Monday, 23 April 2012

“And the time has come!” The Hurt Locker: A Kathryn Bigelow Film

Yvonne Tasker and Eylem Atakav

(extract taken from ‘The Hurt Locker: Male Intimacy, Violence and the Iraq War Movie’, Sine/Cine: Journal of Film Studies, Vol.1, No: 2, 2011)  

“There’s really no difference between what I do and what a male filmmaker might do. I mean we all try to make our days, we all try to give the best performances we can, we try to make our budget, we try to make the best movie we possibly can... On the other hand, I think the journey for women, no matter what venue it is - politics, business, film - it’s a long journey.” (Bigelow, 2010)

Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 awards season, in which she became the first woman to take the Director’s Guild of America and the Academy Award for Best Direction, renewed critical and scholarly interest in the position of women filmmakers and the sorts of films for which they do (and do not) receive acclaim. The run up to the Oscars made much of Bigelow as a filmmaker contending against ex-husband and former collaborator James Cameron, not the first time that coverage of her career has foregrounded his. The melodramatic terms in which this run-off was covered was attributed by some media pundits to a desire to reinvigorate falling ratings for the once must-see ceremony. Ironically enough, while Bigelow had long had admirers for her action-oriented movies such as Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), and Strange Days (1995), the terms of this particular opposition managed to suggest a generic opposition between Avatar’s mega-budget fantasy adventure and The Hurt Locker as an Iraq war movie with a very different budget and aesthetic. The Hurt Locker was effectively framed in opposition to Avatar’s innovative 3D technology as something of a realist movie, a positioning which its contemporary setting and the documentary feel of its camerawork no doubt exacerbated. Of course, The Hurt Locker is also very much an action movie, albeit coupled with masculine melodrama. Indeed the two movies suggest the very different visual possibilities for the cinematic rendition of combat in other lands.

Revealing Bigelow as winner of the best director Academy Award, Barbra Streisand (herself a director) placed her hand on her heart, declaring “The time has come!” Inevitably critical and popular attention has highlighted Bigelow’s directorial “firsts.” Although reviews celebrated her achievement, thoughts on the relevance of her gender are divided. While at an earlier stage of her career reviewers frequently expressed themselves perplexed by Bigelow’s work in supposedly “masculine” genres, some contemporary critics affirm her seeming gender neutrality.  Others like Martha Nochimson, who provocatively labelled Bigelow a “hyper-macho bad boy” in her essay, detect double standards in the fact that it is such an intensely male-oriented movie that netted this particular directorial first. 

Titling her essay “Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag?” Nochimson argues that Bigelow is “...masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.” Labels such as feminist or woman filmmaker have indeed proven problematic for many women filmmakers who look to forge a career in Hollywood or indeed the shrinking independent sector. 

The mismatch between Bigelow’s often bold, always accomplished, generic movies and a critical category of feminist filmmaking highlights the difficulties of an assumption that women filmmakers will do gender in predictable political ways. Indeed the 2010 US media furore over the legitimacy or otherwise of right wing women’s claim to the term “feminist” indicates the wider resonance of this point. As both cases suggest, feminism is not just about the success of high profile individual women. While the involvement of more women in male-dominated arenas such as politics and filmmaking suggests movement in gender hierarchies, neither feminist policies nor feminist movies simply happen because women are involved.

Bigelow does not tend to promote a feminist, or even a feminine, sensibility in her films; neither does she introduce herself as a feminist or a feminist filmmaker. Rather she engages in what Nochimson calls “muscular filmmaking”. This idea of muscular filmmaking is also central for Barry Keith Grant who explores Bigelow’s films in relation to action as a genre. For Grant, her films attempt to negotiate a place for women both in front of and behind the camera within traditionally masculine discourses whilst at the same time mobilising “a range of the genres traditionally regarded as ‘male’ precisely to interrogate that term specifically, as well as the politics and pleasures of gendered representations in genre films more generally” (Grant, 2004, p. 372). Similarly Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond, editors of the volume The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor, emphasise both terms in that clause, arguing that “her work partly falls within and partly infringes the parameters of Hollywood cinema” (Jermyn & Redmond, 2003, p. 3). In addition, as Jermyn appositely observes, “Bigelow’s refusal to be easily compartmentalised, to be labelled a ‘female director’ or to work within the confines of a given genre, has often made the concept of a Bigelow film a slippery one” (Jermyn, 2003, p. 126). 

Drawing together formal and narrative devices from both generic and art cinema has allowed Bigelow to produce films that foreground sensation – central to the action genre since the 1980s – and a visual style that simultaneously participates in a range of genres.  While K19: The Widowmaker (2002) is a military movie, The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s first war film. Its visceral, at times deeply sentimental, evocation of men at war - yet not in combat – figures male intimacy and masculine heroism in familiar generic terms.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Women's Library Under Threat – Campaign and Petition

Many of you will have heard that The Women's Library in London is facing
closure and transfer of its collections, or being reduced to operating a
skeleton service. London Metropolitan University have decided to attempt to
find a new home, owner or sponsor for its holdings, and will reduce the
service to one day per week if such a sponsor cannot be found by the end of

At the time of writing, nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition - set up
by a concerned member of staff at the University – to save The Women's
Library in its present form (thanks go to everyone who have already
signed). Its current home, opened in 2002, is purpose-built on the site of
an old wash-house in East London, and received a RIBA-award for its design.
It was opened due to the huge efforts and commitment of the Library's
Friends and supporters both inside and outside the University, and a £4m
grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. As well as housing the collections
and operating a Reading Room service, the building is a cultural centre
hosting exhibitions, talks, education projects and community events.

The Library was originally founded in 1926. The collections, now officially
Designated as 'collections of outstanding national and international
importance', were saved from dispersal by London Met's forerunner City
of London Polytechnic 35 years ago, and this February it should have been
celebrating ten years in its new home. In the lead-up to a major suffrage
anniversary in 2018, now is the time to be building on the Library's
successes, fundraising for, and celebrating this important asset – not
shutting it down or restricting public access.

London Met UNISON have initiated a campaign to save the Library, and are
seeking testimony from its users about the Library's importance. You can
find out more on their blog, follow the campaign on Twitter, and add your
name to the petition on the Care 2 website. There is also a 'Save The
Women's Library' group on Facebook.

The campaign has so far received coverage in The Guardian, Museums Journal,
and Islington Tribune.

You can find out more about The Women's Library on its website, and
Wikipedia page. Its supporters scheme is The Friends of The Women's

Please help spread the word about the threat to this key resource for our

Exciting season of British women's films at BFI Southbank, London

The British Film Institute, in association with Bird's Eye View, is running a season of films by contemporary British women filmmakers including Carol Morley, Joanna Hogg, Andrea Arnold, Gillian Wearing, Lucy Walker and Clio Barnard. It's called 'Made in Britain' and it runs until the end of April. Enjoy it if you can!

Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1993)

Melanie Williams

Bhaji on the Beach tells the story of a daytrip to Blackpool undertaken by the members of a Birmingham Asian Women’s Centre. Several of the women harbour secrets which are revealed over the course of the day: student Hashida is pregnant by her black boyfriend Oliver; frustrated shopkeeper Asha keeps having hallucinations; young wife Ginder is being physically abused by her husband Ranjit, who has followed the women to Blackpool to bring Ginder home, accompanied by his two brothers. Teenagers Ladhu and Madhu enjoy a brief holiday romance with two fast food vendors and Asha meets Ambrose, a gentlemanly actor who shows her some of the sights of the resort. Oliver and Hashida are reunited while the other women meet up at a male strip-club. Ranjit snatches his son and there is a violent confrontation between the women and the brothers, before the women finally make their way home in the minibus, with Ginder and her son being comforted by the group.

The seaside resort of Blackpool, that ‘great roaring spangled beast’ according to J. B. Priestly, has provided a vivid setting for many British films, from the Gracie Fields extravaganza Sing As We Go (1934) to the meditation on comedy Funny Bones (1995). In Bhaji on the Beach, as its title suggests, Blackpool provides the material for culture clash comedy, as a diverse group of Asian women enjoy its pleasures, from the innocent enjoyment of paddling in the sea and donkey rides to the rather more risqué delights of boob-shaped Blackpool rock and male strippers. However, the colourful opulence of the town also acts as a reminder that Britain is far from uniformly monochromatic and that sometimes perhaps the cultural distance between Blackpool and Bollywood is not so far.

Throughout the film, cultural hybridity is emphasised, via small touches such as the adding of masala spice to a bag of chips or the witty use of a Punjabi cover version of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ to accompany the minibus driving along the motorway. The film itself, in its yoking of Ealing-esque ensemble playing and Bollywood fantasy, speaks of the intermingling of cinematic traditions from Britain and India. Indeed, any attempts to adhere to a traditional monolithic identity prove impossible and ultimately undesirable, as when Asha is mocked by Mumbai sophisticate Reka for trying to be true to the ideals of the home country when that society has itself modernised beyond recognition. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the film’s hopes for multiculturalism comes from the romance of Hashida and Oliver, who look like they might be able to overcome the entrenched prejudices of their respective backgrounds, and whose embrace is blessed by the magical touch of the famous illuminations suddenly beginning to twinkle overhead.

Despite its comedic touches, Bhaji on the Beach retains a keen awareness of the racism which is ‘always around the corner’ according to director Gurinder Chadha, with a nasty stand-off between the women’s group and a group of thuggish men at a service station. Chadha and co-writer Meera Syal also provide a nuanced portrayal of an abusive marriage, refusing to present Ranjit as an outright villain and presenting his vulnerabilities, whilst never pulling their punches in showing his brutality towards Ginder and their son. In this subplot, along with that of downtrodden Asha who finally revolts against ‘duty, honour, sacrifice…what about me? I wasn’t meant for this’, Bhaji on the Beach triumphantly lives up to Chadha’s aim (for non-Asian viewers, at least) to ‘draw you in and make you care for my characters, and feel for them, and make you see that they’re not “other” any more’. Almost a decade elapsed between Bhaji and her next British feature, the highly successful Bend It Like Beckham (2002) but Chadha remains a pioneer of the new wave of British Asian cinema along with Hanif Kureshi, Ayub Khan-Din and Udayan Prasad, providing her own valuable and often humorous perspective on female identity.

Friday, 6 April 2012

A note on Vendetta Song (Eylem Kaftan, 2005)

Eylem Atakav

In Eylem Kaftan’s 2005 bio-documentary Vendetta Song a group of men are asked what honour means and one answers: “Honour is everything for Muslims. It is everything in Islam.” Vendetta Song is a significant film that calls for an analysis for its exploration of honour killings, gender inequalities, the traditional practice of arranged marriages and the semi-feudal social structure in Eastern Turkey within the context of Islamic tradition. The film problematizes the relations of the West to the East (both within and outside Turkey) as the narrative is structured as a travelogue of a woman travelling from Canada to Istanbul and then from Western to Eastern Turkey.
Religious values are significant determinants in cultural practices and customs in Turkey: honour crimes may not be religious but they are certainly religiously practiced. Indeed, violence shapes gender relations in various ways: both in reality and at the level of representation it resonates at different levels: verbal, physical, emotional. I raise three main questions here about the relationship between cinema and religion. The first question is: what can be said about the nature of the relationship between religion and tradition at the level of filmic representation? The second question is: why and how are honour crimes regarded as a customary practice of ‘the East’? And finally: how does Vendetta Song as a film which takes the previous two questions as its focus represent these complex links between the concepts of honour crimes, religion, patriarchal tradition, and ‘the East’? Honour crimes are generally associated with Islam and the East. However, there is in fact no intrinsic or necessary link between them.
Vendetta Song problematises the concepts of Islam and tradition whilst at the same time positioning honour crimes within an Eastern context. The film, on one hand, critiques gender politics through its feminist discourse and, on the other, attempts to deconstruct this misperceived connection between Islam and violence against women. Whilst doing so it also places emphasis on tradition rather than religion. The two are distinguished, and whilst it is accepted that they might intertwine, or that one might be overlaid on the other in practice, by thus distinguishing them, space is opened up for the possibility of critique. The tradition is a patriarchal tradition – and this is what the film focuses on. However, there is a serious issue whether the film, although it appears to want to draw this distinction between tradition and religion, succeeds in doing so clearly or consistently. Whether this is because of the aesthetic choices made in the film or whether it is a consequence of the self understanding of those filmed is another issue which needs to be carefully considered. Members of a society can subjectively (but falsely) believe that things which are not intrinsically linked are thus linked. The point, then, is that religion and culture or tradition are different categories and should be distinguished as such. The fact that a certain tradition or culture is largely based on religious practice in fact does not obscure this point. To conclude, I argue that tradition should not be thought of as justification to practices including honour crimes. To invoke tradition to justify a (violent) practice is not sufficient. Instead, institutional practices must be targeted to think about the reasons behind patriarchal discourses and violent practices.

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Melanie Williams

Andrea Arnold’s latest film is based on a book; you may have heard of it. Of course, when a film is an adaptation of a Great Novel that tends to dominate discussion of it, sometimes to the exclusion of all other factors. How faithful it is to the literary source, and how it tries to differentiate itself from previous famous adaptations of the same raw material become the key questions. But it’s worth pointing out that this critical territory is new for Arnold who made her name with intense, contemporary dramas based on original material such as Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) and so she is a newcomer to the world of ‘it wasn’t like that in the book’. She may not take up permanent residency there either; having stated in interviews that this is the only work of classic literature that she’s really been drawn to as a film subject. Wuthering Heights has proved an irresistible lure for more than one female creative artist – think of Kate Bush’s unique musical re-telling of Emily Bronte’s story. Arnold’s challenge was to be both true to the book and to her own vision - ‘I really wanted to honour Bronte’, she said, ‘Wuthering Heights is a strange, dark, and profound book and I wanted to honour that spirit. I made decisions that felt true to me but also true to the spirit of the book’ - a balancing act which she pulls off with impressive accomplishment.
Arnold and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed make the same editorial decision as the celebrated 1939 William Wyler film of Wuthering Heights – to chop out the material on the subsequent generations and to focus exclusively on the imagination-capturing central romance of Cathy and Heathcliff. Although this is a very rough-and-ready version; hard to imagine Olivier’s Heathcliff announcing to the gathered Lintons ‘you’re all cunts’ as James Howson’s Heathcliff does in this film. And this brings us to one of the most notable aspects of the film; its casting of two black actors, Howson and Solomon Glave, to play Heathcliff as man and boy. This choice makes explicit something which is hinted at but never said directly in Emily Bronte’s original novel: she describes the character variously as ‘dark-skinned gypsy’, a ‘Spanish castaway’, and ‘little Lascar’, indicating South Asian ethnic origin. Previously the role had always been played by white actors but usually emphasising a dark, brooding quality. But in this version, what the book might have been implying is given definite substance on the screen. In a way, it makes sense of a lot of things; the extreme social exclusion and prejudice suffered by Heathcliff (the scenes in which he is stripped and stabled like an animal in the film speak to this, as does Hindley Earnshaw’s insistence on calling him nigger) and the interdictions on a relationship between him and Cathy which are no longer just about class anxieties but the taboo of miscegenation.
At the beginning of the film we see Howson running at and slamming into a wall on which are scrawled the childish scribbles and drawings of his younger self and young Cathy. He’s trying to get back there, to smash through the border between present and past. Cathy and Heathcliff’s allegiance, poised between platonic and sexual just as the two children are poised on the cusp of adolescence, provided the only moments of solace and warmth in his otherwise harsh youth. Arnold refuses any kind of heritage prettification of the story; instead bringing to bear on it the sensibility she had honed in her previous contemporary-set films. It’s certainly a very elemental film, and you get a real sense of the cold, the damp, the rain and (especially) the wind besetting the Yorkshire landscape. The camera dwells on miraculous growth, flowers in the cracks, green shoots springing from boggy mires, nature’s persistent fecundity. It also suggests the sensuality of certain moments, as with Heathcliff’s first ride on horseback behind Cathy; the mingling of the textures of warm horsehair and Cathy’s windblown tresses, and the gentle sounds emanating from of the horse’s slow progress across the moor and its insistent quasi-sexual rocking motion, all conspire to make this a memory seared into Heathcliff’s mind for all time. Likewise the play fight in the mud which seems to mark the point when latent sexuality becomes a tangible (and dangerous) possibility.
Meanwhile, the attractions for Cathy of marrying into the wealthy Lintons are made plain by the contrast between her bare farmhouse and the elegant décor of the home she marries into, a contrast as striking as the fleshy young hoyden who grows up into a fine-boned beauty (played by Skins’ Kaya Scodelario). But this is a tragic story, not a positive tale of female social mobility. Cathy is haunted by the loss of Heathcliff and goes into terminal decline when he returns years later, a wealthy self-made man, and sadistically elopes with her sister-in-law, just to prove that he can. Cathy had admitted to her old housekeeper that Heathcliff was ‘my soul’ as they sat together in the intimacy of firelight, unaware that Heathcliff was also hidden in the room, overhearing her confession (spying from a concealed position is a recurrent Arnold motif). But the soulmates still can’t overcome the impediments to their love; they never make it back to their childhood idyll, at least not in this life. The other Bronte adaptation of 2011, Cary Fukunaga and Moira Buffini’s Jane Eyre (indications of a mini Bronte boom?), concludes on a happier note with its couple reunited. No such solace is offered in Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s film is a radical take on Emily Bronte’s novel but its bruising brutality and insistence on the primacy of the senses serves its source material very well.