READING LIST: March 7

A few things to get us through the week.

Currently into: February, 2017

Cassie

Reading
One of the things I was most excited about when I finished my thesis last year was being able to read absolutely anything I wanted to, guilt free – my reading list no longer dictated by my studies. I forgot about the pleasure of reading fiction! I’m on my third book for 2017 already, which is Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (I’m a few chapters in so it’s too soon to say much, though I’m well acquainted with Haneke’s take for screen). I recently finished The Notebook Trilogy by Ágota Kristóf, which is a cold knife of a novel –  Kristóf’s language is stripped back but the sentiments weigh a tonne.  It’s hard to recommend it to people because it’s such a cruel book, but I will anyway (even if only for the cover art!)

Listening to
Life Without Buildings – Any Other City
A really good friend of mine pointed in me in the direction of this album about 11 years ago when I first moved to Melbourne, and every few years I go through a phase where it’s all I want to listen to. This is one of those phases.

Watching
It’s sad to say, but I haven’t watched a film in its entirety for months. I think I’m still recovering from the last few months of last year when I’d watch whatever was available to me in a quest to take procrastination to a terrifying new level. That said, my partner has been on a mission to find things that might interest me on Netflix (the Australian offering is seriously lacking) and came up with  the documentary mini-series Shadow of Truth, knowing full well that a good true crime doco will always scratch a satisfying itch in me (and everyone, and their mothers). The documentary deals with the 2006 murder of a 13yo girl in a quiet town in Israel. The production qualities are a little shoddy but it doesn’t matter in the slightest when the story is as bizarre as this one.

Chelsea

Reading
Already I feel as though I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like this year, but Maddy lent me two Leonora Carrington books, Down Below and The Hearing Trumpet, which I love.  Carrington’s physicality and transference of the intellectual or emotional into the body is moving and relatable, and the calmness of her tone, despite describing surrealistically traumatic events, is so soothing and beautiful.

Listening to
I alternate between a couple sad songs:
Pain in My Heart – Otis Redding
Hurt – Johnny Cash
No One Will Ever Love You – The Magnetic Fields
and
La Vie en Rose – Grace Jones

Watching
I watch an unhealthy amount of films right now, like at least three a day.  I will watch anything, since it’s more like gluttony than anything else.  But what I’m really into right now is 1940’s-1950’s technicolor Hollywood films, and anything with Gene Kelly involved.  One of the best films I watched recently was Invitation to the Dance (1956) directed by and starring Kelly, which is a perfect use of colour, dance, and spectacle.  Also Goodbye, Again (Anatole Litvak, 1961), which has immediately become one of my favourite sad melodramas.

Hannah

Reading
I’ve been in a book-accumulating fervor in the past month, buying somewhere in the realm of 30ish new volumes which I just had to possess (and hopefully will read this year.) My instagram account documents all these book hauls of late. Recently finished Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter for book club, which was haunting and eerily familiar,  like a half-remembered fever dream. After reading it, I added the remainder of her work to my collection, having only read Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s previously; most excited about The Skin Chairs! Currently I’m just dipping into Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, for which I have high hopes.

Listening to
I joined an as-yet-unnamed musical project/band this past fall, and we’re currently recording our first album. I’m singing & shakily learning the bass, and it’s kind of overwhelming but fun. Any band name suggestions are generously welcome, since we can’t come to a consensus yet. I think we sound kind of like NZ’s The 3Ds, but not really? Otherwise, I’ve weirdly been listening to very little music as of late. At work, I tend to listen to hours of podcasts all day; lately bingeing You Must Remember This, as I’m super excited to catch up to the newest series, “Dead Blondes.”

Watching
I’ve been a pretty terrible film-watcher lately. The Wailing (Na Hong-Jin, 2016) was the latest new film seen, and its intensity and heartfelt horror hit me rather hard. I have a giant watchlist gathering dust, but find time to watch the Charles Bronson vehicle Kinjite (1989) with my s.o. on VHS. Actually, I recommend watching it as a true oddity, and it’s available on youtube! I rewatched all of Hannibal around the new year, and it’s still the loveliest. & I’m excited that my local film society is hosting a free half-day screening of Evolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2015), The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016), and XX (2017) next Saturday.

Madeleine W

Despite trying very hard to maintain good sleep hygiene, lately I’ve been looking at my phone for an hour before bed reading reddit relationships. Though I’d say overall I’m satisfied with my personal life, I still love drama, and this sub thread gives me everything I want with the added guise of offering advice and council. People’s lives are crazy and they make terrible, selfish decisions! At it’s best it feels like communal therapy, at it’s worst I get to look at a bunch of people tear someone terrible apart.

I am not, by any means, a TV person. The idea of watching 6 seasons of 20 episodes of 40 minute show just seems like an unbearable amount of time to commit to anything. I’m also impatient, so I’ll inevitably google what happens and with my curiosity satisfied, give up. I was two episodes in to Twin Peaks when I looked up who killed Laura Palmer. However, maybe because things have been hard and frightening lately, I have gone through three seasons of Pretty Little Liars, averaging about one a week. And despite constantly looking up spoilers, and already knowing who A is (well, one of them) before starting the show, I’m still watching. Maybe it’s the melodrama, or the absurd stakes, or a scene where a Lana Del Rey song plays when two lovers are united, I just really like it. It also knows when to up the ante, ie someone falls down an elevator shaft and survives, every few episodes so I don’t lose interest. There’s also a ton of film references, which satiates any desire I have to feel smart.

Julia

Reading

My favourite thing about my maternity leave (other than, you know, getting to know this amazing human I made) has been reading. I’ve been exploring all the incredible librairies in my city, and reading all kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction, unrelated to my work. Less newspapers, more fiction. What a joy. I just finished Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I enjoyed. I feel even luckier to have also gotten my hands on new books that feel as though they were written for me, as a new mother. I find myself slowing down, stopping myself from finishing them because I never want them to end. Erin Wunker’s brilliant Notes From a Feminist Killjoy punched me in the gut, pushing me to devour the first hundred or so pages in one fevered go. I have stopped and re-read those passages, but I can’t bring myself to go further, knowing that it will end.

Also, my long-time Internet Friend Anaïs has started a tinyletter, which I have been devouring and recommending.

Listening To

This winter has gotten me down, mainly because of violence and white supremacy in my own city and in the world at large. Sometimes I find the best comfort for me is listening to music that will make me cry, so I can get out some of that sadness. And damn, Phil Elverum’s new record is the definition of heartbreaking. I pre-ordered the record, but the first two songs he has released – Ravens and Real Death – brought me to tears instantly.

Watching

Since having a baby, I’ve been very particular about what kind of films I watch – mainly due to the running times and depending on baby’s mood. I hate being interrupted, or having the tension of a scene fall flat because I’m distracted by my baby, but not watching anything isn’t an option. This past month I’ve settled on old movies! I recently signed up for MUBI in an attempt to add more variety to what films I watch and it has been pretty successful. I loved watching a young Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1935) and an older, even more brilliant Bette Davis in Another Man’s Poison (1951). I also just finished reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith and a friend lent me her box set of Fred & Ginger movies which has been just lovely.

Men are simple, darling

Queen of Outer Space is a work of pure hatred, and a bundle of contradictions. The film follows four astronauts crashed on Venus, who are there sentenced to death by the masked, man-hating Queen Yllana. They are aided in their escape by Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor) who looks to overthrow Yllana and reintroduce men to the now all-female planet. They succeed, and the men remain on Venus (until their rescue ship comes from Earth within a year). The film is stereotypically sexist. The astronauts call their armed captors “doll” and “baby,” they try to overthrow Yllana with “romance” (she is a woman, after all), and jokes are made about women being bad drivers. But this narrative is so poorly constructed that it cracks – it cannot be a strong image of how bad women are, because it is too dumb. Women in the film need to be made a threat, but to give them power undermines the sexism and the notion that women really are nothing but stupid objects who want love. This begs the question: what is wrong with men? Are they ok? Do they understand what they’re doing?

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The women villains in this film must be given power if they are going to be a threat, but by nature of their femininity, they must be weak. As a result the threat, and anger towards it, is unconvincing. While in captivity, the astronauts query how Venusian technology could have become so powerful if it is made by women. Talleah then explains that Yllana was able to take power as no one took her seriously because of her gender. From this point we see a confusion: we know that the main threat, a woman who lead a revolution and became queen of a planet, was not taken seriously. She is obviously capable, for if she was not, could she have achieved this? This is almost immediately backtracked – she’s still a woman, and can be defeated with romance. A smarter film might have worked with this. A powerful woman never taken seriously is once again reduced, only to reveal her power and strength. This film is not smart, however, and we find that, truly, all Yllana wants is “love,” and her frustrations over this are conflated with her crazed political power.  Her hatred of men stems from their violence, with war resulting in radiation burns scarring her face, hence her ever present mask. She still wants love, but she’s ugly, too ugly to be loved. The astronaut meant to seduce her cannot bear to kiss her for her ugliness, and is sent back to the prison room. Could it be a comment on men’s hatred, then? Men caused real damage, they caused wars, they harmed living beings, leaving permanent scars. Yllana’s anger towards men, and war, is by all means justified. And her trauma is met with a man who rejects her for her ugliness, something which is repeated humiliatingly throughout the film – when the astronauts return after their escape attempt, they rip her mask from her, exposing her face as she desperately tries to hide herself. She and her allies briefly regain power and she attempts to kiss the lead astronaut, only to have him recoil in repulsion. We are given a history of men concerned with only violence and conquest, and are given a present reality of men concerned with only a woman’s beauty, treating the non-beautiful with abhorrence. They should then be the villains.

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This potential subversion of the film’s misogyny is furthered by a love-scene during the escape, where the reversal of gender roles is played for light humour. One woman calls an astronaut pretty, and he calls her handsome. Another woman is blocked to be in a dominant position to the man she kisses, framed to be bigger, taller, and taking charge. Talleah affirms compliments and expresses what she wants: she knows she’s beautiful – perhaps she doesn’t need someone to tell her so?

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The confusion of this film is that the scenes undermining male dominance are then re-undermined to re-assert male dominance. Though Yllana’s ugliness, cause by men, is met by cruel rejection, she is maintained as irrational, violent, and incapable, fighting back till the very end despite being met with failure upon failure, concluding in her being roasted to a crisp in a final attempt to destroy Earth and kill all men.  As Earth spectators, and we must see ourselves as essentially good, peaceful people, and her anti-war attitude is nothing but emotional, foreign illogic.  While the romantic escape showcases untraditional sexual roles where the women can take control, this is met with excitement over the women’s honesty and willingness, which is so unlike Earth girls who connive to catch their men. You’re not like other girls, you’re a cool girl. But then again, these are undermined. The film opens with one of the astronauts bidding farewell to a woman before he departs for space: she clearly states that she is concerned for his safety (said breathily, “Spaceships are dangerous!”) and wouldn’t be able to go on without him. He tells her he must leave. On Venus he meets a new woman, who he is more than happy to stay with while they await their Earth rescue ship. She expresses that he had said that he loved her, which he does not necessarily confirm. In fact, when he joins his fellow astronauts he says “I was just being polite to her.” Then to the Earth message stating “I know you’re anxious to get home,” he responds, “Are you kidding?!” and goes back to aggressively kissing his Venusian girl: he is unwilling to give her what she wants (emotional connection) but will skirt the issue to get what he wants (sex). This character is the typical playboy, and it is his entire being, which makes sense within a film that does not look deeply at individual psychology. But at the same time, we are presented with the only person who actually does lie about his emotions to get what he wants, manipulating others and disregarding their feelings. And there is no afterthought for the Earth woman who’s left behind, who said she couldn’t go on without him.

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It’s hard to tell definitely how much of the men’s behaviour in Queen of Outer Space is meant to come off as rage-inducingly sexist, or average for the time. A contemporary review from Variety describes the film as “a good-natured attempt to put some honest sex into science-fiction,” which leads me to think it is the latter. Scenes of men referring to their captors as “dames,” discussing the bodies of women in power, legitimately thinking that women are simple-minded, seem to be nothing but straightforward: there is no irony, there is no subversion. Which is what is confusing about this film.  A film that is so intent on tearing down women repeatedly, degrading the ones who are wrong and reducing the ones who are acceptable, functions as a capsule of masculine hatred and stupidity. Despite the intent to show the threat of female power, it does a better job at showing just what men appreciate in women (submission, beauty), and just what they hate (ugliness, power), but not in a coherent way in the least. To look back on this film it is impossible to see it as anything other than the work of angry boys who don’t know how to hate properly without infecting their discourse with their own unavoidable violence, disgust, and ability to harm. For it is impossible to forget men’s cruelty and dismissal within this film, even when the focus is on how horrible women are, how they must be objects not agents, how their attempts to be agents will fail because they are not smart enough to be anything more than “woman.” The reduction of women in this way is in itself hateful and stupid, and this stupidity is enhanced by the inability to make men worthy heroes.

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The exploitation of men’s stupidity in this manner would become key to Zsa Zsa Gabor’s star persona. Known for her multiple marriages, she become more famous for one-liners about men and sex than her acting. This is exemplified in her workout tape It’s Simple, Darling (1993). Flanked by two absolutely enormous men, Gabor performs easy exercises while making non-sequitors about love, sex, and marriage. Advice to always give back the ring after breaking an engagement, but never the stone, or to keep your body trim to drive a man wild while undressing litter the video. She frequently discusses her past husbands. “Girls really dress for men…” [cut to a straight close up of Gabor] “…when they’re undressing!” The video seems less like a real workout than a showcase for Gabor and her persona. Doing standing push-ups (“my type of push-up”) off the backs of her “gorgeous guys,” this is obvious. Not really a push-up at all, it’s an excuse for her to touch men while discussing the other men you could touch: a husband, ex-husband, gardner, pool boy, lawyer, etc. “I like it!” she moans. This is not about exercise, but Gabor’s notorious relation to men. And this is where stupidity plays in again. The whole tape works off of the premise that it is very easy to seduce, and so manipulate, men through your body and appearance. The refrain of “it’s simple, darling” reflects this: not only is it simple to workout, but it’s simple to get a man. Then get his jewels, his house, his money. Then get another man, perhaps one like the “gorgeous” bodybuilders in the tape.

To argue that men’s inability to properly hate women, or that women needing to resort to using their bodies to get things, is empowering, is tenuous at best. But what is clear is that Gabor’s trajectory from the sexist Queen of Outer Space to her expression of sexual power in It’s Simple, Darling describes a specific problem of stupidity in the relation men have to women. Unable to view women as real people and reducing them to objects in incoherent ways, Gabor demonstrates a way to very easily manipulate this hatred and reduction (if you possess beauty, of course), getting what she wants in terms of sexual gain, financial gain, or general success. Gabor laughs in the face of fragile masculinity and stupidity, reflecting the line she spoke in Queen of Outer Space: “They didn’t take her seriously. After all, she was only a woman.” Not taken seriously and reduced to a ditzy glamour girl, Gabor gained her success and her men, culminating in her workout tape, a distillation of her persona. It is a necessity of survival when men cannot come to terms with women as people not in service of them to exploit this perceived servitude for personal gain.  And it speaks to the state of our society that women must navigate structures of oppression without outright destroying them in order to have anything.

Yeah But Seriously, Fuck The Neon Demon

(CW: Talk of rape and strong anti-woman violence; spoilers for The Neon Demon)

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On Friday, Jezebel’s Bobby Finger posted a piece on Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film The Neon Demon titled, straightforwardly enough, Fuck The Neon Demon. After watching the movie Thursday night, I am here to say: fuck The Neon Demon, indeed. The Neon Demon is one of the most condescending, woman-hating, moralistic, yet intrinsically shallow films I’ve ever seen. It’s Refn trying his very, very hardest to be a Bad Boy With A Message. It’s exhausting, and it’s terrible.

From the very first shot of the film – Elle Fanning’s Jessie draped on a couch, blood pouring from a cut on her neck – we understand exactly what the message of the entire rest of the film will be. What’s the difference between real violence and performative violence? Well, a lot, but the film refuses to acknowledge its own real violence – I’ll get to that. Isn’t fashion actually violence against women? Well, maybe, but the film doesn’t care to actually engage in any intellectual arguments. After Jessie’s photoshoot, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone, trying her goddamn best), a makeup artist who positions herself as Jessie’s new best gal pal – Jessie is 16, new in L.A., without her parents, and living in a seedy Pasadena motel managed by Keanu Reeves. There’s a nondescript Boy, who is nice and might love her, but once Jessie realizes she is Pretty, she doesn’t need him anymore.

There are also other models, including Sarah (Abbey Lee, who I loved as a model and now love as an actress), but they’re not as Pretty and don’t have The Thing that Jessie, apparently, despite not having any personality to speak of, has in spades. Seriously, it’s like The Room – everyone keeps talking about how Lisa is the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world, leaving the entire audience wondering, “….Her?” No offense to Elle Fanning, who is very good given the almost nothing she gets to do in the film, but Jessie is this Symbol of Prettiness and Womanhood, floating around in Forever 21 dresses while her model rivals wear revealing clothes and lots of makeup, a mere cypher of womanhood, a not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman who is crowned the new It Girl for literally no reason. Perhaps this is Refn’s point – a not-subtle joke about how models might actually be boring – but then it’s just unnecessarily cruel to Jessie. Not that Refn cares about being cruel to his female characters – for all its grandstanding about how narcissistic the fashion industry, and those engaged in it, are, The Neon Demon comes down hardest on Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), a model who – gasp – has had plastic surgery on her face. Gigi is portrayed as uniformly stupid, selfish, and “unnaturally” beautiful, which, given the intense unnatural, neon beauty that makes up the film’s (admittedly often gorgeous) photography, you’d think Refn would be interested in. Nope – instead, Gigi is paraded in front of onlookers while a designer talks about how much more beautiful Jessie is because she’s natural. Got it.

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After Jessie’s inevitable triumph at a fashion show (where she makes out with herself in the mirror of a neon triangle temple – get it, models are narcissists), she has a maybe-dream where Keanu breaks into her motel room and forces her to fellate a knife (remember folks, she’s supposed to be 16 years old), then another maybe-it-happens-maybe-it-doesn’t scene where he goes next door and rapes a 13-year-old runaway, possibly killing her: “That real Lolita shit,” he calls it. Gross. Wouldn’t it be great if Jessie killed him? Nah, she calls Ruby and runs over to her place, a huge, inexplicable mansion, where, after showering, Ruby also tries to rape her, stopping only when Jessie kicks her off the bed entirely. So much for girl power, huh. Oh, then because she can’t have sex with Jessie, Ruby goes to her day job at a mortuary and has sex with a blonde corpse instead. This is so stupid it’s barely worth discussing – the crosscuts between Ruby humping a dead body and Jessie sorta-kinda masturbating on Ruby’s couch are so dumb and literal yet clearly are supposed to represent something meaningful.

Ruby is so pissed that Jessie won’t sleep with her, and her friends Sarah and Gigi are so pissed that Jessie is a better model than them, that they finally decide to kill her. This comes right after a monologue by Jessie about how other women are dying to be her (ok I’m not sure if this movie is actually that on the nose, but it’s close), because she’s just so goddamn gorgeous. She’s only murdered once she has come into herself as a sexual being, a beautiful woman who has agency in her life to use that beauty.

The scene where the three women pursue Jessie through the shadowy mansion is actually not bad – a nice homage to 80s Italo-horror. They push her into an empty pool, and then….the next scene is Ruby in a bathtub full of blood, and Sarah and Gigi washing the blood off of each other, filmed through what I can only describe as “leer-cam.” This is supposed to be Ruby’s lesbian gaze, as she watches her friends showering (ugh), but it’s so clearly a creepy male gaze that it’s almost not watchable. Here’s where The Neon Demon really lost me: in its excitement to show so much performative, sexy violence, it completely chickens out on showing any real violence. Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi kill and eat Jessie, but we don’t get to see a single minute of it. Maybe it wasn’t sexy – maybe it was disgusting, and thus not worth showing? These women are only ever watched with the male gaze, so that makes sense. But showing the women, in camaraderie, slaughtering and eating their enemy would have been a statement much stronger than anything in the film. Refn wants to show that these women (all women??) are vicious, but backs away from the one thing that would have driven his point home. These women making a terrible, yet conscious and determined, choice wasn’t worth showing.

(A personal note: Refn couldn’t have made the women witches? Or Satan worshippers? Or something interesting? There’s a potentially interesting scene after the murder where Malone lays on the wooden floor, naked in the moonlight, blood gushing out of her – but as with anything remotely intriguing in the film, Refn backs away from it as soon as possible, never to return to it.)

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In the film’s final scene, Sarah and Gigi are at a photoshoot – they’re making it to the top! Gigi, however, doesn’t have as strong a stomach – literally and metaphorically, because that’s the kind of film this is – as Sarah, and freaks out in the middle of the shoot, hides in the bathroom, vomits up blood and a whole eyeball, and disembowels herself with a scissors. Sarah calmly picks the eyeball up from the ground and pops it in her mouth – again, it could have been a really pointed, unforgettable image to have her chew and swallow the eyeball, but instead, it’s in her mouth and then gone in the next shot. The movie ends.

This is a film that apparently decries the shallowness of the fashion industry, but is among the loudest, yet shallowest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that idiot you nkow who has the worst opinions, yet needs to yell about them at every given opportunity. Every gorgeous image is accompanied by the thud of terrible dialogue, or meaningless action. I don’t care about a film having a plot, or likeable characters, but this film has nothing. I realize almost every criticism I level against the film here can be met with the unassailable argument, “But that’s the point.” Maybe it is (though I don’t think all – even many – of these things were done on purpose). But then, my question is: why? Why even make this faux-deep misogynistic morality picture that has such contempt for every single character? It’s beautiful, but as my husband pointed out, it’s beautiful like a fancy car commercial. It’s beauty in the service of nothing.

Refn is more interested in his own “brand” than in making a good film – the “NWR” logo on the opening credits make sure you know just who the auteur is here. Reading his interviews on this press junket make me realize that it’s probably not just the film that is shallow and misogynistic, but Refn himself. Fuck The Neon Demon. Fuck Nicolas Winding Refn. Oh, and definitely fuck that “For Liv” (Refn’s wife) dedication that ends the movie.

I leave you with this quote, from Finger’s aforementioned article, and I would like to request that the final sentence be carved on my tombstone, for people to read for eternity.

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mixtape time vol 3: UNDER COVER

Everyone loves the time-honored tradition of cover songs! Here are some tunes that female musicians took and made their own:

  1. Thee Headcoatees – Swallow My Pride (The Ramones)
  2. Neo Boys – I’m Free (The Rolling Stones)
  3. Britta Phillips – Drive (The Cars)
  4. Angel Olson – Attics of My Life (Grateful Dead)
  5. Kaki King – Close To Me (The Cure)
  6. Pharmakon – Bang Bang (Nancy Sinatra)
  7. Mr Little Jeans – The Suburbs (Arcade Fire)
  8. Mirah – Lion Tamer (Old Time Relijun)
  9. Dog Party – Los Angeles (X)
  10. Mapei – Baby It’s You (The Shirelles)

Challenging the autonomy of the image in Citizenfour

Image from NY Times

Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour is a surprisingly simple film. With a run time just shy of two hours, it focuses on the circumstances surrounding Edward Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the American National Security Agency. The story is complicated, but also, it’s not. Poitras provides enough context even for audiences who may not be familiar with the NSA’s history, but it is clear from the outset that her focus is on Snowden. Given the sensitive nature of their discussions and later the difficulty they have meeting in person, much of the film focuses on the online conversations that happen between Poitras, Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, a journalist hand-picked by Snowden to write the exposé on the NSA. A film so focused on the written language could easily become labourious for the viewer, but Citizenfour never feels like hard work. Poitras masterfully uses text to raise questions about communication and surveillance, while also making a film that doesn’t rely upon the visual image to tell its story.

Citizenfour uses intertitles to communicate many of the events that occur in the film. This includes Snowden’s initial communications with Poitras; information about the NSA’s history; information that contextualizes Snowden’s whistle-blowing and perhaps most importantly, the communication between Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald following the exposure of the NSA’s unlawful surveillance. As the film progresses, it becomes too risky for the three to meet in person and so much of their communications happen via encrypted email (and what looks to be a text-based messaging service). The film is split into three acts: the initial contact with Snowden, the hotel room footage, and the events post-Snowden revelations. All three acts are considerably different from one another (Poitras states that this is because she had started filming about NSA surveillance before Snowden contacted her, and once he had contacted her the film took a different direction) and and are sutured together through the ‘black screen’ and its expository intertitles, which in conjunction with one another, create “a system of narrative integration”, to quote to André Gaudreault and Timothy Barnard. By this definition, intertitles are a component of editing that aids the formation of meaning.

Poitras says that the hotel footage is the heart of the work, but if the film was to be stripped back to nothing but footage it is unlikely that these hotel scenes would carry such significance. The tension in the hotel scenes is predicated by expository intertitles, which are also necessary given the lack of Poitras as an interrogative figure, or even a speaking character, in the film. Due to the absence of Poitras as an on-screen presence, the use of on-screen text is absolutely crucial to the contextualization of the scenes it prefaces/postfaces. However, it also performs another function: it allows the audience to overcome the limitations that the protagonists of the film face, geographical and otherwise, by creating a new space in the film within which the story can be told – one free of any visual images. Much of the middle act takes place in Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong, and to call these scenes tense and claustrophobic is something of an understatement. The anxiety obviously felt by Snowden is further advanced by the fact that Poitras shoots so much of these long scenes in such a small space – we never see beyond the interior of the hotel. Intertitles give the audience information to aid our understanding of exactly what is happening outside of the hotel room as the media learns of Snowden’s revelations, giving even more perspective to the events unfolding in the film. Without this on-screen text, the visual storytelling wouldn’t suffice in providing a fully cohesive or engaging narrative.

Lisa Parks claims that Poitras uses principles of cinéma vérité to “open up spaces, characters, and relationships”. In the case of Citizenfour, the use of on-screen text does this just as effectively, if not more efficiently, by creating a liminal space in which much of the narrative unfolds free from the distraction of the visual image. The on-screen text goes beyond a means of transmitting information and becomes an image itself – a visual language in that the words are materially present on the screen in a way that enables engagement with the screen as both “a surface as well as a window”. In Citizenfour we read text on screen – the surface; but our comprehension of what we are reading on-screen opens a new space – the window – that allows us to fully understand and engage with the story. Foucault tells us that text is either ruled by the image or the image is ruled by text,  but in the case of Citizenfour, the text augments the image by giving it meaning and context.  The visual storytelling alone would struggle to provide a comprehensive story, especially given the difficulties that the three main protagonists have in regards to meeting in person and being able to capture footage without the risk of confiscation or interception. The lack of any visual accompaniments to the text is important because, according to Tessa Dwyer, text on screen is regarded as an authoritative way of delivering information. The delivery of such vital information through the use of on-screen text versus modes such as voice-overs (which briefly bookend the film) or interviews not only implicitly gives the information authority and helps the audience understand the magnitude of the events depicted in the film, but also bolsters a key theme of the film: the very nature of communication.

As aforementioned, there is little visual distraction in Citizenfour. When we are not watching/reading text on screen, we are listening to dialogue, whether it be diegetic dialogue or a voice over. From the inception of the film it becomes clear that Poitras is faced with a paradox: she has been tasked with making a film about a subject who may not be able to be physically present in the film due to the nature of the story he wants to tell. In an interview for Filmmaker Magazine, Poitras notes that it was safer if she, Snowden and Greenwald were in different places during the filming because otherwise the information they needed would be jeopardised. What enables the relationship between them is textual communication – so it is only natural that expository intertitles would be the method by which their relationship is also represented on-screen. Citzenfour is not a film of images but a film of words.

Poitras herself is largely represented in the film by on-screen text. While we hear her voice in a few scenes, we do not catch a glimpse of her. Poitras explains her physical absence in the film by saying that she felt the camera was intrusive”. The camera may be intrusive, especially in a film such as Citizenfour where privacy is paramount, but this isn’t the case with on-screen text; no-one is the subject of the camera’s gaze. Poitras’ use of on-screen text to convey much of the films meaning is also fitting given the fact that she considers herself a visual journalist, and considering that spectators read films as much as they see and hear them.  Poitras is successful in creating a dynamic work of “screen writing”, to use Scott MacDonald’s term, in which words are felt and experienced via the screen. Through the use of on-screen text, words form their own visual entity, another character of the film; one that is partly Poitras’ on-screen identity, but also an entity entirely of their own. This is most obvious when we examine the way Poitras visually represents the process of encryption on screen.

Snowden asks that Poitras encrypt all communications they have, a process she is familiar with given the face that Poitras had run into issues with the NSA as a result of the subject matter of her earlier films.  We see what encryption looks like on screen – digits, letters and symbols that make no sense to the viewer. This is language in its rawest form, but despite its rudimentary appearance we know it carries powerful significance in its ability to disguise the real intent behind their correspondence. Poitras uses a different font face to set these online communications apart from the other on-screen text that announces events, breakthroughs and other occurrences in the film, indicating their difference. The film screen becomes what Lev Manovich terms a “dynamic screen”; this small difference of font indicates there is merging of two screens. The integration of the computer screen into the film screen allows Poitras to create a screen that commands your complete attention – the screen of film, while manipulating traits common to the computer screen (on screen ‘typed’ text, monospace font)  that orient the viewer to expect data we would typically associate with a computer or data-processing device.

Poitras says that the existence of Citizenfour was entirely dependent on their use of and reliance upon encryption so it is logical that this be represented in the film. As Lisa Parks makes note, encryption and the process of encrypting information actually becomes an integral part of the films production, and is “is woven into its contents and form”. The encryption we see on screen greatly alters our perception of on-screen text: whether or not we understand how to encrypt something, what is common knowledge is why something might be encrypted. We recognise that what is being relayed is sensitive data that must be hidden from view just to ensure that the information can later be revealed – much like the narrative unfolding of a film. The process of visually representing encryption imparts great significance upon the communications between Snowden and herself. While we know that on-screen text typically connotes authority, Poitras’ visual representations of encryption take it a step further and demonstrates that what is being communicated has a greater level of integrity – if one has gone to such lengths as to encrypt their communications, something significant must be at stake. There is reason to question whether the use of visual image would be able to represent the gravity of what is being communicated between Snowden and Poitras as well as accurately convey the extreme risk that was being taken by both of them. Poitras has found an incredibly effective way of representing significance of language on screen – by using the written word in its most abstract form as a visual signifier.

In an interview with Scott Macauley, Poitras reveals she had an enormous amount of footage that could have been used in the film. Deciding what should stay on the cutting room floor of a documentary film is not an enviable job, but perhaps even more difficult is determining which methods of presenting information would most honestly relay its significance. And the primary method she opted for was the use of on-screen text. This integration of language and text into the fabric of Citizenfour makes it clear that Poitras is astutely aware of the significance that language has to the story she is telling. Perhaps Poitras is aware that the inclusion of so much on-screen text was the most faithful way to tell Snowden’s story, or perhaps she believed that the visual image would not suffice; that it would be an unreliable means of communicating something so deeply concerned with the transmission of language. As Shochat and Stam remark, language is inherently political. By using on-screen text to tell Snowden’s story and blow the whistle on US surveillance of phone and internet records, Poitras is able to get to the very heart of the issue objectively, immediately and authoritatively. However, she also asserts that on-screen text is a powerful narrative tool that can create new dimensions within a film, and one that does not need traditional visual imagery to have clout.

The Gendered Representation of Electroconvulsive Therapy

cw: for images of the depiction of medical torture

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Mental illness is rarely depicted in a sensitive way in film, and I can think of few examples of films that are both accurate and ethical, especially in terms of gender.  As a broad category, it is treated poorly in cinema.  A more specific sub-genre or -trope of mental illness in film is the depiction of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  Supposedly it is so misrepresented in cinema that it necessitates articles such as About To Have ECT? Fine, but Don’t Watch It in the Movies: The Sorry Portrayal of ECT in Film.  Though it seems unanimous that the process is represented as a barbaric, violent, and ineffective one, the way this plays out can be categorized differently often by gender.  After viewing a large number of films which depict ECT, here are the basic tropes which seem to occur.

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Victim as Oppressed Man

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In these films, the victim of ECT is an intelligent, active man, often transgressive or radical in some way.  This type would be exemplified by Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963), Chattahoochee (Mick Johnson, 1989) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Foreman, 1975).  In these films we have masculine protagonists who could be characterized by their near-hypermasculinity: displaying ambition, initiative, aggression, strong sexual appetite, rebellion, and so forth,  mental illness (if present at all), is associated more with either men other than the protagonist or criminality — in Chattahoochee, for instance, there are numerous comments on how many of the inpatients are overflow from prison.  Care is then feminized: either explicitly (such as in the case of Nurse Ratchet) or through generalization: care is something which is a feminine occupation, distributed by women nurses or by ineffective, relatively impotent men (they are often older, wear glasses, rarely seen doing anything but sitting and hiding behind a desk, with little knowledge of the ‘real’ world or the human/masculine pursuits of the victimized protagonist, and contrast strongly with the hypermasculine protagonist’s vitality), or care is attempted to be distributed by other women (such as the girlfriend in Shock Corridor or sister in Chattahoochee) – in all cases, care is given by a woman or someone without the virility of the victimized man, regardless of if this care is positive or negative.

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These films can be read as poisonously feminized institutions targeting a victimized masculinity, a masculinity which is threatened and threatening to encroaching femininity and feminine power.  When care is seen as positive, such as the love of the girlfriend in Shock Corridor, it is softer than that of the more powerful institution, and weaker as well.  Visually, these depictions will often focus on the face during ECT distorted in pain, violence, disdain, and anger, rather than fear.  In these films, the protagonist is almost never sick, it is society that is sick instead.

Victim as Girl/Child

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In these films, the ECT victim is either a fragile woman, a child, or a man so ‘emasculated’ that he becomes childlike.  In The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948), the protagonist’s neuroses stem from trauma relating to her childhood, which drives her back to a childlike state wherein she cannot accept adult responsibility (namely, married life).  In Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1986), the protagonist is a literal girl whose continued fantasies are at odds with her coming of age, and return her continuously to a childlike state where fantasy trumps reality and thus must be attacked through a form of ‘electric healing.’  In Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996), the protagonist’s mental illness renders him to be little more than a child in a man’s body, with almost no agency or coherence of his own, save flashes of brilliance which stem from his past, sane life and can only come to fruition under the hand of mother-figures.  His problems are attributed in part to issues with his father (so, childhood, and the already feminized ‘daddy-issues’ are present), and as an adult, post-ECT, he turns to the care of women who take of near-maternal roles, even when they are supposed to be romantic interests.

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ECT is used as an entirely ineffective treatment for people who have been rendered childlike through their mental illness, which emasculates them if they are men, or emphasizes girlishness if they are women or nearing womanhood.  The focus is more on the mental illness or perceived mental illness rendering the fragile protagonist a child, rather than the ECT which will never work and is simply a source of terror that cannot stop rampant illness’ mental regression: ECT is only part of the ineffective process which further fractures the broken person, but not necessarily a major focus of the treatment, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Whether the regression of the ill protagonist is seen as positive or negative (the exploration of the inner child’s fun and whimsy such as in Return to Oz or the emasculation of the adult man who cannot live in adult society without a mother-figure’s help as in Shine), ECT is without fail simply a torturous and misguided attempt to delay the regression, which will not work.  Usually these films will promote a different treatment as both more humane or more effective, treatments which can range from the more ‘scientific’ (such as nurturing and semi-romantic talk therapy in The Snake Pit), to love full-stop (as in Shine).  Depictions often place visual emphasis on the fear in the face or the mechanical apparatus which administers the shock, making the process inhumane in a scientific or mechanical emphasis, rather than focusing on the specifically malicious doctor who administers shocks as near-personal attack.  Additionally, in these films the protagonist is most definitely sick (even Dorothy Gale must learn to forget Oz in Return to Oz) but ECT is never a treatment that will help: the need is for something more nurturing.

Victim as Sexy

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The patient in these films will usually have an illness which is based around rebellion, but a feminized one: anti-authoritarianism, alcohol or drug abuse, even political challenge, is added to a rampant sexuality, which is fetishized on screen, and often portrayed by sex-symbol actresses.  In Frances, Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) endures her first course of ECT after her numerous sexual affairs, nude scenes, and generally inappropriate desires for love and affection, while the depiction of the treatment itself focuses on her shaved, arched legs rather than the face distorted in pain or fear.  The usual distortion of facial features is avoided by the skillful placing of nurses around her body, so that un-beautiful look of pain is hidden, and the fragmented body is the focus.

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Another example of this would be Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted: playing the sexy Lisa who is institutionalized for her wildness and lack of restraint, she is given shock treatments off-screen which are the catalyst for her escape with Winona Ryder’s protagonist Susanna: an escape which involves a kiss between the two women as well as a party where each girl has a hook up, thus attaching the mental illness (and punishment by ECT) to both casual sex and queer feminine sexuality.  In From Beyond, an incident with a machine which excites human sexuality leaves an incapacitated Dr. Katharine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) in the hands of a less sexy woman doctor who threatens her with ECT.  This happens, of course, after the effect of the machine influences her to don bondage gear and red lipstick, and attempt to initiate sex with her co-worker, so the grotesqueness and horror of her treatment is balanced by the previous eroticization of her character, while the emphasis on leather, gag, and straps in the ECT sequence become mirrors of her bondage gear.   In these films additionally, despite an element of rebellion or transgression, the characters are most definitely sick, but again, ECT will not cure them.  In the cases Frances and Girl, Interrupted, this is perhaps because nothing will cure those who receive shocks, while even the insanity-characterized-by-nymphomania in From Beyond is a confirmed insanity which simply could not be changed by ECT as it is derived from an outside source (the villain/monster’s machine): which is to say, that again, her illness would not be curable by medicine.

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When looking into ECT in film, the basic message seems to be that the procedure is presented as a torturous one, which is vastly different from reality.  Doctors don’t distribute it as personalized punishment, muscle relaxants and anesthesia are administered with care to attempt to create the most comfortable experience possible, the treatments are generally done with patient consent, and there are no leather straps or gags jammed into the victim’s mouth.  But a lot of this rhetoric is about saving the image of the doctors and nurses who administer ECT, and the process itself, with little concern to how it involves the patients, especially in terms of gender.  In these examples of ECT in film, one can see that ECT is used to characterize the worst way to treat mental illness, and so can tell us more about mental illness in these films than the ECT itself.  And it tells us that: only white people are really mentally ill.  There might be one or two men of colour present, but they are never the focus, or are much more ‘insane’ than their white counterparts, suggesting a hierarchy where the white man is least deserving of ECT as he is the most sane.  White men who are mentally ill are either castrated children in need of a mother, or just not actually ill, because illness is emasculating, it is stupid, it is weak, and men are not these things.  And women who are mentally ill are also either children, often in need of daddy to save them, or they are nymphomaniacs, with an insanity that leads to sexual inhibition and visual pleasure.  It will not lead to anything truly transgressive, like the non-ill men are capable of, and even sexually it will be strict: interracial relationships never happen, queer relationships are chaste kisses when compared to wilder sex scenes.

The problem with the representation of ECT in film is that it becomes a marker of severity in illness and ‘treatment.’  Rather than focusing on only how this impacts doctors, nurses, and treatments, it is important to look to how these markers are attached to mental illness and that which it attempts to cure, and the gendered ways this manifests itself.  In this manner, ECT films become a microcosm of how mental illness is depicted on-screen, and should be given more attention as such, rather than just for deterring patients from seeking ECT in real life, for this is a basis for general stigma which must be abolished.