Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018.  ~MT)

Alicia in doorway

To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.

As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.

This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively. Continue reading

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VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

Robin on beach

Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

measuring elle marja

Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sami Blood, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, we hear a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice speaks: “Mom?” More knocking, then the same man’s voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice.

It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman who is turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, apart from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin.

Christina

Continue reading

VIFF 2017: 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)

ocean poles

The frame holds me.
Straining to see beyond,
I sleep,
caught between
tension & peace.

In the sleep, I dream,
The dream, a window
into what is
and what could be. 
      –(Adapted from the original tweet, 9/29/2017)

An inevitable sort of melancholy hangs over a beloved filmmaker’s last film, and one feels a certain pressure to love it, whatever it is. Going into the screening of the final film of Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), 24 Frames, I couldn’t ignore the nostalgia associated with the endeavor. I am not sure, ultimately, if it will ever be possible for me to disassociate the film from the cinema experience of sitting in the dark, grieving a film lover’s grief and thinking, “This 120 minutes will be the last new footage I will ever see.”  But sitting there, even so intensely aware of the experience as a memento mori, Kiarostami’s film–flickering relentlessly forward through those precious minutes–took on its own weight. Like all of his films have done for me, it slowly removed me from self-consciousness and immersed me in itself.

24 Frames is certainly unique within Kiarostami’s oeuvre. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find in an exhibition at the MoMA, where you can study an art piece for a while and then wander away. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to sit in the dark and watch for two hours. But then, Kiarostami has always been playing with the idea of cinema, his films so often reflecting back on themselves and on the act of filmmaking, and in these reflections, he has continually made his audiences consider again what cinema is and what it could be.

Continue reading

Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)

Benihana

Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework. Continue reading

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan (Robin Lung, 2016)

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott

Finding Kukan, a feature film debut from Robin Lung, is a documentary that tells the story of one of the first documentaries to win an Academy Award, Kukan: The Battle Cry of China (1941). Positioned in China and operating from a Chinese perspective, a perspective unknown to most white Americans at the time, Kukan aimed at documenting the Chinese experience of World War II and was noted on its initial release for its stunning ground level footage of the devastating bombing of Chungking (now Chongqing). Photojournalist Rey Scott received the Oscar for the film -“For his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions” – but Lung, as she tells us in her documentary, discovered another person central to the creation of Kukan, a person who had gone essentially overlooked: a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

Li Ling-Ai is credited only as “technical advisor” to Kukan, but, as Lung discovers from a 1993 TV interview, Li Ling-Ai seemed to regard the film as her own, a story she herself, not Rey Scott, needed to tell: “I wanted to tell the story of China, the battle cry of the people of China, heroic under suffering.” It’s a curious way to speak about a film for which one is only “technical advisor.” Was she, in fact, more than the technical advisor?

For Lung, the mystery of Li Ling-Ai’s involvement demanded solving, and it set her on what would be a seven year journey. The content of Kukan, Lung quickly found, too, promised to be, in itself, extraordinary, and its print history made the content all the more tantalizing, for, as documentary curator Ed Carter notes, it is the only academy award winning documentary without an extant print. Consequently, Lung’s film and the search her film documents is guided by two questions: 1) who is Li Ling-Ai and why is she so little known, and 2) is there, in fact, some surviving print of Kukan yet to be discovered that might be restored and shown to the world?   Continue reading

SIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

Outsider status in gymnI long for the land that isn’t
For all that is I’m tired of wanting

Sami Blood, Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice: “Mom?” More knocking. The same voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice. It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman, turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

Christina

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and even shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, away from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin. Continue reading

The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

the-lure-club

“What is that fishy smell?”

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature film functions as a pastiche of “The Little Mermaid,” but it comes to us by way of smoky cabaret clubs of a Warsaw in the 80’s, New Wave synthpop music videos, and the queasy glamour of capitalistic excess. It’s a gritty fairy tale of slyly telepathic sister-mermaids whose siren calls satisfy carnivorous tastes – until one sister falls in love with her prey, and their world and their sisterly bond begins to disintegrate.

It’s more grim Grimm than gentle Hans Christian Andersen: no swift and bloodless magic here, just buzzing grinding surgeon’s tools, human legs and mermaid tails on beds of ice. But the surgeon drunkenly dances and the mermaid sings until her voice wheezes dry, and I remember I always did prefer the intoxicating horror of Grimm to Andersen anyway.

Does it all add up to a fairy tale moral or even a thematically cohesive whole? I’m not sure it does, but it does fully commit to its individual scenes: carnal, sordid, crunchy, or sexy, and like the immersive quality of a vivid dream, its overall sensations linger, far into the waking hours.

 mermaid-on-ice

The Lure plays at Grand Cinema on February 24 and 25. 

(Note: This review is adapted from my notes on 5/25/16 on Letterboxd.) 

Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015)

ixcanul_01

(This review was originally published in 2015 as a part of the Vancouver Film Festival coverage.)

Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared. Continue reading

Kensho at the Bedfellow (Brad Raider, 2016)

bedfellow

Kensho at the Bedfellow, the feature debut film, starring, and written and directed by, Brad Raider, opens with a bang. A literal bang. And a cat. A towering, talking puppet cat, who, when the man we will come to know as our main character, Dan (Raider), staggering, asks, “Is this a dream?”, answers, “It’s an opportunity – to know thyself.”  It seems preposterous, of course: what can an over-sized puppet with whiskers have to say about the ontological questions of the self? And on another, more meta, level, a cinema-goer, in the age of slickly immersive computer graphics and special effects, might ask, why am I sitting here looking at a stuffed animal, creakily moving its pretend mouth? Something like Falkor, the Luckdragon, from The Neverending Story, certainly has its place in a children’s movie, in fondly nostalgic memory, or in the evolution of visual effects, but now? This kind of thing in 2016 in a film for adults?

The very audaciousness and seeming ridiculousness of such an opening prepares us for the journey and tone of the film, winding as it does down unexpected paths and embracing both playfulness and seriousness. Even further, the opening gets at the heart the film’s central questions: who am I and why am I here, and how can art – which might not look like life but like only a crude, perhaps silly, representation of life – have anything to say to those fundamental questions of self?

The film explores these questions as it follows a few days in the New York City life of Dan, a one-hit wonder playwright turned Bedfellow hotel doorman, an appropriate career for a man who cannot decide where he belongs and who does not really have a home but co-opts the bed  and apartment of a long-suffering friend who gets only promises, not rent-money.   Dan’s habit of taking freely from his friends extends into other parts of his life as well: borrowing from his own body’s health, he consumes diet pills and gorges on desserts; carelessly using the women around him – a woman staying at the Bedfellow, a troubled ex-girlfriend – he takes sex and the women’s emotional investment as his right, leaving them behind when convenient. Continue reading