On Vengeance is Hers

I suppose most of the films involve a certain triangulation of gender, justice, and moral catastrophe, so there’s a unity of theme. But a crucial question of the series is how can this triangulation find a form within cinema, and the answers are many and varied: the grindhouse vocabulary of Rothman, the durational aesthetics of Akerman, the camp apotheosis of She-Devil, the glamorous screwball of The Lady Eve . . .

An interview with curators Nellie Killian and Thomas Beard

Throughout the month of February, n+1 will run reviews and essays inspired by Vengeance is Hers, a program of female revenge movies running atBAMcinématek from February 7–18. To start off the n+1 symposium, program curators Thomas Beard (Light Industry) and Nellie Killian (BAM) spoke to senior editor Dayna Tortorici about the series.

What inspired Vengeance is Hers?

Thomas Beard: Well, Nellie and I are constantly discussing programming ideas, and when this particular idea came up at a party, the two of us began excitedly drawing up a list of titles in our heads. Though there’s also something of a backstory, related to a different project Nellie had been working on.

Nellie Killian: We’d been talking about international feminist filmmaking of the 1970s—Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman, Valie Export, et al—and Terminal Island director Stephanie Rothman came up. The focus shifted from there. I think starting with the feminist films is what made us queasy about including anything like I Spit on Your Grave.

The series covers many different genres, and at least a few different visions of revenge. Is there a common definition of vengeance that unites the films?

TB: The works don’t share a common definition of revenge, and I think this is an important point. I suppose most of the films involve a certain triangulation of gender, justice, and moral catastrophe, so there’s a unity of theme. But a crucial question of the series is how can this triangulation find a form within cinema, and the answers are many and varied: the grindhouse vocabulary of Rothman, the durational aesthetics of Akerman, the camp apotheosis of She-Devil, the glamorous screwball of The Lady Eve . . .

Some of these films suggest a correlation between political radicalism and violence: the more politically radical, the more violent. At the same time, some of the most violent stuff here is done vigilante-style. In other words, in a way that’s easier to attribute to individual psychology—she’s a madwoman—and to take out of a political context. Do you have thoughts about how any of the films deal with this, especially given the feminist implication—”the personal is political”?

TB: Terminal Island strikes me as one of the more politically interesting films on offer. Rothman began her career working for [B-movie producer] Roger Corman, and this film imagines a not-too-distant future in which the death penalty is outlawed in California and inmates are, as the movie poster puts it, dumped on “Terminal Island” like so much human garbage. The men greatly outnumber the women, and the latter are turned into workhorses and sex slaves until a new female inmate arrives who helps incite an armed rebellion. In the end they whip out their knives, make their own grenades, and effectively do away with the men who had kept them in bondage. The film, then, presents the viewer with a problem (patriarchy) and offers a solution (kill all the men in society oppressing you). And because of the sleazy, genre context that Rothman was working in, she was able to advance a political fantasy that would be unthinkable in a Hollywood movie. One of the few comparable scenarios in cinema that I can call to mind is Carole Roussopoulos’s S.C.U.M., which she made with Delphine Seyrig as a way to publish, via video, Valerie Solanas’s legendary manifesto. We’re showing those two as a double bill.

You picked some quotes from literature and feminist film theory to accompany a great promotional series of illustrations from Nathan Gelgud. Is there one quote in particular you like, or find especially germane, worth reiterating here? 

TB: The Coffy illustration seems especially germane to the concerns of the series, because it takes an iconic and convincing claim of feminist film criticism and complicates it. Nate paired Laura Mulvey’s assertion that “the presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation,” with the image of a voluptuous, shotgun-toting Pam Grier. I feel like it implicitly affirms how spot-on Mulvey was while simultaneously revealing “erotic contemplation” to be potentially more complex and, um, loaded than her essay might suggest.

Illustrations by Nathan Gelgud for BAM

Is there a difference between a “female revenge movie” and a “revenge against men” movie? Or is the latter basically implied in the former?

NK: While the revenge is usually against men, I think there is a difference. In almost every case the women are getting their revenge against people or systems that had power over them, and asserting their own power in the process. One quote that struck a chord with Nate, Thomas and I, but didn’t make it into the final illustrations was “Revenge is a confession of pain.” I think the recognition of pain and injustice, as much as the actual revenge, is what makes these movies so compelling.

There are a lot of guns, obviously, in these movies. What’s your favorite instrument of vengeance in the series? (Telekinesis counts.)

TB: Does Barbara Stanwyck’s evening gown count?

NK: Definitely the full Stanwyck hat-trick—midriff baring formal wear, moderately convincing accents, party crashing, et cetera.

Some of these titles are familiar, some not. What case would you make for revisiting a famous movie in this context—like Carrie or Jeanne Dielman?

TB: There are a few cases to be made. A basic one is that many people haven’t seen these movies, even the famous ones, in an ideal context, which is to say a nice print in a proper cinema with an audience. And I think this isn’t just a purist’s argument. Jeanne Dielman, for instance, is a film about the accumulation of time, the way you experience film time in your own body, and I don’t believe you can really understand the full range of its effects on your TV or laptop. Also, our hope is that the program functions contrapuntally, so that you’re able to consider numerous formal strategies alongside one another; you’re not just seeing Carrie again, you’re seeing it relative to, say, Mario Bava [Black Sunday] or Kaneto Shindô [Kuroneko].

Anything included here that you think is criminally underseen or underappreciated?

NK: It’s hard to pick just one! It’s all very relative—more people have probably seem Nine to Five than Jeanne Dielman, but I think the former is probably less appreciated in this specific context.

See the full schedule at BAMCinématek. 

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