Category Archives: Feminism

and now for something comprehensive

As I have undoubtedly mentioned at some point in the last several months, I’ve devoted a lot of my filmmaking efforts in the first portion of 2012 to my senior thesis film (also known as comps at Carleton).  It’s an experimental piece called when you wish upon a star, essentially a mash-up of Lady Gaga music videos and Marlene Dietrich films with footage of myself, a (perhaps overly?) complicated and problematized exploration of persona, celebrity, gender performance, and the performance of identity in general.  It tries to be a film theory and critical analysis through film-making, a sort of “filmed theory” as I have termed it, asks questions about whether comparisons I have made and wanted to make were even acceptable.

It was truly a labor of love, and after more than four months of such loving labors, I finally completed and presented it two Fridays ago in the second round of the CAMS comps film symposium.  (For those of you who were there, thank you thank you thank you; I am of a mind that comps talks are a bit like funerals, in terms of attendance, so it was wonderful to see so many faces I love in the audience.)

Then, coincidentally, I discovered later that evening that the blog Marlene Dietrich: The Last Goddess had just published a post entitled “Lady Gaga, Marlene Dietrich, and…Anna Swanson?” — and aside from the immediate fact that it’s a massive ego-sweller to have my work as a filmmaker analyzed for the first time, I was also struck by the (for lack of a better word) accuracy with which Joseph, the blogger who wrote the piece, perceived exactly what I had intended to be taken from the film, meaning-wise.  Or rather, not ‘exactly’, but approximately, since the film is so much about the difficulty of pin-pointing meaning, and is very much intended to be interpreted through whatever lens each new viewer brings to the work.

I was particularly thrilled by Joseph’s reaction to how I was wrangling with whether to ascribe to Dietrich the mantle of queer iconography and feminism: “I can’t help but wish that all the folks who ever professed that Dietrich was their feminist icon would watch Swanson’s piece!”  And the comment thread that his reaction to my comps sparked was similarly intriguing and satisfying.  It even gets around to touching on the question of whether Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” is reductive in its treatment of gender/identity/sexuality/etc. — to which I would respond that ‘reductive’ is relative, and that this song may perhaps be the most effective (or at least the catchiest) example of strategic essentialism to be found today.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking seriously about how to exhibit and control the distribution of my work; I’ve been jokingly taken up the motto that I will require a second screening of a film immediately after its has ended, and force my audiences to watch it twice.  And in a somewhat related vein, I’ve been wondering about whether to make my work completely and publicly accessible online, which has been my M.O. for all my work in the past.  To that end, I recently decided to make the online version of when you wish upon a star private/password-protected, which I have been interested to note has been noticed by the blogger(s) at The Last Goddess — the entry on my work has a new heading:
EDITED MAY 7, 2012 TO ADD: Looks like the video has been made private. What a pity!

More flattery.  Goodness.

So, for now, while I wrestle with my (cough) burgeoning fame and (cough) burgeoning ego, I would just like to insert a shameless plug for an upcoming LIVE screening of this work of mine.  For anyone who missed my comps talk but is in the Carleton area this weekend, we will be hosting a screening of all 10 senior comps films in the Weitz Cinema at 8 pm on Sunday, May 13.  It will be a truly beautiful extravaganza of moving image pieces that have had the hearts, souls, sweat, blood, and tears of we brave artistic souls who are the graduating Carleton CAMS seniors of 2012.  I personally guarantee a good time shall be had by all.

on finally seeing pariah

I’ve been looking forward to the film Pariah ever since I first saw the trailer at BAM this summer (and subsequently blogged about its uncannily consistent juxtaposition with the trailer for Gun Hill Road).  I even mentioned this state of heightened anticipation while seated near James Schamus at one of the several formal meals that we enjoyed together while he was at Carleton last term; when he overheard my comment, he interjected with something to the effect of “THIS FILM IS SO GOOD! YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE IT.”  Which, even coming from the guy who runs the company that produced the film (Focus Features), struck me as totally genuine and basically made me even more excited for the release of the film this past December (if that had been possible…).

Adepero Oduye rides the bus in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, as Alike in Pariah.

So: on Friday night, thanks to Carleton’s Metro Arts Access Fund and the efforts of Sarah Berlin (Sarah: you rock.), I was at long last able to see Pariah.  For those of you who don’t frequent Autostraddle (or similarly queer-ish online publications) and have therefore missed the ongoing hype about the film, the basic premise centers on the coming-of-age of Alike, a black lesbian teenager in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who excels at school and expresses herself through poetry, wants to find a girlfriend ASAP, and isn’t exactly out to her parents.  Familial clashes ensue over time spent with her openly lesbian best friend, Laura, and her mother, played with surprising sobriety by Kim Wayans, decides that forcing her into acquaintance with a colleague’s daughter, Bina, will solve things.  So of course a sleepover with Bina turns out to be Alike’s first romantic counter.

Aasha Davis as Bina and Adepero Oduye as Alike.

Pariah is director Dee Rees’ first feature, an expansion of her earlier short film, and it preserves so much of what won it the Audience Choice Award in 2007 at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: the great cinematography, the very Brooklyn feel of the mise-en-scene, the poignancy and rawness of the performances, especially that of star Adepero Oduye, the honesty of the storytelling, undoubtedly the openness and necessity of the story content in this day and age.  But here’s my complaint: somehow, even expanded to 86 minutes, it still feels like a short film — the ending seems too soon, our glimpse into Alike’s coming of age too short, too easy.  Perhaps this is because the temporality of the film is so fluid, that the final scenes and Alike’s preparation to leave for California and college come so quickly, but it feels as if the conflicts that were driving the film remain less than fully examined, or left to remain unresolved.  And while this is frustrating to a viewer who wants more of any good queer cinema we can get, perhaps it also speaks to the lingering unspeakability of these questions of identity.  Even with films like Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh, streaming on Netflix NOW, run don’t walk to SEE THIS) and Pariah being released in 2011, queer cinema is still finding its voice, just like Alike and her poetry.  But it is finding it, and with that, finding wider audiences — and I firmly believe that we can only expect more truthful, powerful, beautiful work to ‘come out’, as it were, as the decade progresses.  Especially if I have anything to say about it.

auteur du jour: peggy ahwesh

Born: 1954 in Pittsburgh.
Currently a resident of: Brooklyn. (represent!)
Favorite themes: sexuality, language, vision, female experience/subjectivity, the manipulation of genre conventions
Style: found footage, Pixelvision, alternative narrative, documentary, digital animation
Most famous film (arbitrary): The Color of Love (1994) for appropriating graphic material in the service of approaching the beauty and sensuality of the medium as inherently haptic.
Films by her that I have seen: From Romance to Ritual (1985), Martina’s Playhouse (1989), The Deadman (with Keith Sanborn, 1990), Nocturne (1998), She Puppet (2001), The Third Body (2007), Beirut Outtakes (2007), Bethlehem (2009)   //  [check out her full filmography here.]
My favorite: Nocturne (1998), for breathtaking reverse sound and motion, complicated explorations of female desire, and requisite dreams within dreams.

Ubuweb calls her a “true bricoleur…her tools include narrative and documentary styles, improvised performance and scripted dialogue, synch-sound film, found footage, digital animation, and crude Pixelvision video. Using this range of approaches, she has extended the project initiated by 1960s and ’70s American avant-garde film, and has augmented that tradition with an investigation of cultural identity and the role of the subject.”  Her work spans myriad experimental media, and has evolved into the digital age in ways that challenge new technology while still engaging with theory, language, and vision as bravely as ever.

Language and cinema have had a long and complicated relationship.  (Not unlike that of language and philosophy, language and queer/gender studies, language and… etc.)  Many film theorists have tried to speak of cinematic language, to conceive of film in linguistic metaphors (enter semiotics!), and many filmmakers have argued for cinema beyond language (Godard’s next film is going to be titled Adieu au Language, although admittedly this is a slightly different case), because it is a visual medium; it shouldn’t need words to express itself.

So what makes the work of Peggy Ahwesh so fascinating is her total embrace of language: she frequently uses voice-over of herself or collaborators reading aloud from texts, theory and fiction and poetry, or includes reading and quotation within the diegesis of her films.  Hers is a cinema of allusion, appropriation, of dialogue, but where the practice of “folding language into, or asking it to hover above, the image is predicated on an understanding of the shortcomings of language itself”(Senses of Cinema).

She began her career on Super-8, drawn to the artisanal and home-made feel of the medium as a means for exploring both language and looking.  One of her earliest films, From Romance to Ritual (1985), invokes and inverts the title of the 1920 book by Jessie L. Weston as it, like the book, draws connections between pagan history and ritual and mythology, though Ahwesh’s myths are not those of not King Arthur but the (modern) woman.  Such titular references are common throughout her body of work, including one drawn from classic Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1987), which I have as yet been frustrated in finding a means of seeing (if anyone has a copy lying about, drop me a line!).

Martina tells a story to the camera in Martina's Playhouse.

Her 1989 Martina’s Playhouse, which she purportedly titled thus as a counterpoint to Peewee’s Playhouse, focuses on the young daughter of an artist friend playing at gender roles, intercut with footage of filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery in Ahwesh’s apartment and close-ups of flowers.  It is notable, however, for the voice-over of first a child (Martina) reading haltingly from Lacanian theory about the constitution of the Self and the desire for the Other, which is then re-read later by an adult voice.  As part of my comps (comprehensive senior thesis) project, I’ve been thinking a great deal of late about how one can “film theory” — that is, enact critical and scholarly work through the very means of production that we in the CAMS world are critiquing and studying.  One idea for my own film that I have been considering is having my self to staged readings of excerpts from various theorists (Eco, Irigaray, Butler, etc…), so seeing this played out in this film was very intriguing to me personally.

It speaks to the power of language as one of many tools of the cinema, not necessarily as a metaphor for cinema itself, and to the power of repetition and whose voice we record or listen to.  It gives me hope for the possibility of theorizing through film, but in Martina’s Playhouse, there is a lack of heavy-handedness that allows the voices, words, and images to create the potential for engagement in the viewer rather than forcing any interpretation, characteristic of Ahwesh’s ambiguous and open-ended style, who says herself that “the reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution.”

Ahwesh directly captured footage of herself playing Tomb Raider to make She Puppet.

In this vein, her recent work She Puppet (2001), which consists of screen-captures of Ahwesh-as-Lara-Croft in Tomb Raider with a soundtrack drawing quotations from a number of literary sources,  has been called “the most succinct and powerful essay on the position of women in the field of cinematic vision since Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’.”(Senses of Cinema)  In She Puppet, the words and their accented readers complicate the otherwise straightforward imagery, creating a sort of serious-playful, poetic-theoretical discourse that does more for the rewriting of women’s place in cinema than Mulvey did with her seminal 1975 essay.

One other film by Ahwesh that I also have yet to see but would love to find a copy of is 73 Suspect Words (2000).  Her artist statement at Electronic Arts Intermix describes it as “a deceptively simple and ultimately chilling meditation on the power of text…based on a spell-check of the Unabomber’s manifesto, the work evokes the violence underlying the key words presented.”(EAI)

She is also known for her frequently graphic portrayals of sex and violence, but her female subjects seem to maintain subjectivity, or even when they don’t, it is really a case of the film lacking a subject altogether, suggesting that perhaps the subjectivity lies not within the diegesis but in the viewer and film themselves, as the mutually engaged viewing subjects that Vivian Sobchack posits in her “Phenomenology and Film Experience.”

As much of her older work (she’s been active since before 1983) is on Super-8 and other analog formats, some of it can be hard to get ahold of, but several of her films are archived online at UBUweb.  Ahwesh is currently a professor at Bard College, and is currently continuing to make more provocative and awesome experimental work as the 21st century complicates the meaning of cinematic experimentation.

little manic pixie dream girls go to the movies

It’s Sigfried Kracauer week in Film Theory!  That means reading, among many other things, his classic essay “The Little Shop Girls Go to the Movies”.  So far I’m finding that I love his style — it’s hard not to get carried along by the rather impassioned polemic that is played out in powerful prose.  And for the most part, I think I agree with some or many of his arguments (let me get back to you on that once I’ve had several class discussions on this past weekend’s reading) — but I am troubled by the gendering of “Little Shop Girls”, particular in its equation of the female spectator with a disparaged and low-brow mode of artistic and cultural reception.  Kracauer may be a mighty polemicist, but he’s no feminist.

“In the endless sequence of films, a limited number of typical themes recur again and again”(Kracauer, 294).   “Little Shop Girls” is organized around Kracauer’s scathing attacks on these stereotyped film forms he sees as glutting the Weimar cinema, presenting with admirable rhetorical strategies a series of eight typical modes, “textbook cases…subjected to moral casuistry” (Kracauer, 294).  One of these examples was particularly fascinating to me, in that it essentially outlines a historical-Germanic version of (500) Days of Summer — that is, Kracauer has written a 1920s description of the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, in critiquing what he has christened “The Golden Heart”.  It’s not too long, so I’m taking the liberty of including it in full:

“A young Berlin wholesaler, an industrious manager of a first-rate company, visits a business friend of his father’s in Vienna; the paternal friend’s firm is going to pieces because of the disorder in Austria.  The quest would leave, if it were not for the business friend’s daughter, a sweet Viennese gal who makes it clear to him that there are other things besides management: the waves of the Danube and the wine gardens specializing in new vintages.  With delight the young man from Berlin discovers his dormant feelings.  He cleans up the company, which will soon be turning a profit again, and gets the gal for home use.—Even without close-ups, this course of events would be believable.  Whether in the city of waltz dreams or on the beautiful beaches of the Neckar—someplace, but not here in the present, the rich are falling in love and discovering in the process that they have hearts.  It is not true that they are heartless: films refute what life would make one believe.  Outside business—which admittedly would not be the right place for heart—their hearts are always in the wrong place.  They are brimming with feeling in situations where it is of little consequence and are often unable to do as they like, only because they waste their feelings so uneconomically in private affairs that their supply is continually running out.  One needs to have experienced the tenderness and gentleness the young man from Berlin expresses to the Viennese girl under the Stephansturm in order to understand once and for all that his brutal behavior on the telephone does not indicate a lack of sentiment.  The camera reveals this.  What he really loves is operettas, and what he really longs for is an idyllic retreat in which, undisturbed, he can open his poor heart, which he has had to close off in all other situations.  If there were no Viennese woman in the to keep his heart from interfering in economic matters, it could in a pinch, be well accommodated by the record player.  Through films, one can prove on a case-by-case basis that with rising prosperity the number of emotional nature preserves is constantly growing.  The little shopgirls learn to understand that their brilliant boss is made of gold on the inside as well; they await the day when they can revive a young Berliner with their silly little hearts.”

While this obviously differs a bit in the details, the overall scheme he lays out kept my mind’s eye fixated on a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in lederhosen, who instead of The Smiths “loves operettas” and “really longs for…an idyllic retreat” to the 1920s German equivalent of Ikea.  Kracauer’s every invocation of “the little shopgirls” began to look like a long string of aspiring Zooey Deschanels and Kirsten Dunsts and Natalie Portmans.

It is interesting enough in itself to note this evidence of the early genesis of the MPDG trope, but what intrigues me more is the way it is critiqued.  These days, Anita Sarkeesian and others in the feminist and/or media blogosphere tend to take the trope to task (along with its perpetuating screenwriters/directors/et al.) for it’s limiting and fairly unrealistic portrayals of women, to the point of arguable misogyny.  Kracauer’s position is obviously not in line with this post-third-wave-of-Feminism understanding: his contempt for a female audience that is just as two-dimensional and frivolous as the 1920s-equivalent MPDGs on screen in clear.  His contention with the archetypes, while based in a similar understanding of their un-reality, is more largely focused on the economic and class disparities that he sees, distinctions which he highlights at the expense of the equally present gender inequalities and unfair portrayals of “little shopgirls” and the type of women they are looking to on the silver screen.

Like I said, Kracauer isn’t exactly a feminist.  But at least he can get riled up about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her Wimpster, which makes for good reading.

lessons learned listening

: Or, a first manifesto.

For the past three weeks, the vast majority of my time has been devoted to shooting Tick Out of Time, the independent feature film that several of my fellow Carls have made happen this summer – this in itself a pretty amazing feat.  On July 17th the camera began speeding on the first take, and so many crazy days and nights of extreme heat and lost sleep later, we completed the martini shot, as they call it, in the late evening on Thursday, August 4th.  Wrapped.

Thus, an entire feature film has been captured on an endless series of re-formatted CF cards, and I was privileged enough to be a part of it – or rather, two feature films.  The first, the intended narrative fiction of Tick Out of Time, the second my own documentary-narrative interpretation of the process.  I originally came on board with the project, at the passing suggesting of the illustrious John Schott in early June, as the film’s documentarian.  The idea was that I would basically hang around and take stills and some footage of the process – auditions, discussions between the three members of the creative team, work meetings, location scouting, rehearsals, all the aspects of pre-production, production, and post-production, with a sort of vague intention of creating a documentary film, or at least a making-of movie.  (I also shot and edited this short promotional videofor the IndieGoGo page.)

It went as described, but as shooting arrived, my role transformed to something of a documentarian-digital imaging technician-social media maven-assistant camera-sound two operator-featured extra-production assistant extraordinaire, a getter of many birthday cakes and hotdogs and light bulbs and whatever else we needed at any given moment while sweating slowly to death in our interior location on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I somehow ended up giving my life to this project for three weeks, and in the meantime, juggling two other internships and, despite the many other tasks I was fulfilling, valiantly finding ways to keep shooting for my documentary, which the idea of actually producing in some extended and meaningful form was becoming more and more interesting to me.  I’m still trying to synthesize everything that I received in return for the life I have given to Tick Out of Time – beyond some travel expenses covered and a great deal of craft provided, I’ve learned more in this short, hectic, brilliant, stressful process than I probably could in any production class at Carleton.

  1. What a budget can accomplish – even a small one.
  2. Pre-production is one long series of phone calls.
  3. Mobilizing your friends and family to help make your movie can work.  Sometimes.
  4. Shooting in the summer means you will sweat.  Always.
  5. The new Final Cut Pro X may actually be pretty good.
  6. A well-crafted file structure and digital organization are a must with so many shots and takes.
  7. You cannot make a movie [of this nature] alone.
  8. That yes, filmmaking with a crew will attract attention on the streets of a city.
  9. Talent release forms: you can never have enough of them.
  10. What technical approaches to apply for certain aesthetic choices in sound recording and cinematography.
  11. Sometimes aesthetic choices are forced by technical constraints — and this can be frustrating or incredibly catalytic for making a better movie.
  12. At some point, you realize that all the sleepless nights and sweltering afternoons and early mornings have been entirely worth it.

I’ve also had some revelations of a more personal nature, or at least relating to my own conceivable future practice in film.  I’ve realized that some of my hesitancy to be in what I see as the “mainstream” mode of film production (even in the no-budget world of the indie flick) — with 90-page screenplays, directors, producers, talent, caterers, set designers, DPs, crews, key grips, and such — has been a sense of not having access to the technical experience or organizational power that this requires.  To some extent, working on this film has thrust me into those technical and organizational roles, brought me to the realization that I can’t wait for some special permission to ‘be’ a filmmaker.  I must simply begin.

Me on set.

At the same time, not because any great misogyny has been perpetrated by Mother’s Favorite Pictures (quite the contrary — I have had sensitive and meaningful discussions regarding gender and the film industry with Gabe in particular), the whole process and my realizations about the almost subconscious avoidance of the undeniably ‘masculine’ power structures and mechanical/technical aspects of production has redrawn my attention to the overall gendering of the industry, the art world, and the opportunities presented to me in general as a young female aspiring filmmaker.  Because on many levels, film is as much business as it is art, and the money and power required to produce it are historically located in the hands of (white upper class) men.

(I beg no forgiveness for any feminist polemics that begin to emerge, because such self-excusing only serves to keep the power of the female artist in check.  At the same time, I make no direct accusation toward individuals and wish to make no enemy – my enemy is, at the risk of simply ‘blaming the system’, the embedded social constructions that no one of us has created and no one of us can single-handedly rework.  That is the long road down which we have progressed far, indeed, but not far enough – The Farthest Shore still winks in the distance.)

As a student of film, I have also been drawn to the experimental and avant-garde forms of cinema, historically more artisanal and intimate, requiring less of that masculinized money and power with the artist working alone or in concert with one or a few others.  Historically, perhaps, a more feminized mode than that of the ‘mainstream’ film production, but nonetheless a male-dominated realm of the arts as well.  But I wonder, a bit, whether some of my interest in the avant-garde arises from both my oppositional feminist leanings and a subsequent desire to be subversive, to be ‘avant-garde’ in its most oppositional sense, and from my desire to make film being diverted by fear of the ‘masculine’ large-scale production mode toward the more accessible ‘feminized’ personal, intimate, artisanal tendencies of the historical avant-garde.  The genre can carry a sense of the immediate, a made-by-hand style that resonates with me, but this summer has made me question, to some extent, the true nature of my affinity for this type of film, and how this affinity functions within the discourse of gender that is inherently part of my relationship with the world.  Likewise, documentary, cinema verite and the essayist modes of Chris Marker and Agnes Varda have grown increasingly influential in my own storming brain, sparking lightning bolts of thoughts as to what I may want to do with my filmmaking.

So that is the clearest lesson of all: that I ought to be making films.

I suppose I have known this all along, or since the moment I walked out into the magical starry October night after screening In the Mirror of Maya Deren, a sophomore in college calling home to declare that I had found my calling, pacing the streets of Northfield and waxing eloquent (sophomorically, perhaps) on the virtues of Meshes of the Afternoon.  Or perhaps much earlier when my thirteen-year-old self painstakingly produced a documentary of my grandfather’s life, what now seems a clunky Ken Burns imitation redeemed by sheer luck and purity of emotion into an essayist paean to the deeply personal experience of death at a young age.  Or perhaps even earlier, when I, the ever-wakeful preschooler, would desperately will myself to sleep during naptime, knowing that a successful afternoon sleep was the prerequisite for watching a movie with my parents on any given night in our wilderness wooden enclave on the outskirts of Park City – a feisty four-year-old yearning for films and blithely unaware of the strange magic being worked upon me by growing up within the shining aura of Sundance.

This summer has been a reminder that I wanted to declare my major four terms early; a summer devoted to the moving image, its production, consumption, consideration.  A summer of sitting steeped in the history of ‘essential cinema’ at Anthology Film Archives, of exploring the horizons of new media and video art at Eyebeam and on W. 14th street, of keeping my camera rolling on a daily basis, and of course, experiencing full immersion into the world of the making of the independent film.  I have been flirting aggressively with psychogeography, but I think now it is time to realize that psychogeography needs a means of translation, and that I can make that means of translation this medium to which I am renewing my vows.  I have been flirting with feminism (or at least the academic study therein associated), but this too, can be in concert with my camera — a choreography of life that is filmic and focused on understanding myself and the world through the twin lenses of my gender and my Nikon.

Luckily, there is no requirement that I choose one mode or genre of film and cut ties with all others — to be experimental, to be mainstream, to be experimentally mainstream, to work with narrative, to work with documentary, to work with narrative documentary and the liminal spaces between the constructed reality and the supposition of ontological truth in chemically or digitally images, to be a psychogeographer and a feminist and a Japanese scholar and a filmmaker — all roads are open.

I am committing myself to making no commitments, except to the need to express.  So long as I am breathing film, I think I can come close to finding all the frustration and happiness that will fulfill and sustain me.

And so, I am incredibly grateful for the experience of being a part of Tick Out of Time — as the post-production process kicks in, I will undoubtedly still be around and perhaps take on the co-editor role the guys have offered me, eager now for experiences that bolster my ambitions.  And I do, in truth, have a special love for this project that keeps me coming back in spite of constraints on my time and wonderings as to whether I should be working on more of my ‘own’ work.  Rather like an anthropologist, I am steeped in this participant observation.  As I continue to shoot this documentary (and I will, in the post-production phase as well), I become more convinced that it may be something bigger, a subjective realist narrative of my own awakening, the unconventional screenplay for which may be this very blog post.  I see a film infused with the artisanal and the intimate, a film that does not abandon feminism or psychogeography or theory but builds its foundations on a mental montage of all this and more, a film that attempts irony and humanism and rejects all universals.

This is the art, as Jonas Mekas says, that we do for our friends and for ourselves.