Rising to the 52 Films by Women Challenge

There’s a film challenge going on this year to see 52 movies directed by women. That’s a lot of movies in the first place for what I think of as normal people, but I’m already over 200 for the year. Curious about whether I’ve met the 52 by women challenge already, I decided to take an inventory. Here then are the movies directed by women that I’ve seen this year.

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Drama Came to Eden

Last weekend we caught a fascinating documentary on Netflix. Called “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” (in part after the first book by a survivor), it told the bizarre tale of three groups of German settlers on the island of Floreana in the 1930s.

First was a philosopher (who’d left behind his wife) and his patient/protegé (who’d left behind her husband). They’d come in search of a simple and peaceful life that would allow for thinking the deep thoughts. Mostly what they found was how much work the simple life takes and how little time it leaves for navel-gazing.

Next came a couple with a young child and another on the way. They’d come prepared for everything, except they hadn’t anticipated how little the philosophers wanted company. They were escorted to the opposite side of the island on the pretext that the pirate caves would be a good starter home.

Lastly, and most oddly, came a fake baroness and her two lovers. They settled in next to the growing family and proceeded to aggravate everyone with their airs and flamboyance.

It was a recipe for disaster, and the miracle is that the second group escaped the ensuing tragedies relatively unscathed. In short order, the not-baroness and her favorite had gone missing. Her second fella, generally suspected of arranging the disappearance, wound up ship-wrecked and dead as a result of his attempt to leave Floreana. The philosopher, a vegetarian, had perished after eating contaminated chicken (for lack of other food), and his protegé returned to Germany to write about how dreadful everyone else had been.

I watched all of this with my jaw in my lap. It just kept getting weirder. For instance, the counterfeit baroness talked a ship’s captain into making a movie of her as the island’s pirate queen. Part of it is shown in the documentary. It’s indescribable.

Watching all of this, hearing excerpts from the very different written accounts, my TV-addled brain kept going back to the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island”. If the professor hadn’t been so handy with coconut technology, they’d have been at each other’s throats.

Ginger would’ve disappeared after making a movie with one of the many people who pass through the island. Gilligan would have been murdered by all of them after the third time he blew an escape attempt. The Howells would have survived by buying a ticket. Skipper would have been lost at sea after fleeing on a raft. The professor himself would have died from drinking tainted coconut milk.

Marianne — she would have left the island with a passing sailor, only to return with him later to run a hotel.

I Suspend Disbelief, Not Common Sense

Happy endings are the mainstay of Hollywood, and when one is called for we get one whether it makes any sense or not. Miracle resurrections, limited shelf-life clones, spirits that smile as they depart — we’ve been handed the biggest loads of crap in the name of good cheer.

For the most part we nod and go along with it. It may not be believable, but the uplifting feeling is what we expect so we go along with it.

Unless it goes too far.

“Oh Heavenly Dog” sticks in my mind for one reason only: at the age of 9 it was the first happy ending I called bullshit on.

For you lucky souls unfamiliar with it, this film was a vehicle for the comedic duo of Chevy Chase and Benji. As most of us over 30 remember, Benji was a small dog who starred in several movies. Actually, a series of small dogs. Chevy Chase was played by an alien comedy troupe in a suit.

The premise of “Oh Heavenly Dog” is that a low-rent detective (Chase) is killed before his appointed time. As a consolation, he gets to return to Earth as an adult dog (Benji). He then spends the rest of the film failing to protect a young woman (Jane Seymour) from being killed.

Spoiler alert: she’s killed. Her consolation prize? She gets to be an adult cat! Dog and cat saunter down the street together. The end.

This is not a happy ending! Even coming back as babies would have been better. But no, being dropped into the bodies of street animals is what we get. They don’t even know how to hunt, fer crissakes! They’re in for a short, brutal life of hunger and disease. Thanks, movie!

Incidentally, I want to come back as a pampered house cat — well-fed, with lots of warm laps. And maybe a small dog to kick around.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Listen to Cold War Recordings

A few weeks ago I picked up a collection of music called “Atomic Platters”, which contains 4 CDs packed with tracks from the height of the Cold War. Primarily from the 1950s (though ranging from the 40s to the 60s), these tracks are often explicit reactions to the threats of nuclear devastation.

Having grown up in the final, fatalistic stages of the Cold War (the 70s and 80s, for those just realizing how old I am), these songs and PSAs gave me nostalgia dissonance. On the one hand, I identify strongly with the persistent threat of atomic annihilation. Hell, popular media made it seem inevitable.

But all of these tracks were recorded (and most forgotten) long before my birth. The references, the musical styles — so much is unfamiliar to me. The one track that feels like part of my youth is “We Will All Go Together (When We Go)” by the great Tom Lehrer. My friends and I “discovered” the wry songster in high school, so his music is as integral to my makeup as that of Dead Kennedys, Oingo Boingo, or the many British Invasion bands my brother introduced me to.

As I listened to the set, driving to and from work, I noticed trends in themes, messages, and references. Being unable to simply enjoy anything, I decided to do a breakdown of all of this data. Being a lazy bastard, I did it from memory.

Here then is my woefully unscientific analysis of my impression of a bunch of audio tracks packaged by others using undisclosed methodologies. As they say on the psychic ads, “for entertainment purposes only.”

(There is a vague connection between order and occurrence. The higher an entry is, the more often I recall it coming up. So, “Religion” was the most frequent topic, with “You’d better pray” popping up more often than “God’s Nuclear Wrath”. In my recollection, at least…)

  1. Religion
    1. You’d better pray
      1. For your soul, because we’re all going to die
      2. For God to prevent nuclear holocaust
    2. God’s nuclear wrath
      1. Will be visited on the Communists
        1. In Russia
        2. On Stalin/Brezhnev
        3. Everywhere
      2. Will kill us all
        1. Judgement Day
        2. Flood of fire
      3. C. Atheism = Communism
  2. Romance
    1. Metaphors
      1. You are a bomb
      2. Our love is a bomb
      3. She is a bomb
      4. I am a bomb
      5. Love spins like a satellite
    2. We’ll die together
    3. I love you even though you’re radioactive/mutated
    4. I was duped by a sexy communist
    5. I’m sending you to Russia
  3. Humor
    1. Gallows
      1. We’re all going to die
    2. Communism
      1. Communists enjoy our freedoms while visiting
      2. Communists kill each other
      3. Stalin is a punk
    3. Uranium mining
      1. I/They haven’t found anything
  4. Sincere*
    1. Public Service Announcements
      1. Know the CONELRAD stations
      2. Stock food
      3. Prepare/locate shelter
    2. U!S!A!
      1. Communists don’t know our freedoms
      2. Communists seek to destroy
      3. We must defend our way of life
      4. Protesting helps the Communists
    3. Public figures
      1. Pro
        1. Senator McCarthy
        2. President Eisenhower
        3. General MacArthur
        4. Francis Gary Powers (U2 pilot shot down over Russia)
      2. Con
        1. Joseph Stalin
        2. Nikita Khrushchev
        3. Leonid Brezhnev
        4. Senator McCarthy
        5. President Truman
        6. President Kennedy
  5. Outliers
    1. Dancing
      1. Dance names with Cold War references
        1. Uranium
        2. Atomic, Atom Bomb, A-Bomb, etc.
        3. Sputnik
      2. Behind the Iron Curtain
      3. While the bombs fall
    2. War
      1. Korea must be crushed
      2. Washington needs to be invaded
    3. Equality
      1. We need equal rights to unite against communists
    4. Love Thine Enemy
      1. Calm down, Russia. We used to be friends.
    5. Instructional Song
      1. Duck and Cover

*The majority of the religious songs are sincere, but since religion is the predominant theme they were given their own top-level category. The Sincere category represents everything else once the religious songs are pulled out.

That Clause is to Protect You

We watch a lot of Investigation Discovery, which we call “The Murder Channel” for its rotation of salacious true-crime shows. Hour after hour, unfaithful spouses and children a little too anxious for their inheritances slaughter their way into or living room.

So when an insurance commercial came on, my mind translated it into another murderous re-enactment. The “concerned” daughters pressure their mom — vulnerable due to her husband’s recent accident — to get insurance, ostensibly just to “help with final arrangements”. Uh-huh. We’re onto you two. What is it? Gambling debts? Or just a sense of frustration at not having all of the fancy things you want? Either way, you’re guilty!

Honestly, I really can’t believe that anyone would put that commercial on the murder channel thinking it would play to normal sentimentalities…

The View from a Cabinet

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading Euro Horror by Ian Olney. I’m more of a cinephile than a student of film, so I don’t always comprehend the language of film theory. Still, Olney’s book is reasonably approachable, and it’s gotten me to re-examine my fondness for the largely disposable genre films of the 1950s-1980s.

To do great disservice to his thesis through half-informed summary, Olney observes that many of these films invite viewers to invert cultural norms and expectations, sometimes through plot (cannibal films that show Westerners as prideful encroachers) but often through performative spectatorship (simplistically, the use of POV shots to experience alternative perspectives). In other words, as the films provide ample titillation, gore, and thrills, they also allow an escape from our everyday points of view.

Euro Horror is absolutely worth a read, if you’re interested in critical analysis of how we interact with film. I really can’t do Olney’s observations justice with my rambling, so please check out the book for yourself.

As I thought over all of this in the shower (where else would one think about horror?) I recalled sequences from a creaky old house mystery I’d recently seen. “House of the Damned” (1963) was described to me as a cross between “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959) and “Freaks” (1932). That may not seem like a glowing recommendation to you, but to me it sounded like a curiosity that simply had to be seen. Ultimately, I believe we may both be correct.

Spoilers are about to be dropped like so many phat beats, but honestly if you have ever seen an episode of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” you already know the entire plot.

The basic premise of “House of the Damned” is that the long-term lease on a secluded mansion has expired, and the owners want an architect to determine what should be done with the place. The final tenant was a retired carnival owner who was a bit of a recluse. In fact, he hasn’t been seen since he paid the remainder of his rent a few months ago. Enter desperate architect Scott Campbell and his wife Nancy, who assists in taking measurements.

I mentioned spoilers, yes?

The majority of the film consists of carnival folk trying to scare the Campbells away so they can continue to stay in the house. One of these characters is played by Frieda Pushnik1, a woman born without arms or legs. She is featured in some of the more effective scenes of the movie, which just happen to involve examples of performative spectatorship via POV shots. Pushnik’s scenes revolve around a cabinet in the large room that the Campbells use as their bedroom and base of operations. The cabinet has a fine mesh front, through which Pushnik watches everything they do.

In the first of these scenes, the camera watches Nancy Campbell undress through a sort of screen2. In a reverse shot, this screen is revealed to be the mesh facing of the cabinet, and we briefly see Pushnik’s impassive face. It’s a startling transition, forcing the viewer to reinterpret the leering, male gaze just shared. Is Pushnik disapproving? Attracted? A threat, or a victim? We don’t have enough context, and so the mystery lingers as the movie continues.

The second sequence involves a guest — Loy Schiller, whose husband brought the job to Scott Campbell. Once again, we look through the eyes of Frieda Pushnik as a woman changes clothes. At least we can assume it is Pushkin observing again, as no evidence is presented to the contrary. It’s essentially the same shot as before, except for the lack of reveal. Again the viewer shares in the voyeurism but is left with unresolved tension.

The final version of the scene at last resolves the tension in a way that inverts the situation completely. The audience looks once more through the mesh of the cabinet, but this time it’s no peep show. Instead Joseph Schiller enters the room, looking for clues to his wife’s disappearance. He notices the cabinet, and as he approaches to investigate, we can’t help but feel trapped behind the door. When Frieda Pushkin is finally revealed, everything falls into place.

The spectator was powerless all along. Pushkin (and the viewer) may have been spying, but she is a passive force — completely at the mercy of the observed should they turn on her. By sharing her viewpoint, we’re put in that same position of helpless observer. In the end we are meant to empathize with the carnies, and by exposing the surveillance in which we’ve participated as the vantage of weakness the film prepares us to wish them well.

I have no idea whether the filmmakers intended this cumulative effect when those scenes were filmed. Certainly there are other — directly commercial — reasons to put in two sequences of women undressing, and having them being watched adds some much-needed danger (as well as a flimsy excuse for the titillation). Just as certainly the inversion of power in the third sequence is deliberate, taking good advantage of the pattern established by the earlier scenes. The revelation of Frieda Pushkin’s vulnerability I can believe was an intentional deflation of the accumulated tension, but was it meant to literally put us in her place?

I don’t know. The effect is there though, and it’s nicely accomplished at that.


1. Frieda Pushnik’s character is not given a name, so I will refer to her by the actress’s name.

2. The tastefulness of these scenes is almost shocking for modern viewers.

Digital Drive-In Doom!

Disruptive technology, put simply, is innovation that transforms things so completely that everybody has to adjust. It can render entire industries obsolete or force everyone to upgrade their personal equipment. Holding out against disruptive change is hard, but sometimes it’s even harder to adapt.

I spent this past weekend in Vandergrift, PA to attend a 2-night Peter Cushing film festival at a drive-in. There are very few of these theaters remaining, and they’re staring at a deadline that threatens to finish many of them off once and for all. The studios are planning to go digital-only next year.

Digital is great for showing movies. There’s no “print” as such to break and decay1. Storage is much smaller and easier. The definition is crisp. There are probably enormous benefits for 3D.

There’s just the little matter of the roughly $75K needed to upgrade to a digital projector.

Drive-ins have a limited revenue season — many in the northern states only operate during summer — and like indoor theaters they make most of their money from concessions. So basically we’re looking at a snack bar that only operates for a few hours a day, during four months a year, needing to come up with tens of thousands in additional profit or give up on showing current movies.

I suppose they could get loans, but a bank is going to want to know how the hell profits will increase enough to pay the loan back. It’s not as though going digital is likely to bring in more customers. It’s simply necessary to not lose more business when the new releases stop being available on film.

It’s a sad situation. People who run small drive-ins stand to lose their businesses. As a culture, we stand to lose an enjoyable piece of our living history. That’s the way of disruptive technology. There’s nothing unique about the fate of drive-ins; I’ll just happen to notice this loss. With the pace of change accelerating, we’re all going to experience these disruptions many times in our lives. (Anyone else have to replace their LP collections?)

Through a 3rd-hand source I learned that the studios may relent on the hard deadline, or at least push it back. It would make sense; if there are fewer screens, there is less money to be made. More time might actually help. The drive-in I was at has raised a significant portion of the upgrade cost through fundraisers, but they still have a long way to go.

If there’s real hope in this case, it may lie ultimately in nostalgia. The mere act of watching a movie at a drive-in is antiquated. Who’s to say if showing older movies won’t increase attendance? Double-bills of famous mid-century films like “Giant” or “The Blob” could be a retro draw. See the movies your parents watched, as they watched them!

You never know. Revival screenings might just pay for the ability to show new movies going forward.


1. There are still ways to render a digital “print” useless, but let’s just agree that the rate of loss is much lower.

My Taste for the Tasteless

I’m currently reading “Euro Horror”, by Ian Olney, the first section of which offers stacking explanations for the exclusion from Film Studies of the European horror films from the 1950s to 1980s. It’s a persuasive set of arguments that lead to the standard critical conclusion; these movies are disposable, excessive crap. Presumably, Olney will refute this stance in the remaining chapters, but as I’m a slow reader it may be some time before I find out.

Something else in Olney’s foundational arguments caught my attention, causing me to reflect on my own appetite for these films. Almost as an afterthought (although perhaps to be expanded on later), Olney suggests that the fans’ consumption of these movies is an almost political rejection of the current popular culture for that of a previous time and place. I’ll have to hope that he provides an elaboration of this statement, but until I read that far I’m left with my own stumbling thoughts on the subject.

Certainly, I watch the works of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Amando de Ossorio, Jorge Grau, Lucio Fulci and so many others of the period because I’m finding something in them that I’ve not seen elsewhere. It could be a submerged room, a garishly lit hallway, a face made of cake splattered on a subway windshield, corpses replaced by mannequins, or skeletal killers in robes fumbling after victims.

It’s also true that I’ve rarely found pleasure in the pop culture milieu in which I live. Sure, I loved “The Avengers” and watched almost every Harry Potter movie, but I’m talking about the parade of action, suspense, drama, comedy, and even horror releases that come out each year to be consumed and then quickly forgotten. They’re filled with things don’t interest me, that I can find anywhere.

I think it’s the very datedness of the films discussed in “Euro Horror” that appeals to me. When I watch these movies I see a time when these images alternately shocked and calmed the audience. What degree of misogyny is being presented to the audience as acceptable or even desired? What degree of suggested or visualized trauma is chosen to elicit a reaction? At what point is narrative discarded in favor of grabbing the viewer by the viscera?

For all I know, that’s what Olney meant. All I know is that my tolerance for disposable media increases as its immediacy fades. Maybe in another 20-30 years I’ll be more interested in today’s crap.

The Narrative Beneath the Trial Coverage

Jodi Arias has been convicted of 1st degree murder, and America congratulates itself for knowing that she was guilty all along. But why does anyone not involved with the case care so much?

The easy answer is to blame it on the news media, which I do, but that is nothing either new or informative. The question is why the media wants us to care. It’s not merely to fill airtime; there are “sensational” events happening often enough that we should answer why this trial in particular attracted attention.

She’s a reasonably attractive defendant, which certainly didn’t make news agencies avoid the case. She also killed a man, which under our society’s still-patriarchal view of women as delicate servants brings a bit of attention in itself. Still, she didn’t sleep with a student or kill children, which are the usual ways young white women on trial come to national attention.

Her defense at trial was that she killed him in self-defense.

Ah. Aaaaaah! Here we get into something the media can use. Experts can talk every single day of the trial about whether a self-defense claim is ever valid and, more importantly, if killing an abuser is even self-defense.

The interest isn’t in what Jodi Arias did, or even why, but in whether women are allowed to defend themselves. Can abused women take advantage of opportunities to prevent further abuse?

And the real draw for the media here is that there was zero (reported) evidence to support Arias’ claims. Only her word and that of experts were available to verify her claims of abuse. So all of the theoretical arguments by the media’s talking heads kept circling back to the real narrative of the coverage — she’s lying about being abused.

Through her case, we can all reinforce the script that women lie. A woman claims to have been abused? Lying. Raped? Totally lying. One well-publicized instance of a woman you just knew all along was lying will now be the filter through which we judge all claims by women.

Do I think that the promotion of this case was a calculated decision to help erode public opinion about abuse? No. Rather, it was a calculated decision to give us a story that feeds into our sense of outrage — a sense that is still informed by outdated notions such as “women lie”, “reports of abuse are false”, and “I could tell by looking at her”.

Writing this the day after the verdict, the Jodi Arias case is already being buried. Now we’re being feverishly told about how three women held captive should have escaped years earlier and how the man who helped them finally is horrible and stupid.

Unbelievable.

Adapting to Changes

With Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby looming over us like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the matter of film adaptations is once again a topic of unhappy internet chatter. As usual, it’s largely breaking along the views that a classic is being ruined and that the book remains intact. (Although this time a number of people are hoping that the film is a masterpiece of ill-conceived excess.)

For my own part, while I have always been fine with the glorious misfire that was the 1960s release of “Casino Royale”, the recent version incensed me. Given the opportunity to restart the Bond film franchise, the decision was made to start with him as a violent thug. To me, the core of the book was that he had been more or less playing at espionage until the events surrounding this job hardened him and gave him focus. So to throw that aside seemed to miss an opportunity as well as the point.

It’s not on a level with the attack by natives in “The Scarlet Letter”, but it’s a cinematic grudge I’ve held on to with all the strength that nerdrage allows. I still haven’t gotten over “Congo”, and to be honest the book wasn’t even especially good.

I do agree that the source is still there, and I’ve even clung to the thought that even a bad adaptation could get new readers for the book. I think it’s more likely that viewers unfamiliar with the work will simply move on.

I’d like to be able to move on, myself. I only have so much energy for outrage, and I need to save it in case Tom Hanks gets another Oscar.