Saturday, April 12, 2014

On the Buses

An urgent errand in South London prompted one of my now-frequent epic bus journeys, but today's was a bit more pleasant than usual. For a start, I broke my journey in sunny Shoreditch to catch the last day of the Carolee Schneemann exhibit, Water Light / Water Needle, which I've been meaning to catch since it opened.

Set in one warmly lit room, the spotlit photos, which she'd painted on, were of her performances from 1966 of the titular piece, which was also recalled in a film, which I found most intriguing. Starting with a group of nude people emerging from a lake, it developed into a kind of naturism/naturalism study. Among the participants were Meredith Monk, James Tenney and Schneemann herself. Alas, I couldn't recognise Monk, but did pick out the other two. The piece absolutely screamed Hippy! But, that's no bad thing.

Then I had the great fortune to pick up one of the heritage buses running just for the day. Being a bus nerd, it was a great pleasure to hop aboard the Route 22 for just two stops to savour the atmosphere (OK, it was a bit musty, but it's 75 years old!) of one of the old RT buses, and I even got a ticket! And it was free! Very exciting. I switched to one of the newer, not so exciting buses for the rest of my journey, but felt v. satisfied indeed. Still, questions remain. When were digital clocks installed? Why is it the Year of the Bus and why only in central London? Why don't we in the outer areas get those nifty signs?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

BFI Flare: Tru Love and Conscious Coupling

Tru Love
When I booked my last day at the festival yesterday, little did I realise it would be the first day of equal marriage in the UK, and the trappings of weddings were all around: Sandi Toksvig was renewing her vows next door, the festival delegate centre laid on mimosas and the screen was showing footage of happy same sex couples getting spliced. Even Twitter was running a hashtag called #sayido. Oh, my. A bit much for early on a Saturday. Or any day. I shared a few grumbles with another old hand as we stood by the bar, ignoring the cocktails and chocolate hearts. Assimilation. Grumble, grumble. Homonationalism. Grumble. Privatisation of relationships. Grumble. Good luck to 'em, but my view is: #sayidont.

Grasping my glass of prosecco-free orange juice, I pondered my first viewing of the day. Tru Love. Oh, great. But, this turned out not to be so much a rom-com as a reflection on unfulfilled promise and what people settle for. A Canadian drama written by and starring Shauna McDonald, the film starts off as a bit of a sex farce, with McDonald's character Tru jumping out of bed with someone to rush back to a friend's to let in her mother, Alice. It seems Tru is always running away: from relationships, jobs, any form of commitment. As her relationship with Alice unfolds, Tru reveals some early hurts, such as losing her parents and being thrown out on the street, that may explain some of her behaviours. But, that doesn't make them any less difficult for those around her. Another relationship, between her friend Suzanne and Alice, also needs some attention, while Suzanne and Tru also have some simmering issues. And, so, though the film starts off looking pretty formulaic, it actually turns into quite compelling viewing, as one wonders how all of this will unwind. I was quite touched, even if I thought the ending left one important strand unresolved while wrapping up another unconvincingly.

My last two screenings were both shorts programmes, both of a very different character. You're the One, Aren't You? turned out to be about love (that again!), with a range of relationship dramas, comedies and even an animation in which lesbian astronauts save the world! The Spanish farce Vecinas was a highlight, as two lesbian couples decide to swap partners for the night, with amusing consequences. I especially liked the translation of confusion which spelled it as "confussion", surely a lesbian neologism that fuses fuss and confusion. I have definitely experienced "confussion" in my life.

And then it was on to Past (Im)perfect, the experimental shorts programme which featured the world premiere of Bev Zalcock's and Sara Chambers' The Light Show: A Trilogy. Bev has been telling me about these films as she's been working on them over the last year, and so I was quite keen to see them. And they are lovely, a mix of digital and analogue, with dollops of disco iconography (Helen de Witt's term), melancholia and nostalgia. It can be hard to get into abstract work sometimes, but the audience was rapt and the sound was great. I very much enjoyed it. Some of the other works were hard-going, most notably the last film, a 29-minute piece that seemed to be five or six films strung together. I should have known when the first section was one shot of a man shaving in a shower that went on for several minutes. The one bright spark was a girl singing Nirvana's "Dumb" a cappella in a locker room.

Everyone seemed to be attending parties in the evening, but I had to rush home, meaning I missed the Vagina Wolf screening, attended by none other than Guin Turner. I did see Turner sneaking out for a crafty fag, earlier in the evening as I took another turn in Killjoy's Kastle, as I wanted to listen to the footage of the zombie folk singers, which you can only hear on headphones. The performer featured is none other than Gretchen Phillips, whom I well remember from her days in Two Nice Girls. Here she was sending up the hoary days of lesbian folk singers, in an all-Canadian set. And her choices were Kathy Fire and Ferron! I am still not sure if her white braid, which she had to flick out of the way of her guitar, is real or was part of her costume, but she gave her zombie character her all.

I also ran into Carol Morley, currently in post-production on her schoolgirl drama The Falling, which she is prepping for the spring festival circuit. Grading starts Monday, and Tracey Thorn is doing the music, so that sounds fab.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BFI Flare: Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?

Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?
So far, this is hands-down the best thing I've viewed at the festival, and there are rumours afoot that director/star Anna Margarita Albelo will be bringing her vagina costume to the screening tonight, so it should be quite the event.

Part farce, part reflection on success and failure and part mid-life crisis drama, Vagina Wolf is a delightful melding of comedy and pathos, with Albelo at its heart. As struggling film director Anna arrives at her 40th birthday party, she realises she is at a crossroads: "I had sacrificed love for my career, and now I had neither." Dressed in the vagina costume in which she earns a crust as a performer in galleries, she is exposed and lonely. And her friends (including Guin Turner in marvellously bitchy form) are no help, either, egging her on to chat up women with whom she has nothing in common. She lives in a garage and dreams of making that breakthrough. Once she embarks on a lesbian reworking of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in order to impress a young lady, she is on a collision course with herself, as her frailties and fears come to the surface.

What I love about this film is that Albelo, a seasoned comic actress, isn't afraid to make herself look ridiculous, as she spends much of the film hiding inside this costume. But, once on set, as Georgie, Anna is exposed emotionally, having to confront her worst fears, and the tone becomes quite serious. It isn't played for laughs. This character is going through hard times and we are not sure how she will emerge. It's very brave film-making. The film-within-a-film trope has been done many times, but here it really works. And the fact it may be autobiographical also has resonance.

Albelo's Hooters was a highlight for me of a previous festival, but here she really comes into her own as an actress and film-maker.

Friday, March 28, 2014

BFI Flare: Sex and Liberation

Between the Waves dir. Tejal Shah
Last night's Flare viewing consisted of a documentary on a pioneer of underground gay film, plus a semi-retrospective on a current artist filmmaker.

James Broughton, celebrated in Big Joy, was a West Coast filmmaker-poet active in the post-war years in San Francisco, though he attracted more attention in Europe, earning a special prize at Cannes. In truth, the film footage shown looked a bit ropy to me: sub-Chaplinesque hetero follies played out in unlikely locales, including London's Crystal Palace. But, there was more to Broughton than his films. A playful wordsmith, he wrote 23 books of poetry, lines of which are cleverly used in the film, whether flashing up on screen or read out by his nearest and dearest, including his estranged wife. Yes, wife, because Broughton swung both ways and wasn't exactly careful in his relationships. Three children came out of his liaisons with film critic Pauline Kael and his later wife, Suzanna Hart, who still seems broken by the betrayal. Broughton left her for the love of his life, a younger man, but I did feel for the abandoned wife. Very telling, too, that two of his children declined to be interviewed for the film. Artists, eh? The most amusing parts of the film (aside from the appearance of Frida Kahlo on two interviewees' walls) are the acerbic comments by George Kuchar, who takes the piss out of Broughton's sunny Radical Faerie world view, and stresses that his film The Bed was detested "on the East Coast". You can take the boy out of the Bronx...

The evening was capped off by The Stinging Kiss, nine films by Tejal Shah, who works in Goa and ususally shows in gallery settings. This festival screening, she said, was new territory for her. And for me, as I found myself by turns discomited, bemused, and a bit fidgety over the next two hours. The films' aesthetic reminds me a bit of the Austrian cyberqueer film, Flaming Ears, that I saw many, many years ago, and Shah did name-check Donna Haraway in her comments. There is a coldness and detachment that makes it difficult to get immersed in the works. To be sure, Shah is exploring power relations and oppositions, as she positions herself in the frame in different roles. In one, she is the "dacoit" (a term new to me) enacting a scene that blurs the lines between torture and S/M with a male protagonist playing a cinematic heroine. In another, she is being force-fed reams of food by a dead-eyed female collaborator. In the longest work, an epic five-part sci-fi meets nature drama (Shah declared herself newly out as an ecosexual), a band of unicorn beings frolics in various incongruous settings, including a desert and underwater grotto. I wasn't clear what was happening, but watching Shah penetrate her partner with her horn while both writhed in pomegranate juice, well, you don't get those experiences in a multi-plex.

Pick of the day:
For a good old-fashioned tragic romance, you can't beat Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto's lush drama on the love affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop and architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Wow! These two women were seriously high-powered and highly strung. Two continents aren't enough for them, as they build parks, write masterpieces, squabble and seemingly ignore the heartbreak and simmering resentment of Soares' cast-aside partner Mary, an old friend of Bishop's. A high IQ clearly doesn't equal a high emotional IQ, and Mary's revenge is a turning point in the film. With gorgeous visuals of Brazilian landscapes, and judicious use of Bishop's poems, the film also features three excellent performances by the leads playing out the triangle over a 16-year period. Take tissues.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BFI Flare: Another Time, Another Place

To be filed under back in the day, two features focused on gay men offer up competing visions of sexual mores and practices.

Continental, Malcolm Ingram's doc on New York's legendary Continental Baths, casts the mind back to a time between 1968 and 1974, when gay men didn't need to worry about safe sex and could frolic and bareback to their hearts' content. As long as the police and Mafia were paid off, since gay sex was illegal. But, if you didn't mind that intrusion, it was possible to meet hot guys and take in a show by Bette Midler and have a swim in the same venue. (Even Hitch dropped in!) Proprietor Steve Ostrow takes centre-stage, and his story threatens to overwhelm the Baths', as the doc shuffles along, creaking to a stop in present-day Sydney, where Steve has finally achieved his lifelong dream of a career in music.

Moving into 1980s San Francisco, Chris Mason Johnson's Test takes us into the world of modern dance, as young Frankie comes to terms with the realities of being a sexually active gay man unsure of the risks of his behaviour and trying to decide whether to take the new HIV test. I found the frequent dance sequences interrupted the unfolding drama, and waited impatiently to see whether Frankie and his hirsute colleague Todd would get together. The film picks up quite a bit in the last 15 minutes and there is a delightful nightclub scene in which Frankie and Todd shed their professional demeanour to have a good ol' knees up.

Monday, March 24, 2014

BFI Flare: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer
It's been a long wait to see The Punk Singer in the UK, after it premiered at SXSW in 2013, and I had built up huge expectations in the meantime. Kathleen Hanna's story is hugely intriguing to me, for musical and political reasons. Bikini Kill remain one of my favourite bands and my interviews with her are also some of my favourites.

Sini Anderson's doc, shot between 2010 and 2011, crams a lot in, and, with its plethora of interviewees (too many, I suspect), covers a lot of ground, from Hanna's early spoken word (which opens the film) to her diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease (after being ill for five years). I hadn't realised Hanna had been absent from the music scene since 2005, so the film's prolonged tease about what exactly had kept her off-stage didn't work for me as a mystery, but it's still instructive to know more about this illness and its effects (quite dramatic, as one scene shot by her husband at home shows) on her.

As far as those interviewees go, well, there are so many of them, that several don't even merit captions (including Kaia Wilson--I would have liked to have heard what she had to say), and the plethora of hagiographic praise and snapshots of the singer only serves to create a cult of personality around Hanna, something she persistently resisted in her years with Bikini Kill. That's a shame, because while she is in interesting figure, the message of Riot Grrrl and feminism in general has always been to go out and do it yourself, rather than worshiping someone else for doing so. I wonder if the intervening years have diluted that message to the point that it's been lost.

In the house was Lucy Thane, as well as Shirley and Ana from The Raincoats, all of whom came on-stage for a post-film Q &A, appropriate as Thane's It Changed My Life was the opener for the Hanna doc. It's interesting to see how this record of Bikini Kill's UK tour from 1993 has aged. All the energy and graininess of the time is still there, but the audience seemed to find the naivety of the British bands who emerged, such as Skinned Teen, comical. I don't recall that being so when I first viewed it all those years ago. Perhaps there is less tolerance for non-technical playing these days.

I asked the panel about current feminism's preoccupation with responding to pop culture, rather than creating alternatives. Ana replied she'd like to see both, and doesn't mind pop culture if it has something to say. As these films remind us, sometimes the subculture says it louder and better.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

BFI Flare: Contentious

Today's overview centres on difficult women, from lesbian rogues to a mother harbouring secrets.

The rogue is the late Dawn O'Donnell, clearly a legend of Sydney's LGBT scene but unknown to me until Fiona Cunningham-Reid's Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. Colourful doesn't begin to cover O'Donnell's life: convent school girl, ice skater, nightclub maven and ruthless businesswomen who also had an eye for the ladies. Was she involved in a murder, too? The doc's voiceover is archly vague about this, but it's quite a tale.

Violette Leduc was clearly a woman in thrall to her passions, but she was French, so that's par for the course. In truth, the writer comes across as a bit of a drag in Esther Hoffenberg's doc, Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love, enmeshed in unrequited relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and several gay men, while complaining of never being at home anywhere. It did make me curious about her writing, however, so all is not lost.

Pick of the day:
Marcel Gisler's Rosie is a slow-burning drama about family obligations and secrets. Sibylle Brunner is mesmerising as the matriarch slowly succumbing to age, while her gay son Lorenz can't seem to commit, even when love is right in front of him. The rural Swiss locations are beautifully observed, as Lorenz makes ever more trips from Berlin back to the homestead to tend to Mama, while in denial about her frailty. When secrets emerge about his late father's past, Lorenz has to face up to some home truths.