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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to catch a screening of the documentary, Cameraperson, at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY. Director, producer and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson was also in attendance. She took to the stage afterward for a brief Q&A, which was moderated by Academy Award nominated filmmaker, Joe Berlinger. Much to everyone’s delight, she spent much of the interview skirting around the theater aisles, getting up close and personal with audience members.

Johnson spoke of dealing with the grief – and occasional guilt – that often comes with making a living as a cameraperson. As always, there are cuts to be made, and subsequently, footage that falls through the cracks. She referenced hours of unused footage from past projects, specifically, a documentary centered on two Afghani teenagers that never made it past post, due to a conflict with one of the film’s subjects. Thankfully, much of this footage found its second home in the making of Cameraperson.

She also discussed how the audience shapes a film and ultimately decides its meaning. Therefore, the image on its own holds a future and is ever-changing. Cinema is a two-way relationship, a dance between eyes and screen. (Perhaps a hint at a possible theme?)

Cameraperson is equally disjointed and harmonious, sound and upsetting. We are jolted around and carried, virtually turned upside down and gently left to settle. Johnson possesses the unique talent of telling a story with the potential to change with every viewing.

After the screening in NY, I was (admittedly) far too shy to approach the director in the flesh, so I reached out to the production team afterward, to ask if they might pass along some questions toJohnson. Much to my delight, she was able to carve out some time in her busy schedule to respond! Below are her answers via email.

Sophia Cowley for Film Inquiry: How did you get your start as a “cameraperson” ?

Kirsten Johnson: Today this question has somehow made me think of a long-forgotten story my parents used to tell about me as a toddler. Apparently at the age of 2 or 3, I was picked up from some hours at a babysitter’s house and I stated very strongly, “Me never go back. Me no wanna go back!” My concerned mother asked why and I said, “No pictures on wall.” I have cared about images as long as I can remember and apparently even earlier than I can remember.

An Interview With Kirsten Johnson, Director Of CAMERAPERSON
source: Janus Films

Cameraperson seems to me like a film that is centered largely on relationships. In fact, I was struck by a statement you made during the Q & A, that “the image is a relationship that continues.” Would you mind elaborating on this concept?

Kirsten Johnson: I believe this very strongly now because of the experience of making this film and watching it over and over with audiences. The initial set of relationships is between the people making a film and the people being filmed. What gets filmed may or may not make it into a movie. The people may keep knowing each other or the experiences may only live on in each of their memories, but whatever evidence of what happened between them that lives on in a movie is reactivated by the audience who watches it.

Literally every time I speak with an audience about Cameraperson, I encounter a new way of relating to the film. There has been no end to the creation of relationships and insights generated by new people watching the film. This creation of connection through the camera obsesses me.

An Interview With Kirsten Johnson, Director Of CAMERAPERSON
source: Janus Films

Do you feel that the film accurately represents your memories of the people and places you visited? How does experiencing life through a lens affect your understanding of the moment? 

Kirsten Johnson: Accurate is not a word that I believe relates to memory. Memory is fragmented, abstract, and ever-incomplete. What is filmed is also only a fragment of a moment. But film and memory both help us conjure that which matters to us. The film represents as much filmed evidence as I could bring together in an hour and a half about what matters to me about camerawork. I believe that seeing through a lens changes one’s relationship to time and space.

Where do you believe the line is drawn between documentary and the frequent, almost obsessive recording of daily life that goes on in this age of the iPhone?

Kirsten Johnson: I am not particularly interested in drawing lines that separate people or their activities. I believe that when people film they are searching for something. The evidence of what they are searching for is in the footage.

Who are your current inspirations? Have you found support from other women in film?

Kirsten Johnson: I am currently wildly inspired by the work of Mehrdad Oskouei, Laura Poitras, Wojciech Staron, Michal Marczak, Kitty Green, Brett Story, RaMell Rossand Khallik Allah. I am lucky to know all of them enough to talk to them about why they are making some of the choices that they are. I am always searching for the chance to actually talk to people who make the work which moves me. I am surrounded by women who make films and who support me. My entire career is built on the support of women. The credits ofCameraperson are an extensive list of the world of women who help me exist.

An Interview With Kirsten Johnson, Director Of CAMERAPERSON
source: Janus Films

In the past, Kirsten Johnson has collaborated with Academy Award winning director, Laura Poitras, working as cinematographer on many of her films, including CitizenFour. Kirsten Johnson has also directed, shot and edited a multitude of highly acclaimed original shorts and feature length films. We could not be more grateful to Johnson for providing us with some insight into her brilliance.

Cameraperson was recently released in the UK and is still showing in select theaters in the US. For more information and for entire film credits, be sure to check out the film’s website here

 This post was originally published at FilmInquiry.com

— SDC

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source: Ad Vitam

“It’s like everything changed in the blink of an eye. One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit.”

When I heard those words in voice-over I thought: yep, that’s what it feels like to grow up. In Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘s debut film, Mustang, five orphaned girls fight to escape the oppressive nature of their adoptive family and cultural surroundings.

The banding together of women in transition is a natural process, especially when their collective goal is to counter a patriarchal force. We see this, “us against them,” separatist mentality in films like Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes, and even Kill Bill. But the narrative behind Mustang is a bit darker and more historically conscious.

Current Day Turkey

Actually, Ergüven received some violent backlash from her homeland of Turkey over Mustang. Perhaps this was because it hit a little too close to home. The director’s portrayal of conservative traditions like arranged marriage and modest dress for women, as well as violence among men are reflective of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s (frankly archaic) views on gender roles in Turkey.

source: Ad Vitam

Ergüven believes the plight of women in Turkey is, “now very grave,” which is another reason why her film is so important, as it successfully brought about heated discussionin the Turkish sector of women’s rights. With last month’s attempted coup against the Turkish government, the rest of the world is now rightfully paying attention.

Premonitions about Turkey’s instability are present in Mustang as we witness men rebel and generations clash. There is a pitch invasion at a national football game, leading men to be banned from the next match. In addition, the young women who feel empowered to think more freely are forced into shapeless frocks.

Seeing The World Through The Eyes of Girls

In an interview with Huffington Post, Ergüven said, “For me, it’s very important to look at the world through the eyes of girls. In cinema history we have always been looking at the world through the eyes of men.” I think Ergüven succeeds with Mustang in creating a new world where women (specifically the youngest sister, named Lale) are its guide.

From the POV of the sisters, we can quickly see the absurdity of societal and familial pressures facing them, and we can also understand why they must band together. When the girls are seen “pleasuring themselves” on the shoulders of boys (they were playing a chicken fight game in the water) they defend each other fervently against the hands of their grandmother. She literally has to pry each sister away one-by-one as they cling on to each other.

The Presence Of Touch

One key to expressing emotional closeness on screen is the presence of human touch. Through shots of the girls lying down together, playing like little children or simply embracing, director Deniz Gamze Ergüven invites us to feel the familial love that exists between the young women of Mustang. In fact, the film both begins and ends with an embrace, creating a circular sense of love.

source: Ad Vitam

When tragedy strikes the family, the girls take to resting in darkness, lying lethargic in bed. One sister lightly brushes her fingers against another’s arm, comforting her. The girls lie in a pack-like fashion, as if they were wolves. Someone’s foot touches another’s leg. Their hair blends together. They sleep for what seems like days, mourning a loss. But their soft affection for one another brings them back to life.

Cinematography And Color

The color palette in Mustang is beautiful: blue, grey, and cool tones reflect rural calm. Since the girls are forced to spend most of their time indoors, they are often seen in relative darkness, the mood somber. But interspersed with these darker shots are playful, sun-lit moments. The light of day brings softer colors like light pink and seaside blue, which wash over the screen.

At one point, the girls move from the dull, quiet countryside to an energetic red-toned soccer stadium. Brilliantly, the camera moves swiftly with them, in a hand-held style. The contrast between shots in the home and this new kind of movement is obvious and electric. Boredom meets excitement, the thrill of freedom captured in loud light and sound.

“Women must be chaste and pure”

During one scene, a voice from the television says, “Women must be chaste and pure, know their limits, and mustn’t laugh openly in public.” This statement eerily reflects President Erdogan’s views on women and reminds us of the reality facing many Turkish women. The girls of Mustang are marred by the cultural ideal that a “a woman is above all else a mother,” leaving no room for extramarital affairs or anything that would taint their reproductive duties (a.k.a. going to sports games, socializing, etc.)

source: Ad Vitam

The sisters are shamed for playing an innocent game with members of the opposite sex and are swiftly turned into wives and mothers-in-the-making. They sew clothes, learn to cook traditional meals, and meet with prospective partners.

In Conclusion

Based on the very little I knew about this film before watching it, I was honestly expecting more of a cultish thriller like Dogtooth. But what I got was something closer to Like Water for Chocolate meets Virgin Suicides. I hesitate to make any comparisons, though, as Mustang truly has its own flavor.

All in all, this is a film grounded in cinematic beauty and visceral sensation. Ergüven, along with cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, appeal to the tactile senses, creating intimacy within the frame. Equally as important, though, is the emotional bond cultivated between the sisters.

Mustang offers us a glimpse into the conflicted world of the Turkish woman: her struggles, her joys, her need for freedom. Though the film portrays only a small subset of Turkish women, Mustang provides a much needed voice to a population that is ready for rebellion.


Originally published at www.filminquiry.com on August 22, 2016.

— SDC

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I first watched Party Monster a couple of years ago, when once-infamous club promoterMichael Alig was released from prison, where he served 17 years for brutally murdering his drug dealer. The 2003 biopic, based on James St James’ memoir, “Disco Bloodbath”, flew under the radar during its initial release. But the film’s subject, “Club Kids” of ’90s Manhattan, once commanded TV screens across the country.

Since my first viewing of Party Monster, I have developed a minor obsession with underground club culture and am convinced that the film is just as relevant in 2016. Today, the need for safe spaces and occasional escapism is at an all-time high, as our society awakens to its deeply rooted discrimination toward marginalized groups. Party Monster offers lessons on the importance of self-acceptance, self-expression, and how to live for the moment.

Needless to say, Party Monster also shows us the downside of the underground club world. This film, in part, serves as fair warning to anyone chasing the high life, as what begins as innocent fun takes a dark and twisted turn.

A Brief History of Club Culture

Although Michael Alig was the original “Club Kid,” the clubbing scene began long before his time. Young socialites have flocked to underground dance parties since the 1920s, with the formation of speakeasies in Prohibition-era America. And in the UK, nightclubs existed as early as 1912, with the opening of Frida Strindberg’s The Cave of the Golden Calf.

New Year's Celebrations at Club USA

Club kids and denizens (from left:) Michael Alig, Richie Rich, Nina Hagen, Sophia Lamar and Genetalia attend New Year’s eve festivities at Club USA in New York City, 1994. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)

In the book “Club Kids: From Speakeasies to Boomboxes and Beyond, the early lure of nightclubs is described as an escape from the monotony of desolate rural (or suburban) life. People were excited by the anonymity, freedom of expression and poetic darkness that surrounded urban night-life. Plus, alcohol and drugs (especially cocaine) were plentiful during a dry period, and the dancing didn’t end until dawn.

Once the late ’80s rolled around, raves took over the party scene in NYC. Here’s where the Club Kids came in to play. The same pleasure-seeking behavior that drove flapper girls to speakeasies brought young people of all backgrounds to the electronic music-fueled world of the underground club scene. It became a world of “shared bodies, ecstatic flesh and alternative communities, who seize the cover of night and turn the darkness into their playground,” as stated in Club Kids.

“One Big Party that Never Ends”

Alig, played Macaulay Culkin in the film, was a midwestern transplant with big dreams. As he declares in his opening monologue, “One day I realized, I didn’t want to be like all the dreariesand normies. I wanted to create a world full of color, where everyone could play. One big party, that never ends.”

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Party Monster unabashedly exposes its subject’s hedonism, maintaining colorful and loud to its core. Seth Green, as fellow Club Kid James St. James, embodies his most playful and absurd character yet (second only to his role as a horny teenager in Can’t Hardly Wait). The film follows a mockumentary style that allows Culkin and Green to address the audience like we were sitting in the room with them.

We watch their mentor-protégé dynamic morph into a twisted, but genuine, friendship. We also see the pair partake in elicit drugs – everything from coke and ecstasy to heroin – and throw illegal parties in donut shops.

But most of all, we get to watch Macaulay Culkin prance around in heels, wearing over-the-top costumes and theatrical makeup. And maybe that’s enough reason for Party Monster’s cult status. (It’s worth noting that a real-life documentary on Michael Alig exists, though it is ten times as frightening as the 2003 Party Monster.)

Of course, all good things must come to an end. Alig’s inevitable crash arrives in the second half of the film, with increasingly shocking party scenes, hard drugs and trashed hotel rooms. Not to mention the heinous manslaughter of Angel Melendez, fellow club-goer and drug dealer. Writer/directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato certainly don’t hold back when it comes to their blatant, at times almost comical, portrayal of murder and addiction.

“I don’t do, I just am.”

In one scene, the Club Kids are featured on a talk show. Everyone is drenched in glitter and body paint, and James St James is dressed as a literal troll. When the host asks James what he does for a living, he replies, “I don’t do, I just am.”

In my opinion, his statement is both an indicator of upper-class privilege and a nod toward the “come as you are” attitude of underground club-culture. Yes, James is definitely a trust-fund baby who can afford to party in Manhattan without a real job. But I think his statement also says that he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone.

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As the film progresses and Michael begins recruiting Club Kids from around the country, he attracts eccentric teens who – like himself and James – have been socially outcast by their peers. The “Kids” (one of whom is played by Chloë Sevigny) run to him looking for new, glamorous identities. Michael frees the Kids from their closed-minded backgrounds, nurturing their creative expression (before turning them on to drugs, of course).

Film as Counterculture

All theory aside, Party Monster feels a bit like a wannabe John Waters film. Its kitschy, B-movie aesthetic speaks to avant-garde filmmakers who made movies with a group of their friends on a $1000 budget. But the irony here is that Party Monster had a budget of $5 million and was produced by Hollywood big-wigs.

The film made $742,898 in gross profits but achieved its cult classic status because of its so-bad-it’s-good quality as well as appearances from cultural icons like Chloë Sevigny, Marilyn Manson and, of course, Macaulay Culkin.

The DIY directing style of Party Monster, despite its Hollywood construction, is representative of counterculture in general. I don’t think the film would have made sense had it been shot more traditionally, without the staged acting or low camera resolution. The Club Kids did not conform to the mainstream, so why wouldn’t a film about them be equally eccentric? The relationship here between mainstream (Hollywood) media and the subject of counterculture is rather interesting, though.

Conclusion

Party Monster takes camp to a level that probably should never have existed, though I’m glad it does. At times cringeworthy, the film embodies the frightening-yet-fascinating counterculture of the 90’s club scene. We are dragged into a world created by outrageous characters who tell us that it’s okay to be different. The risqué parties, the extravagance, the costumes – these were all tools used to build a space where people could be free.

But as the film continues and history unfolds, we can see this idealism wearing off. It’s hard not to be a little disappointed in Party Monster as a film, because the story it tells is a rather disheartening one. That being said, Club Kids were – and are – a significant piece of subculture history, and one that deserves some notice.

Luckily, if nothing else, Party Monster will definitely demand your attention.

SDC

originally published on Film Inquiry

*This review contains spoilers*

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Directed by: Natalia Leite

Written by: Natalia Leite

Stars: Dianna Agron, Paz de la Huerta, Chris Zylka

We focus on a girl, dancing alone in silence at a night-club. Lights flash and we see her face illuminated by a spotlight; she looks almost directly at the camera. The girl desperately snorts coke in the bathroom, our first introduction to the abrasive lighting that carries into the next scene, at the grocery store. It is here we meet our main character, a young woman named Sarah. Even outside of the supermarket, in Sarah’s own home, the screen is drenched in white. Outside, overcast skies follow.

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Sarah is quiet, the timid dreamer, in need of direction. Angelic light trails her every move, until she meets  Pepper, a drunken, wayward woman without a home. It’s not that Pepper necessarily draws in darkness (both in the technical, cinematic sense and more metaphorically). But she adds a shadowy complication to an already jaded Sarah. I wanted more from Pepper, more spark and intrigue, rather than the frankly boring character we are handed. She’s eccentric by small-town standards, an outcast in the New Mexico town. On one hand, I can understand Sarah’s attraction to Pepper; she’s never met anyone as free. But we as the audience (who have presumably stepped foot outside of our hometowns) have a harder time falling for Pepper and can sense the inevitable disappointment from the get-go.

So instead of enjoying bearing witness to a developing love-affair, I found myself instead waiting for the collapse. And when their romance did disintegrate, it was unsurprising, anti-climactic. That being said, I think the development of Sarah and Pepper’s relationship is realistic in that they move slowly, uncertainly, always with a subtle danger building in the background. (Almost like “Carol,” if Cate Blanchett played a homeless drug dealer.)

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“Bare” moves softly, but is full of spaces, empty like lives of its characters. Luckily, the film is (at least, in part) redeemed by three things: interesting lighting, a feminist queer narrative and its discussion of small-town sex workers.

In a frankly half-assed adventure, Pepper takes Sarah to Reno, an electrical cityscape lit by loud neon. The girls escape to casinos, their hedonism fueled by flashing lights, bright sounds and colors. The grey is gone, along with the loneliness and metonymy of their home town. Noticing her bewilderment, Pepper says to Sarah, “You should see Vegas.”

Soft light is brought back in an intimate sex scene, powered by Pepper’s truck headlights. This feels real (or at least more real than the famed nine-minute-long sex scene of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.)  Here is where the perspective of a female director shines through.

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Whether intentional or unintentional, I was appreciative of the feminist agenda behind Bare.  Sarah’s boyfriend continually tries to “save” her as he notices her changing– she starts stripping and enters a lesbian relationship– but all he knows is that she isn’t the same scared girl he knew before. Her boyfriend tells her she isn’t being herself, that she needs help, thus attempting to define her. Meanwhile, Sarah is more free than she has ever been, which means she is a threat in the eyes of the patriarchy. Sarah is routinely shamed by men; first her boyfriend and much later the cops, who treat her like a dejected animal.

Sarah often watches women, including her mother, smoking alone. To me, this image speaks to the culturally inflicted isolation of American women, who are raised to be lost without a partner (man) and/or children. Of course, these things are changing in our society (!!) but I think the image is still a very powerful, sad one. In one scene, Pepper says to Sarah: “If you don’t make your own choices in life, life makes them for you.” By life, we can presume Pepper means fear, socially constructed expectations and, ultimately, men.

Sarah is afraid, but for good reason. Taking charge of your life is no easy task. Sarah starts her journey by having a smoke with her mom, under the soft light of the sun. (Before running away, of course.)

 

— SDC

 

Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour

Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour

Stars: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marhsall Manesh

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In “Bad City,” no one is safe.

The film opens on a young man, standing far left, next to what appears to be a dumpster. He wears a white t-shirt and jeans, like James Dean. He disappears into the structure and returns with a cat in hand. The man then walks away from the camera, looking back only once. We watch as he trails down a long, straight road.

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Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night unfolds slowly; following the trail of this establishing shot, the film reveals details only when appropriate while leaving no stone unturned. The narrative comes to us in pieces through detailed shots and rather sparse dialog.

With that in mind, there are a few individual scenes worth delving into.

The first close up of the film is of a woman’s face, fully made-up. She bats her eyelashes at the young man walking by, releases a coy smile and follows him hungrily with her eyes. We watch her watching him, a reversed gaze that continues once the Girl is introduced. (Although truth be told I wish the Girl would command more of the camera. We see the first half of the film mainly from Arash’s perspective.)

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In one scene, the Girl—really, the Vampire—dances alone in her barren room to American-sounding music, surrounded by posters of Madonna and other Western icons. We compare this image to that of the drug dealer in his lavish home, as he listens to electronic music, snorts coke and counts money. He lifts weights while making eye contact with the vampire.

She doesn’t speak, yet her mouth is responsible for her victims’ deaths, like a siren without a song. Actually, the first time we hear the vampire speak, she is addressing a young boy. She asks him, repeatedly, “Are you a good boy?” Perhaps she sees a spark of innocence in him, a chance for this child to grow up a decent man, unlike the criminals and junkies whom she targets.

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For the first half of the film, the camera pays strong attention to characters’ mouths. We see objects entering mouths: cigarettes, fingers, candy, pills and we watch them disappear into dirty abysses. The extreme close-ups move from mouths to eyes during the second half of the film as tones shift from sensual to reflective. Hossein becomes fixated on the cat’s eyes and even the headlights on Arash’s car look like eyes opening.

Since AGWHAAN is, after all, a monster movie shot in black and white, there is no doubt that the film reflects aspects of drama/thrillers from the 1950s. Aras, the James Dean look-alike, drives a vintage car, his prized possession. In a scene where Arash proclaims his love for the Vampire, the two stand by a freight train, a factory in the background. The mise-en-scene makes me think of On the Waterfront, with Arash in place of a madly-in-love Marlon Brando. The film’s slower pace, sound effects and drama are reminiscent of old Hollywood, though its script is not heavy on dialog, unlike 40s and 50s melodrama or sci-fi thrillers.

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In fact, on a completely different level, AGWHAAN reminds me of Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 sci-fi thriller, Under the Skin. But instead of Scarlett Johansson playing extraterrestrial “femme fatale” we have actor Sheila Vand as a blood-sucking antihero.

Of course, we cannot read either of these films without addressing their feminist elements. In Under the Skin, Johansson’s character reverses the male gaze by targeting and stalking men as she cruises around urban Scotland. The vampire in AGWHAAN plays a similar role, observing crooks on the streets of “Bad City.”

Then there is the supernatural aspect of both female protagonists. Obviously neither character is human, so the narratives work on a suspension of disbelief. Arguably, this suspension of disbelief creates more “wiggle room” for the development of the feminine narratives. In other words, a nonhuman female character (i.e. the vampire) may be more likely to pass as a killer or to possess authority than a human female (i.e. the Prostitute, who is under the control of her pimp). And, of course, her primary weapon is still her physical appearance. There seems to be a struggle in feminist cinema to create female antiheroes that do not play into the femme fatale stereotype. (Although Marvel’s TV series “Jessica Jones” comes close.)

That being said, it is undeniably empowering to watch a woman defend herself—and other women— against oppression and assault, whether or not she is “technically” human. Either way, she’s badass and genuinely scary.

At its darkest points, AGWHAAN is like Requiem For a Dream meets Blue Velvet. We are taken into drug dens and private bedrooms, through a dilapidated cityscape and a well-to-do neighborhood. We see people through a fish-eye lens, shaky cam shots and at least one notable POV shot (where a young boy pulls on his mother’s arm). The director of photography, Lyle Vincent, plays with both wide and telephoto lenses in a style that is both experimental and classical. The result is a film that feels like something I shouldn’t be watching and yet I can’t take my eyes off of it.

 

— SDC

 

 

Directed by: Robert Eggers

Written by: Robert Eggers

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

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I have been slightly obsessed with films distributed by A24 lately, and when I first caught wind of The Witch about four or so months ago, I was thrilled. Truthfully, I am not one for horror films, but something about this one grabbed my attention.

The film is set in colonial New England, where a family of seven is banished from their plantation due to an apparent religious dispute. Led by a fundamentalist Puritan father, they must learn to fend for themselves on the edge of a vast and foreboding forest.

We watch as a family descends into madness, apparently at the hand of the devil. The eldest daughter (Thomasin) is accused of being a witch; the mother (Katherine) loses her mind; the father (William) loses both his authority and sense of morality. William stresses to his children that every human being has been born into sin and must repent to avoid the fiery depths of hell.

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But soon after moving to their secluded farm by the woods, the family begins to succumb to the supernatural. Before too long, the wilderness becomes hell on Earth. Sure the symbolism is laid on pretty thick, but omens like the goat and rabbit give the story a biblical feel that compliment the film nicely.

I had assumed The Witch would fall along the same lines as Dogtooth and Martha Marcy May Marlene, films that feature isolated families under the control of a father figure, the hyper-masculine antagonist. But I was very mistaken. In fact, it is the feminine that rules within The Witch. Thomasin and Katherine claim autonomy from William relatively early on. Both she and her mother criticize William and threaten his place as head of household. Katherine does not approve of William’s decision to move their family to the woods and makes it clear that she wishes to return home. Thomasin, in a fit of rage, points out her father’s failure to provide a harvest and accuses him of sin.

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Thomasin’s and Katherine’s characters are not the only feminine forces within the film. The surrounding wilderness, the land itself, is feminine by nature. We know from the beginning that there is “evil in the wood,” or an element of the supernatural. William assures his son, Caleb: “We will conquer this wilderness. We will not be consumed by it.” In other words, man will conquer the wild, the free (and arguably, the female).

Of course, William fails to tame the spirits of the wood. But is he demise caused by the Devil? or is the family’s destruction self-inflicted? Depending if your perspective is spiritual, historical or psychological (or a combination of the three) your answers may be entirely different.

The cinematography creates intimacy in an expansive environment; the camera lures us into the with Twin Peaks-ish shots, zooming in on looming trees. Tight, purposeful shots frame the family. But there are plenty of beautiful wide shots of the wilderness as well, allowing our eyes to explore the landscape. A24 definitely knows how to support gifted cinematographers like Jarin Blaschke (The Witch, I Believe in Unicorns) and Daniel Landin (Under the Skin) as well as Robbie Ryan (Ginger & Rosa, Fish Tank).

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All in all, The Witch is more folklore than horror, like a fairytale thriller. Some scenes are deliciously gory, but the majority of the film is still and dramatic. If you went into the theater expecting to be terrified, you probably walked into the wrong movie. The dialog (and dialect) is authentic—almost to the point of needing subtitles— but in case you missed anything, The Witch is worth a second watch. While this film will most likely not keep you up at night, it will certainly stick with you, and it will keep you asking questions.

 

 

Director: Sean Baker

Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Stars: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karen Karagulian

 

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Rarely in cinema are we lucky enough to experience a film that so fully embodies the present moment without the rose-tinted glam of Hollywood. Sean Baker’s fifth feature length film, Tangerine, is so grounded in the strange and bewildering world of today (granted, the film’s world is rather small) that it almost feels like watching a live-stream report or even a high-brow reality TV program. And I mean this in the most complementary sense.

The plot of Tangerine is essentially this: on the same day that trans sex worker, Sin-Dee, is released from a brief stint in jail, she discovers that her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her. The rest of the film follows Sin-Dee and her best friend, Alexandra, as they attempt to track down her pimp and his mistress. But Tangerine is not a simple revenge story. It is part vignette and part traditional narrative. The story follows multiple story-lines: Sin-Dee’s, Alexandra’s, and an Armenian cab driver named Razmik.

From the very first scene, Baker nods toward a multitude of filmmakers, from Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater to Quentin Tarantino. The film opens with an overhead shot of a café table (feat. two pairs of hands and a donut) reminding us of Coffee and Cigarettes. The main characters’ vulgar language, the casual anecdotes, the LA backdrop, the violent manhunt all bring to mind Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Meanwhile, the multiple storylines, the time constraint (specifically, a narrative that occurs over a single day) and the colloquial dialog are reminiscent of Linklater’s Slacker and even Dazed and Confused. There is arguably even a Lynchian aspect to the film: in one scene, Alexandra performs cabaret in front of a red curtain, perhaps a Blue Velvet reference.

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The script is littered with pop culture references and is set to blaring electronic music as well as classical scores. It is the ultimate mix of realist imagery in a surrealist context. The time is now, but now seems unreal: in one scene, two obliterated men puke all over Raznik’s taxi while one of them yells for him to take them to a holiday after-party. Tangerine moves rapidly, but hangs when a pause is appropriate. At times, the characters themselves are too quick for the camera to keep up, but the more pensive, stagnant shots capture key moments in the film. In one scene, a long take of Sin-Dee at the bus stop is followed by a tracking shot of her briskly returning to her mission. This is just one example of the film’s dramatic mood swings: from over-caffeinated to introspective and vice versa.

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I could analyze the film from a sociocultural or LGBT perspective, but the truth is, Tangerine does not present with a political agenda. To me it is a film about payback, entangled with themes of friendship and love. The distinction here is that Tangerine is not about what it means to be a sex worker or a member of the trans community. Nor is the film about what it means to live in poverty in present day LA. Instead, Tangerine features marginalized members of society in a small scope, providing a new, open space for a tried and true narrative. This does not mean that the plight of being queer/trans/impoverished is ignored, however. The reality of Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s ostracization comes out in subtle moments: in one scene, a policewoman tells Alexandra that it’s Christmas Eve and she should go back to her family. Alexandra replies, “What family?” As Tangerine progresses, we come to see that Sin-Dee may be the only true family that Alexandra has.

One of Baker and his co-writer’s successes with Tangerine is their ability to portray strongly feminist themes throughout the film. As previously mentioned, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are more than best friends; they are family to each other. Sin-Dee drags her hostage (another sex worker, Dinah) to Alexandra’s singing gig, determined not to miss it. Alexandra cleans up Sin-Dee after an anonymous punk throws piss at her. There are oddly touching moments between Sin-Dee and Dinah: the two share a peace pipe in the club bathroom and Sin-Dee silently does Dinah’s make-up. This sisterly solidarity builds up walls between female and male characters and is reminiscent of feminist separatism.

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However, we remain sympathetic toward the so-called male “antagonists,” Chester the pimp and Raznik the cab driver. The two possess redeeming qualities and are effectively humanized. Chester may be truly in love with Sin-Dee (he had proposed) and is so downright stupid that you can’t help but feel badly for him. Raznik has an unrequited crush on Sin-Dee and follows her around like a lost puppy. Tangerine is full of shocks, but perhaps the most shocking of all is how heartfelt the film is at its core. The script and cinematography are both explosive and exploitative, but there is much warmth to be found within the scenes.

Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, offering a lesson on a new genre of voyeurism, one that could only exist in this technological age. There is a dualistic intimacy and distance to the camera. Shaky, rushed shots bring an acute awareness to the camera work, keeping us from focusing directly on the characters. In these shots, the filming feels immediate, urgent. Of course, this camera work is entirely purposeful and directed. Yet the same camera tricks us into believing we see the unfiltered truth behind the characters. Baker’s use of the iPhone breaks down walls that have so long been cemented into place by traditional Hollywood cinematography.

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Tangerine is an honest look at what it means to be a part of today’s world. There are brilliantly captured images of desperation and greed, all side effects of the dysphonic, displaced world in which we currently live. There are booming sounds and hyper dialog, without the special effects.

At the end of a long day, Sin-Dee and Alexandra sit side-by-side, tired but content. As we watch the two of them at the close of the film, we experience the same weary satisfaction.