Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jane Campion's Short Films: Peel, Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story

An Exercise in Discipline: Peel

An Exercise in Discipline: Peel opens Jane Campion's career with a bang. It starts with an echoing tap eventually revealed to be an orange bouncing off a dashboard and proceeding in a series of quick cuts that allow no hint of coherence even as a title card establishes its trio's relation to each other. From there, it only gets stranger, using the vivid color of '80s clothes and the countryside around the stopped car to bring out the dysfunction of the family dynamic exhibited by the father, his son and the boy's aunt. The father chastises the boy for throwing his orange peel out the car window, even stopping to make the kid pick up the pieces along the road. The lad's defiance leads him to run away, but in quiet shame he starts collecting the peel long after getting out of eyesight. The woman, meanwhile, viciously berates the man for making them stop, already peeved that she had to spend the day driving with them when she had other plans.

The only thing clear-cut about this movie is the aforementioned card with its postmodern family tree, but even that triangle is problematic: by folding back in on itself, it lightly suggests incestuous relationship, an theme common to Campion's early work in both literal and psychologically figurative ways. Though one generally refers to the film by its subtitle, it is important to take note of the "Exercise in Discipline" tag. It speaks to the fractured narrative exercise: the man forces discipline upon his son, who then begins to order around the woman having no been conditioned into a harder adult male. But it also hints at the formal rigor of Campion's piece, which features segmenting and fragmenting angles, framing and focal lengths by cinematographer Sally Bongers to deepen the alienation and power dynamics of the family. It's bewildering to think that something so dense and fully formed was a student film, and much less surprising to note that it won the Short Film Palme D'Or at Cannes four years later. This is one of the best modern short films I've seen, and one can see Campion's gift for microcosmic, obsessive yet always playful characterization in its eight short minutes.

Passionless Moments

Continuing the splintered framing and behavioral observation of Peel, Passionless Moments shows how our attention focuses in and out constantly. Repetitive sounds, double-take glances and sudden bursts of memory cause people to randomly meditate and fixate on things they do not particularly care about but try to solve anyway. Campion then adds her focal aestheticism to the mix by messing with focal lengths to demonstrate how one's attention is always settling on one thing at the expense of the other, and that the vacillation between foci is random and, as the title lets on, passionless. Though Campion's next short would firmly align with a feminist perspective, it is this film's presentation of her minute detail as merely a series of shots she finds interesting at the moment until something else catches her eye, demystifying her approach even as she only furthers her mastery of the form. Though it's a step down from the fully contained bewilderment of Peel, Passionless Moments is no less vital in understanding Campion as a filmmaker. In fact, given how much more accessible it is, it mght be a better starting point.

A Girl's Own Story

Jane Campion's work may be less openly confrontational than the work of Catherine Breillat, but I find her style to be far more combative and transgressive, particularly in her early work. Her fragmented, synecdochical framing eventually blossomed into full-on paranoia and schizophrenia in Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, respectively, but A Girl's Own Story, the longest and admittedly weakest of Campion's early films, shows that style being used to dive into the female perspective for the first time. A Girl's Own Story opens with girls looking in a medical book at a drawing of an erect penis, their hands curiously brushing along this 2D representation to get a feel for the material. At last their hands move down along the drawn legs to the bottom of the page, revealing a bit of text that warns "This sight may shock young girls."

But if a penis is shocking to these young women, Campion suggests that is only because of its power over these physically changing girls. From Beatles reenactments that have other girls in a Catholic school shrieking in quasi-homosexual frenzy to a boyfriend who convinces one girl to have unprotected sex (leading to pregnancy) without the two even sharing a kiss, men hold power over these confused and suddenly sexually appealing women. One shot, in a clinic where pregnant teens meet, frames these women under one of those garishly graphic crucifixes, tacitly pointing out the religious root of chauvinism in the Western world. For the first time, a slight surrealism enters Campion's frame, a tone she would carry out in fullest extent in Sweetie: one girl's parents have stopped speaking to each other and use their daughter to pass messages between them, only to have rough sex in front of their children. Later, the father joins the ranks of the other men circling around these women like sharks. Campion doesn't force any of these shots, and for the first time Campion demonstrates her ability to completely bewilder and stun with such subtlety that the cognitive disruption always seems to hit just after the tone switches once more, only widening the confusion.

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