Category Archives: Female Film Directors

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

How much violence does it take to maintain the status quo, any status quo?

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a revolutionary film on the most intimate scale possible. Running for almost three and a half hours, Chantal Akerman’s feminist classic from the 1970s is about as long as a film can get and still have a wide theatrical release. But it was made for just over 100,000 dollars. It has two main characters and a few extras. It’s set almost entirely in a small apartment in a drab, working-class neighborhood in Brussels.

Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig, lives with her son Sylvain.  Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, appears to be about 18 or 19. He’s a sullen bookworm. There’s no sign of a husband or father. We find out later that he died years earlier. Jeanne is an attractive, well-dressed woman in her early forties who sleeps with exactly one man every day, entertaining her client from 4:30 to 5:00 in the bedroom while dinner is cooking in the kitchen. We get an idea of Jeanne’s character after she pockets the money from a John, and puts it in a glass teapot she keeps on the table in the dining room. She goes into the bathroom, pours herself a bath, and cleans up. Then she disinfects the tub, scrubbing out any reminder of how she earns her keep and supports her son.

Jeanne Dielman is an obsessive compulsive. Everything about her life is so well-ordered, so circumscribed by repetitive behavior that the film, which takes place over three almost identical days, becomes a map of her soul. Tiny details of her behavior, insignificant variations in how she acts from day to day bring us inside of her troubled mind as surely as if we were a trusted confessor. On the first day everything is perfect. Jeanne sleeps with her John, washes up, and cooks dinner for her son. But even on the first day some things seem out of joint. Jeanne serves herself exactly the right portion of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, but gives her son twice as much as he can eat. We know immediately that they have an unequal relationship, that she desires his approval. We also realize that Sylvain, while he may be a sullen, unpleasant little killjoy also feels smothered by his mother’s attention. He’s probably close to 20-years-old yet she still buttons his coat before he leaves for school in the morning.

“You missed a button,” he says.

With one brushstroke, therefore, Chantal Akerman has painted a picture of a mother and son in a dysfunctional relationship. He’s both dominated and dominating. She’s both controlling and self-sacrificing.

On the second day, things begin to unravel. Jeanne burns the potatoes. She drops a spoon. She watches a screaming baby for her neighbor. Sound becomes as important as repetitive behavior. A dropped kitchen utensil, a loud child, a door slamming, Akerman so effectively mixes the audio levels that we, the audience, take on Dielman’s hypersensitivity to stray noises. We become unhappy. We wonder why her son doesn’t show her more attention. We begin to feel her weary dread at having to sleep with yet another man to earn her keep. How long can a woman her age go on as a prostitute? Does she have a backup plan. Did her husband leave her a pension. How exactly did her husband die anyway? We don’t learn much more than that he was a Canadian who served with the army in World War II.

“Getting married was just something everybody did,” she tells Sylvain.

On the third day, we wonder if Jeanne Dielman has ever done anything on her own initiative. Then we realize that she does everything on he own initiative. Like a great artist, she has isolated herself from the rest of humanity to work on her creation. That creation is a prison, for herself. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute she has hammered out the bars of her psychological cage, walling herself off, not only from the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, her unfulfilled life, the fact that she sleeps with a new, and almost always unappealing man every day, but from the very possibility of happiness or change. We also learn what she was so afraid of, the violence inside herself.

Back in 2011, when I was involved with Occupy Wall Street, I began to understand why a system as unjust as American capitalism doesn’t collapse under its own weight. The American ruling class has hundreds of thousands of militarized police, the biggest military the world has ever seen, and a well-developed system of propaganda and spying, but none of that would matter if working class Americans didn’t repress themselves. I decided that the only thing Americans value is their routine. It’s neither right nor left, but it does have political consequences. Opponents of gay marriage, for example, failed because people who supported gay marriage were able to paint them as troublemakers who wanted to get into other peoples’ private business. Occupy Wall Street failed because it threatened to make Americans think about class and revolution, to make them face up to how their 9 to 5 lives are never going to get their kids seven figure jobs on Wall Street. Indeed, the most damning accusation the media could make about Occupy Wall Street was not that it was a movement of socialists, but that it disrupted routine, that rat race people run with such dedicated tunnel vision.  Like Jeanne Dielman, Americans have built a cage of misery they will defend to the death against anybody who tries to liberate them.

On the evening of the third day of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jean Dielman, the kind of nice, unprepossessing middle-aged woman you would trust without a moment’s hesitation, commits an act of violence so sudden, so shocking, and so arbitrary it upends everything that came in the first three hours of the movie. We realize that Chantal Akerman has played a trick on us. By staging her tragic drama inside a drab apartment in working class Brussells, by focusing on so many insignificant details of a seemingly ordinary mother and son, she has somehow made us watch 3 hours of a horror movie without realizing we were watching a horror movie at all. The first three hours of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles have so much authority, paint the inside of Jeanne’s mind in such deceptively mundane realism, we have been fooled into thinking we were watching our lives, which, in a sense, we were. Jeanne’s victim, and liberator, her final trick, may not deserve his fate, but that’s what revolutions are like, messy, violent, arbitrary. Jeanne, not quite ready for her freedom, acts in the most unexpected way we can imagine, exactly the way we would have expected her to act.

The final ten minutes of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles feel more like 10 hours. Jeanne is doomed. But if you sit patiently through the three and a half hours of her movie, Chantal Akerman will so completely fuck your sense of time that, in some odd way, she gives you the keys to open the door of your own cage. Whether or not you decide to walk out is entirely up to you.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right is the story of a straight man and his dick who both blunder into the lives of a lesbian couple and their two kids.

The straight man, Paul Hatfield, Mark Ruffalo, is a successful restaurant owner in his 40s who, years before, had donated sperm to a sperm bank for 60 dollars a pop. Dr. Nicole Allgood, Annette Benning, and Jules Allgood, Julianne Moore, are an affluent couple who live in the Venice section of Los Angeles. One day their two kids, 15-year-old Lazer, played by Josh Hutcherson, Peeta from from the Hunger Games, and 18-year-old Joni, named after Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, decide to contact the biological father they’ve never met. The results are more interesting than anybody would have guessed.

I decided to watch The Kids Are All Right when I realized that most of the films I’ve reviewed on this blog were directed by men. The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenka, who made the classic High Art, seemed like the perfect way to eat my feminist cultural vegetables. The problem is that it was such a good movie, simultaneously respectful of the lesbian subculture and politically incorrect, that I enjoyed it perhaps just a little too much. Let’s just say that if a man had directed The Kids Are All Right it would have been a lot more controversial than it was. I’m a little afraid that if I write honestly about the issues it raises I’ll get a Twitter hashtag calling for my cancellation.

Where is the dividing line between gay and straight? Are gay men ever attracted to women? Are lesbians ever attracted to men?

The Kids Are All Right entertains, then dismisses the fantasy so many straight men have about lesbians, the idea that they can be converted. Nicole and Jules at first glance seem like the perfect couple. Their house could serve as the model for a photo shoot on affluent, liberal California. There son is intelligent,sensitive, and athletic. Their daughter is a straight A student headed for a college that, in the film’s closing scene, appears to be Stanford. But something’s missing, some masculine energy, some “other.”

Lazer, the son, doesn’t quite get bullied at school, but his best friend is indeed that, a bully. Joni, the daughter, the pale, intense Wasikowska, who looks like Jules but acts like Nicole, is all too believable as an honors student who doesn’t have any fun. She has a boyfriend she plays Scrabble with. How he feels about her is anybody’s guess. They certainly don’t sleep together. Her best friend Sasha, Zosia Mamet from Girls, is constantly telling her to get laid. Eighteen isn’t particularly young to be a virgin. But being an 18-year-old virgin with two mothers is more confusing than being an 18-year-old virgin with a mother and a father.

Jules and Nicole, two middle-aged lesbians who should have much more clarity about their identity than a 15-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl, seem just as confused. They have sex to beefcake, gay male porn. Nicole is a successful physician, and a very believable one — she interrupts sex to take calls from patients — but she’s also a borderline alcoholic, a tightly wound, hypercritical overachiever. Jules is more relaxed, but she’s also a woman who’s never had a real profession or career, a perennial ne’er do well who’s currently making a half-hearted attempt to get a landscaping business off the ground.

Paul Hatfield, played by Mark Ruffalo as a charismatic, west-coast hipster Guido — if The Situation from Jersey Shore moved out to LA he’d probably look like this by the time he gets into his 40s — blows in like a breath of fresh air. He meets Clay, Lazer’s friend, actually his bully, and quickly sizes him up. Clay’s an asshole, Paul says, something that’s more than confirmed when he tries to push Lazer into torturing a stray dog. Laser, thanks to his newly found, adopted, but actually real, biological father tells Clay to fuck off. Paul gives the repressed Joni a ride home on his motorcycle. That, in turn, causes a fight between Joni and Nicole, who doesn’t want her daughter riding a motorcycle, or, for that matter, having any fun whatsoever. Joni, like her brother, finally stands up for herself.

But teenage kids break away from ill-chosen friends and fight with parents. That’s part of growing up. It’s no threat to anybody’s family. Jules is another matter. Even though she’s been in a relationship with Nicole for decades, there are times when she doesn’t seem to know if she’s actually gay or straight. Her marriage with Nicole is so far from perfect it almost seems like abuse. Why hasn’t Jules ever had a career? Why can’t she get her landscaping business off the ground? Why is Nicole always drinking? Why are they always fighting about it?

The Kid’s Are All Right’s  crisis comes when Paul, who’s well off, decides to become Jules’ first client, to hire her to landscape the back yard of his house in Echo Park. Paul, we learn, as charismatic and attractive as he may be, is not as happy as he looks on the outside. Even though he can get all the sex he wants — The waitresses who work at his restaurant make passes at him. He doesn’t make passes at them. — he’s pushing 50 and has never had a wife or a family. When he meets Lazer and Joni, there’s an instant bond. They’re his biological children. He’s proud of them. He wants to be part of their lives, and he seems well on his way to doing just that. But then Jules seduces him. It’s perfectly consensual. But it’s Jules who makes the first move?

Jules’ seduction of Paul is more straight man’s nightmare than fantasy. Paul wants to be a husband and a father, but, up until now, he’s been nothing more than a sperm donor. One of the film’s strengths is the way Cholodenko suggests that very attractive, very promiscuous men will never be anything more than sperm donors. Sleeping with as many women you can, depositing your seed in as many places as possible, might just be a biological imperative, but it’s not emotionally satisfying. “I don’t want to be that unmarried, 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out,” Paul says to one of his waitresses, even as she’s making  a pass at him. “I want to have a family.” Sadly, at the end, Paul is in fact that unmarried 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out.

Jules is a lesbian like a vegetarian who occasionally backslides. Her diet may consist almost exclusively of plant food, but every once in awhile, she slips and eats meat. Jules is genuinely gay. She’s a lesbian not a bisexual. She’s mainly interested in vagina. But every once in awhile, she just gets a craving for dick. Paul Hatfield is nothing more than a junk food binge she later regrets, a pint of Haagen Daz or a bag of McDonalds french fries, both of which seem like a good idea before you eat them, but only wind up making you sick. The Kids Are All Right may be a comedy, but it points to a future where men are relegated to the sidelines. Paul works as a sperm donor, an occasional father figure, someone who might be fun to have around — He’s a straight man who can appreciate Joni Mitchell — but, when he gets out of line, they push him out of the family. “You’re an interloper,” Nicole says. “If you want a family so bad, build your own.”

The Kids Are All Right is a comedy, not heavy social commentary, but I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Rosin’s article “The End of Men.” It’s set in a world where there don’t seem to be any soul crushing dead end jobs, where the sun always shines, where teenage girls always get straight As and go to Stanford, and teenage boys are not only good at sports. They do the right thing and stand up to the bullies. But men almost feel superfluous. Even Paul, the film’s representative straight man, is a sensitive guy who owns an organic restaurant. The only working-class man we meet, Jules’ Latino assistant, gets fired on a stupid whim. Jules feels guilty about it, but, unlike Paul, she doesn’t pay any price for her bad behavior. She merely shrugs it off, and vows to do better the next time. Most of Paul’s employees at his restaurant seem to be women. Joni’s boyfriend may or may not be gay. When Nicole and Jules drop her off at Stanford, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else on campus. The Allgood family is a universe unto themselves.

What all this means to Laser when he grows up and wants a family of his own is anybody’s guess.

Wendy and Lucy (2009)

Kelly Reichardt, an independent filmmaker living in the Pacific Northwest, specializes in films about the kind of people who never get anywhere near Portlandia, the working-class, the socially isolated, the emotionally unstable, the misfits and semi-homeless.

Wendy and Lucy, which was made back in 2009 for only 300,000 dollars, is perhaps Reichardt’s best known film. Starring Michelle Williams, probably the main reason it actually made a profit, Wendy and Lucy is a very simple story about a young woman on her way to Southeast Alaska to work the salmon season. Wendy, the young woman, who’s somewhere in her 20s, has 550 dollars, a Honda Accord that’s probably older than she is, a few changes of clothes, a backpack, and a golden retriever mix named Lucy. One day, in suburban Portland, her car breaks down. She gets arrested for shoplifting, and loses her dog. That’s about it. She spends the rest of the film trying to pull herself together as best as she an so she can leave town.

But it’s not the plot that makes Wendy and Lucy so effective. It’s Michelle Williams. I can’t exaggerate how much respect I gained for Williams when I found out she worked on Wendy and Lucy for almost no salary, and did manual labor on the set. Her husband, Heath Ledger, had died only the year before. Whatever Lucy goes through in the film, it’s probably not as bad as losing a loved one to a drug overdose that was broadcast over half the world. Yet that’s exactly what makes her performance work so well. Williams, if not exactly a household name or an A-list actor like her late husband, still has very little in common with a poor misfit like Wendy, a young woman living on the edge of social oblivion who doesn’t even get to keep the mutt she’s been traveling with. The fact that Williams was able to transform the grief she was feeling over Heath Ledger into building an inner life for a character neither she nor anybody in Hollywood ever sees, let alone understands, is what acting, and what art in general is all about.

Make no mistake. As much as I liked Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, she was still Jennifer Lawrence, a spunky southern gal who has no trouble looking people in the eye, standing up to gun toting hill billies, or skinning a squirrel. Rhee, in Winter’s Bone, is part of the underclass, but Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t been transformed by class. As Wendy, Michelle Williams may still have a pretty face, but everything else about her, her posture, her body language, the way she speaks, the way she seems to negotiate with the gods for her very existence, embodies the kind of person who knows she can fall through the cracks and never get out. To contrast the two performances, think about the old film Giant. Compare Rock Hudson to James Dean. Jennifer Lawrence is Rock Hudson, always very obviously a movie star, even when she’s pulling her dead meth cooker father’s hands out of a frozen lake. Michelle Williams is like James Dean, she connects with events in her own life that allow her to feel the emotions of the character she’s playing on screen.

Wendy and Lucy is a race against time and a study of physical and emotional vulnerability. After Wendy makes a phone call to her harsh, brother-in-law and even harsher sister, we realize that if she doesn’t make it to Alaska and work the summer, she will indeed become fully, not semi-homeless. Kelly Reichardt understands what it’s like to have a car that barely works, a bicycle with a worn out chain, clothes that you can’t possibly wear to a job interview, no phone, a leaky roof, termites, a laptop that’s 10 years old and on its last legs, a tooth with a bad filling that could turn into a root canal if you bite down on a piece of food the wrong way. Reichardt understands the kind of people for whom any mistake, any malfunction, any breakdown, anything that goes wrong can completely upend your life. Perhaps the saddest part of the film is when Wendy, who knows little, or nothing about cars, tries to negotiate with an auto mechanic for the price of the repair. The mechanic knows anything can be wrong. Wendy is hoping against hope that it’s only the serpentine belt, something that will coast her 125 dollars, but still within the realm of possibility.

“I didn’t ask you to check the oil,” she snaps at the man after he tells her why her car won’t start. “I told you only to check the serpentine belt.”

Reichardt also manages to make us see the world from the point of view of a young woman who’s small, and vulnerable, terrified of the world, and, without her dog, without love. The mechanic who tells her how much her car will cost to fix isn’t a bad guy. He’s just a small tradesman doing his job. But from Wendy’s perspective, how he responds means having a car or not, having shelter, or having to sleep outside on a bench. So every time he interrupts her to answer the phone, laughs at her patently ridiculous hope against hope that it’s only the serpentine belt, or just sits back and puts his hand on the desk, we hate him as much as she does. The crust punks Wendy meets at the beginning of the film are perfectly harmless. We all know that just by looking at them. They’re just crust punks. They just want to smoke pot and raid the rails. Yet, from the camera’s point of view, from Wendy’s, they appear vaguely sinister. Will the crust punk girl steal her dog? Will the crust punk guys try to rape her? We know they won’t, but we’re also allowed to understand how Wendy just might think they will. The mentally disturbed homeless man who interrupts Wendy’s sleep the night after she loses her dog, and her car, is her fellow outcast, a man who’s already fallen through the cracks, permanently, yet no solidarity, no communication is possible between them.

Wendy is genuinely a truly alone, more alone than anybody I’ve ever seen on screen. She has two friends, a vaguely sympathetic middle-aged security guard at Walgreens who lets her use his cell phone, and her dog Lucy. Lucy isn’t just a pet to Wendy. She’s another person, the only thing in the world she seems to love and who seems to love her in return. When she gets lost, we feel Wendy’s grief. There’s a wonderful scene where Wendy takes the bus to the pound in the hopes that maybe she kind find Lucy. The receptionist at the desk is a sympathetic young woman. She probably even likes animals or she wouldn’t be working at a pound. But when she lets Wendy into the back room to look at the strays they’ve picked up, Wendy walks past cage after cage of homeless dogs. They’re all behind bars, which, from the angle Reichardt shoots, make their cells, and they are cells, seem bigger and more menacing then they really are.

Wendy’s role is reversed. For most of the film, she’s been the stray dog. Now she’s now the auto mechanic, the Walgreens security guard, the grocery store clerk who can call the cops on her for shoplifting, or let her go. She has the power of life or death, of giving or denying any of the dog’s freedom. And yet she doesn’t. Wendy, like the security guard or the auto mechanic, is just a powerless individual in a society that isolates most of us from one another and allows us only a few contacts, a family, a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a few co workers. The only dog Wendy is looking for is Lucy. So she passes on. And the rest of the dogs stay behind bars. What will happen to them? Is it a no-kill shelter or not? Who knows? We’re never told and Wendy never asks.

What will happen to Wendy at the end? We don’t know that either. But at least the film makes us ask.

The Bigamist (1953)

As I watched the ending of Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Bigamist, I kept thinking of a famous quote by the Anglo Irish Playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw.

“Polygamy,” he said, “when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons, is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it; for the maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one.”

Ida Lupino, who had a long career as an actress, was also one of the few women to make it as a director in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. From 1949, when she directed Not Wanted to 1963, when she directed The Trouble With Angels, Lupino made 8 films and 2 television shows. In The Bigamist, a 1953 film that starred Joan Fontaine, Edmond O’Brien, and Edmund Gwenn, she acts as well as directs.

While it might not be out of place in the age of Big Love and hipster polyamory, The Bigamist must have struck some people during the Eisenhower era as being just a little odd. Lupino worked within mainstream Hollywood and her aesthetics are always competent, if not exactly innovative or inspired. On the surface, the unimaginative lighting, the frugal if not exactly cheap sets, and the relatively conservative camera angles give The Bigamist almost the look of a 1950s TV show, a beefed up Twilight Zone. Lupino, as an aside, would go onto act in as well as direct two Twilight Zone episodes. But under the cover of its plain appearance, The Bigamist has a quietly subversive agenda.

The Bigamist opens with Harry Graham, a puffy looking Edmond O’Brien, and Eve Graham, a statuesque, blond Joan Fontaine, in the office of a San Francisco adoption agency run by Mr Jordan, Edmund Gwenn. Eve is sterile, and can’t have children. The adoption should come off without a hitch. Harry and Eve are both in their 30s, have been happily married for 8 years, and run a successful business. But something about the way Harry scowls as he signs the release form for a background check makes Mr. Jordan suspicious enough to start poking around. There’s nothing amiss in Harry and Eve’s apartment. Quite the contrary, everything is stylish, well-ordered, prosperous. It’s the kind of San Francisco apartment that would sell for over a million dollars if it were on the market today. What’s more, Eve’s not only a gracious hostess, she’s also more than an assistant to Harry. She’s a full partner in their company, a distributor of electric freezers, which, in the 1950s, would have been a bit like saying they’re a couple who ran a software company, or a Tesla distributor, or who marketed solar panels. Freezers in the early 1950s were the future. What child wouldn’t want to grow up in a family like this?

But Mr. Jordan is not satisfied. While Eve is friendly and gracious, Harry seems tense and hostile. He decides to travel to Harry’s branch office in Los Angeles. There he finally unravels the secret. Harry Graham is living a double life. Unable to find an address under Harry Graham, Mr. Jordan spots a commemorative letter open with the name Harrison Graham. That leads to a bungalow in the LA suburbs where he discovers Harry with another wife and a baby. Harry breaks down and tells his story.

A year before, Harry had been on business in Los Angeles. Feeling lonely, he jumped on a tour bus explore the “houses of the stars.” There he meets Phyllis Martin, Ida Lupino herself. Phyllis Martin isn’t as beautiful as his wife. She works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. She’s standoffish and hostile. Yet something about her draws Harry. Perhaps he feels as if he’s met his soul mate. Perhaps he resents Eve’s inability to have children more than he’s letting on. Perhaps he’s intimidated by Eve’s business acumen. Indeed, there’s more than a hint that she’s the dominant partner in their refrigerator business, not him. Is this another case of a man being intimidated by a successful women and gravitating towards someone more dependent? In any event, Harry and Phyllis begin a relationship which, although seems less than happy, eventually produces a child.

Harry, more confused than manipulative, more needy than exploitive, decides to marry Phyllis without telling her about Eve and go through with the adoption without telling Even about Phyllis The physical appearance of all three actors really workers here. Harry is attractive to women, yet he’s puffy and round shouldered, weighted down by his secret and by the weight of managing two women at once. Eve is sleek. Phyllis is dark haired, brown eyed, needy, sensual, the opposite of the more dominant Eve, the cold, sterile San Francisco business woman without the ability to have children. Mr. Jordan, who also played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, is the wise father, or even grandfather figure who finally gets to the bottom of Harry’s double life.

What makes The Bigamist oddly subversive is the way Ida Lupino undercuts the sense of dread. Indeed, to spent half the film expecting it to turn into a murder mystery, for Harry to kill Mr. Jordan, and spend the second half looking for a place to stash the body. But nothing even remotely like that happens. Harry is relieved, not outraged. He can finally tell the truth to both two women he loves in their own way. Mr. Jordan, in turn, feels sorry for Harry more than he feels moral outrage. He doesn’t even threaten to call the police. The only consequence Harry will pay is not getting the child, something that’s probably more of a punishment for Eve than it is for him. It’s Harry himself who calls the police, who turns himself in back in San Francisco.

If the ending of The Bigamist is underwhelming, that’s the whole point. Harry’s killing Mr. Jordan or committing suicide, or murdering one of the two women would be to push the film into the realm of melodrama. But Ida Lupino is strictly realistic. The Bigamist closes in a courtroom with Harry standing in front of a judge. His lawyer pleads for clemency and the judge seems sympathetic. We get the sense that Harry will face some kind of consequences, but that he won’t do any serious jail time. The judge even remarks that a long jail sentence will prevent Harry from paying child support.

Is Ida Lupino suggesting here that there’s nothing wrong with Harry having sister wives? Is she telling us that the sterile but competent Eve, the fertile yet dependent Phyllis, and Harry make a better trio than a couple? Is she suggesting that polygamy, or polyamory, is a more natural state of affairs than monogamy? George Bernard Shaw argued that judicially enforced monogamy had been instituted by inferior men who would find themselves celibate. Here, Lupino suggests, the only snake in the Garden of Eden is Eve. It was her decision to adopt a child in the first place that led to the breakup of what seemed a perfectly workable polyamorous relationship. It’s unlikely that Harry and Even will stay married. More likely, Harry will lose them both, wind up a lonely single man on probation paying child support after a costly divorce. That, Lupino suggests, is the real tragedy.

Just a note: Joan Fontaine died last December at the age of 96. Her third husband, Collier Young, had previously been married to none other than Ida Lupino. What’s more, it was Collier Young who wrote the original screenplay for The Bigamist. So it’s probably safe to say that much of the film is autobiographical.

Wadjda (2012)

Wadjda, by Haifaa al-Mansour, is supposedly the first feature length film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but Saudi Arabia currently has no move theaters. Haifaa al-Mansour was also subject to a number of draconian restrictions, including having to film from the back of a van, since, as a women, she was not allowed to be seen in public with her mostly male film crew. I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a “Saudi New Wave.” If you have any idea why, fill me in in the comments, since I’m fairly sure it’s not Islam. Iran, for example, has a rich cinematic tradition.

Wadjda, an 11-year-old school-girl, lives with her mother in lower-middle-class Riyadh. Her father, who seems like a nice enough guy, although we see very little of him, is quarreling with her mother. He’s disappointed he has a daughter and not a son, and intends to take a second wife. Every day Wadjda’s mother, played by the 27-year-old Reem Abdullah, puts on a veil, and waits for a commuter van driven by an Indian immigrant. Wadjda’s mother has a job, but women, in Saudi Arabia, aren’t allowed to drive. It makes no sense to me. I guess it’s supposed to keep them safe, but it seems to me that depending on a van driven by a strange man makes Wadjda’s mother less safe. In any event, she’s always feuding with her driver. He’s always early. He says she’s always late. He doesn’t turn on the air-conditioning. The average high temperature in Riyadh is 110 degrees in the Summer. The commute is long, tedious and demoralizing.

The 11-year-old Wadjda has more freedom than her mother. Girls below the age of puberty can go outside without a veil. Wadjda wears a simple headscarf. There are rules against mixing with boys in public but they’re not strictly enforced. Wadjda has a friend named Abdullah. It’s pretty much the kind of friendship you would expect between a 11-year-old boy and a 11-year-old girl. They tease each other. They play in the streets. He rides past her on his bike, and steals her lunch. The last is important. After she chases him down the street, losing her scarf, and fails to catch him, she decides that she wants her own bike. She sees just the one she wants. It’s not a Trek Madone. It’s a cheap, ugly green cruiser bike with crappy geometry and a big, puffy seat, the kind of bike you’d see at a Walmart, but to Wadjda, it’s freedom. It’s mobility.

It’s also 900 Riyals, about 250 dollars. Perhaps the best way to think of Wadjda would be as 400 Blows: Extreme Patriarchy, Female Edition. Wadjda is a rebel. More specifically, she’s a rebel who’s also a budding capitalist. She sells homemade bracelets and bootleg mix tapes of popular music. Her school is run by a severely Islamic young female principal. Among other things, patriarchy allows women to lord it over other women. The more rules, the more power you get by memorizing them. It’s also pretty easy to be a rebel. What are you rebelling against? It’s probably better to ask “what are you not rebelling against?” Wadjda’s schoolmates enthusiastically consume her black market bracelets. They paint their nails and give themselves tattoos with magic markers. They gossip about the principal sleeping around on her husband.

But Wadjda is not able to make those 900 Riyals by selling bracelets. She asks her mother, but her mother is not sympathetic. Girls don’t ride bikes. They’re boy’s toys. What’s more, riding a bike just might break her hymen and take her virginity. Wadjda finally hits on the idea of entering a competition for memorizing and reciting the Koran. The prize is 1000 Riyals, more than enough for the bike. She goes to a store and spends 80 Riyals on a kind of Rosetta Stone Learn the Koran program for her father’s Play Station 3. Her mother teaches her how to sing the verses. Her teachers at school thinks she’s reformed. Suddenly, she’s no longer Wadjda the rebel, but Wadjda the good girl. “You remind me of me when I was your age,” the principal says, flattering her to get her to rat out a few of the school’s bad girls.

Does Wadjda win the Koran competition and get the money for her bike? I won’t give any spoilers but let’s just say that after it’s all over I wanted to become a Zionist. If that sounds odd, go to Amazon and watch the movie. You’ll understand what I mean. Does it have a happy ending? Once again, I won’t give any spoilers. But it involves Wadjda’s relationship to her mother.

In the end, Wadjda draws most of its power from what it doesn’t mention. I have no idea how a Saudi would see Wadjda, but as an American, I noticed how everything seems 20 years out of date. Wadjda listens to cassettes, not an iPod She doesn’t have a cell phone. Even the soap dispensers in the public restrooms look like soap dispensers I haven’t seen since I was a teenager. What’s more, since Haifaa al-Mansour seems to want the film to play in Saudi Arabia, she tries very hard to use a light touch. She doesn’t come out and condemn Wahhabi Islam . Sometimes, however, understatement is more powerful than going over the top. The film’s most eloquent critique of patriarchy is the contrast between Wadjda’s mother’s relationship with Wadjda’s father and Wadjda’s relationship with her friend Abdul. It’s the very opposite of what you’d see in the United States, where adult women have the freedom to associate with any man they want, but children are restricted. Wadjda has more freedom than her mother. But we know it’s not going to last. In a few years, she’ll enter puberty. She’ll have to wear a veil, and the joy she finds in hanging out with Abdul will be over. She’ll be stuck in the same kind of loveless marriage as her mother. She’ll have to ride the same kind of commuter van. Her life is a dead end.

As clever and resourceful as Wadjda is, she has no future under Saudi Arabia’s extreme, almost totalitarian patriarchy.

Born In Flames (1983)

I saw Born in Flames, an ultra-low budget film made by the radical feminist Lizzie Borden — her real name — all the way back in the late 1980s on PBS. I liked a few of the performances, especially the charismatic turn by the rock musician Adele Bertei as a militant DJ named Isabel. But I couldn’t quite get by the premise, a feminist rebellion against an already existing social democratic state in New York City. Socialism in the late 1980s? We had just lived through eight years of Ronald Reagan.

Nevertheless, the film’s rough, ultra-low budget aesthetic had made such an impression on me that when I saw it on YouTube, I decided to check it out again. This time it made more sense. It was a dramatization of the rebellion of second wave feminism against the new left. The main flaw I noticed back in the 1980s — it blew a conflict more suited to a small activist group or to a graduate seminar up into a nationwide rebellion — became its main selling point. Born in Flames overreaches so much and fails hard that it will remind you of a great punk band made up of musicians who, while they can’t quite play their instruments, sing with so much passion and commitment that you wind up loving them anyway.

The “socialist” New York City portrayed by Born in Flames, set 10 years after the “war of liberation,” looks suspiciously like the plain old liberal Democratic New York City of the late 1970s and 1980s. That Manhattan and Brooklyn are now gated communities for rich, that nobody under 40 can quite remember the United States before 2001 when it did have traces of liberalism left over from the New deal, gives Born in Flames the look of a grungy, alternative universe. Compared to the New York City of Michael Bloomberg, the New York City of Ed Koch might just as well have been socialist. Thank God Lizzie Borden didn’t have the money to build sets. There it is, on film, the dirty old, pre-Giuliani New York in all its glory. Astor Place didn’t even have a Starbucks. TV news hadn’t yet become cable TV news. Koch had gotten rid of the graffiti on the subways, but they’re still dirty and run down.

If the governments of New York and the United States in Born in Flames are liberal, social democratic monoliths, the rebels look strangely like Occupy anarchists. We’re introduced to four groups of radical feminists. Two are centered on radio stations, “Radio Ragazza,” run by the above-mentioned Isabel, a little bit of Patti Smith’s fiery personality in the body of a young, gamin-like Cat Power, and “Radio Phoenix,” led by an earthy black woman named “Honey.” Think Tracy Chapman. There’s an anarchist society — I won’t say organization — led by the real life radical feminist Florence Kennedy and her young protégé Adelaide Norris, played by an excellent young actress named Jean Satterfield, who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Finally, there’s the “Socialist Woman’s Youth Review” — think “Jacobin” — run by three grad-student types, two played by unknowns, and a third by a young Kathryn Bigelow in her very first and only role as an actress. She’s a terrible actress. It’s easy to see why she found her success behind the camera.

It’s not necessarily the plot that makes the film work, the acting — which ranges from quite good to laughably bad — or the cinematography. Any 20 year old kid on Youtube could do better. What makes Born in Flames compelling in spite of its obvious flaws is how Lizzie Borden chooses the subject of an anarcho-feminist rebellion against a socialist government and takes it through to it’s logical conclusion. That conclusion looks pretty much like a radical feminist version of of Occupy without Zuccotti Park and Anonymous without any men.

After Adelaide Norris is fired from her job as a construction worker and transforms herself into a full-time organizer, she becomes so successful, her principles of “mutual aid” and grass-roots vigilantism such a viable alternative to the social democratic bureaucracy, that the government decides to get rid of her. The FBI kidnaps her in Penn Station. She’s sent to The Tombs. The police murder her, and it’s all made to look like a suicide. This brings Radio Ragazza together with Radio Phoenix, and unites the theretofore pro-government Socialist Woman’s Youth Review with the anarchist Woman’s Army of Liberation. They come together, get weapons training, and steal a shipment of M-16s. Then they take over a TV station, interrupt the President’s State of the Union Address, and broadcast to the world that Adelaide Norris had been murdered.

If that all resembles the Anonymous hack of MIT’s web page on the first year’s anniversary of Aaron Schwartz’s suicide then perhaps it’s because Anonymous has partly been influenced by Act Up’s famous takeover of CBS’s Evening News. During Operation Desert Storm, they briefly cut into Dan Rather’s broadcast and chanted “Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” There were “hacks” before they invented the Internet. But Borden stages more than just an Anonymous hack. I loved the final 5 minutes of this film. Some other people who were in New York on 9/11 may hate it. Isabel, in the now mobile Radio Ragazza — they started broadcasting out of a van after the government burned down their studio — reads a free verse poem. The poem isn’t a earthy shatteringly great work of art, but it hasn’t aged very much, and Adele Bertei is a gifted enough reader to make it work. The choice lies ahead of us. Do we chose Eros or do we chose Thanatos? Do we save the environment or destroy it? Do we chose freedom or hierarchy? While Isabel is reading, we flash to a mainstream, corporate reporter standing in front of the old World Trade Center. As he blathers on in the style of a Tom Friedman or a David Brooks or a George Will or a David Broder or a (insert your corporate hack here) the camera draws our attention to the radio antenna above Building Number 1. What happens next? Let’s just say that if Condoleeza Rice saw Born in Flames — and there’s no reason to think she did — she would have had no excuse. Nobody could have predicted? Someone did.