FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: EPISODE 5 – “MIDDLE OF NOWHERE” BY AVA DUVERNAY

Middle Of Nowhere | Official DVD Movie Trailer (HD) - YouTube
photo courtesy of youtube.com

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/MIDDLE-OF-NOWHERE-evqgbh

Ava Duvernay is right now the best female director in the world. In a year that just saw Chloe Zhao become only the second woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director, beating out Emerald Fennell for the prize, it is still Duvernay who stands on top of the mountain. Chloe Zhao’s win for Best Director only underscores the struggle for women and people of color to gain recognition in films. In 2014, Ava Duvernay’s outstanding and powerful film SELMA was nominated for Best Picture while Duvernay was shockingly left off of the list of nominees in the category for Best DIrector. Fortunately, the film MIDDLE OF NOWHERE did give Duvernay the well deserved “Best DIrector” prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is an intense character study of Ruby, a young African-American medical student, played marvelously by Emayatzy Corinealdi, and how she deals with the difficulties of trying to support her incarcerated husband, Derrick. The situation jeopordizes the couple’s future together and without offering any spoilers, Ruby eventually begins a relationship with a new man, Brian, a bus driver played by David Oyelowo. Although the scenes between Ruby and Brian are sweet and tender, Duvernay never lets the movie turn into a sappy romantic story. She keeps the focus more on Ruby and the relationships she has with her sister Rosie and her mother Ruth.

This film is not only directed by a woman but it is about women. Two of the most effective scenes involve on screen, save fo the dinner scene where Ruby’s young nephew is present. Early in the film, Ruby finds out that Derrick is eligible for early parole. Ecstatic, she gets dressed up and takes the 2 hour bus ride to the prison to visit him. On the bus, we see Ruby joking chatting and laughing with a familiar woman. The women share a moment of “girl talk” about their husbands who are both in prison. During the conversation the women are framed in Medium Shots but a few Wide Shots of the bus sprinkled in between shows us that the all of the passengers are women, the same as Ruby, making the long journey to visit the man in their life who is in prison. The scene’s cheerful tone is the perfect set up for the bad news that is waiting for Ruby when she arrives at the prison and sees Derrick.

Towards the end of Act Two, Ruby attends a dinner with her Mother and Sister that quickly spirals into a major family quarrel. Ruby’s Mother, played by an always brilliant Lorraine Touissant, begins lashing out at her daughters. Ruth accuses them of throwing away all of their potential with the mistakes they’ve made and at the same time demanding that they show her more love and affection. For Ruby, this is too much to take, and while she refuses to take the bait and enter into a shouting match with Ruth, Ruby storms out of the room with the realization that it is not too late to take back her own life and follow a path toward happiness, not bitterness.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is an excellent reminder of why Ava Duvernay is the best female director and one of the best directors working in film today. Her virtuosic skill as a writer and director were on full display in this film, which was only her second feature.

WINGS (1966)

Wings (1966) | MUBI
photo courtesy of MUBI

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

EPISODE 3: WINGS

WINGS (1966)

Larisa Shepitko is quite possibly the greatest filmmaker that no one knows about. Born in 1938 in the Soviet Union, Shepitko and her family were deeply affected by World War Two having to face hunger, poverty, and constantly moving to avoid the danger and violence. The War would certainly shape her films, especially her most popular film, The Ascent, which in 1977 won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shepitko had a reputation for pushing herself and her crew very hard, enduring very difficult conditions like the freezing Russian winter in The Ascent, or the sweltering heat that actually melted film stocks on her award winning student film, Heat. Shepitko was a student in Moscow of the legendary Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, even adopting his motto: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” Sadly, this would be prophetic of The Ascent as two years later in 1979, while scouting locations for her next film, Shepitko was killed in a car accident at the age of 41.

Wings, from 1966, is an outstanding, emotional character study of a former Soviet fighter pilot. Nadya, a decorated fighter pilot, now 41 years old and the principal of a vocational college, finds herself struggling to connect with the changing society around her. From the opening scene we see that she is a very well respected, even powerful woman as she commands the men around her at the college. Her appearance is a brilliant move by Shepitko as Nadya is seen in a stiff business suit with very short, cropped hair. She almost appears to be a man even though we do see her having a relationship with a man who works at a museum and we find out that she has a daughter. The film uses classic Russian editing as Shepitko shot several point of view shots of Nadya’s face in close-up with reverse shots of her surroundings. Nadya wanders through the movie almost ghostlike as she really only gets noticed as her former self, “The ace female fighter pilot”, which only adds to the strain that she is facing: how does she move on from the War when it seems to be the only thing that defines her? It also seems to hold back her feminine qualities, as she seems very indifferent to the affections of her museum worker boyfriend, Pavel, as well as her clumsy and awkward interactions with her estranged daughter Tanya. When visiting Tanya and her new husband, Nadya comes off more like the stern “father of the bride” than the doting mother.

The film’s title is exploited with great precision by Shepitko. Breaks in the film come with aerial shots from planes ascending high into the sky and breaking through the clouds. The accompanying opera music adds another level of beauty to these already magnificent black and white shots. It certainly puts the viewer in a position of being not only inside the cockpit but also inside Nadya’s head and feeling, perhaps, the same freedom she felt in the skies as compared to her life as a stern principal.

For me, the most telling scene came when Nadya returns to the air field and visits her old squadron. Towards the end of the film, this is not her first visit to the air field but it will be different than all of the others. Nadya finds an old fighter plane unattended and climbs into the cockpit. Now in the cockpit, Nadya, shot in closeup, the emotions and the memory from the War consumes Nadya. She begins to weep before a group of airmen notice her and give her a ceremonial push around the field. The scene is surprisingly almost identical to the one with Dana Andrews in William Wyler’s, The Best Years of Our Lives, where Fred, a former bomber pilot from World War Two, also facing his own struggle in adapting to post war life back home, finds a graveyard of old Bombers. He climbs into the cockpit and in a brilliant shot by Wyler, is shot from outside the glass bubble. This gives him an the appearance of being captive as he is frozen with emotion, hearing the sounds of War blaring in his head. One cannot miss the irony of how two respected filmmakers from the United States and the Soviet Union chose identical ways to express the pain and sorrow of soldiers returning to normal life after the Second World War.

Wings from 1966 is an outstanding debut from Larisa Shepitko, one of Soviet cinema’s and World cinema’s greatest filmmakers.