Wandering Women: Drifting as Resistance

The following is a text adaptation of a zine I made for a History of Cinema II course at the Graduate Center University. Titled, “Wandering Women,” the zine was a mock screening series centered on female directed films whose stories revolved around women traversing urban landscapes.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

– T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets


Unguided Tour
Dir. Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s Unguided Tour isn’t just about a woman (Lucinda Childs) drifting through a city, but that same woman drifting through her memories of her time there. Fitting then that the setting of the film is Venice whose architecture evokes the past around every corner. Based on Sontag’s short story of the same name, Unguided Tour centers on the crumbling relationship between a man and a woman, as told in an off-screen conversation between the woman and her friend. From the outset, Sontag establishes a bond between Childs and the city. In the opening, Childs walks around the edges of a building flanked by pillars. Rather than follow Childs’ movement, Sontag trains the camera on the building with Childs appearing every now and then. Sontag’s framing here suggests the city as a background a thematic tool. Venice is always there, decayed, rusted, and grayed, although in a beautiful kind of desolation. Despite her movement, Childs isn’t necessarily free, but rather trapped in the past of her failed relationship, symbolized by the constant presence of the city. At one point, Childs tells her lover (Claudio Cassinelli),“And then there’s a special kind of tourist. Attracted, above all, to Venice. The melancholy tourist. For that reason, a special tourist. Predestined to Venice. Venice is the capital of melancholy.” Both Venice and the past become prisons of comfort.

At Land
Dir. Maya Deren

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) can be better understood by comparing it to the work of one of Deren’s thematic descendants: Chantal Akerman, specifically, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. To explain, in Jeanne Dielman, Akerman employs a static camera and horizontal framing to capture Jeanne’s domestic space. The lack of camera movement in combination with long takes and Jeanne’s repetitive routine shifts the audience attention to the mis-en-scene of the film. Consequently, Akerman subtly shows how Jeanne’s Sisyphean-like life is derived from the prison of her domesticity. On the other hand, Deren’s camerawork and editing in At Land function in the opposite manner. A film ostensibly without a plot, but not a story, At Land follows Deren playing an unknown woman journeying between a beach and a house. She encounters well dressed guests at a dinner party and later on, two women (and then herself) playing chess on the beach. Unlike Akerman’s camera, Deren’s is free; it floats over the dinner table, it spins around a sick-room, and when Deren is scaling a beach cliff, it captures her from all angles. Both Jeanne and Deren move through the spaces of their respective films, but whereas Jeanne is trapped, Deren knows no boundaries, thus, the match cuts of the film. When Deren reaches the cliff’s top, her hand comes to rest not on the smoothed edge but the previously mentioned dinner table; when she crawls through a bush, match cuts between the film’s spaces join them as one. Through editing, Deren breaks the physical boundaries of space, and later on when she begins to encounter herself, time. Just as in her other films Meditation of Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1958), Deren’s editing in At Land offers an escape from corporeal limits, thereby re-contextualizing both dance and gesture as radical movements for understanding our bodies.

Dir. Momoko Ando

0.5mm begins as a somewhat quirky black comedy. Sawa Yamagishi (Sakura Ando, Momoko’s younger sister) is an at-home nurse for the elderly. One day, the wife of Sawa’s current patient asks for a rather strange request: she wishes for Sawa to wear the kimono of said patient’s mother and to sleep next to him. With some hesitation, Sawa accepts and when she beds next to him, things seem to be all right. That is until, she awakens to find her patient licking her eyeball. In the ensuing scuffle, Sawa inadvertently knocks out her patient and a space-heater, the latter starting a fire. She attempts to drag him out but can’t muster the strength, so she runs down the stairs, trips, and at the bottom, finds the house mistress’ body hanging. Of course, Sawa is fired from the job, and the rest of the film follows her misadventures drifting and exploiting elderly men into letting her stay with them. If none of this sounds funny, that’s because I’ve left out descriptions of Momoko’s directing technique. For example, in the opening of the film, as Sawa is changing the diaper of her patient when he begins to urinate. In a rush, she grabs hold of a cup and holds it between his legs. Ando then cuts to a close-up, and we see imprinted on the cup is the face of a smiling cartoon. Meanwhile, urine sprays everywhere and Ando cuts between the face of the bewildered patient, and the uncomfortable Sawa who is attempting not get her face wet. There’s no musical accompaniment; only the dripping sound of urine. The result of Ando’s technique here—the designated cup, the cuts, the sound of urine—creates a farcical tone for the rest of the film. As Sawa’s drifting continues, however, her comedic relationships with those she exploits transforms into a sincere examination of the past and it’s continual haunting effects. One disgruntled professor finally opens up to Sawa after initial annoyance. He reveals that he suffers not only from dementia but from survivors-guilt dating back to World War II. In a harrowing goodbye scene, Sawa can only sit and listen as he repeats the final war-cries of his dead comrades—emperor banzai.

Dir. Agnes Varda

Vagabond is both the story of its protagonist Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), but also a story told through Mona. To explain, the film begins as a pseudo-documentary with Mona’s dead body being found frozen in a ditch. As the voice-over of Varda explains, the woman behind the camera wants to discover who Mona was, so she moves backwards in time, tracing the people who interacted with Mona in her final days. These interviews take on a conventional form, but they’re scattered throughout the film, serving as punctuation for Mona’s own narrative—that of her wanderings in the French countryside. After the opening scene, we bear witness to Mona, naked, walking out of the water at a beach. The image here conjures up the image of the original woman; as if Mona were being born from primordial ocean. Fitting then, that this image is preceded by that of a postcard, also depicting a nude woman. Yet the difference between the two results from the postcard’s nudity being pornographic. An implication arises then that Mona’s appearance will be one mediated through connotations of what a woman should be—and it is. Take for example the maid Yolande (Yolande Moreau) who sees Mona asleep in the arms of a fellow male drifter. Yolande watches the two with dream-like eyes, and we later learn she wishes her own lover would treat her in a similar romantic manner. Or, for another example, a wealthy heir whose wife won’t have sex with him. He berates her for her prudishness and wishes that she was more like Mona—free and uncaring about their surroundings. Of course, the Mona the characters of Vagabond see isn’t truly Mona at all, but simply facets of her or even misrepresentations. It’s this imprinting that Mona runs away from throughout the film perhaps best seen when she shacks with a family of farmers who endow her with land. Despite the comfort, however, Mona doesn’t care for working and eventually leaves. The words of the farmer resound with a haunting effect: “You’ve chosen total freedom but also total isolation.” With Vagabond, Varda creates her own rebel with a cause—a total resistance towards social, political, and economical establishments, but at a cost. A total sense of nihilism that drives its wielder to extinction.

Morvern Callar
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

In Morvern Callar, the world falls apart. Morvern (Samantha Morton), a young Scottish woman, finds her boyfriend’s dead body in their living room. He’s committed suicide and left a letter of instruction for Morvern on their computer. “Read Me.” “Sorry Morvern.” “I love you.” In between, we learn that he’s an aspiring novelist and has left Morvern with instructions on mailing his manuscript out to potential publishers. Morvern finishes reading the letter, hangs around a train station, opens the Christmas presents left under the tree, takes a bath, and then goes out to party. These descriptions aren’t meant to give the impression that nothing is happening in the film but rather that Morvern Callar takes more interest in inward experiences than it does in external, marked narrative events. The narrative of Morvern Callar is one of mourning, and one of the techniques by which Ramsay allows the audience into Morvern’s head-space is through the film’s diegetic soundtrack. While the exact device by which Morvern listens to her music is never shown, the film was release in 2002, just a year after Apple’s iPod. The portability and mixture of songs—ranging from the vintage cheerfulness of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” to the drum-led tricked out ambient beats of Board’s of Canada’s “Everything You Do is a Balloon—bring to mind the advent and possibilities of new musical technology. In Morvern Callar that possibility is escapism, whether it’s the drudgery of walking into the 9 to 5, or the reminder that your boyfriend’s body is rotting in the room next over.

Dir. Barbara Loden

Perhaps the most popular film in this program thanks to the recent revitalization caused by Nathalie Leger’s “Suite for Barbara Loden,” Wanda (1970) was also the most divisive upon its release. Loden plays the eponymous Wanda, a rebel, unlike Mona, without a cause. Wanda too isn’t interested in doing much of anything, but rather than perform any sort of action against the system, she merely lumbers along. Her husband divorces her at the film’s start, and when he takes her to court, she shows no interest in either the marriage or the custody of her children. Later on, she gets taken in by a Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) who berates her for getting the wrong type of burger and forces her to commit a bank robbery, which, of course, goes awry. Critics decried the film for its portrayal of a passive woman who allows herself to be abused by the hegemony. But one forgets that there is indeed a moment of resistance in the film. Wanda meets a man at a restaurant; he flirts with her, gives her a ride in his car, and takes her to a secluded area. He begins to kiss her, and then, attempts to undress her. Wanda remains frozen until the camera pans out, and then, she releases a yell and begins to fight back. This singular moment can serve to explain the rest of the film. That is, Wanda’s passivity is an effect of exhaustion. What can she do besides nothing. But the fury builds, and Wanda displays a pro-activeness. At the end of the film, when she returns to slinking in a bar booth, we can only wonder when she’ll righteously explode again.

Dir. Chantal Akerman

Unlike her earlier travelogue film News From Home (1977), Chantal Akerman’s D’est contains no dialogue whatsoever. What remains is Akerman’s sheer dedication to long-takes and frontal angles, and what’s born isn’t a meditative examination of images but rather, a rigorous study of people, places, objects, and things. The film is made up of footage Akerman recorded while traveling through Eastern Europe, following the fall of the Soviet Union. Four years earlier, Jean-Luc Godard made Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero, but there Godard mixed fiction with history to critique the West. Places were real, people were both (although even the historical figures were played by actors), and so Godard’s film comes across as a collage of the director’s own theoretical ideas concerning communism, capitalism, and so on. Akerman’s D’est isn’t absent of her own markings—individual shots returning to women in domestic spaces recall Jeanne Dielman (1983)—but Akerman’s film certainly has more breathing room to allow in audience subjectivity into the lives of its citizens. A balance between East and West.

Lost in Translation
Dir. Sofia Coppola

If the films in this series up until now have been defined by an atmosphere of weightlessness then Lost in Translation stands out for its world and characters being anchored. The film centers on Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a film star with marriage troubles currently shooting a commercial in Tokyo, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson), a college graduate on a trip to Tokyo with her photographer husband who’s on assignment. Charlotte, left with nothing to do, wanders Tokyo, and Bob, with too much time on his hands, does so too. After a series of accidental run-ins, the two begin to meet on occasion. Like Morvern Callar, the soundtrack here plays a major role in establishing mood. Produced by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine fame, the music of Lost in Translation takes its cue from the dream-pop and shoe-gaze genre, blanketing the film in soft guitar reverb and the fuzzed out noise of gently distorted vocals. Already foreign to its American characters, the city of Tokyo becomes layered in another veil of alienation thanks to Shield’s musical choices and compositions. And yet unlike the cold barren sets of Vagabond or the gritty Pennsylvania of Wanda, the sense of alienation in Lost in Translation becomes one of comfort, bridging the loneliness of its characters.

Wendy and Lucy
Dir. Kelly Reichardt

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) isn’t rebelling against the “system,” although she does steal from a supermarket. She’s simply a vagrant traveling to Alaska with her dog, Lucy. Arriving in Oregon, however, her car breaks down, and when she’s arrested for the aforementioned crime, she returns to the scene to find her dog missing and sets out about town to look for her. Reichardt is exceptional for shooting on film when most directors have now moved on to the digital medium. While her films can be described by their “texture”, to do so would be reductive. Equally difficult is describing Reichardt’s directional technique, and the way in which her actors behave. Yes, there are gestures akin to the films of Claire Denis, but whereas Denis can be said to be more focused on the relationship between people as mediated by their geopolitical (Beau Travail) or immediate societal boundaries (35 Shots of Rum), Reichardt’s focus lies in a formalist and uniquely American rigor. The fruit would bear more strongly in her later film Certain Women (2016), but it almost seems that Reichardt is channeling elements of the American western in the way her landscapes are beat down by the sun, and in the manner that towns seem forever yellow and languid. Like a cowboy or blues-man, Wendy too is on the move. Armed not with a revolver or musical instrument, but instead, vigor, ardor, and man’s best friend—her dog.

Dir. Angela Schanelec

Films are about watching, and the films in this particular series especially draw attention towards the ways in which women are watched, no apparently greater than in Angela Schanelec’s Marseille. Sophie (Maren Eggert), a photographer, temporarily exchanges her apartment with a student, moving from Berlin to Marseille. In the first half of the film, Sophie wanders the streets, taking photographs, and befriending the locals, and the audience is given vantage to it all. Schanelec places the camera in doorways, up top on hills, in between people, and other manners in which vision is mediated through the mis-en-scene. The result produces an effect of surveillance, perhaps a nod to the surveillance culture which dominated Berlin following World War II. Otherwise, Schanelec’s technique initially draws upon Laura Mulvey’s seminal theory on the male-gaze, but in this case, it may not entirely be correct. While the camera and by extension, the audience, attain a certain voyeuristic quality, it is never that of the sexual or titillating kind. Rather, it may be apt to compare the cinematography and blocking to that of observational or ethnographic cinema. Through Sophie’s wanderings, we become acquainted with her surroundings, whether it’s the locals at the bar, garage, or even street. But Schanelec’s camera which remains ever so distant, refuses any sense of intimacy. Sophie may be watched, but her interior remains protected, and so she, elusive.

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