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He might not be the first name that pops into the minds of cinephiles, but Christopher Doyle is one of the most important cinematographers working. When he is behind the camera, the film’s world suddenly envelops us in unique perspectives blending color, movement and shadows together in such a way that even the ugliest corners of the world are transformed into a sort of rapturous beauty. At the same time, he has the gift of bringing his vision into focus with that of his director. I find it almost impossible to describe the ways in which Doyle can take dilapidated walls, cracks, rusted objects, smoke or even human brutality and create a visionary sort of rainbow.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu Wai Leung in the shadows of perspective. In the Mood for Love Kar-wai Wong, 2000 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu Wai Leung in the shadows of perspective.
In the Mood for Love
Kar-wai Wong, 2000
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

I often find myself wanting to reach through the screen and touch the objects that catch his camera’s eye. It is the fact that I always have an immediate response to not move my arms or hands. Very often what Christopher Doyle films are objects that ordinarily I would have no interest in touching. The images project a sort of beauty, but they are never denied reality.

Tadanobu Asano's good looks can't pull our eyes away from where he stands. This stance is both literal and metaphorical. Invisible Waves Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Tadanobu Asano’s good looks can’t pull our eyes away from where he stands. This stance is both literal and metaphorical.
Invisible Waves
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle’s work with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang remains as fresh and oddly sensual as when their collaborations were first released. Dark stories of lost and damaged people trying to find their way to better places. Doyle’s camera forms as much of these stories as do Ratanaruang and his casts.

A lizard slithers up the wall behind Kenji's library... Last Life in the Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A lizard slithers up the wall behind Kenji’s library…
Last Life in the Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang , 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe follows the story of a lonely man who only begins to find a bit of hope after a criminal arrives to his apartment. This hope is found in the form of another’s tragic death. The grief stricken begins to bond with Kenji, an intelligent outsider who has lost all hope.

Even the unwanted arrival of a criminal fails to fill Kenji's world. He is alone and lonely. Last Life in the Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Even the unwanted arrival of a criminal fails to fill Kenji’s world. He is alone and lonely.
Last Life in the Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s camera captures this story from a number of perspectives and frames filled with colors, shadows and meanings.

Could this really be happening? A beautiful young woman allows Kenji into her home and falls asleep within his grasp. The perspective indicates a distance, but retains a sense of warmth and possibility. Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak Last Life In The Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Could this really be happening? A beautiful young woman allows Kenji into her home and falls asleep within his grasp. The perspective indicates a distance, but retains a sense of warmth and possibility.
Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak
Last Life In The Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Last Life in the Universe is a quirky, darkly comical and often disturbing Thai film that is as realistic as it is absurd and surreal. A criminal enters the void of Kenji’s solitary life in Bangkok and a series of disturbing events leads him to enter the life of a female polar opposite to himself. Distorted and contradictory in image as it is in story, Ratanaruang’s film is a surprisingly emotional love story.

A change in perspective and a later shift of natural light indicates that our protagonist finds some momentary piece. And a frame from the film serves as the film's poster. Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak Last Life In The Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A change in perspective and a later shift of natural light indicates that our protagonist finds some momentary piece. And a frame from the film serves as the film’s poster.
Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak
Last Life In The Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s work with Kar-wai Wong is the thing of cinematic legend. Just take a look at the following frames.

Brigitte Lin’s hard character hides behind a blonde wig and dark cigarettes. Very often she, like most of the film’s characters, seems to be frozen while the chaos of her world speeds by her.

A world of crowded chaos whirls past as the characters navigate it. Brigitte Lin Chungking Express Kar-wai Wong, 1994 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A world of crowded chaos whirls past as the characters navigate it.
Brigitte Lin
Chungking Express
Kar-wai Wong, 1994
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Kar-wai Wong and Christopher Doyle would forge a shared vision through the 1990’s.

Our gay lovers are in love but seem to hate each other most of the time. Close but far at the same time. Happy Together Kar-Wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Our gay lovers are in love but seem to hate each other most of the time. Close but far at the same time.
Happy Together
Kar-Wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Wong’s 1997 gay-themed film, Happy Together, shows two men attempting to hold on to each other in a culture that refuses them. When they are together, they are far apart.

Alone even the mundane and sad take on a sort of beauty... Leslie Cheung Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Alone even the mundane and sad take on a sort of beauty…
Leslie Cheung
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A Hong Kong film that pushed the envelope and delivered something very unexpected. The power largely emanates from Doyle’s camera work.

Drink, polaroids and cigs seem to fight for light. Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Drink, polaroids and cigs seem to fight for light.
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

In 1999 Christopher Doyle would make his directorial and film writing debut with Away With Words. The film was not a complete success and is largely viewed as a cult film thanks to the fact that Doyle’s pal, Tadanobu Asano, agreed to star. But Away With Words is highly undervalued. This is a brilliant slice of late 1990’s ennui. It is a fascinating snap shot of a world that would all be changing very quickly. It also features some of Doyles best cinematography.

Tadanobu Asano sleeps in a vacated neon and crushed velvet world. Away With Words Christopher Doyle, 1999

Tadanobu Asano sleeps in a vacated neon and crushed velvet world.
Away With Words
Christopher Doyle, 1999

 

A neon-drenched world of pop... Away With Words Christopher Doyle, 1999

A neon-drenched world of pop…
Away With Words
Christopher Doyle, 1999

If a film has Christopher Doyle as its cinematographer, I am there. It took me almost two years, but I was finally able to see KHAVN’s 2014 film, Ruined Heart — or full title: Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore. Khan De La Cruz, or as he prefers to be known, KHAVN, does not follow the rules of conventional cinema. Most likely he doesn’t follow rules at all. It actually says a great deal that Christopher Doyle took the job as his cinematographer for the film.

Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

When I was finally was able to sit down and experience KHAVN’s Ruined Heart the mixture of this poet turned filmmaker and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography stole my breath. As far as plot goes, KHAVN tells you everything you need to know with the title. Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore sums it all up, but don’t be fooled — there is a great deal more to be found here. This may be a story that has been told a thousand times by various film artists, but it has never been told quite like this one. With Doyle’s assistance, KHAVN finds a whole new way to tell a tired story.

 KHAVN forms two new types of mythological hybrids that roam the unnamed town in The Philippines: The criminal becomes a human with the head of a horse and our whore becomes a black-winged angel. Tadanobu Asano and Nathalia Acevedo seem to be at peace as they roam a city of violence. Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

KHAVN forms two new types of mythological hybrids that roam the unnamed town in The Philippines: The criminal becomes a human with the head of a horse and our whore becomes a black-winged angel.
Tadanobu Asano and Nathalia Acevedo seem to be at peace as they roam a city of violence.
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

KHAVN’s attentions are on music, visuals and atmosphere. “The story” is never clearly spoken and it may not even be linear or literal. Harnessing some amazing music and musical performances — particularly from Stereo Total, and swishing all of it together in front of and all around Christopher Doyle’s cameras the movie comes to a neon hypnotic life.

The film’s world is truly drenched in a sort of dirty neon light and ever-changing perspectives thanks to a cinematographer who refuses the camera even a moment of stillness.

The characters of this story are introduced to the audience via a sort of free-form police line-up. Each steps forward as the music cues them respectively. Tadanobu Asano is The Criminal. Natalie Acevedo is The Whore. Elena Kazan is The Lover. Andre Fuertellano is The Friend. And Vim Nadera is The Godfather. There are other suspects who have labels instead of names, but they are all side players to this Post-PUNK tale of love, betrayal and redemption.

Not a film afraid to go there, even a shot of the Criminal's squirt of passion is rendered a sensual and beautiful image. Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Not a film afraid to go there, even a shot of the Criminal’s squirt of passion is rendered a sensual and beautiful image.
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

As if mocking the very idea of striking any poses, KHAVN uses title cards to indicate intentions. This film is not a PUNK-noir opera. Yet it is full of music and flat out musical numbers. Even still most if not all of the musical performances are almost hidden in the shadows or foreground by Doyle’s amped cinematography.

The music and limited dialogue drifts away from us in both perspective and interest. Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The music and limited dialogue drifts away from us in both perspective and interest.
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Violence, tenderness, caresses and kisses are offered but only amid the darkest of moments. In one of the film’s many strange sequences the consuming of a duck egg is shared with a kiss. The duck egg is offered in a gritty and dirty kitchen. The egg itself appears to have gone. As the male begins to chock and spit out the contents of this shared kiss, he receives a caress. The colors and neon lights burn fast, but this is hardly a beautiful world.

As one of the film’s title cards announces, this film is based on a letter to the storm. The town in which the story unfolds appears to be on the brink of recovering from a major natural disaster. Or maybe the town is just waiting for one to come and wash all the dirt and vice away…

As the street musicians play, the camera moves with chaotic precision to show us the revelers who dance in costume and perform perverse rituals... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

As the street musicians play, the camera moves with chaotic precision to show us the revelers who dance in costume and perform perverse rituals…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

This is a world filled with violence, threat, perversity and crime. Stuck in a sort of Carnaval Fever Dream, our Criminal and Whore seem like upstanding citizens. To the film’s credit, they are not. But we do gain a sense that this world is weighing them down. At one point as they make love, The Criminal covers The Whore‘s face with what appears to be a phone book of sorts.

Is he hiding himself from her or her from himself?

As they race toward a mutually shared orgasm, the pages from the book are torn and fall to the floor near the bed. A painting of The Madonna and Child sits watching as the pages of passion fall.

Or maybe The Criminal is hiding his love's face from The Madonna who sits in the corner of the room... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Or maybe The Criminal is hiding his love’s face from The Madonna who sits in the corner of the room…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The actors have very little to no lines to speak. But each performer manages to convey what is needed. Tadanobu Asano really steps up for the film. His on-screen charisma plays a crucial role in advancing the film. He also acts briefly as Christopher Doyle’s camera operator…

Tadanobu Asano's Criminal guides the camera and perspective to world of cruelty and color... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Tadanobu Asano’s Criminal guides the camera and perspective to world of cruelty and color…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

At arm’s length, we soon see what The Criminal is feeling…

Our perspective is fully dictated by the movement of action to the beat of the drums. There is no escape offered... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Our perspective is fully dictated by the movement of action to the beat of the drums. There is no escape offered…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The entire production of artists both in front of and behind the camera are in perfect synch with the director, but none are quite as sharply invested as Christopher Doyle’s camera. As our Criminal and Whore attempt to escape the horrific world in which they are trapped — we want them to win, but we already know this score.

Tadanobu Asano can only pause to hide the pain with a smile or a laugh... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Tadanobu Asano can only pause to hide the pain with a smile or a laugh…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

I’ve not seen a film this casually cool since Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. Like that 1990’s French film, KHAVN’s Ruined Heart never feels like it is trying to be cool. It quite simply doesn’t care. This oft-told story of a criminal and a whore in love and on the lam is moving forward with or without you. KHAVN has made a movie that is cool simply because it is.

The movie is also alive with energy and new ideas related to storytelling. As KHAVN is a poet, the movie does lend itself to the idea of a Cinematic Tone Poem. However such a tired sort of label feels inappropriate.

In fact, none of the film’s characters manage to live up to their respective identifiers. This is not a real Friend. That is a withering Godfather and this Lover has very little love in her heart.

And the Whore is more a lost goddess and her Criminal is a devoted hero.

Romeo may be bleeding beneath the stone angel, but he and his love find a supernatural and mythic escape. The Criminal and The Whore follow their own beat amongst the playing children and hard-working vendors of KHAVN and Christopher Doyles’ imaginary world of ruined hearts. 

Aside from two US film festivals, this movie’s screenings in the West have been largely limited to Europe. This magical little movie was issued via region-restricted Blu-Ray in the UK. A briefly printed region-free Blu was issued, but it would appear to have been edited to secure a PG-13 rating. Ruined Heart is currently streaming in pure form on Fandor in the US. It is worth seeing — but then again so are all films lensed by Christopher Doyle.

To the good young Filipino... Ruined Heart KAHVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

To the good young Filipino…
Ruined Heart
KAHVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

See it if you can…

Matty Stanfield, 3.22.2016

There was once a time when Madonna presented ideas far deeper than that of “Pop Star.” While those days seem to have past, many of the ideas she presented and asserted remain.

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's insightful novel for the screen. Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, 2015 Photograph | Sam Emerson

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s insightful novel for the screen.
Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller, 2015
Photograph | Sam Emerson

One of the last times I recall finding myself thinking about something she co-created was her 2000 single:

“Skin that shows in patches.
Strong inside but you don’t know it.

Good little girls they never show it.
When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world…” — Madonna

Aside from being catchy, this pop song did elevate itself more than a little by what it had to say about the ever-mounting challenges and societal/cultural indifference and injustices perpetuated against and projected upon the idea of female identity. Sadly, the iconic superstar chose to have her then filmmaker husband create the song’s vid-clip. The video for this song was crass and violent for reasons of shock-value vs. offering any level of content truly relevant toward a song that seemed tied to a young woman attempting to indicate the cruel patriarchal views to a young male. A missed opportunity to say the least.

Marguerite Duras' novel about a young woman's sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard. Jane March / Tony Leung The Lover Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992 Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

Marguerite Duras’ novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard.
Jane March / Tony Ka Fai Leung
The Lover
Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992
Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

It has taken a tragic and centuries long tyranny for women to finally make significant strides in the areas of filmmaking. Such recently formed groups like The Alliance for Women in Media have smartly utilized social media to promote, promote and organize female film artists. While the idea of the female filmmaker is not at all new, the voices of these film artists that have managed to gain attention are painfully few. Those voices that have managed to obtain success have largely been built on celebrity [think Nora Ephron, Julie Delpy, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Susan Sideman, Anne Fontaine, Diane Keaton or Kathryn Bigelow] or controversial films that were either too scandalous or provocative [think Claire Denis, Lina Wertmüller, Patty Jenkins, Liliana Cavani, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Doris Dörrie or Catherine Breillat] to be ignored.

Note: this statement and the listed artists is not intended toward the quality of work or respective importance. However significant gains have been made in just the last ten years.

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King SELMA Ava DuVernay, 2014 Cinematography | Bradford Young

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
SELMA
Ava DuVernay, 2014
Cinematography | Bradford Young

As Film Art moves forward we will be given more opportunities to see female characters written and presented by women. It is interesting to experience the “knee-jerk” reaction of fellow cinephiles when I bring this up. It seems that the majority of people seem to feel it is not all that important or different to have a female vs. male filmmaker. From a technical proficiency standpoint it really does not make a difference. However, good luck at convincing most Big Money producers or film studios that there isn’t. The shift in this perspective is resulting from peer and societal pressures. Sexism and Racism still run the show, but this might be changing. What interests me is seeing how a female filmmaker might be able to bring a more balanced depiction of female characters and their situations.

A great deal more than "a sex comedy" that the film's marketing team led us to believe. Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film. Afternoon Delight Jill Soloway, 2013 Cinematography | Jim Frohna

A great deal more than “a sex comedy” that the film’s marketing team led us to believe.
Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film.
Afternoon Delight
Jill Soloway, 2013
Cinematography | Jim Frohna

Would Ava DuVernay’s Selma have been different if it had been made by a man? A white woman? I suspect so, but Selma was crafted with such a steadfast and sure handed — it is hard to say. Would Jill Soloway’s under-appreciated Afternoon Delight have been different if it had been written/directed by a male filmmaker? I’d say most certainly so. Would Diary of a Teenage Girl have presented themes of sexuality and identity have been handled in a different manner by a male? Would Mia’s frustrations, anger and sexual awakening been explored differently if a man had directed Andrea Arnold’s screenplay for Fish Tank? I’d say most definitely. Or what if we stop and imagine what might have happened if Lynne Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kenner, had directed their screenplay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Would Michelle Williams’ Margot had received a more typical level of exploration had Sarah Polley not written and directed Take This Waltz? Would a male director had handled Father of My Children in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve so grimly caring as she was able?

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate. Katie Jarvis Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009 Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate.
Katie Jarvis
Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold, 2009
Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

If we think back to some of the more controversial European films of the past 50 years it brings up an even stronger concern. Imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had directed Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter? …A film that still makes both female and male audiences squirm some 40+ years after it was originally released. Try to imagine if Jacques Audiard had directed Claire Denis’ White Material. Actually this might be the true exception to the rule. I do not think there are any filmmakers who think and film anywhere near to the manner in which Denis approaches her distinctive and intimate films.

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working -- who happens to be a woman. Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley FUNNY BUNNY Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working — who happens to be a woman.
Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley
FUNNY BUNNY
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Even so, just think what might have happened. A similar exception might rule for both Catherine Breillat and Josephine Decker — both of whom seem to have a very unique and intimate connection to their work. Decker’s voice is still taking form and I think we are approaching an era where it will be allowed to do just that. The same did not happen for the likes of Claudia Weill and Elaine May. Two incredibly gifted artists who had the unluck of making a flop each. Male filmmakers can make a flop movie and move on, the same has not been true for women.

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May's directorial career to an abrupt end. Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty ISHTAR Elaine May, 1987 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May’s directorial career to an abrupt end.
Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty
ISHTAR
Elaine May, 1987
Cinematography |Vittorio Storaro

An even more vexing concern for female artists comes up when we do think of all the inaccuracies of treatment for male filmmakers vs. female directors. Men can misbehave. Does anyone out there think that a female artist would have been allowed to put a cast / crew through emotional tantrums thrown by David O. Russell during the making of I Heart Huckabees? You are living in a make believe reality if you do. You would also be in an equally confused reality if you think a male PEO could have gotten away with this behavior on a Hollywood set. Ironically, the artist who paid the price for Mr. Russell’s bizarre behavior ended up being an innocent bystander. Unlike her co-stars, Isabelle Huppert and Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin refused to sit quietly while Russell blasted them with unprofessional rage-fueled insults.

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.  Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell, 2004 Cinematography | Peter Deming

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.
Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 2004
Cinematography | Peter Deming

It was as if the highly respected and skilled actress had made a grave error against Hollywood’s Good ‘Ol Boy Club when she dared to respond to her director’s cruelty. Ms. Tomlin’s film career suffered a great deal due because she was unwilling to sit passively and suffer the indignity of O’Russell’s tyranny. This sad result of a YouTube leak has been little discussed. David O. Russell had already come to blows with George Clooney a few years earlier. Clooney seemed to earn “respect points” for standing up to the bullying. Tomlin did not fare as well. She was largely relegated to playing nightclub gigs. It would take more than a couple of years before she found worthy television / film prospects. Yet David O. Russell continued to excel up The Hollywood Food Chain despite not only his behavior but the box office fail of I Heart Huckabees.

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.  Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.
Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

However, I’ve gone way off point here. There are a slew of amazing films dealing with the psychology of women. Films that are rightly revered and studied. In no way would I want to discount these films, but it is interesting to think about them from the perspective that they were imagined, written and directed by men. Are these depictions any less valid because women were relegated to the role of “actor” vs. creator of these unforgettable cinematic masterpieces? It is an interesting talking point.

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.  Julianne Moore SAFE Todd Haynes, 1995 Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.
Julianne Moore
SAFE
Todd Haynes, 1995
Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

I was recently thinking of four films in particular. I don’t pretend to know the full answer to this hind-sighted reflection. For starters I am not a filmmaker, but most importantly I am a white male. These films were made by professional filmmakers — all of whom were white men.

Millie aims for perfection within a man's nightmare... Shelley Duvall  3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie aims for perfection within a man’s nightmare…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The first film that crosses my mind regarding this line of questioning is one of my personal favorite movies: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I’m not sure this is a good film to discuss in this vein as the entire film can be ascribed to dream-logic. Altman never made it a secret that the entire film was born of a personal nightmare. It is also no secret that this incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

The battle for identity... Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The battle for identity…
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost all of the film’s trajectories emanate from Duvall’s Millie‘s actions. Another aspect of this film that more or less eliminates it from this topic is the fact that the entire film does feel like a manifestation of male-based fears about women. This is not to say that 3 Women is not a fully potent vision of identity horror, but it does not actually seem to present itself entirely based female psychology. This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific three female characters.

The second film I think of this respect is a more likely candidate for this type of analysis: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Experiencing a John Cassavetes film often leads the viewer to the mistaken idea that every aspect of what is being seen is an improvised experimental film. This is never the case.

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

Cassavetes was an articulate film writer as well as director. He had a very specific story to tell and he told it in his unique visionary way. Certainly not one to run from collaboration and open to ideas — he was nearly always set on how and what he wanted his films to say. He was blessed to share his life with one of the most important film actors to ever breathe, Gena Rowlands. However it is a major mistake to think that as Mabel, Rowlands was free-forming her dialog as she went along. It is both to her credit as an actor and her husband’s credit as a filmmaker that it feels that way. Even Rowlands’s Mabel odd and/or quirky hand gestures and ticks were already thought out in the filmmaker’s head. Do a Google and you will find images of Cassavetes acting out the hand movements and gestures for Rowlands to incorporate into her performance. It is also somewhat crucial to remember that Cassavetes main interest in his film storytelling was the pursuit of love. Yet it would seem difficult for even this great filmmaker to not note that there was something removed from that going on here.

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.  A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.
A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

A Woman Under the Influence works on all levels and remains a fascinating and deeply disturbing screen capture of a woman in full-tilt emotional breakdown. How or if she is full able to “heal” and return to life is more than a little ambiguous. What is clear in the film is that she is loved and loves, but this might not be enough for her to survive the life in which she has found herself. And this is one of the primary reasons this 1974 film continues to feel alive and real. The hair styles, the decor, the cars and clothing may all be dated — but the situations all feel profoundly current.

Mabel is not well. She is losing her grip on sanity. Something that the film never bluntly states but shows is that she is also deteriorating in imposed isolation, loneliness and suffocating within what begins to feel like a sort of familial pathology. The Longhetti Family is not well. The working-class husband / father is over-worked and seems more than a little under-educated. With the exception of a paycheck, he seems to leave all other responsibilities to his wife, Mabel. She is left alone with three children in a sort of lower-middle class hell.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

She loves and adores her children, but they are all she has in the way of connection to the world. She may or may not be a bit smarter than her husband, but it does not really matter. We can see that she is overwhelmed. We can also see that her husband hasn’t a clue as to why or how to help her. He takes to what can only be described as domestic abuse toward his wife. He ultimately pulls his children into emotionally-damaging situations and allows indulgences into inappropriate behavior as a father. Mabel may not be a reliable parent, but she seems to be trying harder to set a better example than her husband. The 21st Century reaction to Peter Falk’s Nick is to take offense and become angry. However his performance and the film itself is so stunningly human, it is almost impossible to dislike Nick. We know he cares and is simply lost. The resulting film is powerful, sad and oddly inspiring in that it offers us a bit of hope for this woman.

When film acting no longer feels like "fiction." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

When film acting no longer feels like “fiction.”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

There was and will only ever be one John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is cinematic masterwork from every angle.

But have you ever wondered what this movie might have been like if a woman had directed it?

Would we be given a bit more information regarding those gestures or movements to understand the pressures of both the inner and outer worlds of Mabel? Would Nick have had more room to understand or even less? Would he have become a savior or more of a victimizer? When it comes to A Woman Under the Influence, one thing that was discussed when it was first released has come much more clearly to the forefront with the passage of time: there is an idea presented which is far less ambiguous today as was back in the 1970s. As viewers we do not really know if it is Mabel who is having the real problem here. Mabel appears to be more a victim of circumstance than one of mental illness. Is The Woman ill or is she simply a experiencing the logical result of a life so severely limited and oppressed? Perhaps it is Nick who really needs help. Mabel just might need to demand more freedom or walk away. Would the entire situation of this family be illuminated in a different way had it been in the hands of female filmmaker? Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know…

The female psyche deconstructed... PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The third and final film is also one of the greatest films ever made. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a milestone work of art for more reasons than I’d be comfortable attempting to articulate. This largely experimental film is less about the core of Human Identity as it is about the twisted manipulation of identity by one of the two female characters. Bibi Andersson plays Alma. A young and inexperienced Psych Nurse assigned the task of caring for a highly respected stage and film actress played with equal mastery by Liv Ullmann. This is a Surrealist take on human cruelty and ideas of identity. It is also female-centric. Yet as much as it is concerned with female psychology, it is equally concerned with experimenting against the normal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Ingmar Bergman and his legendary cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist are both concerned with conveying ideas through image and editing even more than what the two actors present through performance and dialogue.

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?  Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?
Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We see both women react to their respective worlds and situations. Soon enough we see them react to each other. In uncomfortable silence as her patient has withdrawn from speech and human contact, Alma begins to find herself in the unique position in having a person of note who serves as her private audience. She begins to share her deepest and most intimate secrets to her Elisbet. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to realize that Liv Ullmann’s character is somehow using her nurse for her own perverse needs and pleasures. We might think that it is the patient who is falling apart, but viewers quickly realize that the character who truly comes to the end of her mental and emotional rope is the nurse.

Silent prey or captive audience?  Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson  PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Silent prey or captive audience?
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

One of the splinters the film that makes is truly jolting, but it is never fully clear as to why. Was this always going to happen or has Ullmann’s Elisabet pushing buttons and limits for her own sick gain? I suspect most of us would agree that this revolutionary bit of filmmaking is at least a partial off-spring from Freudian thought. In fact, it seems that Bergman was playing off Freud’s idea of both primary and normal narcissism. Persona almost seems to be constructing itself off Freud’s self-titled definitions of Demential Praecox and Paraphrenics (sp?) — Elisabet appears to an off-shoot example of Schizophrenia who is incapable of love or loving. Alma is the hysterical woman unable to escape the grasp of a sociopathic woman hellbent on ruining her. It would be irresponsible and lazy to dismiss Persona on sexist grounds as it comes from a very specific point in time and achieved a whole new sort of cinematic language. Persona is still a gut punch to the senses. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s film remains ahead of time. However it is firmly grounded in the world of Art Horror or Psychological Thriller. It is not and can’t be weakened by ideas that we now might deem as outmoded.

But it does beg a bit of examination regarding the ways in which Bergman crafted his two female characters? It is possibly unnecessary, but curious to wonder what a female film artist might have done with the ideas of female human beings in this situation. Would a female or a Feminist-perspective have changed this film for the different or better? Would Alma‘s memory of her sexual exploit be articulated differently? Would Elisabet‘s reactions and actions have been different? Would a sickly little boy reach out for the female faces or would he be replaced by a little girl? Would a female perspective lead us further than Bergman’s conclusion?

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act... Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act…
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Would it all still break the film strip?

Perhaps of all male filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was the most interested in female-centric movies. He is not alone. Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Woody Allen and David Lynch are just a few of the white male filmmakers who pursue the stories and even the POV of female characters. Much of their work feels right, but how to know? Can a man really ever know what it feels like for a girl?

Or perhaps more on point: can a male film artist really ever know what it is like to be a woman? …much less even partially understand what it is like to be in her head?

Judging by many films, it would seem more than a little possible.

Intent to harm or heal? Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Intent to harm or heal?
Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We have yet to have an equal opportunity to experience female film art perspective in equal measure. Let’s hope that we see and hear more from Female Film Artists and Women In Media as we move forward.  It has never been more important to support films made by women and people of color.

Aren’t we all pretty much bored with seeing the vast majority of movies limited to the white male perspective?

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016