Tag Archives: feminism

20th Century Women (2017): punk, feminism and pre-Reagan politics in 1979 California

Santa Barbara, 1979. The year of Iranian revolution, energy crisis, the beginning of never-ending antagonisms between the West and the Middle East, and the beginning of an end of Detroit and America’s auto industry.

A car that dramatically bursts into flames in the opening scene symbolically represents an end of the industrial force that was once the USA, and on remains of which will all to soon be emerging new and irreversibly destructive, neoliberal politics of Ronald Reagan. However, as this is not a film about American politics, the symbolism of the burning car hides two separate meanings: a car, universal symbol of masculine society and patriarchy, that is slowly disappearing in burning flames, is also indicating an absence of a fatherly figure in our 15-years old protagonist’s life. “This was my husband’s Ford Galaxy,” explains Dorothea, Jamie’s enigmatic mother in a voice-over narration that is constantly reappearing throughout the film, helping us understand the unusual relationship between this chain-smoking single mother who is uncompromisingly bending all existing social “rules” of gender, sexual identity and nuclear family, and her rebellious teenage son who is just beginning to learn about life, love and late 70’s punk scene.

Dorothea (phenomenal Annette Bening), an elderly mother who grew up with music of Cole Porter and films of Humphrey Bogart during the Great Depression, finds herself disconnected from her adolescent son, whose life, problems, music preferences and a subculture he identifies himself with, are too far away from what her generation could ever fully comprehend. This leads her to a conclusion that the generational gap between the two of them is far too big for her alone to be able to raise him. She turns for help to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig, charming as always) and to Jamie’s platonic love Julie (Elle Fanning), both of whom spend most of the days hanging out in Dorothea’s Victorian villa. Abbie, who is drawing most of her artistic inspiration from the intangible persona of David Bowie, is an aspiring photographer and a feminist, is introducing Jamie to the vibrant life of underground punk scene, seduction of women, and female sexuality as described in a cult feminist work, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Julie, although merely 16, also has an incredible depth to her – she, just as Abbie, transcends all the stereotypes of women who strive towards stability, marriage, family and security. The two of them, together with Dorothea, form a unique matriarchy in which all taboos of what is an appropriate conversation to have at the dinner table, disappear: women sexuality, pregnancy test, contraception, orgasm and giving birth is just a few of the topics that this film shamelessly touches upon. But where Mills, even if just for a second, becomes truly controversial at breaking the social taboos concentrated around women’s biological processes, is with Abbie’s monologue about (and a tribute to) menstruation – to something that’s absolutely natural, and yet is rarely talked about (let alone portrayed in the media, as recent controversy over Instagram picture showed), causing women to hide all the signs of menstruating, as if it is something disgusting and shameful.

Mike Mills broke into the film scene with his debut indie Thumbsucker in 2005. However, it wasn’t until his second feature, Beginners, that his visual, with collages of photographs intertwined style, and with real situations and personal memories entwined narrative voice fully came into being. 20th Century Women, his third feature, is undoubtedly the most logical follow-up to his previous film, as they perfectly complement each other, in more ways than just in visual and narrative style. However, if he was trying to depict (and in the process of that, understand) his father’s coming out as a gay man at the age of 75 in the Beginners, he now focuses on the other parental half – his mother. It goes without saying that this is another deeply personal film, filled with real-life events and situations, through which Mills somewhat therapeutically analyses an enigmatic personality of his late mother, all while paying a tribute to her indescribable complexity, eccentricity and unquestionable uniqueness.

What Mills manages to bring to the screen is a wonderful story about motherhood and women’s friendship, revolving around three incredibly complex and interesting female characters. However, what he also creates with this timeless tribute to strong and empowering women that shaped his life, is a unique time capsule of what life was like in 1979.

“They don’t know this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming,” Dorothea says at one point in a voice-over narration. But what they don’t know is that world as they know it will soon forever change with destructive neoliberal politics, a complete destruction of welfare state, endless austerity, and never-ending attacks on women’s (reproductive) rights.

Into the Forest (2015): survivalist feminist drama

The scene opens with Patricia Rozema’s camera taking a mystical walk through the woods and Cat Power’s mesmerizing voice singing Wild is the Wind, before stopping at a secluded family house situated on the edge of the forest – a house that despite its physical closeness seems to be extremely far from the nature that surrounds it. The family consists of two daughters, Eva and Nell (played by Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page) and their widowed father, all of whom seem to be living in a near future that all too much resembles the world that we already live in. Disconnected from the world and nature around and all too dependable on the technology that is micromanaging every aspect of our personal, social and professional lives – this is the future that has already happened, with futuristically designed technology being the only indicator of the film being set in a period that is yet to happen. Each of them seems to be  pursuing their own thing, chasing their own dreams and trying to make the bright future ahead of them (they are living a privileged middle-class life after all) a reality, with Eva trying to make it as a professional dancer and Nell focusing on her education, possibly wishing to pursue her studies in an academic sphere. They know exactly what they need to do, how hard they need to work for it and what reward is awaiting for them in the end. That is until the power suddenly goes out nationwide in what is at first interpreted as a terrorist attack – only that the loss of power does not end up being a simple inconvenience that would last for a few days. Days instead turn into weeks and weeks into months.

When their father loses his life in an unfortunate accident and it starts to become clearer that life with electricity is the thing of the past, girls find themselves completely alone and entirely dependable on themselves – instead of on the patriarchal order that the father (and later, briefly, Nell’s boyfriend) represented so far. However, they (understandably) find it hard to switch their mindset to the new reality in which everything that was once an important part of their everyday life suddenly does not exist anymore and the expression “fugue state” that Nell is learning for her upcoming SAT’s before the power outage, starts to get a life of its own since the girls seem to be unable to let their old, comfortable and privileged lives go. Nell keeps on studying for the exams as if she is still about to finish high school and pursue her education at one of the Universities that she applied to, and Eva practices her dance routine, accompanied by nothing else but the frustrating sound of a metronome, as if the upcoming audition and a professional dance career is still something that will somehow happen.

They’re clearly in denial and they seem determined to keep on living their life as they did before, no matter how much the reality around them has changed. And while they slowly adapt to certain changes, learn to gather food in the forest and chop wood, they somehow still cannot fully acknowledge the permanence of their situation – which, considering how very different persons they are, culminates in quite a few sisterly disputes. It’s not until Nell temporarily leaves, although merely to pick blueberries in the woods, while Eva (alone and unable to defend herself) gets brutally raped (in what is one of the most devastating and powerful scenes in the film) that the two realize just how very important it is for them to stick together and how, no matter how strong and independent they otherwise are, they are completely helpless without one another.

It is only after the rape and Eva’s realization that she got pregnant during it that the fugue state slowly starts to dissolve – but it’s not until she actually gives birth that they fully accept their new reality and find the strength to not only leave, but destroy the life that they once lived (at least what has left of it).

Of course we are all too familiar with dystopian stories that focus on how the end of the world would affect our society as a whole. And it is in this aspect that Into the Forest manages to be a refreshing variation of those all-too-frequent macro-societal dystopian futures. Rozema surprisingly barely mentions the crisis that is going on in the city nearby (and elsewhere throughout the country) – instead, it focuses entirely on these two girls, on two particular individuals trying their best to learn to survive after the world as they knew it suddenly stops existing. But while I admire her intention of analysing how such crisis affects people on a micro level, the characters at times do not feel developed enough for us to contently spend an hour and a half in their company. We hardly learn anything about Eva and Nell that would make us see them as real persons – for which I blame a somewhat clumsily written screenplay (adapted for screen by Rozema herself) that doesn’t manage to portray the sister’s dynamic as well as it could have, despite Wood and Page giving fantastic performances and managing to carry the film forward even when they do not have much to work with.

The Basics:
Directed by: Patricia Rozema
Written by: Patricia Rozema (based on a novel by Jean Hegland)
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, Callum Rennie
Running Time: 101 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 7

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015): awakening of female sexuality

“I had sex today… Holy shit.” That’s the first sentence we hear from Minnie, our 15-year old protagonist, who is coming-of-age in a 1976 San Francisco.  And just with that one simple sentence this film manages to completely shift the narrative we usually see in films about teenagers, placing girl’s sexual awakening, her thoughts and desires, at the centre of the story.

When we first see Minnie, she’s confidently walking through the park and she doesn’t have to say anything more than that one sentence. As the camera zooms close to her face, we know exactly what she’s thinking: “I became a woman today. I officially became an adult.” With a smile on her face and with her big, wandering eyes looking at the world as if she sees her surroundings for the very first time, we follow her home, into her room, where she sits down on her bed and starts recording her diary on a cassette player. It is she, and she alone, who is the narrator of this ground-breaking story about awakening sexuality of a teenage girl. Bel Powley, whose portrayal of Minnie is absolutely fantastic, carries the whole film with natural ease and confidence and ultimately gives one of the best (and certainly one of the most important) performances of this past year. It took us long enough, but the film that represents us as we really are, and not as we should or could be, is finally here. It probably goes without saying that it sparked its fair share of controversy – but considering it’s one of the first American films directed by a woman that unapologetically questions the carefully maintained status quo, this really isn’t all that surprising.

If we start to view women with agency – and with needs and desires that are as important as boys’ – it takes heterosexual men out of a position of power. Anytime we talk about women having agency or being the protagonist of a story, that’s threatening the status quo. (Marielle Heller, the director)

True, this film moves in a very greyish moral area, considering it’s about Minnie who starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård’s best role to date) who is 20 years her senior. But there’s a special kind of beauty in this (however problematic) story, because it’s unapologetically honest, real and not at all concerned with how uncomfortable it makes the viewer feel. The film is based on autobiographical novel by Phoebe Glockner and is told entirely from Minnie’s point of view. It therefore doesn’t judge, it doesn’t moralize and it also doesn’t make Monroe a predator or Minnie his under-age victim. The film is set in a groovy, anything-goes 1976 San Francisco, in a household full of smoke, booze and occasional use of cocaine, and considering this social-historical context, it actually makes perfect sense that Monroe is not portrayed as someone who committed statutory rape (even though this obviously was the case). It’s also important to understand that however problematic his character may be, we only see him through Minnie’s big, dreamy eyes, still full of childish wonder about the world surrounding her; the world of sex, lust and love that she is just slowly beginning to understand. She’s smart, funny, honest, vulnerable, curious and flawed; the most real, three-dimensional teenage-girl character that ever graced our movie screens. But she’s also only 15 years old, and this makes her a ticking hormonal bomb, full of typical adolescent insecurities and feelings she doesn’t yet quite understand.

Of course she doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she decides to seduce Monroe. Just as she doesn’t completely comprehend how wrong it is what they’re doing – he, on the other hand, knows they crossed a line and soon starts avoiding her. However, some people can’t seem to get over their problematic age-difference and tend to moralize about how Monroe should be persecuted for having sex with a minor (but then it wouldn’t be Minnie’s story anymore, would it?) – and because of that, they tend to overlook the most revolutionary part of this ground-breaking indie. Things are far from being black and white and not only is she far too smart and complex to be an innocent victim of a sexual predator, she also actually likes sex. She likes it so much that she manages to scare off the boy with whom she hooks up after Monroe starts to keep his distance. Her passion and intensity, her knowing exactly what she wants and how she wants it, turns out to be too much for a teenage boy who was probably raised in a belief that girls don’t even like sex, let alone like it to the same extend as boys.

The narrative I was given as a teenage girl was that boys are going to be the ones who think about sex. Boys are going to be the ones who want to have sex. I think it’s damaging to both sexes that we don’t talk about sexuality as something we are both experiencing equally. (Marielle Heller, the director)

Kristen Wiig does an outstanding job playing Minnie’s boozy and inattentive mother Charlotte, a librarian by day and a tireless party animal by night, who recently divorced Minnie’s conservative step-father (Christopher Meloni) and started living her life as a “liberated woman” of the 70’s. Her narcissistic and hedonistic behaviour seems to be something straight out of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism and while her remarks sometimes seem to be inspired by the ideas of second wave feminism, she doesn’t actually seem able to function without a man in her life. She also can’t seem to break her pattern of dating inappropriate men who bring nothing but chaos into her family life. Even though she doesn’t get much screen time, she comes across as a real, complex and confused human being, full of her own insecurities and inner contradictions – as someone who refuses to be someone’s housewife, but who’s also failing in her role of a mother. As Minnie smartly describes her at the end of the movie: “I always thought I wanted to be exactly like my mom. But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t. So maybe nobody loves me, maybe nobody will ever love me. But maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else.” And it’s at that moment that we realize she’s all grown up. She has become a wise, mature and emotionally (although not yet economically) independent woman and a proud feminist who won’t ever allow herself of being defined by men in her life and who will always know that what matters most in life is loving yourself.

Another thing that deserves to be brought up is how smartly the writer/director Marielle Heller avoids portraying Minnie as a sexual object. Even though there is a fair share of nudity in this film, she is never a subject of a (male) gaze – not when it comes to Monroe, and not when it comes to the audience. The only time we see her fully nude is when she stands in front of a mirror, watching and judging herself, trying to figure out if she likes what she sees – she is thus a subject of her own gaze, and all the judging about her being pretty and/or fat is left entirely to her. She is owning every scene that she finds herself in, whether it’s about her lovable, but flawed personality, her hormonal outbursts, her body image or about her sexual experimentation, and she leaves us absolutely no choice but to join her on a crazy ride of adolescent troubles and confusion.

The Basics:
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Marielle Heller (based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner)
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
Running Time: 102 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9

Trainwreck (2015): a feminist comedy that fails both at feminism and being funny

I do not have the answer to why I thought this Judd Apatow movie will be any better than his previous films. Probably because the queen of contemporary stand up comedy Amy Schumer (whom I actually like!) wrote a screenplay for this so-called “feminist romantic comedy”. To be honest, I am still not completely sure what went wrong: was it the fact that she is used to writing short stand-up routines and not two-hour long movies? Or did she originally wrote something much edgier and controversial, but had to polish it up because the studios said so? Because for Amy who is always so unapologetically herself, to write a movie that quietly judges a borderline alcoholic party girl that she is… I just cannot and do not buy it. This has Judd Apatow (in collaboration with a group of other conservative male producers) written all over it.

Amy, the main character in the film, is a pretty obvious alter-ego of the real Amy Schumer who sleeps around, drinks too much, does not date (at least not in a traditional sense) and who seems to genuinely like her wild lifestyle, without ever feeling guilty or embarrassed by it. She also does not feel the pressure of conforming to social standards that supposedly apply to all 30-something women. She does not want to even think about getting married and she finds the thought of having children revolting – and this alone is a HUGE step forward in mainstream cinema because – for once! – there is a woman who does not aspire to be a wife or a mother. Not that there is anything wrong in wanting to become just that, but being a wife/mother should be a choice and not something that every woman is just naturally supposed to want, as if we are biologically determined to. Amy is therefore a single woman who does not dream of a big wedding and is not spending every waking hour dreaming about babies because “her biological clock is ticking”. But such a premise clearly could not work in Hollywood – because the character that I just described only exists for the first quarter of the film. After that, the film chooses to completely derail from the idea that such an Amy-person could ever exist in a real world.

But let’s start at the beginning. This film received mostly good reviews and got praised for its “feminist” central character. And while I appreciate some of the characteristics that the early version of Amy has, there is also quite a few things that I have a problem with. I do not know when being a feminist became equal to being sexually promiscuous. Demanding of being treated as an equal when it comes to sex and freely expressing one’s sexuality does not necessarily mean behaving like a college boy at a frat party. Being an emancipated and empowered woman does not mean subjecting men to equally problematic and borderline sexist standards that are usually imposed on us women and instead of stooping to their primitive level (even when it is meant as a joke), we need films that will focus on how we need to step out of this viscous circle of men against women. And last but not least, not believing in a monogamous relationship also does not mean that your sex life has to be one night stand after another. All that this characteristics ultimately say about Amy is that she is not as much sexually liberated as she is emotionally damaged. She is not emancipated and free, she is just terribly afraid of commitment. And this is why she rather lives the life of one night stands and morning walks of shame, all while secretly wishing for a prince (doctor) charming to ride with her into the sunset.

This film seems to be trying to establish a female character that acts and thinks like a man; instead of trying to destroy the binary understanding of masculine-feminine, it perpetuates it by saying that, by acting more like a man, you are somehow more powerful and emancipated. But we don’t have to become the worst version of a man to be their equal! This notion of an emotionally detached and oh-so-tough masculinity is destructive for both females and males alike and should be destroyed instead of glorified. Because masculinity, as well as femininity, are nothing else as social constructs and instead of being divided by them, we should work at meeting somewhere at the middle.

But Amy is far from being the only character that possess those “manly” characteristics. Perhaps an even better example of how women who are portrayed as “strong” and “emancipated” in films often behave like the most aggressive and vulgar versions of men is Amy’s unsympathetic boss, portrayed by almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton. Her character is, apart for being poorly written, worryingly uninterested in the people she works with, talks down to her employees, has very questionable morals and does not appear to posses even an ounce of compassion or empathy. Just remember Sigourney Weaver’s character in Working Girl, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or Sandra Bullock in The Proposal (to name a few) – they could easily be the same character as they all represent women who somehow made their way into the man’s aggressive and competitive world and therefore need to either adapt or get the fuck out since they do not belong there in the first place. Instead of women having to adapt to what is perceived as “masculine” behaviour and way of thinking, maybe men should slowly accept that women are indeed representing half of the workforce, are equally qualified for most of the jobs and do not need to prove their capabilities by participating in their testosterone-driven competitions anymore.

Let’s now move to the biggest problem I had with this supposedly feminist piece of cinema. Where this film really and completely lost me was when Amy meets a sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) who turns out to be everything that was missing from her life – all that was keeping her from being truly happy. Yes, all she needed was exactly the thing she despised the most: a monogamous relationship with a guy! Of course, her being Amy, there is a few more bumps along the way, but they all lead to a grand (the most clichéd, nauseating) finale where she puts on a dancing sequence with professional cheerleaders in order to make up for her past indiscretions. Come on, Schumer, really? A woman who slept around and now wants to settle down because she found the right guy should not be ashamed of who she was before and should not apologize for it. Men certainly don’t. Nor should they – but the same should apply to both sexes.

Not to mention that there is a whole sequence of her “turning a new leaf and becoming a better person”, essentially changing every single thing about herself just so she could end up with the guy. Should he not accept her for who she is? I know we all change when in a relationship, but this change should be mutual; here, on the other hand, the guy stays the same, while she transforms into a completely different human being. So she decides to throw out all the drugs and alcohol in her apartment, giving every last bit of it to the homeless guy that she occasionally talks to in front of her apartment, immediately degrading him into a bum and an addict whose living on the street is somehow definitely his and not society’s fault. As if her getting rid of the booze will somehow make her a better girlfriend.

So, where exactly is there a feminist message? And what were all those ridiculous scenes with James LeBron? Why do white people in movies only associate with rich and famous black people? The only other black character in this film was Amy’s father’s male nurse, and even he seemed to be included just so Amy’s (oh so white) work colleague could deliver a stupid joke about how “she had a black boyfriend once”. Black people in this film are either used as props for jokes that fall completely flat or as world famous athletes whose presence in a film is clearly just for better publicity.

This was not at all what I expected of her (or of any self-proclaimed feminist for that matter) and she certainly has some serious work (and educating) to do before I will be able to take her seriously again.

The Basics:
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Written by: Amy Schumer
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton
Running Time: 125 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 2