Amanda Knox

I was younger when the Amanda Knox case was in the news, and so have no memory of it.  I had been aware of the Netflix documentary, but again, I watched no trailers and did not follow the news surrounding it.  Watching this film, I went in almost entirely fresh, save for the friend who recommended it to me because of my interest in true crime: I knew nothing of the history, and was only aware that it was about a real crime.  As such, I was expecting something focusing more on the case, in the vein of Making a MurdererSerial, or The Jinx.

Rather than a true crime film like the above series, Amanda Knox (Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn, 2016) was what the title suggested: a film about Amanda Knox.  That is to say: the murder, Meredith Kercher, the procedural, were all about how Knox interpreted them and experienced them.

Overall, it was not a great film.  I went in knowing nothing of the case, and was left with little additional information, other than how Knox felt; so as a true crime film, it’s not great.  The film focuses heavily on the media misogyny that Knox underwent, how the focus was less on evidence (which didn’t exist) and more on her behaviour, real or imagined or exaggerated: her sex life especially as contrasted with her nerdy boyfriend’s inexperience, her supposedly seductive allure, the footage of her kissing her boyfriend at the crime scene, her Myspace handle of “Foxy Knoxy,” and in general, the media’s exploitation of a woman who is hot and crazy.  The overall thesis seemed to be that sexual women are stigmatized and punished.  This is an interesting counterpoint to Christine, also from this year, about the stigmatization and shame felt by the non-sexual woman– my point here is that women, no matter what they do or what they do, are hated.  In Christine Chubbuck’s case, if you believe certain sources, her lack of sex and romantic life helped lead her to a point of despair so deep that she took her own life.  In Knox’s case, her attractiveness and active sex life were used to condemn her.

The problem is that this concept is nothing very new, nor very originally.  This year’s Audrie and Daisy, for instance, did a much better look at the social epidemic of slut shaming, assault, and the way society treats women who are sexualized, often not by their own choice.  Audrie and Daisy did a good job, in my opinion, as it took a broad look at the subject and the repercussions of their attacks, as well as how this violent misogyny manifests in multiple yet similar ways.  It is clear that this is an epidemic.  Women, and children, everywhere are at risk and when they are attacked, the violence against them only gets stronger.  Amanda Knox, however, picks up the idea of media misogyny, but individualises it.  This is about how Amanda Knox dealt with the misogyny that she was attacked with, rather than the misogyny of the legal system or media.

This is a problem.  I’ve thought about with all of the true crime media I have consumed: we focus on the people (usually men) who are alive and potentially wrongfully accused.  People who are given a chance to tell their stories and live their lives.  The focus is the living.  The focus is not on how the story wouldn’t be possible without the murders of women, and how when the stories are about wrongful accusations, we focus on how hard these (for the most part) men have it, not on how hard the brutally murdered and often sexually tortured women had it.  Nor do we focus on how, if the protagonist of these series is innocent, what are the consequences of the legal system allowing the real killer to be free and what is this killer doing in the mean time?  Ultimately, I feel that Amanda Knox is interesting, but adds little to discussions of misogyny, nor does it have the fascination of true crime.  And despite its feminist narrative it still exploits the rape and murder of a woman, Meredith Kercher, to discuss the problems of the survivor.

How could a film on sexism not discuss the fatal gendered violence which drives the plot?  How could a film on sexism so easily, simultaneously brush aside and exploit the death of Meredith Kercher?

TIFF16: Christine

I am not sure what to make of Christine.

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After watching it tonight at TIFF16, my first thought was that I cannot take it objectively.  Due to my own struggles with depression, the film felt personal.  The screening was followed by a Q&A with director, writer, producers, and star Rebecca Hall.  Given my feelings of being too close to the subject matter, I was eager to hear more from the filmmakers; however, both writer and director referenced their own mental health struggles as jumping off points for understanding  Christine Chubbuck, the journalist who killed herself on air who the film focuses one.  That is to say, they were also not quite objective, or at least did not provide me with an objective view I could latch on to. 

I looked up reviews of the film, which are for the most part positive.  Three things stand out: the successes of the 1970s mise-en-scène, the sound design, and Hall’s performance as Chubbuck.   I would agree on all three counts.  I also liked the look at workplace misogyny in Chubbuck’s situation, as well as her complex characterisation as a woman who was passionate about her job and extremely ambitious despite her setbacks.  Hall portrays her drive as well as her frustrations and anxieties extremely well.  But here again I lose objectivity.  I am a person who values independence and solitude, so the depiction I saw of Christine did not read to me as ‘lonely,’ despite it, I think, meaning to be.  And because I cannot think of a more flattering way to put it, I am someone who has been described as cold.  The reviews I read reference Christine’s cold, ‘frosty’ personality, yet this is not something I noticed at all in the film.  In fact, having read about Chubbuck beforehand, I knew that she had been described as difficult to get along with, standoffish, and cold.  Therefore I went into the film expecting this characterisation; instead I found her to be fairly open and likeable though often stressed and easily withdrawn, perhaps even a bit nervous.  So again: is it that I am cold that I could not see Christine’s coldness and the fault in this?

In this way, I saw Christine as not so much a depressed, struggling person, despite her obvious struggles from professional to romantic to medical to familial.  If anything, she seemed well adjusted.  So I don’t know how to take the film.  Is there supposed to be a downward trajectory that I’m missing because I relate too much, or is the banality of her life itself supposed to be a significant element to the narrative of a shocking suicide?  At this point, it is impossible to tell.  Perhaps after more research I’ll find the answer, or the filmmakers will discuss their intent more deeply in the future.  All I can say right now is that this ambiguity does not really work for me.  It makes me think ‘why?’

Chubbuck’s brother has stated that the film is nothing but the exploitation of a tragedy.  In part, the more I think of it, the more I agree.  The film is extremely upsetting, but does it say anything about the problems of mental illness and its treatment, or about how gender can impact one’s mental health?  Again, my problem is that I’m too close to the issue: I’m a woman with depression.  And this experience is rarely discussed sensitively.  Instead, it is exploited in the tropes or fragile, tragic muses and Ophelia-types, rarely taken seriously.  Suicide is something we still do not properly discuss or deal with, and I think my issue is that while film does not have to say something, when film takes an issue that is already so stigmatized, so exploited, so poorly dealt with in real life, so deadly, can it be used simply to make ‘art’?  That is to say: suicide is a serious problem.  Can it be used to create a role to demonstrate great acting or directing?  Especially when it is a real-life case?

So again, I am too close to the subject matter of Christine to objectively comment on it or appreciate it.  I think it is very well made, and Rebecca Hall’s performance is exceptional.  I think it was also somewhat over-long, and many of the inconsequential news items that Christine was forced to film could have been cut, as the point that she was being underused and her ambitions were not being met was made early on.  I felt that the insertion of historical context was heavy handed, but the elements of mise-en-scène which created the 1970s world were very well done.  The sound design and layering of voices and music was also very effective.  This is what I think of Christine as  film.  But film doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  So I also question why it was made.  Why would someone who cannot relate to Christine’s struggles want to watch them, and would it be enjoyable?  Is the film exploiting a woman who has become known for only her sensational death  by focusing on this death and it’s lead-up, especially when family feels hurt and disrespected?  Does it fall into the category of our enjoyment of beautiful yet tragic women who we can’t save but whose self-destruction we enjoy?  I don’t know.

I think Christine is a well made film; I just don’t know if it should have been made.

Finding Vivian Maier

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“Had she made herself known she would have made herself a famous photographer,” says one woman in the film.  Others repeat similar concerns, confusion, and bewilderment.  Vivian Maier, a nanny, was a skilled photographer.  She took lots of pictures.  She did not exhibit them.  They were then found by chance by John Maloof, who is determined to discover her story.

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Maier was ‘enigmatic.’  A loner, dressed in loose clothes with big boots, and a simple haircut.  She never had a known romantic partner or children, so the film tells us very early on.  We later find out this extends to her having few friends.  The children she cared for are interviewed, as well as people she lived with.  The now-grown children describe her as cold, closed off.  Families discuss her obsessive need for privacy and isolation, demanding that no one enters her room, asking for locks on her doors.  She dressed strangely, with clothes out of date, covering her body.  Interviewees offer conflicting testimony to her character, but this aids in painting Maier as a mysterious, closed-off person who never opened up to those in her life.

Maier has passed away, and was not in the film — and it’s conspicuous.  For all that we get from people about her, we don’t get her own words or opinion.  Everyone is able to discuss her, but she cannot speak for herself or her work.  Which then begs the question: did this very private woman even want to discuss herself publicly?  Would she have wanted others to discuss her and her work?  Maier made no attempt to expose her art to the public, an inaction which baffles those in the film.  But by all accounts she was an intelligent woman and a private woman: it’s entirely possible that she simply did not want to share her photos.  She affected an accent, misspelled her name or gave out fake ones, lived an isolated life, avoided telling people her phone number or profession, requested that people did not enter her living quarters.  We learn this gradually, with a sense of horror.  How much are we betraying this woman’s wishes?  How complicit am I by watching this film?  “I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable and guilty exposing the work of a person who did not want to be exposed,” states Maloof, followed by interviewees discussing that in fact Maier would not have agreed to any of this, she would have hated it.  Eventually we find out about a letter where she asks a relative in France if he would like to go into business with her, printing her photos as postcards.  Finally proof: she did want people to see these pictures.  Supposedly.

A narrative is formed:  Maier was a nanny.  We hear from the people she worked for, her landlords, the children she cared for, her friend.  We see her: a stern expression and short hair; we find she wore clothes that were loose, out of date, and not very stylish.  She was solitary with no spouse or children, and private.  She was strange, perhaps even misanthropic, with no one truly knowing her.

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Everything we hear is warped recollection and interpretation.  Adults recall what they thought about Maier when they were children.  Her employers or landlords interpret her behaviour.  There are stated facts.  For instance, Maier did hoard newspapers.  Maier did take the children she cared for out and would take photos with them.  Maier had little contact with family, had money problems, and  took up nannying after working in a sweatshop and disliking the labour.

The problem is the unaccounted for bias and projection.  It seems absurd to ask children of their recollections of an adult years later.  But even more so, to ask a person’s employers, landlords, and neighbours feels odd.  In all ways there is a disconnect.  How could a child understand deeply the inner workers of an adult, particularly when the relation to this adult is one of work rather than anything more personal?  How could a wealthy employer understand the actions of a poor employee?  Through a specific group of people, a narrative is constructed for Maier, but the question is never asked if the essence of these relationships (generally professional rather than person) and social status (the employer comments on employee, the landlord comments on the tenant) — relationships in which there is always a power imbalance slanted towards the interviewee and slanted against Maier — could create a balanced portrait of anyone?

From the information collected  in this film, it is possible to make another narrative.  Vivian Maier was a private person who wanted locks on her door and didn’t want anyone entering her rooms, which is only natural: working for a family that she lived with, she was attempting to create a space of autonomy where the domestic labour she performed for pay didn’t leak in.  It is easy to imagine that blurring the lines of a professional and personal relationship in a live-in domestic situation would not be beneficial to her, while a desire for an autonomous, personal life outside of her employers seems normal.  It seems equally natural for her to not open up about her personal life to the families she worked for.  She kept a certain distance from her employers, and didn’t open up fully to the children she cared for, as many adults would do.  She was “just” a nanny despite her intelligence, creativity, and talent, but it is also likely that she took up the best job she could find, particularly considering her position of a single woman working from the 1950s to the 2010s.  References are made to her financial difficulties, and starting job in a sweatshop, so we know she had little money.  We are never told if she was educated and we know she was estranged from her family.  It seems likely, then, that this “mere” nanny did not have other opportunities and could not have just gone off to be an artist or intellectual (or find a job more worthy of her photographs, which is the unspoken implication).  And here one can question her asking her French relatives to publish her photos: was this an indication that she deep down wanted to share her work with the world, or was this a way of making some extra money?  The letter states that it is a business proposition, and she asks for the photos to be printed in a remote French village rather than anywhere near where she lived.  The film interprets this as a desire for exposure; to me it seems that that this was a way to make some extra cash with as little exposure as possible.

We have a woman who is enigmatic due to her inability to conform to proper gender roles, and due to her class.  She is enigmatic because those who discuss her support these biases of what a normal (heterosexual) woman should be like, and what a poor person employed by the rich should be like, and they cannot comprehend why she was not how she should have been to them.  To them, a woman needs romance.  A worker needs to love her bosses.  Domestic labour performed by women must involve a loving maternal bond towards the children she cares for.  Then there is the enigma of Maier-as-Artist: here again she does not conform to what an artist should have been, as an artist should seek out recognition while Maier kept to herself.  So the film pushes to construct Maier as the mysterious artist, mysterious because she is not a proper working class woman, and artist because we force her to be.  It seems that Maier did not want to be an artist, but we cannot accept that, so we ignore her wishes.

By the end of the film, Maloof says:

But why was this person so private, yet so prolific in an art form that she never shared?

[…] She did it so it wouldn’t be forgotten.

We don’t know that at all.  Maier may be the titular figure in the film, but she is not afforded a voice, because her voice might have said “Don’t make this film.”  And beyond that, she is dissected by people who could not possibly comprehend her due to not only her own solitary existence, but due to their social power imbalances and blindness fueled by extreme privilege.  Vivian Maier had power in her choice not to sell or exhibit her art, and with this film we take away that power, we take away her voice, and we turn her from agent to subject.