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”

LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”

Showgirls (1995)

This review doesn’t link in with any theme weeks (except a very old one that I did for ‘films about filmmaking’, which this tangentially is). It’s rather because the London Film Festival starts next week and my first film is You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about Showgirls that I hope will be illuminating about its long legacy, as it comes up on 25 years old. I will be trying to post regular updates from the Festival in between other theme week reviews.


It’s difficult to imagine, looking at some recent reviews by cinephiles on Letterboxd (at least those of them that I follow), that this was considered one of the ne plus ultra turkeys of its year — not a financial disaster perhaps, but certainly a critical one. It’s fair to say most of Verhoeven’s films have been underappreciated or just flat out misunderstood by critics and audiences upon their release, but it’s equally hard to say that in this case it was all misplaced. After all, it does feature some truly dreadful acting and a fairly limp script (albeit with some, perhaps unintentional, zingers that have probably aided its long gestation as a cult classic).

Still it very much has now been rehabilitated and it’s just as well, because there’s a lot going on in this film worth talking about (and not just being pointed and laughed at, as many contemporary responses seemed to prefer to do), even if its thematic throughline — the seemingly endless exploitation, carnality and corruptibility of American capitalist society — is hardly original. In fact, this is very much in the territory of filmmakers looking with poisoned self-regard at their own art, a form which stretches back further than Peeping Tom (1960); I’m pretty sure that even as cinema was first being formulated, there were directors being cynical about its artifice. Of course, overlaid on that is the artifice of Las Vegas, the perfect setting for such a story (again, hardly new), and the power dynamics of the sex industry. But while men in positions of power hardly get let off the hook here, neither does anyone else — not least women of colour, who seem to bear the brunt of the violence. Indeed, aside perhaps from Molly (Gina Ravera), the costume designer friend of aspiring star Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), nobody acts with anything approaching a moral compass, and everyone is on the grift. And those like Molly who do have morals get punished for them in the end.

It’s a coruscating film, at once flashy in its style and pointed in its criticism. The characters in the film aren’t the only ones getting punished, for so does the viewer, because the film at every level resists being easily loved: for every sharp thematic critique comes something lascivious and exploitative, a Me Too story heaped with a side of misogyny, because that’s just how the American Dream is packaged. It’s how it came in 1995, just as it does now, and so it’s a film that hasn’t lost any of its kitsch-drenched melancholia.

Showgirls film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writer Joe Eszterhas; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Ravera; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 26 September 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999 and January 2002).

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)CREDITS
Director Gregory Jacobs; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS at home, Wellington).

ABCD 2: Any Body Can Dance 2 (2015)

The most obvious point here is that Bollywood dance film ABCD 2 is hardly sparklingly original, though bringing together the modern dance film genre with Bollywood’s strong tradition of dance does seem like an obvious step (and indeed this is a sequel to 2013’s ABCD: Any Body Can Dance). So here we have a group of young dancers, led by Suresh (Varun Dhawan) and Vinnie (Shraddha Kapoor), who are at first disgraced on national TV, and then must compete at the World Championships in Las Vegas to redeem themselves, tutored by the older and mysterious Vishnu (Prabhu Deva). It steals influences most obviously from the Step Up series (whose entry last year, Step Up: All In, went to Vegas too), but also fairly liberally from most other recent young-people-compete-for-success-against-the-odds films like Pitch Perfect 2 (the bad guys are always Germans), StreetDance and Bring It On, amongst plenty of others. It’s a Disney film, so even the darker plot strands (like Vishnu’s alcoholism) never rise much above the anodyne, and everything inevitably turns out pretty well for everyone, but along the way it’s difficult to fault the infectious cheerfulness of the young cast in their many dance (and some song) sequences.

ABCD 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Remo D’Souza रेमो डीसूजा; Writer Tushar Hiranandani तुषार हीरानंदनी; Cinematographer Vijay Arora विजय अरोड़ा; Starring Varun Dhawan वरुण धवन, Shraddha Kapoor श्रद्धा कपूर, Prabhu Deva பிரபுதேவா; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015.

Sea Without Shore (2015)

Of all the films I’ve seen, this is one of the more difficult ones to either review or to give a meaningful rating. Certainly evaluative dichotomies like good/bad and interesting/boring seem unequal to its strangeness, and it’s quite likely to be either one you find transfixing or infuriating, or more likely both. This is mainly down to its elliptical and elusive narrative structure, that entirely eschews plot in favour of the creation and manipulation of mood and movement. There’s no dialogue, just a voiceover (in Swedish, as it’s filmed in that country) reciting poetic texts about love and loss. The performers use their bodies to enact a fin-de-siècle lesbian relationship drama, in which the key locations are a bright and airy home, a glowering forest by night, and a bitterly cold windswept landscape. That it’s created by a modern dance company seems fitting, given the attention paid to textures, imagery, music and atmosphere — all that stuff that’s usually in service of the story with other films. At times this has the effect of making the exercise somewhat abstrusely academic, but there are still pleasures to be had. The images captured by cinematographer Marcus Waterloo have a soft-edged oneiric quality, the camera seemingly pushed to its limits in being blown up to a cinema screen size, but that’s quite in keeping with the film’s woozy internalised melodrama — though when I say “oneiric” that’s partly because I may have slumbered somewhat during the middle half of the film (it was at night, I was tired!). Sound too has a pointillist quality, little shards and fragments of the performers’ actions layered and expertly manipulated. Certainly, there’s plenty enough to say that’s complimentary towards the film and its intentions, just that in practice it is a difficult film to connect with. Approach it as filmed art piece, and you may be on safer ground.

Sea Without Shore film posterCREDITS
Directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi; Writer Semenza; Cinematographer Marcus Waterloo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 March 2015.

Dancing in Jaffa (2013)

I can’t really say very much about this documentary film except that it’s sweet-natured and just a little bit ingenuous, perhaps too much so given its Israeli setting and that it deals with that contested relationship between Jews and Arabs — or maybe it’s exactly right, for that very reason. It takes as its central character the dancer (now dance teacher), Pierre Dulaine, born in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and now after many years bringing his teaching method to the local primary schools. His aim is to get Israeli Jews dancing with Israeli Arabs, and that’s the arc the film tracks, flitting from school to school with colour-coded labelling. It starts with some initial tentative encounters (where Dulaine comes off as just a little too single-mindedly wedded to heteronormative pairings), to growing enthusiasm communicated via a series of individual portraits of children learning to enjoy their experience, to the climax of an inter-school dance competition. There are small delights and certainly there are some heart-warming scenes, but it can be mawkish at times. However, that said, it does reveal plenty of ingrained hostility and imparts some sense of the cultural, ethnic and religious divisions in its very indirect way.

Dancing in Jaffa film posterCREDITS
Director Hilla Medalia הילה מדליה; Writers Philip Shane and Medalia; Cinematographer Daniel Kedem דניאל קדם; Starring Pierre Dulaine; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015.

Step Up 3D (aka Step Up 3, 2010)

Having recently seen Step Up: All In, the latest instalment of this already numerous if relatively short-lived franchise, I thought I’d best fill out my viewing with the one considered (at least by my friends) as the weakest of the five. I’m pleased to report, though, that I find it just as well-made and enjoyable in a pulpy, generic way as the others. If it has a real weakness, it’s in the fairly bland leads — Rick Malambri as Luke, a dancer and prospective filmmaker, and the ‘mysterious’ clubgirl Natalie (played by Sharni Vinson) — though thankfully their story, which involves Luke’s ridiculously large loft apartment and high-end editing suite, is fairly unobtrusive. Taking the charismatic centre stage is series regular “Moose” (Adam Sevani), introduced in the previous film, and his are-they-aren’t-they love interest Camille (Alyson Stoner), returning from the very first film (where she played Channing Tatum’s little sister). Both are now students at NYU and studying for stuff that isn’t dancing, so their character arc is this tug-of-war between ‘respectable’ professions and the illicit thrill of the dance — and along the way there’s a very odd little hint that Camille is preparing to move on romantically from Moose to a girl in her class, something that’s treated without any fanfare whatsoever. In some respects, the plot is quite similar to the fifth and most recent outing, as the film opens with Luke interviewing street dancers about their tough lives and battle for acceptance in this competitive world, and moves on to the now familiar battle for supremacy with a black-clad macho crew etc etc… And yet, while it may all be blending into a single film by this point, it’s a colourful, frenetic and enjoyable one for all that, with a likeable ensemble dance cast.

Step Up 3D film posterCREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer; Cinematographer Ken Seng; Starring Rick Malambri, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Sharni Vinson; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD) [2D], London, Saturday 9 July 2014.

Step Up: All In (2014)

There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and larger role in Step Up 3D (2010), as well as his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).

The previous film’s pretensions of connecting to current trends in media (YouTube and mobile phone filming) and the rise of protest movements are dialled down with this chapter, though with the character of Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko), there remains a cogent critique of the media circus and its manipulativeness in search of ratings and success. As this TV-host ringmaster whose Las Vegas dance competition brings the two leads together, Miko is acting on a completely different planet from most of the film, as if she saw Elizabeth Banks in The Hunger Games and considered her performance just too naturalistic and muted. It certainly makes the task of the leads that much more difficult, and though Evigan does (ahem) step it up, I wasn’t convinced by Guzman, who is given a rather overextended emo sequence towards the end where his character is put right by the magic wise words of the generic European parent-figures.

What the film does well — and I admit this is rather the obvious point — is the dance setpieces, starting from the opening credits sequence (who knew films still did those) with its parade of dance-hopefuls trying out to bored producers, through to the epic final battle, which is obviously enhanced through montage and doesn’t convince at all as a filmed live reality show (though perhaps this is just another subliminal tip of the hat to the manipulativeness of modern television). Along the way we get a sense of how pursuing a career in dance can be a draining and difficult experience (something that was also a theme in the third film), from Sean’s voiceover during the opening auditions, to the glimpse at the crappy low-end service industry jobs everyone needs to take in order to make ends meet. His crew from the Miami film, now relocated to Los Angeles, soon disperses at the lack of opportunities and work, leaving Sean alone to recruit a new crew. Yet so expendable are these day jobs that everyone he reaches out to quickly ditch them for the slender prospect of something in Las Vegas. It’s only Moose who seems to acknowledge any commitments beyond dancing, in one of the film’s more affecting sequences.

Sure, it may be no actual bona fide masterpiecce, but this fifth film in the series is one of its strongest yet. There’s a colourful visual palette to go along with the kinetic energy of the dance sequences, and underlying it all is a cheerful optimism in the power of movement to overcome doubt and worry. The plotting and structure may fit into a long line of predictable genre exercises (this series and the contemporaneous High School Musical films as examples), but everyone attacks the script and the setpieces with the energy of people doing it all for the first time, and I find that a winning combination.

Step Up: All In film posterCREDITS
Director Trish Sie; Writer John Swetnam; Cinematographer Brian Pearson; Starring Ryan Guzman, Briana Evigan, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Izabella Miko; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014.