November is not the cruelest month, but it certainly is the busiest if you’re in school (or writing a novel). Followers may wonder where I’m producing new content. Truth told, it’s basically all in three Word docs. I’m currently drafting three ~25-page term papers, which are all due the same day that I proctor and grade the final for the class I’m teaching. In case you’re wondering, I’m writing on Zooey Deschanel and feminist and womanist anti-fandom, music and male anxiety in relation to Saturday Night Live‘s brand identity, and the function of score and sound in Kelly Reichardt’s “quiet” filmography. By no means am I complaining. I’m just busy.
However, you can read some of my recent work elsewhere. Bitch Magazine’s Underground issue includes my feature on female music supervisors, along with some reviews I wrote. And just this morning, Racialicious posted my essay on the Lizzies, the girl gang in The Warriors. Check it out, and make sure you read Julia Caron’s great piece on Florence + the Machine and white supremacy.
I finally saw Joe Cornish’s science-fiction social comedy Attack the Block a few weekends back. And I mean, wow. Earlier this year, I tweeted that Kelly Reichardt Meek’s Cutoff deserved the Criterion treatment (and Kristen at Dear Black Woman, promptly called bullshit). Well, I don’t want to compare two very different movies, but Attack the Block might be my favorite movie of this year, edging out Meek‘s and Joe Wright’s underrated, superfun Hanna.
Part of what worked with Attack the Block was Steven Price and Basement Jaxx’s music. Following the Chemical Brothers’ propulsive, outsize work for Hanna, Block‘s score strengthens comparisons to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 with its frenetic pace, ominous bass, and treble-heavy synth flourishes that ramp up the suspense. Music is also used to hail certain characters and orient the audience to their subjectivities, particularly for hipster stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway). This follows British film and television efforts with similar investment in contemporary pop music, like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the British TV series Misfits, which made good use of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” and especially Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex” in its first season.
Extending the Carpenter comparison further, Block has some of the smartest, saddest, most bleakly funny commentary about urban blight, disenfranchised youth, and the cancerous effects of institutional racism. Hua Hsu linked the film to last summer’s London riots. The night-black, neon-fanged, fuzzy alien invaders Block‘s South London street gang defend themselves against works as a metaphor for law enforcement’s destructive efforts and lowered expectations of a multicultural youth aggregate they are grooming for incarceration. Leader Moses (star-in-the-making John Boyega) says as much at one point, comparing the monsters to the crack epidemic, which was politically engineered in the 1980s to target and destroy the urban poor. To me, Block‘s monsters also recall the mute black alien in John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet and the silencing power of racial stereotypes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These monsters remind the gang of society’s racist expectations for them and have no regard for their home. They must be destroyed, even if it means cruel casualties from within the ranks (RIP and an avalanche of tears, Jerome). The cops reward their restorative efforts by arresting them for murder and vandalism. History, and hopefully the community, promise an intervention. Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a white female neighbor, reports their innocence and a crowd of young people chant Moses’ name. I remained hopeful of their exoneration through the credits, even though my eyes were full of tears.
Block also reminds me of is Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine, a French film about three male friends of Jewish, African, and Moroccan heritage who struggle to survive in the banlieues. The points of similarity are fairly superficial. The characters identify strongly with hip hop, perhaps due in part to the constant threat of police brutality, which is reflected in both films’ music and dialogue. Both films also make a concerted effort to note racial and ethnic differences between the characters, as well as contextualize and develop those differences as something beyond problematically labeled “local color” or “flavor.”
A possible point of departure for me, though, is the films’ consideration for women. Not unlike Dick Hebdige’s influential Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Kassovitz’s vision of urban youth is one that ignores women and girls fulfilling anything but an ornamental or maternal role subordinate to their lovers and sons. Block makes some consideration for the gang’s female counterparts. Sure, two of the actresses go unbilled, merely cast to bicker with the boys and braid their hair. But Tia (Danielle Vitalis) and Dimples (Paige Meade) are two girls of color who differentiate themselves by voicing opinion, offering concern, and getting involved with killing the monsters. I cheered at Dimples resourcefulness when she stabbed one of them with her ice skate. Furthermore, Sam’s character undergoes some interesting transformations. A young nurse who is new to the neighborhood, Sam originally views the boys as adversaries after they mug her. But after circumstances require her to work with them, she recognizes their humanity and the ways in which society wants them to fail. Thus her claim of the boys’ innocence to the police at the end of the film is a small triumph, and further suggests the film’s rich, discursive interests surrounding age, gender, race, and class and the power of resistive politics. Not a bad start for an 90-minute monster movie.
I wanted to see Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy since I first heard mention of it (I wanna say in the AV Club’s 2008 Oscar-O-Meter).
Lots of things caught my attention about this one. Independent female director. Neo-realist aesthetics. Financially hard-luck woman and her dog en route with the promise of a job in Alaska while stranded in Oregon. Exchanges that heighten the subtextual sexism between a stranded woman with a broken-down car and a mechanic who thinks he can swindle her out of some money just because she’s poor, female, and out of options. And, by the time I saw it, a recession had eclipsed the ongoing struggles from survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, making movies like this one and the fantastic Frozen River all the more poignant.
And surely, by now, we all know how I feel about female interactions with the street and the road.
I was also sold by Michelle Williams in the starring role. I thought Williams was great in Brokeback Mountain and Synecdoche, New York. I even found her adorable and charming in The Baxter, an otherwise airless rip-off of The Apartment. I’ve been a fan since Dawson’s Creek and feel that her emergent success in the American indie/prestige/smart wave film scene is vindication for all the punishment she had to endure on the WB teen soap as the tragic bad girl Jen Lindley who withered away while the two boys who really loved each other fought over the self-righteous good girl who bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her ears while America briefly considered it acting. I know now that many think of her as Heath Ledger’s pseudo-widow or Spike Jonze’s perhaps-girlfriend or a TV actress who lucked into some hipster cache, but I think Williams is great in her own right. I think Wendy and Lucy is the first time we really get to see what she can do.
Williams tremendously underplays Wendy, making her at once vulnerable and unmoved; a real survivor who occasionally loses her patience with cruel, illogical systems of power (for example, the cost of throwing her in jail for shoplifting a can of dog food exceeds the retail value of said dog food), but never loses her grace, resourcefulness, willingness to connect with others, or sense of moral decency.
Also, as my friend Curran pointed out, there’s an ambiguity to Wendy that is interesting — we know very little about her, including her orientation, which is never made explicit. In the context of Reichardt’s body of work, a queer reading seems possible. For example, Old Joy is an achingly romantic story about two male friends, one of whom is assuredly in love with the other, the other ambivalent of his feelings. And, in the context of Wendy’s plight, her emotionally distant family members (who we never see) may speak to the larger problem of homeless and drifting LGBT youth cast out by their families.
But the thing that made me really want to see the movie, and that stayed in my ears long after the screening, was the music. And God no, not this.
I’m referring to the “score.” I put the word in quotes because it consists of a few bars of a melancholic, unresolved tune, hummed periodically by the protagonist. The piece was written by singer-songwriter Will Oldham. Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip for you dear readers, but I encourage you to see and hear it for yourself.
What made me want to see a movie based on its score was the response it got from some cinephile friends. They hated it, considered it pretentious. I think it caused them to dismiss the film outright.
However, I love the score. For one, I think it makes sense — the movie’s commitment to realism is reflected in its strict use of diegetic sound (fancy term for sounds organic to the narrative environment). Thus, if Wendy’s car breaks down (and with it, her car radio), it makes sense that she’d hum something to herself, if only to break up the tension of being stranded in an unfamiliar place.
More importantly, I think we have another site through which to interrogate the notion of sole authorship. The score was written by Will Oldham. However, it is performed by Williams as Wendy within the movie, thus blurring the boundaries of writer, performer, and instrumentalist and demonstrating the true collaborative nature of filmmaking. By making it less apparent who is actually responsible for providing its musical accompaniment, perhaps there is room to consider both Williams and Oldham (along with Reichardt) as authors of the movie’s sound.