Thursday, 11 February 2016

Book Review: Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema by Sophie Mayer (I.B. Tauris, 2015)

“Girls to the front!” Political Animals, the latest book by Sophie Mayer, comes out swinging: a loving, challenging, critically insightful and addictively readable study of contemporary feminist film. The book’s arrival could hardly be more timely. From the high-profile work of the Geena Davis Institute through the EEOC’s inquiry into Hollywood’s discriminatory hiring practices to London Film Festival AD Clare Stewart’s labelling of the 2015 Festival as “the year of the strong woman” (a categorisation that I address a little bit in my piece on Suffragette) debate about the status of women in film has come firmly (back) into focus recently.

The greatness of Political Animals lies, in part, in the lucid and provocative way in which it reflects upon these debates while also taking off in richly rewarding and productive directions all its own. Sophisticated (but accessible) in its employment of theory, beautifully illustrated, and gorgeously written (Mayer is an acclaimed poet as well as an academic and activist, and it shows), this is a vibrant work that sets the mind racing and the heart soaring as it explores familiar (and not so familiar) films in fresh ways. 

“Representational justice” is a key concept throughout. For Mayer, “[a] stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equality, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist” (p. 8). Although she begins by modestly acknowledging the text’s limitations, and noting that the book “isn’t meant to inaugurate an alternative canon, or even prescribe a film festival programme” (p. 11), Mayer in fact assesses a dazzlingly wide array of work across Political Animals’s ten absorbing chapters. She examines features, docs and shorts from around sixty countries: showing women working - worldwide - “across every mode of filmmaking, every budgetary scale, every medium and every genre” (p. 4). The book’s insistence upon expansiveness and “plenitude” adds up to a powerful “refutation of scarcity” (p. 15), as Mayer critiques the mainstream media’s obsession with “stats and firsts,” which often merely tokenise women’s involvement in film, thereby obscuring rather than illuminating the coherent and continuous history of innovation and activism by female-identified filmmakers” (p.14-15).  

Illuminating that history, and exploring its present-day manifestations, is what Political Animals is all about. Deeply concerned with legacy, community and collaboration, Mayer acknowledges her gratitude to the work of other feminist film critics and curators (filmmaking and criticism and/as curation are intimately linked here), especially B. Ruby Rich’s Chick Flicks (1998), a text whose highlighting of “soul-replenishing” work remains foundational (p. 11). The book also develops Mayer’s own previous criticism, including her excellent The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (2009); indeed, the choice of cover image for the new book  - a still from Potter’s 2012 film Ginger & Rosa - immediately reinforces that connection. Here, though, Potter is but one part of a wide and ever-widening constellation of female filmmakers, as Mayer ranges over work by Reichardt and Reeves, Denis and DuVernay, Martel and the Makhmalbafs, Mehta and Varda to name but a few.  

Like A Politics of Love, which opened with Mayer’s memory of the deeply formative experience of seeing Orlando for the first time, Political Animals also begins in a personal place. Mayer writes of watching Frozen with her 5-year-old goddaughter Asta, noting both her own and Asta’s pleasure in the film’s “placing [of] active female characters centre-screen” (p. 1), notwithstanding its problematic aspects in relation to race, body image, and class hierarchy.    

This personal note is an important one to sound, since, as Mayer recognises, she herself was “indelibly shaped by coming of age in the early 1990s, an era in which it seemed that women [in film] definitively called the shots” (p.4). Political Animals laments the fact that this “diverse, playful and confident cinema,” linked to Riot Grrrl and the New Queer movements, didn’t sustain throughout the 00s. Yet the book doesn’t get bogged down in a nostalgic mode.  Rather, Mayer is interested in exploring what has happened in between and in celebrating what’s happening right now.

Thus Frozen is figured here as “a primer, rather than a closing statement, on the potential of feminist cinema” (p.3). For, while Mayer certainly doesn’t ignore Hollywood product, her true affiliations lie outside the mainstream. (She quotes bell hooks on the importance of “embrac[ing] the avant garde…Here is where we’ll find radical possibility” [p. 3].) As such, one of the primary achievements of Political Animals is its passionate highlighting of work that’s been under-celebrated, under-distributed, under-seen. Looking beyond the dominant (and inadequate) North American mainstream, Mayer uncovers a vibrant global feminist cinema, and her attention to the intersections of class and race within diverse national contexts is superbly astute throughout.

In terms of the book’s organisation, Mayer opts for a thematic, associative structure that allows for the tracing of trends, the establishment of patterns, in striking and unusual ways. In the space of a couple of pages, a chapter on ecologically-engaged films moves from Point Break to Tank Girl to Night Moves to Avatar in a way that illuminates each movie in turn.

Each chapter, including ones on recent feminist interventions into historical drama and the war film, boasts its abundance of riches, and readers will enjoy making their own discoveries and connections. I would single out just two chapters here.  A wonderfully subversive study of  “the feminist animal film” focuses on the presentation of “companion species” relationships, arguing for human/animal kinship  “[as] a way to stand aslant, outside, and/or against, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy” (p. 35). (I can only assume that Mayer didn’t get the chance to see Laura Citarella’s La Mujer de los Perros before the book went to press, since it fits perfectly with this chapter’s thesis.)  In “British Cinema as a Runaway Girl,” meanwhile, Mayer brilliantly groups together a selection of works by filmmakers including Andrea Arnold, Carol Morley and Amma Asante to demonstrate how British feminists are drawing on and challenging established traditions of social realism through a focus on “lost girl” protagonists.   

There are, perhaps inevitably, some niggling omissions in Political Animals and a few sections in which breadth appears to have replaced depth. Some filmmakers (such as Joanna Hogg and Julie Taymor) receive disappointingly short shrift, and there are moments when you may long for Mayer to linger for longer over a particular work (Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl is one example) instead of moving on to the next connection. And just occasionally those connections are a bit strained: I wasn’t too convinced by the contrasting of Frances Ha and 35 Shots of Rum as “Cinderella” stories (p.127-8), and a couple of the character details referenced in the Denis film are not quite correct.  

Occasionally, too, it looks like certain films are getting preferential treatment (or otherwise) for reasons other than their individual merits. Mayer’s enthusiastic reading of Morley’s The Falling (featured in a wonderful chapter on the space of “girl ‘hood”) presents the film as a far more cogent and transgressive work than it actually plays. The brisk dismissals of Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour and Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy are another case in point, as Mayer notes generalised criticisms of the films’ alleged “male-gaze oriented depiction of lesbian sex,” and their erasing of space for lesbian filmmakers (p.78), rather than truly engaging with the (diametrically opposed) formal qualities and narrative strategies of either film.

But enough quibbling. Political Animals is a fantastic and inspiring piece of work from one of the best critics currently writing. Not the least of its achievements is to send readers scurrying in search of films they’ve yet to see, fuelling further what Mayer beautifully terms “the spark that leads us to rise up and represent” (p. 37). “Our choice of what ticket to buy or link to click on (re)shapes the media,” Mayer reminds us in the radiant final chapter, “not simply as an economic tick that flickers on an executive’s spreadsheet, but because it changes us, psychically and affectively, and thus changes our community”  (p. 201). The vivid demonstration of cinema as an agent for and of change is part of what makes Political Animals such a vital and empowering work, one that’s infused with the liberating  spirit of the “soul-replenishing” films that it so insightfully illuminates.      

You can buy Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema here.            


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Film Review: A Bigger Splash (dir. Guadagnino, 2015)

Luca Guadagnino's terrific A Bigger Splash is out in the UK on Friday. You can read my review from last year's London Film Festival here.  The film also made my favourites of 2015 list

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Theatre Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (National Theatre)

My review of Dominic Cooke's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Concert Review: Transatlantic Sessions 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London, 1st February

Now into its seventh year, the Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas-curated Transatlantic Sessions has firmly established itself as a tradition as it tours the UK at the beginning of each year: a reliable way of raising the spirits during the murky depths of British winter. As its name indicates, the project – which finds roots musicians from North America and the British Isles performing together in a relaxed set-up – is all about making connections: between Old and New World music, of course, but also between emerging and established artists, and between ancient and contemporary material. And it’s precisely that commitment to connection that makes these shows such invigorating and heart-warming experiences.

Last year’s show [reviewed here] found Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, Sara Watkins, John Smith and Kathleen MacInnes appearing with house band and regulars including Bain (fiddle) and Douglas (dobro), Phil Cunningham (accordion), John McCusker (fiddle), Danny Thompson (bass), John Doyle (guitars), Mike McGoldrick (pipes and whistles), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin), James MacKintosh (drums) and Donald Shaw (piano) to form an “International Hillbilly Organisation” (as Griffin ingeniously dubbed them).  

This year sees US newbies Joe Newberry, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Californian indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) joining seasoned stalwarts Karen Matheson and Cara Dillon to take on material that ranges from the melancholic to the infectiously boisterous.

Sleek in a black suit with tartan sash, Matheson delivered mouth music and Gaelic songs, including a stunningly beautiful version of Burns’s “Yowes to the Knowes”, with her customary grace and elegance. Dillon contributed a passionate “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and a captivating a cappella “The Winding River Roe” that reduced the house to pin-drop silence; her lead on a singalong “Bright Morning Stars” was a highlight of the second set. Bain and Cunningham, now in their 30th year as collaborators (an association that’s lasted “longer than our marriages,” as Cunningham fondly quipped), led tunes both tender and rousing, with typically dynamic work from McCusker, McGoldrick, Doyle and co.   

As always, those new to the fold brought wonderful fresh textures to the evening. Most obviously arresting was Giddens, whose sublime, fierce swamp blues double of “Julie” (a Civil War-set conversation between slave and owner) and “Waterboy” brought the first half to a spell-binding and dramatic close. Strutting and declaiming, Giddens lifted the show to a whole new level of intensity, and her versions of Patsy Cline's “She’s Got You” and of “Black is the Colour” in the second half were almost as electrifying. Newberry brought charming old timey spirit to an uplifting “Rocky Island”, a chugging “The Cherry River Line” and the appealing maternal tribute “I Know Whose Tears”.

Compared to Simon and Garfunkel yet actually closer to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ brand of tranced-out duetting, The Milk Carton Kids played up their status as L.A. interlopers with wry humour, delivering sterling versions of their own compositions “Honey, Honey” and “Snake Eyes,” and then generating one of the most enthusiastic responses of the night for a stunning take on – yes – Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. It was equally unexpected to find everyone pitching in on a great, ragged rendition of  “It Ain’t Easy” (the Glen Davies song covered by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust).

Material by Bowie and Pink Floyd may have been the wild card up the sleeve of this year’s show, but its inclusion testified to the openness of Transatlantic Sessions as a beautifully democratic showcase in which no single voice or musician dominates and in which the emphasis is placed, instead, on sharing, support and  collaboration. From the funky to the plaintive, this year’s show once again did dynamic justice to traditional music in all its rich and exhilarating diversity.  

Reviewed for PopMatters

The 2016 Transatlantic Sessions tour continues in Birmingham, Gateshead, Manchester and Londonderry. Further details here

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

CD Review: Shelter From the Storm, Barb Jungr (Linn Records, 2016)

Barb Jungr’s rich and vibrant new album Shelter From the Storm follows directly in the footsteps of her last, 2014’s highly acclaimed Hard Rain, by taking a Bob Dylan song for its title; in fact, it’s the latest in a series of Jungr albums to pay homage to her favourite songwriter in this way. (2002’s Every Grain of Sand and 2011’s Man in the Long Back Coat, both comprised entirely of Dylan material, and 2008’s Just Like A Woman, dedicated to the repertoire of Nina Simone, are the others.)

However, Jungr’s new release really sets out its stall via its subtitle: “Songs of Hope for Troubled Times.” “[T]his material is all about hope – and dreams – we need so much more of them now,” Jungr explains in the liner notes.  As such, the looser, more relaxed and upbeat Shelter From the Storm is a rather different proposition to Hard Rain which combined “political and philosophical” songs by Dylan and Leonard Cohen to brilliantly intense effect. The contrasting attitude is evident in the albums’ art work aesthetics: where Hard Rain pictured a pensive, sultry-looking Jungr set against a stark black background, Shelter From the Storm’s cover (photographed by Steve Ullathorne) finds the singer radiant and beaming in a verdant garden, eyes aloft and clearly anticipating that something a whole lot more positive than a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.  

Recorded during a sweltering July at Sear Sound studio in New York, Shelter From the Storm is very much a transatlantic project, and finds Jungr teaming up with some exciting new collaborators. This time, she’s joined by the award-winning Laurence Hobgood on piano and keys, Michael Olatuja on double bass and Wilson Torres on percussion. The quartet form a strong and sympathetic unit, as they tackle material that encompasses work by Jungr’s cherished ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriter icons, a pair of musical theatre classics, and several superb new compositions, too.

Each track is given its own highly distinctive identity, yet the album feels entirely cohesive, with Hobgood’s fresh, supple and sometimes boldly idiosyncratic arrangements often stretching the songs into delectable jazz jams. The vibe is spare yet textured; all the material, however familiar, feels new-minted; and there are fresh elements to notice with every play of the disc.

The live arena is, of course, Jungr’s natural habit, the place where, in an intimate cabaret setting, all aspects of her artistry combine through masterful vocal delivery, distinctive gestures and expressions, story-telling, and audience interaction. However, while Jungr’s power as a performer  may be strongly linked to the experience of seeing her live and “in motion”, Shelter From the Storm succeeds in doing justice to her multifaceted musicianship through vocals alone.

That’s nowhere more apparent than on the title track itself, a version which plays with metre and tempo to thrilling effect in order to dynamically capture the shifting emotions and responses of the narrator. Jungr’s vocals move compellingly from stridency to delicacy, the urgent to the languorous, declaiming and cooing in perfect harmony with Hobgood’s protean piano playing.

Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” is treated almost as creatively, the song benefiting from a quirky “stop/start” rhythm and closing with Jungr’s gracious repetition of the lyric “We weren’t lovers like that”. A shimmering and funky re-working of “Woodstock” is another highlight, leading one to hope that Jungr will turn her attention to a full programme of Joni Mitchell material one of these days. And there’s no better evidence of Jungr’s elegant iconoclasm than in her seamlessly popping the verses of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” into a wonderful, taut and dramatic take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

The versions of South Pacific’s “Bali Hai” (which opens the album)  and of West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming” are both strong, and perfectly in keeping with the record's themes, but if Jungr’s excursions into musical theatre are a bit less revelatory for me, it’s perhaps because she’s so brilliant at refocusing others’ songs as stories that there’s a little less room for manoeuvre with compositions that already have built-in associations in the pre-existing narrative of a show. 

Jungr’s own compositions, developed in collaboration with Hobgood, are all gleaming gems, though. (I keep hoping that the amazing “Last Orders”, written with Simon Wallace, will turn up on an album sometime but she seems content to leave that as a treat for concert-attendees only.)  The elegant “Stars Lazy But Shining” joins her brilliant “Beautiful Life” as a further celebration of nature’s joys and the pleasures derived from close attention to everyday experience. “Venus Rising” is even better, building from evocative, carefully chosen images to a jubilant finale. And “Hymn to Nina”, a further homage to Simone, is perfectly disarming in its open-hearted candour. “I sing to a heroine of mine,” Jungr intones against Hobgood’s delicate piano. The simple scene-setting detail of “driving from Brighton, rain on my windscreen” beautifully grounds the tribute in the everyday, as Jung celebrates Simone for “bringing soul and song to everything,” and tenderly repeats her name as an incantation at the song's close.   

Which brings us to the album’s closer. (Well, kind of: the download version of the album also includes excellent versions of Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” and Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” as bonus tracks.) Recording David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” in New York back in July, Jungr could hardly have known that the track would be released a mere month after Bowie’s death. The track’s inclusion here – in a superb arrangement that brings a beguiling fairground quality to the piece and also incorporates lyrics from “Space Oddity” into the song’s folds – is extremely poignant. The song inescapably links back to “Hymn to Nina” in this context, with its reference to “Wild is the Wind”, a composition covered by both Simone and Bowie.  “In the wild wind I hear you calling…”  Jungr sings to Nina, the sentiment extending to Bowie too. “You were here then you were gone/Your word lives on…”

Through her passionate, sensitive and intelligent reinterpretations, Jungr continues to ensure that the work of many artists “lives on” in vibrant and re-energised ways. Building connections across material, making old songs new again, “bringing soul and song to everything,” Shelter From the Storm stands as further testament to Jungr's ever-evolving powers as a performer. Be sure to catch her and Hobgood when they tour the album in the UK in March and April, and in the US in May.     

Shelter from the Storm  is released on Linn Records on February 19th and can be ordered here.  Tour dates here

Monday, 25 January 2016

Film Review: Youth (dir. Sorrentino, 2015)

Paolo Sorrentino's rather good Youth is in UK cinemas from Friday. You can read my review from Cannes 2015 here

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Theatre Review: The Rolling Stone (Orange Tree)

Fiston Barek and Faith Alabi in The Rolling Stone (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Winner of the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Judges Award, Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, where the production was cross-cast with a new version of Anna Karenina. An exploration of gay desire in the repressive context of contemporary Uganda, Urch’s play gained mostly favourable responses, though some critics suggested that Ellen McDougall’s production would have benefited from a smaller space.

It gets it here. Transferred to the Orange Tree, as the first production in Paul Miller’s second year as Artistic Director, The Rolling Stone reveals itself, in the right-there intimacy of this auditorium, to be a nuanced, thought-provoking and – finally – blazingly intense piece that demonstrates an Ibsen-esque attention to the problematic intersection of public and private lives.

The title alludes to a Ugandan newspaper, a scurrilous rag which, in 2010, began publishing pictures of homosexuals and urging people to "out" any such deviants who are believed to be threatening the moral life of the nation. (The publications led to arrests, assaults and murders.) Church elder Mama (Jo Martin) sees the scare as the opportunity for some crowd-pleasing (and lucrative) fire-and-brimstone preaching on the part of the newly installed pastor Joe (Sule Rimi). What she – and Joe – are unaware of is that Joe’s brother Dembe (Fiston Barek) is gay, and involved in a relationship with Sam (Julian Moore-Cook), a doctor of Ugandan and Northern Irish parentage.  

Scooping a Bruntwood Prize hasn’t always been a firm guarantee of a play’s quality, but The Rolling Stone certainly proves its worth. While some of the banter between Dembe and Sam feels a little bit calculated in striving for crowd-pleasing comic effects, Urch’s writing is adroit where it counts, with the protagonists' attitudes to religion and sexuality conveyed through rich and robust language and cliché-defying characterisation. 

The play is undoubtedly a melodrama in terms of its construction. But it shows how impactful that form can be when approached with truth and sensibility, the drama building to a shattering finale that’s worthy of Arthur Miller at his finest. (In its concern with whistle-blowing and its presentation of the "outing" as a witch-hunt motivated in part by personal score-settling, Miller’s The Crucible is an evident intertext here.)  

 Fiston Barek and Sule Rimi in The Rolling Stone (Photo Manuel Harlan)

McDougall delivered a rather wonky production of The Glass Menagerie last year but shows total assurance in this venture. Staged simply and prop-free, with slightly overlapping scenes, and punctuated by stirring singing of spirituals, the production has pace and rhythm, and is boosted by terrific, heart-grabbing performances.

Jo Martin’s superb Mama blends manipulation and maternal concern to compelling effect, locating a strangely valiant and vulnerable core at the heart of a character whose actions and rhetoric are often reprehensible. Charismatic Sule Rimi brings heat to Joe’s preaching, implicating the audience as his congregation. Fiston Barek insightfully conveys Dembe’s oscillations between self-denial and self-belief. And Faith Omole and Faith Alabi maximise their opportunities as Dembe’s sister Wummie and his proposed paramour Naome, the former forced to make her own sacrifice, the latter seeking refuge in silence.

As potent as the play’s elements of social critique undoubtedly are, The Rolling Stone is generous and mature in its avoidance of finger-pointing, and in its refusal to demonise any of its own characters. The torn-from-the-headlines element charges the drama with an electric current of urgency. But Urch’s play finally transcends mere topicality, expanding into a more universal exploration of the complexities of family, loyalty and love. Not to be missed.  

Booking until 20th February. Further details here