Tag Archives: Feminist

3 Movies I Wish More People Had Seen

Ever make a reference to a movie and no one knows what you’re talking about?  It happens to me a lot, partially because I have a weird memory for obscure quotes, but it’s also because I reference movies like these:

 

Living in Oblivion (1995)

Tom DiCillo’s comedy about independent filmmaking boasts a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, and Peter Dinklage.  It premiered at Sundance and proceeded to make a measly $1.1 million at the box office.  Despite that, it is a hilarious satire that everyone who likes insider movies should watch.  Instead of portraying the glamorous world of studio films, it follows a production so  low-budget that they can’t even afford fresh milk.  Buscemi plays the would-be auteur who seems to have David Lynch tendencies, and his increasing stress and mania is just a treat to watch.  The film also includes such magical elements as Dermot Mulroney in an eye patch and Peter Dinklage delivering an angry monologue about dwarves in movies.  The fact that this movie hasn’t become a cult classic is mystifying to me.

 

Songcatcher (2000)

Now, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher is far from a blockbuster.  It tells the story of a 19th century musicologist who ventures into the Appalachians to document folk songs.  While the film has a number of problems – Janet McTeer doesn’t really work as a romantic lead, and a subplot about anti-lesbian hate crimes feels preachy and unnecessary – it’s an interesting exploration of the legacy of folk music and the culture of Appalachia.  It also features a young, pre-fame Emmy Rossum, using the voice that would later sing Phantom of the Opera to perform an a cappella version of “Barbara Allen.” The real reason to see this film are the songs – it has a wonderful soundtrack of country singers performing old hill tunes.  One of my favorite scenes includes Pat Carroll (aka Ursula from The Little Mermaid) performing “Single Girl.”  This is a movie all about the origins of country music, so “I like everything but country” folk will probably not enjoy it, but I find its portrayal of music scholarship fascinating.

 

Nine Lives (2005)


This last film is one of my all-time favorites, so expect a longer post on it at some point.  I don’t know how Rodrigo Garcia does it, but between Nine Lives and Mother and Child (2009) he has shown an uncanny ability to write from women’s perspectives.  One of my favorite topics to study is female subjectivity, and Nine Lives is all about women and their stories.  It is composed of nine stories, each about a different woman, and each shot in one ten-minute take.  The stories are loosely connected, as supporting characters will sometimes show up in more than one story, but the connections are not the point.  As one character says, “Each woman is a universe,” and the film is primarily interested in spending time in these worlds.  Nine Lives also features an amazing cast, including the amazing and increasingly beautiful Robin Wright, Amanda Seyfried, Amy Brenneman, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, and Holly Hunter.  Each section treads different ground, and each woman’s story is utterly real.  Despite its cast and pedigree, this movie only made $500,000 at the box office, and its lack of recognition is one of the many omissions that has made me dislike the awards season.  I cannot say enough about Nine Lives.  Each time I watch it, I discover something new, or I see a story in a new way.  It is a film about subjectivity and experience, and each viewer’s experience of it is different.

 

Are there any films that were important in your life but obscure to others?

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4 Things I Love About Tangled


So, thanks to the crack that is Netflix Instant, I have become addicted to Tangled (2010), one of Disney’s more recent products.  I didn’t get to see it in theaters (we saw 127 Hours instead, during which my father and I both fainted – true story), but I have watched it roughly every two weeks since discovering it in August.  Here are just a few reasons I love it so:

1) It’s the most feminist Disney film yet

There has been endless debate over the past twenty years about the messages Disney princesses and their associated stories are sending to young girls.  Tangled, I am happy to say, creates a heroine who sends no mixed messages.  Rapunzel is far from a victim – although she has been shut up in her tower her whole life, she does not just sit around and brush her hair like her fairy tale alter ego.  Instead, we get a whole song about all the creative, productive things she does with her time.  The most notable of her hobbies is her artwork; over the course of her life, she has turned the tower into one giant mural, filled with her dreams and impressions.  Rapunzel has made the best of her situation and actually used it to develop an inner life for herself and a sense of what she wants from the outside world.

On top of her developed sense of self, this Rapunzel is a gosh-darn action heroine!  She is the one who consistently saves the day, using her hair in resourceful ways to rescue the rather incompetent Flynn Rider.  Then, when the big reveals come around, she figures them out all by herself!  It seems like a silly thing to be happy about, but most movies would have had Flynn reveal her parentage to her as she broke down in tears.  Instead, she has a moment of clarity and figures out her own origins without any help.

Finally, the movie does not rely on her beauty or sex appeal in any way.  She is only objectified once, the first time Flynn sees her, and he quickly learns that treating her as a sex object will not get him anywhere.  The girl does not put up with his lothario silliness.  In the end, when he (SPOILER ALERT) cuts her hair, she is only sad at the loss of her power, not for her loss of conventional beauty.  In Tangled, Disney gives us a heroine who values herself for her mind and abilities, not her looks.

2) The songs are incredibly catchy

The songs in Tangled feature music by the brilliant Alan Menken.  Yes, there will never be lyrics that measure up to those of the great Howard Ashman (RIP), but his writing partner serves up some lovely tunes here, and the lyrics by Glenn Slater are the best Disney’s had in a while.

3) It’s Mandy Moore!

I was never really into Mandy Moore back when she was a pop star.  Yes, I watched A Walk to Remember and cried with the rest of my generation, but it was her satirical, wicked turn in Saved! (2004) that won me over.  Her voice lends Rapunzel the perfect combination of spunk and innocent sweetness, and you gotta love her adorably pure singing voice.

4) The Lantern Scene

This totally blew me away the first time I watched the movie, and I have been known to shed a few tears from time to time.  The scene has emotional power, beautiful animation, and lovely metaphorical imagery.  When the light of the lanterns winds down the castle hill, it instantly recalls Rapunzel’s glowing hair – that’s well-thought-out animation for you.  Plus, have I mentioned it looks gorgeous?  I mean, come on:

It’s also paired with a lovely, Oscar-nominated ballad.  Gets me every time.

Ok, that’s it for now.  I could seriously go on about this film all day.  It has its problems (why does the guy get the power of narration if it’s Rapunzel’s story?), but its gorgeous animation and delightful spirit keep me watching again and again.

One last thing: “Frying pans!  Who knew, right?”

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The Piano (1993)

“I have not spoken since I was six years old.  No one knows why – not even me…The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent.  That is because of my piano.”

These are some of the first lines of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), an evocative and original meditation on female subjectivity and sexuality.  Every time I watch it, I am dumbfounded at how Campion even thought of this story in the first place.  A mute 19th-century woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) is sent to the wilds of New Zealand to marry a man she has never met.  She brings along her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) and her treasured piano.

As she says in the aforementioned lines, she does not feel silent as long as she has her piano – it is her voice.  Throughout the movie, whenever she plays, the music seems to emerge from her body rather than her piano, and she never seems happier than when she plays.  The score is even made up entirely of piano, making the score a more active participant in the film than most – it is almost a voiceover itself.  Thus, Ada’s “voice” permeates the whole film.

The use of music as her voice is quite significant, as language is considered inherently patriarchal in feminist theory.  Language is often equated to agency, making those who speak or write well powerful in patriarchal society.  Ada has chosen to avoid patriarchal language completely.  Although her muteness is never explained, it is almost as if she realized that, as a woman, language would give her no power in this world, so she chose an entirely different mode of expression.  I love feminist works where the female characters find a language outside that of patriarchy; Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (2007) is one of my favorite examples.  The main character in that film tells her story through her pies.  Here, Ada tells it through music, and her mode of self-expression, though outside patriarchal language, exerts a power within it on those who hear her play.  As the old society matron says, “She does not play the way we do…”

The character most significantly affected by Ada’s music is George Baines (Harvey Keitel).  In a way, he too is an outsider to patriarchal society.  Although he uses bartering to gain financial and social power, he is unable to read and write.  He is not in possession of patriarchal language in its written form, so he is more able to relate to Ada’s wordless speech.  Ada’s relationship to Baines is characterized by unusual negotiations around her body and the piano.  He agrees to give her a key of the piano for each time she does what he says and shows him some of her body.  In this way, the piano comes to stand not only for her voice, but for her body as well.

In a social sense, Campion creates a duality between Baines/the Maoris/the outdoors and Stewart/the English/the domestic.  Both Ada and Flora negotiate between these two sides over the course of the film.  Campion uses many shots to highlight the idea of humanity versus nature – the piano in the surf, Flora’s seahorse in the sand, the wooden boards the settlers use to walk over the mud.  All of these images create a sense of humanity trying to assert itself in the wilds of New Zealand.  The Maoris themselves are an unusual presence, as the script never really delves into their individual characters or explains how we are supposed to feel about them.  Instead, there are moments in which the natives do not understand the settlers, and some in which they understand better than the English understand themselves.  Baines has aligned himself more with the Maoris and, over the course of the film, becomes closer and closer to them and allows them to live in his house.  In the end, when Ada leaves with Baines, it is the Maoris who escort them away.

Flora, Ada’s daughter, also negotiates between these two sides.  Although she mostly plays the role of witness, she eventually turns on her mother and betrays her affair to Stewart.  After the first time she does this, she begins to wear the angel wings she wore in the settlers’ play, signifying that she has officially aligned herself with the English side, and with Stewart.  After (SPOILER ALERT) Stewart chops off her mother’s finger and tells Baines to take Ada away, there is a shot of nameless hands moving the angel wings through water.  Flora has left their side, and is undergoing a cleansing re-alignment with her mother.

In the end, Ada undergoes a kind of split.  She almost allows herself to drown, going overboard with her piano, but then decides to fight and return to the surface.  “What a surprise!  My will has chosen life,” she narrates.  She then goes off to live a life of domesticity with Baines and Flora, complete with her metal finger and learning to speak.  We are not allowed to end on this happy picture, though.  Instead, she narrates that she dreams of her piano in its watery grave, and her there with it.  We fade out on an image of her dead under the sea, floating above her piano.  The last word we hear in the film is “silence.”  I read this is as Campion saying that, even though Ada is beginning to speak, she still has her own internal silence, her own internal life.  It is a dark ending, one that definitely makes you think, and I love Campion for not taking the easy way out.  It would have felt strange for a film with so much darkness to end on a scene of domestic bliss.  Instead, we are left with an eerie image of Ada and her piano residing peacefully and silently at the bottom of the sea.  As Ada narrates, “It is a strange lullaby, but it is mine.”

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