Tag Archives: feminism in film

Feminists: What Were They Thinking?

In the mid-70s, photographer Cynthia MacAdams collected pictures of women, determined that feminism made them look different, distinct. Could the difference be observed on film? Her book of photographs immortalized an awakening, a second wave of feminism wherein women were shaking off their cultural expectations, shedding the shackles of their pasts, and stepping forward with new purpose.

MV5BODljMzYzOTQtZGQyYi00ZjhkLTk5NDktY2RlNTdjOTljYjgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjcyMzE1MA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_40 years later, as MacAdams’ work is being exhibited, film maker Johanna Demetrakas tracks down many of the women featured in the work, including Jane Fonda, Funmilola Fagbamila, Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, Margaret Prescod, Phyllis Chesler, and Judy Chicago and asks them about our continued need for change. Personally, seeing all these knowing eyes staring out at me, I feel galvanized.

Together they discuss employment, motherhood, abortion, choice, and the state of feminism today.

Jane Fonda says “I’ve only known for 10 years that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. That gave me pause. Don’t you love it when a book or movie reaches out, past the page or screen, and just touches you? This film is ripe for that, although it’s crazy that this brand new, just-released film already feels a little dated – in this #metoo, Trumped up era, feminism’s fourth wave is moving necessarily quicker than ever.

One thing I felt just a teensy bit gratified about is that this film devotes a small amount of time to address intersectional feminism and the ways in which historic feminism failed to include women of colour and other minorities. ‘Feminism’ has mostly meant white feminism, and white feminists have asked women of colour to somehow divorce themselves from their other concerns, as if they ever could. Race and gender must go together for WOC, and and we can’t properly call for advancement or equality of women without bringing all women along – queer women, trans women, women of every class and colour. This documentary acknowledges the deficits but doesn’t begin to delve into them – we’ll need many more documentaries to cover the complexities of black feminism.

Most of all, I am struck by so many notable women trying to reclaim the feistiness of their youth – not the righteous anger of their 20s or the organized action of their 30s, but the freedom of being a little girl, before any gender expectations have fully settled. Many seemed to hope age would help them reclaim that feistiness, but I wondered what it might be like if we never lost it to begin with.

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Marks of Mana

According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead.  Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.marks of mana

This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children.  One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry.  Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men.  Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.

Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans.  The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.

The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five).  Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.

Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.

All About Nina

Nina is an acerbic stand-up comedian who boasts on stage about not dating because it sounds a lot better than admitting the affair with the married cop who hits her (Chase Crawford). She barfs after every set. So it seems like the perfect time to flee New York and purse her dream in L.A. of landing  a role on Comedy Prime (an SNL stand-in).

Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has some professional success there, but her personal life suffers – and we know it didn’t have far to fall from. For the first time in her life, she lets a good guy (Common) get close to her but she’s flailing. Her new roommates (Kate del Castillo, Clea DuVall) model a new and healthy way of living but Nina can’t reconcile it MV5BZTE4ZjUxODEtNmNmZS00ZWU5LWIzODgtNTU1MjNhNzM1MzNiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTY4NjI3Mzg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_with her own life, and I’m not sure she believes she deserves that level of happiness anyway. In fact, the closer she gets to good things, the more she sabotages them. Ultimately she’ll have a bit of a meltdown on stage that results in a viral video of some powerful truth-telling that her audience may not be ready for. Just about the only thing that video doesn’t threaten is her strength.

Director Eva Vives pulls together a terrific female-forward ensemble (Angelique Cabral, Camryn Manheim, Mindy Sterling),  to achieve this thoughtful look at what it means to live an authentic existence, especially for a woman in 2018. As her new boss Lorne Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) tells her, the audience only thinks it wants truth – in reality they need it to be heavily curated.

[This reminds me of the very best stand-up comedy I’ve seen this year – Hannah Gadbsy, who has a special called Nanette. It’s on Netflix. It’s spectacularly funny but also very raw and angry and honest, which makes it a breath-taking, astonishing piece of art. Seriously. You should watch.]

Nina’s passion is motivated by pain. We are certain that her anger is covering for something, but she allows so few cracks that we don’t easily find a way in. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a long cinematic history of being wonderful and this performance in particular is a brave kind of perfection. It’s like watching a pot boil, with its own internal tension despite knowing what’s coming. Vives sets up these emotionally intense scenes and allows Winstead to smash them out of the park. All About Nina will live to its name. It distills all the frustrations and rage we have as women, every struggle we have between delicacy and strength, independence and cooperation, self-interest and support. It’s a messy road, but beautifully walked.

TIFF18: Colette

When Matt and I were perusing the TIFF titles this year and came across Colette, we thought it must be this year’s Big Eyes (in which a husband, Christoph Waltz, takes credit for his brilliant wife’s, Amy Adams, paintings). We weren’t wrong, but we were giving Colette insufficient credit.

Colette (Keira Knightley) is a young country bumpkin who didn’t even know how to operate a snow-globe when she met her husband Willy (Dominic West), who dazzled her. He was a writer, worldly, enamoured with his own success and reputation. But the well is dry and they’re broke. To keep her husband happy and their household afloat, Colette sits down and writes a book about her own school girl experiences. Although Willy MV5BM2Y4MzdhMGUtNGE3My00NWZkLTkxMTEtMmU4ZThmNTZlZWQ3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjU3MTYyOTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1399,1000_AL_criticizes it for being too feminine and “full of adjectives” he signs his name to it and sends it off to be published. Of course it gets gobbled right up. Does Willy eat crow? He does not. He celebrates “his” success without a trace of irony and then gets mad at his wife for “implying” that she wrote it. Which, again, she did. This book does worlds better than any of his ever did so he’s eager to keep the gravy train going (imagine an actual gravy train! what a weird expression, especially since the carafe gravy is traditionally served in is called a boat). Anyway. He can’t help but lock her in a room until she produces another best-seller. It’s only logical! And she does. And when, oodles of success later, it begins to chafe and she suggests getting at least partial credit, her name alongside his, he bucks. Preposterous! Women writers don’t sell, he reminds her.

Living under those circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that she explores her options, by which I mean, sleeps with women. She is emboldened, solely by the women in her life, to assert herself. And though the laws and the norms of the day prevent her from claiming all that she may, they also inspire her to finally break free from the leash that kept her bound to a husband who viewed her as a meal ticket, their marriage as a business transaction. Even a long leash chafes.

Keira Knightley has earned herself the crown for period films long hence, but finally she has found one that is worthy of her – or, better stated, a film that can maximize her limited gifts has found her. She sparkles here, breaking outside her box to march up a hill of empowerment. Colette is familiar but not generic. It relishes the vibrancy of the period, but it also embraces its grittiness. The messaging here is anything but subtle but it doesn’t take a gentle hand to sit back and hear her roar.

TIFF18: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.

Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).

When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.

I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.

I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).

Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.

Half Magic

Heather Graham has made a feminist movie about trying to get a feminist movie made,

Honey (Graham) meets two new friends at a female empowerment workshop where they compliment each other’s bodacious tatas and decorate their pussies. Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) is a self-styled “hope-ologist” who helps the ladies cast a spell for hot sex with someone who’s really nice to them (really, really low-bar stuff). Eva (Angela Kinsey) is a designer with access to fun parties and a failed marriage she’s still bummed about.

MV5BMTUyNjUzNTE0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEwMjkwNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_But you know what? They should have been summoning their own self esteem instead. Nice men are fine, but it’s still assigning your own happiness to someone else. Agency, ladies!

Anyway, it’s nice to see a movie about female friendship where they actually love and support each other, and men are just a sidebar. And I think real talk about female sexuality is invaluable, and so rarely seen in movies. These women are old enough to know their bodies and their preferences. But like lots of women, they haven’t always gotten what they wanted, or felt comfortable asking for it. And that’s a real shame, isn’t it? That Heather Graham had to write material for herself, had to write what might be the only script that says things like: lick it!

Half Magic isn’t a great movie but it isn’t half bad (har har). It made me want to join these ladies for a glass of wine and some bawdy talk. That’s what it gets right: believable female characters. And it’s amazing how rarely I say those 3 words in that order.