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Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction - due to be announced later today - or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VA Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist - Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

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Ava Gardner adopts the confident poise of a non conformist

A lo-fi internet connection coupled with inventory lapses in both Laser and HMV has left me with a hard-nosed jones to watch Mogambo, the 1953 flick starring Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable.  After reading Ava Gardner’s memoir Ava: My Story, where she highlights the role in terms of one she wore as a second skin, as I turned the page I needed to see it like yesterday.  (Plus the book is worth reading because it’s filled with vivid detail, including Gardner’s descriptions of the arguments if not battles she carried on with third husband Frank Sinatra, as well as candid assessments of the first two marriages to Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw. Gardner’s memoir is so juicy it should come with a napkin). What most peeks my interest about Gardner’s recollection of Mogambo is that the storyline takes a radical departure from the Hollywood playbook wherein so-called ‘Bad Girls’ such as her character Eloise Kelly seldom land the man and have the happy ending.  Eloise, a tippling fast-talker, lands her guy over the prim Linda Nordley, played by Grace Kelly. (Have to admit that I was never a fan of Grace Kelly.  If she were on the Hollywood scene today, she’d be the type to marry Tom Cruise.  She’s creepy and bloodless onscreen).

Traditionally, celluloid narrative arcs set for the ‘Bad Girl’ stock figure dictate she never gets the guy in the fade out.  Trangressive women onscreen have existed to receive punishment, comeuppance, even death in order to underscore the normative morality culture proscribes, as the stuff of which conservative gender roles play a significant part.  Whether uppity, slutty, boozy or back-talkers, all such offending women have been served a lesson on film.  Cinema screens have produced a sizeable catalogue of Bad Girls in need of correction, from Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929); Bette Davis as Julie in Jezebel (1938); Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen in The Women (1939); Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar winning turn Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1959) (a film which she—to her credit—referred to as a ‘piece of shit’); Ava Gardner later in Night of the Iguana; up to the plot resolution of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, audiences have become primed for the Bad Girl to be issued a smackdown before the final scene.

There are two qualifiers which offer an alternative ending for Bad Girls on film: mistaken identity or reform, resulting in vindication or transformation for the lady in question. Rita Hayworth as titular Gilda set the gold standard for the conception of Emma Stone’s character Olive in Easy A,or other films featuring the message about the danger of hasty judgements of a lady’s character, but only when she hasn’t actually earned the defamatory slut shaming.  Then there’s the case of reformed Bad Girls,those ladies ranging from Eliza Doolittle to Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman who share the same reformation-as-fairy tale ending, which reminds the Bad Girls that they just have to become whatever a man wants in order for their happy ending to be realised.  Cue the eyeroll, right?

The elusive fourth option, to stay a Bad Girl and still get the man seems the point of Mogambo.  Maybe we need to gather to screen this rare gem?

So what about an Anti Room Film Club?

Anyone interested in meeting up to screen and discuss classic films?

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Sorry I’ve been crap at blogging lately. I’ll try to be better. Here’s a short one to keep things ticking over… recommendations always appreciated.

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO:

Yuck – ‘Yuck’

Very taken by Yuck’s album… like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, it’s totally derivative but the songs are GREAT. Bits of the Pixies, Pavement, Sonic Youth… and a great name for a band, too.

CURRENTLY READING:


Jonathan Safran Foer – ‘Eating Animals’

Only about halfway through, but it’s very good so far. This guy wrote one of my favourite books in recent memory, but this is a non-fiction account of how and why he decided to become vegetarian when his son was born. It’s not preachy in the slightest, but let’s just say that some of the cold hard facts about the ins and outs of the meat industry makes me extra-glad I’m a veggie.

CURRENTLY LOOKING FORWARD TO:

Primavera Sound 2011 – can’t bloody wait. Belle & Sebastian, PJ Harvey, Interpol, Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes,

Also:

Going to see Spamalot for the first time. Should be good!

Also:

The new series of The Apprentice started last week on BBC. Goodbye, life.

CURRENTLY WANTING:

Morrissey – ‘Very Best of’ on vinyl

€29.99 on vinyl in Tower Records! €29.99!! *weeps* Come to me, payday.

CURRENTLY WATCHING:

Game of Thrones [HBO series]

My boyfriend is in the midst of the series of books that this new HBO series is based upon, and says despite the premise (it’s set on the fictional continent of Westeros in medieval times, with a lot of gory head-choppings, mythical demons, fancy suits of armour, incest, bonking and inter-dynasty politics), it’s not something that a World of Warcraft obsessive would watch. With the added fact of Aidan Gillen starring, that’s good enough for me. Just three episodes in and it’s simmering quite nicely. Christ, even Sean Bean is good.

What’s on your radar? What’s currently floating your TV/musical/comedy/film boat?

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Most tips about dating targeted at single women amount to a Sisyphean course of self-improvement, whether the focus is on their appearance as complicit with the beauty mandate or with interpersonal skills such as listening and hobby development, all are designed to make women a better match and ring ready, which culture has emphasised since they were knee-highs.   Instead of regarding every date as a potential Prince Charming, it might be more useful to utilise the Rochester Rule as a primary criterion for finding a good man.  Put simply, Charlotte Brontë’s novel unintentionally illustrates how much one can learn about a man from the way he treated women in past relationships, only her titular Jane Eyre was too much of an inexperienced sap to give the evidence full consideration.  When you have a man’s track record to consult, do so with the knowledge that he’s not going to be an entirely different man with you.  You can anticipate who he was with other women will remain consistent in the current relationship.  In the case of Brontë’s Edward Rochester, a man who locked his wife up in the attic for a decade, just to keep control of her dowry, Jane would have to wonder what he’d do once she became inconvenient, put on some weight or asked too much of him.  Marry him?  Reader, she should have busted ass for the nearest exit.

Edward Rochester stands as a familiar romantic figure in popular culture.  He’s usually attractive but in an unconventional fashion.   A Rochester presents himself as a ‘deep’ or ‘tortured’ soul, a misunderstood genius, a man prone to emotional outbursts, passionate exclamations and who makes wild demands on a lady.  After the 19th century original, there were several other men who fit the Rochester template, a leading man who should give women pause, including Charles Boyer in the classic Gaslight, Orson Welles, Ted Hughes, probably Richard Burton, Ike Turner, Charles Bukowski and Jack Nicholson.  The Rochester type gets off on treating women like crap, by building himself up through reminding women how little they matter in the end.  With outsized ego and a dissembling manner, Mr. Rochester manipulates women while remaining oblivious to the distress he causes.

Scarlett Johansson should take note of the Rochester Rule now that she’s moved in with Sean Penn.  Any dude who imagines a divine intervention in terms of licence to blow rails and buy women, where god commands:  ‘you’ve tortured yourself enough.  Two hookers and the eight ball are inside’ (starts 9:16 mark) probably isn’t going to cozy up to monogamy, especially when he likens it to self-imposed water boarding.  Penn rates close to Charlie Sheen’s level of wacked out entitlement, public rages, a total disregard for a woman’s well-being, with only a slight differential of talent in his favour.  Ms. Johansson, go ahead and have your fling, but do it without the mistaken belief that you can heal or redeem him.  Robin Wright tried that route and looks positively shell-shocked as a result.  Vagina ain’t the Red Cross, ladies.  Let the Rochester type save his own damn self.

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On Idiotic Movies

All right. I should have known better. I freely admit this: one does not go into a movie like Hall Pass expecting an empowering, feminist narrative. The fact that the title implies treating grown men like schoolboys – providing them with a ‘hall pass’ to excuse a temporary absence from marriage the same way one might be excused from class – is a dead giveaway.

But see it I did. So. Oh. Dear. Lord.

It’s not that it’s graphic – it is, but that’s not an inherent problem with movies. It’s not that it isn’t genuinely funny in places – it is, though sometimes the humour is of the ‘did they really just say/do/show that?’ It’s that it’s an inherently conservative movie which comes out wholeheartedly in support of marriage and monogamy while all the time having its characters resist all that goes with that. Sure, there’s something to be said for the idea of wanting what you can’t have – and for something becoming unappealing all of a sudden when a barrier is lifted. It doesn’t mean that the notion can or should serve as the entire basis for characterisation and plot.

The idea of two middle-aged men facing up to the reality of being able to hit on the kind of women they spend so much of their time ogling, and having that fail or be somewhat unsatisfying, lends itself to all kinds of comic potential. But a realisation on the part of Rick (Owen Wilson) that he doesn’t want to sleep with the girl he’s been chasing rings false. There’s more of a sense that despite permissions granted, marriage is marriage and that’s that. Which would be a fair enough point to make if we ever got a sense that Rick and his wife Maggie (Jenna Fischer) actually loved each other. A revelation at the end suggests there are some fairly obvious topics they haven’t even discussed during their years of marriage, and throughout the movie the occasional reference to the other never suggests anything binding them together apart from habit and familiarity. If this is real love, you can keep it.

I don’t mind schmaltzy. It’s idiot schmaltz that bothers me. I don’t mind movies turning out to be something different than expected – a love story hidden behind a wacky gross-out comedy – but it needs to work. I don’t mind a movie which suggests that actually women might ‘let’ husbands get away with certain behaviours because it gives them the opportunity to do the same. I don’t even – all right, I do mind that terrible conversation where the men congratulate themselves for making all their wives’ dreams (house, kitchen, children) come true, because there’s not nearly enough subtlety in the movie for this to be viewed ironically. I don’t mind rooting for two-dimensional characters – just as long as the film remembers that it’s dealing with stereotypes whose behaviour may be idiotic but should always make some kind of sense in context.

I don’t mind characters doing idiotic things – it’s characters who simply are idiots that bother me. The film knows the idiotic things are going on – that’s where the audience laughs. But the moments where it asks or expects sympathy or empathy towards the characters – where it asks you to root for them – that’s where it gets frustrating.

It’s not that I expect thought-provoking, moving storylines every time I go to the cinema. But I do expect even the most idiotic of films to have some sort of internal logic.

I know. I know. I should have known better.

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Bridesmaids, set for a May release, is being marketed as part of producer Judd Apatow’s comedy franchise, which we all know by now is populated with women onscreen who are the killjoy, ball-crusher, harpy-shrew, women who despite their humourless days and accomplishments somehow need a man-boy to fret over in order to feel complete.  No one ever claimed the women in his films were nuanced or complex.  Apatow’s ham-fisted imprint smears itself all over the two-minute teaser, what with the AC/DC soundtrack, the rude stereotypes of women as either pitying the single ladies, as bridezillas or suggesting an old-fashioned catfight, plus all the pink in the promotional posters, which would normally keep me far away from the box office.  But then I take pause to learn it’s written by Kristen Wiig (love her!) and also stars Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne.  And Jon Hamm’s in the sack.

So Confused.

Would you pay to see it?

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Meryl Streep as Silkwood

Since 1998, a significant number of Academy Award nominee and winning performances by women have gone to those in biographical productions.  Previously, the occasional movie about real-life women such as Norma Rae, Coal Miner’s Daughter or Silkwood garnered critical praise and ticket sales,yet for more than a decade, the biopic has been virtually the lone show in town for women in front of the camera or in line at the box office.  Only twice in more than a dozen years has there been an Oscar season free of the biopic represented in the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories: 2008 and the present 2010.  Otherwise, winners and nominees have included features such as

1998: Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth II in Shakespeare in Love

1999: Hilary Swank won Best Actress as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (Chloe Sevigny was nominated for a supporting role in the film)

2000: Julia Roberts won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich while Marcia Gay Harden took home the Supporting award for her turn as Lee Krasner in Pollock

2001: Jennifer Connolly won Best Supporting Actress for playing Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind.

Judi Dench was nominated for Best Actress for playing Iris Murdoch in Iris; Kate Winslet was nominated in the Supporting category for playing the younger Iris.

2002: Nicole Kidman claimed Best Actress as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Salma Hayek was nominated in the same category for playing Frida Kahlo.

2003: Charlize Theron won Best Actress playing the role of Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

2004: Cate Blanchett awarded Best Supporting Actress as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.

Laura Linney nominated in the same category for playing the wife Clara in Kinsey.

2005: Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

Catherine Keener nominated in the Supporting category for playing Harper Lee in Capote.

2006:  Helen Mirren won Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth II in The Queen.

2007: Marion Cotillard won Best Actress as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.

Cate Blanchett nominated for a Supporting role playing Queen Elizabeth I

2009: Sandra Bullock won Best Actress as Leigh Anne Touhy in The Blind Side

Helen Mirren (as Sofya Tolstoy) and Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) were nominated in the same category.

That’s quite the glut of prizes offered to women for playing biographical characters.  What should audiences make of the critical darlings of the last dozen years?  Do the tastemakers reserve their regard for famous ladies?  What was once a field of Hookers-Victims-Doormats, as Shirley MacLaine noted in a gimlet-eyed view of the roles for women in the movie industry, now seems overrun by a new trio made up of Queens-Bitches-Sidekicks locked into a biopic.  Each one of the award-winning & nominated characters I’ve listed fits into one of the three boilerplate roles for women.  It may be a step up from the original three MacLaine identified, but holy crap, it’s not enough of an artistic treatment for the scope of women’s lived experience.  While the biopic trend spread to roles for men, those actors had multiple years where it was not the case, and plus, there’s never been an imaginative block for writers which prevented the realisation of compelling fictional characters for men to play.

This Sunday, for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, we can celebrate a refreshing change in roles available for women, especially in the race for the leading role.  This is the first year in recent memory to boast an absence of Hooker-Victim-Doormat standbys, or the biopic formula of Queens-Bitches-Sidekicks of recent fashion.  This year we have two interpretations of a rare female archetype on film: The Fighter.  A fighter exhibits traits that are usually attributed to men, such as determination, courage, fearlessness, ambition and a single-minded pursuit of goals.  The female fighter has roots in Hollywood which extend at least far back as Joan Crawford’s award-winning turn as the titular Mildred Pierce in 1945.  She played one of the first women onscreen to have large-scale ambitions beyond the standard trope of getting a man or revenge.  Mildred worked her ass off as a self-made business woman.  She overlooked meals, sleep and social censure in the struggle to establish herself outside poverty.  Despite a bitch of a daughter and an inconstant man, Mildred survived by her own wit, energy and application.  She’s the original fighter.

This type of female character appeared again in 1950, when Judy Holliday won Best Actress in her role as Billie Dawn

Today's female fighter: Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone

in Born Yesterday.  Billie grew from gun moll to educated citizen; another chrysalis within muliebrity, like Mildred, a woman who moves outside of a relationship dependent upon men.  Folks cite the birth of the Second Wave with Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, when the possibility for a feminist genesis seems just as likely through Judy Holliday’s performance onscreen thirteen years earlier.  We also witness shades of the fighter during the 1950 Oscars in All About Eve, with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter nominated in the same leading actress category.  There have been several other notable versions of the lady fighter onscreen.  At least half of the roles Elizabeth Taylor took from the mid-50s through the next decade could be classified as such.  Barbara Streisand’s Katie was one in 1973’s The Way We Were.  She gives up her goy dreamboat for social activism.  Shirley MacLaine won for playing a formidable fighter in Terms of Endearment in 1983 in a standout performance.  Who doubted she would have popped one of those nurses for a delay with her daughter’s morphine?  Sigourney Weaver was nominated in ’86 in her second turn as Ellen Ripley, a badass fighter if ever there was one.  Whoopi Goldberg earned the nomination for Best Actress for The Color Purple as Celie, a woman who advanced from doormat to fighter when she gained the courage to curse an abusive husband and open a shop by the wit of her needle.

This year adds to the company of female fighters on celluloid in nominations for the lead actress category. Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan and Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone exhibit the crux of the fighter archetype.  My vote was torn between the two actors for the first time in memory, because usually there’s no hesitation for who’s earned the golden statue.  Each woman is a fighter, a fully drawn character, a force of ambition with the will to achieve.   Nina Sayers battles self-doubt, anxiety, physical deprivation and competition in order to realise her dream centre stage in the dual roles of Swan Lake.  Ree Dolly contends with poverty, cross-generational divides, physical deprivation, demands as sole care-giver for her family and a drug-ravaged culture of silence in order to survive.  Each character stands up to punishment by right of her own vision and ambition to carry on.  Even better, these fighters break the stereotypes attached to either the vainglorious diva ballerina or depictions of impoverished women as dim or slutty.

I say hurrah for each character and performance.  Here’s hoping audiences are treated to more imaginative ladies who channel truth to the marrow.

And screw the Marky Mark version.

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Darren Aronovsky’s Black Swan is probably the most hyped film of the year. Natalie Portman is tipped for an Oscar, having won the Golden Globe for best actress. This is a gothic fairy tale based on the ballet Swan Lake, telling the story of Nina, who gets her dream role as the swan queen. Her white swan is second nature – fragile, retiring, virtuous – but locating her inner black swan is somewhat trickier. Vincent Cassell’s manipulative and exacting artistic director will sacrifice anything, even his prima ballerina’s sanity, for the sake of his art. And then there is Lily (Mila Kunis) who seems to effortlessly be able to find all the danger and edge required for the black swan, that Nina so lacks.The film whips itself into a frenzy of psychological disintegration, sexual awakening and personal discovery, that reaches a tense and emotional crescendo, at which point you realise you’ve spent the last 90 minutes inside Nina’s head and become attached to her, very much emotionally invested in her, without being aware of it. This ‘portrait’ style of film, where the viewer is in the character’s mind, makes it a very unsettling film. Nina is not sure what is real and what is imagined, and so neither are we.

It is melodramatic in many ways but so is ballet and the stories it portrays. This film delves deep into warped mother-daughter relationships, repressed sexuality and what happens when we try to force women to remain virginal little girls and the cruel reality of being a woman in a profession that prizes beauty and youth above all else (Winona Ryder’s ageing ballerina becomes almost a Phantom-of-the-Opera character). This is definitely over-hyped but also one of the few films you’ll see this year to dare to look inside the murky mind of a sad, sad girl.  4/5 Edel Coffey

Go home, touch yourself, live a little, says sleaze-bucket Thomas Leroy, an abusive for the sake of art ballet boss to his could-be magnificent dancer, Nina. As it stands she’s too innocent & blanched for the lead part in Leroy’s semi-libidinous, risqué adaptation of Swan Lake. A bit like the proverbial beetle on its back being prodded by a spiteful school-kid, there comes a point in this film not too far in where even the audience can’t take the torture rack much longer, willing a shipload of diabolism into Nina’s heart so she can get to where she needs to in order to be a star. It’s extremely fast paced, compelling, horribly spooky as well as horny, overly dramatic and a bit silly, but nonetheless beautifully shot and packaged to keep you saucer-eyed to the end. Reviews have described it as a ‘psychological thriller’ but I’d say it’s really too predictable for that: more a textbook exploration of split psyche. As we do repression and the whole doppelgänger thing very well here in Ireland, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to the mother’s character, played by Barbara Hershey. She desperately wants her daughter to live a successful re-run of her own life that she halted in order to have her daughter, while at the same time resenting any progress in getting there. Jealousy and megalomania spits and clappers all over this film, a bunny hop of meanness, mischief, misery and malevolence, even a touch of evil Sesame Street at times. A great lesbian sex scene as well, where for just a brief moment, Swan Lake turns into Swan Lick, cued with some erratic helpings of Tchaikovsky and The Chemical Brothers. I’d be nuts to say I didn’t love it though afterwards it made me feel deranged. 4/5 June Caldwell

Black Swan rehabilitates pop culture’s traditional use of pink in film.  Normally the hue is used to connote an ultra-feminine innocent allure, a non-threatening go-get-‘em-girl  moxie, or an excess of frivolity and consumption, as imagined in cinema fare such as Pretty in Pink, Legally Blonde or Marie Antoinette.  Aronofsky’s film gives audiences a fresh interpretation of the colour pink by illustrating its potential to marginalise women from themselves.  Nina (played by Natalie Portman) clad in a shell pink coat seems vulnerable on the subway to rehearsal, as well as among the roseate overtones in her bedroom, which magnify an arrested development, a woman trapped in a teenager’s world.  Nina’s desire for perfection is hampered by a struggle to cast off the thwarted pink existence.  There’s also how pink turns up in food to highlight the battle for Nina’s growth as an artist.  She can marvel and coo over her ‘pretty’ breakfast of half a pink grapefruit, a meagre start to a gruelling day en pointe.   But later, she can’t partake in the pink ballerina cake without either a blow up with her controlling mother, or else a guilty shame spiral over the calorie count involved.   Whether fruit or pastry, pink comestibles underscore the rigid policing at hand for any ballerina with her eye on centre stage. For once at the cinema, pink was made sinister, unmoored from the limp, simpering value it has historically carried.  When Nina embraces black and red, the Pink Swan of her girlhood has been conquered. 5/5 Megan McGurk

For those of us that merely watch from the wings, the world of professional ballet seems extraordinarily anomalous. Punishing self-sacrifice, the honing of a merciless stamina and the apparent eschewing of all else in pursuit of the perfect pas de deux or pirouette couldn’t be more alien to the powder-puff pinkness of little girls pointing their pretty toes, a gender appropriate after school activity that many of us may have experienced at one time.

Tales of bleeding, deformed feet and hideous, debilitating spinal injuries abound and the requirement for female dancers to be whippet thin has led to serious concern about the possible prevalence of eating disorders amongst young dancers. Irishwoman Monica Loughman, at age 14 the first Westerner to dance for the State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Perm, describes her years of struggle in Russia’s Perm Ballet School in her book, The Irish Ballerina. Darcy Bussell, formerly the youngest ever principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, describes how she got an early insight into the damage that ballet can do when she met a clearly ailing and crippled Rudolf Nureyev who was struggling with hip problems. She did not take proper note of this “Instead, I danced when I was feverish and when I was so badly injured that I was in searing pain.” When she retired in 2007, aged 37 she was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying “Ten years ago, an orthopaedic surgeon told me that my hips were only 50 per cent as good as they should be for someone my age and that I would probably need hip replacement operations.”

It is this darker side of the ballet world that is so powerfully put under the microscope in Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan, leading it to be hailed as a companion piece to his acclaimed 2008 film The Wrestler, as both examine the demands imposed by a driven individual on themselves as they pursue their overriding passion. Nina, a young, obsessive and frigidly uptight member of a ballet company lives with her overbearing, neurotic mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who frequently reminds Nina that she ruined her career. She obsessively pursues perfection in her dancing and flashes of her disturbed state of mind are evident early as we learn of instances of self abuse and observe her unhealthy relationship with food and her frequent bouts of vomiting. When ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) dumps his “ageing” prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (played by a hysterical Winona Ryder) Nina is given the chance to audition for the lead role of Odette/Odile in a new production of Swan Lake. Leroy, a sinister Svengali who preys upon his young ballerinas, tells her she is perfect to play the virginal Odette but lacks the passion needed in a convincing Odile, the evil Black Swan. Determined to prove him wrong and see off the competition, in the sensual form of sexy dancer Lily, played by Mila Kunis, Nina taps into her dark side and plumbs frightening depths in the process.

The use of shocking, Gothic imagery and intense, jerky, close-ups allows the audience to follow Nina’s inevitable breakdown from her own unreliable perspective as she increasingly fails to differentiate fantasy from reality. The shocking denouement seems inevitable from early on.  Dark, intense and with themes of Gothic horror throughout Black Swan is utterly compelling and explores the fragility of adolescent mental health in the face of intense, overbearing pressure; the dangers of living vicariously through your children; and the nasty outcomes when powerful, manipulative men prey on young vulnerable girls. All this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking cinema experience, albeit one spent watching through splayed fingers, but may make you reconsider those ballet lessons for your tiny tot.  4/5 Eleanor Fitzsimons

 

 

 

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Women inhabit a 'crazy macaroon world'

Back in 1999 praise for Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides heralded a budding young talent, an indie force to be reckoned with, a woman with an intuitive understanding of the nuance and structure to a scene.   The issue here is not whether Coppola has talent, but what it is she does, or rather, doesn’t do with her films.  Coppola’s reluctance to offer a credible female character onscreen has taxed my goodwill as an audience member.  After enduring Coppola’s first three missed opportunities to expand the repertoire for women in film beyond the hooker/ victim/ doormat mainstays (as Shirley MacLaine famously cited), I’d have to be a masochist to line up at the theatre to watch another meditation on how hard life is for white dudes.  I can’t help but watch her films and think: Why be a director just to play it safe and reiterate the status quo?  Why not instead be bold and inventive in your storytelling when you have the background and support to craft an original voice?

My problem with Sofia Coppola isn’t that she’s used her father’s name or connections, or even that she stays rooted in scripts about affluent folks.  The charge that you have to make films about the poor or suffering folks sounds like a lesson already served up as a master class in Sullivan’s Travels.  Or you could say it’s as warrantless as the suggestion that one should never produce films about the poor because they’re a bummer.  We need a variety of story and perspective in our movie diets.  My beef with Coppola stems from the virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome she carries, one which infects her work and bears responsibility for producing films that are overall conservative, derivative and entirely lacking in an integrated female perspective.  I doubt there exists a woman in the director’s chair more estranged from the ability to render muliebrity on celluloid than Ms. Coppola.

Let’s be clear, I’m not of the taste for vanity projects such as Agora, those addendums to history which attempt to soothe over the erasure of women’s participation within intellectual inquiry and civic virtue in the first place.  Nor do I seek out those plucky Dagenham-type films, which resemble the narrative structure in place during the 19th century, a facile ending with a so-called victory for women’s civil rights, just as once the story closed Austen-esque at the altar.  Nope, those blips in an otherwise steady trajectory of dude-domination feel cheap and devoid of true consideration for women.  We need a greater context available for women beyond getting men to marry or respect them.  When I go to the cinema, I don’t even expect that a woman’s always a part of the onscreen narrative.  (Take Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as an example of a woman’s ability to tell the story at hand, whether or not it includes a female character’s perspective).  But holy crap if my arms won’t cross and my foot tap with impatience when a woman director fails to summon a compelling point of view for a woman to perform.  I get the sense Coppola thinks women are just so alien, silly or not worth representing with veracity onscreen.

Even more of a puzzle is why Sofia Coppola fails to embody the female point of view onscreen when many men have done so, in singular projects which channelled women’s frame of reference, or those men who made an exploration of female point of view the enterprise of their careers.  Directors such as George Cukor, William Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino and Alfonso Cuaron have established work rooted in interesting women characters and perspectives.  And the best film of 2010, Black Swan, is the insightful vision of how women can be their own worst enemy, directed by Darren Aronofsky.  Heck, champion misogynists such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen can render convincing women onscreen, which demonstrates that you don’t have to have a vagina or even be a feminist to get inside the female point of view.  You just have to believe in the integrity and interest of the story.  Why all these men can tap into the affective complexities to be found in muliebrity while Coppola can’t, remains a mystery.

Despite the critical laurel leaves, I doubt I was the only one in the audience of The Virgin Suicides who thought Coppola’s premiere effort was too invested in portraying the Lisbon sisters through the male gaze, or that the girls are given little more affect than required of two-dimensional repositories of desire.  More cipher than enigma, their corporeal existence itself rates as less compelling than the untimely demise which froze them in a pliable dimension of fantasy.  I’ve written about this cinematic feature in the past, one that tells audiences how beauty must die, that the lovelier the woman, the more likely she will expire from the pressure generated of boundless male expectation and lust.  All too often the narrative thrust implies that it’s preferable for women to be admired than to live, better to remain a blemish- free young hottie than endure the messy business of real life.  In other words, dead girls are more interesting and romantic as screen fodder.  Look pretty and fade out while you still get a favourable close-up, or else risk the fate of Norma Desmond’s pulled skin delusions.  As a theme, tragic beauty has long preoccupied filmmakers in steady incarnations from Garbo’s Camille to Nicole Kidman’s Satine.  While the convention of doomed allure is a cinematic fixture, one would still hope that a woman behind the camera would have something more to highlight about teenage girls than the fact that boys find them mesmerising or lustful.

A similar problem haunts Coppola’s sophomore effort.  In what seems more like a mid-life crisis picture for Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson has little more to do in Lost in Translation than look bored and seek the attention of said middle aged dude.  Plenty of women in the audience must find the proposal a bit distressing, one that argues the character needs a man around in order to feel happy, instead of pursuing independent work, study, art, anything.  We’re actually not all looking for daddy’s approval.  There has to be a better fiction at hand for Charlotte’s character than hanging out with a middle aged sad sack.

Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s first attempt to cut out the mediation through the male point of view ranks as a colossal disaster, with the titular character more flip-book assemblage of mood swings and unaccountable actions, so much so that she may be the least integrated, empathetic or interesting female character ever to appear onscreen.  In the only scene when Dunst in the starring role seems three-dimensional, where she breaks down privately over the sexless marriage to Louis and courtly sneers over her childless state, Coppola takes a violent cut away to a scene scored to the petulant tune I Want Candy.  The camera launches a greedy shoe-gasm that would make the folks behind Sex and the City roll eyes.  Could we pause in a moment that might actually lend the character depth?  Coppola’s film presents the character and female experience as shallow, empty and as saccharine as the sweets choking every set.  In an interview, Coppola referred to the production as ‘girly,’ ‘frilly,’ and a ‘crazy macaroon world,’ revealing perhaps more than she cared to about her alignment of femininity with a lack of gravitas or serious consideration.  It’s also far from sexist to point out how bad the film is (although don’t you love it when a guy tries to school you about what you should find sexist and offensive?)

Coppola’s problem with women seems calculated.  It says the director thinks so little of muliebrity, that she thinks the only stories that are worthwhile, serious or contemplative reside in the male point of view.  Rather than dismissing Coppola as a Lap Cat of Patriarchy (as I might be tempted from the dearth of complex women she can imagine) I’d say it’s more a case that she’s committed to being the Good Daughter, in the sense of family ties and public persona.   She resigns muliebrity to the inscrutable or submerged under the desire for male approval or shallow fripperies. I’ll take a pass on her latest project, which by all accounts features a scene with twins designed to show us how ‘gross’ women are who are sexually available.

The trade-off for Coppola being ‘one of the guys’ is the subsequent alienation of women from the audience.

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Books that come into my house take their fair share of abuse.  Pages will be folded from both the top and bottom corner when necessary; pens will mark the pages with comments and symbols for reference; spines will flex and bow open; toast crumbs will furrow between pages; tea will be spilt.  I would no more handle my books as delicate crystal than I would cover my furniture in plastic.  Objects have no value outside the pleasure I can glean from living with them.  When I bring a book home, it’s not a first date where I’m on my best behaviour.  Nope, we are wed as it were, so there’s no pretence around the messy details of everyday life.  My books don’t get to enjoy protection from me.

However, I find myself in full aesthetic and ethical recoil from the trend of turning books into novelty purses.  Ms. Portman carries the husked spine of Lolita in the snapshot above to the Black Swan premiere.  Live with your books, absolutely.  But the way some folks turn squeamish when they see a celebrity wearing fur, I also turn the same queasy regard at seeing volumes skinned alive, even if it is that paean to a man’s right to perv on little girls.  Far be it for me to side with the snobs on any matter, except for the voice that screams books are not decoration or agents to be used in our primping.  I know Portman’s a Harvard grad, which makes her choice all the more puzzling, because someone carrying a hollowed-out text suggests as much love for books as a guy I knew who boasted of having never read one, a man who claimed their only value was to look good on a shelf to impress the ladies.  Dead book accessories connote style over substance in a most arresting manner.

Signed,

People for the Ethical Treatment of Books.

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