Thursday, 10 December 2009

Review: Cracks

I had been looking forward to Cracks since I first read about it. A film set in a girls' school? In the 1930s? With Eva Green? What isn't there to love about it? Disappointingly there is a great deal of things to dislike. The characters don't ring true, the style is pedestrian, and other films deal with the themes so much better.

Cracks opens beautifully with a scene between Di and Miss G on the lake discussing subversive novels. It is clear right away that Di is besotted with her alluring diving coach but her desire is never fully illustrated. At the beginning of the film we are encouraged to see Miss G, the school, and the other students through Di's eyes but soon after Fiamma arrives it becomes unclear who we are supposed to sympathise with. Di merely stares longingly at Miss G and scowls at Fiamma. This rather undermines the idea of her as the protagonist in a story of a girl in love. So perhaps it is a story about Miss G? But her characterisation is the weakest part of the story. She is at times confident, petulant, wise, serene, manipulative, crazy and evil. It may have been an attempt to make her a mysterious character but the result is just inconsistency. Perhaps if the scene where Miss Nieven reveals that Miss G has been at the schools since she was a student, was shown later then the gradual reveal would have had impact. But that still doesn't explain the differing behaviour later. Muttering when visiting the Baker implying she's 'crazy', the confident way she exerts authority over other staff members and then the devious abuse of Fiamma all seem to be different characters.

The way that Miss G's abuse of Fiamma is represented also caused me concern. The tagline itself "Innocence isn't lost. It's taken" seems a direct reference to Fiamma's sexual assault. For me this also has the uncomfortable sense of associating lesbian desire with such abuse. After seeing the film I read an interview where the film's director Jordan Scott said that Di's feelings for Miss G are platonic. Where I may have had doubts about the anti-lesbian messages, further investigation just supports it. I had expected Cracks to be about female desire within the restrictive and conforming structure of school. To have those desires pathologised degrades the film.

It is when compared to other films that Cracks really fails to impress. It can be no coincidence that Miss G refers to the diving team as "my girls". But she is no Jean Brodie. Miss G's exposure as an abuser and a liar doesn't have much impact as the script revealed her deceits to the viewers far too early. Because of the lack of consistency in Miss G's characterisation it is difficult to feel sympathy for or even understand  her. When Jean Brodie yells that Sandy is an "assassin" you feel for her even though the "assassination" was justified.  With Cracks it feels as if the Spanish civil war were included merely to give an exotic character the excuse to be far from home but the political misguidedness of Jean Brodie is acutely important to her relationship with her students. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a classic it's true, but Cracks does invite this unfavourable comparison in its allusions to the better film.

In terms of schoolgirl desire Madchen in Uniform is to be preferred as it is very easy to understand why Manuela falls for her teacher because the characters are fully realised. Also, I like the way her feelings aren't patronised and are presented as normal.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Growing Up Through Film

There are three blog pieces I've read this week that inspire reflection on how we define the meaningful films of our youth.

Sady at Tiger Beatdown writes a marvellous and funny piece about Titanic. I love her commentary on the villain character in comparison to the romantic leads. But it is also interesting in regard to looking back on the important films (and crushes for some) of teenhood. I'm hoping that this kind of reflection is part of the Giant Mystery Project Sady mentions.

Julie at Misfortune Cookie writes about films high-school aged girls should see and Scott at Rail of Tomorrow does the same for boys. I always love to read people's recommendations, despite instinctively wanting to resist any "must watch" instuctions. Julie's list is particularly interesting as it is written in response to the huge response to the Twilight series which she considers to have negative messages for girls. The films on her list tend to deal with girls' place in the world, issues surrounding relationships (both romances and friendships), and sexuality. Scott's choices seem to be more about identification and inspiration for boys. I don't know whether this is because the films produced for girls have more general messages or whether it is to do with how viewers are expected to identify with protagonists. Do girls have to work harder to seek out useful messages when films are generally aimed at a young male viewer?

I wouldn't want to make such a list myself. I think people can be highly skilled in making use of films in different ways. In a feminist sense reading against the grain is a useful strategy in enjoying mainstream culture, although it can sometimes be more delusional than creative to do so. Would I recommend anti-feminist films because they might inspire more debate? Sometimes it is easier to explain why we are rejecting an idea than accepting one. But that would work against the goal of getting 'better' films made, appreciated and valued.

Monday, 30 November 2009

November Reading and Viewing

Loads of interesting reads this month so am just posting highlights:

Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun writes a beautiful piece on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Jack Patrick Rogers at The House Next Door looks at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars and Glee and how they present web culture.

Jess McCabe interviews Jan Chapman and reviews Bright Star for The F-Word.

In terms of cinema it has been an ace month with An Education and Bright Star both thrilling. I also attended the Women and Silent Britain study day at the BFI which enthused me about silent films and reintroducing these "dehistoricized" women into film history. There have been lots of other films released recently by female directors (Amelia, Nativity, Nowhere Boy) but it is difficult to see everything. I'll be posting a review of Cracks shortly.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Coen Bros Trailers

I worked for a cinema around a decade ago. During that year lots of films came and went but what I remember watching most was the trailer for The Big Lebowski. We played it for a couple of months and would drop what we were doing in order to bask in its trippy, slacker beauty. After stirring ourselves up into a frenzy of excitement about the film it was never actually shown there, we had to pay (pah) to see it at another cinema. But The Big Lebowski trailer was something to delight in when a job was otherwise dreary and monotonous.

Now, when I go to a cinema I have higher expectations. I am paying to see a film not working for minimum wage. So why is it that I am feeling tormented by the Coens when they have satisfied so well in the past? In the last few weeks I've had the displeasure to see the trailer for A Serious Man several times and it is making me mad. As the character's head is shoved rhythmically into a blackboard we the viewers get the feeling of being smacked about. It's not funny, it's not interesting and is the complete antithesis of The Dude's hallucinations. Without the trailer I may have gone to see the film. But now? I want to shove someone's head repeatedly into a blackboard.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Happy Halloween

So as I don't have control of the TV this evening I can't watch the films I had planned. Instead I've been thinking about scary films. I've read loads of blogs this week about people's favourites but it is difficult to actually think of something frightening to me. I enjoy horrors but haven't been truly scared watching a film for ages. Watching Alien this month is was great to see so many people in the audience jumping at the scary bits, it shows the endurance of a classic film but having seen it several times it doesn't do it to me anymore which is a shame.

When I was a child it was easy to get scared. I remember once listening to a Secret Seven tape and being paralysed with fear lest a nasty (no doubt racially sterotyped) hoodlum appear. Similarly the film Evil Under the Sun made me leave the light on when I went to bed. Cheesey as it was, Diana Rigg's characters death seemed horrific and cruel. Perhaps it is nice to have not yet been made cynical by the real horrors that are going on in the world.

In recent years it is films like London to Brighton that affect me most. The events in London to Brighton are believable, almost banal, yet utterly shocking. Watching it is emotionally draining as you almost plead with the film to not kill Kelly and Joanne. Afterwards I felt terribly sad and worried for their real life equivalents.

So watching genuinely scary films may not be a good idea emotionally and horror films aren't as engaging. So perhaps some nostalgia... here's a link to Anything Can Happen on Halloween from The Worst Witch. Tim Curry singing to young girls, and Diana Rigg features too. It is so great and the special effects are cutting edge! It disturbs me to think how often I watched the video when it came out.

October Review

I thought there may not be enough to post weekly about cool stuff I've found. Unfortunately looking back over October there is a ridiculous amount so that was obviously a stupid idea. Anyhow, here are some of highlights in film blogging over the last month.

At the London Film Festival there was an event Snipping Through the Celluloid Ceiling with a panel of female film makers discussing issues surrounding being women in the film industry and female produced film. Unfortunately I couldn't attend and this is the only write up of it that I could find. It looks like it was an interesting and inspiring discussion.

I found this news about critic Jessica Mann very interesting. Basically she has refused to review any more crime books as she was sick of the violently misogynist content. I like how she as a critic is taking control of her own consumption and exposure to content she finds offensive. The story has been discussed at Shakesville and The F Word too.

Samantha Morton writes for the Guardian about the responsibility of actors to use their power to challenge sexist messages their films may be sending. We need more intelligent, critical actors like her if the content of films is going to change.

Alien was released 30 years ago and the Guardian have a celebratory piece on Ripley, one of the best female characters ever. I had a great time at Duke of Yorks on 25th October where they screened an original 1979 print of Alien and had a Q&A afterwards with the editor and the costume designer of the film. Dallas King of Championship Celluloid also wrote about Alien which he saw at Dukes as part of his (500) Films of Empire series. Someone obsessively working through a list of films is always to be admired and encouraged and travelling 1188 miles for one film is impressive, if extreme.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Dirty Dancing

There are loads of great posts today about Patrick Swayze after his death yesterday but my favourite is from Anna Pickard in The Guardian (here) which includes this quote about Dirty Dancing.

"The film – I have no idea how it did in the cinema. What I do know it was shown at almost every sleepover I attended in my teens, and spoken of in hushed tones, like a cross between a secret first-love-manual and porn."

I think that is the way many women of a particular age experienced Dirty Dancing and is a fine example of how people use films socially and culturally. As a younger teenager, girls' film conversations tended to develop from either Dirty Dancing or Pretty Woman (I was gladly on the Dirty Dancing side) with few other films being considered for movie nights or get-togethers. While I am glad that ageing has diversified our tastes, there was also something comforting in that shared understanding of a particular film as cultural event.

Update: Libby Brooks in today's Guardian also writes about Dirty Dancing's importance in her teen-hood here.