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He Said/She Said Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

Turn Me On, Dammit!
dir: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (Norway, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.2
JM rating: 9.0

This “dialogue review” of Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit!, a new Norwegian teen-sex comedy, is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. Funny and refreshingly honest, Turn Me On, Dammit! centers on Alma, a sex-obsessed teenage girl who becomes a pariah in her town after she claims that Artur, a popular boy at her high school, poked her with his dick at a party. The film opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

JM: This film was written and directed by two separate women. Given that you are a writer and director, what is your take on a female voice/female voices?

MGS: This is a provocative and complex question. I have to say that most of the time I don’t think about such things but when I was watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I certainly did. For instance, I thought it was totally bizarre that a fifteen year old girl would call a phone sex line. My first reaction was “There’s no way a fifteen year old girl would do that!” But then I remembered that the film was written and directed by a woman and based on a novel by another woman and then thought “Aw, hell, I guess they would know better than me.” I also thought that the scene where we see Alma masturbating was interesting. I’m sure you agree that there was nothing titillating about the scene. It was just there to establish her character and yet . . . if we watched the exact same scene believing it had been directed by a man, it would have been disturbing, no? On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that the reason why Helene Bergsholm gave such a convincing performance as Alma is because she felt more comfortable being directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen than she would’ve had she been directed by a man. Also, it’s possible that only female writers/directors would feel that confident portraying a girl that young as a sexual being. What do you think?

JM: What puts my answer into perspective is that I have no idea what is involved in a young man’s coming-of-age life. The concept of what a guy goes through when he becomes a man eludes me, and I think that only someone who has walked in those shoes knows the answer. Alternately, a man cannot know what a young girl goes through, even if he has daughters or sisters, though that would give him a little more insight than if he hadn’t. A man knows a man’s body, and a woman knows a woman’s body. She can remember her own experiences and tap into that firsthand knowledge.

To answer your question concerning a man’s take on the masturbation scene, I can only imagine it failing miserably. In sex scenes, or even nude scenes, where women are directed by a man, I feel that the vast majority of them are from what a man desires, or what he thinks a woman wants or needs, which pretty much always leaves me shaking my head because they are so opposite of what I find to be even somewhat believable. To illuminate my point further, during the filming of your second movie, At Last, Okemah!, you were filming a fight between the main character and his girlfriend. The girlfriend was supposed to act frustrated because she wasn’t getting the attention that she believed she deserved, and you were having some trouble getting her to react appropriately. One of the male crew members blurted out, “act like you haven’t had sex in months and you really want to get laid.” It took about every fiber of my being to keep from saying, “man, you don’t know anything about women.”

Going back to your station as a male director, do you feel that you have a particularly male perspective when writing and/or directing?

MGS: I’m sure that I do but I don’t think it plays that big of a role. I mean, I’m sure I also bring to my work a white male perspective and an American perspective and a thirty-something perspective and so and and so forth. I try not to think about those things when I’m working because that kind of thinking can be crippling for an artist. I think it’s best to operate more instinctively and not think about how your background might be manifesting itself when writing and directing. Same thing for writing a blog post, actually.

I think that you, Jillian, probably bring a more explicitly gendered perspective to your blog because of your women’s studies background and also because “teasing out feminisms” is the theme of your blog. Or would you disagree?

JM: My background definitely shapes what I think and put out on the page and I write from all those points of view. I agree that we are all a conglomeration of different selves: gay; lesbian; mother; father; high school education; etc., and I do pull from my own given the occasion, just as the writer and director of Turn Me On, Dammit! pulled from different areas of their past lives, such as being a teenage girl, being a girl growing up in a small town, et al. I can also say that I don’t write for a particular audience but for myself, what interests me and is on my mind, as opposed to writing for a particular audience in mind.

Do you think that a mirror of this movie could have been made by a male writer/director about young, coming of age boys?

MGS: Absolutely. I think that kind of movie has been made many times in America (that’s how I’d describe a lot of contemporary teen-sex comedies, of which Superbad is a prominent recent example) but it has rarely, if ever, been done well. What’s great about Turn Me On, Dammit! is its frankness about teenage sexuality, but I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with a male or female perspective. I think Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is the closest good male equivalent that is coming to my mind right now but, on the other hand, that movie does a lot of things aside from explore adolescence. For instance, even though Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are great, the scenes with Jeff Daniels as their novelist/professor father are probably the most interesting in the film. Turn Me On, Dammit!, by contrast, doesn’t show much interest in the adult word, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

JM: When watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I thought back to when I was in high school and I could definitely identify with a lot of what the girls, especially the main character, were going through. Specifically, life during high school and the “mean girls,” awareness of my own developing body, inflated and unrealistic ideas about love and sex, to name a few. Watching this movie as a man, did you feel any sense of alienation or could you identify with what these girls were going through?

MGS: I didn’t feel alienated at all. The film evokes a lot of emotions that I think cross gender lines – adolescent boredom, loneliness, sexual frustration, wanting approval from the cool kids, etc. Having said all that, no one ever poked me with his erect dick at a party! But there were moments where I could relate to Artur as well – like when he pretends not to be interested in Alma and lies to her about having another girlfriend. He was afraid of taking an emotional risk and I could relate to that.

JM: The girls in this film were born and bred in a small Norwegian town. Given that we both grew up in small towns up until after high school (me Villa Park, Illinois and you, Charlotte, North Carolina), do you see any parallels?

MGS: Well, Charlotte had a population of about half a million people when I was growing up there (and it’s gotten considerably larger since) so I think my experience was different than the characters in the film. They live in a truly rural area. However, I could relate to the desires the characters had about wanting to move away. I certainly never had the hostility towards Charlotte that they do towards their town. I wouldn’t flip off signs of my town like they did, but I did feel like I needed to get away and move to a bigger city and expand my horizons a bit. I guess I felt a bit like Saralou wanting to move to Texas. You’ve always stayed close to home though so I’m assuming your experience was different.

JM: It is true that I’ve always wanted to stay close to family, but suburbanites in Illinois are lucky enough to be able to move to Chicago, which is as different in many ways from Villa Park as you can get. It’s amazing, though they’re so close, how far to the right, politically speaking, towns can be right outside of larger cities. My own experience is almost identical to what Alma experiences as she takes a trip to a bigger city, and seems somewhat of a small town/big city universal.

MGS: I’d like to conclude by saying that even though Turn Me On, Dammit!‘s focus on sex is going to be the main thrust of every review written about it, I think it also does a few other things extremely well. It feels very real and evocative in its portrait of what it’s like to be a kid working a dead end job in a small town grocery store, to ride the same bus to school with the same kids every day, and to escape for a magical weekend to a big city to hang out with college kids who have their own apartment. Finally, in Saralou’s anti-capital punishment crusade, which is arguably the funniest part of the movie, Jacobsen absolutely nails the very specific way in which teenagers can get overzealous about something. I thought Turn Me On, Dammit! was a very pleasant surprise when we caught it last year at the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m glad that its getting a fairly wide release now, even if, absurdly, it was recently banned in Tuscaloosa. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: If you were ever to make a movie that was the male bookend to this, would you have had the same “poking” story as the young man in the movie? Let’s hope not…

MGS: My male bookend to this would involve a nice guy like me receiving the equivalent of a “female poking” from a feisty gal like you.

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47th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

The line-up for the 47th Chicago International Film Festival wasn’t as exciting as the 46th (which saw the local debuts of the most anticipated offerings from Cannes, Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and brought Guillermo del Toro to town besides). This year, they curiously failed to nab even the highly buzzed top prize winners from Berlin (A Separation) and Venice (Faust). Still, while the CIFF isn’t perfect, it is the best festival Chicago has to offer; and with a hundred and fifty movies from fifty countries to choose from, there was still plenty to get excited about. I intentionally tried to make my selections as varied as possible and managed to take in eight films from eight different countries – from hardcore art films to escapist genre fare to things that fell somewhere in between. Several of the below titles will feature prominently on my “ten best” list of 2011.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)
Grade: A+ / 9.7

Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But like the great recent Romanian film Police, Adjective, Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of the 21st century.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)
Grade: A / 9.5

Or a speculative biography of the cabman whose whipping of a horse allegedly drove Nietzche mad. Bela Tarr’s final film, co-directed by his editor Agnes Hranitzky, covers six days in the life of the cabman ostensibly right after the famous anecdote took place. There is very little dialogue in this slowly paced, minimalist, amazingly photographed study of the cabman’s life. Instead, we see him and his daughter (played by Erika Bok, the little girl from Satantango) prepare meals and perform household chores in real time, a la Jeanne Dielman, as their lives spiral increasingly downward into a mysteriously apocalyptic despair. Like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere “miserabilist” (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and, like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work. I can’t wait to see this again.

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland)
Grade: A- / 8.2

In this sweet and quirky comedy from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki an elderly shoe shiner defies immigration authorities by helping a young African refugee in the French port town of the title. As the shoe shiner, Andre Wilms reprises his “Marcel Marx” character from Kaurismaki’s terrific 1992 tragicomedy La Vie de Boheme. If Le Havre isn’t quite as good as that earlier film (which I still think is the director’s best), it nonetheless resonates as a humane and refreshingly optimistic portrait of a neighborhood full of decent people coming together for a common good. I especially liked the unexpectedly touching relationship that develops between Marcel and an adversarial police inspector, which put me in the mind of the friendship between Rick Blaine and Captain Renault in Casablanca. This has added appeal for fans of pre-nouvelle vague French cinema as it is studded with references to classic movies from that era (e.g., important characters are named Arletty and Becker). Like most of the director’s work, this is nothing more or less than a good small film.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)
Grade: B+ / 7.6

A recently disbarred female lawyer living in Tehran must cope with her husband’s imprisonment and the decision of whether to have an illegal abortion, all while attempting to bribe the necessary officials in order to leave the country. It is impossible to separate this raw and harrowing portrait of Ahmadinejad’s Iran from the story of its making: it was directed under semi-clandestine conditions by Mohammad Rasoulof, a filmmaker facing a six year prison sentence on trumped up treason charges, and then smuggled out of the country for international distribution. The tone is undeniably (and understandably) bleak and despairing but this has an urgency that few contemporary movies can match.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway)
Grade: B / 7.4

Turn Me On, Dammit!, which premiered as Turn Me On, Goddammit! at the Tribeca Film Festival before receiving a title modification, is the best coming-of-age teen-sex comedy I’ve seen in ages, perhaps because it’s so truthful and frank in its depiction of teenage sexuality (with all of the awkwardness and confusion that implies), a quality with which its Hollywood counterparts cannot compete. Alma is a 15 year old sex-obsessed girl living in a small Norwegian town. After becoming embroiled in a local scandal (she claims Artur, a popular boy, poked his erect dick against her hip, a charge he denies), she finds herself becoming a pariah at her school. Meanwhile, her best friend Saralou dreams of moving to Texas so that she can protest capital punishment. This is the first fiction feature by Jannicke Jacobsen, a young director known previously for her documentaries, and she shows an impressive feel for childhood (the cast of non-professional performers is amazing) while painting a deft, universally relatable portrait of small town boredom.

Rabies (Keshales/Papushado, Israel)
Grade: B / 7.0

A quartet of young, attractive people cross paths with a knife-wielding maniac while traveling through a rural area. Think you’ve seen this movie before? Actually, you haven’t. The first ever horror film from Israel (made by first time writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) is a nasty, darkly funny exercise in subverting the viewer’s expectations of the slasher genre. Even more so than most horror movies, Rabies is best seen without knowing too much in advance; let me just say that the title is metaphorical rather than literal, positing violence itself as an infectious disease, and that the full allegorical implications of the film (one could argue it would not be as effective had it been made anywhere but Israel) only gradually become clear as the scenario unfolds. An unusually creative employment of cross-cutting and some eardrum-bursting sound effects made my heart stop repeatedly during the 90 minute running time. Not for the faint of heart but horror fans should seek this out.

A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey, UK)
Grade: C+ / 6.2

This low-budget but well-made British thriller begins like a horror film (mountain climbers accidentally stumble across a little girl imprisoned underground by unseen villains) before transitioning into an urban action movie revolving around a kidnap and ransom plot. Along the way there is some breathtaking scenery of the Scottish Highlands, a few tense, crisply edited set pieces and a commanding lead performance by Melissa George. As far as genre material goes, this lacks the originality (not to mention the bat-shit crazy quality) of something like Rabies and consequently isn’t as much fun. But as an exercise in suspense-building, it’s a solid piece of craftsmanship that marks its young director, Julian Gilbey, as someone to keep an eye on.

The Last Rites of Joe May (Maggio, USA)
Grade: C- / 5.1

The Last Rites of Joe May begins with the title character, an aging “short money” hustler, being released from hospital after a lengthy stay only to find that his landlord has rented his apartment to someone else. From there, Joe’s luck only gets worse as he is unable to find work or repair a broken relationship with his estranged son. Can he find redemption in the unlikely friendship he forges with a young single mother who is being abused by her scumbag cop-boyfriend? Writer/director Joe Maggio has cited influences as disparate as Umberto D and The Friends of Eddie Coyle and yet this mostly feels like an uninspired mash-up of more recent films like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart and Gran Torino. Dennis Farina, a great character actor who isn’t often given leading roles, and the Chicago locations both shine. They also deserve much better than the cliched story that envelops them.


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