Saturday, March 03, 2018

Family Values

I am doing a lot of catch-up with Oscar nominees this week, having seen both I, Tonya and Get Out, and was struck by the formidable and ultimately destructive role played by family matriarchs in both.

I can totally see why Allison Janney has been nominated for best supporting actress for her scenery-chewing turn as LaVona Harding in I, Tonya. She is both hilariously foul-mouthed and painfully abusive in the role and LaVona's insistence that she is doing it for her daughter's own good shows her lack of self-awareness. It's one of the reasons the film works as well as it does, though I share concerns others have raised that it lets the younger Harding off the hook for her own behaviour. LaVona, rejected by her husband, turns her gaze on her young daughter and continues to undermine her into adulthood, a powerful statement about life patterns.

The mother in Get Out--or rather the onscreen mother in Get Out--is played by the redoubtable Catherine Keener who does her best with this slippery, hypnotic character. The key offscreen character is also a mother: the protagonist Chris's mother who was killed in a car crash and never came home to tuck little Chris in that night. This loss dogs him throughout the film and I wondered if it was meant to emphasise his lack of relationships with women and the distrust he carries.

Or is it the filmmaker Jordan Peele's mistrust? There is not one woman in the film who is helpful or trustworthy. What does that say about the film's underlying politics? I found Keener's part rather underwritten, although I think she should have been nominated. But the character I really wanted to know more about was Georgina, the family maid who it turns out is carrying *spoiler alert the brain of the family matriarch inside her and, it is intimated, was seduced by Rose, the girlfriend of Chris. Wow! Betty Gabriel is sensational in this small but important role and I wish we had seen more of her. We never even learn her character's real name, as the film makes clear the zombified characters are given new names when they are rebrained, a not so subtle allusion to slavery.

The female characters in Get Out seem that much more remote and othered than the male characters. It's a pity. I would love to see a Get Out prequel that explained "Georgina"'s back story, as she ends up as the nameless queer black woman nobody ever gets to know before she is despatched.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The 'bourne Identity: Overnight Film Festival

A very belated Happy New Year from Kunstblog. Good heavens. It's practically spring already. Been doing stuff.

Anyway..... I finally had the opportunity to spend a weekend away from stuffy London by attending the second edition of the Overnight Film Festival in Eastbourne. I had booked without seeing the programme, so keen was I to participate. Once the programme was announced, I was happy to see so many female-led and queer-oriented films included.

But, the trip itself was part of the attraction--Eastbourne is only a couple hours by train, and I whiled away the time looking out the window, spotting two pheasant grazing trackside. On my arrival in Eastbourne I took my time getting to the seaside, dragging my wheeled suitcase over the pavement, having a late lunch on Terminus Road and finally arriving at the hotel that served as both accommodation and screening site, the venerable Queens Hotel. Hotels are still an extravagance for me, being a veteran of backpacking, staying with friends, etc. This hotel screamed faded grandeur, with gorgeous high ceilings and speckled mirrors. My room was icy cold, a result of them opening for the festival, but it did warm up after a few hours.

The festival opener was The Velvet Vampire, an exploitation B-movie with feminist overtones, as it was directed by Stephanie Rothman. The acting by the couple who encounter the desert-dwelling vampire was atrocious, but she, as played by Celeste Yarnall, was quite intriguing. The screening room was the hotel's ballroom and with chairs facing blacked-out windows, it was quite atmospheric. We all had a good laugh at how pink the male lead was and the film was a good laugh.

As would prove a refrain, I passed up the opening night party in favour of an early night, wanting to pace myself over the three days. But apparently, the partying went on quite late, spilling over into an appointed party room.

I was keen to be up early enough for the breakfast, which was held in a sea-facing ground floor room, the view to the pier spoiled only by some grey skies. But, it was just what I had hoped--seaside dining. I felt quite decadent, spooning out my grapefruit segments while gazing at the sea.

Saturday was a bit of a queer revival day, with Velvet Goldmine and Bound both showing, having been programmed by guest curator Zing Tsjeng, who shared her experience growing up in Singapore and viewing the former as near contraband. When it came out in 1998, VG was a bit of a flop and I wasn't that keen on it when I saw it on TV. Viewed in a cinema (as such), its bombast made a bit more sense. The production design, music, and extravagant characters made more impact on me, but as the leads are all rather unsympathetic (and Christian Bale's wig is atrocious), it still didn't really move me. I think it's one of Todd Hayne's passion projects that doesn't connect as well as he would have liked. Great soundtrack and costumes, though.

Bound is a total '90s classic, so I was a bit bemused to hear it referred to as "lost" and "unknown", but I think this is a bit of a generation gap. As so many of the attendees and programming team seemed to be 20-somethings, I guess this film was a bit of an unknown quantity and the Warchowskis are, of course, better known for their subsequent projects. Still.... it ain't unknown. As butch released con Corky, Gina Gershon has never had such a good role, and Jennifer Tilly's faux girly act as gangster moll Violet makes perfect sense in this tense thriller. One is always questioning: is she sincere or not? Will she screw Corky over or not? Joe Pantoliano plays his usual sinister mobster figure to perfection. We gasped. We laughed. We enjoyed it very much, thank you.

Again, I passed up the glam rock party with regrets as I was just too tired to stay up. And when I went down in my pyjamas to breakfast the next morning, I was not the only one, although I had no real explanation for my hungover state, having consumed absolutely no alcoholic refreshment. I think it was a combination of long days, very dry hotel air and a bit of nervous energy. But, with some rare sun spotted, I had decided to go wandering on Sunday. Having caught the last half of a curious Portuguese faux doc, The End of the World, which takes place at the seaside, I headed out into the Eastbourne sun and wind for a brisk walk which took me to the Towner Gallery, a gorgeous multi-level space showing several exhibits. I checked out the Haroon Mirza-curated We stared at the Moon from the centre of the Sun, which took over two rooms on the ground floor. In one room were several multimedia displays, such as some projected films by Tacita Dean and Lis Rhodes sharing one large screen side by side, which was intriguing. Playful spinning Technics turntables spun in one brightly lit corner, linking their artists. The connections were a bit difficult to work out: sound, light, orbs. Mirza had drawn from the Arts Council collection and his whims determined the exhibits.

Back at the Queens, guest curator Shiva Feshareki was disappointed to miss the exhibit, as she has collaborated with Mirza and I was the bearer of bad tidings as we had a brief chat after her selection, No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film I saw at London Film Festival back in 2009. It told a real story about underground musicians in Teheran defying the authorities, but staged it with the actual participants, blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction, which I found interesting. 

The early checkout time on Sunday proved a bit frustrating as the last film was in the evening and I had to dash to make my train. Sorry, Claire Denis. I will have to catch all of 35 Shots of Rum another time. 

It was an enjoyable weekend, although I do feel the team (all volunteers) could make much more of the location, which has numerous unused spaces. How about some cult films running on a DVD overnight? Bring your duvets and pillows and voila! Instant all-nighter. Or maybe something more sedate, such as high tea and discussion? There were salons in the lounge, but with people around talking over their drinks, it was next to impossible to hear what the curators were saying to the small groups that gathered. It's a great concept and certainly well worth supporting.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Slumber Party Massacre

Well, here's to waiting and waiting. I first heard about Slumber Party Massacre in the early '80s, possibly when Rita Mae Brown made an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. As I recall, when the film came out, she disassociated herself from it. But, it appears all of these statements are bones of contention because when the film appeared on the NFT 3 screen on Friday, there was her credit as screenwriter. It really boggles the mind. Rita Mae Brown of Rubyfruit Jungle and Lavender Menace fame writing a screenplay for a slasher film? But, it appears she had ideas about refreshing the genre, making it feminist. And on this viewing, possibly making it queer, as well.

But, the finished film, reworked by director Amy Holden Jones, is far from those heady heights. It is a scream, in every sense. Viewing it with S., we both laughed, gasped and issued those well-known exultations of the horror genre. Something on the order of "Uh-oh" or "Oh, No!!" or "Ack!" many, many times. The film works brilliantly as both a send-up and an exemplar of slasher cinema: teenaged girls trapped in a house by a maniac try to survive and then fight back. Brown may well have had plans for sporty Trish and new girl Valerie, but the finished work leaves their relationship dangling, as both lie panting next to the bloody pool that contains their nemesis the Driller Killer. Ah, well.

The film and one of its sequels, Slumber Party Massacre II, were screened courtesy of The Final Girls, a group linking horror and feminism, which I heartily endorse. Their conversation between films touched on such topics as the nudity in the film (a requirement of producer Roger Corman), the relationships between the characters, and their means of fightback, which included a baseball bat, a drill and a large machete. I popped out for some air, so missed the end of the chat.

And then it was back for the sequel, making its UK premiere. It is truly batshit cray-cray. The original killer is now a leather clad, black-booted facial-haired singing and dancing rock god driller killer, something on the order of a hillbilly George Michael. What's more, he's touting a guitar-shaped drill, which in no way highlights the whole phallic symbol thing going on in these films. Oh, No. It was all fun and games until the last shot, which kind of undermined the whole film and left us all going, "Oh, really?" Nevermind. The girls had a band in this film! And they practised in a garage!

The backstory of these films is really fascinating and the way they have sort of crept into the mainstream via much better known films such as Scream and Scary Movie is pretty much par for the course. Female-written and -directed horror films have never got the credit they deserve. SPM is worth making an effort for. And whatever happened to Rita Mae's screenwriting career?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Queer British Art 1861-1967

The unwieldy title contains a wealth of meaning and significance--a major exhibit at Tate Britain with an LGBT subject? A rainbow flag (RIP Gilbert Baker) flying over the venerable house of art on the banks of the Thames? Gluck gazing out defiantly from the hoardings and pamphlets? Wowzers. There is something already contradictory in this exhibit using the word queer in such an august institution.

For what is "queer art"? Art made by self-identified LGBT people? Art made by people who had same-sex leanings? Art with overtones of same-sex desire? I am really not sure having spent some hours in this exhibit, with wildly varying representations. It proceeds from changes in the law that affected gay men--sodomy being the important definition for the law, if not for the queer population. So, we are already looking at parameters that may or may not be relevant to the artists and the contemporary viewer.

But, the art seems to have been included based on what the curator Clare Barlow decided was relevant. Rarely did I look at a work and think, "That's quite good" or "That's terrible". I was looking at the biographical information in the captions to see who the sitter in the painting was or what the "queer" relevance was. It's a very different way of looking at art from the usual. As it happened, some of the works were quite compelling, though I was rather unimpressed with Duncan Grant's several contributions. Sorry, Bloomsbury crowd.

Actually, the best known artists were the least interesting in this context--we've seen Hockney, Bacon and Cahun many times before. They are acknowledged for both their artistic achievements and queerness. It is the lesser known artists who captured my attention, many of them women: Evelyn De Morgan, the duo known as Michael Field and so forth. I found myself asking a question I have posed many times since I began writing about women and culture decades ago: "Why have I never heard of her?" Well, there are many reasons--being written out of history, working in secret or cloaking gender to avoid condemnation.

But, there were some happy surprises. Who knew Kenneth Halliwell was a talented artist? His library books with Joe Orton occupy a case and draw giggles but Halliwell also has a large collage on a wall and it is very impressive. The caption tells the story--shown in 1957, the exhibition was a failure. The story of his life, sadly.

There is some effort at social context--captions question the power relations between white artists and black sitters and between servants and masters who painted them. 

But, given the historical backdrop of this whole exhibit, one of legal and social repression, the art is surprisingly lively and joyful. It is also quite multifaceted--portraits, jewellery and even some artifacts are shown. Is the door of Oscar Wilde's prison cell really art? Or is it a memorial to martyrdom?

I shall finish with the mysterious Sammy who was part of a group of women who explored drag in the early twentieth century. Her photo hangs on a wall in the exhibit but very little is stated about her or her circle. I want to know more about these women.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Flare: Heartland

Two very different films set in the American southwest show the limits set on queer behaviour.

The very powerful documentaryl Southwest of Salem outlines the appalling treatment of four women in San Antonio, Texas convicted of child rape in the 1990s, in part because of a religious panic and in part because of anti-lesbian sentiment: "They think this is what gay people do," one of them explains. "No, it's not." Over a number of years the women discuss their lives and we get to know them through their testimony and that of family members and supporters. Eventually, their case comes to the attention of an advocacy group and the wheels of justice begin to move ever so slowly. But, one is forced to reckon with the tremendous power of hearsay, bigotry, and misogyny that allowed the case to proceed in the first place. Sobering.

Not so with the drama Heartland, set in Oklahoma, as a local girl returns home after the death of her partner to find her hometown and family unchanged and unmoved. Having an affair with her brother's girlfriend does not exactly endear her to her mother, who refuses to even acknowledge the death of her girlfriend. The set-up is fantastic but the film falls apart in the third act with ridiculous over-acting and melodramatic music underscoring the emotion. Oh, dear. Why not just let it flow? I found myself only really rooting for the unfortunate interloping girlfriend rather than the annoying family. She had a lucky escape.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Flare: Tales of the City

As I have perused the Flare titles available as online screeners, I couldn't help but notice how many originate in San Francisco, a city dear to my heart as I lived there for a significant time in the 1990s. Much of what I knew is gone now, so I have heard, but I always sit up when I see SF locations in a film.

Naturally, I was intrigued to see a documentary on writer Armistead Maupin, he of Tales of the City fame, directed by Jennifer Kroot. The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin is a fine encapsulation of his extraordinary life, from growing up with "good blood" in the south, to serving in Vietnam, meeting Nixon in the White House, and of course his eventual arrival in SF, coming out and becoming a famous writer. Not that it is told in chronological order. Rather, themes emerge, signposted by some nifty animation, and famous talking heads such as Amy Tan, Sir Ian McKellen and Laura Linney chime in with their thoughts. One of my own thoughts was how extraordinarily privileged a life Maupin has led: not everybody gets invited to do half the things he has. But in the end even he is racked with insecurities and a need to find his own "logical family", as opposed to the biological one from which he felt so alienated. The city has certainly given him that, as well as inspiration for his books. It was a pleasure to view.

Not so much with Snapshot, which could have been a very suspenseful queer take-off on Hitchcock, but ended up being more extended sex scenes interrupted by some plot. I was quite creeped out in the first 15 minutes as photographer Charlie stumbles in on a couple having sex before a terrible murder takes place and she realises she has some photographic evidence. But clearly director Shine Louise Houston is more interested in the sexual shenanigans of voyeur Charlie and her new squeeze Danny than actually unravelling the mystery, which kind of evaporates half-way through. What a disappointment. But, even here sun-dappled San Francisco looks lovey. Nice setting, shame about the story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Flare: Our Love Story

Films featuring love at first sight are common currency and Flare had its share. One drama I found quite enjoyable was Our Love Story, a Korean film featuring a mature art student who finds love in a junkyard. Definitely a meet-cute. The story that follows features copious late-night drinking, a clueless parent and curiously vague supporting characters, but the two leads are impressive, especially Sang-lee Hee in the thankless part of the endearingly dorky artist, Yoon-ju. Not so keen on the non-ending.

I was much less impressed by Below Her Mouth, a Canadian film starring a supposed super model. Nice cheek bones. Shame about the acting. The filmmakers clearly wanted to foreground the sex and forgot to write a decent story and I found it extremely tedious with shallow characters I didn't care about. Nice lighting and the blue jumper in the (again) non-ending scene was quite cool, too. Why can filmmakers not end their films properly?