Thursday, March 16, 2017

Rock Out With Your Docs Out

Movies: 13th, Tickled

Here are reviews of two documentaries I've watched recently that couldn't be more different (except for the fact that they're both very good).

Directed by Ava DuVernay 

13th, which refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, is absolutely heartbreaking and infuriating. It is also essential viewing and there is no excuse not to watch this incredibly important documentary.

Director DuVernay traces the rise of mass incarceration in the US starting with the abolition of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment states, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction". DuVernay traces a direct line between the end of slavery and the extremely high population of people of color in prison today. She covers the portrayal of black men as animalistic criminals in DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, the rise of the KKK and lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentences--all of which contribute to the (false) ingrained beliefs many people--including black people themselves--have regarding the inherent criminality of black men.

Starting with Lyndon B. Johnson, no United States President is safe from DuVernay's criticism, as both Republican and Democratic POTUSes have contributed to the rise of mass incarceration. Perhaps most interesting to me was Bill and Hillary Clinton's continuation of Reagan's war on drugs and the "three-strikes laws" which led to non-violent criminals ending up in prison for decades or even life.

DuVernay interviews public figures who vary widely: from Angela Davis to Bryan Stevenson to a surprisingly sympathetic Newt Gingrich. These figures explain how the criminal justice system is essentially rigged so that people of color who commit the same crimes as whites end up with much harsher sentences. DuVernay's thesis is that mass incarceration is the new slavery. And with all the facts and historical context she's hard to argue against that.

13th will leave many people angry and upset and not knowing what to do. But even just knowing and acknowledging that we have an incredibly unfair and punitive justice system that is 1) inherently racist and 2) aims to brutally punish rather than rehabilitate is half the battle. Years ago, prison reform was barely a blip on my own radar and now, after reading and watching much more about it, I see prison and criminals in an entirely different light. The more intelligent, empathetic folks who watch this doc with an open heart and mind, the better. And the sooner we can fix this broken, sick system of institutionalized slavery that exists right under our noses.

Grade: A

Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Tickled is a bizarre documentary. It all began when New Zealand journalist David Farrier came across a Facebook group--Jane O'Brien Media--looking for young, athletic males to compete in "competitive endurance tickling" videos for cash. Let's just get this out of the way: yes, this is a sex thing. Though Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve play dumb at the beginning of the doc ("I was starting to think that "competitive endurance tickling" wasn't a real sport after all!" Farrier says at one point. OH REALLY?), anyone who wasn't born yesterday and who has been within 10 feet of the internet can see that this is a fetish thing.

Intrigued by such a strange "sport", Farrier emails the group asking if he can interview whoever is in charge and possibly do a story on it. He receives an insulting email back by someone named "Debbie Kuhn" who writes that their group wants nothing to do with a "homosexual journalist" (Farrier is openly bisexual). Farrier is taken aback, especially since the videos put out by Jane O'Brien Media are, well, pretty gay (attractive men tickling each other...fully clothed, but still...). But the harrasment doesn't stop after one email. Farrier is soon flooded with messages from this Debbie person calling him a "faggot".

Well, the lesson here is that if you try to intimidate a journalist into not looking into something, it will backfire.

Farrier and Reeve travel to Los Angeles to confront some of the folks behind Jane O'Brien media and are met with threats of legal suits and even personal threats against their families. They finally get a participant in one of the videos, T.J., to talk, and his revelations are shocking: after starring in one of these videos, whoever was behind Jane O'Brien Media began harassing T.J. and sending the video to his family and employers as well as emails claiming T.J. was gay, a fetishist, and even a child molester. He lost jobs over it. T.J. points out that most of the guys in these videos are young and strapped for cash. The person behind Jane O'Brien Media would send these dudes loads of cash and even buy them cars if they starred in "her" videos. But once "she" got them hooked, she'd turn on them and humiliate them by posting the videos all over the web without their permission.

You'll notice I'm writing "she" with quotation marks. Farrier and Reeve eventually uncover the name and identity of the definitely-not-a-woman behind these videos and this person's history and the magnitude of his (surprise, creepy dude on the internet is a man!) criminal activity is actually pretty shocking.

Farrier and Reeve, in their quest to understand the motivations of Jane O'Brien Media, interview a guy named Richard Ivey, who runs a website called "My Friend's Feet" (please God, don't let my parents be reading this!)--a gay, tickling fetish site. The difference between Ivey and the person behind Jane O'Brien Media is that everything Ivey does is aboveboard. He's comfortable with himself and his sexuality. He doesn't blackmail the men in his videos. By comparing Ivey to the criminal behind Jane O'Brien Media, Farrier and Reeve make sure that Tickled is not about mocking people with unusual sexual interests, but about not tolerating harassment and bullying.

Plenty of people will be weirded out by Tickled. As someone interested in sexuality, I was fascinated by it. But what was perhaps most fascinating is that for a film about sexual fetishism, it barely touches on the sexual aspects of this so-called "sport" Farrier runs across on Facebook and instead delves into what can happen when a person with a lot of money and no ethics decides to ruin someone's life for no reason. As Farrier says at the end of the doc: "It was never about the tickling. It was about the power". And that might be the strangest sentence I've ever typed out.

Grade: A-

Friday, March 10, 2017

Love Coming Out of Her...Wherever

Movies: The Love Witch

Anna Biller's film The Love Witch is...indescribable. It's a super-super-super indie movie that was not widely released. I only saw it through the grace of a true cinephile friend (hi, John!) who seeks out weird movies and tells me to watch them (he's the one who first told me to watch Duke of Burgundy and for that I will be forever grateful).

Perhaps the most notable thing about The Love Witch is that it was filmed in technicolor, so it looks ripped straight out of the late 60s/early 70s. Additionally, the costumes and sets give the film a retro look although the time period in which the film is set is ambiguous. Really, the best thing I can do is post some screencaps and let you see for yourself:

See what I mean?

The Love Witch is worth watching for the unique cinematography alone and it truly is its saving grace as the actual plot starts to lag in the second half of the film.

Briefly, The Love Witch is about a woman, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), who identifies as a witch (she went through a sex ritual and everything!). After the death of her husband, Jerry, she rents a room from her friend Trish. Elaine wants to make a man fall in love with her, so she begins seeking out potential bachelors (or, in the case of Trish's husband, Richard, married men) and using her witchy spells to make them fall for her. Problem is, Elaine's love magic is TOO powerful and then men fall SO hard for her, they...well, they die. Girl's still learning, ok?!

The film's message is both radically and subversively feminist. On the one hand, Elaine's desire for a man--any man!--and her seduction tactics (Cook him dinner! Wear sexy lingerie! "Be his fantasy", as she tells Trish) are directly out of a 1960s relationship advice book. Additionally, Elaine's "dicks before chicks" attitude toward her friend Trish (she seduces Trish's husband, like, immediately) is very anti-feminist.

On the other hand, Elaine is a frighteningly powerful woman. First of all, she can--and does--kill men. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. Her first victim is Wayne, a college professor. After being hexed with love, Wayne becomes attached and needy. He eventually dies of a broken heart. Elaine takes one look at the sobbing man and sneers "pussy".

Elaine's blase attitude toward men borders on the hilarious. She's a full-blown sociopath who loves 'em and leaves 'em when they inevitably fail to live up to her romantic fantasies. And this is perhaps where the crux of the feminist message of The Love Witch lies: it's not *men* or any one *man* Elaine wants, it's *love*. She doesn't give a fuck about these dudes--they're merely vessels to provide her with something she wants. And if they don't work out, she's on to the next poor sap to cross her path.

Also, and maybe I'm reading to much into this, but the men Elaine seduces all have penis/bluntly masculine names. There's Wayne Peters (peter!), Richard (i.e. Dick), and Griff. Maybe I'm getting a little too Feminist Cinema 101 here, but I feel like Biller was trying to express that, to Elaine, men are interchangeable symbols of masculinity. They're merely ready and waiting phalluses (phalli?) in suits for Elaine to mess around with and then dump.

The Love Witch is a real trip. It's High Camp, complete with purposefully cheesy special effects, saturated colors, and gratuitous female flesh. I watched it with a few friends and half the time we were going "what the fuck?". It's certainly not the greatest film ever (although it has an inexplicable 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I guess the critics liked it), but it's too unique to be denied.

Just watch the trailer. Perhaps you'll be as mesmerized by Elaine as her beaux were...before they perished...

Grade: A

Friday, March 3, 2017

White Fright

Movies: Get Out

Director Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele fame) has directed the perfect horror film that taps into the American Zeitgeist of race relations and white privilege. As any dedicated fan of horror knows, a scary movie is never just a scary movie, but a commentary on culture and common cultural fears. Much has been written about women in horror movies: the slut who gets taken out in the first act for the crime of having sex, the pure (often brunette) "final girl" who lives to tell the tale, and all the shrieking bimbos and feisty women in between.

But what about race and horror movies?

Like the "slut" trope in slasher movies, plenty of horror films also feature a token black character who gets offed pretty quickly to make more screen time for the white protagonists. Get Out, however, is different. Black people are indeed the prey of the film, but not as a careless afterthought. The movie is about the everyday horror of Living as Black in the United States taken to the extreme.

Detailed plot discussion ahead. If you want to go in with a blank slate, stop reading now!

Get Out's opening sequence features a black man trying to find someone (his girlfriend's?) house in a white, wealthy suburb. A car pulls up next to him and then begins following him. He says "Not today" and turns around, eliciting knowing laughter from the audience I was watching the movie with. Sure enough, an assailant whom we can't see exits the car and attacks the man, all set to the creepy 1930's tune "Run Rabbit Run". This is only the first instance in Get Out where a black person is symbolically liked to an animal--prey--to be hunted down by white people.

The film then cuts to photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, whom savvy pop culture aficionados will recognize from the Black Mirror episode "Fifteen Million Merits") who is about to take a trip to upstate New York to meet his white girlfriend, Rose's (Allison Williams of Girls in full basic bitch mode), parents. He asks her if they know he's black. She gets a little annoyed with him: "They aren't racist" she assures Chris. SUUURRRREEEEEE thinks the audience.

While Rose's parents, beautifully played with subtle condescension by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, are very polite, it's clear that they really don't know how to interact with black people. Whitford's character, Dean Armitage, is all too eager to tell Chris he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have and keeps calling Chris "my man". Keener's character, Missy Armitage, is a psychiatrist who keeps aggressively offering to hypnotize Chris to help him dump his "nasty" habit of smoking. When Rose's brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry-Jones, the one false note in the movie), shows up, things get even weirder.

But the weirdest thing to Chris are the Help: the housekeeper, Georgina, and the groundskeeper, Walter, are both black and act bizarrely robotic and, well, "white". When Chris tries to interact with them, one black person to another, they act confused and upset. As is often the case in horror movies, something is Not Right.

But the action really begins after Armitage's host a lawn party and Chris runs into another young, black male who acts so "not black" that Chris is thoroughly creeped out.

For once in a review, I won't fully blow the plot twist, but I can tell you that Get Out combines the everyday horror of black people being stared at, condescended to, and fetishized by white people with actual horror movie elements. The film makes symbolic reference to Trayvon Martin--a boy seen as a threat to white people even as he was literally stalked, hunted down, and murdered by George Zimmerman. While white people hold their bags closer and lock their car doors around young black males, those same males are treated as animals to be dispatched and controlled. Who should be afraid of whom?

Get Out also makes specific reference to Olympic winner Jesse Owens, as Dean proudly tells Chris that his own father was beaten by Owens in the qualifying races before Ownes went on to show the world--and Hitler--that black athletes can best white ones. "[My father] almost got over it" Dean jokes to Chris. In the movie, white people discuss black bodies in fetishistic terms ("Is it...better?" an old white lady asks Rose. Wink wink), referring to black men's supposed prowess in sports and sex. These conversations should be familiar to black audiences and cringe-y to white audiences. I myself have been privy to conversations from white relatives about how "blacks are naturally better athletes".  And guess what, America? That's racist! Because it's reducing black people to their bodies...not an unprecedented thing in American history.

White people can be such dumb motherfuckers sometimes, I can't even.

Get Out, with a nearly perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes (the one negative review is by a black journalist for The National Review--make what you will of that!), is a genuinely creepy, suspenseful movie that is also filled with laughs (it is directed by Peele, after all). It's also deeply cathartic, especially given our bullshit political atmosphere right now. It's not perfect (the character Jeremy really just feels like he belongs in another movie), but it's really good and doesn't hesitate to make the audience stare both benevolent and malevolent racism right in the face.

Grade: A