Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fifteen 90s Films Every Feminist Should See

The 1990s saw the release of a rather impressive number of feminist, or at least woman-centered, films, and more surprisingly, quite a few were mainstream releases, especially in the first half of the decade. Rather than include some of the most frequently cited feminist films of the 90s - such as  All About My Mother (1999), Clueless (1995), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Orlando (1992), The Piano (1993), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Thelma and Louise (1991), all of them great films and well worth watching for feminists - I instead have selected films that rarely appear on lists of feminist films, but that nevertheless have much to offer to the feminist viewer.

Addams Family Values (1993)
Last month, I wrote about Wednesday's feminism, and while I wouldn't say that the Addams Family films on the whole necessarily have a feminist agenda, since the politics expressed are liberal but fairly scattershot, it is worth watching this film for the Thanksgiving pageant alone. In it, Wednesday, Pugsley, and their new friend, fellow outcast Joel Glicker, wreak havoc on the freakishly sunny camp counselor's racist, classist, sexist mess of a take on American history. The pageant is a comic tour-de-force, but the film overall is hysterically funny, even better than the original The Addams Family. The superb cast includes Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci, Christopher Lloyd, and Joan Cusack.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
This Australian film is a no-holds-barred and utterly irreverent road movie, following three drag queens touring the outback in a lavender bus they have christened Priscilla. Much more daring than your average American comedy, Stephan Elliot's film pushes against assumptions about gender, sexuality, fatherhood, and how performance is inevitably involved in all three. Hugo Weaving stars as Tick a.k.a Mitzi Del Bra, who adores the release of the stage but also regards it as an escape from the pressures of recognizing his responsibility as a father, Terence Stamp is Bernadette, a transgender woman whose impossibly romantic hopes have been repeatedly dashed, and Guy Pearce is Adam a.k.a. Felicia Jollygoodfellow, dangerously flamboyant and always courting trouble, taking gleeful delight in getting a rise out of his companions. Though the film is at heart a comedy, the peril faced by these three performers in the conservative, macho environment of the small towns in the outback gives it an edge.

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993)
Nick Broomfield's documentary is one of the classics of the genre, a difficult film that explodes comfortable notions about the justice of the law, journalistic ethics, and the ultimate aims of the media. While today, the news media are perhaps more distrusted than they have ever been, in 1993, Broomfield's film mercilessly exposed the hidden workings of money, and the selling of a salacious news story, behind the trial and conviction of the most notorious female murderer in American history. Broomfield acquired incredible access to his subject, forming a friendship of sorts with her characterized by manipulation, betrayal, and a certain degree of compassion on both sides. The film also interrogates how Wuornos's gender skewed our perceptions of her, both as a killer and as a victim. In 2001, Broomfield released a second documentary about Wuornos, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which focused on her descent into possible psychosis and her execution.

Contact (1997) 
This science fiction film based on Carl Sagan's novel and directed by Robert Zemeckis stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, an obsessively dedicated scientist devoted to finding signs of alien life and making contact. For feminists, this is something of a landmark in science fiction filmmaking, the first film since Alien to center a woman - a competent, qualified woman - at the center of a space adventure, but in this case, in stark contrast to Alien, the protagonist is not engaged in a battle for her life, but rather a battle for knowledge. Contact is a rare film in that its adventure is rooted in scientific inquiry, rather than alien aggression or extraterrestrial colonialism, and Ellie is the voice of both scientific reason and the voice that dares to question our most deeply held beliefs. Mention should be made of the special effects, which still look darn impressive even though the computer technology is nearly twenty years old. 

Fargo (1996)
Though this Coen Brothers masterpiece could have been improved with a slightly less male cast - Frances McDormand stars, but the only other women with speaking parts are the kidnapped wife and two hookers - this crime drama is both an icy cold satire and a hard-boiled thriller. Police chief Marge Gunderson, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, investigates a series of homicides, which she eventually links with a crew of vicious, and not especially savvy, criminals played by the likes of William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare. There are several aspects of Marge's character that radically separate her from the vast majority of female protagonists: 1) she is in charge and the men defer to her without putting her down because of her gender; 2) she is by far the most competent character; 3) she is the primary bread-winner and decision-maker in her happy, faithful marriage; 4) she is not in the least glamorous and her "bad-assery" can be ascribed purely to her abilities rather than her looks or flashy moves; 5) she's realistically pregnant. The mere fact that Marge continues working, still totally competent, still totally invested, while she's pregnant - and not the usual Hollywood pregnant, which is just a tasteful smooth bump - is unprecedented.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) 
Peter Jackson's violent, disturbing thriller delves into the psychologically fraught dream worlds of teenage girls. Based on the brutal murder committed by Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme in New Zealand in 1954, the film explores the feverishly addictive friendship that blossoms between the two girls, each in her way damaged, whether by illness and neglect or bullying and traumatic sexual initiation. Their relationship is interpreted by their parents as homosexual, at the time considered a mental illness, and the attempt to separate the girls results in a vengeful fantasy spilling over into reality. Jackson wisely concentrates on the passion of the girls' friendship, allowing the sensuality and yearning intensity of adolescent infatuation to build up without delineating for the viewer clear boundaries between the normal pain of growing up and the psychotic obsession that drives murder. Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet give fearless, unforgiving performances.

Howards End (1992)
This adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel examines British society at the turn of the last century, examining with brilliance and a sympathetic eye conflicts between the classes and the sexes. Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, and Samuel West, the film is a masterpiece, with stunningly gorgeous cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts and a superlative screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala. From a feminist perspective, the film is both critical of and perceptively compassionate towards the paternalistic notions of feminism that began to be cultivated in educated circles, such as those in which the Shlegel sisters move. Their pity is roused by the plight of the poetical and poor Leonard Bast, whom they attempt to help on the strength of idealistic principles with no basis in the reality of English society. At the same time, they become bound to the wealthy and propertied Wilcox family, through the unexpected inheritance of the country house for which the film is named. 

Impromptu (1991)
George Sand, at least in the Anglo world, is better known for her notorious personal life, her many and varied sexual adventures, her habit of donning male clothes, her refusal to abide by the social niceties, than she is for her dozens of brilliant, and radically feminist, novels. This romantic romp about Sand (Judy Davis) and her pursuit of the foppishly sensitive and hypochondriac Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant, cast against type and giving one of his best performances) doesn't have much basis in the historical record, but it makes for a delightful hour and a half and it is a welcome change to watch a woman embody the traditionally masculine role of the romantic chase. The cast is excellent: Davis was born to play Sand, Grant is entirely convincing as the rather pathetic figure of the ideal Romantic, while Julian Sands is a stand-out as Franz Liszt.

Little Women (1994)
Louisa May Alcott's novel for girls has long been a touchstone of American feminism; this adaptation directed by Gillian Armstrong explicitly connects with the feminist discourse of the nineteenth century, drawing on Alcott's biography - Alcott was passionately committed to the movement for women's suffrage, as well as a staunch abolitionist - to supplement Jo's character. Little Women is gentle, but it takes women and women's lives, whether domestic or lived in the professional world, very seriously, granting to the trials, disappointments, joys, and hopes of female adolescence and young adulthood the same thoughtful gravity assumed in similar stories about boys and men. With a poignant score by Thomas Newman and wonderful, warm performances from Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Susan Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne, and Mary Wickes, this film is required viewing for feminists, a thoughtful, complicated, moving portrait of the lives of four American women.

Madame Bovary (1991)
Flaubert's novel has been adapted many times, but Claude Chabrol seems uniquely qualified to bring it to the screen, his clinical, unpitying compositional technique echoing the unsentimental and phlegmatic prose of book, a seminal work of naturalism. The cinematography by Jean Rabier is so saturated that one could almost believe it was drenched in a sudden thunderstorm, its deep, almost black greens and purples contrasted with the cool ivory of Isabelle Huppert's skin and the soft oranges and browns of rotting foliage. Huppert gives a passionate performance, basking in Emma Bovary's indulgent, sensual reveries, beadily coveting a man's love with the same cupidity with which she regards a beautiful silk or string of pearls. Another standout in the cast is Jean-François Balmer, in the thankless role of the bumbling cuckold Charles Bovary, a ridiculous man and yet one that hardly deserves his cruel fate. The film, like the novel before it, critiques marriage as a union between two people granted fundamentally unequal power and opportunity. If Emma Bovary is vain, selfish, deluded, and greedy, she has been conditioned to seek out her happiness in beauty, material position, proof of her own attractiveness through the attentions of men, and social glamor. Denied education, purpose, respect, income, work, and a husband she could at least find attractive, she is a woman who cannot be blamed without condemning all of the society that formed her.

Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Muriel's Wedding was marketed as a romantic comedy, but as such, it's decidedly not romantic and its humor is unusually black for the genre. Toni Collette is Muriel, an overweight, unpopular young woman desperate to have a glamorous wedding and be liked by the fashionable mean girls she went to high school with. She defrauds her crooked small-time politician father and her mousy oblivious mother to go on holiday and then skip town for Sydney, where she befriends Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) and finds her calling as a bride-for-hire for a piggish swimmer anxious to qualify for the Olympic team. Though the film is very, very funny, it is bitter as hell, shredding the gooey mawkishness of every romantic comedy cliché and ultimately rejecting romantic love in favor of friendship between women.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
This devastating and devastatingly beautiful Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou takes place in the 1920s, prior to the Chinese Civil War, and traces the tragic destinies of the concubines (Gong Li, He Caifei, and Cao Cuifen) of the wealthy Chen (Ma Jingwu). Some critics have interpreted the power struggles and rivalries between the concubines as a metaphorical rendering the social fracturing and jockeying for power of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and that is certainly an illuminating interpretation; however, from a feminist perspective, one can view the film as an incisive attack on power structures that force women to depend absolutely on the favor of dominant men. Such structures forbid easy alliances among women, who are compelled to compete for male largess, and encourage betrayal and cruelty, eventually dooming all women to be discarded, whether killed, left to wallow in insanity or poverty, or merely left to decay in isolation. This is not a hopeful film, but it is an unforgettable one.

The Rapture (1991)
The Rapture is a rare film that takes born-again Christians in earnest, positing in all seriousness the possibility of the Rapture, as prophesied by certain sects. Mimi Rogers plays a woman living on the edge, indulging in orgiastic encounters with strangers, who is converted to Christianity when a series of seeming coincidences convince her that the Rapture is on its way. She successfully converts in turn a former lover (David Duchovny), who becomes her husband and with whom she has a daughter. Rather than portray her eventual disillusionment as a return to sanity and reason - the usual choice with movies dealing with this subject matter - writer-director Michael Tolkin does the very opposite, forcing his protagonist to confront her doubt in a world in which the Rapture is very, very real, and is definitely, truly occurring, as described biblically. This film asks us to suspend judgement, to empathize, to wonder, and to open ourselves to possibilities usually dismissed by mainstream film audiences, and such a project is, in my opinion, a decidedly feminist enterprise.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)
This masterpiece, directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant, approaches Austen with a maturity and wittiness unparalleled in the long and ever longer list of Austen adaptations. Thompson's screenplay is both archly satirical - among the great comic turns are performances by Imelda Staunton, Elizabeth Spriggs, and Hugh Laurie - and dreamily romantic, even melancholic. Though Austen herself hardly qualifies as a feminist in contemporary terms, her novels tell the stories of women with no occupation but marriage and no distraction but the hunt for a husband with sober-minded thoughtfulness, while mischievously mocking, and in the process, deconstructing the hypocrisies, injustices, and puerilities of genteel Regency society. Astonishingly, Thompson's script equals Austen's novel (granted, her first completed book and the weakest in terms of its structure, though not its sentiment).

Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991)
Though this film based on the horse diver Sonora Carver's memoir indulges in blatant melodramatics, the story itself merits that spectacular approach. Sonora (Gabrielle Anwar) runs away from her aunt's miserable shack during the Great Depression and talks her way into a job with Doc Carver (Cliff Robertson), an old-style entertainer à la Buffalo Bill who runs a traveling horse diving show. Doc Carver's son (Michael Schoeffling) supports her ambition to dive horses, but his explosive relationship with his irritable father threatens to blow up into violence. This film follows the trajectory expected by any "inspirational true story," but it retains a clear-eyed, idealistic honesty that gives it the integrity that so many such films lack. Special mention should be made of the cinematography by Daryn Okada, who captures a honeyed, sepia-toned quality redolent of the 1930s and recalls Robert Surtees's work in The Sting.

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