Boxing Helena: Pseudo Feminism

Sands and Fenn

Sands and Fenn

Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s debut feature Boxing Helena (1993) has never been a popular film. It has found some longevity among the fans of her father’s films, but has for all purposes drifted into obscurity in the wake of poor reviews that followed it’s winning of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993. For the most part, the critics who publicly lashed Boxing Helena in 1993 did have a few valid points.

For instance, it has widely been agreed upon that the film is too dependent on the shocking nature of Dr. Cavanaugh’s (Julian Sands) amputation of Helena’s (Sherilyn Fenn) limbs as a means to control and manipulate her; making her his own Venus Di Milo. The sexual nature of this violence and of the relationship between these two characters is, in how the film is paced, made gratuitous, laboring a point that was more than evident at the beginning of the scene.

What merits a reevaluation of Boxing Helena is its approach to feminism. Lynch doesn’t follow the rule of feminist film by constructing a visual codification around a female signifier who is designed to engage the demographic of feminists. In fact, Lynch does just the opposite. She creates her scenes from the perspective of the sexually obsessive Cavanaugh, lighting and choreographing Helena’s love scenes with her boyfriend (Bill Paxton) in a manner instantly recognizable as the soft-core aesthetic of Zalman King. These subjective POV love scenes are the epitome of the male gaze, heightened to the point that the image becomes ridiculous and utterly absurd. Cavanaugh’s view of the world, as illustrated by Lynch’s camera, enables the feminist demographic to see and recognize this worldview as a perverse approximation of our own.

Note the Zalman King influence.

Note the Zalman King influence.

The motif of Cavanaugh’s voyeurism is persistent in demonstrating how the masculine demographic perceives the female form as a vehicle for sexual gratification. In turn, Boxing Helena is more concerned with how masculine audiences view women in film than with the superficial cautionary tale of sadistic chauvinism acted upon; an interpretation that remains prevalent today.

Admittedly, Lynch’s inversion of the feminist film aesthetic is just a subtext in Boxing Helena. I myself had to view the film twice before detecting what Lynch’s primary concerns were. What detracted from the film in the minds of critics in 1993 is exactly what makes any sub textual reading so difficult; the gratuitous nature of Lynch’s depictions of violence and sexuality.

-Robert Curry

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American Dreams

Zimbo Films presents the first installment in a series of deeply personal and biographical videos.

 

 

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A Few Words Concerning David Gordon Green’s Joe

Nicolas Cage as Joe

Nicolas Cage as Joe

At its best the cinema of David Gordon Green is powered by a strong sense of space, location, and a natural alignment with regionalism. Like Terrence Malick, Green’s best films prize the environment surrounding his characters just as much as the characters themselves. George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2003) are both so heavily imbued with regional atmosphere that the location becomes a central character to the film’s narrative. Though Green transitioned into mainstream comedy in 2008 and gave up this aesthetic temporarily, he revived it with Prince Avalanche (2013) to great effect. Green’s even more recent film Joe (2013) attempts the same aesthetic, though this time in the guise of a genre film written by Gary Hawkins.

Until Joe, Green’s personal projects were written or co-written by him, and it was only during his foray into mainstream comedy beginning with Pineapple Express (2008) that he began directing other writer’s screenplays. These films were not reliant upon Green’s aesthetic of naturalism and bore little resemblance to his signature style. Though Joe may not be typically commercial, Hawkins script is heavily weighted with genre conventions. Green attempts to take Hawkins script and let it open up, directing the film to concentrate more heavily on character than story. Where another filmmaker would have kept the film going at a nice clip, Green slows the film down with long shots of characters in a space as reflective as it is realistic before the scene really starts or ends. This approach is in turn aided by Green’s employment of local non-actors in supporting roles. Casting like this has long been a part of Green’s style, reinforcing the notion that the film and all of its characters are unique to the region of the narrative.

The fusion of commercial and personal aesthetics prevalent in Joe remains only a portion of the spectacle. The even more superficial signifier of an evolution in Green’s filmmaking comes in the form of Nicolas Cage. A one time darling of the off-beat comedy and art house film, Cage returns to the stomping ground of his youth from a long spell in schlocky would-be blockbusters. In many respects, Joe is a sort of comeback film for Nicolas Cage, who hasn’t been able to demonstrate his tremendous talents since his collaboration with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2008). As the title character in Green’s film, Cage explores the more nuanced side of his craft, giving the audience one of his most realistic and haunting performances of his career.

-Robert Curry

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A Hard Day’s Night Revisited

“We didn’t want to make a fuckin’ shitty pop movie. We didn’t even want to make a movie that was going to be bad.”

-John Lennon, 1970

“Aesthetic experience exists. A Hard Day’s Night has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: Fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.”

-Jonas Mekas, 1st October 1964

promotional photograph taken on set

promotional photograph taken on set

In the wake of the Beatles break-up in 1970, John Lennon began to systematically debunk the public’s more romantic notions of the band he founded as a teenager. Despite Lennon’s somewhat abrasive interview with Rolling Stone that year, and four a series of songs that attacked the Beatles myth, Lennon never really succeeded in retooling the public’s image of the Beatles. As much as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all worked to distance themselves from their Beatle identities to promote their first solo albums, those personas would forever prove inescapable. In truth, the Beatle personas that proved so inescapable were the product of the press, a product that found a physical, widely distributed manifestation in Richard Lester’s film A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

George Harrison and Richard Lester

George Harrison and Richard Lester

Lester’s film, in terms of Beatle history, arrived in time to solidify their celebrity on an international scale. The film was released on the heels of their first U.S. tour, and in the proceeding months after John Lennon published his first book of comedic prose In His Own Write. Lennon’s literary achievement and the widely covered press conferences of the American tour would form the crux of the Beatle’s fictional counter-parts in A Hard Day’s Night. To lend a more intimate air to the film, Beatles manager Brian Epstein commissioned Allun Owen to pen the script after spending two nights on tour with the band. Owen’s script, despite capturing the tempo and mannerisms of the Beatles’ dialogue, still adheres strictly to the caricatures of the fab four that they themselves propagated, albeit inadvertently, by way of their momentous press coverage.

Lester himself was selected to direct the film because of his association with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester made a film with Milligan and Sellers titled The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film (1960) which reprised a number of comedic elements Milligan and Sellers employed while on The Goon Show; a radio program Lennon and McCartney adamantly followed while in school. Richard Lester’s style at this point was purely economical. His use of handheld portable cameras, and the cinema-verite style they allowed, was simply a product of necessity. Lester’s follow-up film to A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack And How To Get It (1965), exhibits a far more formal approach to cinematic technique, marking the beginning of his move away from the kinetic energy that made A Hard Day’s Night such a novelty to critics and audiences alike.

A Hard Day’s Night’s visual virtuosity may have been widely praised, but in certain quarters the film was dismissed as a contemporarily dressed Elvis movie. The loudest spokesperson of this camp was Jonas Mekas. Mekas, an ex-patriot Lithuanian filmmaker based in New York, filled his column in The Village Voice with accusations directed more so at the film critics who heralded A Hard Day’s Night as opposed to the film itself. Mekas’ point was simple. He saw in A Hard Day’s Night nothing new. And it’s true, Richard Lester’s film, in so much as its visual style is concerned, offers the cinema nothing that hasn’t already been done by the “underground”, the likes of which include Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, and Mekas himself. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night’s greatest achievement in the vein of cinematic style is that it demonstrates that avant-garde tactics can be employed for commercial use, providing a blueprint for the music video format that would begin to evolve over the next two decades.

A Hard Day’s Night has an even more troubling relationsLennon and Anna Quayle hip to the Maysles Brothers film of their first stateside tour that has gone under several title changes before it’s contemporary DVD release as The First U.S. Visit. In fact, Mekas based one of his articles on the relationship between these two films: “The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what the Beatles are”. The First U.S. Visit demonstrates how effective the medium of the documentary is at handling musical subjects. The Maysles’ film of the Beatles pre-dates D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and is equally inspired and effective. When Mekas alludes to the truth of the Beatles, he is undoubtedly referring to the manufactured characters of Owen’s script like Paul’s grandfather, who are the catalysts of all the film’s plot points and the unwilling foils of the fab four. The problem with Mekas’ argument is that while the Maysles’ film may be more illuminating and visually inspired, it is not as traditionally entertaining and therefore not as accessible as Lester’s film, or to paraphrase Jonas Mekas, it isn’t as much “fun”. That being said, the Maysles’ film was also never as widely distributed as A Hard Day’s Night, which had been bankrolled and released by United Artists. Mekas’ attacks on critics for their praise of Lester’s film seem, with hindsight, off base.

-Robert Curry

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Burt Lancaster: His Image & Sexuality

This new video is the beginning of a new trend here at Zimbo.  Work has begun on a few different video pieces, some like this one, some that are more autobiographical.  Regardless of aesthetic differences, these works will all be making their premieres online, on this site.  So I hope you check back in to see what’s up.  Enjoy.

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Good Ole Bushrod Gentry

Film aficionados and critics alike are familiar with the speculation pertaining to homosexual readings of films. Particularly those films of old Hollywood, before homosexuality was acceptable outside of the closet in the cinema. Kenneth Anger, Harvey Firestein and Mark Rappaport have all drawn definite conclusions based upon their analysis of certain films as well as filmic archetypes. Strangely, one film that begs such an interpretation has gone largely ignored.
Many Rivers To Cross
The film of which I speak is Roy Rowland’s Many Rivers To Cross (1955). Today, Rowland is best known for directing The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953), a staggeringly unique children’s film scripted by Dr. Seuss and rediscovered by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the nineties. However, Roy Rowland, in the fifties, was a director for hire whose style leaned toward expressionistic shadows and plastic looking sets. With all of that in mind, Rowland seems an odd choice to direct an out-door adventure comedy starring Robert Taylor, particularly since Many Rivers To Cross was clearly made to cash in on Taylor’s new found persona as an action star after the success of two Richard Thorpe films, Knights Of The Round Table (1953) and Ivanhoe (1952).
Yet, it is neither Robert Taylor nor Roy Rowland who are responsible for the homoerotic overtones in Many Rivers To Cross. The responsible parties appear to be, as is so often the case according to Mark Rappaport’s Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), the film’s screenwriters Harry Brown and Guy Trosper. What is out of the ordinary is how blatant and bawdy the film is in terms of its dialogue. But what remains the real crux of a homoerotic interpretation lies in the name of Robert Taylor’s character, Bushrod Gentry.
From the outset of the film, Bushrod makes it clear that he is not the marrying kind. He often goes off on monologues about the Romantic conflict about man pitted alone against nature, adding that a wife, and all of the responsibility that comes with having a wife, would hamper such a way of life. In the context of the film, Bushrod has a reputation for winning ladies hearts and then abandoning them. Details of Bushrod’s relationships are fleshed out later in the film, where it becomes apparent that the attraction these ladies have for Bushrod is entirely one sided.
The one-sided romance is of course part of the comedy. Mary Stuart Cherne (Eleanor Parker) is relentless in her pursuit of Bushrod. She goes so far as to marry him at gunpoint. This would be acceptable under typical heterosexual comedic circumstances, but Bushrod’s aggressive disinterest in Mary is puzzling in its extremism, making Katharine Hepburn’s pursuit of Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) look mild. But what is most compelling about their relationship is that Mary presents rather masculine, both in dress and in behavior. Bushrod, by the time the film concludes, has chosen to stay with Mary, and its impossible to ignore the notion that part of what motivates Bushrod are indeed Mary’s masculine tendencies.
Immediately after the wedding, Bushrod runs away, only to be pursued by Mary. Lucky for Bushrod, a gaggle of Indian hunting men rescue him, and Bushrod is introduced to Fremont (Jeff Richards). Fremont and Bushrod are both infamous mountain men, and connect over a beer, lamenting the hardship of marriage. No sooner do they agree to go off into the mountains together and shirk their marital responsibilities than they get into a bar fight. Once the fight is won, they head off to Fremont’s house, only to find Fremont’s son is sick. Luckily, Bushrod is able to revive the boy. But, being moved by Fremont’s domesticity, Bushrod sets out to rejoin Mary, arriving in time to save her from Indians.
The conclusion of Many Rivers To Cross is as unmotivated as it is tacked on. It’s clear, and it has been adamantly reinforced that Bushrod would rather be with men, and if not with men, alone. Consider the flirtatious greeting Fremont gives Bushrod when they first cross paths, “You’re smaller than I reckoned”. To which Bushrod replies with a grin, “I’m bigger than I look”, the two men then embrace and order a round of beers. It is the persistent dialogue and body language in Bushrod’s scenes with the same sex in addition to his aversion to women that give credit to the allegations of blatant homoeroticism.

-Robert Curry

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Cinematic Histories Of Kaspar Hauser

History, like memory, becomes perverted in the retelling as one moves further and further away from the recollected event. For instance, Wyatt Earp metamorphosed from a violent lawman into a pacifist and then into an action hero with not just a little help from cinematic recreations of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. American history and its cinema are intrinsically tied together, with the cinema updating and reshaping history to best suite the contemporary mood. Consider how depictions of Abraham Lincoln have changed from Henry Fonda’s soft-spoken idealist to Daniel Day-Lewis’ bipolar sage. It’s a symptom of our ever-shrinking world, induced by the mass media that history is forever changing in the minds of the populace. This goes not only for the United States, but also for every country. Consider then the ramifications of a historic event whose legendary retelling is as speculative as the historical facts from which it has sprung.

Bruno S. in Werner Herzog's The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

Bruno S. in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

The German story of Kaspar Hauser and the facts on which it was based exemplify the relationship between legend and history, and its two most famous cinematic retellings are illustrative off the cinema’s relationship to both. Werner Herzog’s rendering of the legend is the first, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974). And, like most of Herzog’s narrative films, is reductive of the tropes that define the genre of cinematic period pieces, opting for a hyperrealism of diminished spectacles as opposed to the audience’s expectations of prefabricated spectacle. Herzog endeavors to construct his narrative with a remove from cinematic history and national history, presenting the subject of Kaspar Hauser in a cinematic vernacular that is entirely removed from tradition.

Werner Herzog’s realigns the spectator’s relationship to film through his denial of cinematic tradition. Yet, the story of Kaspar Hauser is in itself a German tradition. Therefore Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser is a presentation of a traditional German legend through the lens of fresh, unadulterated eyes, the eyes of Werner Herzog. Interestingly, by presenting the story of Kaspar Hauser in this way Herzog transforms the legend into a parable of sorts. Much like the people of West Germany belonging to Herzog’s generation, Kaspar Hauser must not only learn to define himself in a world that has abandoned him, but must also learn to define his relationship to that world.

Peter Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser (1993) differs in many respects from the Herzog retelling. Sehr’s film addresses many of the facts Herzog’s narrative overlooks, while also conforming to the tradition of filmmaking Herzog is railing against. Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser is more of a political thriller cast as a satire, retelling Hauser’s story as part of the history of the Duchy Of Baden. In Sehr’s film, Hauser is the heir to the Duchy, but who is plotted against as a baby and removed to a dungeon. When Hauser is released, it is as a pawn in a power struggle, and Sehr’s film will then chronicle how Hauser’s innocence is corrupted as he is manipulated and finally murdered by the aristocracy to whom he rightly belongs. In this way Kaspar Hauser is about the class struggle, government corruption, and a lampooning of aristocratic indulgence.

It is because Sehr is so concerned that his film present as many facts of the Kaspar Hauser story as possible, though there is some speculation on his part, that his retelling is more easily read as a traditional historic drama. One must also consider the mode by which Sehr’s film operates. It adheres vehemently to a clear three act structure, has its heroes and villains, and employs a montage style derivative of Griffith and Eisenstein but whose modernisms is wholly indebted to contemporary Hollywood. Thus Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser is a film that adheres to the traditions of the cinema, representing its narrative as a cinematic reality, conforming to the expectations of the spectator.

Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser is a film of a legend. Herzog’s editing of the Hauser story removes elements that could have otherwise ground it in Germany’s linear history. Likewise, Herzog’s account on film is non-traditionalist, presenting a reality that does not conform, but rather redefines an audience’s cinematic expectation. This is what has always made Herzog’s films more difficult than some. Of the two Kaspar Hauser films, Peter Sehr’s rendition is entirely more accessible, though less incredible than Werner Herzog’s.

Andre Eisermann as Kaspar Hauser in Peter Sehr's 1993 adaptation.

Andre Eisermann as Kaspar Hauser in Peter Sehr’s 1993 adaptation.

But it’s been twenty-one years since Sehr’s film was released, and forty since Herzog’s. Looking back at the moment each film was made it is far easier to contextualize Herzog’s film because of how infamous the New German Cinema movement has become in film history. Where Peter Sehr’s film was made after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His film’s historical context in terms of its production year is elusive at best to an American audience, and the satirization of his government within his film Kaspar Hauser could go largely ignored. Like all talented filmmakers Sehr’s film reflects its moment of production. The very act of situating Kaspar Hauser’s narrative in (the still speculative connection to) the Duchy of Baden signifies a need by the filmmaker to address the ruling class. And it is in the wake of German reunification that Sehr made his film, a scathing analysis of government corruption that mirrored the new government of Germany.

The history of Kaspar Hauser demonstrates the cinema’s need, for it is first the need of the audience, to retell and reconstruct histories to illuminate the present.

-Robert Curry

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