To tackle the current social climate through popular art is a delicate task. Any attempt to correctly render the mistrust, uncertainty and helplessness of daily life in a “post-truth” age runs the risk of coming off as too on-the-nose or condescending, content to simply list our woes rather than address them. Ticking off obvious boxes can be satisfying but falls short of being cathartic, and is hardly ever memorable. In times like this, one can get a more authentic view of our times through the works that appear as a result of them rather than attempts to explain them.
Author: Juan Ramirez
In adapting Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same name, Luis Buñuel’s 1968 classic, Belle de Jour, turned a deeply sexist tale of prostitution in the Parisian upper crust into a nuanced portrait of a woman at odds with her surroundings and herself. The story of Séverine – the quiet, young wife of a handsome doctor who fights her ennui and tests the edges of her sexuality by working part-time at a brothel – is a risky one; one that could benefit from sensitive characterization and detailed imagery or die at the hands of softcore exploitation.
Though Kessel considers it the “most human” of his novels, he fails to deliver the lived-in introspection required for this sort of material. His Séverine is a caricature straight out of Freud’s margin notes, unable to process complex thoughts clearly and whose sexuality exists solely because of a childhood molestation brusquely referenced at the start of the book. Her every action is painfully simple-minded – her constant near-fainting at the mere thought of prostitution, her inadequacy during her early days at the brothel and the catastrophe she causes after starting an affair with a dangerous client – and she is almost always punished for them. One can see Kessel wrote from a place that might’ve seemed to him genuinely human, but his obvious lack of understanding in regards to female sexuality cuts his apparent wisdom down into misguided misogyny.
Phantom Thread is a movie about obsession. Call it love, admiration, compulsion or simply attention to detail, it is the central ingredient in Paul Thomas Anderson’s answer to the vintage Hollywood romance. Following the peculiar relationship between eccentric couturier Reynolds Woodcock and foreign waitress-turned-muse-turned-partner Alma, the postwar London-set film fits right in with the other classic love affairs of the time, save for its distinctly modern look at what is essentially a well-dressed, well-spoken battle of the kinks.
Trainwreck held a lot of surprises for the year 2015 – mainly that Amy Schumer could ditch fart jokes and command an audience’s attention longer than the length of a Hulu clip and that director Judd Apatow’s career wasn’t on a steady decline. Though those revelations were nothing short of incredible in a summer season filled with Pixels and Ted 2, neither compares to the one-two punch of casting Tilda Swinton, the Oscar and BAFTA-winning actress, and then using every trick in the cosmetology book to disguise her as thoroughly as possible.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) dir. Elia Kazan
1947’s other “message film” to also deal with antisemitism was Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. Adapted by Kazan and Moss Hart from Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling novel of the same name – which she wrote after learning a congressman’s racist tirade against Walter Winchell was met with applause by the House – the film concerns a journalist (Gregory Peck) who spends six months living as a Jew to expose antisemitism in New York for his liberal newsmagazine.
Text by Juan Ramirez
The Belle Starr Story (1968) dir. Lina Wertmüller
The only Spaghetti Western ever directed by a woman (who would later go on to become the first woman ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar), The Belle Starr Story is a sordid revision of the life of the infamous outlaw. More preoccupied with her usual battles of the sexes and themes of memory and trauma than with historical accuracy, Wertmüller casts fashion model Elsa Martinelli as a glamorous sharpshooter with winged eyeliner and black leather suits.
Credited with marking the rise of a new wave of socially conscious Malaysian filmmakers, Tan Chui Mui has enjoyed a multifaceted career in her country’s film industry. She first gained wide recognition when her debut feature, Love Conquers All (2006), took home top honors at the Rotterdam and Busan International Film Festivals. The melodrama, which she wrote and directed, focuses on the pressures faced by a small-town girl as she enters a dangerous romance amidst the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur.
Deepa Mehta (b. 1950)
Though born, raised and educated in India, Deepa Mehta’s film career took off only after a momentous move to Canada. The daughter of a film distributor, a post-collegiate Mehta worked on short documentaries before meeting, marrying and following filmmaker Paul Saltzman to his native Toronto. While she is revered and reviled in both countries where her films have come to be eagerly anticipated cultural events, her films have received polarized responses as they have tackled India’s struggles with arranged marriages, misogyny, homosexuality, rape culture and religious strife, among other issues.
Dropping out of high school to become a radio DJ might have been the first step out of bounds taken by Sylvia Chang, but it would not be the last. At 63, the Taiwanese artist has added director, writer, actress, philanthropist, singer, producer and even stuntwoman to her impressive and ever-growing list of accomplishments. With over one hundred acting credits, Chang began work as a film actor before making her directorial debut on Once Upon a Time (1981), after the original director was killed in a car accident. Since then, she has enjoyed a decades-spanning, multifaceted career in film.
For much of the 20th century, many accounts would have us believe, artists and their critics were scrambling around trying to define what constitutes art. At the turn of the century, rapidly emerging technology and whiplash-inducing modernization had stretched the narrow parameters of “fine art” past its limits and provided enterprising artists a stunning, possibly boundless, new frontier. This outpour of innovation and boundary pushing led to an increased awareness of the individuals behind the work, as the public sought to put a face to every new movement and vanguard. Thus, the role of the auteur, the all-encompassing artist in full control of their vision, as well as the act of individual creation, were exalted to the point of celebrity.