Saturday Night Spotlight #11: Stephanie Rothman

Stephanie Rothman (b. 1936) occupies a unique spot in the female film canon of the 1960s and 1970s: beginning with Blood Bath (1966, co-directed by Jack Hill), she embarked on an eight-year stint as a filmmaker and screenwriter, finishing her directorial career with The Working Girls in 1974. Rothman worked with mentor Roger Corman, who was the executive producer for three of the seven films that she directed, giving her the opportunity to make films about such popular (and not stereotypically “feminine”) B-movie topics as serial killers, bikini-clad babes, nurses, vampire horror in the Mojave Desert, polygamy, prisoners and strippers. Although Rothman’s career was short-lived and she didn’t have the control over choice of projects that she wanted, she made her mark in a particular niche of a male-oriented field. (Note: this post also serves as Filmmaker Firsts post #20 since I watched The Velvet Vampire last night.)

It’s a Bikini World (1967) – Perhaps most notable for its inclusion of many popular musical acts of the era, including the Animals (an internationally acclaimed group), the Gentrys, the Castaways and the Toys, Rothman’s first directorial credit attributed solely to her stars Tommy Kirk as an unabashed chauvinist trying to woo feminist Deborah Walley. Rothman uses the scantily-clad actresses and catchy rock tunes as a front for the more important issue of how men treat women. The film was co-written by Rothman and her husband Charles S. Swartz, as was the case with the other three films highlighted in the posts.

The Student Nurses (1970) – Feminism plays a noticeable role in what might have otherwise played out as a cheesy exploitation flick in the hands of a male director. The female characters here have a camaraderie in their friendships that might not have been expected in a film about pretty young nurses and their loves. Given the genre and the time period, there are nude scenes, but more importantly there is character development. Some well-known actors also appear, including Elaine Giftos, Reni Santoni, Richard Rust, Scottie MacGregor and Pepe Serna.

The Velvet Vampire (1971) – It was a common occurrence for arty horror films of the early 70s to involve a seductive female vampire who ensnares an unsuspecting young couple in her deadly web. Rothman’s film compares unfavorably to the elegant Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel, 1971), but The Velvet Vampire has some effective moments amidst the low-budget silliness, particularly in some surrealist set pieces filmed in the Mojave Desert. Celeste Yarnall does a good job as the title bloodsucker, amusingly named Diane LeFanu in reference to 19th century author Sheridan Le Fanu, who wrote Carmilla.

Group Marriage (1973) – Polyamory and polygamy are explored in this comedy. Popular actresses Victoria Vetri (who appeared as the doomed neighbor Terry in Rosemary’s Baby in 1968), Aimée Eccles and Claudia Jennings (who was in many cheapie 70s films before dying in a car accident in 1979) are the beauties on display here. The film is a bit of a knockoff of Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), but Rothman puts an emphasis on the social ramifications of these complicated romantic relationships. There is also the inclusion of a gay couple who want to get married too, an interesting consideration given the problems faced by the heterosexual pairings presented in the narrative.

12 New Movies Directed by Women: Autumn and Winter 2014

In the next few months there will be American theatrical releases for some exciting new movies directed by women filmmakers from all corners of the world. Comedy, drama, music, romance, horror, warfare and whatever else comes into play in human life will be visible in these fiction and nonfiction films.

Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras (October 24). Edward Snowden is the subject of this documentary made in secret by Poitras. It is an incredibly current movie, the last Snowden interview scene having been filmed just a few weeks ago. Mathilde Bonnefoy, best known for her collaborations with director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, The International, etc.), worked as the editor and three of the four cinematographers were women: Kirsten Johnson, Poitras herself and Katy Scoggin.

Laggies, directed by Lynn Shelton (October 24). Shelton has made a name for herself in the last decade with her indie films: We Go Way Back (2006), My Effortless Brilliance (2008), Humpday (2009), Your Sister’s Sister (2011) and Touchy Feely (2013). Her latest, Laggies, tells a narrative familiar to male-centric films, that of the adult who finds it difficult to grow up, but told here with a female character (Keira Knightley). The cast includes Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Jeff Garlin, Gretchen Mol, Ellie Kemper, Mark Webber and Kaitlyn Dever and the script is by Andrea Seigel, a first-time screenwriter who has also published three novels.

The Great Invisible, directed by Margaret Brown (October 29). Brown has directed some highly acclaimed documentaries, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004) and The Order of Myths (2008). Her new documentary deals with the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the aftermath of that deadly incident.

Beyond the Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (November 14). After making Love & Basketball (2000) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008), two films focused on African-American characters, writer-director Prince-Bythewood’s latest feature is a romance between a pop star (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who recently starred in Amma Asante’s Belle) and a police officer (Nate Parker). The supporting cast includes Danny Glover, Minnie Driver, Darryl Stephens, Jordan Belfi and Aisha Hinds. Additionally, Beyond the Lights’ cinematographer, Tami Reiker, and the editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire, are women.

Bad Hair, directed by Mariana Rondón (November 19). This Venezuelan coming-of-age drama about a nine-year-old boy’s fixation on his hair has been nominated for or won awards at international film festivals in Argentina (Mar del Plata Film Festival), Canada (Montréal Festival of New Cinema), Cuba (Havana Film Festival), Greece (Thessaloniki Film Festival), Italy (Torino International Festival of Young Cinema), Spain (San Sebastián International Film Festival) and Switzerland (Fribourg International Film Festival). Writer-director Rondón worked with a female film editor, Marité Ugas (who is also a director), and a female cinematographer, Micaela Cajahuaringa.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (November 21). Billed as “the first Iranian Vampire Western,” this debut feature written and directed by Amirpour won the Revelations Prize at the Deauville Film Festival. It is being released in conjunction with a six-part comic series created by Amirpour.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent (November 28). Australia has generated a lot of memorable horror films. This addition to the genre is the first feature by writer-director Kent, following a female protagonist played by Essie Davis. The character is a single mother who is recently widowed and who has a young son, living in a house that she soon realizes is haunted.

Zero Motivation, directed by Talya Lavie (December 3). Described as Israel’s answer to Lena Dunham, writer-director Lavie makes her feature debut with this comedy about women soldiers. The film won six Israeli Academy Awards, including ones for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Lavie also won the Best Narrative Feature Award and the Nora Ephron Prize at the esteemed Tribeca Film Festival.

Life Partners, directed by Susanna Fogel (December 5). This romantic comedy stars two actresses best known for their TV roles, Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”) and Gillian Jacobs (“Community”), as best friends – one gay, one straight – whose lives are complicated by the addition of a potential love interest for Jacobs (Adam Brody). Gabourey Sidibe, Kate McKinnon and Abby Elliott are also featured in the film, which was co-written by Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz.

If You Don’t, I Will, directed by Sophie Fillières (December 17). Writer-director Fillières’ comedy stars Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace, Venus in Fur) and Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips, Kings & Queen, Violette) as a couple who experience many ups and downs in their relationship, testing their limits with extended hikes in the woods.

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay (December 25). Martin Luther King Jr. is the subject of this biopic, portrayed here by David Oyelowo. The large cast also includes Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Niecy Nash, Carmen Ejogo and Jeremy Strong. With Oprah and Brad Pitt as two of the producers, the film is sure to be a big deal come Oscar time.

Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie (December 25). Perhaps the most anticipated film of awards season, Jolie’s drama tells the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s struggle to survive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Jack O’Connell is sure to become a star thanks to his role as Zamperini and it doesn’t hurt that the film’s script was written by the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, all Oscar-winning or -nominated screenwriters.

There are other many films directed by women that have been showing at festivals or which are in post-production, so they may be released either later in 2014 or in 2015: The American Side (Jenna Ricker); Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner); Another Year (Oksana Bychkova); Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan); Bite the Dust (Taisia Igumentseva); Brides (Tinatin Kajrishvili); Blood (Alina Rudnitskaya); Butter on the Latch (Josephine Decker); A Classy Broad (Anne Goursaud); Daughter (Afia Nathaniel); Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve); Every Secret Thing (Amy Berg); Fair Play (Andrea Sedlácková); The Falling (Carol Morley); Fever (Elfi Mikesch); Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine); A Girl at My Door (July Jung); Girlhood (Céline Sciamma); Going Away (Nicole Garcia); Honeymoon (Leigh Janiak); Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes); Jenny’s Wedding (Mary Agnes Donoghue); Line of Credit (Salome Alexi); Madame Bovary (Sophie Barthes); Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann); Nagima (Zhanna Issabayeva); The Narrow Frame of Midnight (Tala Hadid); Ride (Helen Hunt); A Second Chance (Susanne Bier); Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green); Self Made (Shira Geffen); Serena (Susanne Bier); The Silent Storm (Corinna McFarlane); Something Must Break (Ester Martin Bergsmark); Song One (Kate Barker-Froyland); Still the Water (Naomi Kawase); Tender (Lynette Wallworth); Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (Josephine Decker); Viktoria (Maya Vitkova); Villa Touma (Suha Arraf); The Voices (Marjane Satrapi); Walking Under Water (Eliza Kubarska); Welcome to Me (Shira Piven). Keep an eye out for these titles!

The Eyes of Cinema: Max von Sydow in Bergman’s The Magician

The team of director Ingmar Bergman and actor Max von Sydow is among Swedish cinema’s most famous collaborations. After having worked together on The Seventh Seal (1957), Mr. Sleeman Is Coming (1957) (TV), Wild Strawberries (1957), Brink of Life (1958) and Rabies (1958) (TV), their next project was The Magician (1958). Von Sydow plays Dr. Vogler, an illusionist in a magic show that travels the Swedish countryside. In one scene early in the film, the character is interrogated by a physician, Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand, another of Bergman’s finest players) who is unconvinced by Vogler’s supposed powers. Additionally, Vogler is mute, so he can communicate only through his eyes and his body language.

In this scene and elsewhere in the film, I am reminded of Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), the former for his similarly kohl-lined eyes and the physicality of his body as a menacing presence in the frame (Veidt and Von Sydow are both quite tall) and the latter for an even greater use of eyes to convey emotion.

Vergerus shines a lamp in Vogler’s eyes during the interrogation but it does not induce Vogler to talk. (I must applaud cinematographer Gunnar Fischer for his expertise with light and shadow.) Without the capability for speech, Vogler’s eyes must speak for him and any subtle shift in the angle of illumination can change the look coming from them. Is there some real internal anguish or is it a performance?

Whether or not Vogler is actually so afflicted by the line of questioning is unclear but he certainly puts across a sense of torture. When compelled to answer yes or no in the inquiry, he struggles to nod his head (seen somewhat in the second photo), flapping his mouth open and shut soundlessly except for the smacking together of his teeth.

Although The Magician is a movie title that would draw an audience in, I prefer the translation of the film’s Swedish title, Ansiktet, which means The Face. It is a film about the sometimes invisible line between reality and illusion, forcing the characters and the viewers to consider what it means to wear a mask, whether it is literal (Von Sydow’s wig, facial hair and makeup) or figurative (the disguise of performance). There is also an element of the supernatural, calling into question the border between the living and ghosts. I recommend the film, especially now that it is October, the spookiest month of the year.

Making Memories on Earth

As of October 7 I have seen 20,000 Days on Earth, the recent docudrama about Australian singer-songwriter and post-punk icon Nick Cave, twice. Since first seeing the movie at the Film Forum on September 25, I have recommended it to all my friends, sharing the dark and occasionally deranged – but sometimes also fun! – sounds of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. (I’m not entirely sure if that has helped or scared off potential viewers.) If you live in the New York City area and you have not yet ventured to the Film Forum for this particular motion picture, you still have time: 20,000 Days on Earth will be playing until Thursday, October 16.

And why might you want to see the film? It’s difficult to come up with an answer that would fit every moviegoer. For some it might be beneficial to be familiar with Cave’s discography prior to seeing a film which spends a fair amount of time describing and displaying his songwriting and recording processes. “Higgs Boson Blues,” for example, might not be to everyone’s taste. Some might not “get” the style. If you’re familiar with Cave’s earlier band, the raucous group The Birthday Party, you’ll find that the film does not showcase that era. The film does not dwell on clips of Cave’s previous stage and music video performances, except for brief flashes in the montages in the opening credits and toward the end of the film, nor does the film burden itself with talking head segments. For newcomers, the film might serve as an exciting gateway to exploring the rest of Cave’s career, both musical and otherwise. (I recently read his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, which is by turns grotesque, comic and heartrending.)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds perform “From Her to Eternity” in Wings of Desire.

I fall more into the second camp; I have been aware of Cave for nearly a decade, ever since seeing the band in their one scene in Wim Wenders’ romantic odyssey Wings of Desire (1987). I was reminded of how great that scene is when I saw the film again a few months ago. Because of my reconnection with Wings, my interest was piqued when I heard about 20,000 Days on Earth. Seeing the trailer at the Film Forum confirmed my wanting to see the movie. I listened to a couple of the Bad Seeds’ albums before seeing the film, just to get my feet wet, but I was not familiar with the music used in the film (all from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away). I was nevertheless hooked, thanks not only to the magic of the songs but also to the innovative ways in which directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard put the narrative together.

Even more than the music, the film is about the influences of time and memory on growth and day-to-day life. How much can someone else’s music, literature and other types of art inform the shaping of our minds? How often do we care about the recollection of a person from a specific place and time more than we care about what the person is actually like now? How do we mythologize certain moments in our lives? If we could, would we ever want to “reinvent” ourselves? I see these questions as much wider-reaching than the usual topics brought up in musicians’ documentaries. They’re definitely considerations I have had for my own creative projects.

There’s also something riveting about capturing the rock god as simultaneously fantasy and reality. Such an image can be self-designed based on popular stars of the past and present (for Cave, it’s Elvis) and it may be thought that that is a façade which is not the same as the real person underneath the persona. Even so there is something very real in how the performer and the audience interact. Joy, sweat and tears – those of Cave, the other band members and the concertgoers – coalesce in the film’s thrilling finale. The songs “Stagger Lee,” performed at the club KOKO London, and “Jubilee Street” at the Sydney Opera House raise the volume to a thundering loudness, the music buzzing through your feet and pulsing through your head and heart. Astute viewers will take note that the film’s purported “day in the life” is pieced together from scenes in multiple staged locations in multiple countries (with the exception of the opening scene in Cave’s actual bedroom, I think all the other non-recording-studio interior and exterior locations were chosen for aesthetics and practical purposes), but that doesn’t dilute the film’s power. 20,000 Days on Earth is not merely about memorable lyrics and catchy melodies; it’s about getting into someone’s head – and whether that can even happen anyway when the subject tries his best to wear a metaphorical mask in front of the camera.

Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel

Today is the birthday of the great American actress Carole Lombard (1908-1942), whose beauty, sense of humor and intelligence were onscreen in many of her best roles. Nicknamed “The Profane Angel” for legendary facility with cursing on set, Lombard’s premature death in a plane crash at age 33 ended one of the most cherished lives and careers in Hollywood, but her legacy endures thanks to her indelible screen performances. Although I have not yet seen the film for which she received her only Best Actress Oscar nomination, My Man Godfrey (1936), I can recommend ten other Lombard films that are worth watching both for dedicated fans and newcomers.

Virtue (1932) – This drama hits all the Pre-Code high notes: prostitution, the working class jobs of cabbies and waitresses, further economic issues (losing money thanks to scams) and murder. Lombard plays a former streetwalker who falls in love with taxi driver Pat O’Brien, a relationship which is complicated by the secret – and then revelation – of Lombard’s sordid past. The sauciness and smart mouth of the character comes easily to Lombard and she plays the romantic aspects with tenderness and understanding.

Twentieth Century (1934) – Lombard had perhaps her first great triumph with this screwball comedy co-starring John Barrymore and directed by Howard Hawks. Lombard’s madcap actress character, Lily Garland (formerly Mildred Plotka) gets into spars both verbal and physical with Barrymore’s Broadway director and noted Lothario, Oscar Jaffe. The two often duel in their contentious, no-holds-barred fashion, yet they cannot keep away from each other. Such is the symbiotic nature of show business.

Lady by Choice (1934) – As in Virtue, Lombard plays a scandalous woman (this time a fan dancer) who reforms her bad-girl ways. Here she “adopts” a mother (May Robson), initially only a publicity stunt but it eventually morphs into a real, caring relationship. The film gets too sentimental at times, but it shows off Lombard’s fine acting abilities.

Hands Across the Table (1935) – My favorite of all the Lombard films I’ve seen, as well as a favorite since childhood, here she is paired with another great star of the 1930s, Fred MacMurray. Lombard’s manicurist falls for MacMurray’s goofy millionaire, a romance that has its ups and downs since other characters are in love with Lombard and MacMurray (the latter being engaged to another woman). The film is probably the best example of gorgeous B&W cinematography by Lombard’s favorite cameraman, Ted Tetzlaff.

Love Before Breakfast (1936) – Lombard never looked better in Travis Banton’s costumes (they worked together often) than in this romantic comedy. (The outfit seen above also had an extravagant feather hat.) There are some elements of the narrative that I’m not crazy about – namely the part in which Lombard sports a black eye given to her by Preston Foster, whom she loves despite the attack – but there’s no doubt that her star quality adds luminous shine to a less-than-great plot.

The Princess Comes Across (1936) – Another childhood favorite of mine, Lombard does her best Garbo impression as a Swedish royal crossing the Atlantic, although in actuality she’s a down-on-her-luck actress from Brooklyn looking to cash in on the publicity stunt. Embroiled in a murder mystery on her ship, Lombard partners with concertina player Fred MacMurray to solve it. Once again the pair have delightful chemistry.

Nothing Sacred (1937) – Lombard has a ball as small-town girl Hazel Flagg in this early Technicolor feature. Yet again Lombard proves herself game with physical comedy, bearing the brunt of a punch from Fredric March and knocking him around a few times too. Politically correct it is not, but Nothing Sacred is still one of Lombard’s best films.

True Confession (1937) – Lombard plays the screwball type to the hilt in this comedy, which is not one of her stronger vehicles but which nonetheless has a good performance from her – a testament to her talents. Fred MacMurray, as her husband, is curiously humorless here, but Lombard’s efforts to make the material work are admirable.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) – Lombard entered film history as one of the many “Hitchcock blondes” in this odd little comedy, directed by the Master of Suspense in his early years in Hollywood. Teamed up with Robert Montgomery, Lombard displays her versatility as a charming comedienne (again with physical comedy) and as a more serious actress in the more gentle moments regarding the Lombard-Montgomery marriage.

To Be or Not to Be (1942) – Lombard’s final film is an Ernst Lubitsch dramedy which looks at the solemn and important topic of World War II through the lens of comedy. Lombard and Jack Benny do great work here; it is a film that deserves to be remembered as one of her finest showcases.

Filmmaker Firsts: Roberto Rossellini

#19: Rome, Open City (1945) – dir. Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini’s wartime drama Rome, Open City is considered by many to be the first (or at least the first prominent) example of Italian Neorealism. The use of the real city as the location, as opposed to a sound stage, adds to the sense of capturing the truth of how this group of people was living during World War II. At the time Anna Magnani was one of the best-known of the actors in the film – perhaps the best-known – but the emotion in her performance makes you forget that it is written drama and not a documentary.

Magnani has a striking look but not the typically glamorous style of a movie star. Her character suffers the same indignities as other Italian civilians did during the war, the dark circles under her eyes showing the effects of those hardships physically.

Rossellini and cinematographer Ubaldo Arata use the camera to capture how the characters interact with the rough cityscape. This famous shot of Magnani running after a truck through the rubble-filled streets has all the dynamism of her character’s panicked, desperate movement.

I also love this shot, which shows Nazi soldiers marching up the stairs of Magnani’s character’s apartment house. The same thing could have been shown with a frontal shot of the soldiers, but the faces are not what’s important; it’s what those characters represent that’s crucial. An ordinary staircase is made distorted from the dizzyingly high angle. The film’s technical aspects are quite impressive, including the stirring score by Renzo Rossellini (the director’s younger brother), which at times reminded me of Nino Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954). Speaking of Fellini: he co-wrote the screenplay for Rome, Open City.

Perhaps the most fascinating female character in the film is the actress played by Maria Michi. From some angles she resembles Jane Greer, the classic femme fatale of film noir. The character sells out her Resistance leader boyfriend out of spite, an action made easier for her because her drug dealer (of morphine or some other pain reliever, although the film never makes it clear) just happens to be a woman who’s in the in-crowd of the Nazi higher-ups in Rome. Humanity and compassion are ignored for the price of a painkiller or a fur coat.

The relationship between Michi and Giovanna Galletti (who plays the German drug dispenser – “Ingrid,” amusingly enough) has lesbian overtones, but another possible analysis is that Galletti’s Ingrid manipulates people of any sex or gender, so long as they are weak. Interesting trivia: thirty years later, both Maria Michi and Giovanna Galletti appeared in supporting roles in Last Tango in Paris (1972).

At least there’s one ray of hope: one young Italian girl asks a boy her age why girls can’t join in the resistance against the occupying Nazis when he says that only boys can be heroes. Women face great struggles in Rome, Open City, but there are some who are not afraid to fight.

If there is any one main character, it might be Don Pietro, the priest played by Aldo Fabrizi. (In this shot, he turns a nude statue away from a clothed one.) Using the privileges extended to him as a man of the cloth, the character can ignore the city’s 5:00 pm curfew and he works with the Resistance force to support them in their anti-Nazi coalition, sneaking necessary items to them.

I wasn’t too pleased with Don Pietro’s query as to whether the citizens of Rome had somehow brought the war upon themselves through their sinning. It’s an idea rooted in questions of religion and God’s ways, but it sure doesn’t make much sense, especially since so many other characters, including Magnani’s, recognize that they are innocents caught up in battles that they did not start. Ultimately, however, Don Pietro is a brave and compassionate character whose inner strength unsettles even a bitter Nazi sergeant.

No one in Rome, Open City is exempt from the injustices of war, children included. The good characters must endure unimaginable pain and the bad are hardened by the cruelty that they inflict on others. Sacrifices are made, but Rome remains standing. These characters, like the real inhabitants of Italy, have to keep their hopes up for a little while longer, holding fast to the belief that the winter (war) will end and spring (peace) will come.

Indelible Film Images: T-Men

T-Men (1947) – dir. Anthony Mann

Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Anton Kosta, William Malten, Jane Randolph, Art Smith

Cinematography: John Alton