Filmsamstag: An evening of feminist German film

The silence was deafening as an audience of eager students waited for a unique film program to begin.  Following a brief introduction to the lives and careers of three practically unheard of women filmmakers, Ute Aurand simply said, “We’ll just start.” That was how an unprecedented screening of nearly three hours of German experimental films began.

“Three German Filmmakers, Three Decades of Filmmaking” introduced an audience of Mount Holyoke students and faculty, as well as Five College students, to renowned Berlin filmmakers Aurand, Milena Gierke and Renate Sami.

Since 1997, the women have presented their work together.  As founding members of Filmsamstag (Film-Saturday), a unique curatorial collective that operated from 2000-2007, they boast a common interest in avant-garde, feminist and documentary cinema.  But what drives their work is a commitment to the diary film.

The diary film is an unheard-of concept outside the realm of avant-garde cinema. These films are often compelling examinations of daily life and explorations of the world surrounding the filmmakers. As Gierke explained, “Making any film is personal…[It is] my point of view, not yours, mine.”

Gierke, as well as Aurand and Sami, use different formats and methods to depict their view of reality and to create unique diary films.

In the program screened at Mount Holyoke there was a mix of 16mm, digital and Super 8 film.  The complexity and beauty of the images explored through these mediums is heightened by an overwhelming absence of sound and an insistence that Dwight 101 be pitch dark.  Emma Scarloss ’10 said, “I enjoyed that they [the films] were all different; some more experimental, some more documentary.”

What is perhaps most interesting is that, as Aurand and Gierke noted, the context of their work changes depending on the audience.  The unexpected presence of the American folk song, “City of New Orleans,” in Sami’s Film Diary, 1975-1985, confused many audience members and believed it contributed to a deeper, political meaning within the film.

The screenings atmosphere echoed the collective spirit of Filmsamstag; it was the first Five College film studies event since the major was created in 2006. The overwhelming student presence and response to the program implies that more Five College film events will be a tremendous success for the film department.

“Films From Three Decades” is being screened at the Goethe-Insitut in New York on Oct. 11-12.  For more information visit www.goethe.de/ins/us/ney.

Published: October 9, 2008
The Mount Holyoke News

The unusual experience of Parallel Lives

Two supreme beings stand before us, creating the world as we know it. They construct man and woman, establish the power dynamic that exists between the sexes, and then proceed to watch over the society they have formed. This is the opening scene of Parallel Lives.

Originally a two-woman show written and performed by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy in 1986, Parallel Lives is a series of vignettes that address and poke fun at topics including abortion, menstruation, sexuality, gay rights and gender and family relationships. Hannah Scarritt-Selman ’09, Rosie O’Shea ’11 and Leah Minchello ’08 have reworked Gaffney and Najimy’s Parallel Lives.

Director Scarritt-Selman first worked on the play when it was her senior project in high school. “I wanted to look at this piece again from a different perspective and with different elements,” she explains. Using improvisation, a fourteen-member cast, dance, and music Parallel Lives is updated for today’s audience. “We cut a lot from the original play,” explains assistant director O’Shea, “[It] is a little dated in terms of where they were in terms of Aids, gay rights, abortion.” By making the scenes more lighthearted, it allows for the subject matter to be more affecting.

Improvisation has reshaped this production of Parallel Lives. It provides unexpected moments of humor about everything from love and homophobia to sex and tampons. The cast are primarily members of Mount Holyoke’s improv group, The Usual Suspects and their expert ability to improvise scenes is seen throughout the show. “We told the actors early on they could do whatever they want [when] improvising the characters.” says Scarritt-Selman. “Every moment in the show is different each time they do it and I think that’s really exciting for them.”

Like improvisation, music is incorporated throughout the play to offer a new way of looking at Parallel Lives and in a greater sense, the world. The music is all mashups, combining everything from hip-hop, indie rock to Broadway show tunes. It pulls the seemingly unrelated scenes together in a way that provides an abstract reading of the world. “The idea of using mashups in the show gets to the whole idea of bringing things together in a unified sense,” explains Scarritt-Selman. “What we’re doing in the show is providing a new way of looking at the show and this a new way of looking at the music.”

Reworking Parallel Lives in the way Scarritt-Selman and O’Shea could be viewed as removing relevant social commentary from the original and highly feminist work. As Scarritt Selman explains, “I think that it is [a feminist play] and I’m proud that it is. I think it deals with a lot of the same issues as [the original], but in a way I’m more comfortable dealing with it”. O’Shea agrees, “It’s not about making it [the play] less feminist. Improvisation and music in this sense are used to draw attention to difficult subject matter in a different light.

Parallel Lives for Scarritt-Selman also “I want it to be fun for the audience because it is fun for the cast. I want people to dance in their seats and to sing along if they want.”

Parallel Lives is sponsored by Project Theater. Performances are on Thursday April 14 through Saturday April 16 at 8pm and on Sunday April 17 at 3pm. To reserve tickets email: ptboxoffice@gmail.com or parallel.lives.tix@gmail.com

Published: April 17, 2008
The Mount Holyoke News

Confessions of a Film Snob

Spring is Hollywood’s worst time of the year. The Oscar favorites make their final appearances at art-house cinemas until anxious film buffs and wannabe film enthusiasts can add these films to their Netflix queue. Meanwhile, Hollywood executives attempt to force movies that are conventional, gag-filled and quite possibly detrimental to my health.

Just this weekend, the first one of Spring, I was subjected to the possibility of seeing Shutter, a remake of a Japanese horror film, Meet the Browns, another Tyler Perry monstrosity, and Drillbit Taylor, another Judd Apatow-produced movie.

When I think about March, April and May’s upcoming movie releases, I cringe in agony. It is as though Hollywood executives think I actually believe that a Roger Ebert movie review is the holy grail of film criticism.

Although someone might give these movies four stars or two-thumbs up, here are the certifiable duds to avoid:

Run Fat Boy Run – March 28 – Meet Dennis. He’s fat. He smokes. He dumped his pregnant girlfriend at the alter. But he’s a nice and charming fella who wants to fix his mistakes. So he’s bonding with his son and trying to win back his ex, Teresa. Only problem is she’s dating the not fat, seemingly-charming-but-deep-down-a-jerk, Whit. Gee, I wonder who she picks.

Nim’s Island – April 4 – It’s the first fantasy movie of Spring and the kiddies will certainly be lining up at multiplexes across the country. With the tagline “anything can happen on Nim’s Island”, there is bound to be some adventure and a heartwarming coming-of-age story. It pains me to say this, but I’d rather see the next Chronicles of Narnia Installment in May. And Jodie Foster is in it which is unfortunate for Jodie Foster who probably wishes it was still the early 90s.

Sex and the City: The Movie – May 30 – Four women named Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda get together in New York City and talk about their sex lives. How thrilling. Apparently Sex and the City was some television show before it was a movie. Somewhere George Cukor and Douglas Sirk are rolling in their graves.

I’m desperately waiting for June 21, when the Hollywood blockbusters come out in full force and knowing that September is just around the corner gets me excited for cinema’s best treasures.

Film Snob out.

Published: March 27, 2008
The Mount Holyoke News

Review: The Darjeeling Limted (2007)

Director Wes Anderson’s body of work presents something of an enigma. Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenebaums (2001) are critical delights, with Tenebaums even earning Anderson an Academy Award nomination. Following the success of Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums, his first feature film, Bottle Rocket (1996), has since become a cult classic. Yet, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) was poorly received by audiences and critics alike. (Richard Roeper called it “one of the most irritating, self-conscious and smug films of the year, working neither as a dark comedy nor a character study.”

Following many successes and one small disappointment (and people only seem to remember failures), Anderson’s next film needed to remind critics and audiences alike why he has been a celebrated auteur.

The Darjeeling Limited does just that. Once again Anderson uses his unique filmmaking style to tell an unconventional story about family, love, and life’s many oddities.

The Whitman brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), estranged since their fathers death the previous year, reunite for a six week train trip throughout India. Each brother has their own problems: Francis recently attempted to commit suicide, Peter is trapped by the image of their dead father, and Jack cannot forget a woman he last saw in Paris. Francis sees this trip as an opportunity for the brothers to reconnect with each other, their mother (played by Anjelica Huston) and themselves. Bill Murray, Kumar Pallana and Natalie Portman all make cameo appearances in the film.

Anderson’s distinctive style is frequently influenced by great filmmakers, artists, and writers; he incorporates the slightest elements from their works to help create his own unique brand of filmmaking. Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.D. Salinger are just some of the artists Anderson has stated as his major influences.

The films of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray inspired Anderson to choose India as the location for The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson sets important scenes (such as when Francis declares “We have yet to locate us!”, after the train gets off-course) in the same locations Ray used in The Golden Fortress (1974) and he uses Ray’s

original score to structure key scenes in The Darjeeling Limited.

The aesthetics expected from a Wes Anderson production: eccentric but flawed characters, dark humor, unusual costuming, exceptional music, and quirky stories, are ever present. Yet by setting the film in India, one of the most gorgeous and profound locations in the world, adds a new aesthetic element to a Wes Anderson production.

Through the brothers’ unusual journey and use of Indian culture to rediscover life, The Darjeeling Limited becomes a metaphor for a way to figuratively and literally leave your baggage behind. With this film Anderson broadens his usual interpretation of reality, making The Darjeeling Limited his most mature and interesting film to date.

While not a perfect film, The Darjeeling Limited indicates that Wes Anderson’s next production could be his best yet. And I’m looking forward to it.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
November 1, 2007

Updated October 20, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

If you were to watch every Alfred Hitchcock film, it would take you approximately three days, fifteen hours, and twenty two minutes. While this is not an impossible task, the thought of watching 54 feature films can be quite daunting.

Alfred Hitchcock’s career spans five decades, beginning during the silent era in England and lasting until the 1970s. Initially seen as just a showman because of tricks used to shock audiences, Alfred Hitchcock’s work was not revered until the late 1960s. His films are undeniably complex, combining suspense, thrills, disturbing concepts, romance, music, and humor to create timeless works.

So when organizing an Alfred Hitchcock movie night, what do you watch? Do you start with The Lodger, a 1927 silent film or The Lady Vanishes, a 1938 spy thriller? Or maybe Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s first Hollywood feature? You can also choose between Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), or Rope! (1948). Then there are the Hitchcock classics: Strangers on a Train, The Birds, Psycho, North by Northwest and Rear Window.

It took a while, but I’ve selected three films that are perfect for a fun evening with the Master of Suspense.

The 39 Steps: The Early Thriller

The 39 Steps, released in 1935, is the film that earned Hitchcock recognition in the United States. The 39 Steps also establishes key Hitchcockian elements, such as an innocent man on the run (later perfected in North by Northwest), a blonde leading lady, and an unexpected conclusion. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) has been accused of murdering Annabella, a spy (Lucie Mannheim). She discovered a plot to steal British military secrets by an espionage group called, “The 39 Steps”. Although in hiding, Hannay, with the assistance of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), the typical Hitchcockian woman, must reveal Annabella’s discovery before they too become victims. The 39 Steps is an exciting film that uses the medium to craft an intriguing spy thriller.

The Trouble With Harry: A Comedy of Sorts

Hitchcock always incorporated humor in his films and The Trouble With Harry best shows Hitchcock’s slightly off-kilter sense of humor. You see, the trouble with Harry is that he’s dead, and the quirky residents of a small Vermont town don’t know what to do with his body. Shirley MacLaine stars as Harry’s ex-wife, Jennifer, in this 1955 dark comedy that is one of his most unusual films. The dialogue is very tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes quite surprising for its time. At one point, Jennifer says, “He looked exactly the same when he was alive, only he was vertical.” The Trouble With Harry marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann, who would collaborate with Hitchcock on eight films.

Vertigo: The Masterpiece

Gorgeous images, James Stewart and Kim Novak’s powerful performances, and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score in Vertigo will change your life. While Psycho (1960) may be Hitchcock’s most popular movie, it is Vertigo, a tragically wonderful film that is Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Released in 1958, Vertigo must be seen two or three times before its complex exploration of human nature is even somewhat understood. John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart), a retired San Francisco detective suffers from acrophobia. He is hired as a private detective to follow Madeleine (Novak), who is supposedly possessed by a spirit. Scottie develops an obsession with Madeline that is oddly beautiful, disturbing, and perplexing to watch. But once the film’s plot seems established, Hitchcock throws out a curveball that only generates more mystifying questions and creates a cinematic wonder.

Published: The Mount Holyoke News
Reprinted with permission
October 25, 2007