In Honor of Women’s History Month

Bright Star (2009)  Jane Campion

I hate to say this but it’s entirely true. Jane Campion is the female, but immensely more talented version of Terrence Malick. And that’s saying something because Malick–however you feel about him–is a talented filmmaker. Like Malick, Campion is particularly skilled in the art of visual poetry. Unlike Malick, Campion is in no urgent need of a writer. She’s already a damn good one. For all his vision and ambition, Malick’s films often suffer from a lack of focus either due to over-writing or under-writing, but mostly under-writing. Campion’s films are always fully and elegantly developed. Bright Star boasts several moments of stillness and quiet, both physically and dramatically. It’s not packed with tension or suspense, and it’s here that her beautiful cinematography is at its most beneficial. But Campion never rests on beauty alone. These scenes are filled with profound symbolism or allusions to Keats’s work. Indeed, the film feels more like a product of Keats than a homage to him. One such scene is after Fanny and Keats have had their first kiss, where Keats climbs into a tree and lies on his back on top of the brush. This is one of those still scenes, but it’s so evocative of Keats’s work, laden with his adulation of nature.

But the real beauty of the film is the story itself, for Campion chooses not to tell it from Keats’s point of view, but from Fanny’s. Moreover, Fanny is positioned as a creative force in her own right. Her meticulous attention to the creation of her clothes mirrors Keats’s own meticulousness in the creation of poems.  In this way Bright Star, not to be mistaken for a biopic, becomes an unapologetic love story, and it has no reason to be ashamed in any case. What saves it from the standard cheesiness that most romantic flicks fall into, is the fact that the relationship between John and Fanny is based on something that’s not entirely corporeal. Inevitably, there comes a time in the romance film where the two lovers fall passionately into each other’s arms and make love; and even if the film doesn’t show the main couple doing the deed, there’s sure to be tongue-kissing and declarations of lust disguised as epic love. We don’t need to hear from John and Fanny that their love is “epic.” We see it. We experience it. Their kisses are tender, and their letters to each other are beautifully expressed. That’s not to say that the film is devoid of passion or sexuality. On the contrary.

John Keats: I had such a dream last night. I was floating above the trees with my lips connected to those of a beautiful figure, for what seemed like an age. Flowery treetops sprung up beneath us and we rested on them with the lightness of a cloud.
Fanny Brawne: Who was the figure?
John Keats: I must have had my eyes closed because I can’t remember.
Fanny Brawne: And yet you remember the treetops.
John Keats: Not so well as I remember the lips.
Fanny Brawne: Whose lips? Were they my lips?

This scene is followed by one of the best on-screen kisses of all time, one that thankfully does not involve tongues, spit, and boob-grabbing.

Honestly, I could gush about this film all day. But I’ll stop here and say that if ever a flawless film were made, it’s Bright Star. The performances are confidently delivered and the film is elegantly crafted. Add to that, Campion’s effortless direction, and you have a masterpiece.

Now if only someone would make a decent film about Federico Garcia Lorca.

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In Honor of Women’s History Month…

And once again…

Eve’s Bayou (1997) Kasi Lemmons

“Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old,” recalls the adult Eve Batiste coolly. With that, the audience is sent spiraling into the summer of 1962, deep in the marshlands of Louisiana, where young Eve is forced to grow up long before her time. This is the summer that Eve catches her philandering father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) in the middle of a tryst with his lover. This is also the summer that Eve’s sister comes to her with  a horrible secret that brings about tragic consequences. Lemmons proves to be an expert and meticulous filmmaker in this her directorial debut. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Eve’s Bayou is that it is purely a woman’s film. Fully-realized, realistic female characters dominate the piece, from the spirited, refreshingly normal child Eve, her poised, clairvoyant aunt Mozelle, her head-strong sister Cisely, all the way to her vulnerable, long-suffering mother Roz. The performances are solid across the board; the cinematography is mesmerizing; and the score is beautifully haunting.

 

In Honor of Women’s History Month

Bend it Like Beckham (2001) Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha’s instant hit about women footballers (or soccer players, as we call them here in the US) centers around Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), the eightteen-year-old daughter of a conservative Indian family. But Jess harbors a secret passion for football, and thanks to Juliette Paxton (Keira Knightley), Jess finds herself playing for a local team and winning matches. There are several great things about this film. First, the soundtrack is made of pure awesome sauce. The vibrant tracks—a mixture of contemporary British pop and bhangra music (or Punjabi music)—not only compliment spirit of the film, but perhaps even enhance it. The performances by Nagra, Knightley, and Jonathon Rhys Meyers (of The Tudors fame) who plays their couch are all spot-on and played with due relish. Because while the film does contain elements of drama, it is a comedy at heart. But more and above everything else, this is the story of a friendship between women, and if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize that that’s a rarity. For every Stand by Me, for every Wedding Crashers, for every The Hangover, for every crappy cop-buddy drama, there is Bend it Like Beckham and Waiting to Exhale and…yeah, that’s pretty much it. Although Jess and Juliette do hit a rough patch that probably wouldn’t please most feminists, their relationship is a realistic one that we can relate to on several levels. And it’s this relationship that gives the film its heart.

In Honor of Women’s History Month…

I want to highlight films directed by women about women. In 2011, women made up only five–that’s right–five percent of the directors in Hollywood. That’s after Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker the year before. And while we’re on that topic, let’s talk about the fact that Bigelow won for a film that was almost entirely dominated by men. Of course, I had problems with Bigelow’s win for other reasons, namely Jane Campion who produced the far superior Bright Star that same year. But anyway. I want to take this month to celebrate women’s films about women. Before we get to that, though, here’s the remarkable and ridiculously-un-nominated-for-an-Oscar-for-his-masterpiece-Shame director Steve McQueen (not the dead one, the black, glasses-wearing one) putting the smackdown on his fellow filmmakers for lack of diversity in films.

 

Fish Tank (2009) Andrea Arnold

 

Set in the slums of East London, 15-year-old Mia comes of age amidst what seems an unending sea of bleakness. Not only are her surroundings glum, but Mia has few friends, no father figure, and her mother spends most of her time either ignoring Mia and her little sister Tyler, or emotionally and verbally abusing them. Tyler copes with an overtly hard-nosed (she slings swear words around quite liberally) facade, while Mia secretly aspires to be a hip hop dancer. But things take an abrupt turn when the girls meet their mother’s charming new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender; X-Men: First Class, Jane Eyre). Connor, quite contrary to their mother, lavishes the girls with some much-needed attention, although perhaps too much so in Mia’s case. While things boil to a slightly predictable head, the film still boasts an unexpected and highly unsettling twist.  Although this film belongs to newcomer Katie Jarvis  who plays Mia, Fassbender gives an equally spellbinding performance. But the true strength of Fish Tank lies in its heartbreaking realism. Mia’s tragic tale is sadly not at all unfamiliar in our society. And in that way, her transcendence becomes inspiring and beautiful.

Keeping Scores

I remember quite clearly the first time I ever fell in love with a score, perhaps more commonly known as background music. It was Eve’s Bayou, and I wasn’t quite ten, but how old do you have to be to recognize beauty? Terrence Blanchard’s score is an elegant mesh of soulful saxophone, melancholy piano, blues-y guitar, violin…there’s probably a harp in there somewhere, too. Most impressive was how vividly he managed to evoke sweltering summer deep in the marshlands of Louisiana with sound. Notes. No visuals. To this day whenever I’m listening to the soundtrack on my mp3 player, it’s almost as if I’m transported back into those sultry few months with Eve and her family on the bayou. Who knows how he did it. All I know is somehow Blanchard created a composition that not only beautifully complimented the film without overpowering it, but remained as indelible upon the soul as some images are “printed indelibly on the brain.”

Although there once was a time when silent film was the norm and “talking pictures” or “talkies” were novel, film has never been without music. In the days before The Jazz Singer—which wasn’t even a full-talkie but a part-talkie—silent films were accompanied by live music, beginning with the Lumière (how poetic) Brothers’ Arrival of a Train in 1895. Like stage theaters, film theaters often had pianos or organs that made for awesome sound effects  to accompany the images on screen intercut with dialog cards. In the early days, film scores were either classical pieces or improvised. While we’ve been able to sync sound with film since the 1920s, not much else has changed. The Tree of Life claims to be scored by one of my personal faves, Alexandre Desplat, but director Terrence Malick primarily used classical compositions like the beautiful “Lacrimosa” by Zbigniew Preisner and “Funeral Canticle” by John Tavener to augment his film.

My favorite scores do tend to follow the traditional, classical route. I think one of the reasons I would become so invested in the musical aspect of film, second only to the performances, is because I started playing piano when I was around eight-years-old. It’s probably more coincidental than incidental that I fell in love with my first soundtrack around this same time. This in no way means that I was an exceptional student. I got away with not practicing whenever humanly possible, and that’s when I realized that I enjoy listening to music more than I enjoy playing it. And in all honesty, I do enjoy playing the piano. I just don’t like practicing. So maybe if I was some kind of savant I’d play more than I do now, but as it so happens, I’m content with downloading soundtracks whenever I hear a piece that strikes my fancy.

I break my favorite scores down into two categories: Complimentary and Supplementary. Kind of like angles. Some scores are merely there to act purely as a narrative tool. Their job is to emphasize the scene, create the ambiance, and without the visual accompaniment, they’re pretty useless. For instance, Trent Reznor and Atticus I-want-so-badly-to-say-Finch-but-your-name’s-actually-Ross crafted the Oscar-winning score for The Social Network, but if you ever listen to it on its own, it’s rather ineffectual. “Painted Sun in Abstract” sounds like a video game on the verge of breaking down. “On We March” has a nice beat, but it’s literally a continuous roll of sound effects punctuated with two or three piano notes. This is why I hate the Oscars.

I like complimentary scores ONLY if I adored the movie, and then typically I listen to the score because of the nostalgia it evokes. Mychael Danna (Girl, Interrupted; Antwone Fisher; Shattered Glass) can get this way sometimes. He’s a rather unobstrusive composer, which is likely why he’s got a lot of credits to his name even though his career has only spanned a little over twenty years. Recently, it seems that he’s gotten a lot more fancy, because the last few of his scores like Hearts in Atlantis and Moneyball have managed to gain a bit of life of their own outside their respective films, even though theirs is much more a subdued beauty as is Danna’s trademark. But I like him because he always delivers. He’s got a distinct style and feel to his music, which can at times be awe-inspiring.

But my favorite scores are usually supplementary. These scores not only give texture to the film at hand, but they are beautiful in their own right, separate from the film. I can listen to them and sometimes feel that nostalgia or the spirit of that movie I love, but sometimes I don’t even think about the film at all. I can think of several cases where this is true: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is hypnotic. It’s slow and mourning, which is right up my alley because I love depressing stuff. “Destined For Great Things” is on regular and constant replay on my mp3 player.The Village soundtrack is incredibly haunting–not because of the film’s subject matter–but because of the heartfelt and poignant composition James Newton Howard and Hilary Hahn created. In the same vein, Dario Marianelli‘s score for Jane Eyre is just as haunting, heartfelt, and absolutely gorgeous. Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his score for Atonement (I guess, the Academy is not entirely incompetent) blends a tremulous fiddle with a haunting piano in way that’s romantic, wistful, melancholy, and sometimes creepy. It also manages to evoke Jane’s restless spirit in less than three minutes. One of the things that lifts the 2011 version of Jane Eyre above its predecessors is the way the film seamlessly balances the romantic and the gothic, thanks in large part to Marianelli’s score.  

Most recently I have been taken with the Downton Abbey score (thanks Maureen!) by John Lunn. What I love about this score pretty much encapsulates what I love about all scores. It does make me nostalgic, and I can certainly hear the spirit of the series  when I listen to the music, but more often than not I listen to it when I’m on the way to class or driving in my car just because it’s beautiful and makes me feel something indescrible.  For me, listening to scores is almost like carrying musical poetry or something in your pocket. Perhaps that’s redundant to say because music is poetry. Music, just like poetry, contains its own lyricism t hat speaks to us on so many levels, and it’s incredibly difficult to describe. So suffice it to say, I like listening to pretty music.