Women’s Visions: The Passion of Joan of Arc and Personal Shopper

It’d been years since I had seen The Passion of Joan of Arc; it was one of those early Criterions, checked out in the years after college, predictably enough after seeing Vivre Sa Vie. I was blown away, but for some reason, I didn’t revisit for a while. This isn’t unusual for me – it takes me years to want to revisit all but my very favorite films, where my husband could rewatch almost anything almost any time. But after the Review series finale last month, I began thinking about the ways that Forrest MacNeil function as a Joan of Arc-type figure – a total martyr to his beliefs, willing to ruin and even lose his life for the things he believes in. The thing he believes in is a stupid TV show about reviewing life experiences, and not the holy spirit, but the seed was planted.

I’m so glad I decided to rewatch with another decade under my belt. Renee Falconetti’s performance is one of the finest in all of film history – with not a single word, she conveys the brutality of the psychological – and physical – torture Joan is forced to endure at the hands of men who simply cannot believe that the word of God was revealed to a teenage girl. The bulging eyes, the trembling, everything about Falconetti’s expressive physicality reveal the depths of the betrayal Joan feels from the Church – the one institution she should be able to count on. No one in the film – except occasionally the monk played by Antonin Artaud – is a friendly figure for Joan; she is attacked and coerced and belittled at every turn. She tries to lie about her relationship with God – she wants to save herself from burning at the stake, after all – but when she tries, she is unable. She takes back her statement that would save her almost as soon as she has signed it. There’s no other way for Joan to live.

A very different kind of actress confronts a very different kind of ghost in Personal Shopper. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has recently lost her twin brother Louis, who lived in Paris (in the most beautiful house ever, can I just say – between this and Things To Come, I need to figure out how to get in on that artistic French lifestyle). Maureen is staying in France to see if she can make an otherworldly connection with Louis, as they promised one another that whoever died first would contact the other from the great beyond. Maureen makes her living as a personal shopper to a wealthy celebrity; she spends her days at Chanel and Cartier, traveling from Paris to London and back just to pick up some dresses, and she spends many nights at Louis’ old house, trying to contact the spirit within before the new buyers will move in (again, how does one get a job as a French ghost hunter please tell me).

The disconnect between Maureen’s role in late capitalism and her belief (or non-belief, as she states several times that she’s not sure about the existence of ghosts) in the supernatural is a wide, intriguing gap, the kind most of us have to bridge in order to live. She is depressed, overwhelmed and misses her brother with her entire (damaged, quite literally) heart, and she’s willing to put up with the demands of her employer to speak with him one last time. Stewart’s best scenes are not connected to the mystery of Louis: when Maureen tries on her employer’s clothes, which is strictly forbidden, she reminds us about Kristen Stewart The Movie Star, all nervous gestures in beautiful clothes. I had not really been a fan of Stewart before this film – I started to get her in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, but Personal Shopper really brought her quiet, seemingly affectless acting home for me. Miriam Bale said it best in The Hollywood Reporter: “whether she’s dressed up or down, boldly flirting or retreating into herself, she’s always the same casual, androgynous-glamorous force of nature.”

Kristen Stewart is Renee Falconetti’s polar opposite: while Falconetti, bound by the restrictions of silent film, turns her face into a book from which you can read her innermost pain, Stewart chooses her silence, and uses quiet, deliberate moments to telegraph her grief and anguish.

Both Joan and Maureen see things that the rest of us cannot. Both women are guided by their faith, their belief in something bigger than themselves, and both women are punished for it. Violence enacted by men is a part of their lives – Joan’s execution at the stake is brutal, and incredibly hard to watch; Maureen enters her employer’s home to drop off some jewelry and finds her brutally murdered, a tense scene in which Maureen is not sure if she will be next. Maureen isn’t physically punished for her beliefs, but, like Joan, she is abandoned in her faith: Louis’ wife has moved on to a new lover (which is rich and gracefully portrayed), and Maureen’s own partner encourages her to leave Paris and come live with him.

In Personal Shopper‘s final scene, Maureen is alone in a boardinghouse in Oman, waiting for her boyfriend and his friends to return from an outing. She senses that Louis’ ghost has followed her, that she will never be rid of it until she figures out what he wants. But as she asks the ghost questions – and it slams a glass to the ground to get Maureen’s attention – she has an epiphany. “Is it just me?” she asks the empty room, without an answer. That is the question both women have at the core of their being, and both films have at their centers.

 

Note: This first appeared on my TinyLetter, Double Feature Preacher.

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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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.

 

Seen and Unseen: The Films of Marie Louise Alemann

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MADDY: The pleasure of discovery is always dampened when you realize that what you’ve discovered was dismissed from the canon in the first place. Such is almost always the case with female experimental filmmakers, as if the initial medium weren’t niche enough. Luckily, Emily and I had to chance to watch a screening of the films of Argentinian filmmaker Marie Louise Alemann. A significant figure in the Argentinian experimental film scene of the 1970s and 1980s, she is all but unheard of here in North America. Shifting between documenting happenings with her fellow artists Narcisa Hirsch, Claudio Caldini, and others, Butoh performance, criticisms of the dictatorship, and razor sharp depictions of female experience, the handful of Alemann’s films we saw were of a considerable talent. What really struck me was how each of her films were so different from each other, and yet they still made up a consistent whole. The programmer, Federico Windhausen, lamented after the screening that they were not in the order he wanted, but still managed to work. Because of this I made some assumptions about the work – who she collaborated with, how the collaborations worked, when she made it, what her focus was, etc., only to realize that they probably weren’t the right assumptions to make.

EMILY: Yes, one thing I really loved about the scrambled order was that it confused those assumptions. Windhausen mentioned in his introductory remarks that many of the films Alemann directed were filmed by her friends and collaborators, such as Claudio Caldini and Narcisa Hirsch, presumably because so much of Alemann’s work draws on her own embodiment and performance. The last film that we ended up seeing was an untitled one by Juan Jose Mugni, which the program notes inform us was made as a “tribute to Alemann’s face, which she sought to use as an enigmatic and multi-purpose mask in many of her films.” To me this film so clearly showed how Alemann was in control of its image of herself. It did not seem to me to be a series of passive representations of her (something we have been taught to expect in a structure of film production organized around the objectification of women) but rather a vital creative act she directed.* It was to this power that Mugni paid tribute. Maybe I especially liked this because it brought together the site at which I am habitually restricted to searching for women’s creative power in film (the female performance as both enabled and constrained by the conditions of film production) and a host of radical possibilites for that power in an experimental space of collaboration, through which film is given direction and force from both behind and in front of the camera.

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*To direct (per the Oxford English Dictionary)
To write (a letter or message) expressly to.
To address (spoken words) to any one; to utter (speech) so that it may directly reach a person.
To impart, communicate expressly, give in charge to a person.
To keep in right order; to regulate, control, govern the actions of.
To give authoritative instructions to; to ordain, order, or appoint (a person) to do a thing, (a thing) to be done.
To supervise and control the making of a film or the production of a play, etc.; to guide or train (an actor, etc.) in his performance.

How interesting that in the contemporary and classical film industry “direction” is about organizing objects, people, images in ways that collect at the authoritative end of this spectrum of control (think Griffith with his megaphone or, my favourite, Abel Gance directing with a revolver–images of masculine power) while the sense of communication–direction in service of transmitting a message to someone–is subdued, even though that is ostensibly the point of making a movie. Even in movies she does not “direct,” Alemann’s (silent) face and body still direct messages to the viewer and so send viewers in particular directions. Alemann’s wider artistic practice disrupted film direction’s model of gendered authority in other ways, too. I loved the story Windhausen told about how she would teach all of the housewives she met on the beach during her summer vacations how to use their super 8 cameras: she acted as a mentor for films and directors not recognized as “real” films or directors.

MADDY: The close-up of a woman’s face is one of those key cinematic images that just keeps recurring (lately it seems to be thriving in music videos). I’m reminded of early cinema, and Munsterberg’s writings on the close-up. Generally a close-up is a shot that’s used to direct and focus the viewer’s attention on one spot, but is still tied up in ideas of truth and authenticity. If we see the close-up on the face, there is nothing that can hide from us, and there’s the impression that we’re seeing some kind of truth here. But Alemann is much too smart for that. Her close-ups are interspersed with filters (which she controls), paint dripping, and other means of distortion. The rapid cuts, instead of a long take (as is the norm with the close up of the female face) also challenge any passive looking, or any chance of suture. As you’ve said so well already, she is not an object of our gaze, but rather a very stark reminder of who is in control of what we are watching, and by extension how we understand it.

Not to be a gender essentialist, but this feels like a very female understanding of the world. It’s a fact at this point that by constantly being considered objects to be looked at, first and foremost, women’s humanity has become secondary. To take on a project where what one sees is clearly constructed, and constantly being altered, is a very clear challenge to those norms. She has a similar project in Autobiografico 2 (1974), with her face spray painted silver and her body tied up to trees with a coarse rope. There are rapid cuts here as well, but here they slowly reveal information, for example, that she is tied up to trees is only gradually shown to the audience. The initial shots are of her face, and then parts of her body, and then the trees tied up with parts of the rope. As the cuts show more and more, the rope begins to untie itself, and eventually it becomes completely untied. The rapid cutting loosens the ropes that bind her, and also gives and takes from the audience. The pleasure of seeing is postponed, and when we are finally able to see “the whole picture” of her entrapment, she is freed. Though Alemann is tied up, she is control of the camera, and by extension in control of her own experience.

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EMILY: This interplay between performance, direction, and the camera is important in all of the work that we saw from Alemann but I’m thinking of it right now particularly in the context of Legitima defensa (Self-defense, 1980), which was my favourite of all of the films shown that night. In this black and white short, the camera slowly follows Alemann as she circles around a room in an indeterminate location. Alemann’s hair is hidden beneath a white cap and her face is covered with white paint. She confronts the camera with aggressive facial expressions (smiles? grimaces? threats?) and holds a long wooden staff at the ready, presumably for attack. The soundtrack is screams and groans – at least I think so. All I remember is being profoundly unsettled. I loved this movie, first of all, because the intensity of Alemann’s performance in it gave me literal goosebumps. As well, the film was such an incredible exploration of the relationship between the camera and its subject. The camera follows Alemann around, documenting her–this surveillance evoking at once the traditional position of women as the object of the camera’s gaze and the specific political context of Alemann’s life under a repressive and violent dictatorship in Argentina during the Dirty War. In this film Alemann flips the experience of being watched. Her eyes never leave the camera and never blink. With the staff in her hand she could easily break the lens but doesn’t, and the camera follows her direction as it is forced to keep this danger in its sight. She controls its movement. She is flagrantly visible and will not be disappeared, but even though her face is the camera’s obsessive focus it cannot be deciphered under her layers of paint and performance. It was so interesting to see this film in juxtaposition with Sensasion 77: Mimetismo (Sensation 77: Mimicry, 1977) which is about hiding from sight/the camera.

MADDY: I remember being so struck by her eyes in Self-Defense. Wide-open and aggressive, a stark contrast to her white face. She circles around the room challenging the camera, and at times is clearly seen, but against some walls she almost disappears. Still, her eyes remain. Which I think is the key element to both of her explicitly political works: When a corrupt government tries to disappear its subjects, nothing can truly be disappeared. Something always remains, whether it be the person or the actions of the government. In Sensasion 77 Alemann is trying to disguise herself amongst foliage, but also failing. For me, to film someone trying to hide, is a very conscious decision that is inherently critical. I’m trying to hide, but I’m filming it, so there will always be a record of this act. So it is a false hiding, or rather, hiding to show something else.

Windhausen mentioned that Alemann’s group was visited by the fascist government over concerns of subversive works, and after watching these films the artists were left to continue as they were. He noted that the government was afraid of militant works, those that would inspire an uprising. These works, though deeply subversive and critical, weren’t about challenging the government. They’re more insidious, more intelligent. I can see why they weren’t arrested over them, but I think that’s their merit. They’re more about life under dictatorship, the everyday quality of fear and desperation. But both are radical challenges, both in what they depict, and in their very existence.

And I think a woman depicting her everyday existence, under any form of oppression, is inherently radical.

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#52FilmsByWomen in 2016

A little belatedly, in mid-January I decided to challenge myself to watch 52 films directed by women in 2016: since I talk the talk, this year I am walking the walk and pushing myself to greater gender equality in my viewing choices! I’m a little behind as of right now, but I’m confident I’ll succeed. Here’s what I’ve been watching so far!

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1. The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)

The Girl is the story of a twenty-something orphan in communist Hungary who is on a quest to find her parents. Her journey leads her from Prague, where she works in a factor, to rural Hungary, where a woman who may or may not actually be her mother takes her in for a weekend. Like many New Wave films, the through plot is secondary to the action, and the characterization: Erzsi attends dances, flirts with men, and wanders around. The first Hungarian feature film directed by a woman, The Girl is a beautiful little snapshot into another time and place.

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2. Rich Hill (Tracy Droz Tragos & Andrew Droz Palermo, 2014)

Rich Hill is named for the tiny Missouri city in which it takes place: the film follows three young Rich Hill men at the brink of adulthood as they navigate life in their small town. But the film isn’t a celebration of traditional small town life; these boys all face heavy problems, like trouble at school (that leads to incarceration for some), jailed parents, and no prospects for the future. But the film treats its subjects with absolute empathy, and it’s a painful little peek into the human condition.

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3. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008)

I generally don’t like films centered on children – although I love kids (I do!), children in movies are usually too precocious to bear, or just plain non-starters. Treeless Mountain is the exception that proves the rule. The film is about two young sisters, Jin and Bin, whose mother is no longer able to care for them in Seoul, so they must move to rural South Korea to live with their alcoholic aunt. The film is told completely from the girls’ point of view – there’s not  scene that they are not in. I was impressed with how well the film captured what it’s like to be a child (the audience isn’t given any information the girls don’t have, though we’re able to understand subtext that they are not), that confusing, wonderful time when anything is possible. From making friends with a disabled neighbor, to starting their own “business” selling charred crickets as a snack, to the final third that left me on the verge of tears the entire time, Treeless Mountain is a sweet, beguiling look at childhood.

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4. 6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

I liked Hannah Fidell’s debut film A Teacher, and I think Taissa Farmiga is one of the most talented young actresses today (she even made American Horror Story worth watching), so I was excited to catch 6 Years (streaming on Netflix US). Unfortunately, it’s a vapid story about vapid people. Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield (channeling Penn Badgeley on Gossip Girl, yuck) play college students – he just graduated, she with another year – who have been together for the titular 6 years, whose relationship runs into some incredibly predictable roadblocks. Seriously, anyone who thought they were The Most In Love With Someone as a teenager will see where this is going – maybe it’s for a younger audience who won’t just yell “You deserve so much better, girl!!!!!” at the screen the entire time. Lindsay Burdge, who was so great in A Teacher, is the bright spot of the film as a sexy older lady – someone give her a better project, please.

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5. Three Versions of Myself as Queen (Anna Biller, 1994)

Anna Biller is a genius at taking tired tropes and rewriting them for her own feminist purposes, and she does this three times in this inventive, hilarious short film. The first version is Biller as an Indian queen, tired of her mundane life, cheered up by her entourage of brightly colored female friends doing a dance number. In the second version, Biller is literally a queen bee, waiting for a new hive until her worker bees find the perfect, pink home. The third version, and my favorite, starts at a Russ Meyer-esque shindig, where everyone is mod-ly dressed and jamming to some tunes. Soon, the men all become obsessed with Biller, and turn into literal dogs, and a hero comes to save her. At the end (spoiler alert?), though, she realizes that her witch powers are greater than any male hero’s, crowns herself queen, and walks away from the scene to her castle in the sky. This is feminist praxis in action.

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6. Butterfly (Shirley & Wendy Clarke, 1967)

Mother-daughter team Shirley and Wendy Clark collaborated on this very short, very colorful experimental short, which juxtaposes lullabies with the sounds of machine gun fire to protest the Vietnam War. The film is scratched, bleached, and hand-painted to create a disorienting statement on mothers and the anti-war movement. I would absolutely love to see more mother-daughter collaborations!