Winston-Salem Screening of VESSEL Tuesday

April 26, 2015

Sprite. Think about it. Not the soft drink. Think about the original word, meaning an elf, fairy, pixie, or imp.

When I watched the documentary Vessel about the work of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, the remarkably brave, Dutch physician who launched Women on Waves (WoW), I couldn’t stop the word “sprite” and its synonyms from popping into my head.

She is, at once, a force of nature and yet as light and energetic as…well…a sprite.

Vessel

Gomperts and the others of WoW take non-surgical abortion services and reproductive counseling to women in countries with restrictive laws via a commissioned ship equipped with a mobile clinic. The ship stays in international waters, where it operates under Dutch laws, and women who have made appointments are taken on board the ship for services.

“It’s not only the controversy of abortion that creates reactions and attention and discussion. It’s about this other symbolic gesture,” says Gomperts in the film. “The ship is a symbol of freedom. It’s always been, but it’s been a male domain. When women take charge, it somehow triggers the fantasy and hopes of people.”

The documentary, which premiered at the SXSW last March, took seven years to produce and is the first feature for director Diana Whitten.

You can see it free of charge at a/perture cinema on Tuesday, April 28 at 6:30 p.m. in a community screening sponsored by the AAUW Winston-Salem Branch, Carolina Abortion Fund, NOW of the Triad, and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. A discussion will follow the film.

Gomperts and other WoW leaders have held training sessions on using prescription drugs to induce abortion in 23 countries. In 2012 alone, the organization fielded 100,000 emails from women in 135 countries regarding medical abortion.

“It’s about taking responsibility and about taking power of your own life,” says Gomperts. “I don’t think women are so scared to do that, actually. It might be that the world is scared of women that are doing that.”


THE HUNTING GROUND

April 18, 2015

You don’t want to miss upcoming opportunities to see this searing film about sexual assault and how cases are handled on college campuses, so keep reading!

Writer/director Kirby Dick has received the most press for his two recent documentaries, The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015), but he’s been on my radar since around the time This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) was released.

Dick attended The University Film and Video Association Conference with Michael Donaldson,* the legendary entertainment attorney and champion of independent filmmakers, and I went to their presentation.

At the conference, Donaldson and Dick discussed This Film is Not Yet Rated in terms of fair use decisions and rights and clearances, and everyone in attendance learned a great deal about the law as well as how the MPAA makes its ratings decisions and which biases are in play in those determinations, which is the subject of that documentary.

Even if you haven’t heard of This Film is Not Yet Rated, you may be aware of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated film that renewed discussion of sexual assault in the military on Capitol Hill.

Both The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, which uses the Title IX case against a number of colleges for their handling of sexual assault cases as a framing device, are vitally important stories. I hope the power of these narratives will make people take notice and take action.

The Hunting Ground, which almost feels “ripped from the headlines,” looks at campus climate and how cases are shaped by influences such as fraternities, athletics, and administrative concerns about bad press and donor response. In terms of aesthetics, I think the level of craft in The Hunting Ground is higher than in The Invisible War because of the observational sequences that break up the interviews and add context.

I won’t write more about The Hunting Ground here, but you can listen to my commentary about the film on WFDD’s Triad Arts Weekend program May 1, 2015, which is the same day the film opens at a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem.

If you’d like to get a sneak preview of the film before its local theatrical debut, check it out and hear Kirby Dick in person on Thursday, April 23 at 6 p.m. on the Wake Forest University campus as part of the Reynolda Film Festival organized by Wake Forest students. This screening is free and open to the public in Broyhill Auditorium of Farrell Hall.

*Michael Donaldson’s firm Donaldson + Calif handled rights and clearances for a film I co-directed with Cindy Hill, Living in the Overlap.

The Hunting Ground


FROM THIS DAY FORWARD

April 12, 2015

Years ago, I said that I would never make a personal documentary because most of them are narcissistic. No desire to go down that path. But, I did make one and also ended up weaving a personal thread into another. Never say never, I guess.

I’ve also seen a number of personal documentaries in recent years that have an unmatched level of authenticity and offer deeper insights than most of the other films I watch.

Sharon Shattuck’s film From This Day Forward premiered at Full Frame Documentary Festival earlier this week, and I highly recommend you see it when the film becomes more widely available.

When her own upcoming wedding sparked unanswered questions about her parents and their marriage, Shattuck decided to ask those questions and to reflect on her upbringing in a family where her physician mom, who identifies as straight, married an artist, who identifies as transgender.

Despite the problems that arose for the couple when Shattuck’s dad began to make her female persona more public – when Trisha was fully embraced – the two ultimately decided not to divorce but to adapt because their love was stronger than the problems. (Trisha is still called “dad” by her daughters.)

Shattuck notes in her Director’s Statement that some transgender people may be uncomfortable with the film and view Trisha’s choices as compromises, but she says – and the film confirms – that Trisha’s choices are her own made amid family and cultural considerations. One of the many things I admire about the story is its rejection of rigid categories.

I am drawn to quiet stories of community where inspiring and courageous people live everyday lives, so you might say that I have a predilection to like From This Day Forward, but there is a lot of thought and an interrogation of important ideas pulsing beneath the ordinary familial interactions presented in the film.

In another section of her Director’s Statement, Shattuck explains the value of telling happy stories, what I like to think of as stories where social justice appears at the interstices of broader human narratives:

Unfortunately there are many stories of transgender people that don’t have happy endings—stories of discrimination, abandonment and even violence. I think that it’s important to hear these painful stories, because they galvanize society to push for change, for an end to discrimination. But I think it’s equally important to hear stories of hope within the tapestry of transgender narratives. No two stories are alike, but they’re all valid. Ultimately, my wish is that my family’s story inspires others to embrace the LGBTQ people in their lives with compassion, respect, and love.

Shattuck grappled with whether or not to make this film because her parents lead a quiet life and don’t want to defend their choices to others, but I’m certainly glad the family and the filmmaker decided to share.

As more and more legal victories improve the lives of people who identify as LGBTQ, we must recognize that is not enough. From This Day Forward is not just a good documentary; it also has the potential to do more by helping in the campaign to win hearts and minds.

From This Day Forward


INSURGENT

April 3, 2015

I saw Insurgent. Not nearly as memorable as Divergent (which I liked). In fact, I’m struggling to remember the (long) movie now…it’s starting to seem like a…simulation…aaaahhh…

Insurgent


RiverRun: Spotlight on Black American Cinema

April 1, 2015

When I saw the line-up for RiverRun’s Spotlight on Black American Cinema from 1971-1991, I was thrilled to see many culturally and historically significant films on the program. As I urge you to see all of these fine films, I’ve decided to interview RiverRun’s Program Manager Mary Dossinger and Program Coordinator Christopher Holmes to help me make my case!

Mary Dalton: Daughters of the Dust, in particular is a favorite of mine. I’ve written about it for Creative Screenwriting and have taught this film many times over the years in my own classes. In fact, my Media Theory and Criticism students will discuss it tomorrow morning. Of the many extraordinary things about Daughters of the Dust, what moves you the most about Julie Dash’s lyrical, 1991 masterpiece?

Mary Dossinger: I would say that for me the thing that moved me the most was the amazing way in which Julie Dash made you feel like you were a part of this culture through the gorgeous cinematography, the interesting aesthetic choices, natural sound and music and, most of all, the use of the traditional Gullah language (they had a dialect coach teach all the actors so that it was more authentic) without any subtitles. That way the audience is made to interpret what is being said at times. I found it to be such a transformative film in that regard. Audiences are transported to a world rarely seen or heard of by outsiders, and Dash did everything possible to make it as realistic as possible. Honestly, the fact that Dash was able to make this film at all is pretty amazing. Then, to be the first African American female director to receive a nationwide release with this film is so interesting considering this film is so far off from the mainstream Hollywood film, but thanks to her undeniably creative and wonderfully historic storytelling, the film was a hugely critical success and will be a wonderful treat for our audiences to be able to see it on the big screen and with a restored 35mm print no less!

Daughters

Mary Dalton: Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep has been seen as a much needed counterpoint to Blaxploitation films that dominated depictions of Black life in the 1970s, but for years it was not widely seen except at a few film festivals. Though not widely seen, it was not unappreciated and was among the first 50 films entered into the National Film Registry in 1990, which makes it a national treasure. Still, the film is not always easy for viewers who see it for the first time without some context. What do you think will help first-time viewers better appreciate this film?

Christopher Holmes: I don’t think there’s anything disengaging or alien about Burnett’s approach with the film—perhaps what it struggles from the most is just being such a distinct departure from the types of films being made during the era, by black directors or otherwise. It was a bit ahead of its time, even, particularly if viewed within the context of the minimalism and neorealism we see in the early films of directors from the 1980s film school generation. Films we’re much more familiar with, like Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, for instance, are direct descendents of Killer of Sheep, which itself is a sort of distant cousin of the Italian neorealist films that Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica and others were making in the 1940s. It’s as much intended to be a document of a place (the impoverished Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles) at a specific moment in time as it was meant to be engaged with as a typical, narrative-driven filmgoing experience. Not to mention director Charles Burnett will be in attendance for our screening, which is the greatest gift a festival can offer when it comes to better appreciating the film!

Killer of Sheep

Mary Dalton: Agreed! That is a gift, indeed! Hollywood Shuffle is another type of corrective to stereotypical depictions of Black character. Robert Townsend uses satire as a mighty weapon to critique the commercial Hollywood machine in this 1987 film that is still painfully funny. Why did you include Hollywood Shuffle in the spotlight?

Mary Dossinger: Honestly I think you answered that within your question. Not only is Townsend’s film still very, very funny but the critique is still very relevant, unfortunately. The film is about a young black actor trying to make it in Hollywood in the 80s but he keeps only be offered roles for a slave, butler or gang member, despite trying his best to break out of these stereotypical roles. In re-watching this film it struck me how much this is still an issue today. Just last year there was a lot of discussion around the very popular film 12 Years A Slave and then the year before that with the Oscar-nominated The Help. This film was made almost 20 years ago now and Townsend’s very biting satire about both African-Americans lacking choice of roles and also the absurdity of the films being made in Hollywood in general, still hits right on the mark. It is a hysterical film but at the same time gets right to the heart of the matter just as much as the more dramatic films we have in this series. I definitely think it is an important film for people to see if they haven’t yet or even to revisit if they saw it back in 1987. Also, as a bonus, the director Robert Townsend is going to be coming to the Festival and will be doing a Q&A after the screening of this film as well as an additional panel with Charles Burnett, the director of Killer of Sheep, on Monday, April 20th at 6:00pm at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts.

Hollywood Shuffle

Mary Dalton: I saw She’s Gotta Have It back when Spike Lee was Spike Who? It’s still one of my favorites of his films, and he’s still one of my favorite directors. Of his other lesser known films, I still have a soft spot for Get on the Bus, and Do the Right Thing is still on the curriculum in my Media Theory and Criticism class (we talked about it in class yesterday!). What should viewers look for in this early film from Lee?

Mary Dossinger: One of the main reasons we chose this film over other Spike Lee films is because it was the film that really put him on the map, critically and publicly, in that it won an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1986 and got a theatrical release from Island Pictures later that year. He is easily the most well-known director we are highlighting in this six-film retrospective, and so, we didn’t want to choose his more well-known films because many people already know those films you mentioned quite well. As you said, they are often taught in classes thanks to Lee’s incredibly insightful way of examining race and culture. What interested me most about this film in particular is that, while his usual look at race and class are very present, the film is mostly about gender politics, which is so refreshing. It is an unapologetically sexy and, at times, shocking film about a woman taking full control of her sexuality and sex life, despite the constant push back she experiences from both the men and women in her life. Lee’s envelope pushing is very present in the film, as is the use of comedy, driving home the point that women have every right to act just like men when it comes to love and sex. For those Spike Lee fans who haven’t seen this film, and for any of those who have never seen it, it is definitely a must! It is also a gorgeous film, shot in black and white and is going to look fantastic on 35mm.

She's Gotta Have It

Mary Dalton: I confess that I’ve not seen Gordon Parks’s 1971 Blaxploitation classic Shaft recently, though the “Theme From Shaft” is racing through my brain as I ask the question! When viewers cut through the cheesiness, what do you want them to see?

Christopher Holmes: If viewers can distance themselves from the “blaxploitation” moniker, which is a bit of a misnomer anyways since the term only came into existence after producers attempted to replicate the box office successes of this film and Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (both released in 1971), they’ll see a tightly constructed, action-packed riff on the hard-boiled detective genre, transposed onto the gritty streets of Harlem. Richard Roundtree is as cool as they come in the lead role, and the film builds to a tremendously entertaining crescendo with a sort of inner-city sting operation, orchestrated to the legendary groove of Isaac Hayes’ score. It’s also worth noting that Hayes’ iconic theme song made him the first black man to earn an Academy Award in any category other than acting when he won for Best Original Song.

Shaft

Mary Dalton: Boyz n the Hood is a classic, but I’ve always been more drawn to Menace II Society, seeing the latter as more complex and emblematic of the postmodern age. Why did you choose Boyz n the Hood — aside from the passionate speech Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) gives on self-reliance?

Mary Dossinger: Well, this was the film that I was most passionate about because I remember vividly how emotional I felt after seeing this film back in the early 90s. It really made an impression on me as a young teenager, and I definitely wanted it to be included in this Spotlight section. The main reason it is included, however, is because it was the first time an African-American was nominated for best Director at the Academy Awards. This is worth celebrating not only because it was the first time this happened, and it was Singleton’s directorial debut no less, but it didn’t happen again until 2009 with Lee Daniels’ Precious, almost 18 years later! The film received massive critical success and garnered over $57 million at the U.S. box office, bringing to light the major issues of violence and drugs running rampant in poor, urban areas around the U.S. In re-watching this film recently, I was struck by how poignant this film still is and, sadly, still timely (as seems to be the case with many of the films in this Spotlight section). Since you mentioned it, Furious’ speech is still so heart-wrenching and the reactions by the group he is talking to, even more so. We have a number of documentaries in the Festival this year that speak to the unbelievable disparity between rich and poor in the country and even more so about the inherent racism in society and, even worse, from law enforcement themselves. This film starkly highlighted these issues over 20 years and that combined with some of the most amazing performances from well-known actors in some of their first roles (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, etc…) made for such an significant film that we felt it needed to be included. While I know this film is readily available online I am hoping that audiences both new to the film and those revisiting it will still come out to see this film presented on the big screen at UNCSA! I don’t think they will regret it!

Boyz

Mary Dalton: Thanks so much Mary and Christopher! It’s a great line-up enhanced by having so many of the directors on-hand to talk about their work!


IT FOLLOWS

March 29, 2015

David Robert Mitchell’s independent horror film It Follows did well on the festival circuit and is gathering some positive reviews, but its box office opening is soft.

I find myself a little ambivalent about the film but am calling on a former student who knows much more about horror films than I do to enlighten me!

Not only was Dan Bagwell a delight for me to work with in several classes when he was a graduate student at Wake Forest University, but he made horror films the focus of his master’s thesis.

Mary: Let’s start out by having you talk a little bit about your thesis. At the risk of sounding annoyingly arch, what is the thesis of your thesis?

Dan: My thesis focuses on the societal significance of “body horror” films. Specifically, I analyzed depictions of the grotesque human body in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome in relation to broader social fears surrounding gender, mortality, and human identity. I think that the horror genre (unfairly) gets a bad reputation among many moviegoers and critics, and I wanted my thesis to demonstrate the rhetorical power of the genre and how horror films can tell us a lot about the psyche of the general public.

Mary: In a message you sent me last night, you called It Follows “one of the best horror movies that deals with gender/sexuality that I’ve seen” and highly recommend it. What makes this film a standout for you?

Dan: The film really stood out to me both technically and thematically, especially in comparison to many contemporary horror films. On a technical level, the film is incredibly well-made; the use of long takes and wide shots help build and sustain an unsettling atmosphere, and Mitchell does an excellent job of staging horrific scenes in both claustrophobic and open spaces. It’s rare for a film to require that attention be paid to every inch of the screen, but I found myself anxiously scanning the background the entire time.

The antagonist (I can only really call it “It”) is one of the most horrifying creatures in horror cinema. I’m fascinated by the idea of a creature that is constantly moving and reinventing itself for one singular purpose, which adds a sense of inevitable doom and staying power to the film. Some of my favorite films reveal very little about their antagonists (The Blair Witch Project, No Country for Old Men, The Dark Knight), and It Follows strikes a perfect balance between revealing just enough detail about “It” while leaving plenty to the imagination.

Thematically, I thought It Follows took a very clever twist on some typical horror conventions that symbolize prominent fears that we all share in some form or another. Mitchell’s film dispenses with the “survivor girl” archetype, which features virginal women triumphing over their male attackers while their sexually active friends perish. It Follows casts sexuality as a malevolent force that attaches itself to Jay, a young woman who is constantly haunted by a single act of intimacy. Take your pick of what “It” symbolizes; the monster can be read as a personification of any number of persistent issues that plague the broader public.

Mary: Why do you think it seems to be connecting better with critics than the average horror flick fan?

Dan: I think that creativity and consistency are factors that critics appreciate in horror films, primarily since so many films released now are more in the “by-the-numbers” slasher camp; it’s rare for a horror film to deliver on an interesting premise for the entire 1.5 hours. Take The Purge, for example; the consensus seemed to be that, despite an interesting central idea, it collapsed into typical home invasion fare. It Follows, on the other hand, is relentlessly scary up to the final shot without feeling like a re-hash of tired slasher conventions. Too many horror movies confuse gore for scares, and It Follows seems to resonate with people (myself included) by combining a consistently unnerving atmosphere with an intriguing and terrifying monster.

Mary: Do you have a preferred reading of sexual encounters as metaphorical in this film?

Dan: I think “It” can be a stand-in for our unease toward a variety of things surrounding sex, from disease to sexual assault to social construction of what it means to be a sexual being. Just as the characters in the film are constantly haunted by “It,” the themes in the film speak to inescapable sexual issues faced by society as a whole.

Some critics have read the film as an allegory for STDs, which makes a lot of sense to me given the social prominence of that issue and “It’s” sexually-transmitted nature. There are several tracking shots of disadvantaged, downtrodden neighborhoods that could also support this interpretation, which could be read as a nod to how disease is especially prevalent in marginalized areas.

My preferred reading of the film, however, is centered on the relation between sex and societal attitudes toward women. I think the theme of a teenage girl being constantly hounded by a past sexual encounter is a symbolic one that speaks to how, for the most part, women bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to sexual consequences. Women are often stigmatized for being sexually active in ways that men are not, prompting cycles of “slut shaming” that unfairly frame women as deviants. Jay’s sexual past becomes inescapable, which problematizes the specters of sexual stigma that women face on a daily basis. The fact that Jay’s curse is transmitted to her by a man (who also drugs her) is also important; while they both participate in the act, we see the woman facing nearly all of the consequences, much to the relief of the male.

I’ve always been fascinated by Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” or the theory that women are often constructed cinematically for the visual pleasure of men. It Follows is an interesting case study for Mulvey’s theory, especially since “It” constantly has its eyes fixated on its female victim. I think the shape-shifting nature of the monster can be read as a metaphor for the unyielding gaze of the masses upon the female body, which becomes a threatening force in itself.

I was reminded of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth, another horror movie that incorporates themes of sexuality as a destructive, monstrous force. While the protagonist of Teeth uses her sexuality as a weapon against her attackers, It Follows positions Jay on the receiving end of sexual violence. Jay is framed as a sympathetic victim of tragic circumstance who must face “It’s” merciless advances.

It Follows is a film that I can’t wait to revisit. If ever there was a modern horror movie that deserved academic attention, I think Mitchell’s film would make the short list.

Mary: Is there something you’d like to say about It Follows that I didn’t ask you?

Dan: I think that music can make or break horror movies, and the soundtrack for It Follows is pretty outstanding. The music is appropriately sinister and abrasive, which helps keep the tension alive even when “It” isn’t present. I couldn’t relax until I left the theater. It was a great throwback to the sort of music I’d expect from a John Carpenter film, which gave a very welcome retro vibe for me. Some of the best horror movies are masterpieces even when muted; It Follows would even be incredible without video. I’d love to hear your thoughts on It Follows. As a horror devotee, I may be seeing it through rose-colored glasses.

Mary: I understand — and appreciate — that by not being “spot on” in terms of the narrative or leaving a lot of ambiguity to “It” that the film is breaking with convention, and I’m all about breaking with convention, especially in genres that are well-represented on the screen. Still, I wanted a bit more of a pattern in how “It” operates. If, for example, the women characters were not able to shed “It” with another sexual encounter while the men were (or, at least, were mostly able to), then I would have an easier time with your reading, which I really like. I do think women bear, as you put it, a disproportionate share of sexual consequences, but “It” seems to be an equal opportunity terror (Greg [Daniel Zovatto] suffers perhaps the most horrendous fate depicted in the film). I have to say, however, that I liked the style of the film and the performances. Maika Monroe is terrific as the main character, Jay, but Keir Gilchrist’s Paul is my favorite character in large part because of his performance. So, I liked It Follows, but I think I was hoping for a bolder, more incisive feminist statement. You seem to have found enough there to support your reading, but I needed a little bit more, which David Robert Mitchell is not obligated to give me. I’m talking about my political project here rather than his artistic one.

Thanks, Dan! We’ll have to do this again.

It Follows


DC on TV

March 27, 2015

You know, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for Season Three of House of Cards.

I’m starting to watch Alpha House on Amazon instead. It’s like an endless buffet on the smart TV. Has John Goodman ever given a bad performance?

Viewing made easy…

Alpha House


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