Category: Womens Film

Joy (US 2015)

Joy as the harassed young woman at the beginning of the film

Joy as the harassed young woman at the beginning of the film

I didn’t think much of American Hustle, but I liked The Fighter and David O’Russell’s 1999 film 3 Kings. Joy seems to have had very mixed reviews and has been treated as almost an independent film with a reduced release. It hasn’t been a massive box office success and its IMDB rating reflects audience disappointment. I wondered about seeing it but it does feature Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and she’s always watchable. So, I ended up as the sole audience member in a tea-time showing in my local 300 seat cinema. The manager even came into the auditorium to see if I was OK and to offer me blankets for the cold. And it was cold. But I still had a good time.

I’d heard radio reviews and read press reports that this was a mish-mash – several films jumbled up etc. etc. But I thought it was totally coherent with great narrative drive and 124 minutes sped by. Perhaps I was simply mesmerised by Ms Lawrence? I guess the film is a form of biopic about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and other products for her company Ingenious Designs and subsequently an important presenter on the Home Shopping Network. I knew nothing about this so I think I followed the narrative that Russell and Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo created without every worrying about its ‘fidelity’ as a biopic.

Joy as mother in Mildred mode

Joy as mother in Mildred Pierce mode

What did strike me was the way in which Jennifer Lawrence completely controls the narrative – and dominates every scene. Given the strength of a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen (and later Bradley Cooper) that’s no mean achievement. At one point I thought to myself, “she’s got it” – the star image of the great female icons of Studio Hollywood. This could be Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. I was pleased to find these thoughts echoed by Graham Fuller in Sight & Sound (February). As Fuller points out, Russell presents a strong woman without the need of a love interest (the suggestion of how she might feel about the Bradley Cooper is at the end of the film and doesn’t drive the narrative). There is a brief moment where crime/physical/judicial jeopardy is a threat but other wise she is Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce sans sex and crime – and still riveting to watch. What does drive the narrative is her dysfunctional family and the shenanigans of small-scale manufacturing as an entrepreneurial activity. Since the ideological discourse of the film is about entrepreneurs and the American Dream (with an anecdote about David O. Selznik and Jennifer Jones underpinning Joy’s determination to make it) I should feel antipathy towards the film, but identification with Joy takes over. Fuller is again on the money with his reference to Erin Brockovich and perhaps what is attractive is the class struggle embodied in the narrative. The time period of the film did not feel very specific to me, partly because Russell uses such a wide range of popular songs and music from TV and films. I was quite happy watching the film as if it was a 1970s blue-collar film. The factory that Joy sets up reminded me of various films, including The Pajama Game (1957) with Doris Day and, much more recently, the sweat shop in Real Women Have Curves (2002). Watching various trailers and online promotional features, it’s evident that Russell had the rights to a lot of music material, some of which he uses very well. I was most affected by his use of ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Buffalo Springfield, but also puzzled by the preponderance of music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Is there some kind of commentary on Joy’s story in this?

I’m not sure why the film has been criticised for jumbling different genres. Perhaps it is the narrative strategy that allows Joy’s grandmother to have a voiceover narration or her mother to dominate the narrative at times via her immersion in soap opera worlds as a form of escape. Both these seemed fine to me as aspects of the influences, positive and negative on Joy’s story. The film is frequently referred to as a comedy. I suppose it is, but for me it was more like a melodrama. Two other thoughts that don’t seem to have got much attention elsewhere. One is the confirmation of the ‘women’s picture narrative’ via the best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco) whose action at a crucial point saves Joy. The other is just to mention Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays Joy’s ex-husband. I knew I’d seem him before and I later realised he was Carlos in the Olivier Assayas film about Carlos The Jackal.

Joy in her final winning 'avenger' mode

Joy in her final winning ‘avenger’ mode

I’m sure that there is a lot more to say about Joy and I would be interested in it as a student text – except it’s rather long at 124 minutes (though it isn’t too long as a narrative). In the third image above, you can get a flavour of the ‘overdetermined’ nature of Russell’s imagery. Having dealt with the opposition, Joy in her aviator shades, leather jacket and rough cut hair peers in a Christmas shop window in downtown Dallas. She looks at a Christmas display of a trainset with scenery and models as artificial snow falls from above the window (an interesting invention in itself). Joy is thinking about the world she created out of paper cut-outs, damaged in a row between her parents. I think it was Nat King Cole on the soundtrack and  for me snowflakes always make me think of Citizen Kane. There are many commentators online who thought that Joy was boring. I despair.

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Therese and Carol share Carol's perfume . . .

Therese and Carol share Carol’s perfume . . .

Carol is a Christmas treat come early – but also a beautifully-made film that will endure. It’s an important film, not just because it’s a great love story which ends with at least the possibility of a happy outcome for two lovers, but also because it is made with such intelligence and love of cinema.

A great deal has already been written about the film and it comes complete with numerous interviews featuring its principal creators and actors so that we have a good idea of what director Todd Haynes was trying to do with Phyllis Nagy’s script. I don’t want to simply repeat what others have said so here are some personal observations.

Therese's apartment with the framing of constraining walls.

Therese’s apartment with the framing of constraining walls.

My own reaction to the film was to be completely absorbed from the first frame. Is it really a 118 minutes long? There have been criticisms of the pacing but when each frame is so dazzling and the performances so strong we don’t need great pace as the narrative detail accrues so easily. If I had any expectations of what I was going to see they would have been about Highsmith as source material and Haynes as the re-interpreter of Sirk in Far From Heaven – both major pluses for me. The first realisation is that this isn’t Sirk. Haynes in his Sight and Sound (December 2015) interview with Ryan Gilbey suggests that Sirk takes a distanced, Brechtian view of American society in the mid-1950s, carefully using mise en scène to ‘display’ the structures of the middle-class world of the country club with bright colours and expressive lighting. By contrast Carol plunges us into a much murkier environment as the stills above demonstrate with their muted palettes of browns, greens and pinks. Often the characters are shot through rain-spattered windows, round corners and down corridors. The mise en scène constrains and traps the characters and we are ‘immersed’ in the narrative. This isn’t to suggest that the image is visually impoverished in some way. Sandy Powell is in charge of costumes and both the leads wear the clothes well. I’m going to have to watch Carol alongside Brooklyn to think about the different use of costumes for the same setting in time and place.

Carol is set very precisely over the Christmas and New Year period of 1953/3 with Eisenhower preparing for his presidency. America is still in the last days of Truman’s post-war recovery. The deadening conservatism of the affluent Eisenhower years critiqued by Sirk is still to come. Haynes’ partner in the visual project is his regular DP Ed Lachman (who was with him on Far From Heaven and the remake of Mildred Pierce for HBO). Lachman gives a fascinating account of his preparation for shooting Carol in a Variety interview. In particular, Lachman reveals the importance of a number of New York photographers of the period, shooting in colour. I spotted the obvious Edward Hopper homage but I didn’t know these photographers. One is Saul Leiter who died aged 89 in 2013. The image below shows the kind of shot which clearly influenced Lachman and Haynes.

An interesting example of Saul Leiter's work with the different planes of colourframed and reflected through windows and doors (from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/arts/saul-leiter-photographer-with-a-palette-for-new-york-dies-at-89.html?_r=0)

An interesting example of Saul Leiter’s work with the different planes of colour framed and reflected through windows and doors (from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/arts/saul-leiter-photographer-with-a-palette-for-new-york-dies-at-89.html?_r=0)

Lachman reveals that:

. . . we actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists. A large part of them happened to be women, people like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and then later Vivian Maier. These were photographers who were starting to experiment in colour. So that gave me the idea of trying to reference a visualisation of, let’s say, early Ektachrome, rather than Kodachrome, rather than colour negative. And that’s why the colours have this kind of coolness/warm mixture. I play with magentas and greens. The colour didn’t have a full spectrum the way colour is seen today.

Esther Bubley 'Elevated train platform with gum machines. New York City. c 1951' from: www.estherbubley.com

Esther Bubley ‘Elevated train platform with gum machines. New York City. c 1951’ from: http://www.estherbubley.com

I’ve tried to choose some images with bright reds from these photographers, partly because the vibrant reds of 1950s Technicolor/Eastmancolor melodramas are still there in Carol – and they stand out much more against the muted palette of the streets and rooms. Lachman and Haynes also decided to shoot on Super 16 filmstock, again in order to downgrade the bright colours of the Sirkian melodramas and to re-insert the grain which in modern digital photography can be artificially generated but never looks right. I did find the first few shots of the film disconcertingly grainy but I soon forgot about that. The screen in the cinema we attended was relatively small and I’m intrigued how the images would have held up on a bigger screen.

Cate Blanchett in a street scene in which her red coat dominates

Cate Blanchett in a street scene in which her red coat dominates

The car, the lipstick, the gloves . . .

The car, the lipstick, the gloves . . .

It should be apparent by now that as a visual narrative, Carol works superbly. The music works pretty well too, Carter Burwell’s score and the collection of early 1950s songs work to bring out the emotion of the different scenes. (You can find a list of the songs here.) Overall, I would call Carol a romantic melodrama. I found the romance completely convincing and the last scene stands alongside Nina Hoss in Phoenix as the ‘closing scene’ of the year for me. Both Blanchett and Mara say everything with their eyes – just like Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.

Carol is still a melodrama and it’s also a ‘woman’s picture’. If it wasn’t for the ‘out’ lesbian affair, this could be a Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford picture with the husband who wants to take her daughter away from her as part of the divorce settlement and a ‘female best friend’ to talk things through with. Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband ‘Harge’ (a name I’ve never heard before) is suitably ‘solid’– a very masculine figure who uses his heft in confronting Carol. At times he reminded me of Jack Carson who played a rather different role in the original Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. Cate Blanchett plays Carol as a physically powerful woman, emphasised in some of the shots of her lying on a bed in those quite close-fitting early 50s dresses. She contrasts well with the slight and sensitive Rooney Mara as Therese.

Carol is more than just an updated, ‘modern’ version of a 1950s romance. The film couldn’t have been made in the early 1950s and now it has been made it puts Patricia Highsmith’s narrative firmly in the spotlight, demonstrating what is possible when talented people work with the best material and a real sense of purpose. C’est magnifique!

Here is what is in effect an ad for Varese Sarabande Records the company releasing the soundtrack. It gives a good indication of how the music creates a mood and how the cinematography described above works in practice:

To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (UK 2014)

The old Pavilion building - autumn 2014.

The old Pavilion building – autumn 2014.

This film by Mark Fell and Luke Fowler is a commission by the Pavilion and Hyde Park Picture House. The film was premiered at the Picture House on November 22nd: there will be further screening throughout the year. The cinema and the Pavilion have already collaborated on several art projects, revolving in some way round film and cinema. The audience was welcomed by Wendy Cook, General Manager of the Hyde Park, and Gill Park, the Director of the Pavilion. Gill commented that the Pavilion tends to works that ‘rub against the grain’, certainly the case with this film. Essentially the film is an example of montage – often rapidly changing and frequently discontinuous images and sound. The material in the film is worked up from an Archive project, including photographs, reports, minutes, publicity and associated materials, to which have been added, contemporary film, interviews and contemporary sound.

The Pavilion project was sited in the Park alongside the main Leeds University Campus and opened in 1983, and has just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary.

The Pavilion was formed in 1983 with the stated aim of being the first photography collective dedicated to representing and supporting the production of women’s photography. Against a backdrop of heightened social, political and economic conflicts, the Pavilion set about turning the prevailing patriarchal image-culture inside-out.

The project has suffered ups and down, ‘a contested history’, and the loss of the original venue. That currently stands closed in the Park.

It took me a little time to get into the film but then it became increasingly interesting. The film uses 1200 black and white photographs from the archive filmed on a rostrum camera. Alongside these are a series of interview with artists who were part of or have some connection with the original Pavilion. And there are montages of material from the archive including local and more general material. And there is contemporary footage of people and places.

The photographs cover a range of subjects and settings: women’s’ activities, urban settings, the seaside, Yorkshire Gritstone . . . The parallel archive material is equally varied: minutes and such like from the early days of the Pavilion; posters and publicity; feminist leaflets and publications:

Most of the material is from the 1980s – and the local items bring back memories from that period: a shot through the window of the Victoria pub; the Hyde Park and University surrounds; a Punjabi teacher in Chapeltown; issues of Leeds Other Paper; The Video Vera project; the Leeds Animation Workshop . . .

The sense of what constituted The Pavilion and its significance relies extensively on the interviews. Each participant has selected a photograph [in one case two] from the archive. They describe this for the audience, though we only see the pictures tangentially. One participant commented on the difficulties she found in doing this.

These reminiscences include the developing work of the project: at one point an interviewee comments;

We really believed that working class women would come along and they didn’t.

Later the types of funding available favoured:

Working with the communities nearby – including Asian women and the children.

A central struggle against the objectification of women in photographic art produced examples of work in which young women were ‘demure, saucy and sexualised.’

The limitations of the industry reminded one interviewee that a woman always had

to work harder than anybody else.

The politics of feminism in the period are discussed. A young photographer commented when women criticised the work of another

I was scared of taking photographs of women because of that sort of comment.

And the politics of the colonized or imperialised countries raised questions about the autonomy of the subject, as a young woman,

someone who had little say in the photograph or how it was used.

An artist who presented a travelling exhibition of work shot on the Falls Road in Belfast recalled being arrested on the way to Rochdale and the exhibition being disrupted by a bomb threat.

The interviewees discussed theory, practice and important texts in the feminist movement. Laura Mulvey’s ideas get a mention as do the ideas and arguments by Selma James. I was intrigued by a reference to the ’Soviet Union’s first sexual manual.’ The journals and venues of the time appear, Radical Feminist, Who Needs Nurseries, The Other Cinema, . . . and the alternatives, The Kodak Girl ads, Marilyn standing over an air event, . . .

Towards the end there is a clip from the BBC Calendar in 1985 which offered a short profile the project. The presented welcomed ‘the ladies’: unperturbed they offered a concise description of the aims and work of The Pavilion.

Amat photo

The combination of different strands or changing or even competing images and sounds builds up into a strong sense of the ethos and achievements of the project. Given the ‘contested history’ there is amply space for audiences to assess and develop their own interpretations of this.

The photographs were filmed on a 16mm rostrum camera and much of the archive material is also from rostrum work. The editing of this with film and interviews builds up a complex tapestry of memories and meanings. There is a memorable shot of the camera person shot in a mirror.

Whilst the images are in a form of montage much of the sound is asynchronous. At times there is also accompanying music and rhythms. For this première the sound track was relayed directly into the auditorium with staff moving the speakers at different points. For audiences sound often lack the specific spatial sense one can gain from images: I found this particular technique imaginative and very effective.

The work of the research and production teams was headed by Mark Fell, an indisciplinary artist, and Luke Fowler, who frequently works in 16mm. This makes it a feminist project directed by two men, interesting but also contestable. Two of the participants did just this. At a few points we also heard the questions put to the interviewees and there were occasions when they also contested the nature of the questions themselves. These add to the rich complexity of the film. It also engages with the changes in the feminist movements that have occurred since the original founding of The Pavilion.

I was impressed both with the film and the presentation – I shall certainly revisit it. Happily there was a substantial audience to enjoy the evening. There are at least six more screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House in November and December. The actual film runs for about 70 minutes and is well worth the time spent.

Celebrating Female Pioneers of Animation

Give us a smile

Give us a smile

This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.

In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.

The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.

They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.

Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.

Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.

Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.

It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.

The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.

After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.

In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.

Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.

Hell Unlimited

Hell Unlimited

To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.

The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.

I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.

I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.