Hell Hath No Fury: Women Take Brilliant Cinematic Revenge at BAM


Revenge is ladled up hot and cold by the inflamed distaff protagonists in BAMcinématek’s “Vengeance Is Hers” series, yet another ingenious program from the Kings County repertory redoubt. Co-curated by BAM’s Nellie Killian and Light Industry’s Thomas Beard, this invigorating 20-film retrospective (17 features, three shorts) spans genres, continents, and decades. Highlighting work made between the 1940s and the early 2000s, this showcase proves the inexhaustible appeal of female rage, of watching XX intifadists rise up.

Mythology’s most infamous smiting enchantress is, fittingly, played by a 20th-century phenomenon notorious for her own displays of ire (both onstage and off) in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969), starring opera supernova Maria Callas in her only screen role. Though there are long stretches in Pasolini’s abstract, disjunctive adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy in which the star does not utter a sound, Callas’s imperiousness, captured so indelibly via the director’s many profile shots, is pitched at a frequency all its own. But when Medea, who avenges her husband’s betrayal by committing filicide, does erupt, Callas’s ferocity equals the intensity of one million suns (never mind the fact that an Italian voice actress dubbed the diva’s dialogue, then the standard practice of that nation’s cinema). Or, as Wayne Koestenbaum, who introduces the 7 p.m. screening of Medea on February 7, writes of the soprano once known as La Divina in The Queen’s Throat, his indispensable book on opera: “I adore Callas because she so frequently expresses fury — a wrath that is its own reward and its own argument, that seeks no external justification, that makes no claim beyond the pleasure of drive, of emotion, of expressing why I have been wronged.”

The shape-shifting wraiths — Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, Shige (Kiwako Taichi) — in Kaneto Shindô’s chimerical monochrome marvel Kuroneko (1968) vow “to kill samurai and drink their blood,” retribution for their rape and murder by a dozen-plus warriors in the opening scene. Infused with feline traits and powers, these balletic, ghost-face killers leap, fly, and somersault through the air, luring the members of Japan’s military nobility to their bamboo lair with promises of sake before they savage their victims’ throats like lavishly kimonoed mousers.

In its cross-genre, transglobal approach, “Vengeance Is Hers” creates a vast sorority of avenging angels, an expansive sisterhood of the traveling rants, making it possible for the retaliating sheroes of Pasolini’s and Shindô’s lofty high-art projects to be comrades in arms with the lady legends of grindhouse cinema. Specializing in the lurid, American International Pictures was the distributor of two of the pulpiest pleasures in the BAM program: Black Sunday (1960), starring Barbara Steele and directed by gothic-horror maestro Mario Bava (in his narrative-feature debut), and Coffy (1973), Pam Grier’s first blaxploitation triumph and the third of four films she’d make with low-budget auteur Jack Hill. Steele, whose dark, wide-set, saucer eyes suggest fathomless pools of odium, takes on a double-duty role: She plays both a sorceress named Asa, sentenced to burn at the stake in 17th-century Moldavia for practicing the dark arts, and her spitting-image descendant, Katia, whose body her Satan-worshipping forebear aims to possess in a revenge plot that also involves wiping out all of her distant relative’s family. “You shall enjoy a beautiful life of evil and hate in me!” the witchy Asa tells her wholesome scion — an impassioned declaration that chimes nicely with the one uttered by Grier’s vigilante nurse, out to destroy the fiends who made her little sister a smack addict: “This is the end of your rotten life, you motherfuckin’ dope pusher!” (Any line delivered by Grier in the films she made between 1971 and 1975 could serve as a battle cry for the BAM series.)

Viewed from our corporate-crushed, “lean in,” precariat moment, Colin Higgins’s office comedy Nine to Five (1980) today thrills as radical-feminist agitprop. Lifting themselves — and their co-workers — out of the pink-collar ghetto, the three fed-up employees at Consolidated Companies, Inc., played by Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, both usher in flex-time and on-site day care and abolish the time clock. What made these revolutionary acts possible? Their pig boss (Dabney Coleman), whom they’ve imprisoned in his bedroom, shackling him to s/m paraphernalia, wasn’t around to say no.

The clickety-clack of a typewriter — the dominant percussive rhythm in Higgins’s film (and a minor one in Parton’s title song) — also sets the tempo in Carole Roussopoulos and Delphine Seyrig’s S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1976), a short, potent tribute to Valerie Solanas’s enduring anarcho-socialist, misandrist tract. They honor the text simply by speaking it aloud: Seyrig (appearing here one year after her titanically minimalist performance in Chantal Akerman’s epoch-defining Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, also in the series) impassively dictates, in her husky, inimitable voice, an excerpt from the 1967 diatribe as Roussopoulos dutifully transcribes, tapping away. “[T]here remains to civic-minded females, responsible females, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex,” Seyrig reads. The last item on Solanas’s agenda is realized many times over in this kicky, kinetic show.

credit: 20th Century-Fox/Photofest

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