Feminism

“Night Comes On” dir. Jordana Spiro (2018; French title “Long Way Home,” 2019)

Some time ago I read a review of a film, the title escapes me now though I remember it well, which referred to the cliché of mould-encrusted bathrooms, seen in panning shots of the dirty tiles, to represent poverty. Not having money, or the time and skills to fix/remove the mould on the tiles, is represented as base, disgusting. The critic mentioned this as being a particular feature of films where poverty is “feminised.”

Aramide A Tinubu, in her Shadow and Act review on Night Comes On (or Long Way Home, to use its French title) refers to the importance of this film about two sisters and their grief for the murdered mother being written and directed by women:

“The importance of a female director and writing team in this coming-of-age film can’t be overstated here. Fishback’s body was never once put on display gratuitously and moments in Angel’s life, one marred with sexual assault and coercion aren’t used as plot points in the script. Still, it was the moments between the sisters, both the snippy banter and the softer connections where Spiro makes her mark as a director. It seems unimaginable that a male writer or director would able be to capture a 10-year-old girl’s horror at her first period and her big sister's detached but comforting reaction.”

Coming home last night after seeing the film that shared the Prix de Jury prize at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema, a festival set up in 1975, I thought the same thing. I recognised my gratitude for the fact that one particular sequence – when Angel goes to get a gun – avoided spelling out a stereotypical representation of a woman in a state of duress, where her desperation leads to humiliation and abuse. The writer/director team seemed to be aware of this, moreover, drawing attention to what was expected, for it to be interrupted. When Angel does finally get the gun from the dealer, we are shown her walking away from the car, afterwards. Nothing is shown.

Most of all, I was moved by Dominique Fishback’s performance as Angel. Subtle expressions on her face carried this film, the performance by the non-professional actor playing younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) is wonderful too, but Fishback’s characterisation has such depth, it reminded me of some of the great performances from Italian neorealist cinema, where the central female character tries to gain self-worth in an environment that if not explicitly out to undermine her remains indifferent.

I also truly loved the brief moments of connection between the sisters – see the moment when they touch hands in the above trailer at just before one minute; or when Abby sleeps against Angel on the bus (echoing earlier scenes where Angel sleeps alongside her mother, or dreams that she is). Spiro’s skill lies in the way this scene is deeply moving (even though nothing happens) and the fact that it is given more time than the next, which while a key moment in the narrative is undeveloped. This felt authentic and real.

The film is not flawless, some of it felt a bit too “neat” – perhaps even formulaic, made-for-TV in parts – but its simplicity and the performances of the two leads, more than makes up for any of its weaknesses.

Apparently, the English-language title comes from a Leonard Cohen song of the same title from 1984:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow I said,
Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world

Here is an interesting MovieMaker interview from August 2018 where the director Jordana Spiro describes the writing process with Angelica Nwandu:

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk me through the long writing process, which I understand had many changes, from the original spark to deciding you needed a co-writer and beyond. 

Jordana Spiro (JS): The initial spark started over 10 years ago. I wanted to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside and get inside of her journey and explore the beauty and also the darkness that comes with what’s going on with her.

I asked the executive director of Peace4Kids if he might recommend somebody to work with me. He heard the story I was developing, which has since taken a very different shape, and he recommended Angelica Nwandu. At the time, Angelica was writing very beautiful, visceral poetry about her experiences in the system. We met and found a real complicity in the way we wanted to express ourselves, what we wanted to say. With her on board, the script became a living, breathing thing.

MM: What did Angelica bring into the writing process with you?

JS: Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Was I looking for a co-writer, or was I looking for a kind of consultant to educate me? But it became very clear, as we started working together, that I wanted to ask her to be my partner in writing. We are both drawn towards a kind of lyrical and poetic sensibility, which allowed us to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve got an idea that you can only see a part of, but when you bounce it off of another person, the idea evolves and grows into something else. We had a similar appreciation for the poetry that you find in the details. It was a rich partnership.

And an interview with the director and the film’s lead actors linked to the success at Deauville …

To read my writing on films (Barry Jenkins, Chantal Akerman and others) please go to the “cinema” tag.

In praise of: ‘Manifesto,’ dir. Julian Rosefeldt, starring Cate Blanchett (2017)

‘Nothing is original (okay?)’/‘So you can steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination (okay)?’

Cate Blanchett, ‘Cinema’ Manifesto, playing the part of an Australian primary school teacher

'Manifesto  is a 2015 Australian-German multi-screen film installation written, produced and directed by Julian Rosefeldt. It features Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles performing various manifestos. The film was shot over 12 days in December 2014 in locations in and around Berlin. The film premiered and screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from December 9, 2015 to March 14, 2016. The installation was also shown in Berlin at the Museum für Gegenwart (at Hamburger Bahnhof), from February 10 to July 10, 2016, and the Park Avenue Armory in New York City from December 7, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

A 90-minute feature version premièred at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017

The film integrates various types of artist manifestos from different time periods with contemporary scenarios. Manifestos are depicted by 13 different characters, among them a school teacher, factory worker, choreographer, punk, newsreader, scientist, puppeteer, widow, and a homeless man. The film consists of 13 segments, each 10:30 minutes long.' 

Six people in the cinema, including me, it’s around lunch-time at the Cinéma des Cinéastes (Place de Clichy is just outside, the location written about by Henry Miller in books I thought about re-writing, or at least parts of them, from the point of view of the absent women). All very appropriate when watching Cate Blanchett feminise, embody, the great texts I studied as a much younger woman at high school and university. 

Listening to her intone the pop-sensibility of Claes Oldenburg as if it were a prayer, when saying grace to her own family (eyes closed, to their sudden laughter at one point) or declare the Dada manifesto at a funeral, spitting out the words with spite, at times. Here is an extract from one of the many manifestos written by Tristan Tzara, this is from 1918.

Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners:

DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create:

DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets:

DADA: every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight:

DADA; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future:

DADA; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity:

DADA; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of eve ry useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them—with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least - with the same intensity in the thicket of core’s soul pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom:

DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies …

Originally created as an art installation with all the texts being heard at the same time, here they are transformed into ‘readings’ - as in readings for an audition, we are always aware that they are being performed because of Blanchett’s technique (see, for instance, that striking scene where she is a ‘tattooed punk’ inhaling smoke on the word ‘incandescence’ as if mocking the pretentious nature of the word and language itself. When checking this scene after writing that sentence, I realised this is my imagination, the inhalation of smoke follows the words, it does not frame them).  

I like the way the characters are named, this in itself is poetic: 'Burning flame; homeless man; broker; worker in an incineration plant; CEO at a private party; tattooed punk, scientist; funeral speaker; puppeteer; conservative mother with family; choreographer; newsreader and reporter; teacher.'

Watching this film with its emphasis on foregrounds and still scenes (or aerial shots in the dramatic opening sequence) makes you think more about how cinema is something that is constructed. With this in mind the sequence with the mother leaving her sleeping child is particularly touching (and honest, I was grateful that there was no last-minute close-up of the mother embracing her child).

Outside as the dishevelled woman goes to her motorbike in an environment that echoes her face, etched with neglect, the scene reminded me of the great artist Chantal Akerman’s portraits of women and women’s lives. (Minutes earlier the character has the most remarkable language, poetry and politics fill her mind, as she wearily gets ready to go to work). 

Here are links to all the texts and the scenes and this music makes up the soundtrack:

Paris Récit: At Abbesses métro

Deep, deep in the underground of the Abbesses métro there is a choice: take the stairs, the what appears to be, feels to be, hundreds of steps to come to the external entrance, or wait for the lift. Parisians always wait for the lift, fully aware of the struggle of making the ascent, especially those last final steps. Tourists eager to finally see Sacré-Coeur, can you imagine, see the exit sign and enthusiastically start gambolling up like little goats with great gusto.

Yesterday there was a couple waiting for the lift, who didn’t look French though they were not speaking, so I don’t know for sure if they were foreigners. They were a bit heavier than the French standard, wearing clothes that were also a bit heavier (though, of course, French people; French women especially love wrapping themselves up in thick scarves this Spring-like weather as if they were Scott of the Antarctic).

In French there is a word and concept that is not easily translated into English, that of the regard, as you can see here, the word itself carries multiple meanings, or perspectives:

regard nm
(expression des yeux) expression, look n, eyes npl
Elle a le regard vif et pétillant.
She has a lively, sparkling look.

regard nm
(action de regarder), look n, (short) glance n, (long), gaze n (figurative) eye n
Elle porte un regard très juste sur les choses.
She brings a very exacting eye to bear on things.

Note how in the two examples above, the subject is feminine. This 'look' can also be much more subtle, or nuanced; a person might say that the regard of a person is gentle, or affects them in some way. It refers to the way someone looks at something and the expression on someone’s face; the act of seeing and being seen.

Also waiting for the lift was a woman in her early 20s at most; with that shapely bird-like young woman’s body that seems not yet formed, not yet changed by her experience of life, with such tiny legs like driftwood. She had long blonde hair that she played with absent-mindedly, as she talked with her friend (and later tied into a long pony-tail that swayed as she moved).

The woman in the couple wearing heavy clothes would have been in her late 30s or older possibly, had dark red lipstick and an attractive face. She also wore jeans. And how she looked at this younger woman; she could barely direct her attention elsewhere.

I watched her watching the young woman. The expression on her face transfixed me, as it was a combination of curiosity and, possibly, tenderness marked by loss. I was intrigued by this and the way she could not look elsewhere, there was a certain hunger in the way she looked at this young woman that did not reflect the situation as it existed in that moment.

Now I know most people reading this would say it was ‘jealousy’ – how we like to believe that women are jealous of other women – but this would not be correct. Her expression had a softness about it, especially in the way she seemed so compelled to look at the young woman who was completely unaware (and yet her look was not maternal).

Others might refer to the silent man standing beside her, standing there staring at the announcement bar above the lift, but he was absent. Those same people might argue that there was some story of infidelity behind this (perhaps this woman had found a secret cache of imagery of a bouncing cheer-leading archetype – long hair cutting into her back like ribbons, or rivulets as she shook her body - on his laptop, when the mid-afternoon sun made the expression on the teenage girl’s face difficult to make out, distinguish …) 

Now could be the point for me to introduce some critique – and the temptation is strong – of how women are perceived when they are no longer young, but this would be completely inappropriate, far too heavy-handed; the older woman looked at the younger woman as if she were an exotic species, a flower she had never before seen.

In praise of: Chantal Akerman

Not so long ago as some plumbers hacked away at the the tiling around my shower, I watched a very powerful documentary about the (Belgian-born) film director Chantal Akerman; it was almost a hidden experience, trying to make out Akerman's words while the men worked, crashing and bashing at all available surfaces. You can watch the 2015 documentary, dir. by Marianne Lambert, I don't belong anywhere here, or check out the trailer:

Two parts from the documentary particularly affected me and remained with me afterwards. First, when Akerman talks about how in her work she wants us experience the film as if it were happening in 'real time' (or what the US director Gus Van Sant says Akerman calls 'her time'). 'Often when people come out of a good film they say that time flew without them noticing,' she says. 'What I want is to make people feel the passing of time, so I didn't take two hours of their lives, they experience them.' For her the notion of forgetting time, via escapism, is a kind of theft.   

Van Sant says that placing the camera in the same location as the actor gives the scene a kind of hyper-authenticity while also opening it up to chance occurrence, outside the director's control. To illustrate this the documentary includes an extraordinary scene from Akerman's 2011 film, La folie Almayer where you see an actor who sits still, in the centre of the shot (another figure is half-obscured in the darkness). You notice his skin, his bony chest, the half-shadow on his body and then over time and then quite suddenly, within a few seconds, there is a dramatic change in the light that transforms the image, by chance.

'I am cold/The sun is cold/The sea is black.' 

Here is the famous scene of a woman peeling potatoes from the film that launched Akerman's career when she was only 25 and is perhaps her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). With its natural sound, unmoving camera angle we watch the woman work and yet it's unavoidable for us not to feel something: her quiet desperation, or oppression, her boredom. 

The film is largely silent. The central character doesn't speak and yet this lack of commentary is extraordinarily powerful. In this respect it reminds me of an Australian film, Samson and Delilah (directed by First Nations film-maker Warwick Thornton, 2009) where the Aboriginal male character says only one word - his name - during the film; we observe him, we watch what happens to him and how he reacts, but he does not speak. (Even though the tone and location of the two films could not be any more different from one another).   

Here in this interview, Akerman speaks about how she wrote the film quickly, in two weeks. Interestingly Akerman refers to the way she wrote the 'gestures' of the film, not the words, or dialogue. These gestures, these chores that made up the central character's daily domestic routine are the essence of the film, giving her some peace, echoing absent Jewish rituals and providing the film with its unmistakable quality that is part menace, part voyeurism (and all about containment) that Akerman likens to a 'Greek tragedy'. 

The other scene from the documentary that so struck me was an extraordinary sequence were Akerman filmed a very long shot from the back of a moving car of a road with no commentary. This road was the location where a Black American man was murdered (tied to the back of a car and dragged to his death). Over time the very substance of the road, the bone-coloured dirt, its texture, becomes abstract and takes on a kind of presence outside of how we would normally perceive it. (It reminded me of moving water, even though the colour was wrong). It's unnerving, but meditative: unsettling and with a certain beauty even if it is difficult to explain why.

All One Night [Toute Une Nuit] (Chantal Akerman, 1982) - this excerpt from the Vincent Canby New York Times review captures something of the magic of her work.

In the course of a long hot night in Brussels, a succession of men and women meet and make love, or don’t meet and are bereft, as the Akerman camera observes them at a discreet distance...

[Toute Une Nuit] is probably as good a choice as any for getting to know this most seductive of avant-garde film makers.

Akerman’s work is mimimalist to the extent that instead of compressing time, she seems to stretch it to the point where one can hear the beginning, middle and end of a single footstep. She composes her films of facts presented without comment or emotion, as if they were inventories. Yet at their best, her films are loaded with the associations that she magically evokes from the cooperative viewer.

To read more about Akerman's art that changed the direction of cinema, see this feature article on Akerman in the New Yorker published after her death from suicide last year and this obituary from the New York Times, or this feature detailing the way other directors have been inspired by her work (also from the Times).