Guest review by usevalue! C (299,792 km/s)

[This week this blog gets its first guest review (huzzah!) by wordpress user usevalue, who is considering relaunching their own blog in the near future or so I heard! Exciting times.]

The following is a review of a short film, C (299,792 km/s) which was funded entirely by online donations. As I understand it, the makers of the film are always eager for more money, and are in fact selling various merchandise through their web site. So if that seems like a good idea, go throw money at them. The film is free to watch online [Trigger warning: mild violence, stunning, kidnapping], and if you’re one of those folks who is allergic to spoilers you should go watch it before reading this review.

C (299,792 km/s), a new independent film by Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier, is set in the vaguely-defined future. Due to its length (about 15 minutes) we are only given a few facts about this future. Humankind has constructed military spaceships to wage its ongoing wars; these ships are capable of achieving relativistic speeds (i.e. close to the speed of light, i.e. C); and gender equality in the military has progressed somewhat. Beyond that, the film dispenses with detailed portrayal of the world to propose a few political ideas for our consideration.

The film tells the story of a mutiny led by Lieutenant Commander Malleck aboard the military vessel the KESTROS IV. With the help of an insurgent gang of engineers, Malleck seizes control of the helm from the otherwise unnamed Captain. When a loyalist counter-insurgency forms under the doughty Second Lieutenant Kai, Malleck and her co-conspirators use the ship’s bulkheads to trap their enemies, eventually stunning them all. Malleck is keen to avoid killing any of the ship’s crew because, as she informs her rebels, the men in particular will be necessary for the gene pool when the ship arrives at its destination. At last the plot is revealed: Malleck and her team change the ship’s course, abandoning the military squadron of which it is a part, and set off on a journey through space and, thanks to relativity, time to colonise new worlds, far from Earth’s military and ecological catastrophes. These futuristic scenes are interspersed with clips from an apparent 1980s science documentary featuring Dr. Harold Newman, an obvious homage to Carl Sagan.

C is ultimately a film about the ambiguous potential of technology. As Dr. Newman’s voiceover states, there is a tendency in human development towards weaponisation, and the possibility of self-destruction through ecological catastrophe is very very real. At the same time, Dr. Newman proposes that technology offers us, ultimately, an escape from the limits of our situation. In his case, it is the eventual death of our star. Assuming you, like I, am not particularly concerned about that, we can read the event as the terrible limits imposed on us by our mode of production. The escape into the great beyond made by Malleck and the reluctant crew of the KESTROS IV, in this reading, is a secession from the coordinates of our social and political system.

The genius of the film lies in its ambiguous treatment of Malleck’s mutiny. It is undoubtedly vanguardist; surely she acts for Second Lieutenant Kai’s own good (informing him he is “a born colonist”), but she has to stun him with a rifle in order to do so. On top of this, after achieving escape velocity the engineers jettison the ship’s engines, preventing an obviously anticipated demand to return home. Leninists might not mind; the mutiny is mostly composed of engineers, and in the initial phases of the rebellion they are armed only with welding torches, giving the whole affair a nice proletarian flavour, but others might take pause. Furthermore, the film gives us no guarantee that Malleck’s plan will succeed. She asks Kai, “Do you believe a warship can be an engine for human progress?” The question is never answered. The end of the film is only the beginning of the journey of the KESTROS IV, and we are left to wonder what will become of them.

Where I see the political vision of the film (or, at least, Lieutenant Commander Malleck) failing is in its utopian, secessionist dimension. Though perhaps within a sci-fi setting Malleck’s vision is plausible, if fraught with peril, when we attempt to apply the film’s lessons to our own circumstances troubles arise. What would secession from capitalism mean for us? And where would we go? One needn’t labour the point by arguing again against socialism in one country, or declaring the interconnectedness of the biosphere. When we delve deeper into the nature of the rebellion, the problems only multiply. The Lieutenant Commander remains a Lieutenant Commander. The ship remains a military ship. It should be clear to us that existing social hierarchies and our existing infrastructure do not lend themselves to communism, as they have all been designed for the subjugation of labour, not its liberation from its status as labour. In casting its faith in the saving power of technology to escape the problems of our world, the film fails to delve into the processes of class composition and social reconstruction which any meaningful revolution would necessarily entail.

And yet for its faults, C offers us an important reminder for our political practice which is the necessary element of voluntarism in social change. We can no longer hope that the tide of history is on our side; as C hints darkly, if left unrestricted, the tide of history may carry us over the falls. In spite of all the obstacles, it does us no good to wait until the perfect moment or the perfect conditions arrive, as they never will. So while I don’t think I’d join Malleck and the hapless passengers of the KESTROS IV on their journey into what awaits, I agree with the Lieutenant Commander that we must act without delay, making creative use of the resources at hand.

And of course, if none of this political nonsense interests you in the slightest, C boasts a charming retro aesthetic, from its 1980s soundtrack, to its spurning of CGI in favour of plastic models shot against a black sheet. Watch it.

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Pixie-bashing is woman-bashing

I first became involved with the formalized concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a comedy YouTube video my friends were sharing. I thought to myself ‘O dear, woman-hating is really everywhere’. In this video men could unload their Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends to a special care hospital designed for them. Disturbing and tasteless. A bit later, I realised they were not sharing this video to fuel their disgust for it, but they seemed to find the video either funny or at least cathartic for some kind of hatred for Manic Pixie Dream Girls they shared.

At first, I thought it was ridiculous to think about it, because the films revolving around MPDG are generally terrible. And I ended up watching a lot of them. Power to the people who punish bad cinema. MPDG are sickening, they belong to the exact same category as Doctor Patch and Forrest Gump.

Using a trope such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is lazy and terrible writing, and they are annoyingly often the ‘muse’ of a male character (although not always), like is justly pointed out in the Feminist Frequency video.

The terrible lazy writing aspect is that the male character is entirely bland. MPDG movies are films written for women and the man is 1. cute 2. full of love to give. In Elizabethtown, Garden State and My Sassy Girl, he has just lost a relative and needs some good old mothering.

Is it sexist? Well, women’s role is not to help men through mourning, and MPDG does appeal to the part of women which sees themselves as caregivers. But then again, picture of kittens appeal to that side of us as well, and I do not find them sexist.

The truth is, the male ‘lead’ is as irrelevant as he is bland. The grief he wallows in is not what the film is about, it is the background for the MPDG’s charming quirkiness. The Elizabethtown girl has a terrible, boring job, an estranged boyfriend she does not love and is terribly lonely, the Garden State girl has mental health issues, in My Sassy Girl, she is herself dealing with grief, addiction and mental health issues. They are not exactly post-feminist ideals of strong independent women juggling careers, luxury consumerism and trophy boyfriends.

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When I looked at the origin of the concept of MPDG, I started thinking there was a point in attacking it after all. I do not understand how people could rally behind an idea that is born from the fantasy of violence against women. When I said they were in the same category as Forrest Gump and Doctor Patch, I was anticipating this point. A lot of characters are terribly annoying. Jar-Jar Binkses are everywhere. What the creator of the concept of MPDG did though, is to take out a subsection of these annoying characters from bad movies on gender lines and on grounds of their hyper-femininity, and made them the annoying characters towards which we can direct our anger at bad cinema. I think that is sexist:

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.”

As a concept, the MPDG only makes sense if you count in our cultural propensity to fantasize about hurting women. The male ‘lead’ gets off lightly, but the MPDG is so annoying she has got to die. Ideally suffer a lot first. Or you know what, we could just lock them up in a mental hospital.

I am not saying hyper-femininity or child-like femininity are not annoying. I am generally annoyed by people with baby voices, a lot of people are. A lot of people are annoyed at camp men and wish they would ‘tone it down’. A lot of people cannot be bothered putting the extra effort in to understand a non-native English speaker, or just someone with a thick accent. Some people think American accents sound stupid. Some people cannot stand the way people from certain other races smell. Some people cannot be bothered learning that not all people from a different race look the same. That is true, but we need to be better than that. As long as they are women who feel most comfortable with their baby voices and their dainty clothes, portraying them in film will not be a sexist thing to do.

In many reviews about MPDG films, strangling is the preferred way of killing them, as their being annoying is associated with the noises they make. They do not speak, they chirp, they nag, their voices are too damn high-pitched. They are too needy, but they are also too independent.

500 Days of Summer is a film about a boy being rejected by a woman. It has strong sexist undertones, but not because of the female character who rejects the male lead and refuses to feel bad about it. In a film like Sweet November, the female character conducts a meaningful relationship with a man under her own terms, breaks it off when she wants to, without reason, as per previous agreement. The male character is confused and ends up finding out why she broke up: the female character is terminally ill and she cannot project herself in a long-term relationship. He confronts her about this and she maintains that these were the boundaries they had agreed on, that she has every right to stand by them and that she did not have any duty to disclose her illness. It’s a bad movie for other reasons, but that all story-arch is pretty good. Once analysed through the MPDG spectrum though, the female character is just another quirky misfit girl who is only interesting because of the influence she has on the hero, and, in the second case, is so disposable that she is conveniently terminally-ill.

Is this element of analysis helping feminism? Or is it making all female characters suspect. Not good enough. As some reviewers have noted, maybe to avoid being accused of sexism, films should just do away with the female annoying sidekick altogether, it would be much easier than to write a better script.

But the whole discussion of the MPDG avoids an issue altogether in those films, and that is the representation of women and mental illness in films. There is a pretty old cultural idea that being a woman is a mental illness. See Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly, or Suddenly, Last Summer for depiction of insane women.

On the one hand, mental health is an issue that concerns a very large number of women. Statistics on anti-depressant prescriptions are frightening. And, a bit like the depiction of homosexual characters for a long time, there is the idea that any kind of depiction is good. Being able to see in a film a woman suffering from mental health (AND who does not hack anyone into pieces) is pretty amazing. On the other, like gay side-kicks helping their straight friends with their love-life, the MPDG’s (who almost always explicitly has some mental health condition or another, that is the ‘Manic’ part of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) idiosyncracies (or symptoms) are charming and help the main character see life differently. There is no darkness attached to it, a bit like romanticized homeless ‘free’ people teaching rich people that there is more to life than work and money.

This representation of mental illness is not healthy by a long shot, but neither is the one proposed by anti-MPDG reviews. They demand independent post-feminist superwomen juggling careers and trophy boyfriends. Those barely functional Manic Pixie Dream Girls should just be locked back in the mental home where they belong.

And that is why I think we need to scrutinize our art and culture, but I think the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ should be banned from our vocabulary. It is a lazy trendy concept that does not help study or change the depiction of women or mental health in films. Thankfully, like many concepts which do not lead to fruitful analyses, it has already mostly disappeared on its own.

Films about Africa

This blog started by listing films that depicted women in more than minor roles, and the question arose: what about other people? Well, the women-friendly film list was devised not to forget lesbians, trans women and women of colour, but women are definitely not the only category with the representation of which cinema has issues. I started to consider the representation of Africa in movies. Here is my provisional film-list, including European and American films made about/set in Africa, African films and everything in between… Please comment with further suggestions.

Casablanca (1942) by Michael Curtiz

Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970) by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Xala (1975) by Ousmane Sembene

Black and White in Color (1976) by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Ceddo (1977) by Ousmane Sembene

Une Femme en Afrique (1985) by Raymond Depardon

Camp of Thiaroye (1988) by Ousmane Sembene

La Captive du désert (1990) by Raymond Depardon

Naked Lunch (1991) by David Cronenberg

Afriques: Comment ça va avec la douleur? (1996) by Raymond Depardon

Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) by Michel Ocelot

Lumumba (2000) by Raoul Peck

Ali (2001)

Waiting for happiness (2002) by Abderrahmane Sissako

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002) by Lee Hirsch

Abouna (Our Father) (2002) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Moolade (2004) by Ousmane Sembene

Hotel Rwanda (2004) by Terry George

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)

The Constant Gardener (2005) by Fernando Meirelles

Desert Rebels – Ishumars, The Forgotten Rockers of the Desert (2006) by François Bergeron

Last King of Scotland (2006) by Kevin MacDonald

Goodbye Bafana (2007) by Bille August

District 9 (2009) by Neill Blomkamp

A review of Suddenly, Last Summer

I decided to watch Suddenly, last summer when I watched The Celluloid Closet and realised how few of the films mentioned I had actually seen (or even heard about). The Celluloid Closet is a documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films until the early 1990s. So I started with the lovely, cheerful Gentlemen prefer blondes, in which the scene between Marilyn Monroe and the head waiter is still in a corner of my head, but then decided to turn to a darker example. On top of highly-problematic portrayal of gayness, this film deals with two other issues I’m interested in: mental illness/psychiatric ‘care’, and Ancient Greek tragedy. It is also based on a Tennessee Williams play (I love A Streetcar named desire) and stars Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn.

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The film opens on a lobotomy scene, in which the horror is conveyed by the panoply of surgical instruments. The drama starts as a young doctor answers the invitation of a rich philanthropist to try and secure funding for the state hospital in which he works (it’s almost as if the latest austerity measures were not the source of all woes in the public health sector?). Their meeting, however, turns out to be something very different from what we could have expected. Katharine Hepburn’s character is introduced in a beautifully-written quasi-monologue in which she reveals much about the themes of the movie. Her son’s homosexuality is heavily hinted at, as was the practice in those times of censorship according to The Celluloid Closet.

A Greek tragedy.

The Hidden.

Bechdel test.

And, finally, there is a review comparing Thor to Suddenly… I wish I wrote stuff like that. http://www.acidemic.com/id140.html

A review of Louise Michel

Louise Michel Trailer

Louise Michel is a dark comedy about women who try to kill their former boss after their factory was closed down. They hire an incompetent ‘hitman’ and start on a journey to find the individual ‘responsible’… It is a tale of trying to make the complex reality of globalisation into a simple system of personal accountability and Tarantino-style revenge (if Tarantino made his films in Picardie). This desperate attempt is mirrored by the readiness of terminally-ill patients in the movie to make their death ‘meaningful’.

Also a great scene with Benoit Poolevorde as a conspiracy theorist.

The film also reflects how genders are defined by work and capitalism.

I thought it would remind me of Costa-Gavras’s Le Couperet, but they are in many ways diametrically opposed. Louise Michel is a story of exultation in nonsensical murder, whereas Le Couperet is a tale of moral self-destruction in ‘rational’ murders of competing jobseekers.

Women-friendly movies (1980-2012)

Film showing is one of the easiest events to organise. However, films available to us, even political films and films about political events, are very much the reflection of the world we live in when it comes to patriarchy, which means the place given to women in them and the number of them made by women are often underwhelming. During an occupation, you can end up watching quite a few movies, and be left with an impression that the revolution is a thing for men, sometimes featuring mothers, wives and love interests (but there’s that woman in Land and Freedom… SHUT UP). Different discussions led me to compose this short list of films which should give revolutionaries something to talk about and feature women in significant roles (sometimes even made by women). All these films pass the Bechdel test unless specified. Please add your own!

Lawrence Anyways (2012) by Xavier Dolan

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwDzRzqFaIE

This tells the story of Laurence, a 30 year-old teacher, in Québec in the late eighties, who decides to transition to a woman, and her girlfriend, who despite many reservations decides to support her. It also features an abortion. Laurence’s relationship’s with her mother and her girlfriend’s lesbian sister and other female characters are also central to the movie.

Noise and Resistance (2011) by Francesca Araiza Andrade and Julia Ostertag

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGyBVrSk7sY

This documentary, made by women, looks at some of the international DIY music scene “attacked politically on all sides: the right sees them simply as criminals out to destroy the existing structures of society; the left sees them as hopeless utopians, deviationists (…); as for the authorities, they don’t like anarchists in general because they’re unpredictable, you can never tell how they are going to react to a given political situation”. After a quick introduction to CRASS, it moves on to the contemporary movement, questioning non-consumerist attitudes to music through concert footage and interviews of musicians and other members of the movement.

Guerilla (2011) by Nasiruddin Yousuf Bachchu

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrwGUTazC2w

This Bengladeshi movie centres around female characters enrolled in the resistance in the war of independence against Pakistan. It is very much a state film around issues of national liberation, featuring Marx alongside Che, Castro and Mao. The portrayal of women in it is not unproblematic, however, the choice to focus on a female character makes it quite refreshing.

Bye Bye Blondie (2011) by Virginie Despentes

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0FllrQgB-Y

A film about two young punk women who fall in love in a mental hospital in the 1980s. They start a relationship again in contemporary Paris, when one is still punk and unemployed, whereas the other is a TV journalist living with a gay ‘husband’.

Tomboy (2011) by Céline Sciamma

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=JvfdCI4MArQ

 

Three Veils (2011) by Rolla Selbak

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgj2Fl7kpZw

 

You Should Meet My Son! (2010) by Keith Hartman

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=once8DOo71A

This gay comedy centres around two homophobic straight middle-aged women who are trying to find a wife for the son of one of them. They discover that he is gay, and after some thought, decide to meet gay men to find him a husband. However, the son decides to get engaged to “cure” his homosexuality and gets engaged to the daughter of a very conservative family.

 

Never Let Me Go (2010) by Mark Romanek

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXiRZhDEo8A

Based on the alternative-past novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, a moving, horrific story.

Precious (2009) by Lee Daniels

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rx-3jYJkUWQ

Highly-mediatised movie adaptation of the novel Push, by Sapphire about a young woman victim of abuse, helped by a couple of political Black lesbians.

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), by Uli Edel

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IVKAAsqcrI

A film about the RAF.

Louise Michel (2008) by Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FHUqqp8Ne0

This film has little to do with the famous Louise Michel. A comedy about women from a factory which was shut down pulling together to hire a hitman to kill their former boss.

XXY (2007) by Lucia Puenzo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWcyZDMm1rE

A movie about a young XXY person.

 

Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ22VyjJ6n8

Adapted from Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, it tells the story of a young Iranian woman.

 

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) by Cristian Mungiu

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCPlewKTsNQ

A young woman tries to get an abortion under Ceaucescu’s Socialist regime.

Ethel MacDonald: An Anarchist’s Story (2006) by Mark Littlewood

Documentary about the Glasgow anarchist Ethel MacDonald and her participation in the Spanish revolution.

Water (2005) by Deepa Mehta

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RewNn2r2P3g

The story of an Indian child widow.

Moolade (2004) by Ousmane Sembene

An African film about female genital mutilation.

Iron-Jawed Angels (2004) by Katja von Garnier

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGyB3tV9kU0

The story of a group of women fighting for suffrage.

 

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) by Asia Argento

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqEW9qtcO1Q

The story of a young boy and his mother with drug problems. Quite similar to (but less surreal than) Terry Gilliam’s Tideland which has a female protagonist and definitely does pass the Bechdel’s test.

Bechdel test: Can’t remember.

 

Anatomy of Hell (2004) by Catherine Breillat

A film about a woman’s sexuality, and male fear of it (represented by a gay second character).

Bechdel test: It fails, as there is only one female character.

The Raspberry Reich (2004) by Bruce LaBruce

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCcRu5OsdXw

A gay porn movie about the RAF.

 

What to Do in Case of Fire (2002) by Gregor Schnitzler

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDlke-U0UOs

A comedy about the former members of an anarchist collective in Berlin who must reunite years later when an old incendiary device they had planted in an unoccupied property is set off 15 years later than planned.

 

Dirty Pretty Things (2002) by Stephen Frears

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7pb2IClEys

In London, illegal immigrants are groomed by organ traffickers and try to fight them.

Bechdel test: it does pass but not brilliantly.

 

The Gleaners and I (2000) by Agnès Varda

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKgjjEJvMbM

A documentary about gleaning, containing cats and some beautiful people who pick up other people’s trash for whatever reason. Beautiful, poetic, personal.

 

I shot Andy Warhol (1996) by Mary Harron

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAQRCcQlXXE

A film about Valerie Solanas’ assassination attempt on Andy Warhol.

Tank Girl (1995) by Rachel Talalay

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mTl4KPRXJ8

Tank Girl lives in one of the last communes which steal water from Water & Power, the company which rules over the post-apocalyptic world. But she soon has no choice but to fight them.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) by Peter Jackson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-vUl-1FJ9E

Based on a famous murder case, tells the story of two young women ready to do anything for their love, in a society that tries to keep them apart.

Europa Europa (1990) by Agnieszka Holland

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OZjiH8A304

Directed by a woman, it tells the story of a Jewish boy during the Third Reich, from his time in the Communist Youth, to the German army and the Hitler Youth. Female characters are only secondary though.

Bechdel test: There are quite a few female characters, the protagonist, Leni and her mother have a conversation which could maybe count.

De Toda La Vida (1986) by Lisa Berger and Carol Mazer

Titled after Pepita Carpeña’s Memoirs, joins the CNT at age 14 and joins Mujeres Libres during the Spanish revolution. She is interviewed along with other women anarchists of revolutionary Spain.

The Little Drummer Girl (1984) by George Roy Hill

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQpFBehAUZc

This adaptation of John Le Carré’s eponymous spy-novel tells the story of the young lefty actress (played by Diane Keaton) cast to take part in the operation against a PLO terrorist. It features Klaus Kinski however, recently accused by his daughter of sexual abuse.

Bechdel test: it does pass, but not by much, as there are very few women in this film, which is pretty much about a central female character being used by men.

Playing For Time (1980) by Daniel Mann and Joseph Sargent

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpdBTLxV3iY

Based on Fania Fénelon’s autobiography, it tells her story of being deported and performing classical music for the SS in the camp.