Author: Alex

Twentysomething artist and writer, aspires to be a museum curator. Just finished my MA in art history. Film geek.

The Effortless Cool of Desperately Seeking Susan


It isn’t referenced much in any well-informed critical film discussions. It isn’t typically put forth as a shining example of 80s cinema, or women-directed cinema, or Madonna-starring cinema. It probably isn’t used in many film classes. It isn’t especially well-remembered today, except as a kind of style footnote within the singer’s long and storied career. And yet, I would easily count Desperately Seeking Susan among my favorite films. And I consider it Important.

I remember the very first time I ever saw this movie. I think I was about 16, and I was home sick with a bad cold. I was in a fog all day but couldn’t sleep, so I hazily watched movies on cable tv all afternoon. This came on one of our movie channels and I immediately fell for its hip 80s New York world. I grew up in a boring suburb across the river from New York City, and easily imagined myself crossing the tunnel and joining a rock band and living a supercool city life and having wild but sexy fashion sense when I got older. I especially romanticized the punk/new wave scene of the 70s and 80s, when there was graffiti everywhere and cool musicians hanging out on every corner and young people could live in crumblingly bohemian apartments and no one ever seemed to need a day job. I wanted to be an independent young woman who exuded confidence and had street smarts and wore red lipstick and could somehow eat a puffy cheeto without getting cheese dust all over her body. Instead, I was stuck in my small whitebread town with my awkward teen body and a personal style that took many more years to cultivate into anything I could be comfortable with.

Basically, I was a Roberta. And I wanted to be a Susan.

desperately seeking susan

Combining wacky caper with romantic comedy with class satire, Desperately Seeking Susan is about a bored, lonely housewife named Roberta living in Fort Lee, NJ who longs for something to spice up her cookie-cutter existence. She knows she’s desperate, but she’s not sure for what, she just has a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, of disconnection from her bland husband and yuppie friends. It takes a total movie-comedy moment (in the form of an amnesia-inducing bump on the head) to free her from the lifestyle she’d fallen into, and a large portion of the film is dedicated to her coming into herself and finding her personality. Being mistaken for Susan means she can model herself after Susan, or at least the image everyone has of her. Without her memories and without any connection to her real life, Roberta is suddenly able to do anything, and to be anybody, a thought which obviously excites her. She starts (and immediately quits) smoking, makes out with a near-stranger, learns to do magic, dresses to kill, and foils a murderous criminal plot.

Madonna’s character Susan, on the other hand, is introduced as a sexy new wave nomad, breezing her way through relationships and hotel rooms across the country, presumably charming everyone she meets and never having to pay for anything herself. She wears mesh tops and chunky jewelry, her bold lipstick is never smudged, and she dates a cute boy in a rock band. She is effortlessly cool and fully self-assured, full of ideas and never ever boring. She struts around New York City without a care in the world, believing that everyone can come to her, and everything will work out the way she wants it to. The character was created to be an icon, a model for Roberta and other women like her, an image to hold in our heads of what life could be like if we just unleashed our inner pop star. But she’s also real enough that it feels like you might spot her in a hip nightclub, dancing uninhibited and having more fun than anyone else there just because she’s being herself.

desperately seeking susan

While not all of Roberta’s exploratory adventures actually suit her, she seems able to find a happy medium between her former good-natured housewife self and the wild-girl persona that was thrust upon her. And yes, part of that happens through finding love, real love that isn’t the watered-down marriage she’d been stuck in for four years, but the story isn’t about finding yourself through a man, or any relationship, it’s about finding yourself outside of those things. One of my favorite exchanges of the movie is towards the end when Roberta confronts her dopey (and hilariously terrible) husband, Gary, after he finally tracks her down to the club where she’s working as a magician’s assistant. “Look at me,” she says. His response is, “I looked at you, you look ridiculous.” “I mean, look at ME, Gary!” she implores. Her face and her inflection speak volumes, and it’s clear this is the most weight she has ever given to the word “me”, that this is the first time she really understands what the word means. And finally she asserts, “I’m not coming home with you.” It’s a really good moment.

I’m not saying Desperately Seeking Susan should be held up as some great, under-appreciated feminist text. I’m not saying Susan should be considered a role model, or that she served as mine specifically (for one thing, she smokes, so that’s a no, also, she’s not very polite). I’m not even saying you should watch it, because hey, let’s be honest, this movie is certainly not for everyone- it’s dated as hell in its style and themes, the premise is ludicrous, and everyone’s hair is impossibly big. (Personally, I love all those things, obviously.) What I am hoping for is a little respect. This film is primarily remembered for Madonna’s fashion and a string of musical cameos (John Lurie, Annie Golden, Richard Edson, Anne Magnuson, etc), and it’d be neat if it was more often cited as a small but significant entry into the never-big-enough genre of empowering women’s stories. Because, as a former sick teen sitting at home on the couch, forever uncool and unsure, it was nice to watch Roberta becoming her own person for the first time, Susan just being Susan. It still is.

Monstrous Females Double Feature: Ginger Snaps (2000) and American Mary (2012)

Ah, October, a month when talking obsessively about slashers, vampires, haunted houses, killer aliens, werewolves, and dismemberment is generally socially condoned. I have been enormously enjoying my own spooky season, an extension of my personal exploration of horror over the past year. Though I’ve seen many new-to-me horror films recently (most of which I write a little about on my letterboxd), it has been especially heartening to check out a few titles written and/or directed by women, which aren’t exactly common. Two of my favorites so far are the lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-puberty drama Ginger Snaps, written by Karen Walton, and the body-mod gorefest American Mary, written and directed by the Soska Sisters. As a nice bonus, both happen to star Katharine Isabelle.

Ginger Snaps

Seen: On our projector set-up on blu-ray (borrowed from my friend Ben).

Morbid sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are inseparable, determined to make it through high school together or possibly die trying, staging elaborate photographs of each others’ deaths as a creative coping mechanism. When the slightly older Ginger gets her period for the first time and is bit by a mysterious wolf-like creature on the same night, Brigitte becomes convinced that she’s turning into a werewolf, even though some of the signs are weirdly similar to puberty. Ginger drifts apart from her sister, suddenly interested in sex and drugs and parties, but her sister can see her rapidly losing control of herself both mentally and physically. Brigitte teams up with a local weed dealer who saw the original wolf and is inclined to believe in what’s happening, but they may not find a cure before Ginger fully wolfs out at the next full moon.

When I first heard the premise of Ginger Snaps I thought it would push the link between the “curse” of menstruation and the “curse” of werewolfism more. Like, get it? Women are MONSTERS when they’re surfing the crimson wave, can we talk about it? Women being emotional, uncontrollable monsters? Eh? But it turns out Ginger Snaps is really mostly about sisterhood and girlhood and growing up and hormones and turning into a werewolf obviously. It is primarily a well-paced supernatural drama, hinging on the mousy Brigitte as she works to save Ginger, a sister she is equally scared of and scared for. Emily Perkins is great in the role, affecting a telltale teenage shoulder hunch and an expression equal parts nervous and tenacious. Katharine Isabelle perfectly balances budding sexuality and over-confidence with an underlying vulnerability and eventual realization that she has lost control of everything she knew.

This movie combines all the confusion and excitement and terror of teenagedom–including fights with parents, personality changes, raging hormones and puberty, the perils of high school socialization, romantic melodrama–while simultaneously remaining a straight-up werewolf movie. I loved the theme of sisterhood and coming-of-age worked so believably into this darkly comic horror. Director John Fawcett’s insistence on practical effects works to everyone’s favor, and the story is original, unpredictable, and honestly quite touching. This is exactly the kind of feminist, femalecentric horror movie I wanted.


american mary

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed through netflix.

My next foray into women-made horror was American Mary, written and directed by celebrated filmmaker twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. Katharine Isabelle stars again, this time as Mary, a medical student with financial troubles. Unable to make her loan or bill payments, she answers a craigslist ad looking for beautiful women to work at a strip club/bar. After the owner ropes her into an impromptu emergency surgery, she is unexpectedly hired by one of the club’s dancers, Beatress, to perform a body modification surgery on a woman who has been changing her appearance to resemble a Barbie-type doll. Mary is at first unsettled by the procedure, but soon finds herself a go-to surgeon for others in the body-modification community. When a party with her medical professors goes horribly wrong, she uses her newfound skills to enact revenge.

Without knowing too much about it, I imagined this film as a gory, seedy medical thriller with lots of gross operations and maybe body horror. In reality, it’s more a thoughtful take on the rape-revenge subgenre set within a unique subculture. While Mary’s rape is shown in awful, disgusting detail (the one scene I had to look away from during the whole movie), the rest of the story is more about the psychological aftermath than the “revenge” portion usually the focus of other movies with this theme. The body-mod stuff isn’t part of the horror, in face the film mostly offers a sympathetic and compassionate look at that community. The essential horror of the film lies in the lengths Mary finds herself going to as she tries to cope with this terrible experience, as she recognizes her own personality and moral code changing radically. Katharine Isabelle again puts in a memorable performance, at times betraying an uncertainty beneath a hardened, businesslike exterior. Her transformation from confident medical student to somewhat sadistic underground surgeon is a compelling one, and she completely sells it.

The main issue many viewers seem to have had with American Mary is the ending, and I definitely would consider that the film’s weak point. The climax is a bloody, murdery mess that suddenly introduces a new character who was barely mentioned halfway through, and it’s just not satisfying. I think the Soskas were trying to work in a commentary about male possessiveness of their female partners and the general idea that men often think they have control over women’s bodies, which is a very fair point and totally appropriate to raise in a film about body modification surgery. But the way it is introduced and haphazardly worked into the narrative does not fit, and instead a barely-there subplot jarringly becomes the deciding factor in Mary’s story in the last five minutes of the movie. Which is too bad, because up until that point I was very involved with her tale, and hoped for a more fitting conclusion.


Art: Joseph Cornell’s Assemblages

Cornell-Untitled-Celestial-Navigation-1958Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. via Washington City Paper

The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects. A collector as much as an artist, he has inspired generations of artists and art-lovers, tapping into that seemingly innate human interest in stuff.

Born in 1903, Cornell grew up in the small village of Nyack, New York, a picturesque spot along the Hudson River. His four years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts became the longest period he would spend away from home. After leaving school without a diploma, he moved back in with his family and became a textile salesman like his father, who had passed away in 1917. During the 1920s he collected various paper and secondhand ephemera, but it was not until around 1931 that he began making art out of such materials. Inspired by Surrealist exhibitions at the Julian Levy Gallery–especially Max Ernst’s collages–he created three-dimensional boxes and sculptures assembled from found objects. By 1932 he was exhibiting at the same gallery, with a solo show that fall. He also experimented with filmmaking, cutting together bits of collected film strips to create collaged movies (he returned to the medium in the 50s, collaborating with auteurs like Stan Brakhage to make films with new footage).

Throughout the next several decades, Cornell worked full- or part-time as an artist, never moving out of his mother’s house in Flushing, NY (where he helped care for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy) but taking frequent trips to New York City and establishing an ever-growing assortment of artistic connections and friendships, from artists Mark Rothko and Yayoi Kusama to dancer Allegra Kent and poet Mina Loy. He continued to make collages and assemblage boxes until the end of his life, dying of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69. Though his art was exhibited across the country and was gaining value by the 1950s, he often preferred to make work as gifts to friends and people he admired, instead of commodifying everything he produced.

cornell.hotel-edenJoseph Cornell: Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945. ibiblio

cornell-ASwanLakeForTamaraToumanova-HomagetotheRomanticBalletJoseph Cornell: A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova (Homage to the Romantic Ballet), 1946. via The Old Curiosity Shop

The wonderful thing about Joseph Cornell is he created works of high art that could easily be read as pure knick-knacks if not for their powerful associative effect. He taps into the nostalgia inherent to so many objects, deftly combining his found items so as to elicit a response related to memory or personality, expressing feeling and experience through secondhand castaways. Putting together things like glassware, maps, stuffed birds, torn book pages, and keys, he silently invites viewers to extrapolate their own connections with such everyday items. We bring along our own baggage, our own memories, our own wishful thinking, and we are able to take it personally. Generally, Cornell is not making bold political statements or irreverent art historical references; he is not caught up in the manifestos and rampant theories of many artists of his day. He is sharing his own interests and perspective with others–often specific friends, colleagues, and crushes–through his own belongings. Many early-twentieth-century artists made art out of the everyday, but Cornell made art out of his everyday, which in turn could easily become reinterpreted as our own.

Many of his boxes can actually be read as portraits, combining photographs with symbolic ephemera so that a person’s essence might be distilled down to a few objects in a box, a shrine to their persona or legacy. His tribute to Lauren Bacall is dark and haunting, emphasizing both her alluring sexuality and her youth, along with her unattainable, iconic status. His assemblage for Tilly Losch seems to cast her as a delicate paper doll, floating above an abandoned landscape, possibly referencing her skills as a ballet dancer. She appears aloof and alone, but not unhappy, and clearly treasured in her mottled-marble frame. There is an air of preservation about Cornell’s assemblages, containing newly-precious objects behind glass and assuring they remain forever. Knowing many of his boxes were gifts or tributes of sorts, it’s hard not to see them as parts of the artist himself, given in trust to those he admired. Known as something of a recluse and a loner (by choice, though of course affected by his ailing younger brother and the early death of his father), Cornell nevertheless formed many significant relationships, and seemed keen to fall in love with various artistic women. Perhaps sharing bits of his own collections was his way of sharing something of himself.

Cornell - BacallJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-46. via MSU

Cornell _Untitled-TillyLosch-1935.jpgJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Tilly Losch), 1935. via MBA Lyon

cornell - medici boyJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52. via ibiblio

Cornell-untitled-no3-1955Joseph Cornell: Untitled No. 3. via MBA Lyon

cornell - solar setJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Solar Set), 1956-58. via ibiblio


The Archives of American Art

The Joseph Cornell Box

Adam Gopnick. “Sparkings: Joseph Cornell and the Art of Nostalgia” in The New Yorker.

Movie Review: Ookami kodomo no Ame to Yuki (Wolf Children) (2012)


Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s computer.

When university student Hana meets a quiet, lonely man in one of her lectures, the attraction is instantaneous. She soon discovers he is the last of a family of wolf-people, but that does not change her feelings for him. They move in together and have two children, and tragically he is killed in an accident shortly after the second child is born. Hana quickly realizes her offspring are shapeshifters, with the ability to turn into wolves, and she moves her family out to the country with the hope that they’ll be safe from prying eyes and can find a way to reconcile their dichroic heritage by being closer to nature. The daughter, Yuki, is a wild and emotional child, but once she goes to school she grows into a relatively average teenage girl, embarrassed by her abilities and endeavoring to live as a human first and foremost. Her little brother Ame is a shy and scared child, but finds his confidence and self-worth in giving in to his wolf side, retreating to the mountains surrounding their home instead of attending classes. Hana works hard to both provide for her children and understand what they are going through, but worries she cannot help them without wolf-knowledge of her own.

Despite its somewhat silly premise, Wolf Children is a complex and gut-wrenching drama that truly seeks to examine the intensity, challenges, and rewards of single motherhood. I know the title insinuates that the children are the focus, but for me Hana’s character was the true standout, she’s just this phenomenal, impossibly strong woman whose struggle felt real and significant and funny and fascinating. Her kids are downright adorable as only anime kids can be, and it was a real treat to watch them grow up, but I always came back to her story, her experience. Here is a woman who is left with a daunting task, and though she is unsure of herself she remains determined to see it through. She teaches herself about medicine, home improvement, farming, animals, sewing, and anything else she might require to provide for her family, and then she GETS TO WORK. She never asks for help, but takes it as it comes when her neighbors start to offer it, and she always puts Ame’s and Yuki’s needs before her own. I’ll admit that motherhood is a foreign concept to me, an instinct I’ve never had and not a path I’ve chosen not to go down, but I felt such admiration for Hana and her incredible dedication. She is basically a superwoman and yet is never recognized for it, and in the end it was her my heart went out to as Yuki narrated their story.

Rendered in soft colors and incredibly detailed in its depiction of movement, this film is easily one of the most visually stunning animes I’ve seen. Every surface, from water and foliage to domestic interiors and urban streets, is drawn with meticulousness and obvious relish. I remember being similarly wowed by director Mamoru Hosoda’s visual mastery with his previous effort, Summer Wars, but Wolf Children‘s natural wonders are far from the techno-futuristic sheen of that film’s standout scenes, indicating an impressive dexterity in Hosoda’s artistic vision. I loved the fluidity of motion and expression, the reflective surfaces, the use of sight gags throughout to add a dose of humor. I loved the clever transitions that showed the years passing as Ame and Yuki grew up. I loved how the music perfectly matched the visual style, hitting every emotional beat until I was (unsuccessfully) holding back tears at the end.

Wolf Children is a film composed primarily of small moments, of sibling squabbles and teen angst, of motherly devotion and lingering grief. Its story is inventive and strange but its themes are universal and affecting, with a trio of compelling characters at its center and a sophisticated animation style. I found the whole thing really beautiful.


Pair This Movie With: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. No, wait! Hear me out! Wolf Children is a movie about a kickass mom who fights like hell to protect her children from outside forces who might hurt them or take them away from her. She dedicates her whole life to them and her personality adjusts itself to fit this new role. This is basically the plot of T2, only that one has robots. OR for an equally excellent Mamoru Hosoda/Satoko Okudera team-up, there’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

Movie Review: Borgman (2014)


Seen: On our projector set-up at home.

A trio of unkempt men living in hidden underground rooms in the forest are forced to flee when a gang of armed men (including a priest) raid their home. Their leader, Camiel (Jan Bijvoet), runs to a large, isolated estate and begs its owner–self-interested businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval)–to allow him to use their shower. He refuses, and soon physically beats Camiel when he claims to have known Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). She takes pity on him and secretly invites him to use their bathroom, going so far as to make him dinner and agreeing to put him up in their guest house for a few nights as long as he keeps himself hidden. He soon ingratiates himself into her and her young children’s lives, and facilitates the dissolution of her marriage by sending her nightmares about Richard. Several friends join him at the house and things soon spiral out into weirder and weirder territory.

Borgman is the type of film during which I was never quite sure what was going on, but I was always utterly captivated. Writer/director/co-star (and poster designer) Alex van Warmerdam throws his audience into the action immediately, opening with a wordless hunt through the woods as three unidentified armed men tear through the protagonists’ underground homes. These men are never seen again, and their violent raid is never mentioned nor given reason. Camiel and his friends are immediately sympathetic because to our eyes they are victims, perhaps persecuted for living an alternative lifestyle. As the story progresses we come to realize the manipulative, vaguely paranormal power Camiel exerts over Marina and her family, and the brutal lengths he will go to for whatever his mysterious goal may be. The film rests in a cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity but the answer always feels like it’s lying just out of reach, perhaps just out of frame, so that as a viewer I was set on seeing things through and perhaps figuring things out. At times it’s almost intoxicatingly obtuse.

Of course, this isn’t just some hodge-podge of random scenes, there is narrative and character development and theme. This movie hates rich people, for example, and even though Camiel is shown to be fairly ruthless I couldn’t help but root for him since his target (the abusive, possessive, materialistic Richard) is so terrible. There is also a kind of mythology established, whether completely new or drawing from Dutch tradition I couldn’t say, but I did find it fascinating. Camiel sends dreams to Marina, has some kind of supernatural hold on the people around him, he and his friends can apparently turn into dogs (?), they all sport mysterious scars on their backs, and they can hypnotize/brainwash young people. They fluidly change identities and mercilessly murder and manipulate, but their actions are more interesting than dastardly. With unreadable motivations and impressive efficiency, Camiel and his followers bring a wonderful level of weirdness to this idyllic modern home and its unsuspecting inhabitants.

Van Warmerdam crafts this intriguing oddity superbly, with pitch-perfect camerawork and a gorgeous, deep color palette. Shots move throughout the large, stylized household with thoughtful tension, revealing and hiding in equal amounts. While the family feels real enough, it’s easy to assume the events of the film take place in a dream, given the slightly surreal tinge falling over every scene. The sets are too stagey, the action too contained, the characters too nestled in their own performances: the divide between real and unreal is inescapably blurred and even that is commented upon in a conceptual performance shown just before the climax. But the occasional intrusion of the world outside the main family’s home reminds us that this is taking place in the realm of reality (at least that of the film) and the surprisingly matter-of-fact ending jolts us out of the strange hold Camiel and his story had on us. Imaginative, unpredictable, and wholly singular, Borgman is not a film I’m likely to forget.


Pair This Movie With: Who the fuck knows. Lots of people compare this to Dogtooth, which I still haven’t seen (I know), so I guess that.