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election anxiety countdown film

12 Days: Viaje

In this month of skeletons and zombies and pumpkin spice (link), it felt appropriate to watch Paz Fábrega’s minute Costa Rican romance Viaje from 2015 begin at a costume party. It was this month’s pick for Las Kikas Cine Club.

As Viaje begins, a lonely young man in a bear costume hits on a woman on the stairs at a house party. It’s not clear what her costume is, or if she’s wearing a costume at all. She rejects his advance, but a few minutes later returns and corners the bear in the bathroom. They kiss and leave the party together. A drunken romance begins.

Pedro (Fernando Bolaños) is the bear and Luciana (Kattia González) is the “girl” — spoiler alert — it turns out the young woman’s costume is of herself wearing what she would have worn in kindergarten. Nobody gets it without her explanation, which she finally gives to a stranger at the end of the film. So, is this a tale of goldilocks and the bear? Red riding hood and the wolf?

Leaving the party, the two flirt in the back of a cab. The conversation turns to a rejection of monogamy and the construction of an imagined life together with queer polyamorous couples taking care of their children on the weekends so that they can still go out with other people, or each other. The cab driver interjects, calls this attitude selfish, and suggests that when Luciana has her first child her mothering instincts will kick in.

In the morning, Pedro has to leave for work. He is a graduate student in forest research and needs to travel to a remote forest outpost. He invites Luciana along. She can take a bus back into town after the first leg of the trip. And the journey of the title begins.

Before leaving, Pedro brings a pet fish in a plastic bag to be taken care of by a friend at a local aquarium shop. The fish in a bag was a nice callback to the theme of entrapment embodied by a goldfish in last month’s Las Kikas film pick, Pelo Malo. In the next scene, the two are talking about condoms. Pedro doesn’t like to be wrapped in plastic any more than the fish does. Is this Pedro turning in to an animal? Is Luciana in danger? Is the child predicted in the taxi about to be conceived. Or is this more of the flirtatious sexual exploration that started in the taxi earlier?

Soon the two are in the jungle, brushing their hands over a bed of plants that contract when touched. As the two disrobe in their tent and later at a swimming hole the story risks becoming a tale of Adam and Eve among the wonders of the Garden of Eden. Though it is unclear what the forbidden fruit is, or if there is an impending fall for indulging in this spontaneous journey. Will the two turn into animals? Will real animals come for them?

This is not that kind of story. The viaje is as much an internal one for Luciana as it is geographic. Luciana might want to rewind her life and play the part of a little girl, but we learn that a major change in her life will begin soon. She has a boyfriend on the other side of the globe that she hasn’t seen in a year. She is about to fly away to be with him. Following Pedro deeper into the jungle is not compatible with these plans. Our lovers must live in the moment.

Viaje is shot in a beautiful black and white that brings contrasts forward. The jungles of Costa Rica and the bodies of Pedro and Luciana might have been overwhelmed and lost in lush green if presented in color. The dialogue is sparse. Much is unsaid, revealed only through the movements of actors Bolaños and González.

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election anxiety countdown film

40 Days: Pelo Malo

Venezuelan filmmaker Mariana Rondón’s Pelo Malo (2013) follows Junior and his mother Marta in a rough Caracas housing project. His father was lost to gun violence in the recent past — the presence of Junior’s newborn brother suggests his father died six to nine months ago. They hear gunfire echoing routinely at night. The film suggests that his father, like most of the young men in the film, had been pulled into gang battles. Junior and his mother each deal with the trauma of loss differently.

Samantha Castillo and Samuel Lange Zambrano (background) in Pelo Malo

The boy — played by Samuel Lange Zambrano — is only referred to as Junior, which traps him in a constant relationship with the missing “Senior.” Junior does much to take on the role his father might have. He takes care of his mother when she’s hungover and feeds his baby brother. But mostly, Junior retreats in to his own interests rather than running with the boys who play basketball, the boys following his father towards gangs and death. He is interested in music and dancing and most of all, having straight hair like his mother and like photos of pop singers — his hair is kinky like his dead father’s and that of his abuela. Is he trying to be feminine, or is he trying to escape turning from Junior into Senior?

Marta — played by Samantha Castillo — copes by becoming tougher, more stereotypically masculine. When the film opens, she is working as a housecleaner, but she wants to be a security guard. “What if I get shot?” she asks at a job interview. This confuses the interviewer. He’s hiring for a cleaner, not a security guard, so she leaves. The only way she can get on the security force is not through dedication and toughness, but by sleeping with the man in charge, named only as el jefe. But even in submitting to el jefe, Marta is being manipulative against Junior. Earlier, Marta expressed fear to the family doctor that Junior was becoming gay. The family doctor suggested Junior needed a male role model, needed to see positive examples of heteronormativity. So, she stages the tryst with el jefe in their apartment, in front of Junior. But this twisted example of heteronormativity where sex is the ticket to a good job, where the man does not care and bring home support but rather takes away dignity, only traumatizes Junior further. A final insult is the el jefe’s gift. His only contribution of value to the household is a goldfish trapped in a plastic bag, later seen trapped in an equally tiny pitcher of water. It’s as though the boss is saying, “here is a reminder that you’re in a cage and can’t escape.” Eventually, the kid frees the goldfish from its torture by dumping him out the window. The goldfish in its brief flight might be the only character with something resembling release in the film.

In his quest for straight hair and music and dance, Junior finds an ally in his abuela, but she too is using him. Having lost her son, she is worried about having no one to take care of her in old age. If she takes care of Junior and lets him sing and dance, she might earn his devotion. It’s an investment (earlier we see that she keeps books on Junior-related expenses to bill Marta for). The newborn will grow up to take care of Marta, she reasons, “one for you, one for me.” But abuela scares Junior off. The outfit she lovingly crafts for him is too feminine. “I’m not a girl!” he shouts. It is a perfect replica of the outfit singer Henry Stephen wears when he performs the song she teaches Junior, the song that runs through much of the film and through Junior’s mind:

The song is a catchy and has strange images: lemons, a lemon tree, a brunette, the reactions of an Englishman (yeah yeah yeah) and a Frenchman (ooh la la). Here is Google’s translation of the lyrics. I’m sure a native Spanish speaker would hear plenty of innuendo. Surely mi limon is a blond with “good hair” in contrast with the dark-haired morena in the lyrics. A rough Google translation of the lyrics gives us “lemons to drink / lemons to suck on.” Junior shouldn’t have to have his queerness deprogrammed, but if he’s going to be exposed to heterosexual modes of being, pop song lyrics are a safer parenting technique than the route Marta took.

But look again at Henry Stephen in that video. what are we to make of his pelo malo, which runs counter to Junior’s belief that singers have straight hair. Nelly Ramos, who plays Junior’s abuela, was a contemporary of Stephen in the ‘70s Venezuelan pop scene. Perhaps she’s trying to teach Junior that kinky hair is pelo bueno, but Junior doesn’t have the chance to finish his transformation into Stephen.

How does a story of poverty in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez tie in to my thoughts about the election and this moment in time? Venezuela is a favorite foil for Trump and Fox News. Democrats want to turn the U.S. into Venezuela, Fox pundits are fond of saying. But it is Trump who is bringing us closer to authoritarianism, acting like a dictator. He has repeatedly declined to acknowledge the possibility of a transfer of power and has disparaged the democratic process. Life under Trump’s regime looks more and more like a scene from Pelo Malo every day. Our failed approach to the pandemic and to diplomacy means we too are isolated from our English (yeah yeah yeah) and French (ooh la la) allies. The film’s final shot has Junior in school stone-faced while his classmates all chant an anthem about revolution, combat, and struggle instead of a joyful song about a lemon tree, and I thought of Trump’s recent pledge to impose “patriotic curriculum” on our schools. I’m hopeful we find a better resolution in 40 days than Junior or his goldfish.

Pelo Malo’ was the latest pick for Las Kikas Cine Club. Join us next month to discuss Paz Fábrega’s ‘Viaje’ from 2015.

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film

Félicité: What is Your Part in the Orchestra?

Félicité (2017) is a dizzying and beautiful film by Senegalese director Alain Gomis. It is a slice of life in Kinshasa that concerns Félicité, a nightclub singer whose teenage son is in a motorbike accident. In the first half of the film,  she is frantically doing all she can to save her son, but soon the film slows down. It becomes a portrait that encompass isolation, grief, community, and the ambiguities of a practical and romantic companionship. 

Félicité official poster

Two sets of interludes break up the film’s main narrative: dreamscapes of a forest outside the city in an inky-purple hue;  and scenes of an orchestra and choir in a cold blue-green light. Each time the latter appeared, I turned the volume up a bit more on my sound system. The beauty of the music — structured sounds from calm-faced musicians and singers — was especially moving in a film full of chaotic domestic and street scenes. 

Perhaps I was especially primed to pay attention to these scenes. I had recently been thinking about orchestras as a metaphor for the moment we find ourselves in (a global pandemic, a heightened awareness of structural racism, an election year of dire importance). Each of us take up prominent roles when called for. Each of us supporting the whole effort in the background as it progresses: flute, violin, and drum, each essential in their way. 

And Félicité knows this. She is a musician herself, a singer in a raucous nightclub. But at one point she is so filled with grief over her situation and her son’s accident that she can not sing, even as her bandmates play and encourage her. The scene ends abruptly as she walks off stage and the band halts. Of course, her life goes on. None of us can ever truly walk off stage. In our ways, we have to keep singing, and keep sustaining those around us. 

Tabu, the repairman and nightclub drunk whose presence in Félicité’s life grows as the film progresses, also shows us that life pushes onward. He is repeatedly present and available to help (except when he drinks too much at the club). He might not know a lot about refrigerators, or how to carry a boy out of a hospital, or how to care for that traumatized boy, but he’s game. He steps in to take on the challenges in front of him, eventually succeeding at most in his slow, lumbering way. 

This may be the message of Gomis’ slice of life film. We are there for each other when we take on the challenges in front of us. We each have to play our parts as best we can to move forward. 

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books essays film

Why I Didn’t Read ‘Little Women’ Until Age 44

Back in December, I was excited to hear that Greta Gerwig had a new film coming out. One of the first things I heard about the film was that she had departed from the source material in interesting ways, ways that critics described as feminist and innovative. I was excited about this, but embarrassed that I hadn’t read the source material. A gap in my reading history had become an obstacle to my love of film. So I finally read Little Women in the week or two before the film opened in D.C. As I did so, I couldn’t help but ask myself why I’d never read Louisa May Alcott until now.

Many of the ideas that ran through my head are explored thoroughly by Anne Boyd Rioux in “Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?” — a book excerpt that LitHub helpfully shared just when I was interrogating myself over the question. The excerpt is worth reading in its entirety (and I’m now curious about the full book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters). After pointing out that boys once read Little Women in far greater numbers, and finding some choice quotes from powerful men praising the book, Rioux cites three main ideas that have conspired to relegate Little Women to a secret rite of passage that girls “read alone with a flashlight under the covers,” rather than part of the canon for boys and girls:

  1. fear of discussing the story’s feminist implications in the classroom,
  2. a push to teach more contemporary texts, including those by women and people of color, and
  3. a focus on solving the crisis in boys’ reading rates by favoring texts perceived to be interesting to boys.

I have only the vaguest memories of Little Women from my childhood. My mother is a writer. I can picture her speaking of the book fondly, perhaps suggesting it as a book she’d like my brother and I to know and be able to discuss with her. Why didn’t I read it? In these hazy memories, the title and cover played a role. The culture had taught me that there were boys’ books and girls’ books. Yellow spines on Nancy Drew stories. Blue spines on Hardy Boys mysteries. Was I a product of the “crisis in boys reading” educators are so concerned about? I don’t think so. I remember devouring anything that was assigned and getting placed in a seperate “gifted” reading group that met outside of my usual classroom. But, yes I was more excited about after-school cartoons. Given a choice, I picked dubbed Japanese space adventures like Voltron and Robotech over a nineteenth century family drama like Little House on the Prairie (which I assume remains perpetually in syndicated daytime reruns in Minnesota today).

None of my teachers assigned Little Women. At home, my parents periodically made sure that reading something for fun was part of my brother and I’s summer, but this usually meant a trip to the library or bookstore to pick whatever we were excicted about. One exception was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which my parents assigned one summer ahead of an educational family road trip down the Mississippi (Mark Twain’s classics are a good foil for Little Women in Rioux’s exploration above, since they are from the same time period and widely taught tales of a typical American boys’ experience assigned to both boys and girls).

As I got older, there must have been a popular renewal of interest in Alcott in 1994 when Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women starring Winona Ryder came out. I have no recollection of such a wave then either. I was busy in college that year at the suburban/small town campus of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. I was meeting new friends who introduced me to the books they were excited about, taking classes on literary theory and the modern novel. My reading list was dominated by the influence of those friends and professors for the next decade. They were mostly men: the friends, the professors, and the imparted canon of influences (I remember men teaching literature and women teaching writing in that English department). Beat writers, the Russians (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy mainly), and some tangents I explored on my own like Camus and Beckett and Ellison. To be sure, there were exceptions. Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison come to mind. But no Little Women.

I also recall girlfriends referencing Jo, or talking about the book with their girl friends. But by then we were all struggling to be adults — or at least I was — and making “serious” reading lists of new writers or heavy classics was part of the program. How to make room for a child’s book titled Little Women? Surely whatever lessons a book like that holds are not important to twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings or forty-somethings more than a century later, I might have thought when the book came up.

In the couple of decades since then, it’s become clear that limiting your cultural diet to the perspective of one type of person, just dudes, just white western dudes, is a kind of starvation. It should be obvious, but reading and seeing the world from the perspective of someone with a different body, a different relationship to power will inform your actions towards people unlike you. This is true on both sides of any such difference.

When I wrote more frequently about film in the mid-2000s (something I suppose I’m dipping my toes in to again with this post), I quickly joined in the culture writer’s hobby of list-keeping, ranking filmmakers and films, naming favorites and creating top tens. Once I started down this road, it quickly bled over in to my music and book habits. Once you’ve put ten filmmakers, ten musicians, or ten authors in your journal or spreadsheet, it is hard not to notice your blind spots. Either you decide you are someone who lives and dies by Tarantino and Kubrick, Trent Reznor and Mick Jagger, David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski — or you ask what is missing from your list, what your cultural blind spots are, what other people have on their lists that you haven’t yet stopped to consider. Maybe Agnes Varda, Patti Smith, and Margaret Atwood should be in the mix. Maybe they’re closer to the top of the list. What else is missing? Can I dig deeper? What can I learn?

Many of my friends — especially women — who grew up under the same kinds of influences I’ve just outlined now avoid reading men altogether, or are in book clubs organized around doing so. After a year or two of consciously alternating between books by those who don’t identify as male and those who do, I’ve taken a more fluid approach. I know that if I blindly take in acclaimed books and films and pursue threads of reference from one artist to the next, the scale quickly tips towards perspectives and backgrounds I’ve heard plenty from in my life. So I keep lists in notebooks and in Goodreads (and Lightbox for film) of what I’ve finished and what I’m excited to take on next, reviewing the lists as I go to make sure I’m taking in a diverse and challenging set of perspectives. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

So what’s my take on Little Women after finally having read the book and seen Gerwig’s adaptation? Loved both. Gerwig’s timeline and pacing are a delight if the book is fresh in your mind. The departures she takes from the book are light and perfectly in keeping with our understanding of Alcott’s life as a writer, and Jo’s relationship to publishing within the book. Highly recommend.