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.

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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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Moving Away from Cinéma Vérité and Towards a Self-Realized Subjective Documentary Cinema

By Dan Spada

Frederick Wiseman‘s firmness in not situating himself as a cinéma vérité filmmaker is entirely justified, even though there are links to be drawn between the markers of that style of filmmaking and his oeuvre. A few ways in which his films, and in particular High School (1968), do not properly align with the stylistics of cinéma vérité include the lack, or subversion by interruptive focusing, of long takes and the strategic use of editing, used to narrative ends, both of which draw attention to the subjective structure inherent within all, but specifically, his exercises in non-fiction filmmaking. Bearing the absence of narration, the fly on the wall “observer” approach, and “intimate” involvement, Wiseman’s films still seem to actively self-define against a cinéma vérité deployment. Setting up the institution as the protagonist and emphasizing different relations of power, some entirely human, but both physical and psychical, Frederick Wiseman’s High School exposes its differences from the cinéma vérité school of filmmaking both aesthetically, as well as, by extension, rhetorically. Wiseman presents the viewer with an assortment of scenarios that show the functioning of different relations of power (teacher-student and individual-institution, among other more specific ones).

After bringing the viewer into the school, and then into the classroom, with a wealth of expressive close-ups in tow, Wiseman settles into multiple scenes of disciplinary action, enacted upon both male and female students. The character of Mr. Allen, both an arbiter of social control and a teacher, is introduced within the first few minutes and turns out to be the most prominent disciplinarian over the course of the film’s 75 minute running time. His various scenes include reprimanding a student for not wearing proper attire to a gym class, being the mediator between a student and his off-screen teacher that (misguidedly, in the student’s explanation) gave him a detention, and, finally, reprimanding and doling out a suspension to a student who has hit one of his peers. Just briefly describing Mr. Allen’s scenes with a few words gives the impression that the split between powerful and powerless is simple, but looking at the language of the filmmaking and the language of the social actors allows for a more complex interpretation.

The scene in which the student protests his assigned detention, like the rest of the film, does not include a direct (visually) or indirect (aurally) inclusion of the filmmaker. It is thus the viewer’s job to deconstruct the filmmaking techniques to come the best possible reading of the scene at hand. Also like the rest of the film, this scene does not hinge on an interview, archival material, or a reenactment, but exists as an everyday, unrehearsed reality (however selected by the director to be filmed and included in the final cut). The way in which Wiseman edits his shots together assists in the viewer’s reading of the characters and situations; the way he edits his scenes together is rather like the creation of a sandcastle, the building up of components to naturally make a cohesive whole in the end, instead of the collage-like compositions of non-fiction films classically defined as cinéma vérité. Wiseman’s editing, on both the small and the large scale, draws attention to itself.

The scene begins with a medium close up profile shot of Michael, the student who has defied his teacher by walking out of class after being wrongly accused, in his portrayal of the unseen situation, of goofing off, and then pans left and downward to Mr. Allen, who is seated.

The camera then pans back right and up to Michael, who explains his case, slowly zooming in so his head fills up the frame.

After Michael finishes speaking, the camera pans back down to Mr. Allen (maintaining the close up from the previous shot) saying that he showed poor judgment and that it is his job to respect and listen to someone older than him or in a seat of authority.

The camera pans back right and down – now Mr. Allen’s hand fills up the frame, holding a card over his desk with, presumably, the information regarding Michael’s incident. Mr. Allen references the card to go against Michael’s claim that he was not assigned a detention: he reads it, and the camera pans back over (right) and up to his face.

Michael explains that it was another teacher, Mr. Walsh, who assigned it to him, while the camera lingers on Mr. Allen’s face as he listens to Michael, and then the camera pans back over (left) and up to Michael. The camera then zooms in on Michael’s facial features. The extreme close up of his face is momentarily obscured by what looks like a bobbing head in the left hand corner of the frame.

The conversation shifts in tone at the moment of this close up. Michael’s defiance, emphasized by the extreme close up on the vector of expression (his mouth), is made clear. The camera pans back over (right) to Mr. Allen’s face, while he listens to Michael explain himself. Wiseman then cuts away to an insert – an extreme close up of Mr. Allen’s hands, with a class ring on his left hand ring finger. He puts the card down, picks up a pen, and folds his hands. The camera then cuts back to an extreme close-up of Michael’s face. The camera momentarily loses focus, quickly regains it, then zooms out a little so Michael’s head, with the exception of his hair, fills the frame.

Another shift in tone occurs: the camera cuts to an over the shoulder shot from behind Michael (who is not sitting), showing other bodies in the room as Mr. Allen goes off on how Michael should be a man and take orders. Wiseman then cuts to a shot, clearly not in sequence from the last one (the audio jumps to a whistle being blown), of a close-up of Michael’s face (not standing up), as he makes a plea for his principles. The camera then pans back down and over (right) to Mr. Allen as he repeats the line about Michael proving himself to be a man. The camera zooms in on an extreme close-up of Mr. Allen’s mouth. Wiseman cuts back to Michael, who is now standing with his left arm behind his back, clutching his right arm, listening to Mr. Allen. The camera cuts back to a close-up of Mr. Allen’s face as he implores Michael to take the detention, zooming out to a medium-close after a few seconds and then quickly panning back over (left) to Michael.

The viewer is on the cusp of an abrupt ending: the camera cuts back to a medium shot of Mr. Allen asking, finally, if Michael will take the detention, as the background noise of chatter increases in volume. The camera stays on Mr. Allen as Michael says he will take it under protest. An unmistakable smile runs across Mr. Allen’s face. The camera pans back over (left) to Michael one last time, as a girl walks across the bottom left hand corner of the frame and Michael confirms the details of his detention.   Wiseman then swiftly cuts to a school authority walking down a hallway making sure that students are where they are supposed to be. Throughout the entirety of this successive sequence, the authority figure remains faceless, stalking the halls and students within them ever so aggressively. The transition from Mr. Allen and Michael’s dispute to this man’s disciplinary tactics is meaningful insofar as it shows two different kinds of power relationships within the same structure (teacher-student) and institution (the school).

The scene between Mr. Allen and Michael is just one in which Wiseman complicates the idea of his filmmaking being that of the cinéma vérité variety, pushing against the notion that there is anything but subjective cinema, even when it defines itself as documentary. He does this by using short, syncopated takes that emphasize certain aspects of a person or a setting and thus displaces common conceptions of power and power relations (Wiseman is in step with the intellectual leanings of Michel Foucault on this subject it seems). Mr. Allen could be seen as stepping in for society at large, in a way, teaching Michael the importance of compromising and its relation to the way we are seen as adults (rather than children, or students). Wiseman’s focus on Mr. Allen’s ring points to the possibility of a generationally-focused interpretation, one that relies on a certain passing down of ideas on character and specific values one should have. This student’s protest lays the foundation for what’s to follow, which Wiseman wisely builds on, the camera gazing over and into both interested and disinterested young faces, and across institutional landscapes and the people that run them.

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s Degree 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.

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”: the tragedy of a profession

By Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler tells the story of professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to get both his career and life back together.

Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.

As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.

Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.

Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.

Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.

I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.

“Sick Exhibitionism” in John Waters’ “Female Trouble”: I can take much more!

By Colleen Rowe

The first time I ever watched a John Waters film was when I was ten years old— it had been almost a decade since it had been released. Serial Mom (1994) was initially shocking for me, but even at that age I understood the humor of Kathleen Turner’s portrayal as Beverly Sutphin. I always made sure not to wear white after Labor Day after that, especially in areas where phone booths were prevalent.

Over the years, I watched a few of John Waters’ films here and there, but in my late teens, I was finally shown Pink Flamingos (1972) for the first time by a friend. I’m not sure what my friend was thinking, to be honest. Not because I felt overly disgusted by Pink Flamingos, which is the appropriate response, but because it was our first one-on-one interaction together. I didn’t see much of my friend after that.

IMG_6796John Waters post screening of Female Trouble at Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty years of John Waters: How much can you take?”

After the initial horror of egg-eating, ass-dancing madness, I decided that Pink Flamingos was truly original. As Mink Stole said in a clip from AMC’s nine-part series, Movies that Shook the World: Pink Flamingos, “There’s barely a moment in it that could be shown to any God-fearing household.” If you can make audiences twist their faces in anguish as you present a larger, thought-provoking point, you have truly accomplished something great. Waters explained that when titling Pink Flamingos he wanted it to have a non-sensational name since the film was so shocking in itself. Waters did this by capturing the foul, puke-antagonist that is Pink Flamingos and its “poor step-sister,” as he termed it, Female Trouble./ Theme song./

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J. Hoberman and John Waters at the Walter Reade Theater during opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? Q & A post-screening of Female Trouble.

Dawn Davenport’s (played by Divine) psychotic behavior is partially foreshadowed in the infamous Christmas morning scene where she actually pushes her mother (her parents didn’t buy her Cha-cha heels!) and a Christmas tree falls on her. At the Walter Reade Theater at the opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” Waters recounted to critic J. Hoberman and his audience that a Christmas tree had fallen on his grandmother when he was growing up and he exaggerated slightly. She was not hurt, as Davenport’s mother seemed to be. “Knocking over the Christmas tree has become a holiday favorite,” Waters remarked on Friday night, a comment that made the audience explode with laughter.

IMG_6775Outside of the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center

Waters educated the crowd on Cha-cha heels further, explaining that a lot of people didn’t know what real Cha-cha heels looked like (Apparently Cha-cha’s had smaller heels than most people thought). He added comically, “I had to teach drag queens about life.”

Dawn runs away after her dramatic outburst and crosses paths with Earl Peterson (also played by Divine). Earl literally screws himself for associating with a woman such as Dawn, and vice versa.

One of the greatest characters in Female Trouble is Taffy Davenport. Mink Stole portrays the older 14-year-old Taffy who interrupts Divine and her husband, Gater (Michael Potter), while they are having sex (take note that Mink Stole was in her late twenties when this film was made). Taffy’s responses to Gater are honestly appropriate. He’s a sick pervert and she knows it. Her infamous line: “I wouldn’t suck your dick unless I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” will make audiences laugh out loud with the follow-up classic one-liner, in response to Gater’s questions: “Writing a book, hippy? Why don’t you go listen to some folk music and give me a break!?” Taffy is emotionally and mentally tortured throughout this film and she has every right to insult the “morally bankrupt,” as the only apparently logical character, Dawn’s doctor, calls them, adults who surround her.IMG_6809Initially, Dawn and Gater spend a lot of time at a local beauty salon where Gater works. Here, Dawn meets the bigot-yuppie couple, Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce) who are absolutely obsessed with beauty. With her eyes perpetually rolling, Sally (Sally Albaugh), a customer at the salon, comments: “Well throw a goddamn penny in the fountain and make a goddamn wish and maybe it will come true.” Waters always found it hilarious that a lot of people had wishing wells on their front lawns. Along with other front lawn decorations, a lot of people also had pink flamingos. John Waters commented that he disapproved of the resurgence of pink flamingos that critic, J. Hoberman, spoke about during the Q & A at the retrospective’s screening of Female Trouble. Waters said, “‘I’m for them if you’re 75 years old and you have the plaster kind, the original since the 40s, I’m against it if you’re a yuppie with a plastic one on your front lawn meant to mock blue collar people.” He added: “Now they’ve become wearisome.”

Waters also expanded upon the act of “hitchhiking,” which Divine does in Female Trouble. Waters said, “Most people don’t know what hitchhiking is. I was hitchhiking once in Provincetown and a family picked me up. The little kid was staring at me like “’Dad, why is this man in the car?’”

Taffy is the only one who seems to realize how preposterous the idea of Dawn’s modeling career is. When Donald Dasher says that the camera he has is for taking pictures of Dawn, Taffy blatantly exclaims, “You must be cock-eyed!” and proceeds to annoy Donna Dasher with her drawn out “Hey, Laaady” as she drops chips all over Donna, who pretty much deserves it. One of the best lines in Female Trouble (keep in mind that almost every line is quotable in its entirety) is said by Donna Dasher after Dawn offers them dinner. With a long drawn out half-sigh, Donna says: “I couldn’t possibly eat spaghetti. Do I look Italian?” It isn’t so much the comment, which is in itself hilariously ridiculous, but the way Pearce says it.

This is not the only notable comment by Donna, who says to Dawn, dreamily, with the seduction of the movie-fame life overhanging, “We’ll give you a new look, an interest in life… and together, we could overcome… this boredom that imprisons us all.” Pearce’s drawl is the voice we hear when we read advertisements on highways, pushing without direct contact with the subject. Those sprawled out magazine famous models are the products that their industries make them become, and Pearce portrays this almost too perfectly with an eerily captivating tone. Her voice is the fine print that we did not care to read.

Dawn’s violent tendencies are finally captured! The Dashers start taking photographs after young Taffy throws a bowl of Dawn’s spaghetti at the wall. As Dawn is about to beat Taffy down with a chair, the Dashers excitedly ask her to pause for a great shot. Don’t worry, it doesn’t stop her from performing the act, and suddenly Taffy is Dawn’s trophy, messily sprawled across the floor like an overused prop. So Dawn begins to trade pain for fame, as many people do, and then a serious undertone takes its place beneath the blatant comedic obscenities that are performed. The Dashers are loving it: the exploitation, the opportunity to record shocking images. They are the show business industry.

While the Dashers embrace conforming behavior, or what they think is impressive, Gater’s Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) defames it. Aunt Ida states, “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.” It sounds familiar, maybe it’s usually said a little differently. How many times have we heard it on the street, at work, in school, among colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and especially enemies?: “Homosexuality is sick”, but Aunt Ida turns around and points the finger at you, heterosexuals! Why are you the exception? Aunt Ida is an important metaphor for the ignorant phrases we hear of those who dwell too long in the realm of homophobia. The next time you’re about to express a phobia against someone’s sexuality, just think of Edith Massey, and how she looks better than you in that tight, black dress.

Female trouble escalates quickly. Dawn starts to completely lose her mind as The Dashers direct her like sideshow puppeteers. Behind the scenes of her first big performance, Dawn points a gun at The Dashers, shaking it playfully with big, wandering eyes. This scene is hilarious at first glance; the shot of her as the screen flicks back to the dressing room where her high school friends, Concetta (Cookie Mueller) and Chicklette (Susan Walsh), and The Dashers sigh happily with joy as Dawn forcefully dangles a lethal weapon.

Taffy shows up behind the scenes, dressed beautifully with a new light in her eyes. She has joined the Hare Krishnas, a decision that has seemed to affect her positively.Taffy speaks with Aunt Ida who tells her, “If you get tired of being a Harry Krishna, you come live with me and be a lesbian.” It’s a pretty great offer.

Dawn “embarrassed” and horrified that Taffy has chosen to associate herself with such a group, strangles Taffy within minutes and the witnesses squeal with happiness. Taffy had said to Dawn, before she had left to be a part of the Hare Krishnas,“You can’t kill Krishna because Krishna is consciousness.” If you beat it down or ignore it enough, I guess you really can kill something.

Why do onlookers and show business “professionals,” i.e, The Dashers, find the thrill of being killed so humorous? Why is Dawn being presented as a part of a show when she should really be getting some psychological help? Why is any of this okay in any film? Oh, you will make a lot of money. In fact, it’ll be a hit! You’re famous suddenly as the screen turns red.

Dawn’s speech during her show is most memorable:

“Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart! You came here for some excitement tonight and that’s just what you’re going to get! Take a good look at ME because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow! You’re looking at crime personified AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT! I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot line on Abby Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremmer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck! And I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself! Now, everybody freeze! Who wants to be famous? Who wants to DIE for art?”

As Dawn says, “everybody freeze!” she reveals a gun, pointing it at the crowd. As she shows herself off, her trampoline routine is quite entertaining, but as soon as the weapon is revealed the situation changes from hilarious to truly terrifying in an instant.

In the final scene, Dawn is strapped to an electric chair. During his Q & A with Hoberman, Waters recounted that he and his crew, “Walked across the prison yard carrying the electric chair.” He continued, “Could you imagine that being allowed today?” The prisoners, probably horrified, were onlookers right before this scene was shot.

After laughing so hard throughout the film, it’s shocking how calm you’ll suddenly become as Dawn is finally reprimanded for the seriousness of her “sick exhibitionism”, as Donna Dasher calls it. Dawn states in her testimony during the trial that produces the result of her landing in that death chair, “How can they not want to die if they want to become famous for it?” and “Without all of this, my career couldn’t have gotten this far.” Here, the timeless question is asked through dialogue: How far will a person go for money and fame? Dawn is proud of the offenses she has committed against others. She demands to be on television.

The most horrific stories are always highlighted in the news, movies, books. People like to talk about murder or any terrible crimes because it makes their content in its entirety more interesting. Forget about morals, it is all about the special recognition. If you’re watching a film made by John Waters, the violence isn’t overtly gruesome like many films today exhibit. The dialogue is the key factor while watching Female Trouble. There are countless subtle meanings behind almost every sentence that reflect a critical idea. Through the dialogue that runs smoothly alongside the situations portrayed, homophobia, religious persecution, child neglect and abuse, sexual exploitation, snooty upper-class norms, glamorizing drug use, and many other social issues, are portrayed obscenely but correctly.

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On opening night, a few of the Dreamlanders were present at Lincoln Center Film Society’s John Waters Retrospective, including Mink Stole. Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom) was also present. He described the Dreamlanders who were present, and also those who have passed on, as “my friends, my colleagues, my gang,” some of them for over 50 years.

Prior to the screening, Waters said, somewhat apologetically, that he is sorry that everyone in this movie seems to be screaming constantly. It’s a very “loud” film. Overall, Waters said that this film, after its initial release got good reviews, “but people didn’t know what to make of it at the time.”

Today, John Waters, remains a huge part of pop-culture, influencing other filmmakers and social commentators.

There’s one great lesson to learn from Female Trouble: Remember to never mention a sex act in front of anyone respectable and rich because it is vile and crude!

We’ve Come a Long Way, but We’re Not There Yet

By Roxanne*

The title “Any Day Now” is able to suggest the contention that is present for homosexuals, throughout history and in this film. The setting is Hollywood, 1979. A sex-worker mother is busted, leaving her disabled 14-year-old son to fend for himself in their shabby apartment building. Drag performer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), stumbles upon the situation.

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Rudy is voracious and speaks his mind, despite social disapproval of his lifestyle.

ANY DAY NOW ALAN CUMMING

His more reserved partner, Paul (Garret Dillahunt) shares chemistry with Rudy while remaining as a strong fatherly character.

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It should also be noted that this is the first time a full length movie features an actor with down syndrome, (Marco, played by Isaac Levya) and he is able to provide as much work for the scenes as his more experienced counterparts.any day now 4

Renderings of custody battles have become a staple in film, but Travis Fine’s film, Any Day Now (2012), sets the bar high in terms of teachable moments through social injustices. While Marco’s mother is incarcerated, Rudy and Paul take in the boy and are able to give him an upbringing that some of us couldn’t even hope for. But their happy family is disrupted and cut short, by the resonance of the issue of gay parenting and LGBT rights, which were virtually non-existent at this point in time.

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Although the plot and character development are enough to sustain this film, the film is brought down a notch in terms of visual flair. There is little variation among the scenery and the quality of the HD film is confusing for a retro styled movie.

In the end, it is safe to say that it is not Marco’s custody that is actually on trial, but the homophobia that was prevalent three decades ago.