Venus: Unmasking Female Mystique And Desire

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“What are other women really thinking, feeling, experiencing, when they slip away from the gaze and culture of men?”   / Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth

 

“Personally, I always thought it was hard to reconcile being a sexual being with being a person in society.”   / Venus director Lea Glob

The very title of Danish directors Lea Glob and Mette Carla Albrechtson’s startling 2016 documentary film, Venus, conjures up the ideal context of female beauty dictated by the Sandro Botticelli painting in 1486.  Its definition is all surface with no real substance.  Or it may possess the Roman goddess of beauty/love. It could also delve into the Latin meaning  of a deified abstraction from an originally neuter common noun Venus that suggests sexual desire or qualities that are exciting with desire and charm.  We soon learn that Glob and Albrechtson’s learned choice lends itself immediately to a clever slap in the face to our conditioned responses and preconceived ideals of female sexuality associated with this word.

Venus is a film of great power and daring.  An argument can be made that it should be required viewing by women everywhere…and men.  Its importance lies in its capture of intimate real stories without the constraints of society norms and practices.  These are real women talking about hidden desire, emotions, and expectations regarding sex.  Placed outside the male gaze circumference, these women bravely bare what lies beneath to let us glimpse inside those thoughts and needs which propel or sometimes hinder them.  It is fascinating, but very truthful.  Shocking, but somehow familiar.  It is nonetheless beautiful in any aspect centered squarely on these genuine, very giving women talking about an all too common societal taboo; females are sexual beings.

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A projected conceived by two filmmakers, Lea Glob and Mette Carla Albrechtson idea started as an exploration into female sexuality with reenactments of actual spoken experiences and desires.  An ad was placed for auditions in the city of Copenhagen (a four month process in which both were quoted to have fallen love with the city itself and the people they met) with a set of questions; each one diving deeper than the last.  Intimate questions to expose a truth that neither the women auditioning or the filmmakers knew where it may lead.  When all of these auditions were recorded, Glob and Alrechtson began to realize their original concept was meager when compared to the treasure of what was already displayed in these casting couch interludes.  They had found their film by default in the audition process and pored over the hundreds of hours of recorded material to produce their remarkable film.

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A simple white background with a chair makes the audience focus intensely upon the subject at hand.  Each of  the women enter (one at a time) into this deceptively simple set up with the usual first time nervousness.  They each show their individuality once the shyness wears away upon each question heard given by the off camera filmmakers.  Body language, voice quality, and presence comes through in such powerful waves as we get to know each of these women in ways both painful and glorious.  These are young women in their twenties (the filmmakers are in their thirties) discussing the politics and stigma of wanting (and being) sexual.  It is a frank discussion covering a multitude of sexual subjects ranging from (but not limited to) virginity, masturbation, fantasies, BDSM, orgasms, or even the number of partners.  Within these questions, the outer shell cracks with these participants and reveals such a true inner beauty.  Again, the film is deceptively simple, but therein lies its power.  The more we are brought closer to these individuals, the more we question ourselves.  That marks Venus as a sensational and important documentary.

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Venus also prominently illustrates the disconnect between the male’s idea of sexuality versus intimacy with the female ideal.  The stories, some gorgeous in their catharsis and revelation, while others resigned to sadness and failure, give rise to this bull-headed conditioning we are all given as children in regards to sex (dirty and shameful) that ultimately separates us and keeps alive the stigma that we are not sexual creatures, we are not “animals”.  The freedom to express sexual needs without fear or repercussions.  It goes without saying that body image is integral to many of these women.  The overwhelmingly bad messages in the vast arena of media consumption (yes, including pornography) contributes to many of these women with perceptions that ache to break the shackles of the male dominated view of female sexuality in cultural history.  In one humorous sequence, the women each are asked what they call their genitalia with responses ranging from outrageous to stoic to nothing at all.  Each were caught off guard by that question, but their answers revealed both surprising strengths and weaknesses.

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It begs to question again why is there a need for such a film?  Is this all just sensationalist propaganda? What possible impact could this place upon women and men?  Are we not, as a society today, beyond the primitive Victorian Age dogma that dictates what female sexuality is all about?  Are we still in the dark?  Sadly, the answer to that last question is a resounding yes.

Sex for pleasure is forbidden, right?  Sex with intimacy is much more fulfilling than without it, correct?  How many sexual partners is too much?  These questions (and many more) are dragged into the light from their dark corners.  We were all taught the dangers (well, some of us) of unprotected sex and diseases, but are we taught that we should take joy in our sexual feelings and desires; embrace them as healthy and good?  Are we even taught what sex is all about, aside from the physiology of it?  This is the mirror that Venus holds up to us.  It is important, with the noise of predefined examples of perfection, beauty, and the actual act of sex within our society, that we talk honestly and openly.

With open minds and open hearts, this film has the possibility to instill constructive discussions with our youth about a subject that we already know is very intimately close to them.  Again, to view this film, is to hold up a mirror to ourselves.  It has the potential to teach men, as well as women.  Yes, even men can learn by listening to these stories.  Venus is a brave and beautiful piece of work.  It dignifies and solidifies the notion that female sexuality is very powerful and cannot be neglected.

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[directors Lea Glob (l) and Mette Carla Albrechtson]

RATING: Absolutely RUN, do not walk to this film! (This is a potentially important film for you and your teenagers/young adults.  It is a raw and frank dialogue, but one filled with wisdom and honesty.  This is not to be missed, so seek it out.)

“Venus” 2016 1hr 30min (directors Lea Glob, Mette Carla Albrechtson)

Screened at the 2017 True/False Film Festival in Columbia Missouri.

 

 

Shining A Cinema Light Upon Women Directors

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I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.    / Jane Campion, director

“I don’t think you catch people’s attention with normalcy. Seeing the same world through the eyes of a healthy married woman with three kids might be interesting, but it doesn’t catch people’s attention. I think the mechanism of shock triggers a more acute sensitivity. You have to put people in a certain frame of mind. I think a filmmaker has to be shrewd. Not in a bad way, not like, ‘I’m a shrewd businessman. I can get away with anything.’ But in terms of sensitivity, being shrewd means putting people in the right frame of mind. Then you can tell them, ‘Come with me on a journey…'”    / Agnes Varda, director

 

The successful release of Patty Jenkins’ film of Wonder Woman to critical raves upon this weekend has renewed discussion of the future of female cinema directors and their power within the Hollywood system.  Worldwide, there are indeed women directors producing some great pieces of work, but the number is much less financed than the currently male dominated industry.  Many women directors are left waiting to bring their works to light because of the continued biased towards an unrealistic belief that women cannot handle big budget films or bring both male, as well as female, audiences into the theater.  This sad devotion is depriving us of many possible great films with a perspective we need, as Jane Campion is quoted above.  A greater knowledge forms from different perspectives, and from that knowledge we all grow as humans.

Patty Jenkins success with a superhero film may repave this neglected road for women directors to gain much more of a foothold with numerous projects and bigger budgets.  We recently saw Sofia Coppola win the coveted Best Director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for her new film The Beguiled.  This is only the second time a female has won that prize in 71 years.  The first was Russian film director Yuliya Solntseva, who won for her film Chronicle Of The Flaming Years back in 1961.  That statistic alone should illustrate the lack of recognition within this industry.  This is a statistic that needs to change.

We can begin to change this by recognizing and praising the very films written and directed by women.  It should not take the advent of a superhero film directed by a woman to crack open this bigger discussion,   This is a dam about to burst, for on the other side lies the very hardcore evidence that women directors are an important piece of cinema and just waiting to be unlocked.  The list below captures many recent works, so that one can easily find and stream those films, however there are some older works which are just a worthy as pioneers in cinema history.  Use this small list as a starting point to familiarize yourself to new perspectives and hopefully lead to others that I have missed.

Jane Campion [New Zealand writer, producer, director] The Piano, Sweetie, An Angel At My Table, Holy Smoke, Bright Star

Maya Deren [Ukraine/US experimental filmmaker]  Meshes Of The Afternoon, The Witche’s Cradle, At Land, Meditation On Violence

Claire Denis [French writer, producer, director]  White Material, Chocolat, Beau Travail, Let The Sunshine In

Sofia Coppola [US writer, producer, director]  Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled

Agnes Varda [Belgium/French writer, producer, director]  Vagabond, Cleo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners And I

Dorothy Arzner [US director]  The Wild Party, First Comes Courage, Get Your Man, The Red Kimono

Deepa Mehta [Indo-Canadian director] Fire, Midnight’s Children, Water

Lina Wertmüller [Italian writer, director]  Seven Beauties, Love And Anarchy, All Screwed Up, Swept Away

Lois Weber [US actor, writer, director]  The Blot, Suspense, The Hypocrites

Agnieszka Holland [Polish writer, producer, director]  Europa-Europa, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden

Gillian Armstrong [Austrialian writer, director]  My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, High Tide, Oscar & Lucinda, The Last Days Of Chez Nous

Amma Assante [British actor, writer, director]  A United Kingdom, Belle

Susan Seidelman [US writer, producer, director]  Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens

Lynne Ramsay (Scottish writer, producer, director]  Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar

Sally Potter [British writer, director]  Orlando, Ginger & Rosa, Rage, Yes

Chantal Akerman [Belgium writer, director]   Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (one title), No Home Movie, News From Home

Larisa Efimovna Shepitko [Russian actor, writer, director]  The Ascent, Wings

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Begin with these filmmakers and discover a world not governed by the male gaze, but at times a much more honest and cutting look into the female mystique (and humans in general) on screen…by women themselves.  These women behind the camera have a unique importance in cinema and a place in storytelling history.

And, perhaps in time, it will be unnecessary for such a piece devoted exclusively to women directors.  In the eyes of audiences, those filmmakers will indeed be equal without borders, without labels, and judged simply as artists.

Come Back, Philip Kaufman, We Need You More Than Ever!

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“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”      

Milan Kundera / The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

Philip Kaufman is an American writer, producer, and director with credits that span the seventies till his last project back in 2012.  A progressive thinker, Kaufman cannot be boxed into one category.  His films can be overtly political and sexual, with sometimes intermixing the two into interesting themes regarding societal doctrines.  As a writer, he crafted one of the best Westerns Clint Eastwood ever made (Outlaw Josey Wales) and gave Indiana Jones his first (and still best) ever adventure that was tough as nails.  He was the first to earn the much maligned NC-17 rating for a film with adult themes deemed too much for teenagers sneaking into R rated screenings.  Kaufman’s projects are acidly funny, but challenge audiences on serious subjects in an offbeat literary sense.  Some of his best work is based on original novels or sources, but his screenplays inject a European modern wit, a wink and a smile if you will, to the proceedings which leavens the sometimes heavy subject matter.

Kaufman’s voice in cinema is sorely missed in these current turbulent times.  One can only imagine what he would make of the continually scorched political climate, the confusion and chaos of our landscape.  One would hope he will soon plunge a dagger into this soft mess and reveal the vile under layer with amusement and wit in the very near future.  His last film was a project featuring Ernest Hemingway locking literary horns with Martha Gellhorn in 2012.  There have been no new works since.

Filmmakers, such as Philip Kaufman, fly under the radar and need a voice sometimes to spotlight their contribution to cinema.  What better way to argue for Kaufman’s return than to swing that spotlight now onto some of his best films which clearly illustrate his eye for the political, social, and sexual mores of our society.  These are highly intelligent, humorous and challenging films.  They are entirely re-watchable and entertaining in the best way possible; they cater to intelligent audiences.

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In 1983, the film version of a much beloved book, The Right Stuff, was released to theaters with all the Academy Award hyperbole sufficient to deem it as “important”.  What no one realized at the time, was that Philip Kaufman wrote a subversive script that gave rise to the wonder of space travel, but also poked fun at the convoluted political shenanigans that went behind the scenes with the space race with the (then) Soviet Union.  The one line during an exchange between President Lyndon Johnson and several German scientists hard at work on the American side is so much on point with how ludicrous the actual space race could be:

Von Braun: Mr. President, our German scientists are better than their (USSR) German scientists!

The media covering these events certainly did not get any mercy under Kaufman’s direction.  We see the propaganda infused Life Magazine editors, the incessant buzzing sound of bug/pest like reporters surrounding the Mercury Seven astronauts, and the flash bulb intrusions into homes and personal lives of these people.  The media in 1983 did not take kindly to this and blasted Kaufman for this (actually accurate) portrayal on screen.

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The Right Stuff certainly infused the mythological aspects of space travel beginnings in the guise of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (played memorably by playwright Sam Shepard).  It is the very stuff legends are made of in the sequence featuring Yeager on horseback challenging the new test rocket plane designed to break the sound barrier.  The old ways versus the new.  Kaufman continually alludes to how brave these men were, but reminds us the absurd conventions that made it possible to put these lives on the line.  It is a glorious epic that transcends the normal biopic.  It captures an all encompassing view, both intimate and huge, with a pace which is languid and engrossing.  This film failed at the box office because it was marketed as a patriotic emblem, instead of the subversive epic it really was.  The socio-political landscape is detailed beautifully amidst the grandeur of reaching for the stars.  That is a hard balance to maintain, but Kaufman effortlessly achieves it in this fine film.

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In 1988, Kaufman turned his attention to another much beloved novel by Milan Kundera about the roving adventures of a Czech surgeon, along with two very important women in his life, in Prague 1968, right before the Soviet invasion.  The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a marvel of originality.  This time, Kaufman tackles the sexual politics along with the radical politics of a country on the cusp of intellectual and spiritual freedom before the Soviets crushed those dreams underneath the many tanks it rolled into Prague.

This sounds very serious and its themes of political/religious/sexual freedom are indeed very serious.  However, Kaufman’s touch gives the film an airy texture that lifts the film to a place where characters have room to breathe and grow and laugh.  One such example is the wonderful scene where Tomas (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) hints at his jealously of another man dancing with his live-in girlfriend Tereza (a simply glowing Juliette Binoche) and it develops into a free-for-all tickle romp on the floor ending in Tereza proposing marriage to a laughing Tomas.  It is sweetly intimate, as if we are peering into a room and seeing this spontaneous and loving couple enjoying life.  Sexual freedom comes with a price.  Sabina (brilliant performance by Lean Olin) completes the triangle of Tomas and Tereza as an artist who claims to want no ties with anyone–but secretly loves Tomas completely and runs from it.  The sex in this film is gloriously silly, playful, and intensely erotic.  The tension between these characters is so thick, you can sense an electrical bond between these characters.  It is a credit to the actors and to Kaufman’s innate ability to present sex outside of Hollywood’s gauzy pristine standards.  The photo shoot sequence between Tereza and Sabina was worth the price of admission alone.  There is a European flavor to it, but the heat generated between these two characters provided such a fitting tribute that love can still never be easily defined.

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Let us not forget how The Unbearable Lightness Of Being displays a political landscape of Soviet blanketed propaganda that tried to place a good light on their invasion of Czechoslovakia.  People were brutalized, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for protesting such a wrongful show of force.  The film deftly mixes actual documentary images with our characters to give a real grounding on how massively shocking this all was to the world.  The Soviets placed a foot on the throat of democracy and freedom until it choked under the weight of the so called righteous.  We now live in a world that frowns upon the act of protest as a movement.  We are to follow our leader into the abyss if need be.  We blindly take sides against each other and do not listen.  There was a time when you took to the streets because there was no alternative choice remaining at your disposal.  We are faced with those times again and it would be wonderful to see what Kaufman could do with these themes today.

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In 1990, Philip Kaufman brought a dream project of his to life by adapting the lives of writers Henry Miller and Anias Nin with the first NC-17 rated film in cinema history, Henry & June.  Sex is prominently in the forefront with this film as Miller (a surprisingly great Fred Ward) assumes the self exiled status of an artist living in Paris.  He loves his wife, June (a luminously tragic Uma Thurman), and is jealously devoted to her.  Nin (a sexually intelligent performance by Maria de Medeiros) catches his eye, but it is her mind that he craves even more.  Their romance ended up lasting a lifetime through letters, but again, Kaufman presents sex and love in an entirely adult fashion that confused general audiences.  Their definition does not fit the norm of society.  Paris was at the height of freedom to explore and redefine sexuality and art.  American audiences may have been too straight laced to fully appreciate what Kaufman was attempting, thus the box office failure of yet another wonderfully subversive and intelligent film.

Another love triangle was on display in Henry & June which beautifully defies all standard love story conventions.  These are people rich in the experience field willing to put themselves (and their partners in some cases) on the line in order to find something that no one else has found.  Miller and Nin duel mentally throughout the film with literature, life, and love.  They consistently habitually redefine themselves, but fall back onto social conventions such as monogamy and financial success.  It is a rarity to see a Hollywood project take on the fringe elements of art and love with such openess.  It is not surprising it earned an NC-17 rating, but it is not exploitation.  It is adult with adult themes which require an audience with intelligence and open mindedness.  How often can one be challenged on how we were brought up to think about relationships and sex on a level that questions it.  Miller and Nin were free spirits, but haunted by their own inadequacy and limitations placed by society and class structures.  These people may come across as self absorbed, but Kaufman places them in the context of adventurers of a modern world not quite ready for their conquests.

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So, we plead to Philip Kaufman, the missing in action American writer and director…please return to the cinema screen and give us your shaman magic for the modern world.  Redefine for us again what it is to be human with all of our subtleties and frailties and the wonderfully funny behaviors that enrich us.  We don’t care what project you have your eyes on, just put your wonderful words to paper and train the camera with your all seeing eye.  We need it now, more than ever.  Our subversive nature is slowly being throttled by unseen forces.  Please, Philip Kaufman, we need you more than ever.

Rumble Fish and the Ghosts Of Time

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Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

The American writer, Susan Eloise Hinton (better known as S.E. Hinton) gained fame as the teenager author of “The Outsiders” in 1967, a “young adult” novel before there ever was such a genre.  Her gift for language and setting (Tulsa Oklahoma) among the disillusioned and lost youth has since become a regular part of public school curriculum.  The novels Tex, That Was Then This is Now, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish deal with themes which resonated with young readers and continue to influence today.  Francis Ford Coppola, frustrated with his brand name (The Godfather series in particular), embarked on two small personal projects with limited budgets with his “family” of actors and creative team members from past films to reach back to his instinctive creative days.  The resulting work produced The Outsiders in March 1983 in expressive color and Rumble Fish later that October of 1983 in striking black and white.  Both films were photographed by Stephen H. Burum (veteran of many Brian De Palma films such as The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way).

There are tragic echoes, ripples in time, that reverberate and connect most of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a underrated effort which recently received a prestigious Criterion Collection release on disc.  These ripples flow through the two troubled brothers, their alcoholic father, the mother who abandoned them, the veteran street cop watching over one of the brothers, the doomed romance between two young lovers, and the addicted ex-girlfriend.  The disconnects, loneliness, and quiet despair lies underneath the everyday lives of these people.  They are all ghost-like searching the city streets for clues.  This ethereal longing for something greater is a central theme that Coppola brought strongly to the forefront on screen.  Youth has a taste for self destruction while believing themselves indestructible.  This duality is the heart that beats in Rumble Fish.  Floating within the confined wastelands of Tulsa, the yearning to break free trembles beneath the surface at all times.

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Coppola touted Rumble Fish as an art film for teenagers.  It is much more than that for it relies on the unforgiving conceit that youth is not all that it is cracked up to be.  This is perhaps why the film tanked at the box office and never managed to acquire young audiences such as the novel did.  Coppola does not utilize cinema tricks just for the sake of it.  The clock in Rumble Fish continually ticks (you can hear it in Stewart Copeland, founder of the band The Police, and his manic percussive score) that makes the characters march towards some unknown fatal destination.  Many ghost-like scenes invade otherwise standard exchanges between characters such as the father, inebriated as usual,  confused at first whether he really sees both of his sons in his squalid apartment.  The lovers spat on the street is suffused with other-worldly smoke that swallows up the characters.  The knife fight between gangs where we can see striking shadows and mist surrounding a nightmarish decaying stage set for some long ago battle.  Tulsa is seemingly transported to another age and another time, again giving rise to this idea of ghosts floating through this story.

Rumble Fish incorporated many of Francis Ford Coppola’s merry band of regular cast members and some of his own family.  Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, fresh off of The Outsiders with Coppola, were the first cast.  There is Lawrence Fishburne (Mr. Clean from Apocalypse Now), Nicolas Cage (nephew of Coppola), Herb Rice (Roach from Apocalypse Now), Tom Waits (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Sofia Coppola (daughter and filmmaker in her own right), Vincent Spano (whatever happened to him?), the late Christopher Penn, Diana Scarwid (whatever happened to her?), veteran character actor (and personal favorite) William Smith, and even a sly cameo by author S.E. Hinton as a prostitute trying to drum up business with the two brothers.  Coppola brought master production designer Dean Tavoularis (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather trilogy, Zabriskie Point, Ninth Gate) which took actual locations in Tulsa and heightened the surreal uneasy feeling of the film.  Director of photography Stephen H. Burum worked closely with Tavoularis to create the German expressionist landscape of deep shadows and confining spaces that defines this wasteland of youth (they even painted shadows on the sets to deepen the expression on film).  The fact that these very creative filmmakers contributed their time and energy to such a small project is a testament to Coppola’s mettle as one of America’s top modern cinema masters.

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Clocks are ever present in almost every scene either by visual or an auditory sense.  It is counting down the seconds, winding up the tension in Rumble Fish.  Time is like some heavy cloud (such as the time-lapsed clouds in the beginning sequence) that weigh upon Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) and his ghostly idolized older brother, Motorcycle Boy (played to perfection by a young Mickey Rourke).  This longing, referred to earlier, reaches such high levels when these two are on screen together.  Rusty-James tearfully pleads with his brother to just see him.  See him for who he really is.  That inherent need to belong, to feel needed or loved, is such a universal feeling we all share.  With the incessant feeling of time ticking away, the film presents the characters as being short on that time to discover their place in this world before that world chews them up and spits them out.

Time also ticks away on the soundtrack (an incredibly intricate sound design by Richard Beggs) in a variety of inventive ways.  We not only hear clocks ticking, clanging, buzzing, but in water dripping, echoing voices (another ghostly like effect), percussive beats from the Stewart Copeland soundtrack, and an underlying blanket of sound that gives that sense of something different in this world running away with time.  Beggs never seems to overindulge in these effects.  It seems a natural part of the world they have created.  Do yourself a favor and turn up the sound when watching this film to fully appreciate the work that went in to creating this aural landscape.

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The title Rumble Fish refers to Motorcycle Boy’s statement of certain fish in the local pet store that are separated in the fish tank for they would kill each other if in the same space.  His thought of freeing these fish into the river, giving them the space they really needed, would undo that primal need to destroy each other.  Is this what we need for the self destructive behavior for youths in gangs?  Freedom and the responsibility to choose, rather than be like the ghosts of past gang members on the endless cycle of nihilistic violence?  Sometimes it takes a ghost (in this case, the quiet presence of Mickey Rourke) to show the way; break free of the constraints of endless repetition that life sometimes hands us.

This all sounds so bleak on the surface, but there is a beautiful hope.  Coppola provides it little by little as the film progresses for we end up caring, against our better judgement, for these characters and want them to succeed.  These are flawed broken people, but they carry the same needs and desires we all do.  Hope is possible and given in the end which lifts the film up right where it needs to be.

No longer a ghost of time will Rusty-James be, but living in the present upon a path to something better than the world he left behind.  Rumble Fish is a work of art with heart, daring, and the inventiveness of a Coppola that he strives to be outside of the ghost of his mainstream successes.

On the Set of

[Francis Ford Coppla (foreground) with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke on set, Tusla OK 1982]

Valhalla Of Masculinity: The Alchemy Of Nicolas Winding Refn

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mas·cu·lin·i·ty
ˌmaskyəˈlinədē/
noun
 possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a 46 year old Danish film director, writer, and producer that engineers striking visuals with some punishing violence.  There is a lot of flash on the surface which at times conceals his myriad statements about masculinity, which is interesting and at times disconcerting to the uninitiated.   Born in Copenhagen, Refn has a unique world view that houses European sensibility with flat out Hollywood enfant terrible tendencies.  His films are deadly serious, but so much fun to watch with his fractured male “heroes” blindly groping for meaning.

You may have seen at least one of his films, though you might not know his name.  To discuss the landscapes he has created in his films, one must pick and choose which stories merit such mention.  I chose three that I find myself returning to again and again.  These are works worth seeking out to stream or rent, but for the purpose of this article I want to make the reader aware they exist and certainly worth trying at least once.  Plus, they are entertaining as all get out.

Let us start with 1990’s Valhalla Rising.

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Valhalla, according to Norse mythology, is a vast hall armored with a roof adorned with shields for half of the slain warriors in battle to live forever in harmony under the god Odin.  It is a virtual palace filled with abundant feasts under a rafter of spears.  The Hall of the Slain.

Valhalla Rising concerns a one-eyed mute kept as a fighting slave, who escapes with the help of a boy and joins company with a group of reformed Christian Vikings wanting to bring their way of life to a new land…Paradise.  With very little dialogue (a risk by Refn, but works in favor for the film), the story is bone crushingly violent, as was the times, and borders on the mystical with “One-Eye” and his apparent visions.  His ultimate quest is to journey to Valhalla in the only way he knows; a valiant and honorable death in battle.  How he comes about with answers for that journey is what the film purports to present in graphic shocking terms intermixed with moments of tenderness.

The male mystique, as Refn showcases, is a trial by pain, brutal violence, and survival of the fittest.  The animal-like behavior is necessary to coexist with the harsh realities of the times.  “One-Eye” never once utters a word, but you feel his perplexing confusion and naked curiosity when faced with his own mortality.  The boy he befriends (if you want to call it a friendship) is his only concession to being human outside this facade of brutal masculinity.  That boy is central to “One-Eye” and his humanity.  There seems to be a connection that links his own childhood past with that of the boy walking alongside him.  One-Eye sees what he has lost in himself and what he has become.  Masculinity among the breathtakingly harsh landscapes of the Scottish Highlands (where the film was shot) lends no room for mistakes and no trust for your fellow man.  In the end, “One-Eye” achieves his Valhalla quest, but also regains some of his humanity, thanks to the boy.  We only hope the boy, who witnessed the proceedings, will go forward with a newer definition of what it is to be a man; of sacrifice, honor, duty, and a trust in something good.  “One-Eye” was no mentor by any stretch of the imagination, but the boy saw something in him more than just the ragged animalistic masculinity around him.

Refn’s visual splendor is on display in Valhalla Rising with the gorgeous muted landscapes, bodies sculpted in mud, and blazing colors within those visions.  These men seem to be hewn from the very rocks scattered across the fields.  Death surrounds them at all times and yet, “One-Eye” yearns for something greater.  A slowly natural progression from the endless circle of violence.

Next up is 2011’s Drive.

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This is another of Refn’s “heroes” who are actually bad men striving to be good against their better nature.  Drive was Refn’s critical and audience breakout hit.  The film boasts some terrific performances with knockout visuals which highlight a far more symbolic foray into the realm of masculinity.   The Driver (we never know his real name) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but yields a sideline business as a getaway driver by night.  This all sounds somewhat cliched, but director Refn infuses the whole scenario with Driver’s need for salvation, something he discovers he has a need for, but has trouble reconciling that need with his darker nature.  Being a man, a good man, is Driver’s quest.  Entering within his masculine world of cars, speed, danger, and the solitary male existence is his next door apartment neighbor, Irene and her young son, Benicio.  What starts as casual words in the hallway, soon leads to the opening of a whole new world for Driver; the world of hope and a new sense of the masculine mystique.  This involves the caring and nurturing of possible loved ones, as opposed to the disposable criminals rushing into his getaway car (and if late per his dictated schedule, he leaves them behind with only the concern for himself and his own safety).  He sees an existence beyond his male definition, perhaps one that was created by the Hollywood dream factory that he works in by day.

There is one glorious sequence in Drive where Refn gives the audience everything that is conflicted within Driver and necessarily explodes.  I am, of course, referring to the elevator sequence.

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This spellbinding scene places danger (a man sent to kill Driver) in between Irene and Driver in close quarters.  Driver realizes he has to resort to his darker nature, but before he does, he holds Irene close and kisses her tenderly one last time (notice the lighting change Refn chooses during this kiss) because Driver knows Irene will now finally see his true nature; a bad man capable of punishing exact violence.  And she may never want him back after that, for she will never again see him as a good man.  The action is sudden and very brutal, however the violence is necessary.  This is who Driver is and Irene needs to see him for what he is.  When Driver pushes Irene out of the elevator, she looks upon his blood splattered face with horror and confusion as the doors close on him.  He has turned into a monster of a man.  It is masculinity both ugly and bent.  How can a man who tenderly kisses her reverse into animal mode destroying another human all within a matter of minutes?  Where does that line in the sand appear between man and animal?  Driver recognizes this quality within himself, but cannot help himself.  Like “One-Eye”, Driver seeks redemption after this and eventually finds it at the cost of many lives and a hopeless future.  His Valhalla is a solitary existence or death after making his great sacrifice on the Los Angeles streets of battle.

Lastly, we discuss one of my favorites, but has turned out to be Refn’s first critical and commercial bomb, 2013’s Only God Forgives.

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Only God Forgives is such an interesting, but polarizing film.  There are no “heroes” to root for, least of all the leading character Julien; a man so traumatized by his mother and past deeds that it immobilizes him from any real human relationships.  Julien wants to love and be loved, but the very idea frightens him because of his conditioning (by his mother) of what kind of a son/man he should be.  His mother’s ideas are bizarre to say the least and verge into Oedipal territory.  Julien struggles with his inner demons and, like “One-Eye” and Driver, seeks salvation.  He recognizes his Valhalla in the form of Chang, a retired Thailand police officer, who exacts redemption (Refn has corroborated this in later interviews) as if he were in fact…God.

Pretentious, you might say? That accusation can be justified on this film, but that is what makes this such a glorious mess to watch.  All of Nicolas Winding Refn’s gallery of societal male anxieties are all on display here with a good dose of that sudden punishing violence Refn is known for.  He does not glorify or push aestheticism into his violence, but rather makes it an extension of his character’s inner demons which can explode to an ugly effect at any time.  Violence has consequences and there are no heroes when one uses it in Refn’s world.  Even Chang (God) seems to have no remorse in his actions, only to coldly and systematically carry out his redemption.

So why the fascination with this overly symbolic and (as I admitted earlier) pretentious piece of work?  Quite honestly, I have never seen a major released film present such a brutally fractured view of the male psyche in such a stylish celebratory manner.  The surface has stunning cinematography, faces that fit with the story, beautiful music, and editing that is peerless.  Underneath is nasty, grimy, pulsating with an idea of masculinity gone horribly wrong; so wrong that the man we should be rooting for is pretty much a lost cause.  His only hope for Valhalla is to rid himself of the root cause of all his deep seated problems, which is mutilation.  Sounds very extreme, but it is his only path to salvation…to his Hall of the Slain as it were.  It all sounds so over the top and that is part of its charm.  Perhaps Refn intended that, for I cannot help myself from returning to this film from time to time to reaffirm what I had witnessed before.

It is a big beautiful train wreck of a film with a major star and a major director striving to achieve greatness and falling short.  It was also the last time the two worked together (Ryan Gosling and Refn).  There was talk of a Logan’s Run reboot with these two and I cannot help but wonder if Refn would have concocted only a big budget version of Only God Forgives with Sandman Logan 5 as another fractured male seeking redemption or his Valhalla known (as in the original film) as Sanctuary.  Seems tailor made for Refn and maybe that is why the studio scrapped the project before it ever got to script phase.

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[director Nicolas Winding Refn (l) with Ryan Gosling on set of Only God Forgives, Thailand 2010]

Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, According to Anna L. Grace

I was going to attempt to write something about a film I saw last night with my friend, Anna L. Grace, but after reading her excellent review…there was no more need to do so.

Please read this personal, but very concise piece about Terence Davies’ new film “A Quiet Passion” about the life and work of American poet Emily Dickinson.  It is a film that can garner much discussion afterwards, as good art will do.  It is one that may divide or bring together whatever your previous conceptions are of the poet and of life in 19th Century America.

I share this on my Community Sharing category because, quite simply…it is that good.

 

 

View story at Medium.com

In Praise Of Her: Those Risk-Taking Actors

Until 45 I can play a woman in love. After 55 I can play grandmothers. But between those ten years, it is difficult for an actress.   / Ingrid Bergman

It is the conceit of Hollywood, and cinema in general, that age does not factor for the male actor on screen (someone like 74 year old Harrison Ford is still considered leading man material), whereas the female actor falls into the trap as legend Ingrid Bergman describes.  It is a double standard and grossly unfair.  The ratio between leading roles for men and for women over a certain age is so lopsided that we find ourselves celebrating ecstatically for the few female actors that manage to score important complex roles in major films these days.  Then you run those numbers across ethnicity and it becomes even more lopsided, but that is a whole other discussion altogether.

Mature women on screen seem to be a rarity, but when given that time, so remarkably memorable.  There are several examples, which will be displayed here, which argue for more actors of experience that can open all new avenues of stories and experiences.  Speaking as a male, I refuse to believe I am the only one that wants more than just a Barbie doll representation of womanhood in cinema.   There is a beauty that goes beyond surface aesthetic and a strength beyond superhero fighting skills.  Where are these women that take risks with themselves and with their material?  These are roles that go beyond a wife, a mother, a lover, a mistress, to an idea which transcends these boring mass audience boundaries and gives us real flawed human beings.

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The first actor that comes to mind is Isabelle Huppert.  French born and with over one hundred films to her credit, Huppert lately continues to surprise and stretch herself in cinema.  Most recently, her performance in director Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is as complex and daring as anything out there.  “Things To Come” was another tour de force that demonstrated Huppert’s range and skill.  These roles are not women hanging on the arms of some male hero.  These are flesh and blood characters engaging in a wide spectrum of emotions and able to act out, sometimes violently, their inner demons.  Huppert is unique in projecting a distant light, but quickly cuts herself to the bone exposing that raw beating heart.  There is no  other female actor quite like her.

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The career of Catherine Deneuve spans a lifetime of risk and glorious successes in cinema.  French born as well (do you detect a pattern here?), Deneuve has memorably gone against the glamour of her looks with roles which metaphorically take apart what it is to be a woman.  Look no further than Roman Polanski”s “Repulsion”, Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour”, Andre Techine’s “In The Name Of My Daughter”, Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro”, and one of my recent favorites as the returning matriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale”.  Deneuve exudes an icy coldness, but with a fierce intelligence unmatched with her male co-stars.

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We now arrive at the last example and my personal favorite who continues to bring such intelligence and unsurpassed openness in her performances, Juliette Binoche.  Once again, French born (okay, so there is clearly a pattern here) and has more than sixty films to her credit internationally.  You may recall her face in Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” or more memorably as the sweet photojournalist in Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”.  Both Hollywood productions which splashed her name to American audiences.  Binoche  brings such humanity with the inner beauty which is sometimes not illustrated within women, which is in part why she continues to fascinate and amaze me as a favorite of mine.  Her career is filled with intriguing performances such as Olivier Assayas’ “The Clouds Of Sils Maria” and “Summertime”, Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and “Cache”, Bruno Dumont’s “Camille, Claudel 1915”, among others.

Two crowning achievements for me materialize in the form of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” and  Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”.  The grief stricken Julie is a monumental performance in “Blue” that exemplifies everything possible in a three dimensional character.  Binoche also brings such insight and intelligence to “Certified Copy” as Elle in a shape shifting examination of relationships.  It is both exciting and fun to see her tackle such a broad range in Kiarostami’s off-kilter synthesis of the beginning and end and beginning of a lasting relationship.  Binoche is both fetching and raw in this role.  Both films are endlessly watchable because of her richly detailed performances.

These are but three examples that readily come to my mind.  There are, of course, many others I could have listed (Tilda Swinton may merit her own piece of my writing) that include actors such as Annette Bening, Natascha McElhoneEmma Thompson, and of course Meryl Streep.  Many others could be listed as well.  All have their strengths and their weaknesses.

I am not really being fair by only detailing the three French actors that stand out in my mind, but fairness is not the point.  I wish to gain more support for women tackling larger roles in current cinema.  There is simply a large gap in this area and is inexcusable.  We all can learn so much from characters in which women can bring different perspectives and thoughts.  Cinema itself could use it so much more and I believe audiences would respond in kind.  Complexity and nuance are just the tip of the iceberg for what accomplished female actors can bring (such as the ones I illustrated here).  There is so much more to mine from these actors in stories that matter.

It is time to shift the paradigm.