Category Archives: Female Film Directors

Little Women (2019)

Last December when the marketing campaign for Little Women began — see it bros or you’re sexist — I tried to buy a ticket on Christmas Day, not so much to prove my “woke,” male feminist credentials, but simply because it was the least objectionable movie playing in the newly restored Cranford Theater down the street from my house. I have no intention of seeing The Rise of Skywalker. The good news for feminists and Elizabeth Warren supporters everywhere is that it was sold out, not in hipster Brooklyn, but in the deep, dark cultural waste land that is suburban New Jersey.

While Little Women may not appeal to the white Boomer out in Trumplandia with a “Make America Great” bumper sticker on his Ford-150, or to working class black women in Newark and West Philadelphia, it’s actually a pretty good movie. Directed by Greta Gerwig, who also directed 2017’s Ladybird and starred in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Little Women is beautifully photographed. The cast, is almost uniformly excellent, even Timothée Chalamet, who in spite of occasionally looking a bit like a member of a boy band who accidentally wandered onto the set, makes the most of his underwritten part. The non-linear timeline, while occasionally confusing to someone who hasn’t read the book, doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but it is essential to the issues Gerwig’s interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is trying to explore.

I’m not sure exactly why I’ve never read Little Women — it was sitting on my bookshelf for decades but if I had to guess, I’d say it subconsciously triggered in my mind an association with the 1970s TV show Little House on the Prairie, which was dreary Koch Brothers libertarian propaganda wrapped up in hazy nostalgia for our hardscrabble existence on the American frontier. Louisa May Alcott, however, was no Laura Ingalls Wilder, a vicious racist who celebrated the white man’s colonization of land recently stolen from the ethnically cleansed Lakota Sioux. On the contrary, Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott was not only an important figure in the New England Renaissance, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, he was a militant abolitionist who helped lead riots against the Fugitive Slave Act. Unfortunately for his children, however, he was also a working-class intellectual with no inherited money, and very little inclination to work his way into a more practical career. Consequently, while very much a part of the educated elite, Louisa May Alcott grew up in poverty, genuine poverty where she and her sisters rarely had good clothes or enough to eat.

While poverty is an issue in Gerwig’s Little Women, it’s not the kind of poverty Louisa May Alcott experienced growing up in 19th Century Concord. Rather, it’s the kind of poverty a middle-class white girl would face in hipster Brooklyn. The rent is too damned high. You never have quite enough money. You can never buy the things you really want. You look at your rich neighbors — especially that cute boy with the big trust fund —with a mixture of admiration and envy. You constantly wonder what you really want to do with your life. If Ladybird was Frances Ha the Teen Years, then Little Women is Ladybird on the Prairie, well not exactly the prairie, but you get the idea. Louisa May Alcott’s “little women,” who were all teenage girls from age 11 to age 16, have all become woman well into their 20s. The United States Civil War, an important part of the novel, has largely been written out of the story. Two of the sisters, Jo March, the book’s narrator played by the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, and Amy March, the youngest played by the English actress Florence Pugh, dominate the movie, although the oldest sister Meg, played by the English actress Emma Watson, is a quiet presence in the background with a compelling, realistic story.

(If I’m pointing out the fact that none of the March sisters is played by an American actress it’s partly to praise their acting. Saoirse Ronan, who annoys me in her native Irish brogue, is far more attractive as an American. When the March sisters put on one of Jo’s plays, and pretend to be British, they sound like Americans clumsily pretending to be British, not like British, Irish and Australian actors letting themselves slip back into their native speech patterns.)

America in 2019, while different, is still the same civilization as America in 1868. If you put Jo March or Louisa May Alcott in a time machine and dropped either of them off in modern day Brooklyn, or Concord Massachusetts, they’d certainly appreciate the vastly expanded opportunities for young, single women, but I doubt either of them would experience significant culture shock. Greta Gerwig was actually raised as a Unitarian Universalist, the church Bronson Alcott helped found. Gerwig’s decision, therefore, to frame the issue of marriage in terms of the 2010s — as a liberated woman’s anxiety over whether or not she should marry the cute boy with the big trust fund or live up to the promise she made to herself as a teenager to live her life independent of men — instead of in terms of the 1860s —- marry the first man you can find with a decent manners and a respectable career or end up as a miserable spinster — makes sense dramatically. Florence Pugh’s Amy’s passionate declaration to Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie — the cute boy with the big trust fund — that marriage is indeed an economic and not a romantic dilemma still holds true in the United States of 2020, but certainly not to the same extent as it did in 1868. The difference between the two is part of what the film is trying to make us think about, and I think it largely succeeds.

Little Women opens in 1868 in a publisher’s office in New York City. Jo March, now in her mid-20s, is sitting in a chair opposite a severe, elderly man, who’s flipping through a short story she submitted for publication. He laughs, makes a few corrections, offers her twenty dollars, a significant bit of money for 1868, and asks her what name she’d like it published under. When she tells him she doesn’t care, that she’s writing to make money, not to make her name artistically, we realize that the difference in the social position of the write in 1868 from the social position of the writer in 2019 is probably much bigger than the difference in the status of young, single women. Indeed, the old man who accepts Jo’s story isn’t looking for high art. He wants trashy, sensationalist fiction, albeit with a happy ending, that he can sell as popular entertainment. In 2019, Jo probably has fewer opportunities as an artist than she did in 1868. These days, without a degree from the right Ivy League school, the right unpaid internships, and the right circle of friends in Brooklyn or LA, nobody’s going publish your novel. Four major corporations, including Sony and Disney, control almost all of the cultural output Americans are willing to pay for. Back in New York City in 1868, almost anybody could start a newspaper or a literary magazine. There were quite literally thousands of ways you could break into print.

(Note: Gerwig’s Little Women was distributed by Sony.)

After dashing back to her boarding house, running wildly through the streets in a clear homage to the Modern Love scene in Gerwig’s earlier movie Frances Ha, which in turn was an homage to the French director’s Leos Carax’s film Mauvais Sang, Jo returns to a letter from her mother. Beth, the youngest March sister, who has long struggled with a weak respiratory system brought on by a childhood bout of Scarlett Fever, is now on her deathbed.  Jo’s post-collegiate life in hipster Brooklyn, including a budding romance with a handsome but pompous young French intellectual — Is there any other kind? — played by Louis Garrel from Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers, will have to be put on hold. Like her older sister Jo, Amy March, played by the Australian actress Eliza Scanlen, is an aspiring artist, in her case a musician. In fact, all but one of the March sisters are all artists. Jo is a writer. Beth is a pianist, Amy is an aspiring painter. Jo wants Meg, the oldest, and supposedly the prettiest, to become an actress, but Meg is also the most traditional. She wants to be a wife and a mother.

Beth’s dramatic arc, while overshadowed by Jo’s and Amy’s, is also the most revealing. Back in 1861, while their father was away serving as a chaplain in Mr. Lincoln’s army, the March sisters were about to celebrate Christmas with a large, Christmas breakfast. Their mother “Marmee,” however, played by Laura Dern, one of the most versatile actresses from my own “Boomer X” generation, returns home to offer them what amounts to both a moral challenge and a moral obligation. Would they donate the rich Christmas feast to a family of poor German immigrants, including six children, who live nearby in a miserable little shack? Of course they do. How could they say no? The scene is quite revealing, and not particularly flattering, about Greta Gerwig’s views on class. The poor immigrants, while grateful for the food, do not speak. While Louisa May Alcott may have written the scene as an attempt to cover up her family’s own desperate poverty — if you have food to give away you’re not on the bottom of society — for Greta Gerwig, the impoverished German immigrants are not only a mute “other,” they are a death sentence for the saintly Beth, who throughout her teenage years continues to bring the children food, and eventually contracts the disease that will eventually kill her.

The portrayal of the desperately poor immigrants is in fact an example of how the film’s fractured timeline and setting in the 19th Century allows Gerwig, probably subconsciously,  to smuggle a reactionary narrative arc into an otherwise progressive film. Back in the 1860s, the immigrant “other” was German and Irish, exactly like Gerwig herself, but in 2020 nobody’s going to see fair skinned northern Europeans as the “other.” Try to imagine, however, if Gerwig had set her Little Women in the 2010s and Beth contracted a disease, not from German but from Central American immigrants. Woke Twitter would immediately call for her cancellation. Janet Maslin would call for a boycott. “Ladies. Don’t let your boyfriends see this racist film.” Donald Trump would declare it a masterpiece, and all over the rust belt and the south dudes with Ford F150s and women in red, Make America Great hats would flood the theaters shouting “build that wall.”

I’m not saying, of course, that Greta Gerwig is a racist. Quite the contrary, she is exploring the relationship between poverty and the artistic imagination. One of the film’s most clever images is the proximity between the grand mansion of the wealthy Laurence family to the middle-class house of the March family, who live in the ragged edge of the middle class, and the miserable little shack of the diseased immigrants. Beth is not only an aspiring pianist, she’s an incredibly talented one. Laurie’s wealthy but kindly old grandfather, Mr. Laurence played by Chris Cooper, had earlier in his life lost his own daughter to a similar illness. When he offers Beth the opportunity to use his late daughter’s piano, and she sits down and plays a difficult etude by Chopin, she’s clearly no aspiring musician, but a full fledged concert pianist. She’s only 13 years old and the March family doesn’t own a piano? Where did she learn how to play so well? We don’t ask. Neither does Mr. Laurence. The scene is magical, almost as if the ghost of Mr. Laurence’s late daughter had never died, but had instead graduated from some sort of heavenly Julliard, and returned to haunt him in the form Beth March. Sadly, Mr. Laurence’s joy is short lived for almost as soon as he decides to give her the piano outright, he notices that she is “burning up,” already suffering from the Scarlett Fever that will eventually kill her. Indeed, while the idea that you can become a great pianist without any practice at all seems reactionary — you either have talent or you don’t — Beth’s career as a musician is taken away by poverty almost as soon as it becomes possible. Nobody comes out and says “damn those poor immigrants and those poor immigrant diseases that deprived us of a great concert pianist.” The film, however, expresses a fairly universal truth. Poverty kills the artistic imagination.

Amy March, the toughest and probably the smartest of the March sisters, also has the most realistic character arc. An aspiring painter, she travels to Europe as a companion to their Aunt March, Meryl Streep, and studies painting in Rome and Paris. Amy, however, realizes that while may have some basic proficiency in drawing and painting, she will never have genius, never be able to express what she really wants. She briefly considers a loveless marriage with some handsome rich guy, who we never really meet, but long time family friend Laurie — the cute boy with the huge trust fund played by Timothée Chalamet who had earlier proposed to and been rejected by Jo — passionately urges her to marry him instead. Amy initially says no. She’s sick of playing second fiddle to Jo, especially when she’s loved Laurie since her childhood, but their eventual marriage is inevitable and logical. Indeed, after Amy explains to Laurie how marriage is an economic, not a romantic institution, it’s difficult to see why she would continue to reject him. If, as she says, a woman has no options other than marriage, and if she doesn’t want to pursue a life as an artist, why indeed would she reject the cute boy with the kindly, generous grandfather and the huge trust fund she’s loved every since they were children? Of course they get married. Not to would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face and Amy is much too smart for that. She gets to have her cake and eat it too, to live happily ever after with her childhood friend, the cute boy with the huge trust fund. Yes, he drinks a little too much and doesn’t seem to be serious about his career, but clearly these aren’t insurmountable obstacles. It’s impossible to believe that the angelically handsome Timothée Chalamet drinks too much anyway. Just take the happy ending Amy. Then go on to act in Marvel comic book super hero movies and make the big bucks. Don’t feel too guilty about stealing your sister’s boyfriend. You already torched her first novel then fell through the ice to make her feel guilty. What more can you do?

Jo, in spite of herself, also has a happy ending. It’s not that she actually wants one. Jo would prefer to martyr herself to a life of artistic struggle, but alas she gets lucky. Aunt March leaves Jo her grand mansion, which is probably worth a pretty penny these days in suburban Boston, and she writes the novel Little Women in a burst of inspiration. The severe, elderly publisher, initially unwilling to publish it, asks for more trashy short stories, but his three daughters will have none of it. Buy that book, they demand, “we want to know what happens to the little women.” Jo returns home to open a progressive, coeducational school in the grand house — Bronson Alcott wrote extensively on the idea of a school system with no corporal punishment or any kind of punitive discipline — and then finds its first faculty member. It’s the handsome, but pompous French intellectual from Act I, who had handsomely and pompously told her to stop writing trashy short stories and find herself as an artist, and had  been heartbroken over her sudden disappearance from their boarding house in New York City. Now he’s come up to Massachusetts to track her down. Jo is initially cold and distant, and he initially intends to head to California, “where they don’t hate immigrants so much,” and Jo really wants to live up to her youthful ideal of living her life without a man, but just about everybody, her sisters, her other, Mr. Laurence and Laurie, even her publisher, persuade her to run after him and declare her love. She does. They’re a perfect couple.

(Note: In the novel the handsome young Frenchman is a bumbling middle-aged German but screw that. A viral young Justin Trudeau lookalike with a sexy five o’clock shadow and a mass of curly black hair makes for a much better happy ending than some doddery old Kraut.)

In the end Jo March is forced by everybody she loves into a anti-feminist happy ending.

Leave No Trace (2018)

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D.H. Lawrence’s observation that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” that “it has never yet melted,” has always been obvious to everybody but Americans. Like all predators, we see ourselves, not as hunters, but as the hunted. In reality, we’ve always been both. For an Iraqi, a Vietnamese, or a Korean, a U.S. Marine or an American soldier means little except death and destruction. That same apex predator, returning home, however, often finds himself living on the streets, haunted by what he has done for his country, unable to assimilate back into the society whose “freedom” he was supposedly guarding.

Deborah Granik’s Leave No Trace opens with Will, a man who appears to be about 40, living in Forest Park just outside of Portland Oregon with his teenage daughter “Tom.” We seem them chopping wood, starting a fire using a pair of flints, going into town to buy food, setting up, then breaking down their campsite, and, above all, taking precautions to camouflage themselves, to “leave no trace,” lest they be discovered, and separated. At first glance, it seems like an idyllic existence. They have everything they need. They obviously love each other. They have successfully broken free from the American rat race. When Tom carelessly reveals their presence, and they are chased through the woods by Park Rangers with dogs, we’re horrified. We think of escaped slaves and slave catchers, or native Americans running away from the inevitable encroachment of European civilization, and genocide.

The strength of Granik’s script, and her direction, is how she slowly, methodically, and with a careful attention to detail, reveals just how mistaken we are. Even in the very beginning we have our suspicions. There’s no hint of sexual abuse or incest. Will and Tom are a loving father and daughter who care deeply about each other, who have such an easy, intuitive rapport that they complete each other’s sentences and finish each other’s chores, and yet we still wonder why a teenage girl would want to live such an isolated existence, not able to go to school, have friends, own a cat or dog , or plan for the future. The police, of course, are police, and yet “the authorities” are anything but oppressors. The social workers and family services people who take Will and Tom under their control genuinely want to help them reintegrate themselves back into society. Father and daughter are not separated. On the contrary, they’re given a place to stay in rural Oregon and Will is given a job.

It’s here we see their perspectives begin to diverge. Tom likes their new home. She meets a boy her age, and they bond over a common love of animals. A performance art group at a local church instructs her in how to use props. Social services gives her a bike, and she begins to learn how to ride. Will, however, despises his job. He begins to grow possessive of his daughter. He feels dependent and alienated, suspecting that he and Tom are being softened up by social services in order to subject them to a greater degree of control later on. At this point, we don’t quite know what to think. Granik skillfully validates both their points of view. After Tom’s new friend takes her to a 4H meeting, where some other teenage girls are learning how to handle small farm animals, we realize that she’s a natural. She doesn’t have to be taught how to pick up a large rabbit. She already knows. She makes friends easily with kids her own age. Older people want to offer her advice and guidance. She wants to stay and we want to see her stay. When Will forces her to leave, for the first time, we’re angry at him, and yet we also see the world through his eyes. Whether or not its intentional on Granik’s part, the scenes of Will at work harvesting Christmas trees recall The Devil Probably, Robert Bresson’s great film about environmental destruction. We feel his alienation when he’s forced to fill out paperwork, and take useless psychological examinations. We know something’s eating this guy. He knows it. His daughter certainly knows it, and it’s obvious that no multiple choice test on a computer is going to help him figure it out.

As the film proceeds we begin to realize what we’ve suspected all along. Will is not only an Iraq War vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he’s probably suicidal, haunted by something that he did, or perhaps didn’t do, but, above all, hunted, on the run, unable to stop, even for a second, lest his demons catch up and destroy him. We now find ourselves on the outside looking out. To be more specific, we find ourselves looking at him through his daughter’s eyes. Will has, half intentionally – for she’s his only connection to the world of the living – but half unintentionally trapped Tom in his own private hell, pulled her along on his flight from his invisible predators. We realize along with Tom, that if she’s going to survive, she might just have to let him die. It’s a choice nobody, let alone a teenage girl, should have to make. Tom wants to hold on as long as possible, to be his one and only connection to humanity, for as long as she’s able to bear it. In the end, being human, she can’t, so she lets go. The final scene is not only as heartbreaking as anything I’ve seen recently in film, it’s so subtle and low key, you’ll miss it if you even blink.

The Avant-Garde, Zeenat Aman

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The cinema of the 70s is often termed as an era that marveled the art of pop culture reorientation. A decade that immersed itself in the chaos of coming of age screenplay and ever inspired music ensemble, the flights of imagination was anything but predictable. It was during this period that Hindi cinema saw the rise of its one of the most ground-breaking actress, a gifted performer and a formidable fashion icon – Zeenat Aman. The characters that she adorned were unafraid of juxtapositions and oozed liberation that was rarely seen in the public eye. From being an adultress in Dhund (Obsession) to a cheerful prostitute in Manoranjan (Entertainment), Zeenat Aman redefined narratives of gender roles in not only Hindi cinema but also in the entire urban Indian society. A former Miss Asia Pacific (1970), she was the first South Asian woman to win this coveted title. Even though her acting skills were second to none, Zeenat Aman had sealed her name in the history of Indian cinema for her unparalleled contribution in revolutionizing the use of fashion in Hindi movies.

The looks adorned by the lady swing across the spectrum of avant-garde fashion. She had never ceased to reinvent herself and often pushed the boundaries of artistic expression by her V-neck hem slit evening gowns or her infamous Boho looks. This post is a tribute to some of the most foresighted, coming of age and classical fashion statements of the woman that charmed the 70s and cemented her position in the pop culture.

  1. The Boho Chick

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Dubbed as her first block-burster hit, Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) paved the way for Zeenat’s towering success. What began as a role received by fluke, later unraveled into a timeless performance that got her the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, and most importantly, her perennial place in the pop culture.

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Playing the role of a girl separated from her family who subsequently slips into drug addiction, the character of Janice was unconventional for her period but beheld potential for a memorable performance. And for the visionary as she was, she delivered, and delivered with utmost excellence.

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2. The Girl with a Guitar 

When Zeenat Aman held a guitar to belt out a soothing lullaby for her lover in Yaadon Ki Baraat (The caravan of memories), she gave us a melody of a generation. The climatic progression of the music with the innocent smile decorating her face, Chura Liya Hai (Now that you’ve stolen my heart) is the musical beauty of the highest order. Apart form its melodious supremacy, it was this long white gown that etched Zeenat Aman in every man’s heart for years to come. Complementing that look with a choker necklace, she added one more feather to her overtly decorated hat of fashion laurels.

3. The Femme Fatale 

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Although, every song of Zeenat Aman has been a masterpiece in its own right, there is one song that not only concreted her as a superstar but also reflected her ideas of empowerment through sexual liberation. In Laila Main Laila (Laila, I’m Laila), a song that has been subsequently covered by a dozen singers and actresses, Zeenat Aman unleashes her femme fatale and explodes into the space where she adheres to no boundaries, rising above the artificial constructions of gender roles.

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In Aap Jaisa Koi (Someone Like You) and Don, she takes her seduction to next level and amalgamates it with her impeccable acting skills to deliver the critically acclaimed performances as a cabaret dancer and a villain respectively.

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Zeenat Aman had metamorphosed into a multi faceted performer who freed herself from the fear of being judged for her decisions. She pushed the limits of visual representation in Hindi cinema and became an icon for all the actresses that followed. Apart from her mounting commercial successes, she was critically well received for her depiction of a rape victim in Insaaf Ka Taraazu (The Scales of Justice). She was translated as a visionary, an artistic maverick, and a farsighted actress for her coming of age role of a cheerful hooker in Manoranjan (Entertainment). With more than half a ton movies on her name, Zeenat Aman was and will always be the first and the most beloved diva  of Hindi cinema.

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From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

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Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

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Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

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The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

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Picture Credits: British Film Institute

City of God (2002)

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In 1960, as a part of an ongoing campaign of “slum clearance,” the Brazilian state of Guanabara built a large housing project on the west of Rio de Janeiro. The settlement, also known as Cidade de Deus, the City of God, eventually became a dumping ground for the underclass of Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Flint, Michigan or Lowell, Massachusetts, the “City of God” was built, not to house “workers,” but people who had no place in the economy. The result, as Paulo Lins dramatized in his semi-autobiographical, 1997 novel The City of God, was a suburb of 30,000 people ruled small gangs of, mostly young, drug-dealers and petty, organized criminals. By 2009, violence in the City of God had gotten so out of control that it was occupied by a “Police Pacifying Unit.”

City of God, the 2002 film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, is an adaptation of Paulo Lin’s novel. It has an almost legendary status on the American left, and among American film critics, as being one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m not sure why exactly it took me so long to finally getting around to watching it, but I would largely concur. Filmed with a remarkable degree of innovative skill, socially progressive and relevant, violently beautiful, it’s easily one of the best movies of the 2000s.

Lund and Meirelles, like all great directors, know how to grab the viewer by the throat and not let go until they’ve made us, not only understand, but experience what they want us to see. There were times watching City of God when I was tempted to think that every other film I’ve ever watched about the poor was wooden, sentimental, and irrelevant, that I wasn’t watching a movie, but reality. I know this is artifice. City of God dramatizes a reality that for most of us might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  I have no critical perspective from which to judge the vision that the directors have laid out in front of my eyes, nor do they attempt to provide me with one, but it doesn’t matter. My only option is to surrender myself to the immediate spectacle of Rio de Janeiro’s violent criminal gangs. That is the goal of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, and in that they’ve succeeded. There will be time to think about it all after the film is over.

In the very first scene, Meirelles and Kátia Lund almost dare us to look away. Their camera zeroes on on chickens getting butchered in preparation for a feast, throats being slit, guts being pulled out of chicken buttholes, bloody feathers being scattered on the ground. Suddenly, one of the chickens escapes, running wildly through the streets of the City of God, pursued by an armed gang. We root for the chicken, not only because we want him to live, but because we realize that he’s a symbolic representative of the young men pursuing him. Standing in the middle of the street, a young photojournalist pauses to take a photo. In front of him is the armed ganging pursuing the chicken. Behind him are the police.

“If you run away, they get you, and if you stay, they get you too.”

The photographer, whose nickname is “Rocket,” is also the film’s narrator. To help us understand the scene unfolding in front of us, he says, he has to take us back a decade and a half to his childhood in The City of God. Soon we learn that the leader of the armed gang chasing the chicken is named “Little Z,” and that he and Rocket grew up together. Little Z is bad news, really bad news, even for the leader of a drug gang. Even though “Little Z committed his first mass murder before he was in his teens” sounds almost comical typing it out, the film stages the act in a way that makes us believe in the idea of a deadly, preteen gunslinger. A decade later, and Little Z is not only the head of his own drug gang, he’s killed off the leaders of every rival gang except one. Needless to say, Rocket is terrified. The week before he had taken photos of Little Z and his friends that accidentally wound up getting put on the front page of a newspaper he hopes will hire him. No reporter at the newspaper had ever succeeded in getting inside the “City of God,” so this is his big break. It might also mean his death.

Many film critics have compared City of God to Meanstreets, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction, but its real spiritual godfather is Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s savage masterpiece about the slums of Mexico City. As a character named “Knockout Ned” learns, you can do everything right, obey the law, study, look for a job, join the army, but if you grow up in the City of God, you’re damned. Sooner or later, you will return. Your only option is to surrender to the violent energy of the Favela. Nor can you find salvation in the love of your fellow slum dwellers. Like Knockout Ned, a gang member named Benny tries to get out of the circle of the damned, only in his case, he tries to uplift his friends and neighbors with kindness, to share the money he’s made in the drug trade with people less fortunate than himself. It doesn’t matter. He dies anyway, violently, horribly, needlessly.

Rocket, a composite of a real Brazilian photographer and Paulo Lins, the witness, the observer, the voyeur, is the only one who only survives. That not everybody can make a living as a photojournalist, a poorly paid profession on cusp of being eliminated by digital cameras and smartphones, is part of what makes City of God an honest film. That Rocket also decides that if he doesn’t want to end up lying in a puddle of blood like the subjects of his photos there are things about the City of God he must not report — like the collusion between corrupt police and the drug gangs — is what makes it a great film. Rocket survives, but since his success as a journalist is tightly wound up with what he would like to escape, he doesn’t really make it out. In the end, the City of God claims him too.

Final Note: People often express confusion about the Marxist distinction between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariant, between the working class and the underclass. City of God consciously, and repeatedly, addresses the difference. One by one Rocket’s friends come to the point where they have to choose between being a “worker” and a “hoodlum.” One by one, the City of God chooses for them.

Revisiting The Oeuvre of Bazaar-e-Husn

There aren’t many works of cinematic art that become cinematic in their own right. The legacy of these works transcends what is projected on the screen and venture into the arenas of popularity that was quite unintended by the creator itself.

Pakeezah, a Hindi Cinema classic that took almost 15 years to complete, is one such movie whose legacy is unparalleled and finesse unmatched. The fervour around the film was as much due to the stories that revolved around each and every person associated with it as the climactic plot of the film itself.

The journey of making Pakeezah is no less of an odyssey for its director Kamal Amrohi and the lead actress Meena Kumari. They both were in the romantic company of each other both during the commencement and the conclusion of the film, however, going through a judicial separation and an alleged extra-marital affair in between. As much as I would love to delve more into the depths of this theme, the main focus of this work is rather centred upon one of the most intelligently designed sets from the movie – Bazaar-e-Husn.

Translated as a ‘fair of beauty’, Bazaar-e-Husn reflects the budgetary prowess of Pakeezah’s production. Often termed as a perfectionist, Kamal Amrohi had to shed almost a million rupees to build a perfect settlement for a desired reality of erstwhile Muslim royality.

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The set for Bazaar-e-Husn took six months to complete with over 600 men working on it. A publicity material for the film described it as:

“There is nothing make believe in this set. Dozens of genuine shops from the various parts of the country were bodily shifted to the set to lend it the authenticity it demanded. These shops remained on the sets for more than a year involving a payment of huge compensation to their owners. Nothing so fantastic was ever attempted or achieved in a single film.”

Despite involving investment of such magnitude, the set has only been used for just one dance sequence in the entire movie. Since the plot of the movie shifts from Delhi to Lucknow, the only display of Bazaar-e-Husn that we get to see is during the opening mujra of Sahibjaan in Inhi Logon Nai. Despite having such a brief presence, the choreography of Inhi Logon imbued with the charm of Meena Kumari, makes the scenic experience of the establishment quite unforgettable.

In the only dance sequence where the glimpse of Bazaar-e-Husn is shown, we can see the flavour of the tawaif (courtesan) culture of Delhi in its maturity. As Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is performing her teasing dance number, we can see a lot of motion behind her that manifests itself as daily routine at such establishments. We can see parallel mujras being performed at other courts and commodities such as betel nuts, ornaments and fruits being sold. Despite the commotion in the streets, one finds it really difficult to take his eyes off from the leading lady and take a moment to ponder upon the life at Bazaar-e-Husn. However, as a myriad of vivacity and vividness, Bazaar-e-Husn not just beautifully merges with the choreography of the mujra but goes on to enhance the aesthetics of it. It provides it with a context that paints a picture in the viewer’s conscience which is like a medieval portrait of a desired escape.

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Apart from the monetary shelling, a lot of artistic capital also went on to contribute to the making of this enchanting establishment. Hundreds of dancers were specifically trained for months just for the picturization of that brief mujra sequence of Inhi Login Ne. This not only gives us a glimpse of Kamal Amrohi’s traits of perfection but also goes on to expose his tremendous respect for the art that he intended to pursue.

If Pakeezah was Amrohi’s dearest creation, Bazaar-e-Husn would undoubtedly be his most vivid fantasy. As the making of the movie saw no signs of completion, and while being intertwined in a personal turmoil, Amrohi never shed a single shade of doubt on his brainchild. In an interview which he gave to Time Magazine for the project that he had penned, directed and also intended to act in, he said –

‘Jab tak Pakeezah khatm nahi ho jaati, tab tak mujhe maut bhi nahi aayegi’

(Even death is waiting for me to finish Pakeezah)

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Pictures: National Film Archives of India

The Dirty Business of Mt. Everest

If you ask the typical American the name of the first person to climb Mt. Everest, he will tell you that it was a British climber named Edmund Hillary in 1953. A well-informed American will add a footnote. In reality. Sir Edmund Hillary was the first European to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, probably made it first.

These days, the summit of Mount Everest is open to anybody who can afford a tour by someone like Russell Brice, the New Zealander who owns Himalayan Experience Ltd. For $100,000, you get experienced mountaineers to guide you up the southern, Nepalese, side of the mountain, flat screen TVs at base camp, and a team of Sherpas to haul your gear and serve you tea and hot towels in your tent. If you think this sounds like the recipe for class conflict, you would be correct.

Sherpa, a 2015 film by Jennifer Peedom, documents the disastrous 2014 season, when sixteen Sherpas were killed in an avalanche 18,000 feet above sea level at the Khumbu Icefall. A group of Sherpas, each of whom gets about $5000 dollars for the season, then staged what might easily be called “Occupy Everest,” not only refusing to haul gear for Bryce’s western clientele, but promising to stop anybody who did, by physical force if necessary. If you want the record for the “highest labor stoppage in history” this would be it.

Astonishingly, many of Bryce client’s insisted that they still be allowed to go to the top of Everest. I’ve rarely seen a better example of rich, clueless, white people indifferent to the lives of a group of non-western service workers. One man calls the Sherpa’s “terrorists.” It’s exactly like 9/11, he says. Bryce himself comes across almost like a cartoon villain, a Don Blankenship of the mountains. “I understand that the Sherpas are upset that people died,” he says, “but, we have to get on with it. How are they going to feed their families if we cancel the season?”

It’s hard to imagine Bryce or his clients with such a cavalier attitude about a similar disaster in Switzerland. “Yes, I understand that Pierre is upset that he just lost his whole family in an avalanche, but for heaven’s sake we really have to get on with the skiing season.” If ever there were a group of people who needed to “check their privilege,” it’s Russell Brice and his $100,000 a head gang of entitled, racist, assholes.

Hannah Arendt (2012)

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Adolf Eichmann was one of the worst war criminals in history. Between 1942, when Reinhardt Heydrich put him in charge of the “Final Solution,” to 1945, when the Soviet and Allied armies overran all of Germany, Eichmann was the chief administrator of the operation that killed between 5.5 and 6 million Jews. After escaping from Germany along what were then known as the “rat lines” – a system of escape routes for Nazis and other fascists fleeing Europe at the end of World War II – he lived, first in Austria, then in Argentina until 1960, when the Israeli secret service finally captured him and brought him to Jerusalem for trial. He was hanged on June 1, 1962.

All of it would seem pretty cut and dry. Eichmann was a monster who finally got the execution he so richly deserved. Yet when the renowned German Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt published a series of articles on Eichmann’s trial in the New Yorker called Eichmann in Jerusalem, they caused a fire storm. Eichmann, she maintained, wasn’t a monster at all, but simply a bureaucrat following orders, no different from sales manager at a vacuum cleaner company, a job he held before joining the Nazi Party in 1932. Adolf Eichmann was a symbol, not of “radical evil” but of “the banality of evil.” What’s more, she argued, local Jewish elites in Eastern Europe actually made it easier for the Nazis to carry out their genocide by collaborating with the decrees issued by the German government. Her decision to write about such a potentially inflammatory subject, plus the fact that she had studied under Martin Heidegger, a Nazi sympathizer, led to Arendt being ostracized by large parts of the Jewish community in the United States. She remains a controversial figure today.

For Margarethe von Trotta Hannah Arendt was a hero of free inquiry. Her critics were narrow-minded mediocrities who acted out of self-dramatizing emotionalism rather than the desire to get to the truth about the Holocaust. Trotta’s 2012 biographical drama Hannah Arendt is a film about ideas, not action. Similar to the highly underrated Howl, it dramatizes the process by which a classic work of literature is created. Arendt, played by Barbara Sukowa almost 30 years after her performance in von Trotta’s earlier film Rosa Luxemburg, lives in Manhattan with her husband, the poet Heinrich Blücher. A popular teacher of philosophy and German literature at the New School for Social Research, she leads an existence she describes as “paradise.”

After Adolf Eichmann is captured and brought to Jerusalem, Arendt – who had been briefly detained at the Gurs concentration camp in Vichy France – contacts William Shawn at The New Yorker, and asks if he would like to publish her writings on the trial. Despite the warnings of Francis Wells, his managing editor, Shawn, an admirer of Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism, accepts. Wells’ reservations turn out to be more than justified. Arendt can’t meet deadlines. She delivers, not a journalistic account of the trial itself, but a series of impressionistic reflections on Eichmann’s character. Both Shawn and Arendt come under siege, but despite the deluge of hate mail they both receive, neither backs down. The film ends with Arendt, who had come close to losing her job at the New School, giving a passionate 10 minute speech defending the idea of free, objective, inquiry into even the most traumatic historical events. Adolf Eichmann, she argues, became a war criminal, not because he was particularly evil, but because he was a nobody without an individual identity. Since Eichmann “had no ability to think,” she implies, not looking at his crimes against humanity in an objective, dispassionate, philosophical manner brings us closer to his “banality” than we’d like to admit.

Hannah Arendt the movie has been criticized for an overly enthusiastic defense of Hannah Arendt the woman. Is Margarethe von Trotta like Hannah Arendt, a dispassionate seeker of truth, or is she more like Arendt’s critics, closed minded partisans acting more out of emotionalism than logic? The film isn’t perfect. Arendt’s relationship with Martin Heidegger, her lover as well as teacher, isn’t explored very deeply. There are a few flashbacks. That’s about it. As Saul Austerlitz in the New Republic has written, von Trotta’s film doesn’t consider recent criticisms of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which have uncovered evidence that Eichmann was more fanatical in his antisemitism than Arendt realized. I’d still argue that the film is a clear, succinct, dramatization of the intellectual controversy that raged more than 50 years ago an which is by no means over. Only observe the recent fire storm around former London Mayor Ken Livingston’s remarks about Adolf Hitler and Zionism.

I couldn’t help but compare Adolf Eichmann to another mediocrity, Harry Truman. Truman, a minor Democratic Party machine politician who became President almost by accident, not only presided over the birth of the Pentagon and the CIA but ordered a war crime – the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – almost as bad as anything the Nazis ever did. Unlike the Germans, however, we Americans haven’t come to terms with our own atrocities. Most of us still consider Truman a hero. After all, didn’t he save the lives of American soldiers who would have died during a conventional attack on Japan? If Germany had won the war, wouldn’t Germans be talking about Adolf Eichmann the same way we talk about Truman? Were American attitudes towards the Japanese really much different from German attitudes towards Jews? Didn’t the great liberal hero Franklin Roosevelt put them in concentration camps? Maybe not, but maybe, just maybe Harry Truman, like Adolf Eichmann, is just another example of “the banality of evil.”

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

Rosa Luxemburg was the anti-Hillary Clinton. Born in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, to a Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland, she was one of the first women in Western Europe to earn a doctoral degree. Considering her brilliance as an economist, she could have probably become wealthy. Instead she chose to fight for the working-class. In 1914, after the German Social Democrats voted to fund the First World War, a betrayal far more shocking than the Democratic Party’s decision in 2003 to support the invasion of Iraq, she became one of the leaders in the fight against European militarism. Her Junius Pamphlet, smuggled out of the prison where she was placed in “preventative detention,” is still the classic, Marxist polemic against socialist collaboration with imperialist governments. She would have hated Bernie Sanders. Released in 1918 after the fall of the German monarchy, Rosa Luxemburg helped found the Spartacist League, a group that eventually became the German Communist Party. Her freedom was to be short lived. She and her radical colleague Karl Liebknecht attempted to lead an insurrection in Berlin in solidarity with the Russian Revolution, but the uprising was suppressed by the Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske. She and Liebknecht were captured by a proto-fascist group of military veterans, bludgeoned to death with rifle butts, and thrown into the Landwehr Canal.

If Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 biographical drama is not well-known in the United States, it probably has a lot to do with how the screenplay’s fractured chronology presumes that the viewer is not only familiar with Rosa Luxemburg, but also has a thorough grounding in the history of German and Polish social democracy. If you’ve never heard of August Bebel, Klara Zetkin, Leo Jogiches, and Louise Kautsky, if you don’t know that Luxemburg lived in Warsaw in 1905 and 1906 under the alias “Anna Matschke,” you’re going to spend a lot of time scratching your head in confusion. What’s more, von Trotta makes no concessions at all to lazy, careless viewers. I saw Rosa Luxemburg in during its original theatrical run in the United States in 1987 when I was an undergraduate. I was already thoroughly familiar with German history, and the history of the First World War, but I still missed a lot of what von Trotta was trying to say simply because my level of concentration was more attuned to Hollywood than to the language of the European art film. Rosa Luxemburg is not a movie for people with a low cinematic IQ. That being said, and if I haven’t scared you off, you should watch it anyway, especially since it’s on YouTube in full with English subtitles. Copyright issues being what they are, it might not last. As far as I know, it’s not available on a DVD that will play in the United States.

My suggestion is to view it for the first time without trying to figure out what’s going on in the background. Rosa Luxemburg is not only a beautifully shot film, it features the German actress Barbara Sukowa in what might be one the best performance of the 1980s. Outwardly, Sukowa doesn’t closely resemble the historical Rosa Luxemburg, but it doesn’t matter. She thoroughly embodies the spirit of a revolutionary the German government considered so dangerous they decided to lock her up during most of the First World War, and then finally have her murdered her before she could succeed in becoming another Lenin. One image in particular stands out. Jailed in Warsaw in 1906 by the Russian government for her participation in the Revolution of 1905, her older brother visits her in prison. Luxemburg is behind two sets of bars, the bars of a cell used for visits from family and relatives, and the bars of a large cage her jailers have placed inside the same cell. The intense gaze of Sukowa’s blue eyes do more than twenty pages of dialogue to express just how much Luxemburg hated being behind bars confined. Later, however, after she learns that August Bebel and the German Social Democrats sent the Russian government bribes in exchange for her release, she explodes in anger. She does not want to trade in a Russian prison for a sense of obligation to the party bureaucracy. Being in an iron cage is bad enough. Being in an intellectual cage is a hundred times worse.

All through the movie, I wondered if the historical Rosa Luxemburg would have enjoyed von Trotta’s dramatization of her life. It’s certainly flattering for an intellectual to see herself portrayed by a beautiful, charismatic actress, but would a communist have wanted her own personal story to overshadow the movement and the working class as a whole? Von Trotta made Rosa Luxemburg in the mid-1980s, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a decade after the failure of the new left. Large stretches of the movie are preoccupied with the question of whether she wanted to lead the German revolution or settle down in a happy marriage with one of her lovers, all of whom seem like weaklings and intellectual nonentities. Her friendship with Louise Kautsky – who died at Auschwitz in 1944 – is a centerpiece of the narrative, but it never quite gets beyond purely physical expressions of affection. Rosa Luxemburg has many long, soulful gazes, hand clasps, and warm embraces between women, but at no time do they feel like much more than a ritualistic, pantomime between members of the educated bourgeoisie during the late Victorian Age. When Luxemburg remarks to Kautsky about how “boisterous” they’re being, an American in 2016 can only think “well no. You’re not being that boisterous.” Nothing in Rosa Luxemburg quite equals the fights between Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds, an almost contemporary film made by refugees of the failed, 1960s new left which, like Rosa Luxemburg, projects the conflict between revolutionary idealism and a longing for bourgeois domesticity back into the heady days of the Russian Revolution. Sukowa is a much better actor than Beatty or Keaton, but she really doesn’t have much chemistry with anybody else in the film’s cast, which is odd considering that she’s actually had children with the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, who plays Rosa Luxemburg’s long-time lover Leo Jogiches.

Final Note: I suspect that Rosa Luxemburg will appeal to women more than men. Many of my reservations about this excellent film probably still come from the fact that I’m an American male who was brought up on Hollywood movies and MTV music videos. Rosa Luxemburg is a very feminine treatment of the very masculine subjects of war and revolution.

What Happened Miss Simone? (2015)

There is a controversy on social media. Zoe Saldana, a light skinned black woman, has been cast to play the singer songwriter Nina Simone, who was a very dark skinned black woman, in the upcoming biographical drama Nina. After having watched Liz Garbus’ brilliant documentary What Happened Miss Simone, I can fully understand why casting Saldana was a bad idea. Nina Simone was black the way Joan of Arc was French, or Dostoevsky Russian, an archetypal figure who can’t be watered down without doing violence to her essence.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, deep in the heart of the Jim Crow South. As a child she dreamed, not of being a singer, but of being a classical pianist. When she was turned down as a student by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and began to play in small, often seedy nightclubs, she changed her name to avoid embarrassing her conservative, religious parents. Eventually the owner of the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City demanded that she sing as well as play the piano, and she found her calling. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, her popularity grew. She wrote songs, recorded both studio and live albums, and toured throughout the Europe and the United States. She become involved, not only in the Civil Rights Movement, but in the radical, black nationalist wing of the Civil Rights Movement. “I don’t believe in non-violence,” she remarked to Martin Luther King. The Civil Rights Movement, in turn, became involved in Simone’s music, inspiring songs like Mississippi Goddam and “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)”, written after King’s murder. Not surprisingly, Simone’s radicalism damaged her career, even as it enriched her art, getting her blacklisted by radio stations all over the United States. When the black nationalist movement she sang for and about eventually got smashed by the federal government and faded away, her opportunities to perform, and her income, were diminished. As her career fell apart, she fell apart, the damage done to her soul by racism, a history of mental illness, and by an abusive, exploitive husband, turning her against her daughter, and herself. She became angry, emotionally unstable, unable to perform without the psychotropic drugs that damaged her ability to play the piano. She died in 2003, well-known but not fully appreciated for the great artist she was.

I could have easily heard Nina Simone play live. I was 38 years old when she died, but to be honest, I had no idea who she was until fairly recently. That doesn’t mean I’ve never heard her music. I grew up hearing quite a few of her songs, but only, and this is important, in cover versions. If Hollywood is about to dilute her memory by casting Zoe Saldana in her fictionalized biography, it’s really nothing very new. In the 1960s and 1970s, Simone was too radical for mainstream radio, but far too great an artist to completely ignore. So they served up her music in white face. I grew up hearing Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. It’s part of my childhood, but I heard it sung by the British rock and roll group The Animals, not by Simone herself. I had no idea the song Ain’t Got No, I Got Life that Treat Williams performed in Milos Foreman’s film version of the musical Hair had been written by Nina Simone. I’m not knocking Milos Foreman or The Animals, but I was amazed by just how much more depth Simone gave the lyrics than Eric Burdon. I had always through Burdon was singing lyrics he didn’t entirely understand, but it was only after I saw What Happened Miss Simone that I fully understood why.

As different as I am from Nina Simone, I came away from What Happened Miss Simone feeling as if I had been introduced to a kindred spirit, a soul mate I never got a chance to meet. Simone wasn’t just a performer or a singer, but a woman who had deeply wounded by American racism, and could only really stay alive as long as she was able to transform her pain into her art. As the Jazz critic Stanley Crouch remarks midway through the documentary, she was too much of a rebel for the revolution, an outcast among outcasts, a radical among radicals. It’s a testament to a powerful soul that she made it to the age of 70, that she kept pushing against the demons inside her in order to create her music until the very end. It’s also a testament to the radical politics that got her pushed out of the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps if Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse had discovered something to fight for, they might have found a reason to live past 30, even if it had meant another 40 years of pain and emotional anguish.