SWEETIE (1989): An intense family portrait from Jane Campion

Sweetie | Featured Screening | Screen Slate
Photo courtesy of Screen Slate

Jane Campion’s Sweetie is named after the mentally ill character of Dawn but the story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the main character, Kay.  Kay, Sweetie’s sister, spends the first half of the film living with the emotional scars of her sister’s mental illness and the second half literally living with her sister Dawn and having her life turned upside down in the process.  Campion does an excellent job of showing the strain this puts on those around Sweetie, Kay in particular.

In the opening scene, we see and hear Kay having a therapy session where she explains her phobia of trees.  She mentions how the roots of the tree in her backyard would burst through the ground leaving cracks in the pavement.  After a beautiful tracking shot of Kay walking down the street, Campion cuts to a close up of Kay’s footsteps on the sidewalk.  We can see Kay’s feet deliberately stepping around the cracks in the pavement, reinforcing what we just heard her saying about her fear of trees and their branches.  Moments later we see Kay at work.  In the cafeteria, Kay’s coworkers gather around to celebrate Lou and Cheryl’s engagement.  As the girl’s look at the diamond ring, one looks toward the camera and asks Kay, “Have you seen Cheryl’s diamond?”  We then cut to a shot of Kay sitting on the other side of the room by herself.  This is an effective shot used by Campion in her other films like the short A Girl’s Own Story.  It shows Kay’s feelings of isolation from those around her.  A subsequent scene where we clearly see Kay’s subjectivity is when she sees Louis’ hair and birthmark forming a “question mark” on his forehead.  This relates right to the previous scenes with the fortune teller who tells Kay that she sees an important man in her future that is offering a deep love and has a “question mark on his face.”  When Kay notices Louis’ hair, they end up in the parking lot kissing and this sets the rest of the narrative in motion.

Kay carries around the scars of her family from the very beginning of the film.  When we are first introduced to Sweetie when she breaks into Kay and Louis’ house, Kay cannot even tell Louis that Sweetie is her sister.  She refers to her as a “friend of mine.”  This immediately creates tension between Kay and Louis, as Kay is unable to handle telling Louis about her family’s history and the problems caused by Sweetie’s mental illness.  Eventually, Kay and Sweetie’s problems become physical after Kay tries to throw Sweetie out of her house and we get to see how disturbed Sweetie really is when she tries to eat Kay’s toy horses.  Immediately following this scene, Campion cuts to a scene of Kay’s mother closing her suitcase and telling Gordon, Kay’s father that she is leaving their home and that they are “separated.”  Gordon, fittingly, is locked inside Sweetie’s room.  He then ends up at Kay’s house and moves in with his two daughters.  With the presence of Sweetie and her father in her new home, it is clear that Kay cannot escape her family’s dark past.  Kay’s father quickly admonishes Kay and tells her that she needs to be more patient with Sweetie but he is in denial of her mental illness.          

Jane Campion effectively uses images and framing to convey the separation and division inside the family by keeping separation between the actors.  By using the entire depth of the frame, Campion places the actors across different plains, which shows that they are disjointed and not connected to each other.  One scene where this is prevalent is when the family, minus Sweetie, is at the ranch.  While on a drive together, Gordon becomes emotional and he stops the car to cry.  Kay, Flo, and Louis all exit the car and walk off a little further down the road.  Gordon is left alone in the car.  Campion then cuts to a wide shot showing each of the actors spread out on different planes on screen.  Flo occupies the immediate foreground while Kay stands slightly behind her off to the right.  Louis stands at the edge of the frame on the left side and in the midground.  The car is in the background and we know that is where Gordon is.  Just before they all left the car Gordon, while crying, says “I just want us all to be together.”  Campion uses the blocking of the actors to remind us that although Gordon wants the family together, without Sweetie, they will never be together.  A similar scene right after this scene when they all return to Kay and Louis’ house and find Sweetie acting like a dog.  When they enter the kitchen and confront Sweetie, Gordon stands in front of Sweetie and tries to console her.  Flo walks out of the room past Kay who occupies the foreground of the scene.  Once again, each member of the family is occupying their own plane of the frame, never on the same plane.  It is an excellent use of blocking to show how this family is being torn apart just like the concrete cracking from the tree roots underneath it.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE (1976): Martha Coolidge and one of the most courageous debuts by a filmmaker

Present Tense: Martha Coolidge
Photo courtesy of Film Comment

Martha Coolidge’s Not A Pretty Picture is maybe more shocking and effective today then it was more than 40 years ago when it was first released.  Sadly the film did not receive widespread attention or accolades when it was initially released but it did catch the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, which led to a huge break for Coolidge.  While Coolidge’s career blossomed after Not A Pretty Picture, one could argue that it is still her most important film.

          This film has a very abstract format, which has been called “Brechtian” because of its use of real time reflection by its cast and crew.  The first half of the film is mostly a narrative drama about a high school girl who is date raped by an older college boy.  While the film resembles an “after school PSA” in its style and acting performance, the subject matter is certainly shocking enough to overcome any average performance by the cast.  When the crew of teenagers arrives at the empty apartment where the film’s most dynamic scene takes place, we follow “Curly” the male lead played by Jim Carrington, and actress Michele Manenti, who plays the fictional version of a 16 year old Martha Coolidge, as they get closer.  Michele, who we see is already uncomfortable being alone at this party, follows Curly through a hole in the wall to a private bedroom.  What follows is a multiple take sequence of Curly forcing himself on Michele and assaulting her.

          The acting of this scene really shines due to its real life intensity from both Curly and Michele.  As each take progresses we can see a change in Curly’s aggressiveness in attacking Michele.  Michele does what is expected of her and although she valiantly resists in the beginning she sadly goes numb and succumbs to Curly’s attack.  Curly, played by Jim Carrington, is clearly more effected by this scene than his co-star Michele, who herself, like Coolidge was also a victim of sexual assault.  After each take Carrington apologizes to Michele and checks to make sure she is not injured as he can feel himself filling with rage and anger while portraying his character’s advances.  The scene is so effective that we even see the camera cut to Martha Coolidge as she watches the action from a distance, her hand over her mouth, and looking very concerned for both of her actor’s.  Coolidge, who between takes was coaching Carrington on how to portray the assault, seems almost shocked and regretful in this shot, thinking that she has produced a performance from her actors that almost matches her own memory of being assaulted.  Carrington is really the one who ends up being regretful as we see in the next segment where the narrative part of the film is interrupted by the documentary discussion between Coolidge and the actors.

          After several takes of the rape scene the actors take a break and have a discussion with Coolidge on the mattress where the rape scene just occurred.  The power and context of this scene was clearly wearing out the participants and that is why I believe it was a brilliant decision for Coolidge to break up the action and check in with her actors.  As we soon find out, Jim Carrington needed it.  As Carrington explains how his shock at the feeling of entitlement by his character Curly, he begins to reveal his own feelings and regrets.  Carrington states that the scene has caused him to look at his own actions and behavior towards women.  While he never assaulted a woman himself, he can see through the lens of this character that men in general need to readjust how they treat women.  It is a fascinating scene to watch Coolidge and Michele Manenti, two victims of sexual assault, having to counsel Jim Carrington and his reaction to portraying the attacker.

          I believe that Martha Coolidge’s style of mixing narrative and documentary for this film was most effective.  I was very impressed that she not only had the courage to tackle such a serious personal issue so early in her career but that she used her filmmaking skills so eloquently in the process.