A Film For August: The Watermelon Women

In 1993, Cheryl Dunye was an aspiring film maker when she found a gap in film history research – her own history as a black lesbian. So she turns her research into a film – as she says if no history exists you have to create your own.

Written, directed and edited by Cheryl Dunye in 1996, Dunye also plays the protagonist, a young film maker called Cheryl who works in a video store in Philadelphia. Cheryl is researching black actresses in films from the 1930’s and 40’s when she becomes enraptured with an actress in a little known film called ‘Plantation Memories’ where she is credited only as ‘the watermelon women’. But who is she? Cheryl starts to investigate.

On a shoestring budget, Dunye blends documentary style with a self-reflexive personal narrative that blurs the lines between reality and fiction while negotiating a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-sexual world in a way that I found gorgeously funny.

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Gilead

The Reverend John Ames has lived in the small town of Gilead in Iowa nearly all his life. His father was a preacher and both grandfathers. Born in 1880 It’s now 1956 and he’s an elderly man knowing he doesn’t have long to live. So he begins to write a letter to his seven year old son ‘to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you.’

In a voice that is calm and authoritative the Reverend Ames tells his son about his life and beliefs about his friends and family and perhaps most beautiful of all, he describes their present life, the everyday happenings in their little family of three.

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The Silence Of The Girls

In the narrow Lanes of Lyrnessus Achilles is leading his men as they ransack the Trojan city in revenge for the kidnapping of Helen. Once all the men are killed the women are taken to the Greek soldiers’ camp as slaves. Briseis the queen is given as a prize to Achilles, the man who butchered her family and it’s her story that’s central to this retelling of The Iliad.

I found this shocking and upsetting but incredibly compelling, the domestic lives of the women and their children amidst the biblical brutality of bored and frustrated warriors.

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The Lake District Murder

The Sussex Downs Murder is the BLCC listed on my 10 Books of Summer challenge, but the sea side bookshop I was in only had this one on its shelves, so I stayed with Meredith but on his home patch of Keswick in the Lake District and in 1935 while he’s still a lowly Inspector.

The setting is lovely and having read a couple of other Meredith mysteries it was interesting to see where he came from. The small towns are filled with amiable shop keepers, burly farmers and friendly bank managers and everybody, no matter how criminal carries a dinner basket. His son Tony is an eager to help seventeen year old and his wife worries over the amount of work he does. It’s all very domestic.

But trouble arrives from the south (!). There’s a particularly grizzly suicide in a garage on a lonely stretch of road, and as the investigation gets under way one puzzle just leads to another, and was it suicide after all or could it have been murder? There seems to be a shadier side to these normally quiet coastal towns. But Meredith, on his first solo investigation, puts the whodunit on hold and even the whydunit as he sets out to prove the howdunit.

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A Film For July: Daisies

Daisies is a 1966 Czechoslovakian comedy-drama film written and directed by Věra Chytilová. Two young girls, both called Marie, sit in their bikinis like puppets and decide that as the whole world is spoiled and bad they will act as if they are bad too.

In their babydoll dresses, flower crowns and thick black eyeliner, Marie l (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie ll (Ivana Karbanová) look overtly ‘girly’ but as their youthful pranks play havoc on a world gone stale these two giggly girls are taking up space, being irreverent and wild and making a noise – breaking all the conventions of traditional femininity. Their anarchic spirit and rebellious appetite for food and adventure is captured in a surreal, kaleidoscopic swirl that is a crazy satire of bourgeois decadence.

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Calamity in Kent

In the peaceful seaside town of Broadgate, an impossible crime occurs. The operator of the cliff railway locks the empty carriage one evening; when he returns to work next morning, a dead body is locked inside – a man who has been stabbed in the back.

Luckily, Jimmy London, newspaper reporter, is convalescing in the seaside town and meets Aloysius Bender the lift operator, just after he has discovered the body. The police are called and along with the local constabulary comes Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, whose staying in the area with his friend the Chief Constable. Jimmy London and Inspector Shelley have worked together before and distrustful of the local dunderheads decide to team up together to solve the mystery.

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A Film For June: Velvet Goldmine

Where is Brian Slade, front man of glam rock band Venus in Furs? In 1974 he was a teen idol in Britain and together with his wife Mandy (Toni Colette) and American rocker Curt Wild and his band Wylde Ratttz created an outrageous storm. Until he disappears .

Ten years later, journalist Arthur Stuart (an adorable Christian Bale), is set the task of tracking him down. As his investigation progresses vignettes of the characters involved in his career are interwoven with Arthur’s own memories of being a fan, glam rock and youth culture in Britain in the ’70’s.

Written and directed by Todd Haynes in 1998, Velvet Goldmine is a carnival of costumes (Sandy Powell) and music. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor are gaspingly, shockingly, sensational as Brian Slade and Curt Wild. But the wildness stops, often abruptly, when the memories are Arthur’s own. The dreary streets, getting on a bus, feeling an outsider as he remembers being a teenager and idolising Brian Slade, his sexually fluid, androgynous hero who gives him the strength to come out to his dismally repressed parents and leave them in their living room, with their backs to the wall. While I laughed and gasped at Slade and Wild, it was Arthur Stuart and his quest for excitement in the hum-drum, boring ’70’s that resonated with me!

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Maurice

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, Maurice follows Maurice Hall through his school days and adolescents, to his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge and into early adulthood. It follows his loneliness and confusion, his sexual awakening and acceptance of his homosexuality and his eventual happiness.

Forster wrote Maurice in 1913 directly after a visit to Milthorpe, the home of Edward Carpenter (who I did a brief post on here) and his ‘comrade’ George Merrill. He calls Carpenter his ‘saviour’ and Milthorpe a ‘shrine’ and says that they ‘combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. . . The general plan, the three characters, the happy ending for two of them, all rushed into my pen.’ I think this is important because I found Maurice the most intensely personal book I think I’ve ever read.

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Summer

‘It was the beginning of a June afternoon. The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it.’

Seventeen year old Charity Royall lives with her adoptive father in the small town of North Dormer in New England. Born into a community of outlaws who live in the surrounding mountains, Lawyer Royall brought her down into the valley town when she was five years old and named her Charity ‘to keep alive in her a becoming sense of her dependence’. She knows she’s lucky but she feels stifled by the quietness of the town and increasingly disturbed by the behaviour of her guardian. So she takes a job in the library to save money for her escape, when suddenly one day the library door opens and Lucius Harney a young architect from New York arrives and sparks begin to fly.

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The Female Man

Four women in four intersecting time lines. Jeannine is a 29 year old librarian living with her cat in 1969 but the Great Depression is still going on, hers is still a world where her goal is to marry and have a home; Janet is a police-officer from the future utopian planet of Whileaway, where only women have survived a plague and Joanna is the author Joanna Russ, a fired up angry feminist in 1969.

When Janet arrives on Broadway at two o’clock in the afternoon in her underwear she becomes an instant celebrity and Joanna who is fascinated by her goes to a parade given in her honour – picked out of the crowd she gets into Janet’s car. Sitting in the back seat is Jeannine, having been found at a Chinese new year festival, terrified she puts her hands over her ears repeating to herself ‘I’m not here, I’m not here’ but she is there and then the three find themselves on Whileaway.

And then Jael arrives, the shadowy dark side of the future. She comes from a future where the battle between the sexes has divided into two armed camps – Womanland and Manland. Manland constructs its own women from weakling men and Womenland has pretty mindless men who are wired into their high tech houses, objectified males. A ‘rosy, wholesome, single-minded assassin’ it’s she who has got them together because she needs their help to win the war.

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