Female Director Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner and Making Films for Women in the 1930s

Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s was a male-dominated space, with men like Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and countless others receiving credit for their illustrious place in film history. But, one person that film history largely forgets is Dorothy Arzner, who has the largest oeuvre of any woman filmmaker. She was the only female director working during this time and the only female filmmaker whose work moved from the silent era into sound, showing her strength in filmmaking as well as her creativity. But it isn’t just her technical prowess that deserves praise; it is also her desire to portray nuanced and complicated women, rather than the stereotypical women-as-objects seen in that era of cinema. Her films explore women, how they’re represented in classic Hollywood narratives, and how supportive friendships between women flourish, which can be seen in Dance, Girl, Dance. She made films about women for women, and addressed the many facets of being a woman, from societal standing to romantic relationships to what it means to work. Arzner was also a lesbian filmmaker, which can be seen in her critiques of heteronormative relationships and their consequences, particularly in her 1933 film, Christopher Strong.

Despite a prolific career, Arzner is not commonly mentioned with this era of Hollywood cinema and she is rarely studied. I was lucky enough to be introduced to her work by a TA in grad school, who told me only one book has been written on Arzner and how difficult is to find many of her films — only a few of them are available to stream or even purchase. I believe Arzner deserves a larger place in the canon, and more recognition for the types of films she was creating, particularly with her focus on catering to a female spectator. The films I detail below are some of her more easily found work and exemplify Arzner’s key themes around social class, work, friendship, and critiques of heteronormativity.

Continue reading “Female Director Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner and Making Films for Women in the 1930s”

In His Most Self Aware Film Yet, Lars Von Trier Proves He Still Doesn’t Care About Women

It started with laughter and ended with a round of applause. No, this was not a comedy show, but it sure felt like one. This was the screening for the director’s cut of Lars Von Trier’s newest piece of controversy, The House That Jack Built. For two-and-a-half hours, von Trier showcased his latest experiment in misogyny, violence, and stroking his own ego.

The House That Jack Built marks von Trier’s return to filmmaking after being banned from Cannes in 2011 for making comments about sympathizing with Hitler. His newest film documents 12 years in the life of Jack, played by Matt Dillon, and the five incidents that he believes have defined him as a serial killer, as recounted to Verge (Bruno Ganz). These five incidents involve the brutal murder and mutilation of female bodies, save for the last incident. To Jack, these murders are an act of high art, markers of his own intelligence — what he’s doing is not wrong because it is in the name of art. The film follows a Dante-like structure as we traverse through the different incidents like the circles of hell, and perhaps even wander into hell itself.

Continue reading “In His Most Self Aware Film Yet, Lars Von Trier Proves He Still Doesn’t Care About Women”

‘Cam’ is a Humanizing Portrayal of Sex Work and a Horrifying Look at the Internet

Black Mirror has tapped into our fears of the looming power of technology: cell phones, virtual reality, constant surveillance, it has addressed it all. But many of those episodes address a not-so-distant future. What about the technological fears happening now? Daniel Goldhaber’s film, Cam, addresses our current fears in the digital age, using the perspective of a cam girl who has had her identity stolen.

Lola is a cam girl who aspires to be in the Top 50 performers on her cam website. For those unfamiliar with camming, it is when someone, usually a woman, holds sex shows via webcam. Lola has devoted customers who tip well and even get private Skype chats for the right price. She works hard and has cultivated an online persona and aesthetic that she believes will get her to the top. But, just as she’s hit her stride and on track to hit that coveted top 50 spot, someone steals her account. What comes next is an increasingly bizarre journey to get her account back and find out who did this to her. 

Sex workers in horror are treated like trash. They are extras to be thrown away, women to be punished for their overt sexuality, and scantly-clad figures to be torn apart. However, Cam succeeds in humanizing sex workers and showing them as hard-working people, mostly in part to Isa Mazzei’s involvement. Mazzei, a former sex worker, wrote the film and used many of her own personal experiences with camming for inspiration. This is not a film that demonizes sex work or tries to show Lola that she needs to stop doing it for some kind of retribution. Rather, it shows the reality of profession that is rarely seen in horror, or any genre of film really. Instead of sensationalizing her work or exploiting her body, the film presents her work as a job, something she’s doing for money and how she gains control over those watching her to rake in tips.

Continue reading “‘Cam’ is a Humanizing Portrayal of Sex Work and a Horrifying Look at the Internet”

Playing With Zombies in ‘One Cut of the Dead’

The past decade has seen an absolute boom in the zombie genre. Blood, guts, a message of “humanity is the real monster,” you know the drill. The genre has, frankly, been exhausted and finding a decent film about the undead is difficult. It seems that perhaps the time of the zombie has passed. But, Shinichirou Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead says otherwise. While it is not the typical zombie movie, this film questions and makes fun of popular zombie tropes and finally made me excited about the subgenre again. It starts as one seemingly-mediocre thing and then becomes something else entirely.

One Cut of the Dead opens in the well-known found footage style. A crew is making a zombie movie in a secluded location, then all hell breaks loose. Each member of the crew falls into a well-known figure of the zombie film: the screaming girl, the attempting-to-be-masculine boy, the wise, older character who seems to know exactly why everything is going wrong. The found footage style and stereotypical characters look like any other zombie film, especially George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead. However, after an exceptional 37-minute long take, this film completely flips tone, style, story, everything.

Continue reading “Playing With Zombies in ‘One Cut of the Dead’”

‘Halloween’ (2018) is an Effective and Gory Examination of the Lasting Effects of Trauma

On Halloween in 1978, Michael Myers came home. Now, 40 years later, he’s back again with a vengeance. One of the most iconic figures in horror history, Michael Myers is evil incarnate, a potentially supernatural figure who wants nothing more than to kill. However, there is a massive shift in the most recent addition to the Halloween franchise. Instead of focusing on this figure of evil incarnate, the film offers are poignant portrayal of trauma and its effects on both the survivor and their family. While showing plenty of disgusting kills, the focus falls away for Myers and onto the women of the Strode family.

Halloween takes place 40 years after the events of the 1978 Halloween. Director-writer David Gordon Green has erased all previous sequels in the Halloween canon, eliminating claims that Myers is Laurie’s brother and that he is some kind of supernatural figure. Don’t worry, the film makes plenty of crowd-pleasing allusions to the previous films. 40 years after the horrors enacted by Myers, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is living in fear and isolation, with an estranged relationship with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak). Laurie’s preparations for Myers’ inevitable escape are not in vain; he breaks out, and he’s ready to terrorize Haddonfield yet again. You can expect a series of ridiculous and gory deaths, but also surprisingly touching and emotional moments between grandmother, mother, and daughter. Plus, John Carpenter returns to score the film, which is an added bonus. Continue reading “‘Halloween’ (2018) is an Effective and Gory Examination of the Lasting Effects of Trauma”

Halloween Horrors: Get Seduced by the Ghostly Eroticism of ‘Kuroneko’

It seems somewhat serendipitous that my final horror film recommendation for the month is Kuroneko, the most recent film I viewed on FilmStruck. Because of that streaming service, I was able to watch perhaps one of the most beautiful horror movies ever made and be seduced by its ghostly visuals. It is also a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film, a genre that seems to exclusively be grounded in Western cinema.

Kuroneko, or Black Cat, is about grief, suffering, revenge, and love. The film takes place is war-torn feudal Japan where young men are sent off to battle and rogue samurai roam the land. Two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, are raped and murdered by said rogue samurai. However, a black cat appears, and brings them back to life as vengeful spirits who vow to drink the blood of every samurai in existence. This gets a bit complicated, however, when their son and husband, Gintoki, becomes a samurai. Continue reading “Halloween Horrors: Get Seduced by the Ghostly Eroticism of ‘Kuroneko’”

Halloween Horrors: A Gory Reimagining of the Slasher Film in ‘High Tension’

The slasher film is a quintessential subgenre for horror, giving the world figures like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger: all male figures chasing women with knives. But for this week’s horror recommendation, I’m bringing you a slasher of the likes you’ve never seen. Alexandre Aja’s High Tension takes the slasher film and turns it on his head. It is essential viewing for fans of the genre and of the portrayal of gender in horror film.

High Tension follows student Marie (Cecile de France) and her friend, Alex (Maïwenn) as they travel to Alex’s family home in the French countryside. It is a secluded place, quiet and surrounded by corn, perfect for studying, Alex says. However, there isn’t much studying when a deranged killer arrives at the home, killing Alex’s family and kidnapping her, leaving Marie behind. What ensues is Marie’s quest to save her friend from the psychopath and prove how much she cares for her. Continue reading “Halloween Horrors: A Gory Reimagining of the Slasher Film in ‘High Tension’”