Selective Viewing

An exploration of film, video and other media by Kate Blair

Review – Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2014)

Throughout his career, Olivier Assayas has invoked conversations about art and its relationship to life, whether that means art’s association with love, commerce, or even revolution. Sometimes art is the main source of conversation, sometimes it’s just a thread, but it’s always there. In Summer Hours, a designer comes to terms with creating artifacts for money rather than good taste; In Irma Vep, an aging director struggles to take on the problem of adapting the classic film serial Les Vampires in late 20th century France; In Late August, Early September, a writer determines whether he should take a job that pays a living wage or do the work he really believes in.

landscape clouds sils maria

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Review – Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (dir. David Zellner, 2014)

kumiko treasure hunter says goodbye to bunzo

In Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (a Zellner Bros. production), a girl goes in search of a better life. Her pilgrimage takes her to from Tokyo to Fargo, North Dakota—hardly the type of place one would expect to be transformative. However, in the world of movies, the city of Fargo holds a special place. American movie buffs know this Midwestern snowscape as the setting for the darkly comedic 1994 Coen Brothers film, Fargo. It’s this movie that sets Zellner’s movie and Kumiko’s story in motion. Kumiko takes it for granted that one of the standout sequences in Fargo is real, or at least, a facsimile of a real event—the moment when Steve Buschemi’s character buries a suitcase filled with cash in a corner of North Dakota that is both desolate and unremarkable at the same time. Kumiko witnesses this action on a battered VHS tape, as a bloodied Buschemi is rippled by static. She becomes dead set on recovering the suitcase. Perhaps her confusion results from the way Fargo purposely conflates reality and fiction, or the manner in which she discovers the VHS itself, secreted away in a cave by the shore. In the end, it’s the voyage itself, not the reason, that matters.  Read the rest of this entry »

Losing face: the hysteria of identity in face-swapping films

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

For the most part we all grow up with this idea that the person you are is separate from the sack of skin and bones you lug it around in. The self is an untouchable essence locked up inside the body somewhere. In a way, the face is just an afterthought. It’s the way your self communicates with the world. But when you think about it, human life is centered around the face. It’s the one thing on the body that doesn’t really change over time. Sure, you get some wrinkles, but the essential components stay in place for your whole life – eyes, nose, mouth, and their relationships to one another. They don’t change. Despite how similarly human faces are formed, they belong to specific people. When the face of someone deceased appears in a dream, it haunts you through the day. Often, you recognize a face in the street, even without remembering how you know the person it belongs to. It’s haunting just how solidly specific faces become branded in our memories.

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In Force Majeure, male cowardice is a force of nature

Force Majeure avalanche

In the central moment of Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure (2014), a family vacationing in the Alps witnesses an avalanche. The parents’ very different responses to the near disaster push their relationship to its breaking point. Ostlund’s film is about evolving gender roles and their impact on marriage. The movie brings up a very common struggle: Humanity versus nature—a theme you see frequently in the movies. In this context, nature isn’t just external, but what lies inside. What makes people behave the way they do? To bring out these themes, Ostlund contrasts sweeping vistas with the human mechanisms populating the ski resort. Noisy machines climb up the mountain to prepare it for skiers; these are paralleled with other human mechanisms, like the mechanical toothbrushes the family uses to brush their teeth. But Ostlund also uses photography and digital video to bring out the question of self-presentation and reality.

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Marlene Dietrich’s face: feminine power and the subversion of gender norms

shanghai express marlene dietrich

Numerous homages have been written about Marlene Dietrich. She had incredible star power that is unmatched by basically anyone else. I’m not saying that Dietrich was the greatest star that ever existed, but quite possibly the strongest star persona ever constructed. Dietrich is a dream, and a powerful point of identification for women, especially because she so frequently bridges the gap between femininity and masculinity – not just in her appearance, but in her behavior.  Read the rest of this entry »

Sex, love, and violence: the allure of the vampire film

OLLA

The vampire genre is one of the classic strands of horror, reaching from the silent era to the present. These movies cover a wide spectrum of styles, from comedy-camp to blood-soaked gorefest. While almost all horror genres have gotten the arthouse treatment at some point, vampire films seem to lend themselves particularly well to stylized direction. Vampires films are the dreams of humanity, directly transcribed to the screen.

Vampires are in the middle of a pop-culture heyday, with the Twilight series recently in theaters and HBO’s TrueBlood, which just finished its 7-season run. Everyone likes a vampire flick. Vampires are sexy. They live forever without aging, as many people wish they could. Their human source of sustenance makes their morality indeterminate. Subsisting solely on blood makes them gaunt, like heroine-addicted rock stars. All the variables in vampire lore make these not-quite-human but not-entirely-inhuman creatures a perfect metaphor for many different themes. These five vampire movies make the most of what the genre has to offer and really give viewers something to chew over, so to speak.  Read the rest of this entry »

Animal Behavior published in Colloquium

A more succinct version of my Animal Behavior post has been republished on Colloquium, the alumni magazine for my Master’s program at UChicago, Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (also known as MAPH).

Please, check it out.

and take a look at the rest of the issue. There’s a lot of really insightful and fascinating stuff!

Alessandra Stanley’s big error: A plea for better criticism

A lot of effort has been made to describe exactly what was wrong with Alessandra Stanley’s piece about Shonda Rhimes. The answer: Too much, and a lot of people have already written more eloquently about it than I could. Racist, unresearched and just plain wrong are the first critiques that come to mind. Underneath the racism is another concern: the need for better critics covering the medium that is becoming the locus for the most important cultural conversations today. Read the rest of this entry »

Review – Abuse of Weakness (Dir. Catherine Breillat, 2014)

Catherine Breillat’s newest film, Abuse of Weakness (2014), is pleasantly bizarre, and you never quite know what’s going to happen next. However, if you’re familiar with Breillat’s repertoire, you suspect the worst. This is all especially fascinating given the narrative is based on Breillat’s true life experience. Truth truly is stranger than fiction.

Kool Shen and Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness

The story is as follows: Filmmaker Maude (Isabelle Huppert) undergoes a stroke that effects the left half of her body. Afterwards, she sets out to resume her life.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review – Dogfight (dir. Nancy Savoca, 1991)

dogfightdance

Dogfight might just be the most heartwarming, feminist leaning movie about young love you’ve never heard of. Despite being a great example of 1990s independent cinema, it seems to have fallen off the radar somewhat. I happened to find it on a surprisingly comprehensive list of feminist films on Flavorwire, which included a few of my favorites, and even had a number of movies I’d never seen or heard of before. Somewhere in the middle of the list was this little gem. It stars Lili Taylor and River Phoenix as a couple of late high school age kids in the early 1960s, when Vietnam had yet to completely take over the public consciousness. It’s one of the most touching coming of age films I’ve ever seen, as well as a tender perspective on early sexual desire. Having a woman behind the camera and two immensely talented performers makes all the difference in transforming both characters into deeply realized human beings rather than tropes. Read the rest of this entry »

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