Today's entry marks the first official selection of the horror genre. It isn't my intention to project ill will toward familial bonding the Friday after Thanksgiving, as I'm having a fine time with my partner and parents. However, maybe this post will entertain those waking from food comas or folks heading back home.
I'm a recent convert to horror movies. I started my master's program in media studies four years ago dead against them. Apart from being an easy scare, I was convinced as an avowed feminist that there was nothing salvageable about such a violent genre. I was quickly put in my place by some members of my cohort, whose feminist identity was defined in part because of their horror film fandom. My appreciation began with reading portions of film studies professor Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I learned a great deal from her theorization of the archetypal Final Girl, a smart, resilient, often androgynous protagonist with feminist potential for whom Halloween's Laurie Strode serves as an exemplar. A smart commenter brought up the Final Girl in my recent post on Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl. The influence of Clover's ground-breaking book continues to be felt in the academy, and insinuates itself in movies like Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. I continue to be inspired and challenged by commentary from sites like Dark Room and Fangirltastic.
Another important aspect of horror movies that needs more critical inquiry is the foregrounding of female homosocial bonding. Recent releases star groups of women engaging in physically exhausting or extreme activities. British writer-director Neil Marshall's 2005 feature The Descent focuses on six women who go spelunking in an unmapped cave system in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.
Reception is important when thinking about movies. So far, the titles I've selected played in a theater at some point, whether on a festival circuit or during a theatrical run. This wasn't always the case with the work of Toronto-based queercore pioneer G.B. Jones. Though her movies were screened at festivals, some also played in galleries or make-shift event spaces.
I have some misgivings about entering into the fourth week of the series and only now addressing a picture with a transgender protagonist. These concerns are made worse by the cruel dramatic irony that the main character in Southern Comfort is a man who dies of ovarian cancer. It is complicated by the fact that the selection in question is also the first documentary I have considered for the Bechdel Test Canon. I meet most documentaries with incredulity, encountering components like editing with skepticism rather than regarding the finished product as truth.
Given mainstream Hollywood's fondness for glamorous actors and happy endings, it is a wonder 2008's Frozen River's lead actress Melissa Leo got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt a nod for Best Original Screenplay. Surprising none of its fans, both women went home empty-handed.
Today's entry is one of two movies in the series that is part of a trilogy. It is particularly noteworthy for following an installment that gets more critical attention. Frankly, I think Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is massively overrated. It seems strange to me that Hollywood has attempted to remake it so many times since its 2003 release, though its densely choreographed action sequences and emotional bombast elucidate its stateside mainstream appeal. The feted second feature of the Korean filmmaker's vengeance trilogy is celebrated for its grim subject matter, varied cinematic style, composer Jo Yeong-wook's sophisticated score, and emotional nuance.
Lady Vengeance has all of these elements and far surpasses Oldboy in its ability to dazzle and unnerve.
Relative to Breillat's other movies, 2001's Fat Girl is fairly tame until its problematic conclusion. Documenting the misadventures of fifteen-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her younger sister Anaïs (Reboux) while on a family vacation, the movie highlights the disparity between the girls' attitudes toward sex despite their shared virginity. The older sister, who is slender and conventionally attractive, is interested in entertaining men's spirited advances and harbors a romantic naïveté when embarking on a dalliance with Italian law student Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) that she mistakes as more than a fling. Though only twelve, Anaïs, whose beauty is often ignored because of her size, is far more cynical. She wants her first time to be with someone she does not love and watches in horror as her sister gets played, her warnings ignored.
Writer-director Spike Lee is a contentious figure, especially regarding gender politics. His debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, established this reputation by depicting rape as consensual between the polyamorist female lead and her vindictive partner, resulting in bell hooks' seminal essay, "Whose Pussy Is This?" In subsequent releases, Lee has been criticized as sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic in his constructions of relatively unformed, castrating women and the limited narrative arcs they traverse. Thus, many detractors may not think a movie of his could pass the Bechdel Test, much less have a complex black girl character at its center.
In Two Friends, leads Emma Coles and Kris Bidenko deliver nuanced, ingenuous performances as polar opposites Louise and Kelly. The movie documents the dissolution of their childhood friendship following Louise's acceptance into an elite girls' academy that Kelly's stepfather refuses to let her attend. I chose 1986's Two Friends for a few reasons. Its status as an Australian TV movie is exceptional, though it screened at the Cannes Film Festival as well. Helen Garner's script unfolds in reverse chronology. Though she only wrote a few screenplays, Garner has since enjoyed a long career in her native Australia as a novelist and journalist. Finally, as a follow-up to Campion's breakthrough short film, A Girl's Own Story, Two Friends is one of Campion's few films to foreground the fragile nature of adolescence and female homosocial bonding. Typical of her output, it does so with nary a hint of condescension.
Today's entry is the first in the series to focus on the work of a female director. In the coming weeks, we'll discuss contributions from filmmakers like Jane Campion, Catherine Breillat, Deepa Mehta, Rachel Raimist, G.B. Jones, Lynne Ramsay, Julie Dash, and Courtney Hunt, among others. But Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel more than deserves her place in that list of auspicious talent, as she demonstrates with 2008's haunting La mujer sin cabeza.
Monday's inaugural entry focused on a Palme d'Or winner. Thus it seems only appropriate to switch gears today and discuss a movie that was shelved for three years before it went straight to DVD in 2009.