Reel Women: Women in Film at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival
I’ve spent the last week watching and reviewing films at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival here in my hometown of Austin, Texas. One of the things I’m always looking out for at a festival that deals largely in independent and genre films is the way women are treated and represented on film. I haven’t had a chance to see everything because, well, it’s a massive film festival and I’m just one person, but I’d like to share my thoughts on what I have seen over the last seven days.
In Fede Alvarez’s remake (or, as he likes to call it, “rebirth”) of Sam Raimi‘s horror classic, Jane Levy stars as a young woman who heads off to the woods with her brother and some friends to kick her heroin habit, but what they find there is something far more sinister and evil. Levy gives an incredibly tough and daring performance in a film that has a lot to prove, both as a horror film and as a remake — two elements that elicit typically harsh responses from audiences. Alvarez is smart to incorporate drug addiction into a tale of demonic possession, as anyone who has dealt with an addict in their personal lives can tell you that the experience is often much like this film: horrifying and hellacious.
I only took issue with one part of the film, and it wasn’t even the film or the director’s fault: Alvarez replicates the infamous “tree-rape” scene from Raimi’s original, and just like that film, this is shot in a way that should make the audience feel deeply unsettled. Instead, during the opening night screening, the majority of the audience erupted in applause and cheered as Levy was raped by a demon-possessed tree. I’ve heard people defend this reaction, saying that the audience was merely responding to a moment they recalled from the original, much as they would later cheer on the appearance of both a chainsaw and a shotgun, but this audience was also rabidly applauding every moment of extreme violence, from dead cats to facial mutilations and bodily dismemberment. Alvarez didn’t make a comedic horror film like Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead 2,’ which is the film I think most people remember most when they think of ‘Evil Dead.’ The sequel was filled with splat-stick humor and was more light-hearted than the original, which was serious and more horrific in nature.
I don’t care if Levy was getting raped by a miniature Yorkie or a flower or a soft, down-feather pillow. Context is key. Alvarez made this film with every intent of it being intense and discomforting. This is a film that seeks to push the personal boundaries of its viewers and what they are comfortable with experiencing on a visceral level. Some people respond to uncomfortable moments in film by giggling nervously or squirming in their seats, but this many people in a theater that seats 1100, simultaneously applauding and cheering as a woman is raped in a scene that is designed to be dead-serious? That’s a whole lot of thoughtlessness going on and it’s a real problem.
A teacher (Lindsay Burdge) engages in an inappropriate relationship with a high school senior student, and as the affair comes to an end, she begins to unravel mentally and emotionally. As a film, director Hannah Fidell’s ‘A Teacher’ doesn’t quite work — I admire the idea that, in films, we only ever see the beginnings and endings of relationships, but never the middle, which is what this film is trying to accomplish, but instead it feels as though you’ve only watched the second act of a film because this one has very little framework to support itself. Burdge gives a compelling performance, and really knocks it out of the park during one particularly climactic scene in which she finally begins to struggle with her morality and the choices she’s made. Inviting her younger lover over to try and repair a relationship that’s already begun to break, the teacher, in a dimly lit bedroom, goes from intense desire to utter disgust before becoming a desperate, pathetic woman, begging on her knees for something that’s so bad for her — much like an addict. And aren’t the most dysfunctional and ill-advised relationships like a terrible addiction we can’t break?
‘A Teacher’ suffers from tonal issues (especially the final shot, which played as unintentional hilarity at a few screenings, including my own), but it does give us a very complicated female lead who may not make sympathetic choices, but as a human being, she is ultimately empathetic.
‘The Punk Singer’
This documentary from director Sini Anderson follows the life and accomplishments of the iconic Kathleen Hanna, who helped propel the Riot Grrrl movement as a singer in the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Hanna retired from music under vague circumstances in 2005 and only recently stepped back in to the spotlight with a new band, The Julie Ruin. I may be a little biased on this doc, which tells the story of one of my personal heroes and the lead singer of one of my favorite bands of all time, Le Tigre — a band that made poppy dance music with politically-fueled lyrics.
Hanna’s history dates back to 1989, when she began as a spoken-word performer but quickly realized that music would help her reach more people. She has inspired generations of women to get up and speak out, having manufactured handmade fanzines and written her own Riot Grrrl manifesto. Hanna also changed punk music for the better when she demanded that the men stand in the back and the women move to the front at her shows, creating a safe environment for herself and her female fans.
The documentary explores why Hanna really left music — after years of being misdiagnosed, Hanna was finally properly diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, which has become something of an epidemic in the United States. One of the most real, relatable, and poignant moments comes when Hanna explains that she told everyone she wanted to retire so they would think it was her choice — as a feminist, she felt weak admitting that she had no control over something, even if it was a horrible illness that she couldn’t really ever fully control.
And for anyone who thinks that Kathleen Hanna’s words and actions have become less meaningful or relevant since the Riot Grrrl days of the 90s, an audience member’s question during the Q&A reminds us that we still need the Kathleen Hannas of the world: a man asked director Sini Anderson — and I’m paraphrasing — “I lived through much of this, and I was a man at these shows who was always asked to go to the back. I’m just wondering if you ever think there will be a time when I won’t be asked to go to the back?” Sini gave the best possible response: “You’ve never really been asked to go to the back. Okay, maybe like, twice in your life.”
We still have work to do. And ‘The Punk Singer’ will inspire you to get out there and do it.
If there’s any director who can capture the specificity of white, lower-class people, it’s Harmony Korine, who premiered his mainstream crossover ‘Spring Breakers’ last weekend. Four college girls (Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson) want to go to spring break so badly that they rob a restaurant to fund their week of debauchery. The quartet eventually wind up in jail in Florida and are bailed out by a local white rapper named Alien (James Franco) — a guy with a ton of guns, drugs, and who wants these girls to be his new accomplices.
Korine takes the idea of an American dream that’s built on superficiality and the basest, most crass human desires and inserts four Disney-esque ladies into its shiny, oily, jiggling cleavage. The way he captures these young women dares the viewer to question their sexual appeal — when he films a group of spring break attendees on a beach, it’s all slow-motion butts and boobs, covered in oil and booze and bouncing around in the sun. Conversely, our protagonists are filmed in a way that’s almost perversely intimate, challenging us to consider their sexualization and perversion, particularly when these ideas are self-imposed. Why do we look at this as something aspirational? Why is this “fun”?
‘Spring Breakers’ is one giant, day-glo perversion of young womanhood — that feeling of being trapped in the mundane that can feel so extreme that it sometimes propels young women to the opposite end of the spectrum, to willfully destroy themselves in the pursuit of happiness. The American dream is really all about selfishness, greed, and the word “WANT” blinking in bright, neon lights. We’re starting pretty young, and we don’t even realize it.
‘The Lords of Salem’
Sometimes a director casts his wife in a film and she’s amazing — Leslie Mann, wife of Judd Apatow, is talented, but only seems to do her best when she’s working for her husband, while Frances McDormand, married to Joel Coen of the Brothers Coen, is an immensely talented actress who lends herself well to her husband’s works.
And then there’s filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Rob Zombie, who continue to cast their marginally-talented wives in their films, ultimately making us further question their credibility and their talent as filmmakers — and both are already so questionable. In ‘The Lords of Salem,’ Sheri Moon Zombie plays a radio DJ who is being called upon by witches to give birth to the devil. Zombie the director uses random, nonsensical shots of his wife’s naked rear end, where the only explanation is that he wants to show off how sexy his spouse is. We get it. Leave that sort of filming to your private home videos, or, better yet, spend less time concerned with putting your wife in your movies and properly framing her ass, and more time writing and directing a better movie.
Sheri Moon Zombie may be beautiful and I respect how game she is to get involved with her husband’s crazy horror films, but she’s no Frances McDormand.
‘The Spectacular Now’
Director James Ponsoldt returns with a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2012, ‘Smashed.’ In ‘The Spectacular Now,’ writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter try to redeem themselves after the divisive ‘(500) Days of Summer,’ a film that many felt was mean-spirited about women, to say the least. They largely succeed with ‘The Spectacular Now,’ starring Miles Teller as an aimless but charismatic high school senior with a drinking problem, who can’t help falling for a nice girl (Shailene Woodley.) Woodley gives a performance that shows her incredible range following her powerful turn in ‘The Descendants.’ Here she plays every young, naive girl in high school — the kind that falls for the wrong boy, and the kind that has such a good heart that she can only see the good in someone and not how horribly they’re going to hurt her with all the bad stuff she’s looking past. Woodley portrays fragility in a way that is entirely relatable and not at all insulting.
And while we’re all talking about Woodley, I think it’s almost important to note Jennifer Jason Leigh’s small but effective performance as Teller’s mom — a woman who is unconditionally loving and protective of her son’s heart, but who also can’t seem to save him from himself.