In the 1940s and ’50s, in what is considered by many to be the “golden age” of the film industry, few women were working behind the scenes. They could be seen on screen, usually portraying polarized female stereotypes: the virgin and the whore, the good girl and the villain, the love interest and the mother. Behind-the-scenes positions for women virtually disappeared after WWII, coinciding with the societal shift to focus on the nuclear family and feminine ideals. Any role that did exist were always given to white women — women of colour, if they appeared on screen, were generally only given roles that either cast them as servants or fetishized them. That’s an issue that’s still being addressed today. When it comes to contemporary female directors, we are finally seeing support and recognition for their works, but we are only still at the very beginning.
It was the same in the 1940s as it is now: in order to see the stories they want to see, women needed to make the movies themselves.
Ida Lupino did just this. In the 1940s, she was a big ticket actress, working alongside high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart. She was top-billed, talented, and beautiful, but she wasn’t finished. She wanted to make movies. While on the set, she would watch the directors and the camera operators and learn from them, probably one of the best education a young filmmaker could ever get. While she was always a student of film, Lupino didn’t get a chance to direct until she sat in for director Elmer Clifton for the 1949 film Not Wanted when Clifton fell ill. Lupino was not credited, but it was her first unofficial project.
In 1950 she opened her own production company with her husband, Collier Young. There, she wrote, directed, and distributed a number of films without studio backing and without famous actors. These were films with strong female characters, complicated women, women on the outside of society. Her topics were controversial for the time — sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and mental health to name a few —, and even now, despite more open dialogues on these topics, the stories Lupino told and the films she created are still very relevant.
“She’s a humanist,” says Anne Morra, Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “She doesn’t pack her films with known movie stars, so the audience has a character without a story attached to them. Her films could be documentaries.”
In her official directional debut, Never Fear, the subjects are professional dancers and lovers with Carol and Guy at its center. Carol contracts polio and loses the ability to dance, causing feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. In Outrage, Lupino tackles sexual assault, depicting a violent attack on a young woman and the subsequent emotional fallout and police investigation.
These are topics that big production companies would never touch since the box office payoff would have been minimal at best. Who would want to see such terrible and unromantic things? Generally, films at the time were much more formulaic, falling under romance or crime. Think of the noir thrillers from the 1940s and the romantic comedies of the 1950s. The main characters are cool, competent men and the women are seductive, soft speaking side pieces. Lupino’s realistic, female-driven narratives were hardly what audiences at the time were used to consuming.
“She’s quite avant-garde in her role,” says Morra. “She learned from other directors but it’s important not to compare her because her works are very unique.”
Despite not fitting in with her contemporaries, Lupino’s works have staying power. This month, TIFF is hosting Lupino’s first-ever retrospective, showing a restored selection of her works as a director and an actress. Morra, who has done extensive research on Lupino, introduced the screening of Never Fear last Wednesday at the Bell Lightbox. The retrospective celebrates Lupino as both a pioneer for women on screen and in independent filmmaking.
“I hope [viewers] take away the idea of Ida as a revolutionary filmmaker. She was a woman working without a blueprint,” says Morra. “I hope they’re able to rediscover her or discover her for the first time.”
As someone who wasn’t very familiar with Lupino, I discovered her for the first time through Outrage, a movie that tore me up emotionally but impressed me with how it handled a story of sexual assault, arguably better, despite some religious overtones, than some television shows aim to depict it now. I was surprised by it, shocked by it, and thrilled to have discovered such a strong point of view from a female director. We now have many more female perspectives. We have Ava DuVernay, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent, and Kathryn Bigelow, all talented filmmakers with distinct perspectives and styles. It doesn’t make sense to compare them with one another, just as it doesn’t make sense to compare them with Lupino, who worked in a very different time and industry. What cannot be denied is Lupino’s effect on cinema, her legacy of a phenomenal body of work and the ground she broke in her time.
As Morra put it, “She’s someone who deserves to be seen.”
Tickets to Ida Lupino’s retrospective can be found here. The retrospective runs through September 2nd. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
There are things we can always expect from TIFF: celebrity sightings, the shut down of King St W, the madness of rush tickets, and, of course, movies spanning across every genre.
At the opening press conference for the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2017 edition, Piers Handling, CEO and Director of TIFF, and Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director, introduced the first batch of films in what promises to be a “tighter, more focused” line up. That could mean any number of things. Will the lineup feature fewer international films? Will there be fewer films from independent production companies?
In the midst of these speculations, we should note that TIFF is still one of the largest film festivals in the world. It’s a period of madly dashing between theatres to catch as many films as humanly possible. Last year’s festival showed 68 films in ten days.
A festival of this scale has no excuse for not having a diverse lineup. Past years have shown a decent amount of international releases, and this year is no exception. Of the films announced so far countries of origin include France, Italy, the United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Chile, and, of course, Canada. The overwhelming majority so far does go to American films, which was the case last year, with Canadian or international premieres of much-hyped big-studio movies with whispers of Oscar nominations trailing in their wake.
While premiering these films in Canada is exciting — and in Toronto we love to be on top of those premieres — these are films that will be widely distributed come Fall and Winter, and they come from a large budget with an impressive studio backing. International distribution is one matter, but my hope is when the full list is revealed, we will see a few more independent productions.
We still have a few holes left in the programming of this year’s festival, but what we do have so far is a good indication as to what we can expect from TIFF’s 42nd year.
The opening film for the festival is the world premiere of Janus Metz’s tennis biopic Borg/McEnroe. This announcement came roughly a week after the first press conference, and the film is an interesting choice, given that another tennis biopic, Battle of the Sexes, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, will be showing as a part of the Special Presentations. There were speculations that Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 would kick off the festival, but clearly we’ve gone in a different direction that has no Canadian connection or box-office-breaking leads.
The closing night film of the Gala presentations this year is Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s C’est la vie! Nakache and Toledano were the directing duo behind the wonderful 2011 film Les Intouchables, so they will be greeted in Canada with high expectations. The opener of the Special Presentations is Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. This is an already buzzed-about pick as Gerwig has established herself as a strong, young presence in acting and writing. Closing the Special Presentations will be Egyptian director Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, about an Islamic cleric whose childhood hero is Michael Jackson. It will be the world premiere of Salama’s film.
The roster so far also includes George Clooney’s directorial debut, Suburbicon,and Angelina Jolie’sFirst They Killed My Father. Jolie was also part of the production team on The Breadwinner, a multinational production directed by Nora Twomey, which is the only animation announced for the festival so far.
Piers Handling had suggested in an off-the-cuff way that one of the themes of this year’s festival could be survival, with films such as David Gordon Green’sStronger,Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us, Andy Serkis’ Breatheand Longtime Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s documentary on The Tragically Hip’s last tour. These are films where the notion of survival is made literal. There are physical obstacles in the way of the protagonists, some that they can overcome and some they may not be able to.
Some of the other films, Disobedience(Sebastián Lelio), The Hungry (Bornilla Chatterjee), Woman Walks Ahead (Susanna White), and The Square(Ruben Östlund, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the film earlier this year) features stories of outliers, revised histories, or social satire — very different ideas, but ones that are in line with our current cultural appetite and ways of thinking given recent events happening in around the world.
While I have my own wishes for the next slate of announcements, we do know that, despite having a reportedly smaller list of titles, TIFF 2017 will continue to be a showing place for hyped American movies and international gems waiting to be greeted with open arms by a North American audience.
The full list of documentaries, short titles, and first slate of feature films can be found here.
At the height of summer, during the longest and hottest days, we need some stimuli for the eyes and the mind — something to take you away from the melting streets and into other worlds, those of minimalism and absurdism, of different identities and migration. All of this and more can be found in our art picks for the month of August.
MINIMAL(IST) EFFORTS (JULY 15TH—AUGUST 26TH)
Minimalism is an art form that is something that is both endlessly pleasing and frustrating.
Minimalism endlessly pleases and frustrates. It’s difficult for some to see minimalism as art — to see it as a response to outlandishness and as something complex in its simplicity. There should be no question as to why this is a movement that stuck around from the 1960s. The Angell Gallery aims to put a contemporary Canadian lens on the subject — their summer show features works by Simon Belleau, Neil Harrison, Jean-Francois Lauda and Robert Taite.
TAU LEWIS & CURTIS SANTIAGO (JULY 20TH—AUGUST 26TH)
Toronto-born artists Tau Lewis and Curtis Santiago’s joint show at the Cooper Cole this month is titled Through the People We Are Looking at Ourselves. The phrase is intriguing, and the exhibition it describes is even more so. The combination of Lewis’s incredible sculptures and Santiago’s evocative paintings is staggering, and with themes of identity and diaspora woven into the exhibition, it can be nothing less than a memorable and enriching experience.
The last installation in Roadside Attractions’s front window before the shop relocates to the east coast is a piece by Dan Nuttall that responds to the controversy facing the new proposed sex education curriculum in Ontario. Nuttall’s “Stilled Live With Curriculum” is a little disturbing, a little ridiculous, and very interesting. Since the installation will be in the front window, there’s no excuse not to pop by Roadside Attractions to check out Nuttall’s piece.
SEAN WAINSTEIM & LEJB PILANSKI (AUGUST 2ND—AUGUST 5TH)
Lejb Pilanski, a 97-year-old Jewish refugee, assembled a variety of objects he has repurposed as art pieces. Pilanski’s grandson Sean Wainsteim has curated his grandfather’s pieces to be placed alongside documents recounting Pilanski’s journey from Eastern Europe to Canada. Showing at the Red Head Gallery, ZEI GEZUNT // KEEP WELL is an exhibition filled with unique objects and artwork, but it also speaks to a greater experience of ingenuity and discovery shared by immigrants across time.
James Michael Yeboah’s When Black Boys Cry is an honest and open examination of stereotypes, toxic ideals of hyper masculinity and stoicism imposed on black men. Yeboah’s show at Magic Pony is meant “for black folx to come together and be unapolegetically vulnerable and, of course unapologetically black” in. Though the show has a focused audience in mind, the beauty and overall impact of the painting is something that can be appreciated by all.
The first time I went on Julia Monson’s Instagram to look at her work, I laughed out loud. It was a picture of a drone that did it, one that had “send nudes” written on the side. I just about lost in on a streetcar.
Monson’s work is unexpected. It’s light but can easily be deconstructed as commentary on today’s society. Monson’s colour palette is pretty and feminine but the humour is dry and crude. I was so enamoured with her illustrations that I was excited to pick her brain for an afternoon, a task made easier by Monson’s open and lighthearted disposition.
We sat down in her studio, tucked in the back of her Toronto apartment, to talk creativity, Instagram, and fidget spinners.
Natasha Grodzinski: Thank you so much for inviting me into your space! To start off, tell me about your artistic background — did you study it in school? Was it always a passion you had?
Julia Monson: I went to OCAD for criticism and curatorial, which is far form what I’m doing now. I’m not curating and I’m not in criticism [laughs]. But that’s fine, at the time I wasn’t ready to fully commit myself to making or creating. I was more interested in a critical aspect. I minored in painting and drawing in my last two years. It took me six years to get out of OCAD. I took a break for a little bit, and it wasn’t until maybe last year that I thought, “I’m just going to illustrate, I’m just going to do that,” and now that’s what I’m doing.
NG: How did that transition come about, to get to illustrating as a job?
JM: I think I’m just a creative person — I like to make things. It was just a feeling, like I need to make something, to put something out into the world that’s mine. I think a lot of my artwork comes from my comedic voice, so I feel like there’s an urge to get that out. I though, I’m not going to be a standup comedian. I can draw, so I guess I can just do both simultaneously.
NG: I noticed that, looking at your work. There’s a level of humour to it, very tongue-in-cheek.
JM: It’s very observational and very personal too. I think that’s always been a way of coping with those urges. You know, I really want to get this out, but I’m not sure the level of seriousness I want to go with it or have attached to it. I’m not going to start a YouTube channel and just rant, but I will for sure draw some funny drawings that I think convey the same message with how I’m feeling.
NG:Do you do a lot of reflections on current society in your work?
JM: Most of it is attached to technology. I really like the iPhone in a lot of my stuff. A lot of it I liked to be attached to Toronto. I don’t know why, maybe because everything that’s personal to me is also form here. I just draw from what I know.
NG: Did you grow up here?
JM: No, I grew up in Hamilton, but I’ve been here for 10 years now. I moved when I came to OCAD. I found an independence here and I’m attached to it. It’s very dear to me.
NG: When you really began working on your illustrations, did you still consider it a hobby or did you think, “This is something I can do.”
JM: I think I’m in that transitional period now. I do waitress on weekends because rent is ridiculous. Unfortunately I can’t be freelance illustrating full-time. There are months where I definitely could have, but it’s the fear of, what if I don’t make enough one month? Or what if I can’t live up to that standard and it takes the fun out of it? A lot of it is doubt, but the dream is that one day I could. Anything to do with art, I’d like to be working in that field. Right now, it’s still a bit slower.
NG: What’s your freelancing experience been like?
JM: It’s been a big learning curve in terms of pricing my work and understanding the value of my time. There are some companies I absolutely love working with like Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Recently I just did a bunch of drawings for them and that was so fun because they approached me in a way that was, “We already love your work and we love your voice.” I’ve also done logo work where I thought, “This is a nightmare. This is nowhere close to what I want. I’m not going to use any of this in my portfolio.” I’ve also learned how to deal with people. That is not something you typically think of when you sell your work. Choosing a client has been a huge moment and learning experience for me.
NG: What’s that process like?
JM: It’s a lot of emails. It’s a lot of, “Hey, I’m thinking this, now I’m thinking this, now we want that.” There have been moments where I’ve had to take a step back, whereI’ve thought I shouldn’t have taken that client. It’s another reason why I don’t mind bartending on weekends, because it means I get to make the art that I want to make.
NG: Let’s talk more about your illustrations. Do you primarily work in watercolours?
JM: It’s gouache that I water down and ink. I should probably get into watercolours but I’m so obsessed with my colour palette right now and I’m a slave to it. I don’t really stray away from it, but I would like to work with water colours soon. I also did a screen printing class about a month ago. That blew my mind and I had so much fun doing it. Working in inks and acrylics is really fun.
NG:So you have a piece of the Venus de Milo that I really like.
NG: And I love how you take essentially millennial stereotypes and make fun of them.
JM: Yeah, I enjoy that. I like to make fun of everything. I don’t want to be taken too seriously and I think that’s reflected in the medium. It’s just paper and colour, ink. These are typically cheap materials and I actually like that.
NG: It’s about keeping that lightness, right?
JM: Exactly! Light is a good word. Just easy and casual, but funny.
NG:In your freelancing experiences have you ever come across a client that’s saying, “We want serious art?”
JM: When it gets a bit more stiff, I get these alarms going off in my head. I don’t know if they’ll let me do me. With Her Majesty’s Pleasure it was great because I think they pushed me more than I pushed them in some moments. They understood my aesthetic and the ell of crudeness I was coming from. I would love to keep doing stuff like what I did for them, that’s a bit more edgy and less conservative.
NG: Are you doing a lot of shows lately?
JM: I did a group show at Northern Contemporary which was a lot of fun.They’re an illustrator gallery and that’s awesome. I met the curator at the Artist Project I did back in March. That was interesting. I don’t know if I’d do it again but it was a cool experience, to have so many other people look at your art. I want to do more shows in the future, I think, because it’s so great to be able to talk about your work with other artists and with any type of viewer. That’s why I think I love Instagram so much. Someone in Turkey or someone in Italy can see my stuff. It’s such a great suppository for my work especially given the nature of my work. It’s this daily feed of nonsense and it’s great. As a graduate of curatorial practices, Instagram is the best thing ever. It just makes so much sense. I really try to hone down on that and use it for my artwork.
NG:Looking on your Instagram, it seems like there is a lot of interest and lots of people you can engage with about your work who you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
JM: And it’s going back to the humour thing, too. Is this working or is it not? Is this funny? It’s so instant, you can get that validating right away, like okay, what I was thinking is funny.
NG: Where do you get your inspiration from? Does it happen instantly on the street, where you see something and think it’s funny and know it‘ll work?
JM: Every time it’s happened I’ve been on the street. Laughs. I’ll take these long walks sometimes. It takes me 40 minutes to walk to work and I don’t do it often, but when I do I’m constantly writing notes in my phone and constantly getting ideas. Most of them start off as captions or they start off with, “Okay, today I saw a girl on her phone walking six dogs.” I did this series one about every girl in Toronto, then trends of fashion and what they’re wearing, what they’re doing. A lot of it has to do with technology. Selfies with an iPad. That’s hilarious. I need to draw it. The fidget spinner, I think it hilarious. I have one at my desk now because I’m trying to think of more ways to incorporate it anatomy drawings. I love observing females, not in a judgemental way, but just to observe. I’ve always admired females.
NG: Toronto’s so big and weird that you can see a lot.
JM: Yeah! In a 40-minute walk I have enough material for the week. Some ideas take longer to manifest. It’ll start out as something small and end up getting bigger. I really enjoy drawing and making fun of the LCBO. I thought of doing this merchandise line based on LCBO apparel, but that’s a small idea that can get bigger.
NG: Love that idea!
JM: It’s so intrinsically Ontario, so specific to the area. It’s something we all deal with. Again, it’s super millennial, kind of personal but also more relatable.
NG: But the millennial humour is relatable. It’s dry, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty dark.
JM: It is dark! It’s getting really dark! I like that. I think we should embrace it. Everything is meme culture or can be explained in emoticons. We’re all mirrors of how we were raised, I guess, and as much as I like to seriously delve into it I also like to make fun of how not serious it is. Anything to do with school debt, or I cant buy a house, you know? These are things we’re all dealing with. It’s the reality of our situation. I think I was also fed this fallacy of, “Do what you want, you can make a career out of it and be happy,” but I don’t think that’s the path everyone was fortunate enough to take. I think I’m feeling that a lot now. I’ve always been creative but I don’t know if it’s something I necessarily need to make money off of — it can be a way of life I stay true to. If money comes along with it, that’s amazing. If I can make a lifestyle of it, that’s another thing. But I don’t think I’m there quite yet.
NG: As you said, you’re transitioning.
JM: I like to think so! I’m still relatively new to it. I’m still learning what works, what doesn’t work. I’m not 100 per-cent on my philosophy for it. It all comes from a personal level right now.
NG: All of your pieces are your babies, but is there one piece you have that really represents your style?
JM: I love the Venus de Milo one with the selfie. I did two still lifes recently and I like the idea that things can describe us. That was really interesting, to juxtapose this still life of my studio. I’m actually more attached to the idea. The way I feel about the drawings is one thing, but the way I think about where they came from and how they transpired is what I’m obsessed with. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular one that makes me say, “That’s me.” They’re all a collection of my thoughts and how I’m feeling.
NG: Like journalling?
JM: For sure. I like to look at it that way and then I’m not too previous with my ideas. This day is happening now, I can work with this idea, then tomorrow there’s another idea.
NG:A real stream of creativity, then.
JM: When you don’t get so previous with them, you just get them out and it keeps you going. It’s kind of lame but there was this quote on Chef’s Table. There was this dude who as amazing. He was killing it in his restaurant and then he went, “I’m leaving to start my own.” The owner said, “If you leave, the dish you made here is going to be ours.” The chef says, “Don’t worry, I’m going to make more.” I thought that was so cool. We can’t be too previous with these ideas or thesespmrts of brilliance. We need to move on. That’s why I love working with paper. They’re just pieces of paper. I get it out of my mind and I’m done. What’s next? It keeps me in a cool frame of mind when I’m walking down the street. I’m not too tied to one focus. I’m constantly moving. I’ve actually never thought of it that way but that is how I work. I’m building my philosophy now.
When we talk about animals in movies, there are usually two images that come to mind: a best friend, like My Dog Skip or Marley and Me, and a dangerous predator à la Jaws. Our fictional images of them reflect our relationships with them. They are our companions or our aggressors. They are our downfall or our victims.
In the case of Okja, they fall into the latter category.
Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a strange fable of animal companionship. Babe but set in a world on the brink of rule by Orwellian-esque conglomerates. But instead of being separate from reality, Okja is based on a premise terribly close to where we find ourselves now: searching for a way to feed a booming population while reducing our carbon footprint on the planet. The solution? Genetically-modified organisms. A multi-national chemical company called Mirando Corporation has created the answer to everyone’s prayers: giant mammals called superpigs that are cute, leave minimal carbon footprint, and will apparently taste delicious once they reach full growth and are harvested for their meat. Coinciding with the announcement of this miracle pig, the Mirando Corporation also beings a ten-year contest, where farmers around the world will raise 23 of the babies to determine one winner as the best superpig.
One farmer in South Korea is given a superpig. The superpig is given the name Okja and grows up with a girl named Mija.
The majority of the movie revolves around Mija’s quest to save Okja from the Mirando Corporation, but along the way Bong delivers so much satire that you could pick and choose where you want to read it. Biting social commentary is a bit a signature for Bong. We also saw it in the fantastic post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer, in which a class system emerges on a train driving non-stop around a frozen earth. In Okja, the first target is companies such as the Mirando Corporation, who create gimmicky campaigns and contests to detract from the harm their company may actually cause. The second target is us, people who cry fear of GMOs but are able to shut down those concerns for delicious, questionably sourced food constantly. The parallels are undeniable, especially since Okja doesn’t take place in a vague future like Snowpiercer does. It is set in today. Literally now, in 2017, and while the conditions Okja is placed in the movie are purposefully manipulated to draw maximum sympathy, the similarities between the conditions in Okja and those within our current factory farming cannot be denied.
We get to know Okja. The huge mammal is, in a word, odd and, in another, adorable. Within the first few minutes of the film you’re able to get over the fact you’re seeing a giant, CGI, hippo-pig hybrid-thing on your small laptop screen. After that, you love her. Okja’sanimation is stunning. Every movement she makes, every twitch and blink, is placed with such precision and detail. It seems as though some of her mannerisms are dog-like, while her eyes express human-like intelligence and emotion. It’s easy to get attached, both to her and Mija, played by the outstanding Seo-Hyun Ahn.
While Okja the animal is marvellous, Seo-Hyun Ahn is the true star of the show. She gives a performance that, in my opinion, is more notable than Tilda Swinton’s turn as the high-strung CEO of Mirando Corporation, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s as a boozy, washed-up nature show host. I could watch a two-hour film of just Mija and Okja in the South Korean mountains without a problem. Bong takes his time in the Korea sequences, making use of the gorgeous landscape. These shots are languid and soft, but as soon as the story moves to Seoul and New York, the cinematography takes on the same frenetic pace as the plot. Bong makes use of everything within a scene: from a young woman taking a selfie while a giant pig is chased through a mall to the employees in a corporate office being totally duplicitous but also blindly faithful. The potential for satire is enormous and Bong gladly delivers.
Okja is a surprising movie in a number of ways. There are shocking moments of violence and cruelty, gleefully dry and dark humour, and a conclusion in which no one turns out to be “the good guys” except Mija and Okja. There is a clear divide between “them” (Mirando) and “us” (Mija and the Animal Liberation Front), but the animal rights activists don’t emerge entirely unscathed either, with moments of hypocrisy, deceit, and self-righteousness within the group. Mija and Okja are the true heroes of the story and to the audience, the most redeemable characters. There’s a possible reading into that, the idea that only animals and children are safe from the inevitable selfishness and violence that plague humanity.
Okja is full of meaning and criticism. It makes judgements on our current ways of life and questions how we got to this point of resource depletion, the ethics of factory farming where animals are put under conditions that are terrible at best. Okja doesn’t offer any answers or solutions, but it makes you think and that in and of itself is an achievement. It’ll entertain you, just like any movie should and needs to in order to be seen. That being said, once you turn on Okja, it’s hard to turn it off, and it’s hard to forget both the giant superpig and everything she represents.