Woody Allen and Representations of Sisters

8 September 2013 at 19:34 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

My husband and I had a chance to watch Woody Allen’s latest opus, Blue Jasmine, Friday night, and I came away floored. While I have enjoyed many of Allen’s recent contributions (particularly Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris), Blue Jasmine falls alongside Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters as one of his strongest efforts as a writer/director. The film is timely but timeless, expertly structured, well written, and beautifully performed. In short, it’s one of the best films directed and written by Allen in his entire career.

The film focuses on Jasmine Francis, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett. We meet her flying westward and reminiscing about her marriage to a wealthy financier, Hal (Alec Baldwin). Despite her first class seat, Louis Vuitton luggage, and fashionable aesthetic, Jasmine is broke due to punitive actions taken by the government as a result of her husband’s fraudulent investments. Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), takes her in, despite having been negatively impacted by the investments herself. Both Ginger and Jasmine navigate the rocky terrains of romance as well, with Ginger gravitating toward honest, working class types and Jasmine wanting smooth, wealthy men. This difference in taste causes friction between the two. Like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Blue Jasmine is a character study through contrasts, but it’s elevated above that earlier effort by thoughtful writing and Blanchett and Hawkins’ pitch-perfect performances.

Blue Jasmine isn’t the first time that Allen has written and directed a piece about sisters. One of my favorite Woody Allen-directed features, Hannah and Her Sisters centers on the dynamic between Hannah (Mia Farrow), Holly (Diane Weist), and Lee (Barbara Hershey), three Manhattan siblings with close but problematic relationships. In that film, Hannah is the center that holds the three together as a result of the stability she’s gained through her successful acting career and marriage; however, both Holly and Lee resent Hannah’s role and, in their own ways, challenge Hannah’s supremacy–Lee acquiesces to Hannah’s husband’s romantic advances, while Holly uses Hannah’s marital problems as creative fodder. By film’s end, Hannah’s dominant position remains, but Holly finds her own artistic voice and both she and Lee find love of their own.

In both Blue Jasmine and Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s writing and the performances of these amazing actresses capture how dynamics between siblings in childhood reverberate in adulthood; but with both films focusing on sisters, those relationships are impacted by gender. In both cases, it is men that get in the way of the sisterly bond; however, Blue Jasmine incorporates an additional dimension to the contrast between sisters: class. Ginger and Jasmine, despite being of the same parents, exhibit very different tastes, with Ginger choosing the funky, laid-back San Francisco for her home, and Jasmine having previously lived a luxurious life in New York. Their taste in men is similarly divergent, with Jasmine swept off her feet by the smooth, duplicitous Hal, while Ginger opts for direct, working-class guys in her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice-Clay–yes, for real), and fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale, my new favorite character actor of the Guido persuasion). These foils reveal interesting contradictions: Jasmine judges Ginger’s men as crude, violent, and ill-educated, but her own husband’s actions have inflicted the most pain.

Blanchett and Hawkins portray Jasmine and Ginger, sisters with dramatically different tastes and values. Image taken from Free Press Houston.

Here, then, Blue Jasmine questions the social dynamics that allow Jasmine to effectively feign respectability (though the illusion does collapse) while Ginger must defend her choices to her more “refined” sister. It’s an entrancing balancing act that Blue Jasmine plays, one that ultimately tips in favor of the honest sister. And that, ultimately, is what Hannah and Her Sisters and Blue Jasmine share in common: an emphasis on defining oneself authentically, despite the ways in which our familial relationships might pull us back into long established roles. It’s knowing your value outside the family that enables you to survive and thrive.

The poster for Hannah and Her Sisters. Image taken from Wikipedia.

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Confounding Gender and Class in Vagabond

22 August 2009 at 20:41 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) begins with its end: the discovery of a female transient’s dead body triggers the film’s quest to understand the young woman and the events in the weeks leading up to her untimely demise. Through flashbacks, we the audience learn about how a girl named Mona (played by the fantastic Sandrine Bonnaire) lived her life on the road and what feelings this non-traditional lifestyle stirred in those who encountered her.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona in Vagabond.  Image taken from ferdyonfilms.com.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona in Vagabond. Image taken from ferdyonfilms.com.

The vagabond as a character in literature and film has existed for well over a century. The term “vagabond” originated from British law and took on political significance during the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th century Europe when, as a figure of suspicion, constables could “collar vagabonds and force them to show their means of support.” While the original French title of Vagabond does not utilize the term (the literal translation is “without roof or law”), it’s use of vagabond as the English version’s title is significant in it’s political connotations. As the title of this entry indicates, Mona represents a puzzling figure to those around her as one who rejects the social norms expected of her gender and class. This early scene demonstrates the ways in which Mona’s status as a young female drifter sometimes results in confrontations:

But while some characters see Mona as a vulnerable target for their advances, others–particularly women–admire her for her strength. Mona’s refusal to remain fixed in one location, to be tied to any particular relationship, defies norms of femininity. By contrast, we learn of Yolande, a maid to an elderly woman and girlfriend of a verbally abusive boyfriend. Interestingly, Yolande confesses to the audience that she admired Mona for her passion and freedom. As foils, Yolande clearly falls on the feminine end of the gender spectrum, taking care of those around her, while Mona worries solely about her own desires and needs, as demonstrated by her breaking up with various men throughout her journey. In this way, Mona reveals Yolande’s desire to break out of the constraints of femininity.

For other characters, Mona also challenges notions of class. While sharing a bottle of champagne, a female professor questions Mona about how she came to be a transient. Mona divulges that she previously studied to be a typist. “Why did you drop out?” the professor asks. “Champagne on the road’s better!” Mona responds. In other words, Mona chooses the pleasures of life on the road over the stability of a regular paycheck. This lack of concern over class also manifests itself in her appearance–her tattered cloths and dirty hair reveal her status to all who encounter her, repelling some and attracting others as demonstrated by the trailer below:

Through its convention of character confessionals, Vagabond reveals the conflicts that Mona stirs in each individual she encounters, and in the process, forces audience members to do the same. That Mona dies at the film’s introduction and conclusion does not resolve these tensions but produces more, for in her early death, Mona’s aspirations remain uncompromised. It’s this inability to compromise that makes Mona a truly radical figure.

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Growing Up in the Shadow of Death

24 June 2009 at 19:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

Last night, I watched a Scottish film called Ratcatcher (1999) written and directed by Lynne Ramsay. The film belongs to a genre near and dear to my heart: the coming-of-age film. It follows a boy named James, who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Glasgow during the 1970s garbage strike.

In one of the earliest scenes of the film, James accidentally contributes to the drowning death of his friend Ryan and races away from the scene of the incident before being noticed. Though James’ secret remains largely under wraps, the death of Ryan haunts him periodically throughout the film as he hears of Ryan and returns to the canal. The film repeatedly uses water imagery, again referring to the death of Ryan as a defining incident for James’ story.

Ratcatcher’s use of accidental death reminded me of several other films with adolescent protagonists that also witness the death of a peer. What function does death serve in such films? What imagery and themes link films that use such incidents in the coming-of-age tale? And how does class impact this usage? (Other identity issues also come into play since race, gender, age, and sexuality all play important roles in developing these characters. While I would love to delve into each of them, I will set them aside for the time being to focus on class)

In the case of Ratcatcher, Ryan’s death seems to be linked with James’ working-classness. With the majority of the film’s action taking place during the garbage strike, the film’s cinematography highlights the filth that piles up in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, James’ family regularly discusses their application to move into a brand-new housing project, a plan implicitly derailed when James allows the application’s evaluators into the family’s messy apartment while his father is recovering from a hangover. James’ desire to leave the neighborhood is further highlighted when he takes a bus trip to a neighborhood under construction outside of the city. In the sequence below, James clearly relishes the open space of the field outside of the house:

Such lucid, dreamy scenes stand in stark contrast to those in the garbage-littered neighborhood, where older boys bully James’ friends and sexually assault a girl James loves. These everyday occurrences become linked with the murder spatially, as they generally occur near or at the canal where Ryan drowned. As a result, the death can be seen as a manifestation of urban danger, something that James’ family strives to escape through class ascendence.

Class plays a similar role in David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) in which several kids in a poor rural North Carolina community cover up the accidental death of a friend. As with Ratcatcher, the cinematography emphasizes the poverty of the kids’ surroundings, but George Washington lacks the class-ascendence plotline. Instead, each character’s actions following the death differ dramatically, and it’s unclear if or how any of these incidents might be linked to the accident. The title character, for example, saves a child from drowning at the local pool at his own risk, while another boy simply disappears without a word. In general, the death weighs less heavily on the remainder of George Washington as compared to Ratcatcher, though the film does hint that the incident will impact the course of some of the characters’ lives.

Mean Creek (2004) takes the opposite approach of George Washington through the use of melodrama. The trailer nicely captures the tension amongst the characters:

Unlike George Washington and Ratcatcher, the death in Mean Creek occurs late in the film, and all of the action that follows is somehow a consequence of that defining moment. Specifically, the characters at first agree to cover-up the incident, but ultimately, the majority of the group decides to fess up to their role in the death. The one decenter is Marty (played by Scott Mechlowicz), the lone working-class kid in the group. He decides to rob a convenience store and make a run for it rather than face the authorities. As with his counterparts in George Washington and Ratcatcher, Marty’s class seems closely linked to a distrust of those in power, a characteristic used more radically in the two other films than in Mean Creek.

But while Mean Creek differs substantially from the other films, it does share Ratcatcher’s fixation with water imagery (thus the name), which suits the themes of both films. Waterways work nicely as a metaphor for passage of time, and in films largely about maturation, such motifs nicely complement the action. All of these films are gorgeously shot, well acted, and emotionally complex, making them required viewing if you have any penchant for the genre. But what sets them apart from the typical entry is the way in which death is contemplated so seriously, giving these teenage characters a degree of intelligence that many films fail to do.

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Open Forum – Drag Me to Hell

31 May 2009 at 08:30 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

As promised, I went right out to see Drag Me to Hell, the hotly anticipated new horror film written and directed by Sam Raimi. With my expectations high, I worried that the film might disappoint. It didn’t. The film combined just enough cheesy special effects, make-up, and dialogue with genuine suspense, well staged action sequences, and gross-out moments to keep me engaged from beginning to end.

Drag Me to Hells protagonist:  haunted by the ghost of a gypsy or her working class background?

Drag Me to Hell's protagonist: haunted by the ghost of a gypsy or her working class background?

What’s more, it exceeded my expectations ideologically. The film took a relatively sophisticated approach to identity by taking into account the intersections of class and sex. Of course, it’s treatment of ethnicity left something to be desired. I also noticed that as in the Evil Dead series, the female body remains the sight of much trauma, with an emphasis on the mouth as penetrable orifice:

But its critique of the primary protagonist’s quest for upward mobility delighted me, even though it personalized the issue through a single character clouding a systemic view of the issue. Bottom line: it’s rare to see the nightmarish side of the so-called American Dream of class ascendancy.

Because I’m sure that many readers have their own thoughts on Drag Me to Hell, I am hoping that folks will contribute their own assessments of the film in the comments section. What did you think about the film stylistically? Did the combination of camp and horror work for you? What was your interpretation of the film overall? Your thoughts on the ending? Please voice your ideas here!

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