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Monthly Archives: September 2017

Filmmaker Interview: Jennifer Reeder

The following article appeared in today’s Time Out Chicago:

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On Thursday, September 28, the Chicago South Asian Film Festival will host the local premiere of Jennifer Reeder’s acclaimed debut feature Signature Move, a crowd-pleasing rom-com about a Pakistani Muslim lesbian lawyer who attempts to hide her love life and interest in lucha-style wrestling from her conservative, live-in mother. This special preview screening takes place at the Music Box Theatre one day before the film’s theatrical run begins and will feature a private meet-and-greet with legendary Indian actress Shabana Azmi as well as a Q&A with Azmi, Reeder and the film’s producer, writer and star, Fawzia Mirza. I recently spoke to Reeder about the film.

MGS: You’re known for writing and directing your own short films. What was it like directing a feature written by somebody else?

JR: On the one hand, it was a challenge that at first I was not sure I was up for. I feel very particular about every aspect of my shorts from pre-production through writing. I’m involved in art direction and casting and certainly I usher the entire thing, frame by frame, through post-production—[my films] feel very hand-crafted. They feel like they’re coming from a place of “auter-ship,” if I can say that about myself. So taking on material that was also very particular to Fawzia, it was a story that’s very different from my own story. When you take on a story about a Pakistani Muslim lesbian, that’s very specific. The character of the director is weighed when you say yes or no to certain projects. Saying yes to this project was obviously a really smart idea. I feel like I learned so much and in the process I also figured out a way to tell someone else’s story authentically. Being in an audience of young people of color or being in an audience that’s LGBTQ and having that audience say that it was validating and authentic means that I’ve done the right thing, and it means I can kind of exhale and say, “Okay, I can do this again.”

MGS: When I think of your shorts I think of them as narratives that are experimental in terms of their aesthetics. With Signature Move were you consciously trying to make something that was more accessible?

JR: Absolutely. That was also part of the challenge: to make something that felt like the general narrative through-line was more accessible, the way that it’s shot is more accessible, even the jokes are more conventionally funny than my other films that have more of a dark or cynical sense of humor. There are also some moments that feel very much like me. There are “drifty” moments where we’re sitting with the character in, for instance, the bridal shop where she’s looking through fabrics and whatnot—it’s kind of character development, it’s being able to look at the texture of that culture, but it doesn’t propel the narrative in a conventional way. Those felt like important moments to inject into this film because they feel very much like they’re coming from my DNA as a filmmaker. But, at the same time, especially for a feature-length, it’s important that you have an audience come with you and that it’s entertaining. It premiered at SXSW. That’s not a niche audience. Those were packed audiences who laughed in all the right places, and again that’s pretty validating.

MGS: This is one of the most female-centric films I’ve ever seen and I mean that as a compliment. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of female representation in cinema and men are nowhere to be seen in this movie. Were you trying to redress the gender imbalance?

JR: Yeah, absolutely. My shorts have oftentimes featured only females. So it’s something that I’ve been aware for quite a while in terms of casting or who I want to write a story about or who I want to put in front of my camera because that’s their story but also as a form of social justice. We also made a commitment to have lots of women behind the camera. It wasn’t just me as a director. The first A.D. was a woman, there were two female producers, the art department was all women, the makeup department was all women, the camera department was women. That’s also part of the commitment — it matters in terms of the crew. Shabana Azmi, who plays Parveen and is amazing, she noted it. She said, “This set feels different with all of these women in front of and behind the camera.” She didn’t have to say that. But as we’ve been showing it around, I don’t feel like the men in the audience feel excluded from the story. If anything, when the final credits roll, they might do what you did: “Wow, that was all women, except for the bartender.”

MGS: Speaking of Shabana Azmi, much of her dialogue is in Urdu. To have so much subtitled dialogue in both Spanish and Urdu is unusual for an American film. Was it difficult for you to direct actors in a language other than your native tongue?

JR: Yeah, definitely. As a writer and also as a director, I’m particular about how people say words. I know enough Spanish to understand the things they were saying were correct but the Urdu was completely different. I speak some Urdu now based on the script and going through the production with all those lines. Obviously, Shabana speaks Urdu, Fawzia speaks Urdu, one of the producers speaks Urdu and we had a P.A. on set doing translations. So every time we did a take it would go through four levels of making sure that the translation was correct. Trusting the tone and cadence of those lines was correct was a learning curve. It was a really cool challenge. Then we ADR’d all of the soap opera in the background. That was a whole script in and of itself that was written (for the film) and it was the same thing: we were over in a sound studio with actors speaking Urdu. I was like, “That sounded good but was that correct?” We would listen to it again and have two people go through it to make sure that they were using, for instance, the right formal pronouns.

MGS: So the dialogue that was scripted for the soap opera was intended to comment on the main narrative?

JR: Absolutely. It really operates like a subplot. At one point we were going to do an actual soap opera and shoot that actual footage. In the script it seemed great but then you’re adding another 10 days onto production. But yeah, we wanted it to be this story about these star-crossed lovers whose parents didn’t agree with their relationship, a kind of Urdu Romeo and Juliet that the mom could use as a parallel — that somehow by watching this Pakistani melodrama she was also learning something about the rules of love and how she had to let her daughter love who her daughter wanted to love.

To learn more about the premiere of Signature Move, visit the Music Box’s website.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong)
2. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
3. Le Samourai (Melville)
4. Battle of the Sexes (Dayton/Faris)
5. Malgre la Nuit (Grandrieux)
6. Letter to Jane (Godard/Gorin)
7. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
8. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
9. The Florida Project (Baker)
10. Brief Encounter (Lean)


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE at Full Bloom / Talking TWIN PEAKS on the “Page 2 Screen” Podcast

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My second feature film, Mercury in Retrograde, had its World Premiere this past Saturday, September 16, at the Full Bloom Film Festival in Statesville, North Carolina, where we were awarded the prize for “Best Narrative Feature.” To commemorate the occasion, Loren Greenblatt created the beautiful hand-painted poster you see above. I should have more news soon about additional screenings this year and next. For the most up-to-date info on the film, please “like” the official MiR Facebook page and follow us on Twitter.

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I also recently discussed Twin Peaks Season 3 with film critic and screenwriter Jeff York on the International Screenwriters Association’s “Page 2 Screen” podcast. I had a lot of fun doing it and you can listen to it in its entirety here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Signature Move (Reeder)
2. Mercury in Retrograde (Smith)
3. Detroit Under S.T.R.E.S.S. (Van Wie)
4. M (Lang)
5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
6. Casablanca (Curtiz)
7. Sunrise (Murnau)
8. Nocturama (Bonello)
9. Tout va Bien (Godard/Gorin)
9. It (Muschietti)
10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh)


Western Mythology and Motifs in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN

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In his perceptive review of the controversial Twin Peaks Season 3 finale, the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody makes a startling yet logical comparison between Part 18 of David Lynch’s magnum opus and one of the greatest of all American films: “Over the course of the series’s final sprint, Lynch turns this story into an elemental drama of dramas, a distorted and refracted version of the lone American male hero on a relentless quest to rescue an abused woman — he turns ‘Twin Peaks: The Return,’ in other words, into a modern-day version of John Ford’s ‘The Searchers,’ and the tragic depth of his view of the solitary and haunted Western hero is worthy to stand alongside Ford’s own.”

I don’t necessarily believe that John Ford’s masterpiece was a conscious influence on Part 18 — although it is worth noting that an explicit nod to The Searchers did occur in the first episode of Twin Peaks Season 2 back in 1990: the senile room-service waiter at the Great Northern Hotel who serves a glass of warm milk to Agent Cooper, not realizing that he’s been shot, was played by none other than Hank Worden, a character actor from Hollywood’s golden age best known for playing “Old Mose” in The Searchers. In fact, Lynch and Mark Frost (who is credited with the “teleplay” of this episode) even have Worden repeat Mose’s signature phrase “Thank you kindly!” upon receiving Agent Cooper’s gratuity.

But Brody’s instructive comparison got me thinking about the proliferation of references to both western movie mythology and the “settling” of the actual American West that occurs throughout Twin Peaks: The Return — and how Lynch and Frost use such references to paint a surprisingly political portrait of a contemporary America whose essentially savage and gun-crazy nature seems rooted in the original sin of the genocide of Native American people. What follows is a series of notes on some of the prominent western references throughout Twin Peaks Season 3.

– One of the most pleasant initial surprises of the new season for many viewers was realizing how much the role of Deputy Hawk, the Native American character played by Michael Horse, had been expanded. Hawk’s late night phone calls with the ailing Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), spread across five episodes, form the emotional and spiritual core of the new Twin Peaks. The Log Lady informs Hawk that “something is missing” relating to the Laura Palmer investigation and that finding it will have something to do with his “heritage.” When Hawk actually does find the missing pages from Laura’s diary there’s a poignant irony in that the process doesn’t relate to the beliefs or customs of his Nez Perce tribe in any meaningful way. Rather, the missing pages have been hidden in a bathroom stall door that just happens to be embossed by a manufacturing company logo featuring an Indian wearing a feathered bonnet. The fact that a dropped Indian Head nickel leads Hawk to this discovery further reinforces the idea that Lynch and Frost intended this aspect of the plot to be a commentary on the commodification of Native American culture. Michael Horse ultimately starred in 14 episodes of the new season, more than any actor aside from Kyle MacLachlan, and appears to have been given an unusual degree of agency by the show’s makers: Horse confirmed that he himself painted the delightful “living map” that Hawk shows Sheriff Truman (Robert Forster) midway through the season.

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– To the surprise of many, most of the new season takes place not in the title town but in Las Vegas — a desert city in the heart of the American Southwest where never-ending strips of air-conditioned casinos serve as monuments to the twin triumphs of westward expansion and capitalism. Outside of the Vegas branch of the “Lucky 7” Insurance Company where Dougie Jones/Dale Cooper works is a statue of a cowboy. Oddly, the statue, which Dougie/Coop becomes fixated on, is pointing a gun directly at the entrance of the building.

– Wally Brando (Michael Cera), who is, let’s face it, a modern-day cowboy — on a steel horse he rides! — tells Sheriff Truman that he’s been traversing the highways and byways of America and following in the footsteps of “Lewis and his friend Clark” (who, Wally helpfully points out, were the “first caucasians” to see the Pacific Northwest). The funniest scene in all of Twin Peaks?

– The office of the “Detectives Fusco” (Larry Clarke, Eric Edelstein and David Koechner) in the Las Vegas police department is adorned with a painting of a cowboy on horseback.

– The genocide of Native Americans is explicitly invoked in Part 14 when Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hutch (Tim Roth) eat fast food in their van while discussing the morality of their jobs as assassins. Hutch speculates that there’s nothing wrong with them being paid to kill people precisely because the U.S government “killed damn near all the Indians.”

– Lissie, one of David Lynch’s favorite contemporary singer-songwriters, performs a song titled “Wild, Wild West” at the conclusion of Episode 14. Many critics have pointed out that the pop songs performed in the Roadhouse (often at the conclusion of the episodes) seem to have been chosen because their lyrics resonate with prominent themes in the show, which is certainly the case with Lissie’s song.

– Part 18 features more western motifs in the imagery and even the dialogue (e.g., Sheryl Lee’s Carrie Page talking about “getting out of Dodge,” etc.) than all of the other episodes put together. It takes place in a small town in Texas — even if it’s an alternate-reality version of Texas — just like The Searchers, which makes Brody’s comparison even more striking. One very memorable scene in this episode takes place in a diner where Cooper asks three armed and cowboy-hatted men to unhand the waitress they are harassing. The scene ends on a note of absurd humor as Cooper disarms these “concealed carry” aficionados like a true western hero before dropping all of their guns into the diner’s deep frier. Is it a coincidence that the waitress being harassed is played by Francesca Eastwood, daughter of western movie icon Clint Eastwood?

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
3. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer)
4. Monterey Pop (Pennebaker)
5. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
6. City Lights (Chaplin)
7. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom)
8. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
9. Bless Their Little Hearts (Woodberry)
10. Annabelle (Leonetti)


Filmmaker Interview: Alex Cox

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This Friday, September 8, cult British filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) will be at the Music Box Theatre to present a special 30th anniversary screening of Walker, a stylistically daring and politically subversive biopic of William Walker (Ed Harris), the Nashville-born physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary who became the self-appointed President of Nicaragua in 1856 before being driven mad by power. Although this thinly veiled critique of contemporary American imperialism was critically savaged and barely released by Universal Studios three decades ago, Walker has aged exceptionally well and may be seen as Cox’s masterpiece when viewed today. This Music Box screening represents something of a culmination of a longtime love affair between the Chicago cinephile community and Cox’s work: Repo Man had its first theatrical engagement here, and one of the few positive reviews that Walker received upon its initial release was by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader. This 35mm screening, presented in partnership with DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts, should not be missed.

MGS: Walker is often referred to as the film that ended your relationship with Hollywood but it’s since been canonized by the Criterion Collection and is continually revived for 35mm screenings such as this event at the Music Box. What has it been like to see your film re-evaluated over time?

AC: Canonized? By a DVD release? Oh, honestly. Where’s the blu-ray? Where’s the stream? Universal hate the film and have never distributed it. As a result in a vault somewhere they have some very good condition 35mm prints!

MGS: Walker seems newly relevant with Trump’s talk of military action in Venezuela. How have you been processing the Trump administration?

AC: My main concern is not to die in a nuclear war. In the current insane incarnation of American politics the Clinton Democrats seem to be pushing for war with Russia. I will support anyone who opposes war and the destruction of the planet. Call me crazy, but I will. The talk of war with Venezuela is crazy. The US military would get their asses kicked by an armed guerilla population (as usual) and such talk (as Steve Bannon said regarding North Korea) is all just for domestic wind-up benefit. The Pentagon, like the Government, exists to transfer taxpayers’ money to the corporations, but the US hasn’t won (or even concluded) a war since 1945, unless you count the Pentagon’s great victories in Grenada and Panama.

MGS: How did you work with Ed Harris to achieve the intensity of his performance and why did you opt to not have the character speak with a southern accent?

AC: Ed is his own man and did a great job. I support all his choices! William Walker was all over the place – Nashville, San Francisco, Scotland — who knows what his accent was?

MGS: What was the logic behind having Walker narrate the movie in the third person?

AC: That was the way he wrote his book about the Nicaraguan venture.

MGS: Do you have any other plans when you’re in town?

AC: To screen my new film, Tombstone Rashomon, for students at DePaul and reconnect with my friends there! I am so happy to be returning for a new event at one of the best film schools in the country.

For more information on the Walker screening and Alex Cox Q&A, visit the Music Box’s website.


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