A director reveals his most recent Fandor film adventures.
When you want to change your life, change your diet. I make films, but for a filmmaker, I don’t watch many. Now, I’m watching three or four Fandor films every week from now until I shoot my next film or fail to pay the internet bill, whichever comes first. I’m doing this to make myself a better artist, and to help guide you across the vast Fandor buffet. This is the re-education of one independent filmmaker.
I’m back! And I’ve been good: No metaphorical media “junk food”, just greens. Just vitamin-packed Fandor. And forty-five minutes of Doctor Who, but I will only quit Doctor Who when I am dead in the cold, hard ground.
So what did I watch on Fandor this week? Let me give you the highlights:
This is an excellent film from the “people-who-have-nice-houses-and-never-seem-to-need-to-be-anywhere-so-they-have-long-subtitled conversations” genre. Jane Birkin and her awesome teeth star as a Mom Lady who thinks it’s basically totally fine to be in love with a twelve year old boy. Mom Lady’s had a divorce recently, so she’s a bit lonely, and she herself was the object of affection for a much older man at the age of twelve, so the whole thing is a bit normalized for her and she’s only lightly worried about consequences. The boy she loves is a compelling brat, introduced in one of the finest opening shots I’ve ever witnessed (a must-see if you love side-scrolling video games like the one that lends this film its title).
It may be embarrassing to admit it, but this is the first Agnes Varda film I have ever seen. I’ll fix that shortly, because now I have major FOMO for the rest of her catalogue. The easy naturalism of the performances, the tasteful-fashion-mag cinematography, the tasteful-fashion-mag fashion and the just-crisp-enough cutting are all reasons to recommend watching Kung-fu Master!, but really what shines most is how subtly and sometimes playfully the heavy and complex subject matter is handled.
SHOULD I WATCH IT THO?
Yes, and don’t dally. That said, I don’t speak French. Maybe the performances are terrible in French? Probably not. This movie is great.
SHOULD I WATCH THIS MOVIE WITH MY 12 YEAR OLD CHILD?
Only if they are very self-assured and capable of discussing sexually complicated themes and situations. So, no, not if they are an American child. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Lead actress Jane Birkin is a total badass for writing this role for herself. It’s not a proud situation, but it’s realized in the proudest way. They shot it at Birkin’s house using Birkin’s real family, including her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (now known for being an equally brave star in her collaborations with Lars von Trier).
THE EXILES (1961), directed by Kent MacKenzie
“He might change if he sees the baby. I know he likes children, and he always wanted a little boy.”
“Hybrid” fiction-docs are all the rage right now. Here’s one that was lost for a long time but is now a classic! Many women and men in the 1950’s had moved from American Indian reservations to the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles, forming a ghettoized urban immigrant culture within their own native country. Director Kent Mackenzie (a white dude) fictionalized the events in the film, which take place over one long night, but the actors are largely amateurs playing themselves.
The focus of the movie is a couple who are barely seen together: a pregnant woman named Yvonne who is left alone all night while her husband Homer drinks and carouses with his friends. Urban twenty-somethings wandering around a city at all hours was a bit more shocking in 1961. The scenes with the drunks are fun, but Yvonne is the character who stuck with me the most. Homer has no interest in her. Her timidity is crushing and she is so lonely.
Eighty percent of the dialogue in this movie seems like aggressively rewritten ADR (that’s automated dialogue replacement, or dubbing, to all the laypeople out there), but it’s done with such no-budget swagger that it comes off as charming. Some of the characters are kinda charming, too, like this one dude Tommy who says “man” in every line of dialogue. He has nice scenes with a cool woman named Claudia, until he whacks her in the face and then suddenly I wasn’t so keen on him. Even before that, I had to put on my “Mad Men goggles” to really like the male characters.
The final scenes are the most powerful, when the characters close out many different bars and congregate on Hill X, a place and a chance to sing the songs they learned back home, undisturbed.
SHOULD I WATCH IT THO?
If you feel like time traveling! Or if the subject grabs you. It looks gorgeous, and Yvonne will break your sweet, sweet heart.
SHOULD I DRINK EVERY TIME TOMMY DRINKS?
Better that than drinking every time he says ‘man’ (unless you want your stomach pumped).
In one scene they buy a whole tank of gas and the total bill comes to a buck fifty. Even accounting for inflation since 1961, that’s only, like, twelve bucks. WHAT HAPPENED.
“Maybe they joined the Mile High Club. On the Pushpakh Veman.”
This is a really fun movie, animated by cartoonist Nina Paley in four different styles. Nina’s own breakup story is told in parallel to the story of Sita in the Ramayana, an Indian mythological epic. Spoiler alert: Sita gets dumped twice by the man she loves, Rama.
The telling of the Ramayana by three Indian friends (represented in the film with shadow puppets), trying to remember the story is impossible not to smile at. And the music of Jazz Age-era star Annette Hanshaw, pouring through the lips of Sita herself, lends a smoky charm to the whole affair. My favorite scene is Rama’s courageous rescue of Sita on the island of Lanka, backed up by his army of man-monkey hybrids, choreographed to Hanshaw’s “Who’s that Knocking at that Door?”
An epic like the Ramayana is long and complicated, and Paley does a great job streamlining this story and focusing on Sita’s perspective. Myths are politically charged when they hold national significance, and some folks didn’t like that Rama comes off douchey here, but hey, that’s kinda what happens when you exile your wife to a forest because she might have been raped. Smart filmmakers like Paley call you on that sh*t, Rama. Sita gets a little criticism here, too. But perfect heroes aren’t the point, especially for epics. What matters is a great story, with lots of ways in and lots of perspectives to explore. Paley clearly knows that, and loves the Ramayana.
SHOULD I WATCH IT THO?
Yeah, it’s pretty special. Especially if you dig myths, or music like Hanshaw’s, or Paley’s style.
GREAT! I COULD USE AN UPPER, CUZ I GOT DUMPED YESTERDAY!
Oh god wait, don’t watch it now! But do watch it in a few months. In a scant few minutes of actual dedicated screen time, Paley’s autobiographical breakup storyline is pretty heartbreaking and I teared up a bit. You will, too, if you’ve had a relationship end. Nina just seems so earnest! WHY CAN’T DAVID BE MORE ARTICULATE ABOUT HIS INTENTIONS?????????
Nina Paley released this film under a Creative Commons license. I can’t explain this better than her statement on the website: “I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you… Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” This one’s on Nina, folks. But she does accept tips, and you can (and should) watch her other works in the Fandor library!
So, what did Colin learn?
Four out of five stories presented in these three movies are stories of one woman’s loneliness and longing for a man who is somehow absent. Sita, Nina, Yvonne, and Mom-Lady-played-by-Jane-Birkin are all in love with men who are unavailable, either because those men care more about their kingdoms than their lovers…or because those aren’t men, they’re boys.
But these women aren’t passive players in their own lives, either. No one is. Not even poor, sweet Yvonne. At one point in Sita, a narrator suggests Sita is at fault for choosing to fall in love, and stay in love, with someone so callous as Rama. This question rings through all these films, and falls at the center of Kung-fu Master!
Despite the dark truths these films present about unequal relationships and their ubiquity for women, all three still manage to be beautiful, inspiring, dynamic and, especially in the case of Sita Sings the Blues, really fun. Everything can be sad and we can still have fun… and be sad… and have fun.
Be sad, have fun, sad, fun, fun, sad, fun, sad, fun, fun, fun, sad, fun.
Colin Healey just cooked a hot dog in a wood stove on a screwdriver. You should follow him @ColignonPE because it would help him feel nice. His first feature film, Homemakers, can be seen here on Fandor. If you think he’d like a movie, tell him in the comments, and he’ll watch the hell out of it.