Monae’s Room

By Colleen Rowe

Raeshelle Cooke’s 20 minute short film, Monae’s Room, exposes the definition of closure after a woman falls out of the binds of a serious relationship. The darkness of Monae’s room itself exemplifies the seemingly chaotic turmoil that sits within Monae (Delea Mowatt) as she continues to isolate within her room. With a somewhat snobby sister, Kelly (J.D. Achille) enjoying the pleasure in life, with silly phone calls that Monae can’t seem to grasp under the wave of an all-encompassing depression, Cooke’s short touches upon the reality of heartbreak and how words by others cannot simply be the best medication.

The focus of the telephone within the film is important. Its classy grooves stand as a representation for loneliness, as the focus of Monae is, at times, less apparent within her darkened room. The telephone seems to be haunting her, and her inability to lose grasp of her previous relationship, along with the constant talking to herself within her own mind, might make viewers question if she is really as crazy as Kelly claims her to be.

The lighting within this film is also one of the most important of its attributes. Monae sits in darkness and uses her heartbreak as her muse, sitting tirelessly among the rubble of overused cups. Is this rubble chaining her to depression? Is there ever any solace in messes that we can’t clean up, figuratively and literally? Where do our hearts go once they are crushed and stretched out in overplayed songs that dance like evil angels on our shoulders? Monae’s Room gives some insight on a broken relationship through the blackness of wanted phone calls that, once received, we really don’t want anymore. After a certain passage of time, depression falls away and the focus of a telephone becomes less of an option, and more of a reason to put the past behind you. Monae allows this past to shift away from her inner rubble, giving her the perfect opportunity to pick up the phone when someone is actually listening.

The concept of this film is a relatable to the point where you feel yourself sitting in your own quiet room, with music that seems to bounce off the walls in short waves of depressing hope. For at the end of every terrible relationship, there is still a new one to ponder over, to make sense of the past, and with that Monae’s Room gives viewers hope in a hopeless territory.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

By Colleen Rowe

The 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was well produced in comparison to her life-long career struggle with pleasing the critics in the entertainment industry. It’s slightly heartbreaking to watch, especially with the turmoil of Rivers’ anxieties stressing herself thin and making her seem as if she was a woman who could not filter herself. There’s a fine line between anxiety that becomes a part of a persona and carelessly offending people for the sake of comedy.

Throughout the documentary, viewers can see Joan’s self-conscious side erupting between her acts. She was angry that not enough people were coming out to see her, and within the question of a possibly falling career, she seemed to always compare herself to Kathy Griffith. Joan Rivers knew that she was a comedy icon, and she demanded the respect that the entertainment world sometimes didn’t want to give her. Her acts were brash, sometimes condescending, and rude toward the individuals who came out to see her perform. As Rivers put it, “There’s always an adjective before my name and it’s never a nice adjective.”

It isn’t completely clear whether Joan Rivers’ caustic outbursts were completely subconscious, as her daughter, Melissa Rivers, mentions at one point of the documentary. It seems that there was a mixture of both subconscious outbursts and intentional metaphorical slayings, which Joan Rivers used to cut into people maliciously. What was heartbreaking about this documentary was the explanation of Rivers’ life. How she truly wanted to be an actor, but comedy was a niche that she fell into. Joan Rivers, a comedy icon was not only disrespected, but she was also respected for “paving the way” for women in comedy. This paradoxical understanding of Joan is the only understanding that there really is: she was a complicated woman. There’s nothing wrong with perfecting a persona, but the woman who Joan Rivers was when she wasn’t performing or acting was a nervous, caring mother with a lot of heart. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows the business within Joan Rivers and the personal fire within herself that fueled her verbal ammo.

The documentary itself really pulls out these complications and convinces viewers that Joan Rivers was struggling and, as she began to dwindle into an elderly age gap, her career began to suffer. The term “edgy” had taken a different spin in the entertainment world.  Is this documentary worth seeing? With such a complicated comedic force, this is for you to decide on your own.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was shown at the Gold Coast International Film Festival this past November

2014: An Interstellar Odyssey

By Langston Teijeiro

Upon curiosity of venturing into the unknown, we as humans have always attempted to satiate our urges to look beyond our own reality. We as a species have always found ourselves looking up to the stars, and have pondered our relevance in a vast universe. We place so much value on our lives and we are delusional enough to believe that we are the prime beings in our universe. Throughout the past week, in between breaks of writing my scripts, I walked all around different areas of Manhattan in an attempt to achieve any form of human connection: eye contact, a nod, maybe even a smile?

In this endeavor, I found a whole bunch of people spending every fiber of their energy looking down onto a tiny screen; myself included at times. At this point, I wonder about the curiosity of my species. We lack the incentive to look above and beyond our own realm of knowledge, reality, and primitive priorities. We have lost the art of curiosity and must find a way to rekindle it.

However, all of that changed on November 5th, 2014. I was fortunate enough to catch an early screening of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” in 70MM IMAX format.

Suddenly, my incentive to look beyond was reborn as the opening scene began to roll. Christopher Nolan’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is mesmerizing, to say the least. Screenwriter Jonathan Nolan’s script brilliantly delivers an emphasis on Quantum Physics fuzed with elements of human nature that I’ve never seen in a feature film before.

Matthew McConaughey delivers the second best performance of his career as Cooper, who finds himself more lost on earth than he does in space. The ensemble cast fuse together to produce organic performances from Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Bill Irwin, Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, the legendary Ellen Burstyn, and many more. The great Hans Zimmer composes a score mostly consisting of an organ, which leads to a haunting demeanor that elevates the experience. The incident in the third act flawlessly fused scientific theories with human emotion. The film ends with arguably one of the greatest cameo appearances ever performed, and with a voiceover that touches the soul of the viewers, including my own.

To conclude, we live in a time where accessibility and technology are key priorities in our existence. “Interstellar” demands us to appreciate cinema in an organic and old fashioned manner by showering us with jaw-dropping visual affects and opportunities to travel across dimensions, all while still reminding us that we are human, after all.

My suggestion is that you go see this film… and see it in the largest screen possible.

Repulsion’s Inversion of Psycho, or: The loss of narrative concern and the cracks in Polanski’s Code

By Daniel Spada

Just five short years after Alfred Hitchcock changed the discourse on the horror film with the release of Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski responded with a film containing more explicit sex and more explicit violence, not to forget an ending that was equally as disturbing but in a wholly different way. Repulsion (1965) was his first English language picture (as well as Catherine Deneuve’s), released by Compton Films, a small British film company specializing in soft-core pornography. At the time of its release, critics noted its surface similarities to Psycho, including Kenneth Tynan, writing for Life magazine, who said, “The difference between the two pictures is that Repulsion is Psycho, turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims–in Polanski’s our viewpoint is the killer’s” (22). There are parallels to be drawn between the oft-analyzed dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene with the landlord near the end of Repulsion. Norman and Carol’s vulnerability is turned outward and manifest in explicit acts of violence. Polanski understands this eruption of violence as consequential of a prolonged withdrawal from society, from oneself – this is reflected in his homages to Hitchcock, expressed in his ideological underpinnings, thematic preoccupations, and film form.

The other similarities between Repulsion and Psycho are very clear: the opening shot of Deneuve’s eye matches up with the shot of Marion’s after she is murdered, they are both blonde (which brings to mind the image of the “Hitchcock blonde”), there are two murders that occur throughout the duration of each film (Colin and the landlord in Repulsion, Marion and Arbogast in Psycho), and they both end with a “secret” being revealed to a community of people (a secret which brings great discomfort to each community in different ways[1]). Their differences are also easily noticeable: while Psycho could, and has been read as a mystery-thriller (the killer’s identity kept a secret until the end), Repulsion cannot be read as such (or in a similar way). There is a certain lack of narrative concern in Polanski’s film that does not exist in the world of Psycho, not to mention Polanski’s refusal to lighten the affair and offer a baseline diagnosis of Carol’s illness.[2] In both films, physical space is important (both of the major set pieces act as a literal and metaphorical prison, containing the action and the characters): Carol and Helen’s apartment in Repulsion, the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Although Kenneth Tynan is accurate in his description of Repulsion as an inversion of Psycho, it is only at a very basic level of narrative detail. His assertion that Polanski, “simply presents it [his heroine’s behavior], and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his” comes off as resoundingly false if we look at the particulars of Polanski’s film form, and how he posits Carol as, what Ivan Butler calls, “authentically tragic” and “herself the most pitiable victim of the evil she does” (78). It is almost as if Tynan has completely overlooked the shots that bookend the film: the first, starting from such a close-up on a human eye (Carol’s) as to be indistinguishable until the zoom out, and the final shot, an extended zoom-in on a family photograph, the light cutting the photo up and a parallelogram enclosing a small girl in the background, until it zooms in all the way on her face, and then the darkness in the corner of her eye overtakes the frame. Throughout the film, the audience experiences all of Carol’s hallucinations with her, thus creating empathy for her character, even if it is simply the illusion of empathy. It is impossible not to identify with Carol, and it is absolutely Polanski’s job to make this identification possible.

There is rich thematic and visual analysis to be gleaned from the bizarre dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene at the end of Repulsion with the landlord; there is even richer analysis that can be read between the lines when comparing and contrasting the two. Rather than extending an invitation to enter Carol’s personal space (unlike Norman, who requests Marion to eat dinner with him, quickly bringing her to his lair filled with taxidermied animals), her landlord unlocks the door, forcefully moves her poorly constructed blockade (a single piece of wood), and begins to roam around the apartment, quickly happening upon Carol in a white dressing gown cowering in the doorway to her living room. Throughout the scene Carol does not say much, other than insisting her landlord to not open the window curtains, and in this way, it is dissimilar to the dinner and shower sequence in Psycho. Polanski’s restless camera is constantly following the landlord as he wanders around the apartment, unlike Hitchcock’s mostly stationary camera.

As for similarities between the two films, Marion’s comment about institutionalizing Mother parallels Helen’s boyfriend’s comment about Carol seeing a doctor, to which Helen responds “She’s just sensitive, that’s all.” There is a hint of understanding in her response to him (she even gets a little defensive), a hint that this might be the way Carol has always been. Norman’s response to Marion is much more defensive, before it devolves into him talking about how Mother needs him and how she just “goes a little mad sometimes.”

There is a moment of resistance in Psycho when Norman enters the house and stops at the stairs for a second, then goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, in deep contemplation. This is mirrored in Repulsion when Carol stays seated on the couch up until the landlord has attempted to sexually violate her. Then, when she sees his second attempt coming, she does strike him, many times, hunched over like an animal with a razor blade in her hand, slice after slice, blood everywhere. The music becomes intense, like that in Psycho’s shower sequence and the camera cuts back and forth between Helen and the landlord, like the camera cutting back and forth between Marion and Mother.

Seeing is essential to cinema; both Repulsion and Psycho utilize the gaze, which ends up creating distinct graphic matches between them. There are two prominent instances of this, the first being in Psycho with Lila’s tracking gaze up to the Bates estate and in Repulsion with Carol’s walks around London’s South Kensington area. The second pronounced illustration of this gaze match is when Norman looks through the peephole at Marion undressing and when the landlord comes to Carol’s apartment to collect the money. These scenes, looked at against each other, show Hitchcock’s influence on Polanski, and their shared preoccupation with seeing and the gaze.

Hitchcock and Polanski alike refuse to make a conclusive statement on their characters’ conditions. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski does not offer any solace in explaining away Carol’s behavior, even though the ending of Psycho alludes to a gender instability more frightening than the one espoused by the psychiatrist.

Psycho and Repulsion deal with the idea of sexual repression, but in very different ways. While it is explained that Norman’s sexual repression is somehow indebted to Mother, Carol’s is never explicated upon, but only shown visually. Norman and Carol are both incredibly lonely characters, their loneliness reflected in their living spaces. Norman’s maintenance of the ever vacant Bates Motel passes the time, but also traps him. With Repulsion, Polanski frequently shoots Carol’s apartment in a way that shows what a big empty space it is. Carol’s apartment is both that which is eating her alive and that which she cannot escape: the sound of her sister making love, which assists the audience in understanding her sexual repression at a deeper level, and her hallucinations of hands emerging from the walls and a man attempting to attack her are ways for Polanski to show her gradual mental disintegration.

It could be argued that both Hitchcock and Polanski subscribe to the Foucauldian conception of madness as changing and historically situated.[3] When the psychiatrist makes his speech at the end of Psycho, it is almost as if Hitchcock is poking fun at the idea of madness being eliminated on the basis of a principle of explanation or reduction external to the psychological dimensions of madness. With the following scene of overlapping a highly feminine voice and Anthony Perkin’s calm veneer, Hitchcock is drawing attention to the absurdity of that idea. Normality, in relation to mental illness, is less reflective of psychiatry or psychology than philosophy. Polanski’s approach to Carol’s condition is less clear because he never offers an explanation of her behavior, thus making the ending and film as a whole disturbing in a completely different way than Psycho. This refusal to diagnose her and also the refusal to explain her past could be an indication of his agreement with Foucault’s conclusion that psychology can never master madness.

The subversion of audience expectation is a tactical maneuver employed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. With Psycho, it was killing off its star, Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film and the refusal to restore order. With Repulsion, it was an aversion to the classic narrative structure, the lack of a character arc, and, like Psycho, the refusal to restore order (or even offer a baseline explanation of the chaos that ensues). Repulsion is clearly indebted to Psycho, however, it can be seen as bringing the horror film into a new direction: from the outside to the inside.

[1] In Psycho the community believes they understand Norman and his condition (as per the diagnosis by the psychiatrist), while in Repulsion there is no intervention by a doctor so there is an even greater discomfort within the community.

[2] Something I found particularly confounding when doing research for this essay was how more often than not critics and theorists alike did not understand the function of the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s condition in Psycho, mis-characterizing it as “glib”, “hasty”, “tacked-on”, etc.

[3] How ironic that for my birthday this past October a friend got me Foucault’s Madness: The Invention of An Idea. Who could have known I would be using it for this comparative essay between Repulsion and Psycho, really?

The Intersection of Theory and Practice in Yvonne Rainer’s “Privilege” (1990)

By Daniel Spada

Playing with the So-Called Truth Value of Documentary and the Authenticity of Identity[1]

The filmic image evokes an affective response that is pointedly different than one aroused by the reading of text on a page. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, in an introduction to Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, “Writing is an erotic device. The imaginary gaze of the gentle reader has no function other than to give the word a new and strange consistency. The reader is not an end; he is a means, an instrument that doubles the pleasure, in short a voyeur despite himself” (25). Likewise, the viewer of a film, be it a fiction or documentary production or a combination of the two, feels around the crevices of the composed images like a child discovering itself and its relational embodiment to the outside world, giving it meaning through an active participation that is both psychical, in the active linking up of image and sound, and physical, in the simple act of opening up to this specific, singular experience.

Film is demanding and special in the sense that it relies on that capacity to construct meaning out of the connection of image and sound; films that mark themselves or are marked by their makers as functioning within the documentary spectrum of film production require a criticality that is both more immediate and easily overlooked. Is what we are being presented with the (definitive) truth on a particular subject, or case? While most social issue documentaries encourage a participation that is embedded within dominant social structures that requires a special form of forgetting – a forgetting that entails a lack of acknowledging positionality and intersectionality in their complex realizations – others are constructed with a more holistic approach in mind and execution, one that takes to task not only the demonstration of ways in which theory and practice interact, but also integrating theory insofar as it enacts the process of constructing itself within which a functional analysis of relationality occurs.

An ongoing analysis of being in the world, creating, and being created in the image of others, Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990) offers numerous ways to deconstruct and reconfigure the production of knowledge, truth claims, and the creation and perpetuation of social inequities by deploying structural techniques including: the film-within-a-film; reenactments and multiple direct addresses therein; the combination of archival footage, interviews, and scripted segments with professional actors; and the use of text on screen. Through the implementation of these varied stylistic methods, a narrative, however experimentally played out, emerges – a narrative that instigates a scrutiny of the power of myths, the reality of differing and intersecting levels of privilege, and the liberation to be wrought from the intersecting forces of theory and practice. A critical analysis of Rainer’s prior choreographic and dance work’s influence on her film trajectory is necessary, while a close look at the interviews within the film, as well as an inquiry into one instance of evidence blindness, the qualifications of an essay film, and attention to critical reception will lead to a fuller study of the film on all accounts.

Keep Me Running, You Keep Me Running[2]: Rainer’s Choreographic and Dance Work’s Influence on Her Film Trajectory

The aforementioned Sarte quote extends itself beyond a simple application to general film viewing when discussing Rainer’s work. Renowned in the avant-garde world for her choreographer work in the 1960s and 1970s, Rainer’s dance work explicitly influenced her film work during the 1970s all through the 1990s, both ideologically and, by extension, formally and structurally. In an overview of her work for Senses of Cinema’s 27th issue of Great Directors, Erin Brannigan cites Peggy Phelan and Jonathan Walley as two of a longer list of film writers who emphasize her questioning and criticality of “spectatorial positions within the film text and the corresponding functions of narrative” (par. 5) which can also be found in her choreographic work. Brannigan comments in a footnote on the influence of John Cage,[3] a composer and collaborator, accentuating a move away from habitual ‘hard-wired’ movement and toward a minimalism that discarded dramatic elements.[4] She makes clear in her composite analysis of Rainer’s move from dance to film that it was a “reaction against the minimalism and Cagean traditions that had informed her choreography” (par. 5). Previously indicating that “her influences were from outside the experimental film scene” of the work of such filmmakers as Maya Deren (whom she does reference later on in her career as an influence), Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, Rainer says she was primarily struck by Cage’s music ideas and 1960s art practices (par. 3).

Rainer’s critique of the performer/spectator relation and her conflict against the narcissistic/voyeuristic model of dance performance, reflected in her No Manifesto, redistributed attention and negated spectacle, realigning the positionality of the spectator through the structure of the dance performances. Walley is of the opinion, as Brannigans denotes, that this is a failure on Rainer’s part, thus impels her move towards narrative performance and film. Brannigan debates him on this point, finding her breaking trends within contemporary avant-garde film and exploring the structural problems inherent within art, on an ideological level, characterized by problems with mediated power and authority that were already present in her choreographic work. As Brannigan says, “The various combinations and contradictions of figural movement, image, spoken or printed text, sound and spatial perspective, and the relation of this on-screen material to audience expectation, is an area for constant interrogation in Rainer’s film” (par. 7). A case study of Privilege seems particularly apt as Rainer’s deconstruction and critique seem particularly pronounced in this film.

Privilege “by Yvonne Rainer and many others” vs. Privilege “by Yvonne Washington and many others”: Beginning Again[5]

The first few minutes of Rainer’s Privilege are misleading, and intentionally so, insofar as they set up audiences’ expectations and lead the viewer to believe that with the rest of the running time they will be presented a definitive statement on the experiences of women who have gone through menopause,[6] in the process divesting the power of authoritative knowledge from doctors in the creation of images and control of bodies. While the film does this, it also analyzes cultural constructions and self-embodiments of race, class, and sexuality, and the influence they have on one another and the construction and perpetuation of social inequities, always occurring simultaneously and resulting in differing effects relational to the subjugated subject and the diffuseness of power.

The following two parts of the film introduce the characters of Helen Caldicott, an actual person that is played by Rainer herself, and the black signer, both of whom are dropped thereafter. In an interview with Gabrielle Finnane for The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Rainer states that the beginning is “deliberately confusing” and alludes to the inclusion of Caldicott as the introduction of a performance piece. She comments on the reversing of a center and margin, with the black signer filling up the frame and Caldicott minimized in an oval in the left right hand corner, and the establishment of the theme of race which will run throughout. In an interview for The San Francisco Cinematheque with Kurt Easterwood, Laura Poitras, and Susanne Fairfax, Rainer says that the Caldicott speech “introduces the sexuality motif with the lipstick” and the signer also gives Yvonne Washington, the black alter-ego interrogator of Rainer and fictional documentary maker of the film-within-a-film, “the opportunity to make a comparison of medical attitudes to deafness and menopause via their presumed status of ‘disease’” (235).

The way Rainer initially films herself as Caldicott, center frame and then applying the lipstick to an extent beyond that which it is intended while “My Funny Valentine” plays on the soundtrack, is the first example of representational subversion, in conjunction with the previous classic films clips that contradict the interviews with the women that have gone through menopause. Gwen Raaberg speaks to this aspect of the film in her essay “Views from ‘The Other Side’: Theorizing Age and Difference in Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Privilege’” for Women’s Studies Quarterly, saying, “The image effectively ruins expected cinematic representations of women and conventional modes of viewing,” going on to say that it “directly confronts a culture saturated with representations of women as unreal objects of sexual desire. This is no object amenable to the consumerism of the gaze.” She proceeds to declare that the image insists on expressivity, not effacement, and that it acts as an entryway for the audience into the “carnivalesque realm of the film, where the calculated chaos of Rainer’s experimentalism subverts hierarchies, questions cultural codes, and provides a space for presenting alternative perspectives and voices” (122). It is both ironic, in the soundtrack’s effect on the image, and foreshadows the way Rainer will conduct her discourse throughout the rest of the film.

Middles and Ends: Shifting Pronouns

Throughout the rest of Privilege, the viewer is presented with a fairly accessible fictionalized narrative of the past, told by a present day fictionalized version of Rainer herself, named Jenny (played by Alice Spivak), who is being interviewed and, moreover, cross-examined by friend and filmmaker Yvonne Washington (played by Novella Nelson)[7], also a stand in for Rainer, for a documentary on menopause. Included in this narratives are monologues, sometimes disguised as dialogue, delivered by the actors, in character, the original source of which Rainer then cites via text on a computer screen. Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,[8] Rainer invokes certain conventions, as she says in her interview with Finnane, “to better tear them apart,” while situating the action of the film around realistic characters encourages critical awareness and analysis on the audience’s part of the ways in which the theoretical and poetic addresses throughout the film play out in everyday life.

While Raaberg is of the opinion that “Rainer’s strategies effectively block the prevalent tendency of audiences to become engaged with the narrative or empathetic with a central character; by contrast, they enforce distance and enhance the viewer’s critical capacity” (122), Finnane finds there to be an “oscillation between identification and disengagement or detachment” and that that “was increased because of the initial fictional identification with the characters.” I find Rainer’s approach to align more with the latter interpretation. An identification with Jenny’s character, and the other characters in the films as well, is simply one way to engage with the film on a narrative (as well as subsequently analytical and theoretical) level. However, it is important to remain critical of that identification, paying close attention to both her blind spots in relation to her status as privileged in some senses (her race and class), while markedly unprivileged in others (her age and gender), and our own.

Rainer’s deployment of different structural documentary techniques is disruptive insofar as they lift the viewer out of the narrative and expose the social hierarchy that at once seemed foundational to all narrative structures. In the interview with Finnane, Rainer points to the theorizing done on the idea of the narrative structure as an analogue for social hierarchy, and sees her own disruption in this sense to point towards “possibilities for a more fluid and open organizing of social relations.”

The different techniques being placed alongside one another also contributes commentary and demands a more active participation on the part of the viewer. This includes the interviews with the women going through menopause and the archival medical footage of doctors delivering what is thought to be, although is clearly proven not, authoritative knowledge on the subject. The objective knowledge claims made about women’s bodies by doctoral (read: patriarchally defined) authority is juxtaposed next to these confessional interviews, and repetitively so, to make clear one of the arguments Rainer is making, and the way the processes of image (and subject) construction actually occur in this society and culture. This is not to say that the interviewees experiences are the be all end all truths, but, as Raaberg notes in her article, identity simultaneously constructs itself and is constructed socially (124).

The Interviews: True/False, Fake/Real[9]

One of the hallmarks of documentary or nonfiction filmmaking is the interview. The interview is a technique in which the director allows an outside party, or even her or himself (in Privilege Rainer surfaces via the fictionalized form of Jenny), to tell what is presumed to be the truth about a certain topic or event. With Privilege, Rainer plays around with the assigned truthfulness of interview in documentary film.

In a discussion with Susanne Fairfax on the subject, Rainer delineates the three kinds of experiences presented through interview. They are, “the traditional professional talking head (the doctors who represent authoritative kinds of speech); the so-called ‘real’ interview–with their ‘spontaneous’ speech–which have been highly selected from hours of material; and the ‘fake’ documentary in which Yvonne interviews Jenny” (235). She says that these all play on each other and that, although she makes distinctions between them, there is not a system of prioritization being consciously enacted.

Evidence Blindness, or: and a Self-Proclaimed Missed Opportunity

One problem within feminist methodology is evidence blindness.[10] Evidence blindness is the phenomena of not taking evidence into account. While this has been explained away by multiple competing viewpoints as a cognitive incapacity (as per Anthony Appiah) and cognitive immunity in relation to the conception of the sociology of knowledge (as per Karl Mannheim), evidence blindness still flourishes within diverse disciplines, skewing data and sometimes making it unusable.

While Rainer makes connections between relations of privilege according to race and gender in her film-within-a-film and her discourse at large, she does not asks the black interviewees about their race in relation to their aging and menopause. This is noted in her interviews with Finnane and Fairfax. Rainer states in the Fairfax interview that she was asked a question by a dark-skinned woman at a Melbourne screening that enacted a self-realization about her own assumptions about documentary that went unchecked during the making of the film. The woman asked why she “treated in documentary form women speaking about menopause whereas the material dealing with issues of race is only treated in this didactic fictional form” (235-6).

Rainer justifies this visible exclusion in two different ways. In the Fairfax interview she says that if she had asked about how race functioned in relation to their aging, menopause, and treatment by the medical establishment, she “would have gone at these interviews with some preconceived agenda that they would have had to fall into” (236). This explanation does not stand the test of scrutiny because, as her film-within-a-film shows, there was already a preconceived agenda present with the analysis of race and gender in relation to one another. Likewise, in her interview with Finnane she also justifies this exclusion on the grounds that “the fictional conceit is that it’s a documentary film about menopause,” but this does not adequately address the problem. While she reconfigures social hierarchies with her disruption of narrative cohesion, she also reinscribes this particular one with the absence of authentic speech voicing issues of race. An admittance of missed opportunity and the aforementioned justifications do nothing to absolve the invisibility of these essential voices.

Is Privilege An “Essay-Film”?

A question that naturally arises from a viewing and critical analysis of Privilege is of its classification in relation to cinematic genre: does it fall under the rubric of the “essay-film”?[11] Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro’s discussion of the filmic essay in their book Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning is borne out of an analysis of the “meeting between nonfictional representation and experimental aesthetics” (149). They say, “the essay assumes a comparable dialogue between the subjectivity of the essayist and the themes discussed” (150), and Privilege surely qualifies in partaking in this type of exploration. They go on to comment, “the essay film contradicts, for example, the assumption that the world can be known in a definitive way. It shifts the focus from the end product of the investigative effort to the process by which knowledge is created” (151). If we are to go by this understanding of the qualities of an essay film, Privilege surely fits the bill in its obfuscation of epistemological expectations regarding the documentary film. The confounding beginning is understood better in relation to what Rainer discloses as her main preoccupations throughout the rest of the film.

However, other films critics, naturally, have different views on what marks a work as an “essay-film” – one of those critics, Phillip Lopate, is critical of Privilege‘s induction into this filmic categorization. In an article for The Threepenny Review entitled “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” he rails against the status of the film, referring to it as a “collage film” in reference to its experimental deployment of various film techniques: the dramatized scenes, the found footage, the faked interview, the written texts, etc. In particular, he criticizes Jonathan Rosenbaum’s defense of the film as an essay. His issue with the film lies in its narrative incohesion (noted before as being an intentional deployment on Rainer’s part). He sees this, along with his own lack of understanding regarding Rainer’s argument, as negating its status as an essay film.

Privilege certainly has essayistic qualities. It tackles highly theoretical issues such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and age in and through different experimental forms. Its narrative configuration plays with the so-called truth value of documentary, and the authenticity of identity, thus making it incomprehensible to some – but to others, easily falling into the category of the essay film.

Locating an Audience

In his interview with Yvonne Rainer for Film Quarterly, Scott MacDonald asks about the response to the film elicited from African-Americans. He proclaims that in Utica the audience was only 20 percent African-American, and Rainer responds that she has had “very little response from nonwhites so far.” She cites a showing at the Frederick Douglass Institute of African American Studies at the University of Rochester where she expected at least a 50-50 balance of racial diversity in the audience, however finding that “it was an almost totally white crowd” (29).

Rainer’s remarks on the absolute need of hers to find the black audience is important, as is the actual act of the film being seen by black audiences. Like one of the interviewees mentions in a discussion about the lack of experiential knowledge regarding menopause within male doctors, a discussion with a black audience is crucial insofar as they have experiential knowledge regarding race, from the subjugated position (the “other side” of privilege, so to say), that white audiences simply do not.

Momentary Utopias

One aspect of the film that has been noted by several critics and interviewers is the inclusion of the wrap party at the end of the film that runs throughout the end credits. This comes back to the inclusion of the aforementioned “and many others” in the beginning credits which indicates the actuality of film as a collaborative effort and process. In the introduction to his interview with Rainer in which he later asks her about that inclusion, MacDonald expresses the belief that “we get a sense of the private world or at least the social milieu out of which the public event of the film has developed” (20). He asks her if the line “UTOPIA: the more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes” that we see during the end credits is a marking of the wrap party as “a kind of momentary Utopia” and if the process of making the film is her attempt “to model Utopian interaction,” to which she responds, “Yeah,” and, “why not document what was already going to happen” (31).

In her discussion with Rainer, Laura Poitras also asks about the quote at the end of the film and the function of the wrap party’s inclusion. Giving a more fleshed out response than with MacDonald, she says, “I liked the idea of showing all those people socializing with each other. So there is a utopian cast to it” (241). She responds to criticism of a conscious invoking of the American melting pot fantasy by saying she intentionally put the scene into context “as some kind of dream, or a utopian gesture, along the lines of all tensions and social conflicts momentarily forgotten or maybe at some time in the future, resolved, a coexistence with no racial conflicts” (242).

Regardless of whether it is considered a film essay or not, Privilege‘s capacity to make the viewer do work, and actively construct theory is a productive use and advancement of the documentary film form. Through the use of different stylistic approaches, Rainer exposes (and leaves open for discussion) connections between what would be thought of as disparate subjects. Bearing her one acknowledged missed opportunity, her call for a functional and intersectional engagement with such foundational ideologies surrounding and structuring the (self and socially) constructed categories of gender, race, age, etc. lays the essential groundwork for critical and perceptive dialogue on these topics to flourish.

[1] I take this phrasing from Yvonne Rainer’s interview with Scott MacDonald for Film Quarterly, where she states, “the film is very artificial. It continually plays with the so-called truth value of documentary and with the authenticity of identity. I’m split across any number of people in this film. You might say the whole films goes on in my own head” (29).

[2] I take this (repeated) lyric from British singer-songwriter Jessie Ware’s song “Running” (the debut single on her debut studio album Devotion, released in the UK in 2012 via PMR/Island Records and in 2013 in the US via Cherrytree Records, an imprint of Interscope).

[3] Although she is not the only to do so, as a lot of the writing I have come across on Rainer, even done by herself, points to these facts.

[4] We do see an inhabitation of drama with the reenactments, however minimal, that lie at the core of the film-within-a-film in Privilege.

[5] I take this phrasing from a comment by Rainer for The San Francisco Cinematheque. Laura Poitras asks her to explain why Rainer introduces the film twice in two different ways and Rainer responds, “I’ve always liked the idea of beginning again.”

[6] Which is also, ironically enough, is the conceit of the film-within-a-film being made by Yvonne Washington.

[7] In her interview with Scott MacDonald, Rainer states that Nelson had an input into the film – specifically pointing out instances in which she corrected Rainer’s grammar and in her response to Eldridge Cleaver (29).

[8] I take this phrasing from Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

[9] I take these dichotomies from a song title by the American house group Hercules and Love Affair.

[10]  Mary Hawkesworth, professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, devotes an entire chapter to it in her guide book to methodological issues within feminist scholarship, Feminist Inquiry (2006).

[11]  As it has been designated by numerous film critics (although a reductive New York Film Festival review of the film by the New York Times called it an art film as opposed to a documentary, as if a film couldn’t be both), including, but not limited to, Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose 1991 review for the Chicago Reader was taken to task by Phillip Lopate.

Eraserhead: In Heaven, everything is fine

By Jordan Danner

I have always been attracted to both the surreal and morbid in the arts. Watching strange and disturbing films became almost like a “chasing the dragon”, in which I would try to seek out something even more odd, until I reached the likes of directors such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Shinya Tsukamoto, and David Lynch. One of the granddaddies of all of these midnight cult surreal films was Lynch’s feature-length debut film Eraserhead (1977), an incredibly difficult film to watch, but not one without merit. Partially funded by a fresh out of Carrie (1976) Sissy Spacek, The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry deemed it “culturally significant” and selected the film in 2004 for preservation. The Criterion Collection just reissued a beautifully restored print on DVD, along with another release of his short films, and Mel Brooks was such a fan that he helped produce Lynch’s next film The Elephant Man (1980), which went on to receive eight Oscar nominations, including best picture.

Shot in gritty black and white, Eraserhead is more about creating an uncomfortable atmosphere than relying on dialog to create its nightmarish feeling. Noteworthy is the fact that the film does not feature much dialog at all. A large portion of the beginning of the film is just establishing the setting of this industrial wasteland that Henry (Jack Nance) inhabits. Trademarks of Lynch began in this film with his often-used ominous flickering of lights and rumbling basses, which create an incredibly uneasy environment that one almost feels the tension that the character is. Such settings would be explored in later films such as Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).

Throughout the next hour of this film, we are introduced to Henry’s grim reality. We find that Henry and his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) have had a child together. We discover that this child is a hideous mutation, most likely the result of the industrial wasteland that they inhabit and the genetically modified food that they eat. Henry soon finds himself alone after Mary is driven away by the constant screams and cries by their child. Henry begins to find a sort of solace in the visions he begins to experience. After staring into his radiator, he begins to witness a stage inside where a girl proceeds to dance while sperm-like beings fall to the ground. Things start get even weirder (don’t ask me how he manages this!) with more visions, including Henry losing his own head.

Loosely based on his 1970 short The Grandmother, Lynch wanted to capture what he called his own version of The Philadelphia Story (1940). While Lynch is notorious for not revealing his methods or his meanings, there are still some hints that he has dropped over the last few years. At the time, Lynch was a student at the American Film Institute, which helped with production of the film. Anyone with knowledge of rust belt cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh could inform you that the urban decay of these former manufacturing hubs were a huge influence on the grim setting of the film. Another aspect Lynch has mentioned with the film is that it does address the apprehensions he felt as a new father in a strange time to be alive in America. This period of time had seen events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, which caused a huge loss of morale in the nation, along with many divisions between people. The “me” generation of the 1970s was seen as a stark contrast to the “peace and love” era of the late 1960s.

The many years I have spent watching this film (secluded and in the dark is the best way to experience it in my opinion), I have often found new things to discuss, whether it be in the aesthetics of the film itself, or the story behind it. Growing up in a time with similar turmoil has made me find appreciation in the environment that Henry is around in this film. The rust belt has only continued to increase and swallow more cities whole. As factories close, jobs are lost, people flee, and budgets shrink. One can only hope at least that the song in the film is correct when it says that “In Heaven, everything is fine.”

Five Underrated Horror Films from Some of Today’s Biggest Directors

By Jordan Danner

Autumn is making its return as the temperature drops and the leaves begin to fall. As soon as that first cold day in September arrives, I look forward to pumpkin everything, organizing all the frumpy sweaters I’m going to wear and of course, Halloween and all of the horror films that go with it. When I find I enjoy work from a director, I often try to see as many films in that director’s filmography, even though some may not be worth viewing. Watching an artist (I regress in some cases) is always fun to see as one finds their niche. After a recent subscription to Hulu Plus, I’ve begun to raid its Criterion Collection section (the one area of the service without commercials!), along with my own personal collection and started my marathon of horror films with a few overlooked works by some of today’s most critically acclaimed directors.

1. Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

Before making films about organized crime such as Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), De Palma was beginning his career with a string of horror films and psychological thrillers. Sisters tells the story of French-Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder), whose separated conjoined twin Dominique is suspected of murder by her neighbor and local reporter, Grace(Jennifer Salt). Upon discovering no trace of a crime scene, Grace continues to investigate both the area and Danielle and Dominque’s past, resulting in a shocking twist.

As a member of the New Hollywood group of filmmakers, De Palma pays tribute to both Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in both story and aesthetics. Visually, the film is full of brilliant split-screen, point of view and iris shots. De Palma even managed to get Bernard Herrmann, one of Hitchcock’s favorite collaborators to compose the harrowing score. An interesting twins-themed double feature (all puns intended!) would be with David Cronenberg’s (a director I will also talk about in this list) Dead Ringers (1988).

2. Martin (George A. Romero, 1976)

When it comes to horror filmmakers, Romero is one of the most influential. Romero gave us the modern zombie film, complete with social commentary when he released Night of the Living Dead (1968), along with five more “living dead” films in a franchise over forty years. My fellow horror film buff friends and I often like to discuss our favorite films of Romero’s that do not involve zombies. The one film we often like to bring up is Martin, a criminally underrated film and an interesting take on the vampire genre.

Martin (John Amplas) appears to be a regular young man on the outside, except for the fact that he is convinced that he is a vampire. Martin doesn’t let his lack of fangs or a hypnotic gaze prevent him from feasting on blood, he just uses the aid of razor blades and sedatives to procure his next meal. After the death of his family, Martin is sent to live with his cousin (Christine Forrest) and grandfather (Lincoln Maazel), a Lithuanian immigrant and strict Catholic that believes Martin truly is a vampire. Martin works for his grandfather’s butcher shop, being threatened with a stake to the heart if he feeds on any of his customers.

Despite being a horror film, Martin is still full of dark humor as well. Martin’s grandfather tried to repel him with garlic and crosses, to which Martin is unaffected, telling him that magic is not real. Since being a young vampire is tough on your love life, Martin becomes a hit guest known as “The Count” on a radio show that he frequently calls to express his difficulties with women as a vampire. All in all, Martin is an overlooked, but worthwhile entry in Romero’s filmography, especially for those that are growing tired of the same vampire storylines.

3. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

One of my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi directors, David Cronenberg created his own genre of horror known as “body horror”. Common themes in Cronenberg’s earlier films involve biotechnology and other invasive things taking over one’s body, often representing a physical manifestation of one’s psychological state. Nowadays, Cronenberg has toned down on the horror (though not the violence) a bit with films such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007).

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of a television network that specializes in pornography and sensationalist programming, always on the lookout for the next big thing to shock his audiences. Max’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) exposes him to a pirate signal he has discovered involving snuff and torture footage coming from Malaysia known as “Videodrome.” Upon seeing this, Renn realizes both the minimal costs of production and being a new level of entertainment and decides to start pirating the program. Appearing with Max on a talk show discussing the media, we are introduced to radio host Nikki (Blondie’s Deborah Harry) and Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a media philosopher loosely based on Marshal McLuhan that insists he only appear on television if he is shown on a television. After Max and Nikki go on a date, they watch Videodrome, with Nikki even expressing interest in auditioning for the show. The more Max watches Videodrome, the more he notices himself having bizarre hallucinations and growths in his body, taking him down a path of learning the truth about the grim and nefarious origin of the program.

Besides being a straightforward horror film, Videodrome’s deeper meanings go into commentary on both the state of the media and its possible future. In 1983, cable television was in its infancy, the internet was reserved for the department of defense, virtual reality was more of a concept and the closest thing we had to reality television was Candid Camera and An American Family. Brian   O’Blivion states in the film that television will become our new reality, a statement that rings true in today’s media saturation.

4. Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Guillermo del Toro is an exciting face in the world of horror. His films often contain the Gothic imagery one would find in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft or the classic horror films to come out of Universal and Hammer, but with the gore you would expect from a film released today. I’m excited to see that del Toro will soon be releasing an adaptation of Lovecraft’s (an author usually not translated well on film) novella “At the Mountains of Madness” If anyone can make a faithful adaptation, he’s the man for the job!

Cronos is del Toro’s debut film, released in his native Mexico about the discovery of a 450 year old golden scarab with a still-living insect inside of it. Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) is an antique dealer, who discovers the piece in a hollowed-out bottom of an archangel statue in his store. After messing around with it, the scarab sprouts legs, injecting him with an unknown substance that begins his transformation into a vampire.

We discover that a dying businessman (Claudio Brook) has been collecting these statues in search of the scarab with the help of his nephew (Ron Perlman), who offers to purchase the statue, thinking the scarab is still inside. As Gris starts to notice more changes, he decides to visit the businessman, in which he explains to him that his skin will soon turn to marble. The businessman tries then to make a deal with Gris to have a “way out” of his condition in exchange for the device. Little does he know, this way out will be as a result of the businessman and his nephew trying to kill him!

While not my favorite of del Toro’s films, Cronos is still a strong debut from a director who has continued to make some of the most stylized horror films this side of Dario Argento and the releases of Hammer Films. These last twenty years, del Toro has managed to tackle everything from the ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone (2001) , the comic book in Hellboy (2004), the nightmarish fairy tale in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and even the Japanese Kaiju/Mecha films I grew up watching in his latest work Pacific Rim (2013), all while maintaining his unique gothic aesthetic.

5. Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)

Growing up in the 90’s, I was one of those horror geeks that lived at the remaining independent video stores on Long Island. I discovered the good, the bad and the ugly, along with the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at these establishments. Those oversized clamshell VHS boxes of various Giallo films and Video Nasties, boasting scenes of gore and warnings about being banned in multiple countries intrigued my morbid self. One of my favorite splattercore directors to show people as a teenager was Peter Jackson. Most of you know Jackson from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but before Heavenly Creatures (1994), Jackson’s films were over the top gore comedies that gave Sam Raimi a run for his money.

Set in the 1950s in Jackson’s native New Zealand, we are introduced to an explorer looking for a “Sumatran Rat-Monkey” (animated in my favorite medium, Claymation!) on Skull Island. After being bit by the monkey, he is killed by his associates after them exclaiming that he has “the bite”. We are then introduced to a very meek Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) and his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). While on a date at the zoo with an employee at the local grocery, Vera follows them and ends up being bit by the same monkey that is now residing at the zoo. Vera begins to act even more erratic than usual, along with her skin peeling off and ear falling off. After killing a nurse, a chain reaction starts by which Lionel instead decides to keep his mother and the growing body count locked in his basement while giving them tranquilizers. As one can imagine, he cannot keep this under control for long as he is soon faced with a house full of ravenous zombies.

While being an extremely funny dark comedy, the film is also incredibly gory, albeit in a comic book manner. Once upon a time, the film boasted a record in gore, including 300 liters of fake blood being used in just one scene of the film. My eyes always light up, when I expose friends to this film, not only due to them not expecting it to be Peter Jackson, but because it really is that funny of a horror film and still cracks me up to this day.

Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014)

By Colleen Rowe

It looks as if colored oils are being splashed and organized into figures on canvas before your eyes. Director Peter Strickland’s full-length Drama, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is like a homoerotic Baroque painting, with its two female leads, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, dominating the screen in separate, but conjoined spheres. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is Evelyn’s (Chiara D’Anna) employer, but their relationship escalates quickly with a peer through a doorknob’s keyhole. Looking in from the outside, Evelyn peers into her ruler’s world: Cynthia’s matured body in lingerie as she undresses in unassuming privacy. Does she know that Evelyn is watching her as her dress slips from her waist, down her thighs…and falls upon the floor like a splash of flowing ink?

And so, the ink dries and the women continue with their master-servant relationship. Cynthia orders young Evelyn to do her bidding, which includes cleaning her boots vigorously, her eyebrows raised almost as high as her expectations. Cynthia’s impatience grips Evelyn forcefully, pushing her into seemingly torturous punishments—at first these inflictions are usually unseen, initially; the bathroom door is closed and there are gurgling sounds of a mouth full of water, Evelyn is choking, sputtering…but somehow loving every single moment of it. If the master had been a man, these interactions would have been looked upon with disgust, and people would shake their heads slightly with immense disdain for the abuser. But, as an attractive, mature woman perpetuating the servant’s liking for her punishments, the audience seemed intrigued, and turned on to understanding the parallel roles that are expected of women. Are these expectations acceptable to condone? Of course not, but they are there.

A male “master” can be more frightening to a woman, because of the power men have tried to hold over women since written documentation was first recorded in the grand scheme of time. There is also the vast history of social inequality between men and women that really taints the filters of perspective while watching this film. In the past, women who were unrightfully enslaved were raped by their masters; an account of this was recorded in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs, a true story of a young girl who struggled for equality in a world where her race and sex subjected her to the abuses she faced. Jacobs’ written work was influenced by Samuel Richardson’s famous novel, Pamela, also known as Virtue Rewarded. Pamela is a tale with dense misogynistic undertones and a plot that circulates around a male master who follows, confines, and stalks his servant until she finally succumbs to his rule and has sexual relations with him. Yes, her virtue is rewarded in the end. Let us make it clear that any forced sexual relations are abusive, even if they are “achieved” by manipulation.

A woman ordering another woman to do something is more comfortable, simply on the level of an employer/employee relationship, but one should not assume this is the reason why Cynthia’s inflictions against Evelyn, as they pursue a more personal relationship, are somewhat condoned by viewer reactions. It’s because they love each other, and that’s where gender or sex is stripped of relevance here. These two people love each other, and if the master had been a man, in the context that they truly care for each other, the accepted “abuse” would seem less horrible because Evelyn is constantly begging Cynthia to “punish” her. Evelyn, at one point, asks Cynthia to lock her in a chest that is large enough to hold her small frame. Cynthia allows it, but, she is concerned for Evelyn soon after, asking her to come back into the bed. Evelyn proceeds to tell her to leave her in the chest, as if she is enjoying her opaque cage. Cynthia eventually enters a dreamlike state, where she seems to imagine that she opens the chest and all that is left is Evelyn’s rotted skeleton, lying in the same position that Cynthia left her in. This scene is comparable to William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in which the character, Emily Grierson, is found out to have been sleeping beside her dead lover for decades, after a single strand of her hair is found on the pillow beside his skeleton. Morosely similar, The Duke of Burgundy uniquely portrays this implied necrophilia in a series of frames that demonstrate a transient passage of time. With shots focused on a clothed female crotch, delving into all-encompassing darkness, and Cynthia’s venture into the woods to metaphorically revive her skeletal lover, lifting her from the chest that has become her casket, they are swallowed into the darkness together.

There are two scenes that are brilliantly paired in The Duke of Burgundy; one takes place at the beginning, where Cynthia reprimands Evelyn for incorrectly washing and tending to her clothing. Cynthia is the master here, her deadpan glare ripping into Evelyn’s timid demeanor with disrespectful loathing. A flicker of hate for Cynthia might rise in your chest, temporarily, during this scene. Her pretentious, lifeless glare is captivating, and you sort of feel like she owns you, too. In a later scene that parallels this, after the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia has been established through playful, loving nights as they sleep beside one another, and Evelyn’s obsession with gaining new items and wealth becomes a dominant factor, disrupting their connection, the roles are reversed. Evelyn, the now master reprimands Cynthia, the previously glaring, dominant force within the film, and the woman you once hated, becomes the woman you now feel sorry for. With the dialogue and setting matching the earlier scene, Evelyn’s manipulations to rise above her social class have now succeeded, and as Cynthia cries, Evelyn reaches for her, as Cynthia once did, and whispers to her soothingly.

With profound directing, cinematography, acting, and editing leading this film into the depths of greatness, it’s almost impossible to look away as the storyline progresses and you watch the character development escalate.

This film is a work of art. However you paint the picture, after viewing The Duke of Burgundy, you will find your mind to be a color so incomprehensible that you won’t be able to forget what your eyes were just captivated by.

The Duke of Burgundy was a part of the Hamptons International Film Festival 2014 program.

The House of the Devil

By Daniel Spada

Minimalism in horror films has the distinct possibility of undermining the genre altogether. Not so much the absence of such an approach, but the lack of popularity reflects the need for instant gratification that is so deeply embedded within our culture. The more recent iconography that defines the horror film genre emphasizes grandiose conceptions of evil and reveals the trouble and reservations with which Western audiences grapple when viewing such a film. Horror film directors whose intent is to reinvent or consciously revise the genre are scarce because audiences are content with simply acknowledging the classic iconography that this particular genus of filmmaking has evoked, and are privy to ironic tendencies that would certainly offset their appreciation or enjoyment of the film and make them wary to come back for more.

The simple title of Ti West’s The House of the Devil explicitly puts the ownership of the house at the forefront. It would be reasonable to assume that the audience is not totally unaware of the macabre hiding underneath the woodworks of said abode, but that they are more concerned with the physical representation of the evil that is clearly lurking behind those closed doors. The rhetorical underpinnings of West’s authorial style and play with realism (making this markedly an art-horror entry) show a reverence for the genre (at least in the classical sense), with nothing in the film hinting at a satirical or mocking tone. West is neither imitating nor parodying horror, but paying homage (akin to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s engagement with the American genre films they so heavily revered)  and playing with the audiences’ expectations of what is appropriately categorized as horror. By doing so, he “implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema” while also creating a new future life for the film genre commonly known as horror.

West begins the film strategically, with text on the screen that hints not only at the physical Satanic ritual that occurs at the end of the film, but also the theoretical underpinnings regarding beliefs in the existence of such cults. Therein lies part of the importance of the era in which the film takes place. In American culture, the 1980s were marked by a major rise in people who actually did believe in the existence of Satanic Cults so this is factually correct information supplied by Mr. West (he consistently refers to it as “Satanic panic” paranoia in interviews). However, there is no evidence to show that the events in the film are based on some sort of unexplained truth to which the text alludes. This is not uncommon with horrors film from the 1970s and 1980s; some of the most popular ones purporting fact-based events include The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It is important to note that this is a just simple rhetorical device used on West’s part to engage with both the genre and the viewer.

The common horror genre tropes are all there: a haunted house, the presence of evil in some form, an innocent young girl (whose decisions, although some would call stupid, are realistically conceived and depicted), etc. It is also impossible to miss the iconography that defines the film as horror: the creaky and creepy Victorian house in which Mr. and Mrs. Ulman live, the extensive use of shadows and low-key lighting when Samantha is roaming around the house (knife in hand), and the discovery of evil at the climax of the story. Ti West reinvents and revises the horror film genre by skillfully emphasizing the cognitive response of the audience, in addition to the aforementioned movement towards realism and implicit critique of the current state of horror cinema (which acts as the cultural commentary of the film).

Before continuing on to what West achieves and how he does it in relation to the genre, it is important to consider The House of the Devil’s narrative framework, coupled with its aesthetic style, to give a sense of what exactly the audience is dealing with, because it directly relates to how they view the film and react to certain shots and sequences. The House of the Devil only partially follows the requirements of the Discovery Plot  — there is no talk about what Samantha might find in the rooms of the Ulman home, but there is that basic overarching narrative ploy of discovery and confrontation that defines the first two essential movements of the Discovery Plot structure. However, in The House of the Devil the discovery and confrontation are combined in the climax.

It is not until 39 minutes through the film that the first violent, bloody act occurs (and images henceforth depicted on-screen), the intention of which is to evoke a cognitive response of shock and awe in the viewer, although the act is not entirely surprising. The setup is a tip-off: a young woman driving through a cemetery stops to light her cigarette. When a young man comes up to her window with a lighter, seemingly out of nowhere, her fright is directly mirrored by the audience’s – it is a “jump” moment, but not in the manipulative sense. The gunshot is sudden, but not completely unexpected. The execution is perfectly calculated for optimum audience response. West states that the importance of it “was what it would accomplish to the audience’s emotional response for the rest of the movie.”  The viewer now explicitly knows more than Samantha, and possibly fears for her safety. The initiation of a sexual discussion by Mrs. Ulman puts her at unease (and the audience as well). From the moment that the Ulmans leave, to the point at which they are reintroduced, West lets his film breath, and simultaneously breathes new life into the horror film genre.

The current state of horror cinema is largely characterized in part by throwing victims into horrific scenarios and showing how they deal with them. What sets The House of the Devil apart from present trends and its predecessors is that it is rich with characterization. Throughout the film, Samantha becomes an empathetic figure. We watch her stress over money (a familiar problem with college students, which plays toward the realism of the film) and become apprehensive when Mr. Ulman tells her that there is no child she will be watching after. We watch her explore the house, dancing around to the The Fixx’s 1983 hit “One Thing Leads to Another” on her giant Sony Walkman. The audience becomes concerned with her wellbeing.

The film, in essence, is not very suspenseful because the audience is aware of information not available to Samantha. Since Samantha is the main character and the bulk of the film is filled with sequences of her doing mundane human activities, like watching television and eating pizza, the viewer is forced to either accept said circumstances or reject them (the most common backlash thrust upon the film has been people calling it “boring” or “slow”). What makes West’s technique so effect is the contrast between the disparate sources of fear: Samantha walking around an ominous empty house versus Samantha surrounded by a Satanic cult and a deformed figure pouring blood into her mouth; the horror of not knowing versus the horror of discovery and confrontation; finally, routine versus ritual.

When the strobe lights and flashing kicks in around the one hour and 17 minute mark (with less than 20 minutes left remaining), the viewer is plunged into a disorienting state – the same state which Samantha is surely in. Samantha’s “felt agitations” are reflected in the audience’s “analogous emotional state”  as a distinctly physical response. Samantha’s physical state and reaction to being tied up (trying to break herself free) is caused by her fearful cognitive state. Samantha’s response is one of fear, disgust, and repulsion. It only worsens when her vision clears and she sees the deformed figure standing above her (she is situated on the pentagram at this moment) who is about to cut its own wrist and pour its blood into a skull as a sort of funnel going into her mouth.

Samantha’s response to the Satanic ritual she was the unlikely participant of and the deformed figure’s impurity partly define The House of the Devil as an art-horror entry. Samantha’s repeated flashbacks to the deformed figure after her escape from the pentagram, and the subsequent slowing down of her ultimate escape from the house, shows a preoccupation with its monstrous façade (which she, undoubtedly, will never forget). Her complete aversion to its physical being creates a tension within the viewer.

Critics of the last 20 minutes of the film cite the change in tone and pacing to be problematic. This analysis shows more about them than it does West. The switch from meditations in a minimalist setting emphasizing minimalist actions to maximum intensity (but still in a minimalist style) is done in a way that draws attention to itself – and that is exactly the point, to stress and heighten the contrast. By the time the Satanic ritual begins, we care enough about Samantha to root for her. We want her to shoot Mr. Ulman at the end. We want her to get help and get away.

The conditions under which Samantha’s character is built are believable and realistic, which make the last shot all the more sad and terrifying. Being a college student in need of cash is not a foreign prospect, especially in today’s economy. She likes pizza. She enjoys listening to music on her walkman and dancing. She isn’t averse to snooping around a house that is not hers. She is a curious, intelligible young woman who just needs money to make rent.

The fact that the monster (well, monsters if you consider Victor and Mr. & Mrs. Ulman) of the film is both more human than expected (and much less “big” than what Western audiences, if they do, usually conceive of the devil or evil) and does not appear until the last 20 minutes is a testament to the will of Ti West’s filmmaking. He realigns what we fear (implication versus reality), how we fear it (cognitive versus physical), and makes us challenge the actual fear itself and how we conjure it up. The movements of the film are dissimilar insofar that what we have been told about meaning in horror films is a cop out: what usually has meaning (the physical presence of evil or the devil, violence, blood and gore, etc.) is comparable to what usually doesn’t have meaning (mundane human activities, what precedes the physical presence of evil or the devil and the violence, blood and gore, etc.). This strategy is barely, if ever, used effectively in the horror film genre.

The lack of dialogue is supplemented by Jeff Grace’s piano and orchestral heavy score. The mix of quiet piano keys and orchestral music (the intensity of which rises throughout to the climax of the film) carries a certain power that parallels the action. The score becomes a language unto itself, not unlike the language of the cinematography or editing. West again tips his hat to some of the forefathers of the genre and the bygone era in which the film takes place: the opening credits (shot in 1970s/early 1980s style, using the zoom instead of the dolly and yellow-font title credits over by freeze frame shots) echo the electronic synthesizer music of John Carpenter and Goblin (who frequently collaborated with the master of Italian giallo films Dario Argento).

Extended long takes are efficiently used to show Samantha performing aforementioned mundane human activities and they are effectively used in the sense that they show her at a remove (akin to the perspective of a documentary) and enhance the realism of the film. The house of the title itself looks like any old Victorian home you might find Upstate.  However, the way the film emphasizes the temporal (interior and exterior) space of it adds to the eerie atmosphere already been established.

The theme of innocence is explored in a way unlike most horror films today. Since the viewer spends so much time with Samantha, we are much more in touch with her innocence than if she had just been thrown into the Satanic ritual right at the onset of the film. In an inversion of expected genre conceits, it is the adult talking about sex rather than the adolescent (Mrs. Ulman rather than Samantha, who is not very receptive to the conversation at hand – and there is rarely talk of sexual interest or identity even between Samantha and Megan, only a fleeting mention of a boy Megan is seeing and Samantha’s roommate having sex). This aspect of the film shows discipline and reserve, with which most horror directors struggle (sex is so commonly exploited in horror films it seems commonplace and natural).

The House of the Devil also subtly engages with sub-genres of horror, in particular that of the slasher film and the haunted house film. Characteristic of the slasher film (which was popularized in the late 70s and early 80s by such films as Black Christmas, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc.)  is that of a younger generation being the target of an older generation, the showdown between the main character and the force of evil (usually a killer, but in the case of The House of the Devil it is a Satanic cult), and the eventual freedom of the protagonist, which the audience later finds out is not truly freedom (in Samantha’s case she is impregnated with Satan’s child). On the other hand, the haunted house genre has been around since the advent of the horror genre itself, most popularly seen in The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), and the more recent, independently made hit Paranormal Activity (2007). The House of the Devil maybe a little too obviously lends itself to the haunted house genre, especially when reflecting on West’s exploration of the interior and exterior space of the Ulman’s house and its surroundings.

To make an object that is ordinary and common into something that should be approached with apprehension and even “fetid disgust”  is an incredible feat which Mr. West accomplishes. Pizza, now known as some sort of qualifying college cuisine, becomes a harbinger of doom. This should make the viewer reflect on the ontological root of fear and consider the multifarious possibilities of where it may hide (unconsciously), including what we need to survive (food).

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.

Filmmaker Raeshelle Cooke Invites You Inside “Monae’s Room”

Interview conducted by: Colleen Rowe

Film Syrup (FS): I understand that you are currently working on a film. What made you want to make a film based on this idea?

Raeshelle Cooke: Yeah I just recently finished editing! The film stars Delea Mowatt and JD Achille with William Smyth on camera. I wanted to make a serious film about the breakup process because a lot of people relate to this topic. I relate to this and I write about my truths. I’m going to be very honest: this film is about my experiences, only I’m exaggerating and having fun with it by making it darkly humorous. I am a hopeless romantic and speak to other hopeless romantics. Everyone’s been broken up with and have been hurt. At the time I wrote this script, I was listening to a lot of Drake’s “Take Care” album, and one of the songs on it, “Marvin’s room” really stuck with me. I also had to use the writing process as therapy. Strangely though, I find the film really funny. I had a lot of fun with it. Some people handle breakups badly. They sit in their rooms and they just go crazy. A lot of people will look at Monae as crazy but you know what, many people act this way during a breakup and don’t admit to it. Many people will, in fact, relate to this film. I’m just telling the truth and having fun with it all at the same time.

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FS: What would you say the tone of the film is? Do you think people will perceive it differently depending on their own experiences with breakups?

Raeshelle Cooke: The tone is dark because the subject matter deals with dark stuff; it deals with pain and betrayal. It deals with being tired of the foolishness that is dull life and the cold people that make it all worse. It’s like, you think you find real love, and that real love makes the cold world easier to live in, you know? But then the person you trusted and found happiness with doesn’t accept you for who you are when you open up to them, they want something or someone else and forget about you. You had all these great ideas on how your future with that one man would be, and he ruins it for no good reason. That is painful and angering and that is what I wanted to convey. That is Monae’s Room.

I used the darkness of Monae’s room and wrote the explicit lyrics you will hear in this 20 minute short, to show that anger and hurt. You hear Monae’s dark and distorted voice over the music. I wrote the lyrics raw from how I was feeling at that time, but two years and yet another breakup later, I’ve found it still relates to me today. Some people will interpret it differently based on their own experiences, some will appreciate it and find it funny or intelligent, and others will complain that the film is yet another “woman pining over a man” story. And that’s okay with me.

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FS: What do you hope to accomplish with Monae’s Room?

Raeshelle Cooke: I want to create something that is distinct from most films that are shot today. I think Monae’s room is different from what we see in a lot of films today. You see the same genres and content being made over and over, and I wanted to write and shoot something about real human relationships, real human emotions, and the rawness that goes into these emotions. I am unfiltered and very honest in my writing of this film. The story and content will either make you feel uncomfortable, make you relate, or think. It will definitely hold your attention because music and lyrics dominant it. You’ll remember it…

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FS: Where are you planning to premier the film? Is there a special screening planned?

Raeshelle Cooke: I plan to enter Monae’s room into festivals in Massachusetts and Rhode Island starting this fall and going into next year. I plan to premier the film In November of this year at a screening. Details on that coming soon.

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FS: What made you want to become a filmmaker?

Raeshelle Cooke: I have things to say and a message to get across, and creating visuals with music (my style) is a fun way to say those things. Making films is a cathartic way of releasing inner tension for me, so instead of doing something crazy, making films is a positive and productive way to get everything out in the open. People relate, listen and build relationships with you just by seeing who you are through your work. It’s a great feeling and I want to feel it over and over again.

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FS: Are there past films you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

Raeshelle Cooke: I’m just starting out as a filmmaker so I’ve finished only my fourth one (plus 2 music videos), but I’m really proud of What’s the problem with Bill Winer?, Aside from Monae’s Room (and On Her Way is a good one too), but the Bill Winer film is really personal and touching. I still get goose bumps when I watch it to this day, and I mentally go back to that time. It wasn’t a good time. But I look back and am grateful it happened, because beautiful art was created from that. I appreciate pain and what it can do. The Bill Winer film is a mature and intelligent film. I can’t believe I actually wrote it but, then again, I give credit to the fact that it actually happened. I didn’t make the film up. It’s based on a real story. Monae’s room is actually a sequel to the Bill Winer film, only it’s being told in the perspective of the woman “Bill” screwed over. I think my first feature will be the feature-length version of the Bill Winer film, which is already written. All of my films are based on real situations whether literal or metaphorical, but anyway, shout out to to the real Bill. I heard that his life now, is exactly how it turned out for “Bill” in the film.

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FS: Are there any specific techniques you used to make this film special (in regards to, editing, directing, etc.)?

Raeshelle Cooke: Yes! I had a ton of fun making the film what it turned out to be, and you’ll see it when it premiers. But first and foremost Sean J. McCall composed the music for the film, and it is an inspiration from Drake’s music. The music is distorted and dark, but hip hop at the same time. I actually altered the music at points, I reversed it as I was just having fun with it. Monae’s room is a tribute to hip hop and Drake. Love that man. The lighting is varied as it has reds, blues and black and white. I wanted to show anger, the anxiousness; the unsettled way of Monae’s emotions through the varying colors…and I think it worked. I edited the film and I think the style complements the tone perfectly. I can’t explain how though. Not in words anyway. You’ll just have to see the film!

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All photos for this interview were provided by Director: Raeshelle Cooke. For more information on Monae’s room and updates from Raeshelle, you can Follow her on Twitter.

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