at the center of the Riot Grrrl punk movement of the 90s. The movie really is very clear on how feminist these bands were and the cultural response. And while these bands are no more, there is still a need for women's voices to loudly call out misogyny is all of its forms and tell the men to move to the back.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Key of Life

I love Japanese cinema. And probably in part due to the Seattle International Film Festival, I discovered that contemporary, non-genre cinema from Japan can be amazing and film festivals are the only places to find these films. Sure some Japanese movies make it to the theaters each year, but these tend to be horror movies or Anime. We don't get many opportunities to see the other types of movies that are made in Japan.

Key of Life is surprising because it really shouldn't be good. Any plot synopsis that essentially claims it's like Trading Places in Japan, except Dan Aykroyd has amnesia, does not sound promising. So I honestly don't know how director Kenji Uchida pulled this off.

There are three characters, Kanae is a successful and very detail oriented business women who decides to get married. So she puts her wedding day on her calendar and informs friends, family and colleagues of the impending date. The only problem is that she hasn't met the groom just yet. But she's given herself 4 weeks to meet him and another 4 weeks to get to know him. Sakurai's acting career hasn't exactly taken off. He lives in a dingy apartment and is behind on his rent and has no prospects for making money, so he attempts to hang himself. Although this doesn't have the intended consequences and so he goes to the public bath. And finally, Kondo enters the picture. He is an assassin and because of his line of work, is extremely meticulous, but also necessarily socially isolated. Kondo unknowingly enters Sakurai's life when at the public bath, cleaning up after a job, he slips on a bar of soap and is knocked unconscious  His locker key lands in Sakurai's hand and they switch lives when Kondo wakes in the hospital with no memory of who he is and only has the contents of Sakurai's locker to inform him about his identity.

The movie that unfolds is somewhat predictable, at least at first, but is also very smart in the way it uses genre. Sasato Sakai, plays Sakurai as if Key of Life is a farce. The comedy is very exaggerated in many of his scenes, but Teruyiki Kagawa plays Kondo very straight. Although, he has no memory of being an assassin, he enters Kakurai's life as if he is in a noir mystery that he must get to the bottom of. And so Kondo goes to work figuring out the sad realities of Sakurai's existence, even finding the rope that was used in the suicide attempt. Meanwhile, Sakurai is attempting to fill Kondo's shoes as an assassin and eventually needs help getting out of his new found life of crime.

Having some experience with Asian farces, I was concerned at the onset of Key of Life, but by the end, I was won over. The characters are extremely likable, and plot has some surprise twists and turns, and I loved the romantic turn at the end. It looks like Film Movement is distributing this film, so maybe there is a chance of Key of Life finding an audience in the states.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The James Franco Gay Bar movie

The short film, In Their Room: London from director Travis Mathews is an experimental film simply observing gay men in the privacy of their own rooms. It shows probably 10 men grooming, sleeping, dressing, undressing, searching the internet for hook-ups, showering, even using the toilet.

I don't really have much to say about this film. It gives a glimpse into a diverse array of lives. But really, those lives aren't all that diverse. Mostly white and mostly bearded, engaging in very similar activities. I guess this makes a few men stand out. Like the man pictured above, surrounded by images of Morrissey as he applies make-up, the elderly cross-dresser, and the black man do stand very separate from the others, despite the fact that they are all engaged in very similar activities. Perhaps in privacy we reveal our shared, humanity as many engage in the grooming rituals dictated by a shared culture?

The most frustrating aspect of In Their Room: London was the lack of time devoted to any one individual. This may reveal my frustration with the male gaze, but I wanted more time with each individual. I wanted more than an often silent snapshot of these lives, one can find that in a photo essay, but a documentary portrait. I wanted to know each man and see the world through his eyes, not just gaze upon him. In that way, In Their Room may be a revealing project, but one with certain frustrating imposed limitations.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. is also very much an experimental film long referred to as the James Franco Gay Bar project. Franco collaborated with director Travis Mathews conceiving of a film exploring the 40 minutes of film cut from Friedkin's Cruising. Those 40 minutes were filmed in an actual New York City gay leatherman's bar and included shots of un-simulated gay sex. Initially, this project was about an attempt to recreate, or re-imagine that lost footage.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. not at all that film. Introduced by director Travis Mathews, he was clear to explain that imagining that lost footage was only the starting point for this film. It is instead a film about straight actors comfort with playing gay male roles. And the film is an intellectually fascinating examination of masculinity and homophobia.

The film focuses on James Franco's friend, Val Lauren, who has agreed to play Al Pacino's role in this project. Val voices his concerns about the project immediately. He doesn't understand his friend's interest in it, but agrees to it because he trusts Franco. We follow along as Val discusses the project, shares reservations, and generally bonds with the other actors on set who are equally in the dark about what is expected.

Really, the actors didn't seem to have much to fear. Travis hired plenty of gay men who donned leather and looked the part of men in a 70s leather bar, but probably didn't go to the extremes that Friedkin's cast might have witnessed. Mostly, the guys were expected to dance with each other as more explicit activity happened around them. In a few cases, one of the presumably straight actors would be asked to use a wooden paddle on a man, but they're limits were totally respected concerning any sexual interactions on the set. Really, the film was more interested in watching how the guys maintained a professional demeanor at times when they were not entirely comfortable with real gay sex happening. And the outcome was surprising.

Val was obviously uncomfortable, even when not in character, but by the end, he was obviously not only more comfortable with the project in general, but specifically more at ease with the gay men in the cast. He even approaches a couple that had sex on camera to let them know that their scene was beautiful in the way you could see the love they feel for one another.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. is not a film for everyone as it is neither documentary or a work of fiction, but rather an acting project that is most interested in the new world that young actors are in today. What the film seems to be asking is just how comfortable men are today with gay roles and acting with out gay men. And this film suggests that while not everyone started out totally okay with the gays, the men were quick to adapt. Our culture seems to be changing right infront of us and that is what this film captures.

An aside. I still hope that those lost 40 minutes of Cruising are unearthed. Actually, I've never seen Friendkin's film, but am eager to today. Cruising undeniably casts the gay leatherman's culture in a very homophobic light, but today, I see the film, especially the unseen footage, as historically important. Today, the gay leather bars are all but gone. Thanks to the AIDS epidemic and the migration away from bar culture in general due to grindr, the leather scene is quickly disappearing. I should have bought a drink in a leather bar back in 1998 when I had the chance.

SIFF 2013: Concussion

The simplicity of the plot synopsis, does not do justice to the film's emotional complexity. Abby, played masterfully by Robin Weigert, is overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and alienation despite living a good life with a family that she loves. At the beginning of the film, Abby is losing her temper with her two children as her wife of 20 years is trying to get Abby to the emergency room with as little drama as possible. Kate chastises Abby for shouting at the kids. Abby, holding ice to her head with blood matted in her hair after taking a softball to the head, is very relatable in her anger and marital dissatisfaction. From that moment forward, Abby begins a journey to discover what is missing and this takes her into a world of high class, lesbian call girls.

Concussion is about an emotional reality of long-term relationships that doesn't often find a voice in this culture. Following in the footsteps of The Kids are All Right (2010), Abby and Kate are another upper class, lesbian couple with problems in their relationship that are universal to any relationship that spans two decades. The problems of the decline of lust and passion can erode the bond of any relationship and as talk of 'lesbian bed death' has hinted at, this need for sexual variety is probably even stronger for women than for the sex that sexual wandering has been attributed to.

This is a wonderful film with so many unexpected moments and emotional truths buried within, that without such a strong lead actor, Robin Weigert, likely would not succede. She conveys so much without the need for dialog. She can simply convey the feeling of emptiness when going about her daily chores. This really is an examination of depression, mid-life crisis, and relationship turmoil that hopefully will find an audience. It has been picked up for distribution by RADiUS, an arm of the Weinstein Corporation, so watch for this in the fall.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Every new technology is expensive, and sooner or later every new technology gets into bed with lechery.

The Seattle Independent Film Festival has landed, again. I don't have the time or money to attend this year, but just cannot stay away. And I started off my festival with a Peter Greenaway film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company

If I were forced to pick just one film as my favorite, it would be Peter Greenaway's 1996 motion picture, with the emphasis strongly on picture, The Pillow Book. After I assumed that his other works would similarly resonate, but was so very, very wrong. Since, I've developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with Greenaway's cinema having been completely confounded by a few, respecting others, completely disgusted and repulsed by one, occassionally bored, but then completely charmed and delighted by the previous film seen at SIFF in 2009, Rembrandt's J'Accuse. I wasn't sure I was up for the Greenaway gamble, but when a pair of free tickets landed in my lap, I couldn't stay away.

With Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Peter Greenaway has liberally embellished the story of Hendrick Goltzius's voyage to Italy in 1590. In this bit of revisionism, Goltzius and his entourage of artists, craftsmen, and players accompanied by their wives, pay a visit to the Margrave of Alsace. There a bargan is made. In exchange for entertaining the Margrave's court with a collection of bawdy Biblical stories, Goltzius would receive the funds for a printing press and be able to create an illustrated version of the Old Testament and the works of Ovid. What follows is the performance of a series of biblical tales that embody six sexual taboos: voyeurism, incest, adultery, corruption of youth, prostitution, and finally necrophilia. 

So much about Goltzius and the Pelican Company is familiar to Greenaway disciples. It has neo-classical sensibilities, but it is completely modern in message and execution. As with its predecessors, sets are elaborately constructed and carefully framed, with most shots perfectly symmetrical. This is layered with scrolling text, framed images, titles, creating a absorbing and often overwhelming amont of contectual information to digest. This constant barrage of imagery is so classically beautiful, that I tend to forgive it for not being completley digestible upon first viewing. I've grown to expect to only get an outline of the work in a first viewing, but find I am so taken by the sound and look of Greenaway's cinematic canvas, that I don't mind never feeling that I have delved much beyond the surface meanings of his texts. The surface is sure a lovely to gaze upon. 

But it is easy to descern that there is much below Goltzius's surface. As the players act out the biblical stories, the impact on the court and Margrave put into motion a series of events that equal the immorality and lack of decency.  By the end, Lott's seduction at the hands of his daughters is one of the least provocative theatrical presentations. Once the scholars and law makers start to collide in their interpretations and debates about the truths behind Goltzius and companies liberal interpretations of the biblical tales... well, things get really interesting.

One final note on this work. I've long appreciated the classical beauty of Peter Greenaway's compositions, but while the movies are often very erotic, I have never found the films to be. Something is different with Goltzius and the Pelican Company. There is something very erotic and seductive about this film. Maybe that says more about this viewer, than the film, but I'm suspicious that it might be due to the decision to include not just full frontal nudity and simulated sex, but nudity from actors with erections. For this reason, I do not expect this film to find distribution, so catch it at a festival before it is buried deep somewhere. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

The vampire's kiss

Recent cinematic incarnations of the vampire are completely infatuated with the romance of the mythologies of immortal being that's only vulnerability is daylight, but all but forgotten is the inherent horror of an unliving creature with an all encompassing thirst for human blood. Kiss of the Damned enriches the eroticism with a healthy serving of horror. Xan Cassavetes pays homage to of the vampire movie of long ago. From the opening shots of something primal and hungry rushing through the night, until the screen is splashed in red in a sequence that has more in common with the B-movie or the erotic horror movies of Europe during the 1970s than the blood sucker that have become all too common place at the movies.

The scales began to tip away from the horrific in the 1980s, with Anne Rice. In her novels, the emphasis was placed on the homo-eroticism inherent in the vampire's kiss, which seemed more often to result in the gift of immortality and enduring companionship (domestic partnership?), then a frightfully alluring promise of death. At the time of the novels, the AIDS epidemic was raging in gay communities and fundamentalists pointed the epidemic as evidence of judgement from the almighty, so it isn't surprising that parallels were drawn between the world of Rice's gay vamps and the mysterious gay cancer.

Then as Lestat and Louis faded from the cultual consciousness, the Twilight series arrived. Except the overt homoeroticism was replaced with chastity. Bella was seduced by the teenaged vampire, but Edward refrained from giving in to Bella's desire and thus they abstained from not just the sexual act, but also Edward did not drink from her. Well, they abstained from both until marriage when one act necessitated that Bella be granted the dark gift of immortality to prevent the permanence of her human death in the bizarrely sexless erotic world of Twilight.

So the vampire of old has become either a tragic story of gay life or a romanticized fantasy of teenage lust and abstinence. In either, gone is the inherent the horror of an undead thirst for blood. Kiss of the Damned capitalizes the horror of the vampires erotic allure.

Djuna is staying at a summer estate, a vampire safe house of sorts, when she attracts the eye of a young writer. This culminates in some late night movie rentals, where as things start getting really exciting, Djuna pushes Paulo away with little explanation except something about a rare medical condition. You know the one. It is evident by her pale complexion and the tendency to burst into flames if caught out in the daylight.

But Paulo will not stay away. In one of the most erotic moments of the film, Djuna refuses to unlatch her door and so must resort to attempting to devour each other through that three inch gap. And so, Djuna gives up fighting the inevitable consummation, but takes extreme precautions, asking Paulo to chain her up so she will not be able to feed upon him during coitus. And the next time they wake, Paulo  is also a vampire.

But the new vampire NRE is quickly diminished by the arrival of Mimi, Djuna's sister. Unlike Djuna, Mimi has absolutely no qualms about feeding on humans. Mimi goes out every night to lure very eager and willing victims into offering their flesh, but she is really only after their blood. Mimi in not exactly the role model Djuna wants around while she is still teaching Paulo the ways of ethical vampirism. And thus, there is plenty of conflict and virgin blood to keep things exciting. Kiss of the Damned provides numerous sexy vampires in anachronistic clothes with European accents and places primary emphasis on what has always been central to the appeal of vampires. They are mysterious creatures of the night with the power to allure helpless human victims to their untimely death. This is why the vampire is both a creature of horror and that of romance novels. Xan Cassavetes got the tone exactly right, bringing to (un)life a gothic and bloody S&M fantasy. I approve.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

We're living in a pornified world and I am a pornified girl.

For the last year, I've been volunteering at The Grand Illusion Cinema and The Center for Sex-Positive Culture. Most of my volunteer hours at CSPC are in the library, which is a fascinating place. Since the other librarians are more enamoured with the books, the growing collection of video pornography is a bit neglicted, so I've taken on the task of curating the collection. And being just a tiny bit obssessed with cinema, I saw this as a chance to learn about a genre that I am ignorant of.

Like many women, I am not an avid consumerof pornography, but my cinema fixations are a porn-adjacent. I gravitate toward films with explicit sexual content and movies that explore alternative relationship styles. In high school, I enjoyed titilating titles like 9 1/2 Weeks and scanned the cable channels for episides of the Red Shoe Diaries. And in college, I saw nearly every movie that I could find with a GLBT plot-line. Now that I'm no longer using cinema to vicariously explore my sexuality, I still gravitate toward erotic cinema. But this has never led an interest in more hard-core films. Well, until I saw a Bruce LaBruce film.

At a SIFF 2008 screening, Bruce LaBruce introduced his newest movie, Otto: Or, Up with Dead People, billed as zombie gay porn. And it was exactly that. But it was also much more. Otto demonstrated an understanding of the history of cinema, an appreciation of satire and humor, and most dismaying was the outstanding craft that went into this gay porn flick. This is exactly my barrier with pornography is the lack of craft, but with the films of Bruce La Bruce, I discovered that there are pornographers that are creating cinema. And not only can a good film be pornographic, but they can be provacative. And so, I find myself spending hours reading about the movies that are donated to the center, taking home titles that look interesting, and reading about the nuts and bolts of the industry.

So it seemed like time to revisit the ever-enduring battle against porn led by feminists. I personally had made peace with pornography during my freshman year of college with my first persuasive essay on obscenity and the photography of Robert Maplethorpe. Doing the research was when I first encountered the writings of those who hate porn. And now that I'm again looking at the history and making of pornographic movies, I'm still encountering those writing angerly about porn. So I figured I should revisit the controversy, starting with Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families by Pamela Paul.

First off, there was plenty here to agree with Paul about. For instance, pornography objectifies women and can give viewers unrealistic expectations about sex and what women enjoy. But she takes her findings to the extreme. As she summarizes in the conclusions, "For most people, pornography wrecks a subtle but real emotional, and in some cases, physical devastation." She goes on at great lengths about the evils that porn brings to our culture. Some of these are: impacts women's body image, men's inability to sexually perform in monogamous relationships, intimacy disorders, sex addiction, and that exposure to porn causes one to need more extreme porn to derive the same "rush". But primarily, she finds pornography inherently degrading, humiliating, and disrespectful of men and women. She illustrates these with interviewees' personal stories, citations from popular magazines, and data from a poll cited only as the Harris/Pornified poll.

It wouldn't have been challenging for Pamela Paul to support quite a few of her claims with primary sources as social science research has shown that pornography has some real life effect on consumers. Reading other, more scholarly articles, I now trust that consumption of porn causes some men to view women as sexual objects, viewing porn can cause men to believe that women actually enjoy rape, high consumption of pornography can cause men to be less attracted to their sexual partners, and that for some men, consumption of porn correlates to an increase in sexual aggression. But unlike Pornified, they referenced primary sources and did not conclude that consumption of porn alone always results in negative outcomes. Pamela Paul's book would have been more believable if she had actually cited some of the primary sources that others point to instead of referencing articles in The Independent, The National Post, Washington Times, or Ms. When others discuss these same troubling findings, they admit that porn doesn't negatively impact everyone. In fact, the only conclusion that academics made isn't that porn turns them into rapist monsters, but that it can make men terrible lovers.

Also Pornified draws the wrong conclusions from every example cited. Paul goes to great length to talk about how porn objectifies women and correctly observes that all popular media is similarly objectifying. But then goes back to how porn is the problem, instead of concluding that pornography is simply a symptom of a larger problem. We live in a misogynistic culture that objectifies women. Until that changes, pornography is going to have a POV that women are sexual objects. And the fact that she never addresses the role of this culture-wide sexism is a glaring omission.

And then there's violent porn. Everyone loves to rage about "violent" pornography without defining what meant. I find this infuriating. Only because it is important to know what is meant. Is consensual SM "violent porn"? Is spanking? Is a woman gagging while giving oral an act of violence? Are blow-jobs inherently violent and degrading to women? The tone of Pornified is complete outrage at all porn, the acts depicted, and the consumers.  The justification is that, according to Paul, internet pornography is exceedingly violent and even if the viewer is not interested in "violent" porn, just the exposure to regular porn desensitizes causing the viewer to seek out increasingly "violent" and extreme pornography. She also rages about those who consume pornography including the women who defend porn and attempt to create alternatives to mainstream pornography that is more woman-centric. From the tone taken, I suspect that Pamela Paul couldn't bring herself to watch any porn while writing her book skewering the medium. If she had, she would probably find the majority if it is simply boring. I look at the donated DVDs and I'veyet to come across anything that has revolted or horrified me, just bored me. Actually, even the actors in the movies look bored.

So for my first foray into the land of porn is evil and destroying humanity, I've come out relatively unconvinced of porn's evils. What I do believe is harmful is that there are no alternatives to the information provided by pornography. We live in a culture that doesn't educate children about sexuality and then expect them to have healthy, sexual relationships. I've found Cindy Gallop to be more informed on the content of pornography then what I saw on the pages of Paul's book.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012 in film

Someone says it at the end of every year. Last year was the best year in cinema that I can remember. Well, as I was thinking about the movies that I watched in 2012, I can honestly say that 2012 stands out. Personally, 2012 was an especially tumultuous year, dealing with increasing physical impairment and a sudden end to the career that was built over the last 15 years, but it the year at the movies was one similarly marked with evolution alongside nostalgia. The movies of 2012 definitely speak to the fact that in 2013, the theaters that remain will be digital. It follows that the movies have quality of reverence for the past, but the year also embraced change and demonstrated forward momentum and innovation. There was so much to love in 2012, that I doubt that I will be able to edit my list down to 10.

The first trend is the dominance of female protagonists and movies made by women in the films that were among my personal favorites. Looking over my personal list of noteworthy cinema from the past year, half featured a woman in the lead and 5 were directed by women. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty has been unfairly criticized for the graphic torture sequences, but it is more noteworthy for the revelation that a woman, working in a totally male dominated war zone, was the one to find the most infamous of terrorists, Osama Bin Laden. In Take This Waltz, director Sarah Polley expertly crafts a film that captures the evolution of a long-term relationship as it slowly comes to a conclusion. And in Rentaneko, a Japanese film from Naoko Ogigami that will likely never get a wide release, Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is a crazy cat lady. Her life is filled with the felines that befriend her and she runs a less than lucrative cat renting business renting to those in need of the kind of companionship that can only be provided by a cat. While the film teeters on the edge of saccharine, Rentaneko never allows the quirky kawaii to completely overwhelm. At its heart, Sayoko may imagine alternative lives of grandeur, her reality is that of a lonely woman who has filled her life with a stable of loving felines, but who is always being reminded by a cruel neighbor that she has never found that ideal human companion to share her life with and probably never will. But the movie is not sad, but about filling the holes in one's life. Sayoko helps others improve their lives by lending a carefully selected cat, but her life is enriched by the service she provides. These films share a commonality of having a uniquely feminine outlook, which has long been a perspective that is under-represented in film.

Another unique trend was films about the wonder of dance as an artform and the ultimate expression of joy. The innovative documentary from Wim Wenders, Pina, about German Choreographer Pina Bausch was nominated for best documentary at the 2012 Oscars, but opened in Seattle early in 2012. Pina is absolutely magical and succeeds in giving a complete picture of the work of PIna Bausch without the interruption of monotonous talking heads. Wenders just masterfully captures the work, letting the art speak for itself. What is presented shows her choreography as daring social commentary, whimsical, and sometimes just completely joyous. But even more surprising is the film Girl Walk // All Day. In this on-line video series that has been presented as a feature film in select cities, the Girl (Anne Marsen) rejects the serious formality of ballet class and she dances away onto the streets on New York City. In the city she meets and dances with The Gentleman (Dai Omiya) and The Creep (John Doyle) as she dances with complete abandon among the sometimes curious, often disinterested, occasionally antagonistic cohabitants. This film cannot be described in any other way than as a celebration. It is impossible to remain still and not be infected with The Girl's outlandish and downright thrilling dance through the streets, shops, and alleyways. The film is obviously improvisational and uses the random meetings with street dancers, curious children, and occasional movement dialogs to tell a coherent narrative of the love for dance and an embrace of the unique dance culture found only in NYC. I dare anyone to watch Girl Walk // All Day while remaining totally still and without becoming completely enamored with the Girl.

Initially, I was tempted to name 2012 the year of the action movie. One of the very first films I saw in 2012 was Soderberg's Haywire. It was absolutely thrilling to watch martial artist Gena Carano fight, although, I do admit that my interest was primarily sparked by the rest of the cast, primarily Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antionio Banderas, Oh, my. But once Gena started dominating the action scenes with her obvious power and strength, I was captivated. And one cannot just watch the fights in Haywire, without wincing at the blows. Although Haywire was not the best martial arts movie of the year. I'd have to give that honor to The Raid: Redemption. Like the many Asian kick-face movies that preceded it, the plot is nothing more but an excuse for elaborate fight sequences. And they are really awesome. But the biggest surprise in the action thriller genre was the bike messenger movie, Premium Rush. David Bordwell wrote an in depth analysis of exactly what makes the movie tick, but for me it delivered exactly what I want in a summer action movie, a thrilling ride that doesn't slow down to catch its breath. It uses very familiar, dare I say Hitchcockian structure, to tell a simple, but always riveting story - and may have had the most racially diverse cast as well. And most exciting was like both The Raid and Haywire, Premium Rush depended upon the use of practical effects over CGI. Afterward, I eagerly looked forward to mounting my bicycle for the trek home.

And then there were the revenge flicks. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Bertrand Bonello's House of Pleasures. What was most striking was the similarities. Like Tarantino, Bertrand Bonello approached a period drama utilizing film making techniques and music that stand out as shockingly modern in a turn of the century Parisian brothel. This stands out as a warning that House of Pleasures is approaching the subject matter of selling womens' bodies with a present day judgement of the practice. In the lush, beautiful, and unnaturally languid environment of the brothel, the horrors of the work there are offered up and highlights the othering of women created by objectification. While Django Unchained approaches the historical reality of slavery with equal parts of humor and justified horror and outrage, House of Pleasures is more even in tone, but both films find catharsis in rage against the inhumanity of the flesh trade. And I was moved and greatly impressed by both.

But the best movie I saw in 2012 was Holy Motors. It begins with a man, played by the film's director, Leos Carax, waking and inspecting a wall papered with a forest. He searches the two dimensional forest with a key, that protrudes from his finger. Finding the keyhole, he walks through the hidden door into a theater, where a sleeping audience awaits. I've heard the film likened to a dream or to be a completely meta experience of a film about film.  I see it as a timely eulogy to the passing of film cleverly told as an allegory of a man's work day that seems to represent the phases of life as if they were movies. And I have no way of knowing if this is what Carax intended. But regardless of how I interpret it, Holy Motors is a completely absorbing movie-going experience that delights in each small narrative that begins as Denis Levant steps out of the limo in costume. And each of these small stories exist in a world of their own, whether he is leading a band through the streets while playing an accordion, playing the part of an old man taking his final breaths in the presence of his grieving daughter, or to emerge only to begin running on a treadmill while shooting a gun. Very little is explained in this alternate universe, but the vision is so filled with delight at the magic of cinema that I found very little need to understand it. It was enough to see it.

There are many more great films that I haven't gotten around to talk about. I'm not certain any of these are in fact more worthy of attention than the others in my list, these are simply the ones that I was inclined to say a few words about.

Top 10 of 2012

Holy Motors
Pina / Girl Walk // All Day
House of Pleasures
Silver Linings Playbook
Take This Waltz
The Grey
Moonrise Kingdom
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Premium Rush

Honorable mentions: The Amazing Spiderman, Django Unchained, Haywire, The Invisible War,  Looper, Pariah, The Raid: Redemption, The Secret World of Arietty, The Sessions, We Are Legion, Wonder Women, Zero Dark Thirty.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow is a director who's career has always been of interest. Not only is she the only woman to be awarded the Oscar for for directing her previous film, The Hurt Locker, but her films practically ooze testosterone. Not only are they in the male dominated genre of the action movie, but they tend to have an exclusively male cast. Bigelow's films are in the world of men and are concerned with the stories of men and while I've liked many of her films, I have been mildly disappointed that such a talented director is not interested in bringing more female-centric narratives to the screen. But Bigelow has a female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty and I would even go so far as to call this a feminist achievement in cinema. The procedural detailing the process of tracking Osama bin Laden's location and coordination of the the attack on the compound only had three female characters among the seemingly all male military and government, but despite being such a small minority, Zero Dark Thirty manages to pass the Bechdel test. It is sad that today, so few narratives include more than one female character, but here in a film with a setting that insures that nearly every character will be a man, the female protagonist is highly competent, powerful, clever, and not sexualized and the same is true for the other female characters. 

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that is single-minded in its focus on Maya's (Jessica Chastain) hunt for Osama Bin Laden that opens with the chilling real audio from those inside the the twin towers on 9/11. It is a nationalistic revenge story that uses our collective memory of 9/11 as the justification to use extreme measures to insure that Osama bin Ladin is killed. When Maya enters this narrative, it is two years after 9/11 and she is observing a man being tortured for information on the Arab Front. This is new to her and when given the option to watch via monitor, she refuses and returns to the cell where the captive is being held. For a moment, she is left alone with the mostly naked and badly beaten man, he pleads to her for mercy. Her only answer is "You can help yourself by being truthful". Just because Maya is a woman does not mean she is compassionate.

Actually, that is exactly what impressed me about Zero Dark Thirty. There was no attempt to soften and feminize Maya. She is 100% focused on finding Osama bin Laden. She is depicted working, going to and from work and nothing else. There is no hint of her past, her family, or any aspect of her life outside of the CIA offices and interrogation rooms. On the team to track down Osama bin Laden is one other woman, who asks Maya if she has any friends. This exchange verifies that Maya has no life outside of her job.  Maya is not at all a stereotype of a working woman. Instead she is portrayed as driven by an all consuming desire for revenge and this drive pushes her to follow leads that others in the agency have dismissed.

There has been a lot of focus on the use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty in the media. This again suggests that those making the criticisms have not watched the film that they critique or they are not very good at reading motion pictures. Depiction of torture is not the same as glorification. In the first scenes, Maya is observing Ammar's  interrogation and while she does not interfere, she struggles to maintain her composure during the interrogation. In addition to the the decision to show Maya's evolution from someone who winces at the sight of inhuman treatment of detainees to someone capable of making the call to subject someone to those same techniques in order to get information. However, the film does comment on the change in administrations that is not on board with using torture to get information. Also, in pivotal scenes where the information that leads to the discovery of the compound were found not by torture, but through bribery, interrogation of a detainee using coercion and confusion, and the most important lead was discovered in files that the CIA already had. So despite torture being used in the film, it isn't glorified or even shows it to be affective in getting reliable information. The key to tracking down a man who does not want to be found is in intelligence and tenacity.

Zero Dark Thirty is a completely engrossing film that speculates on the tactics used to track down the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. While it is certainly patriotic revenge porn, it is also a study of what it takes for a woman to succeed in a man's world. This is a world that Kathryn Bigelow appears to understand well.