Nov 082012

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By Joe Bendel. The last few years have been tough for Wonder Woman. While her Justice League colleagues have gotten big screen treatments, she suffered the embarrassment of a network rejection for her pilot. Considering it was from David E. Kelley, maybe it was just as well. The heroic Amazon will always have her fans, several of whom explain her personal significance and lasting cultural influence in Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s Wonder Women: the Untold Story of American Superheroines, which screens as a Midnight selection of the 2012 DOC NYC.

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Psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman to embody feminine virtue – but Wonder Woman also found herself frequently bound-up, like a comic precursor to Bettie Page. Wonder Woman might imply much about her creator’s subconscious, but her self-reliance struck a chord with many readers. Unfortunately, when the Comics Code Authority began nannying the industry, Wonder Woman was amongst the hardest hit, effectively becoming a costumed Ally McBeal.

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Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman.

Guevara-Flanagan incorporates many talking head interviews with self-identifying feminists who celebrate the 1940’s era Wonder Woman and bemoan her subsequent watering down. Frankly, she would have gotten much the same response had she interviewed conservative cultural critics, as well. The old school Wonder Woman might have been an Amazon Princess, but she also adopted the American cause – fighting the Axis tooth-and-nail. That’s a role model.

Yet, when addressing Wonder Woman’s cultural influence, the doc is rather hit-or-miss, by any standard. Guevara-Flanagan and her experts draw a straight line from Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena the Warrior Princess, who serve as the sole representatives of a smallish, contemporary golden age of strong women action figures. Yet they ignore, for example, a huge chunk of Michelle Yeoh’s intervening filmography, in which she made a practice of playing strong butt-kicking women. (She still does.)  Furthermore, Wonder Women largely ignores recent developments for the character, including her comic book reboot in conjunction with the 2011 re-launch of the DC universe, the 2009 animated direct-to-DVD animated feature (featuring the voice of Keri “Felicity” Russell), or the much hyped but ill-fated pilot. That’s too bad, because the film is at its strongest when tracing Wonder Woman’s early evolution.

Too politicized for the natural comic fan audience, Wonder Women is expressly intended for those who fondly remember her appearance on the first issue of Ms. Magazine. For the rest of us, the film is quite uneven, reflecting a rather insular perspective. It screens at the IFC Center this coming Sunday night (11/11) and the following Tuesday (11/13) as part of DOC NYC 2012.

LFM GRADE: C-

Posted on November 8th, 2012 at 11:57am.

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Nov 082012

By Joe Bendel. It is a real Rorschach test. When people see a gun in the hands of a woman, they might see it as an equalizer, an instrument of empowerment, or as a fetish object. None of these is mutually exclusive. Indeed, the many perspectives on women gun-ownership often overlap and conflict with one another in Cathryne Czubek’s A Girl and a Gun (see excerpt above), which screens as part of DOC NYC 2012.

Although many of G&G’s talking head experts hail from the general neighborhood of feminist thought, just about everyone acknowledges women’s relative physical vulnerability compared to men – especially liquored up stalkers. This was particularly true for one middle aged tai chi instructor who broke up with her abusive body-builder boyfriend. Realizing that the police operate almost entirely reactively rather than proactively, she came to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that she needed a gun.

She is not the only one to rely on guns for protection of life and limb. One young widow living on an isolated farm with her young baby used her late husband’s shotgun to blow a home-invading predator to Kingdom Come. Part of her remains troubled by the incident, but she will do it again if need be to protect her child. Similarly, sex columnist Violet Blue has seen her fair share of death threats. However, letting would-be stalkers know she keeps a loaded gun handy has had a deterrent effect. She also thinks armed women are hot (and we’re not about to argue with her).

More than meets the eye: former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, with gun.

Naturally, G&G takes great efforts to show the other side of the coin, such as the prison interview with a woman who fatally shot her ambiguous roommate. Somewhere in the middle, we meet an Upper Westside social worker, who became an accomplished recreational shooter – but refuses to keep a firearm in her apartment.

When supposedly exposing the ways the gun industry has attempted to exploit the women’s market, G&G is rather underwhelming. In truth, it is hard to imagine a better informed group of consumers than women gun-owners. Still, the fact that Czubek’s film will even entertain the notion some women have a legitimate and pressing need to own a gun for reasons of self-defense is rather bold. That she bends over backwards to present cases of accidental and criminal gun deaths is to be expected. Yet, it is impossible to watch the Oklahoma farm widow’s segment and argue she would be safe without her guns.

Given its somewhat balanced approach, G&G is probably in for a rocky reception at DOC NYC. However, it could have earned Blue a whole new fanbase were it not for some gratuitous political material on her site. For New Yorkers and her Bay Area neighbors, A Girl and Gun offers some eye-opening moments. Recommended accordingly for local audiences, it screens this coming Sunday (11/11) and the following Wednesday (11/14) at the IFC Center, during DOC NYC ’12.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on November 8th, 2012 at 11:56am.

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From "New Women."

By Joe Bendel. Could a woman have it all in 1930’s Shanghai? Not even close. Wei Ming will try, but a vindictive former lover and an exploitative press will cost her dearly. An eerie case of art foreshadowing life, Cai Chusheng’s New Women became one of Ruan Lingyu’s best known films, partly for reasons of tragic symmetry. Appropriately, it screens this Sunday as part of the Asia Society’s new film series Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen, largely inspired by Ruan herself.

Often called the “Chinese Greta Garbo,” Ruan appears to be something like the Chinese Joan Crawford in New Women’s early scenes. A music teacher at a progressive women’s school, she has written a debut novel so promising, a publishing house actually buys it – even though she is a woman. Her only problem is Dr. Wang, a well-heeled but unwelcomed suitor, who already happens to be married. Stung by her rejection, Wang bribes Wei’s headmistress, hoping sudden unemployment will force her into his arms. For Wei, it could not have come at a worse time.

Like anyone, Wei Ming made mistakes in her life. Eloping with the wrong man was one of them. When he abandoned her and their baby, Wei was forced to send Wei Xiaohong to live with her aunt. After years apart, Wei is finally about to take custody of the daughter she loves but never met. However, when the young girl arrives, she exhibits rather worrisome symptoms. Though quickly diagnosed, Wei and her sister lack the funds to pay for her hospitalization.

From "New Women."

It is hard to imagine anything as narratively manipulative as a dying child – and Cai duly milks it for all it is worth. He is innocently abetted by Chen Sujuan, who is absolutely heartbreaking as the young girl. Yet it is Ruan’s extended final exit that truly dominates the film, ranking with Garbo’s famous scene in Camille.

In some ways, New Women is surprisingly modern for a silent film, employing some rather feverish montages and displaying an unmistakable sexual frankness. Moreover, its unflattering depiction of scandal-mongering journalists is just as timely here and now as it was in Republican China, but this led the press to vociferously turn against New Women and Ruan, by extension. It is also an example of one of Cai’s more overtly leftist films, ending with a Soviet style march of women workers, not so subtly warning of things to come. Sadly, it would be co-star Zheng Junli, a lifetime progressive, who was most in need of that warning, considering how greatly he would suffer during the Cultural Revolution.

Ruan was a beautiful, hauntingly expressive artist, with a presence of orchid-like fragility. While Goddess is a fuller, more satisfying film, her gifts are readily apparent throughout New Women.  Recommended for silent movie buffs, students of early feminist film, and those who just appreciate a good weepy tragedy, New Women screens this Sunday (11/11) at the Asia Society as part of their must-see Goddess series, which starts with the title film this Friday (11/9).

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on November 8th, 2012 at 11:56am.

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