Girlfriends (1978)

On Friday this week, a film is being released to UK cinemas called Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is billed as a comedy-drama. And while I haven’t yet seen it, I want to attempt something a little more difficult this week, which is to theme a week around the hybrid form of comedy and drama, particularly as it’s cropped up in recent American cinema. I’m not sure how much has been written about this particular category of film, and frankly I’m not exactly sure how to define it, except I think that a number of films have managed to successfully (in my opinion, but not in everybody’s) blend the two forms, such that they’re not simply comedies with serious dramatic themes or vice versa, but they amount to their own specific thing. The 1970s was a great time for new voices in American cinema, none more so than the women who have largely been (unfairly) forgotten since then. Once such voice was Claudia Weill, who went on to a career in TV, but made a captivating portrait of the era with Girlfriends, in which the comic elements of Melanie Mayron’s central character are tempered by the frustration of the situations she finds herself in.


This is the kind of small canvas of emotionally-honest socially-conscious filmmaking that must have been about a fair bit in the 1970s but is very hard to get to see, isn’t part of a curriculum or a constantly rotating canon of the era, and it should be. Plenty of people have mentioned modern parallels (much of it in television), but there were a number of women making American films in the 70s and 80s who just haven’t been given their due (for example Joan Micklin Silver, whose Hester Street I reviewed recently, or even Elaine May, only recently getting any kind of critical rehabilitation). That said, there are clearly aspects that have dated: the idea of someone working as a part-time photographer, selling small commissions and working bar mitzvahs and weddings to make ends meet, able to have their own place in NYC. But largely this film remains utterly delightful: Melanie Mayron (who would go on to work more in directing) is sparky and engaging as Susan, who’s been living with Anne (Anita Skinner), but when the latter moves out to get married, finds herself unable to forge the same friendships with others who pass through her life. The boyfriends in this film (Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest) are desultory and disappointing, and there’s an underlying (if never quite fully expressed) feeling that maybe the two women at the film’s core would be better off without either of them. It’s a charming film and one that should be better known.

Girlfriends film posterCREDITS
Director Claudia Weill; Writer Vicki Polon; Cinematographer Fred Murphy; Starring Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

A Deusa Negra (Black Goddess, 1978)

One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.


This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).

As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.

At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.

The Mafu Cage (1978)

The horror genre seems to attract far more men as directors and writers, though it’s certainly not short of women in front of the camera (usually being victimised, of course). That said, there are a significant number of women who are fans of the genre and have written about it at length (notably the Australian writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who is working on a book called 1000 Women in Horror). There are even a few who have managed to get behind the camera, and I am trying to focus on as many examples as I can this week. The film today is more of a thriller than a horror, exactly, and its director Karen Arthur only ever made three feature films (before moving into a career in television).


This film is a lot. It’s at heart a sort of psychological terror film about a disturbed young woman, Cissy (Carol Kane, who at one point intemperately demands her sister explain what she means by “normal”), who acts out in a way that distracts her sister (Lee Grant) from her astronomy job. Yet there are many complex depths to their relationship, not least a sort of incest theme that left me wondering if they were in fact sisters, or whether something more was going on (at first I suspected a proto-Fight Club duality).

The specific manifestation of Cissy’s mental health issues is her fixation on her father, a deceased anthropologist. Cissy performs African tribal dances, obsessively plays field recordings, and wears African hairstyles, as if in an alternate timeline for Mean Girls‘ Cady. Moreover she tortures primates in the cage set up by their father for study (the “mafu” of the title seems to be a term used to refer generically to primates, or perhaps just pets). Thus the film seems to be enacting a confrontation between white colonisers and Africa (its fauna and its human cultures), perhaps hinting at a sense of guilt, but certainly a pathology of slavery and subjugation, while also being about family dynamics in a hothouse environment that (not unjustly) claims a particularly pervy astronomer colleague of Cissy’s sister.

There’s so much going on that I can’t pretend to cover it all, but it was certainly interesting (even if the surviving 35mm print we watched is rather degraded in its pink palette).

Film posterCREDITS
Director Karen Arthur; Writer Don Chastain (based on the play Toi et tes nuages by Eric Westphal); Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018.

Baara (aka Work, 1978)

This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato had a strand of films honouring the Ivoirian-based Pan-African film festival FESPACO, and Baara was the grand prize winner at the 6th festival in 1979. Sadly — perhaps to nobody more than the director himself, who expressed as much in a post-film Q&A — there are no good prints left of this film in circulation, though I’ve certainly seen worse than this one, which shows its age with a reddish tint to the colours. One can only hope that this film gets the proper restoration it so very much deserves.


This powerful film sets a mortal struggle against the background of trade unionisation of a corrupt workplace. It features three levels of worker: the humble porter Balla (Baba Niare); the namesake man who comes to be his manager at a factory (Bubukar Keita, who points out that his family, the Traoré, traditionally kept slaves of porter Balla’s one); and the boss of the factory (Balla Moussa Keita), who lives in a villa with an unfaithful wife (Omou Koné). There’s an attentiveness to the politics of work, and to the distinctions of class within this society, as well as little flashes of a more idyllic village life that our hero hopes for, contrasted with the uncaring treatment of undocumented workers by the police in the city.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Souleymane Cissé; Cinematographers Étienne Carton de Grammont and Abdoulaye Sidibé; Starring Baba Niare, Bubukar Keita, Balla Moussa Keita, Omou Koné; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 204: Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978)

She’s an attractive woman, Hanna Schygulla is (as the title character), and that’s only one of the things she uses to get ahead in the post-World War II mess of West Germany. Maria’s dogged pursuit of her goals, flirting with other men before returning to her pre-War husband (who returns unexpectedly even after she’d given up on him), makes her a potent symbol of Germany in the period, and this film thus functions as something of an allegory. Certainly those closing scenes, soundtracked by the insistent voice of a football commentator narrating a successful German game, drives that home. It may not be Fassbinder’s most flashy film, not the one perhaps with the greatest cult credentials, but it’s a wonderfully resonant piece, I think, underpinned by a great central performance by Schygulla.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich; Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and at university, Wellington, March 2000).

Criterion Sunday 191: Jubilee (1978)

I don’t know what aspect of the punk spirit this speaks to — the messy avant-gardism and unpolished amateurishness, the gleefully garish colours (Toyah Willcox’s character Mad has hair which is a constant delight), the casual nudity, sex and violence — but it has a pleasingly anarchic, almost joyfully queer (although I suppose that’s not a word that would have been welcomed at the time), aesthetic that makes it still very compelling and watchable even as it must be now almost 40 years since its premiere. That said, it’s all very much of its time, a vision of post-apocalyptic England in a time of deprivation and uncertainty for which one can draw certain parallels, but a lot of which seems very much bound up in an era of political change. Jarman’s spirit is art school to the core, which made his film unpopular with the art school-bred punks (as Tony Rayns points out in a bonus feature documentary on its making), who preferred trying to come across as something more akin to brazen oiks. However, whatever Jarman’s own political take on things was, this is a still a bright, playful and inclusive vision of the end of days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Derek Jarman; Writers Jarman and Christopher Hobbs; Cinematographer Peter Middleton; Starring Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Nell Campbell, Toyah Willcox; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 January 2018.

Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, 1978)

For all that it sounds on paper like some kind of heist film, in fact this is a story centred in female friendships, primarily the one between our title character (one of those involved in the heist, which is only seen obliquely in flashback) and her friend in Portugal (Silvia Reize), to whom she turns when things start going wrong. Yet there’s also the relationship between her and the young female bank teller (Katharina Thalbach) who witnesses her crime, and whose identification of Christa is key to the prosecution’s case. It turns out Christa’s motives were solid — she just wanted to help out a kindergarten she’d started for impoverished mothers, but it had run into financial difficulties — and, as played by Tina Engel, she presents a compelling central figure. It’s only a pity that the print this DVD is transferred from is so patchy; Margarethe von Trotta’s films may not be trendy or flashy, but they are definitely in need of some preservation.


FILM REVIEW
Director Margarethe von Trotta; Writers von Trotta and Luisa Francia; Cinematographer Franz Rath; Starring Tina Engel, Silvia Reize, Katharina Thalbach; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 18 May 2017.

Criterion Sunday 60: Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978)

The two (unrelated) Bergmans — director Ingmar and film star Ingrid — brought together at last, the advertising copy no doubt blared. However, in terms of thematics, this is firmly within Ingmar’s frostier territory, as mother and daughter psychologically battle it out in a confined chamber drama. Ingmar was always feted for his ‘women’s pictures’, though the women are invariably under some kind of terrifying emotional onslaught, in this case Liv Ullmann’s Eva coming to terms with abandonment by her internationally-famous concert pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Perhaps there’s an underlying angst of Ingmar’s relationship with his home country of Sweden (he’d been in exile in West Germany for a decade or so), but in any case nobody really comes out particularly well, especially once the red wine — and the accusations — starts flowing. There’s something that seems peculiarly 70s about having a disabled character as little more than a metaphor for the disfiguring effect of emotional dishonesty (or whatever), so this daughter Helena’s periodic appearance remains unsettling, but for the most part the film’s moody melodrama is well-handled and ends with a hope of some forgiveness in the offing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 November 2015.

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)

Continue reading “March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”