Category Archives: Feature Film

Born in Flames

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 90 min

Born in Flames cover

Born in Flames takes place in a slightly different version of New York City than we know today. The movie takes place in a New York City supposedly under a new socialist government, where all the problems that a diverse population usually faces have supposedly been eradicated. The government says that racism is gone, sexism is gone, and inequality is gone… or (when government officials are pressed on the subject) at least much better than they were before the socialist revolution.

However, as one would expect, the truth is a different matter. And as women, (more so in the cases of women of color and alternative sexuality) are harassed in the street, lose their jobs, and are denied promotions that they justly deserve, two women found a revolutionary woman’s organization called the Woman’s Army. These women are Adelaide Norris and her older mentor, Flo Kennedy.

Born in Flames is a movie about the Woman’s Army told through the voices of women who were observers at first, and later, participants in the organization. It is interesting to note that the more the movie progresses, the less the viewer sees of Norris and Kennedy. Born in Flames concentrates more on the discussions and landslide of repercussions induced by these two women, as opposed to the two women themselves. Throughout the movie, the most prominent camera shots involve two pirate radio stations, “Radio Ragazza” and “Phoenix Radio”, as their leaders speak out about the Women’s Army. Also featured in semi important roles are four women magazine editors/journalists, as well as two FBI agents who monitor and later take action against the Women’s Army.

The climax of the movie occurs when Norris returns from Africa where she was attempting to procure arms for the Women’s Army. She is arrested at the airport by the FBI, and imprisoned. In a highly suspicious set of circumstances, Norris is discovered the following morning to have committed suicide. The public is enraged. Besides high jacking a number of local and national television broadcast stations, the Women’s Army places a bomb on the top of the World Trade Center. The movie closes first by showing a reel of Kennedy proclaiming that the Army will not rest until equality is established, and finally with the bomb detonating.

In my opinion, Born in Flames is a classic feminist film, not just because it is about women fighting for equality, but because it does an amazing job simply filming those women. The women the viewer sees on screen are from many different races, economic classes, and various political beliefs, yet none of them are filmed in a more favorable light than the others. The camera is almost perfectly neutral in its gaze, with no special close ups or fragmented shots to alert the audience to certain physical features of a character.

Instead of this neutrality making the movie emotionally or visually dull, it gives the film a striking sense of authenticity. I believe that this authenticity is what leads some to call Born in Flames a mocumentary, for this fictitious film somehow makes itself feels like documented reality. Thus, though the ending of the film is ambiguous and inconclusive, the film’s characters are real, and in the end the viewer can leave the theater believing in their tenacity and hope.

For more information:
New York Times Review

New York Times Biography of Lizzie Borden

An all around Lizzie Borden reference site, complete with details about various articles written by Borden, and the titles of various books/articles about Borden.

Born in Flames movie cover

Le Bonheur (Happiness) (dir. Agnès Varda, 1965)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min

Le Bonheur (Happiness) is an incredibly beautiful, compelling exploration of the meaning of happiness and how to achieve it in modern day society. The film focuses on a happy, handsome, young family of four. It opens on a scene of an idyllic, lazy afternoon in the forest. Surrounded by saturated green, François (Jean-Claude Drouot) and Thérèse (played by Jean-Claude’s real wife Claire Drouot) seem utterly in love with each other and with their two small children (played by the couple’s real children) as they enjoy a day in the countryside. The whole scene is bursting with vivid color, strains of cheerful Mozart, and the utter happiness of the family. The next day François returns to his job as a carpenter while his wife works as a seamstress (while completing successive domestic tasks in a series of shots that surely influenced Jeanne Dielman (1975)). We soon see signs of his selfishness and her complacency: he picks at dinner, insisting he is hungry, while she half-heartedly asks him to wait five minutes until it is finished. However, there are no signs of resentment from either character; both seem incredibly content and in love, happy with each other and their lives.

A few days later, François meets Émilie, an attractive young post office worker. Without hesitation, he begins to have an affair with her. He explains to her that he is very happy at home, and loves his wife and children dearly, but also loves her. Émilie only adds to his happiness and he has no qualms about lying to Therese about his whereabouts when he is with her. However, as the affair continues, Émilie approaches François about her discomfort in thinking about him with his wife. He replies that had he met Émilie first, he would be living with her. But he can’t help that Thérèse came first and that he loves her. He has enough joy for the two of them, he assures Émilie.

Eventually, Thérèse asks François why he is especially happy lately at another country outing. He explains that “more happiness” is making him happier. As she probes him for more (“You wouldn’t understand, he initially tells her), he finally admits to the affair. Thérèse is first upset, and François repeatedly grabs her face to force her to look at him while he explains his rationale. He is simply happier now, can’t she tell? Hasn’t he been even more loving to her and the children lately? Is it affecting his behavior towards her at all? She finally succumbs and accepts his rationalization. They passionately make love, but when he awakes she is gone. He frantically searches for her until her drowned body washes onto the shore: she committed suicide. François is genuinely heartbroken by her death, but it does not stop him from visiting Émilie once more. She soon takes the place of Thérèse, as evident in the final scene in the forest, identical to the opening except that it is now fall, and one blonde has replaced another.

This film asks some very difficult questions regarding the pursuit of one’s own happiness as a single goal. What makes the film so intriguing is Varda’s own ambiguous feelings on the subject matter. She does not choose a side, and does not condemn any character. All characters, even François, are still likeable by the end, making this a difficult film to judge. However, it is an enjoyable film, entertaining and viscerally beautiful on the surface, and teeming with difficult moral questions beneath.

For further reference:

New York Times Review

Also check out Filming Desire: A Journey Through Women’s Film, in which Varda is interviewed about her practices in filming sexuality from a feminist perspective.

Iron Jawed Angels

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 123 min

Iron Jawed Angels



Based on historical figures and events, Iron Jawed Angels tells the story of Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor), two defiant young activist leaders in the American women’s suffrage movement. The two women break with the traditional suffragist movement and form a more radical faction which uses marches, civil disobedience, and eventually a hunger strike to pursue the ultimate goal of getting Congress to pass a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The film begins as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns meet with the leaders of National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), including Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston), to discuss tactics. NAWSA’s strategy is to focus on obtaining suffrage on a state-by-state basis, whereas the two younger women believe that they should be pushing for the more radical national amendment. While Alice Paul and Lucy Burns are initially allied with NAWSA, their failure to resolve the issue of tactics eventually results in their group’s breaking off from the national organization to form their own party – the National Women’s Party (NWP). Unlike NAWSA, the NWP engages in “radical” tactics that the more conservative NAWSA considers uncivilized and counterproductive to the cause. They endure harsh criticism from NAWSA and the public at large, the peak of which comes when members of the NWP decide to continue an ongoing picket of the White House after the United States declares war. This decision ultimately leads to the arrest of the suffragists on bogus charges of “obstructing traffic.” In jail, the suffragists endure harsh conditions and inhumane treatment. Inspired by Alice Paul, they begin a hunger strike in protest. Afraid of martyring Alice Paul, the jail brutally force feeds her and, after the women manage to leak this news outside of the jail, momentum builds for their movement. Ultimately, the women are successful in convincing President Woodrow Wilson to endorse women’s suffrage as a “war measure.” Thus, Congress passes the19th Amendment, allowing women to vote. Throughout the film, Alice’s ability to inspire women to act and join in the movement is highlighted. She is portrayed as a strong, commanding woman who perseveres in the face of tremendous adversity and gives up everything in pursuit of her cause. She only falters once, when her friend and fellow suffragist Inez Mulholland (Julia Ormond) dies. Believing she pushed Inez too hard, Alice blames herself and almost loses hope. At this point, Lucy Burns is able to restore her determination, and the two women fight on.A great strength of the film is its focus on the personal connections between characters and the inner struggles of Alice Paul. Thus, it turns what is usually portrayed as dry history into an engaging story. Rather than using a more traditional documentary form, von Garnier uses a compelling narrative, well-known actors, and modern music to capture the viewer’s interest. The net effect is a truly engaging film that brings the energy and excitement of a past movement to modern viewers.

Further Information

Official Website:

Links to Reviews:

IMDB Listing:

Swarthmore Connection:


Adams, Katherine H, and Michael L Keene. Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.Irwin, Inez Haynes. Story of Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party. Fairfax: Denlingers Publishers Ltd, 1977Lunardini, Christine A.. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, 1910-1928 (American Social Experience). New York: iUniverse, 1986.

Notorious Bettie Page, The (Dir: Mary Harron, 2006)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 90 min

Written by Guinevere Turner
Producted by Christine Vachon, Pam Koeffler, Katie Roumel (Killer Films)

Subject headings: pornography; body image; censorship; biography; sexuality; Christianity; costume drama; period drama

Synopsis: “The Notorious Bettie Page” is costume drama that aims to tell the story of the life of postwar pin-up Bettie Page, charting her evolution from Southern salutatorian to salacious star to evangelical Christian. The film opens in a New York City smut store in 1955, as an undercover agent tries (and succeeds) in coaxing the store owner into offering him fetish shots. These shots are the first glimpse we have of Page. The film cuts to Senate hearings on pornography, then to a shot of Page in the lobby, then to Page in church as a young girl. Most of the film is constructed in the form of flashbacks, alternating between Page in the courtroom and Page’s earlier lived experiences. Page is above all a survivor: the film walks us quickly through her childhood and early adulthood: the incestuous relationship between her and her father, her abusive marriage, her flight, a scene in which she is effectively kidnapped and forced to orally service several men, and her subsequent arrival in New York City.

Page’s early life is documented within the first 15 minutes of the film, using a combination of short scenes and montages. The remaining time is devoted to her career as a model. Posing for freelancers, she is portrayed as initiating the move into nude posing—and thoroughly enjoying it. Spending much of her time attending acting class in hopes of a career on stage, Page earns a living on the side by working as a model for fetish photographer Irving Klaw, posing for photos ordered by private customers. As the movie progresses, Page’s poses become increasingly scandalous; meanwhile Irving Klaw comes under increasing legal pressure and finds himself the target of a Senate investigation into pornography. When Klaw’s business is shut down, Page’s work as a model comes to an abrupt halt. A mediocre actress at best, Page is lost—and rediscovers herself at an evening service, born again in Christ. In the last shot featuring Page, we see her fully clothed and preaching scripture in a public park.

Biographically speaking, Harron chooses to focus primarily on the way in which Page comes to understand and perform her sexuality as a woman, both on camera and through her acting. Page’s story is a difficult one, and Harron ably constructs a sympathetic but believable narrative. Page is not presented as an exploited sexual victim nor as a whore; her career as model is treated lightly, even nostalgically—she is portrayed as playfully hamming up the roles. The mood of the film takes its cue from this spirit; political messages (the strongest addressing issues of exploitation, censorship, and feminine identity) are for the most part delivered with subtle humor. And laudably, Harron tries to avoid deviating from Page’s own views when using her character as a mouthpiece for third wave feminist thought—an effort that demonstrates a certain amount of, well, restraint.

Further information:

Official website, “The Notorious Bettie Page.”.

Official website, Bettie Page.

Mary Harron on “The Notorious Bettie Page.” Review (must watch a brief advertisement to access)

IMDB Listing.

title. The Notorious Bettie Page (Dir. Mary Harron, 2006)
name/date. Gwen Snyder, 31 May 2007

login and post/edit with their regular username and the password changeme

Yes (Dir: Sally Potter, 2004)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 100 min



Release Date: September 4, 2004 at the Telluride Film Festival (USA)

Original format: 35 mm film 


Spoken entirely in verse, Yes is about an Irish-American woman (Joan Allen) who is tired of her loveless marriage (with actor Sam Neill) and begins a passionate affair with a Lebanese man (Simon Abkarian). Set in the present day in the UK, the film follows the two lovers as they face the reality of their relationship – and ultimately their differences – in the larger context of the complicated international climate and the relationship between the West and the East. As the story progresses, Potter highlights the cultural divide between the pair, making the longevity of their intense relationship seem impossible – which is emphasized by an explosive and emotional scene where the two discuss what they as individuals represent to the world. The film exhibits an experimental approach as Potter plays with unique camera angels and film speeds that reinforce the moods she tries to create and showcase the beautifully orchestrated cinematography.

While the movie focuses greatly on the couple, it is clear that the film is an opportunity for Potter to work through her thoughts about the current state of international affairs – as the US enters into war in the Middle East – and human nature. The film touches on a multitude of different issues including lies and misperception, the role of women (as mothers, wives, etc.), female body image, and isolation. In addition, throughout the entire film, Potter creatively uses the role of female cleaners who play the role of the Greek chorus as they observe the story as passive and transparent characters. Specifically, the main woman’s housecleaner (Shirley Henderson) provides an ongoing commentary about the dirt that never disappears but is just moved around.

After traveling the globe to Beirut and Havana, Yes ends on a hopeful, yet surreal, note about the potential to overcome great divides.


  • Cultural divides between the West and East (such as religion, money, etc.)
  • Forbidden romance/affair
  • Post-9/11 world
  • Relationships/Interactions
  • Misperception – Lies, miscommunication and “dirt”
  • Iambic pentameter
  • Identity


Resources about the film

  • Lucia, Cynthia. “Saying ‘Yes’ to Taking Risks: an Interview with Sally Potter.” Cineaste 30 (2005): 24-32.
  • Potter, Sally, John Berger, and Pankaj Mishra. Yes: Screenplay and Notes. New York: Newmarket P, 2005.

Resources about post-9/11 film

  • Dixon, Wheeler W., ed. Film and Television After 9/11. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
  • Rich, B. Ruby. “After the Fall: Cinema Studies Post-9/11.” Cinema Journal 43 (2004): 109-116.

The Ballad of Little Jo (Dir: Maggie Greenwald, 1993)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 120 min

Formatting: 35 mm, color

The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993) is a full-length feature film set in the Old West. It does not, however, fit into the stereotype of Western genre films. First of all, the protagonist is a woman, Josephine (Suzy Amis) albeit one who is dressed as a man. After being kicked out by her East Coast family for having an illegitimate child, she heads out west only to find that it is a difficult place for a woman. Subsequently, she disguises herself as a man. The film focuses on women’s roles in the west in several different forms – naive, good girl, experienced wife, and beautiful prostitute. The women that appear throughout the film offer small vignettes of the types of women who lived in the west and the difficulties that they faced. We meet Mary (Heather Graham) an innocent and good young woman who falls for Jo but settles on a man who offers her the ticket out of Ruby City. Mary’s beauty and good nature are her only assets that she can use to escape the run-down mining town. We also meet Ruth Badger (Carrie Snodgrass) a knowledgeable and powerful woman who, although we only see her for a few minutes, shows her knowledge of home cures and her “get it done” attitude. We also find out that she has had eight children and that her husband has cheated on her. She was the stereotypical tough wife of the west, yet also one who dealt with a cheating husband. The character of the prostitute is the final reincarnation of the western woman. Our first vision of her is on a white horse, delicately clad, a romantic and beautiful image. Our last vision of her is riding dejected after being badly beaten by a customer. Our ideas about women’s roles in the west is constantly challenged in this film as we see each woman harshly treated by the Old West, yet also, somehow, surviving.
One of my problems with the film is the fact that Jo as a woman seemed to be completely helpless. The dichotomy between Jo as female and Jo as a male was practically between Jo as child and Jo as adult. Many of the transformation of Jo into a man seemed like a young man’s coming of age story more than a transformation from woman to man. An illustrative example is the scene where Jo faces the wolf that wants to kill his flock. Jo acts afraid, cowering and losing a sheep. She eventually overcomes her fear to become more successful in her male role. Part of me wanted to see a strong Josephine to counterbalance a strong Jo.
As to the enjoyment of watching this movie, the movie is a worthwhile one especially if you are paying careful attention to gender issues throughout the movie; however, the movie can drag at times. The nature of the film asks for a certain quiet, necessary to the setting in the West and to Jo’s life, but also necessary to provide some quiet between the intense scenes of violence and drama. While other films, such as Brokeback Mountain, succeed in this mix of quiet and drama, Jo lacks either the internal tension or, alternatively, the internal quiet necessary to carry these scenes. On the whole, despite its occasional lulls and some faults in Jo’s character, a worthwhile movie for its deconstructing of the Western genre and its explorations of gender.


Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dir: Ulrike Ottinger, 1984)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 150 min

Format: 35mm, color

Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse shows the progress of a media conspiracy led by Frau Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig) to create, corrupt and destroy the ultimate celebrity, Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff). Though Dorian begins as a wealthy man with no occupation but a seemingly endless string of appointments, read to him by his Chinese manservant, Hollywood (Toyo Tanaka), Dr. Mabuse starts Dorian down a more sensational road. At a performance of an opera about the takeover of the Happy Islands (modern: Canary Islands) by Don Luis de la Cerda, Infant of Spain (also played by von Lehndorff), in which Dorian’s onstage counterpart falls in love with the current queen of the Happy Islands, Andamana (Tabea Blumenschein), Dorian falls in love with the actress, who is also named Andamana. Their love forms the basis of the newspaper stories published by Dr. Mabuse’s media conglomerate, as the opera forms the basis of the story of the film. Notably, the narrator of the opera is played by Hollywood and the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who arrives to declare that the Islands must be exploited for all their natural resources despite what Don Luis would prefer, is played by Dr. Mabuse. Scenes from this opera, performed in expansive natural settings, are interspersed with the action of the film, when events replicate those of the opera. Other settings in the film include the Press Ball, in which every surface is covered with newspaper, Dr. Mabuse’s office, lined by televisions covered in barbed wire, with one central television showing the actions of the characters in the room in closeup, and the Underworld, which is actually underground, and looks something like a cross between a sewer (the hallways are formed by large pipes) and a garden (Dorian and Dr. Mabuse eat their dinner off of plates floated to them on the surface of the water in a fountain).

The film’s heavy use of symbolism, both from the opera and elsewhere, makes for a surreal experience. For example, when in a drug-induced trance, Dorian dreams of himself as a child being handed a pig’s head on a leash by a butcher, waking up to discover himself as an adult holding the pig’s head. He stands up and realizes he has been sleeping on a vaguely pig-shaped pile of rocks. This scene is reminiscent of a scene in the opera in which Don Luis de la Cerda goes exploring the “sea of stones” with a pig on a leash as a guide. Moreover, which may not immediately apparent to the viewer, Dorian Gray, the male main character, is played by Veruschka von Lehndorff, a female actress. Some of the otherwise unflattering and/or exotifying images of women and women’s bodies in the film, such as the comedic burlesque show involving full-figured women performing semi-nude ballet on point, their breasts and bellies rippling with every tiny step, and the Siamese twin sex workers whose dance performance for Dorian ends with them stepping down from their fountain-stage to embrace him, are tempered by this awareness of Dorian’s femininity. Andamana’s body becoming an object of the viewer’s gaze, as she performs mostly nude in the opera, is also somewhat changed by the fact that the reverse-shot of the audience consists only of Dr. Mabuse and Dorian, both actresses.

I believe the fact that Dorian is played by a woman is what prompts many sources to cite this film as a gay/lesbian film, but I would be cautious in that respect. Though there are scenes of gay men and lesbians in the Underworld, including a dance/knife fight/love scene between two male sailors (with mustaches), these are subordinate elements to the theme of performance and presentation in the film. The use of the opera throughout reminds the viewer that it is not only Andamana who is an actress. All the characters play staged roles, in the world of the opera, in the “real world,” as pieces of the media story of Dorian Gray, and in the world of the movie, as players for the benefit of the viewer. Only Dr. Mabuse cannot be seen on film, as a negative of an accidental photograph taken of her becomes an important problem for her plan. Those shown on film become objects of the media story, losing control of their own representation, and, in the case of Dorian, their own life.

Though very interesting and visually entertaining, the length of Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse is nearly prohibitive for an in-class showing. However, its visual elements and low-key yet metaphoric storytelling method as well as its direct exploration of the role of the media make Dorian Gray a useful resource for film and media studies classes, as well as any class dealing with film representations or new adaptations of literature. Moreover, since many scenes in the film are interesting enough on their own, removed from their narrative context, segments of the film may be used in class.

Internet Resources:

An anonymous Internet essay about the film that seems nevertheless to be sound:

A photo of Dorian Gray holding a newspaper with the headline “Dorian Gray Dead”:

Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse on IMDb:

On Tripod

Rickets, Laurence A. “My Last Interview With Ulricke Ottinger: On Southeast Passage and Beyond.” Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, ed. Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Seiglohr, Ulrike. “Women Film-Makers, the Avant Garde and the Case of Ulrike Ottinger.” The German Cinema Book, ed. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter and Deniz Göktürk. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Other Films by Ulrike Ottinger on Tripod:

Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Ticket of no return), New York, Women Make Movies, 1979

Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia, New York: Women Make Movies, 1989 (VHS)

Madame X, eine absolute herrscherin, New York: Women Make Movies, 2000 (VHS)