Article Retrospective TV

On Girls…

“If it hurts, you’ll always remember…”

After six seasons, sixty-two episodes, one thousand, eight hundred and sixty minutes (give or take), it’s over. Girls is no more. Hannah et al have moved on, to pastures new, not necessarily together but what joy, cynicism and dark, comedic delights they left behind. Also, it’s probably still in Sky box sets too if you just can’t say goodbye yet.

Following on from her success with semi-autobiographical Tiny Furniture (2010), Lena Dunham turned to television and created Girls. It never sat comfortably within a specific genre, part drama, part sitcom, like an anti-Sex and the City despite covering some occasional, similar ground. Realism wasn’t always its strongest suit but the writing always felt authentic even when certain situations seemed implausible. It dealt with the complications of women (those four with the alliterative names mostly) between the ages of 24-27 – that weird age where you never feel fully adult, have left girlhood behind but still need to navigate the choppy waters of self-discovery and finding your place in the world. These were young women who had all the self-confidence but little to no self-worth, they made each other’s problems about themselves and allowed their selfish anxiety to dictate their emotions. They attempted to be independent yet were reluctant to cut the apron strings entirely.

The series covered many topics including drug addiction, STIs, unwanted pregnancy, alcoholism, abortion, motherhood, infidelity, loneliness, death, and mental health. Whilst attempting to combat or even approach some of these issues, they all – Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) – made mistakes. Sometimes horribly, a lot of the time irreparably but that just made us root for them all all the more. Or many of you bailed on them around season 2/3 and have yet to go back…

Much criticism stemmed from the characters’ likability. That’s women for you. We’re not all sunshine and light, not all of the time, there are multiple facets, complexities that not many shows manage to depict quite so vividly. The girls’ fallibility and often cringeworthy behaviour (sometimes age appropriate, mostly grossly immature) is what made me latch on. Men have been getting away with being unapologetically “men” onscreen since the dawn of time, apparently women pose a greater problem.

Let’s not pull punches; Hannah Horvath was an annoying character, the one based on Dunham, she who often spoke before thinking, she who, nine times out of ten needed that extra bit of attention. We’ve all had at least one friend like her, probably, we’re not even friends anymore. It happens. The others weren’t perfect, not by a long shot, hello Marnie?  but Hannah, for all her flaws and foibles was the heart of the show. She and her friends became a talking point between you and yours – the question of their friendship and why they were friends was never far from our minds, they never did seem completely compatible but something worked. Until they didn’t. Hey ho, that’s life.

Hannah lived outside of her sexual experiences, she saw her ‘job’ to fulfil certain things so she had something to write about; situations with which to glean as much experience from. Her sex scenes were nothing if not honest, hilarious and convincing. She was weird, surrounded by a cast of weirdos; characters we all empathised with time and again. All they ever wanted was to be happy; being loved was a bonus.

For its duration Girls never seemed far from censure – too privileged, too white, too much nudity (specifically Dunham). Most moans seemed to spend a little too much time on Hannah/Lena’s body. Unapologetic in her own skin, and why not, she doesn’t look like your typical TV star, certainly not the kind of woman to shed clothes so regularly and unabashedly. It was refreshing. Finally somebody onscreen who wobbled a bit having a convincing sex life. It made little difference that she was the creator, writer, producer, director and lead actress, she was there to be body-shamed by… well, it was scary how many. Somebody like Patrick Wilson (see, One Man’s Trash S2 E05) wouldn’t f*ck any woman who looked like that, yada yada yada.

It’s a white show. Written by a white woman about four (white) friends; its creator, co-producer, Jenni Konner and executive producer, Judd Apatow are Jewish too if this is something of interest (side note: must research criticism levelled at Knocked Up or latest show LOVE). One of the first things Dunham did, following comments about the lack of diversity on the show, was cast Donald Glover as Sandy in two episodes (It’s About Time S2 E01 and I Get Ideas S2 E02) which depicted Hannah’s ignorance surrounding the issue of race – they also made him a Republican too. While there have been numerous characters of colour albeit, one could argue, clumsily added, and mostly in supporting, non-recurring roles; still, attempts have been made to address the imbalance. Those same critics who describe the show as whitewashing would probably now accuse of tokenism or misrepresentation. The scrutiny with which Girls was subjected to over the last six years, one could surmise, is down to the gender of its creator. I’m sure there are some male-led shows that are held to account, just not quite in the same way as those by/for/with women.

If you’ve never bothered with it, fair enough, I would implore you to check out the bottle-neck episodes for a riveting taste of just how good the show can be, One Man’s Trash, Flo (S3 E09), The Panic in Central Park (S5 E06), American Bitch (S6 E03). Girls showed women in all their complexities, fallibility, humiliations and vulnerabilities. It was dark, cynical and sometimes depressing; not always a comforting watch but funny – I don’t think it’s given enough credit for its humour. Or for its ability to write men. Specifically Adam Sackler. To listen to Dunham, their show was a collaborative effort, replete with improvising so who knows the *true* author of Adam, regardless he remains amazingly written; the epitome of the sensitive, complicated, masculine male. A man in AA; his sobriety sometimes a battle. His dark, sexual, almost deviant behaviour and the temper… oh the temper. That which exploded usually to save him exposing his vulnerability. He was deep, complex and – just like the rest of the show’s characters – grew, evolved, shifted. It was a joy to watch, Adam Driver is a joy to watch. He (Sackler) was, is, for all intents and purposes, Dunham’s finest creation.

So, how to end it all? (Finale review over at TDF: Latching) 

I will miss Hannah and the gang immensely (even Marnie). The girls may have been maddening and mortifying but we loved them; through their imperfections it allowed us to disengage from reality for a bit and embrace our own flaws.

Adulting can be hard. Womaning is harder.

Retrospective Review

Review: Carmen Jones (Dir. Otto Preminger, 1954)


Shot in glorious technicolor and Cinemascope, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones is a treat for the senses. From the opening credits and the strains of Bizet’s opera, vivid colour floods the screen in this lovely restoration from the BFI.


Using Bizet’s 19th century-set opera is transposed to a Southern military base at the end of the second world war, starring an all-black cast performing an Oscar Hammerstein book and lyrics. In terms of musicality it never quite works, I mean, who dubs Harry Belafonte? However, Carmen Jones is an incredibly important film, and one that should be heralded as monumental.


Carmen (played beautifully by Dorothy Dandridge) is a troublemaker. She exudes a tomboyish quality; a playful femininity which sees her climbing, running in heels, happy for rough and tumble, and an inner strength which belies her slight frame. Her arrest places her in a car with strait-laced G.I. Joe (Belafonte). He is charged with driving her to jail. Needless to say, Carmen tried to escape and after wrestling Joe to the ground, he finds himself in her childhood home, being cooked for, seduced away form his girl Cindy Lou (Olga James), and then imprisoned himself for allowing the duplicitous Ms. Jones to flee. 

Sultry Carmen is hedonistic, carnal and revels in her freedom whether sexual or geographical – she makes it abundantly clear – she will never relinquish it. She is the epitome of the transgressive woman, and just like those women of cinema (and in keeping with the opera’s tragic heroine), she is irrevocably punished for her transgressions. Interestingly, examining the notion of freedom, conformity, acceptability and erotic desire of Carmen is worth questioning; is she is defeated or merely defiant? Her active sexuality does not appear over-sexualised but feels liberated and yet it is the scenes in which Belafonte is shirtless that feel fetishised. As Carmen’s freedom is threatened, her frequent calling of Joe “boy” loses its affection and becomes derisive.


Love, jealousy and tragedy are abound in this opulent and liberal affair, people of colour fill every frame, Dandridge and Belafonte are supported by Pearl Bailey, Joe Adams, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters to name but a few.  They have agency, and are (mostly) free from stereotype. With songs entitled “Dat’s Love”, “Dis Flower” and “He’s Got His Self Another Woman”, written to Bizet’s musical score, and every effort to present a black community (albeit thought through the lens of an émigré man), it seems incredibly odd to disjoint the narrative and risk alienating the viewer by having these songs dubbed with the operatic vocal talents of Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. I can’t help but feel these songs would be more memorable, more gut-punchingly real if sung by the souls that play each character; the opera dub upsets the rhythm of the film.


Carmen Jones is wonderful but deserves to be seen on a huge screen, it loses a sense of this grandeur as a home release yet, regardless, is a gift; even an imperfect one. Its complexities certainly make for an interesting watch and one to unpick. Preminger’s use of space and incisive camerawork means there is a lot of visual charm but it feels muddled, a historical achievement for 1954, absolutely but missing something musically. The imposition of Horne’s vocals disjoints and the differences in pitch, tone and timbre seem, at times, farcical. It did, however, make an icon and Oscar-winner of Dandridge and rightly so, she is incredible in the role, and why CJ should always be hailed as “culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.”[1] 

Carmen Jones is available now on Blu-ray and screened as a part of the BFI’s Black Star season which ran from 17 October – 31 December 2016.

[1] In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress who described it as above.

Retrospective Review

Review: Dances With Wolves (Dir. Kevin Costner, 1990)

The Western can be described as an opportunistic film genre[1], one often utilised as an ideological tool to re-write American history, and Kevin Costner has taken the occasion to create a mediocre revisionist Western fable. A cinematically, epic journey which is, admirably, the actor’s debut in the forum of directing. Costner has clearly taken inspiration from auteur John Ford and this is evident in Dean Semler’s sweeping cinematography of the Western frontier and surrounding landscape. Dances with Wolves[2] was born from an age of political correctness and post-Vietnam sensibilities and can be read as an apology for Westward expansion.[3] This film appears to be about righting wrongs, idealising and romanticising East/West history.


Much like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers[4] following the end of the Civil War, Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) is on a quest to discover or re-cover his identity. The war has left him disillusioned and in search of change whether that be physically, emotionally or geographically. While The Searchers (and many more besides) depicted American racism, Costner attempts to propagate the notion of good and evil in the culture of Red and White, often seen as antinomies[5] of the Western genre – here, Sioux/Pawnee tribe(s) and Dunbar/Union Comrades. Both races are ignorant of difference and fear is driven by an ignorance of the respective worlds in which they reside. Dunbar embraces the tribe and attempts to assimilate into their world, offering his ‘White Man’ wisdom in an exchange of ideas.


Michael Blake’s screenplay based upon his novel of the same name replaces the Comanche Indian with the Sioux tribe and each character performance delivers gravitas not least due to casting. White actors in ‘red face’ of the classical Hollywood era have, thankfully, been replaced with actors of Native American origin and defy stereotypes. Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Wes Studi and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman depict the multi-faceted Native American and attempt to reconcile the ambivalence and ambiguity of the human spirit (something that the more-recently made Twilight Saga[6] has failed to do). They are, however, rarely shot alone within the frame and are often seen in groups; the ‘pack’ to Dunbar’s ‘lone wolf’. The same human ambiguity cannot be said for the female characters within the picture. There are two women who appear within the mise-en-scène, Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal) and the other, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell). The latter is a white woman who has lived with the tribe since childhood and the only female who shares any prominence in the narrative – she is the means by which the two worlds of East and West/Civilisation and Wilderness can communicate effectively. When she is first introduced onscreen, she is in the same place of despair as Dunbar in the film’s opening shot; bloody, alone and without a reason to live.


It comes as little surprise that Dunbar, now named Dances with Wolves, marries Stands with a Fist and by doing do re-enforces the white patriarchal ideology of the American identity. He has been the man caught between two cultures and attempts to birth a new identity – here alluded to by the removal of facial hair and Military dress. He grows his hair, wears Native dress and speaks in Native tongue, yet by marrying the only white woman in the tribe, miscegenation is avoided and the white race can continue to dominant the screen. Dunbar fights shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘his’ tribe in another Civil War, this time Sioux against Pawnee. This is a war he agrees with as the purpose is to make men free and is not ruled by political objectives.

First-time director Costner spends a slow-paced 114 minutes attempting to reproduce a version of the American ancestor, one that descendants can be proud of. One of racial inclusion, of understanding and empathy and yet the exclusion and absence[7] of the African-American race during the time of slavery and Civil War speaks volumes. Although, the subsequent release of films like Django Unchained[8] highlights the role of the African-American cowboy in history – the last film of note to depict a black character in such a film was Unforgiven[9] – there seems to be little room for a multi-ethnic American identity as the pre-dominant patriarchal white ideology still takes precedent and the ‘Frontier Hero’ will always, it would be appear, be white.

[1] French, P. Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, UK: Carnacet Press Ltd [1977] (2005).

[2] Dances With Wolves (1990, dir. Kevin Costner).

[3] Barrett, J. Shooting the Civil War: Cinema, History and American National Identity (London: IB Tauris 2009, p81).

[4] The Searchers (1956, dir. John Ford).

[5] Kitses, J. Horizons West, London: BFI (1969).

[6] The Twilight adaptations have replaced the word Indian with Wolf but still depict Native Americans as angry young men waging war on the ‘White’ (Vampire) man.

[7] Cripps, T. ‘The Absent Presence in American Civil War Films’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol.14, no.4 (1994) p.367

[8] Django Unchained (2012, dir. Quentin Tarantino).

[9] Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood).

Essay Retrospective

The Littlest Rebel

(1935) Dir. David Butler


I critique The Littlest Rebel in relation to the ideological ancestor of the American Civil War on film. This is, for me, one of Shirley Temple’s most memorable performances.

Described by the New York Times in 1935 as “an eventful slice of meringue and quite the most palatable item in which the baby has appeared recently [while continuing] to be the most improbable child.”[1] The Littlest Rebel (David Butler, 1935) is a rather unusual Civil War film as one often thinks of men in boots and beards rather than six year old girls with perfectly formed ringlets and dimples. To utilise a phrase by Will Kaufman, it can be described as a film which “regenders”[2]  the Civil War. Like So Red the Rose (King Vidor, 1935) and Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Rebel initially takes place on a Southern plantation and also has a family at the forefront of its narrative. Mrs (Karen Morley) and Captain Cary (John Boles) idolise their daughter Virginia ‘Virgie’ (Shirley Temple) and the film opens with a dinner party all guests adorned in fine dresses and dinner jackets. It is only upon closer inspection when the camera moves in for a medium shot does the viewer realise that these are children; extremely civilised and polite adolescents uttering ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to their gracious hostess. Virgie is tenacious and independent, sacrificing her own ice-cream in order to ensure that her guests are content and full – she is also white. The Cary’s own slaves, each defined by a stereotype included in Donald Bogle’s pantheon[3]; Uncle Billy (Bill Robinson) is the “Uncle Tom”[4] amiable and protective of his ‘honey-child’ ward. James Henry (Willie Best) is evidently the “Coon”[5], his lack of intelligence and naivety used for comic effect and to incite irritability in Miss Virgie, who at six is his intellectual superior. A secondary character can also be clearly defined as the “Mammy”[6] a robust woman complete with an Aunt Jemima handkerchief around her head.

The news that there have been shots fired at Fort Sumter breaks up the party and sends families back to their homes, Captain Cary must report for duty as rebel scout for the Confederate army and leaves his family. This is a prospect Virgie seemingly relishes as she declares that her “daddy is the best soldier in the whole army”, however, her views change when she realises that her father will be kept away from the plantation for long periods of time. The fighting escalates and the Union army take the Cary land for their own, looting the property under the supervision of Sergeant Dudley (Guinn Williams) who is searching for absent patriarch Cary. Fearing for Virgie’s safety, Uncle Billy hides the little girl away in a secret wall space while the aggressive ‘Yankees’ ransack the house. When Virgie is found she is mistaken for a slave child as she has painted her face and hands with black boot polish in an attempt to conceal her whiteness and remain safe. This ‘blackening’ of Temple’s skin is also repeated in The Little Colonel (David Butler, 1935) when her character recreates a black riverside baptism in a muddy puddle. Lori Merish in her “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics” article states that Temple “purge[s] the cute of its unsettling racial resonances, performing an absorption and domestication of comic styles associated with blackness”[7], a term Richard Dyer describes as “binarism”[8]. She further describes Temple’s temporary ‘blackness’ as “racial hybridisation”[9] which forces the audience to view Temple and Robinson as the visual equivalents of each other. I would disagree; despite concealment beneath mud or boot polish the star persona and ‘whiteness’ is reinforced, there is no ambiguity. Virgie and Uncle Billy are not equivalents of each other but binary opposites: female/male, mature/adolescent, white/black and free/enslaved, a relationship that is described as “safe” by Benshoff and Griffin[10]. Certainly, the two are rarely seen embracing or are physically close with one another and it is Virgie’s relationships with the other male characters that are more compelling. She appears to be somewhat manipulative, particularly, with her affection and happily kisses men on the mouth and climbs into their lap; Virgie lacks no confidence in standing up for her beliefs.


A few weeks (this is a presumed timeframe as the viewer is never aware of days and dates) after her father’s departure, Virgie is playing ‘soldiers’ with a group of slave children and James Henry; leading the way wearing a Confederacy cap while they wear white hats reminiscent of Klu Klux Klan hoods. A Union soldier rides onto the land and the other children run away but Virgie stands her ground and fires a slingshot at Colonel Morrison (Jack Holt), marching in front of him singing ‘Dixie’ and declaring proudly “I’m a Confederate”. The Colonel likes her honesty and finds the ‘little rebel’ amusing. Not long after, following the death of his wife Captain Cary attempts to cross enemy-lines to get his daughter to safety in Richmond and with the assistance of Colonel Morrison he almost makes the journey, unfortunately they are both captured and sentenced to death by firing squad. Virgie comes to the rescue when she is granted an audience with President Lincoln to beg for clemency for the two men she considers her ‘daddies’.

The Littlest Rebel presents itself as a generic hybrid, while it has clear melodramatic indicators not least in the acting styles within the mise-en-scène. Virgie/Temple is often displaying facial expressions of an over-exaggerated nature and, at times, when emphasising her point out tends to pout and put her hands on her hips. When she cries, she has to point out the tears in an effort to reiterate the emotion of the scene, Molly Haskell describes her as the following:

[Virgie’s] flirtatiousness with her daddy [is] outdone, in precociousness, only by the patronizing way in which she [treats] her contemporaries. She [is] not only a little lady, advanced in social etiquette beyond her years, but a little mother, assuming the maternal role with [the] older men [in the movie][11]

Morley’s Mrs Cary delivers a more-understated performance; however, her death allows Virgie to usurp her in the family unit becoming a little mother/housewife and child all the while reinforcing Temple as the star of the show. A non-diegetic score, usually found in the melodrama is seconded to diegetic music in the form of songs sung by Virgie to her father at the film’s conclusion. The musical scene between Virgie and her father also reiterates the North/South dichotomy and in particular the masculine Northerner and the effete Southerner, here personified by Colonel Holt and Captain Cary; their star personas played up to maximum effect; John Boles was a silent star who became a Broadway regular and Jack Holt was a stalwart of the Western genre and favourite of John Ford. This information is not meant to imply that Boles any ‘less masculine’ than Holt, however, Boles’ visage is certainly softer, complete with long eyelashes and dimpled chin, he is often filmed in close up or medium shot and clinched in an embrace with his daughter. Holt on the other hand, much like Rhett Butler, is more stoic with his prominent jaw and monotone drawl.

As with other Civil War melodrama there are ideological messages which are present in Rebel. These suggest that it right to protect your kin – dishonesty is acceptable when for an honourable cause – embrace the beauty in death and show mercy to oppressors. In addition to ideological messages, Jenny Barrett suggests that protagonists within the Civil War melodrama complete three stages: old morality, transformation and new morality with “the civil war thus operat[ing] as a tool for the narrative structure, allowing the moral development of the central characters”[12]. Whether Virgie completes this moral journey is open to conjecture, she starts and ends the film as a six year old, yet in between loses her family home and mother. She is a child who does not know war but learns tolerance of her Northern Oppressors, gains a little independence while trying to save her father’s life and to reiterate Sennwald – an improbable child indeed. Rebel is similar to The Drummer of the 8th (Thomas H. Ince, 1913) in its generic hybridity and child-as-protagonist attempting to reconcile the turmoil of war with family life, however, while Virgie never sees any action (unlike Billy) she knows death.

Historically, The Littlest Rebel was released at Christmas, 1935 to a country in the middle of the Great Depression (1933-1940) two years after the commencement of President Roosevelt’s New Deal[13]. After the release of Rebel Roosevelt made the following statement “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles”[14]. It shows the power of cinema if a film trying to depict the ‘lighter’ side of a war can make an audience forget poverty, mass unemployment and the worst economic crash of the decade. Little change was made to Civil Rights[15] so one has to wonder whether the black community were able to ‘forget their troubles’ by watching their ancestors on screen or whether the ideological white, patriarchal antecedent, evidently celebrated, is nearer to the ‘he’ that Roosevelt is addressing.[16]

Robert Brent Toplin has argued that cinematic history is also a generic category and that an audience is able to recognise the historical genre by the casting of certain actors[17]. However, I would suggest that by default all cinema, by production alone, has a history and to describe ‘cinematic history’ as a generic category is problematic; more viewers are likely to recognise the historical context of films through more obvious indicators like the biopic, war film, Western, etcetera. To think that viewers freely associate actors with a history film in this modern age is somewhat naïve, specifically the actors he uses as examples[18], not to mention highly subjective – one person’s President Roosevelt may be another’s Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)[19]. Shirley Temple is not usually an actress associated with historical films, her oeuvre consists of more generic recognisable labels like the musical, and is not therefore a principal characteristic by Toplin’s theory. The fact that Abraham Lincoln is present within the diegesis would suggest that Rebel is allied, with cinematic history along side the melodrama and musical.


It would be imprudent to accept The Littlest Rebel as an interpretation of historical fact and would be more appropriate to describe it as an interpretation of historical truth. Fort Sumter was, indeed, fired open and is widely regarded as the place where the war began and not, as suggested by this picture as the North attacking the South, nor did the fighting cease after two soldiers are granted clemency as depicted at the film’s conclusion. Certain artistic liberties have been taken as with the majority of motion pictures, just as Toplin freely admits in his thesis[20], not least in the depiction and representation of the African American male(s) featured, however minimally. They are all slaves and not soldiers which history informs us was not the case. Rebel states, quite categorically, within the opening sequences that the cause of the Civil War was the emancipation of slavery, Virgie asks Uncle Billy what a war is and after he tells her about men killing each other he adds, “A white man says that there is a gentleman up North who wants to free the slaves”.

The ‘man’ he refers to is, of course, Abraham Lincoln and I would suggest that it is through his presence that may shape a historical truth certainly surrounding his Presidency and the time of war. This would substantiate Toplin’s statement that “Hollywood’s interpretations of American history can make a significant impact on the public’s thinking about the past[21], Lincoln’s mythology lend itself to The Birth of a Nation, Young Mr Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) and Rebel amongst others. All attempt to depict the sixteenth President of the United States as the father of the nation – specifically in the latter picture where fatherhood is a metaphor heavily relied upon throughout – a man who was a friend of the people, as wholesome as the apple shared and eaten with Virgie (or the pie judged at competition in Young Mr Lincoln). A confidant who shows clemency to a chosen few – the issue of the 620,000 deaths he helped contribute to with his political decisions is rarely commented upon – instead he is martyred on screen and his antebellum memory is romanticised thereby allowing both filmmakers and audiences alike to avoid serious questions about Lincoln’s character and legacy. This is not a man torn by real indecision (peach or apple pie preference not included[22]), as suggested in the letter to Horace Greeley in 1862[23], but a gentleman who exuded confidence and was fair to the Southern people and indifferent to race – he shakes both Virgie and Uncle Billy’s hand without hesitation and it would seem that the mythology of Mr Lincoln informs both the historical truth and interpretations of the past on the present.

The Littlest Rebel attempts to correct the ruin, death and unhappiness[24] of So the Red the Rose and Gone With the Wind with its romanticised innocence, musical melodrama and racist undertones. The film depicts (circa) 1861 as a time of continuing racism and poverty during war. Its production in 1935 (also a time of continuing racism and poverty[25]) suggests that the historical context of production and finished aesthetics add authenticity to the Hollywood version of history. Shirley Temple coquettishly straddles childhood and adulthood like the improbable child described in Sennwald’s 1935 review. She does, however, surrender her active independence to the hegemonic white, patriarch who continues to inform the ideological American ancestor.

[1] Andre Sennwald, New York Times Reviews The Littlest Rebel, 20 December 1935.

[2] Will Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture, UK: Edinburgh University Press (2006) pp92-109.

[3] Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films USA: Continuum (1991).

[4] Ibid. pp4-5

[5] Ibid. pp5-6

[6] Ibid. p6

[7] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics” in Rosemarie garland Thomson (ed) Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, New York: New York University Press (1996) p198.

[8] Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, London & New York: Routledge (1993) p133.

[9] Merish, (1996) p199.

[10] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film:Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, UK: Blackwell Publishing (2004) p81.

[11] Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies 2nd Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987) p123.

[12] Barrett, (2009) p53

[13] Roosevelt created the New Deal and the 3 Rs – relief, reform and recovery in order to bring the USA through the greatest economic crash of the decade.

[14] Shirley Temple, Child Star, New York: McGraw (1988) p59.

[15] Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940, London: Macmillan (1989) p252.

[16] Anne Edwards, Shirley Temple: American Princess, New York: William Morrow (1988) p85 – in 1935 black men were still not treated as equals to the white man and Bill Robinson, reportedly, had to enter by the rear of the studio lot, could not share his meals with white cast members or use the same bathroom facilities.

[17] Toplin, (2002) p14.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jon Voight played Roosevelt in Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001) and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy – two roles which are widely diverse. One would not necessarily associate him with a history picture with these multi-faceted performances.

[20] Toplin, (2002) p59.

[21] Toplin, (2002) p1.

[22] As visual metaphor to depict Lincoln’s ever-changing min over saving the Union or abolishing slavery.

[23] New York Tribune, 22 August 1862.

[24] New York Times review, 1935.

[25] Badger (1989), p3


My Favourites of 2013

It has been a ridiculously brilliant year for film and this list made all the more difficult by trips to FrightFest and LFF but I have stuck (as best I can) to 2013 releases. My favourite film of 2014, so far, is The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) and I implore all to see it when it is out in March. Anyway, I digress, in reverse order the films I have enjoyed most this year.

#13 After Lucia (2012, dir. Michel Franco)

afetr lucia

#12 Lore (2012, dir. Cate Shortland)


#11 Laurence Anyways (2012, dir. Xavier Dolan)


#10 Stoker (2013, dir. Park Chan-wook)


#9 Wadjda (2012, dir. Haifaa al-Mansour)


#8 Simon Killer (2012, dir. Antonio Campos)

simon killer

#7 Beyond the Hills (2012, dir. Cristian Mungiu)


#6 Bullhead (2012, dir. Michaël R. Roskam)


#5 Frances Ha (2012, dir. Noah Baumbach)


#4 Blancanieves (2012, dir. Pablo Berger)


#3 Before Midnight (2013, dir. Richard Linklater)


#2 Big Bad Wolves (2013, dir. Aharon Keshales & Narot Papushado)


#1 La Grande Bellezza (2013, dir. Paolo Sorrentino)


Special mentions:

  • Django Unchained (2013, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
  • Spider Baby (1968, dir. Jack Hill)
  • Grabbers (2012, dir. Jon Wright)
  • I Wish (2011, dir. Koreeda Hirokazu)
  • Forbidden Games (1952, dir. René Clément)
  • The Hunt (2012, dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
  • Only God Forgives (2013, dir. Nicolas Winding-Refn)
  • A Field in England (2013, dir. Ben Wheatley)
  • Lake Mungo (2008, dir, Joel Anderson)
  • The Act of Killing (2013, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
  • Mud (2012, dir. Jeff Nichols)
  • Oslo, 31 August (2011, dir. Joachim Trier)
  • Where Do We Go Now? (2011, dir. Nadine Labaki)
  • Holy Motors (2012, dir. Leos Carax)
  • Blonde Venus (1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  • McCullin (2012, dir. David and Jacqui Morris)
  • What Richard Did (2012, dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
  • The Kings of Summer (2013, dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
  • Head On (2004, dir. Fatih Akin)
  • Bal (2010, dir. Semih Kaplanoğlu)

‘Twas also the year I ‘discovered’ Abbas Kiarostami. The man is, for want of a better word, a genius. I would highly recommend the following:

  • Taste of Cherry (1997)
  • The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
  • Like Someone in Love (2012)
  • Ten (2002)
  • Close Up (1990)
  • A Certified Copy (2010)
  • Shirin (2008)
Article Retrospective

Two Decades on… The Piano (Dir: Jane Campion,1993)

It is hard to believe that Palme d’Or winner The Piano is twenty years old this year, specifically given its timelessness, Michael Nyman’s evocative score (The Promise can be sampled here) and the seductive panoramic allure of a Gothic New Zealand. One which remains mesmerising upon a multitude of re-visits; frozen forever on screen.

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is sold into marriage by her father and sails from Scotland, across rough waters to New Zealand where she and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are to begin a new life in the home of new husband (and father) wealthy landowner, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada is mute and relies upon sign language, a small notebook contained in a locket around her neck and, above all else, her piano and music to speak for her. Alisdair, not only, dismisses the importance of the instrument to his new wife but gives it away to employee George Baines (Harvey Keitel) who, upon hearing Ada play, agrees to sell it back to her one key at a time.


Writer/Director Jane Campion presents events in chronological order, much like a piece of music allowing for this story to have an introduction, middle and resolution. Campion, a filmmaker, with a propensity for engaging feminist interest through a female protagonist, desire and gaze does not disappoint with Ada. One would be forgiven for thinking the character is a product of the oppressive, Victorian society she inhabits, after all she is objectified from the start; sold into marriage, left on a beach much like her piano; her silence often mistaken for obedience. One could argue that this is not the case, Ada exists on the fringes of society; her self-assured identity and sheer wilfulness make her one of the most fascinating characters committed to celluloid. Her austere costume (designed and created by Janet Patterson) functions for and against her femininity (Bruzzi, 1997). These items often restrict her movements yet at other times rescue her from unwanted exposure, pawing male hands or indeed provide a place of shelter; a hoop underskirt is utilised as a makeshift tent in the opening sequences. The bonnet is a symbol of submissiveness but tends to be discarded more often than not.


The piano and Ada are inextricably linked and the bound motif represents her voice, sexuality, passion, mood and freedom; a tool that can be, and is, used against her. Power struggle appears to be the main theme of the film displayed through sexual politics, patriarchy and colonialism. Alisdair is the white settler whose link to the Māori people is Baines, a coloniser who has adapted to the ways of the native (he still has tartan items displayed about his home pertaining to his Scottish roots) but has attempted to assimilate into NZ culture with his clothing, wild hair and Māori tattoos which adorn his nose. These markings add a sexual aggressiveness to his ‘othered’ facade; however, one would argue that it is his whiteness and lack of education which makes him belligerent, specifically in relation to the Māori people in this text. Rather ideologically, they display a naïve innocence which encourages the idea of Pākehā as the savage. Neill and Keitel give outstanding performances as the uptight Stewart and outsider Baines, men who conform and subvert type/expectation as much as the females in the diegesis. It is, however, Holly Hunter’s film. An accomplished pianist, she played all musical pieces and, allegedly, insisted upon communicating through sign language on and off set as the film was made. In fact save for Ada and her ‘mind’s voice’ at the film’s commencement and end, one forgets Hunter can really talk at all.

While The Piano can be described as a Gothic melodrama or Art film, at its narrative heart it depicts a mother-daughter relationship, offers up ideas of the absent father and draws parallels not only with the play within it: Bluebeard (Charles Perrault) but Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) in its portrayal of a female who leaves home and enters a new world dominated by a male figure. It deals with concepts of freedom, affronting destiny, definition of the self, re-birth and the sexual-political appropriation of ambiguities. It showcases the directorial talent of ‘Kiwi’ Campion and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh who insist upon giving the audience a distinctive, sexually provocative spectacle; a sumptuous production which depicts the uneasiness of the New Zealand landscape with authenticity and, even occasional, mirth. The Piano remains a gorgeous and enigmatic masterpiece, one which continues to get better with age.