film

This is a Man’s World? The Characterisation of Women in Relation to the Presence of Men in Woody Allen’s ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.’

Woody Allen is a man of extreme controversy and his cinema is no different. With his name constantly in and out of the headlines, his familial issues and intricacies on display for the world to see, and his somewhat unconventional relationship with his adoptive daughter, the inner-workings of Allen’s mind make for some pretty interesting films.

Whilst his actions and opinions might not align with my own personal view points, I am a huge fan of his earlier works, namely ‘Annie Hall’ (1977), ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ (1993) and, more recently, ‘Whatever Works’ (2009).  As time has progressed, Allen’s cinema seems to emit more and more taboo and unconventional ideologies, which gives the audience ample opportunity for analysis and speculation. With this in mind, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I decided to indulge myself in one of Allen’s films that I hadn’t yet seen, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ (2008). Being irrevocably in love with Spain and Iberian culture, as a Spanish speaker, and as a huge fan of Javier Bardem, particularly after seeing Aranoa’s ‘Los Lunes al Sol’ (2002), how could I not spend a Sunday afternoon in Barcelona with the likes of Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson?

I want to focus this article on the anti-feminist symbologies created by Allen in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ and make no mistake, there are plenty. Namely I aim to focus on the characterisation of the female protagonists and their storylines based on the presence of the male characters, namely Juan Antonio and Doug. Nevertheless, I don’t wish to critique the cinematography of the film. The warm filter that washes over every scene to transcend a hot, lazy day in mid-August Barcelona, the interjections of Spanish, particularly from Maria Elena to add that extra tinge of authenticity and the entanglement of three, even four protagonists to eventually form a love affair typical of romantic comedies from Hollywood. All the elements exist to make this film worthy of Saturday night viewing with your best friends, a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn. However, these elements are superficial, and once you delve beneath the surface of these peripheral elements, Allen transcends a lot more than just Summer sun and sexual dalliances between an American tourist and a Spaniard.

To begin, and seemingly the first and most obvious cinematic technique that Allen employs which ultimately derails any feminist values or feminist theory being portrayed in the film, is his use of dialogue and narration. The way he uses these techniques construct rigid character types for the two female protagonists in the film, and Maria Elena (Cruz) when her character is introduced later on in the film, which are ultimately unbreakable and suggest the existence of these very characters depends only on the existence of male characters within the film.

Beginning with Vicky and Cristina, the narrator from the offset opens the dialogue for the rigid characters types to take their comfortable place within the plot.

Vicky is described as completing her Masters degree in Catalan Identity, a positive element to her character being that she is seemingly a well educated woman, right? Wrong. The narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) moves on to explain to the audience how Vicky ‘was grounded and realistic.’ Two respectable adjectives to describe her personality, however he explains how Vicky ‘had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment.’ Thus Vicky is not grounded and realistic due to her academic ambitions nor the career they may lead to, but due to her choice in man, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’’s first nod toward women’s character traits and elements of identity being dependent on a man. This is ultimately continued in the latter half of the film through the introduction of both Vicky’s fiancee and later husband Doug and her classmate who she decidedly goes out on a date with, both of which are intertwined with her grappling desire for Juan Antonio; her storyline only continues due to her involvement with the male characters which, arguably, is the only element of the plot line which delegates any substance at all to Vicky as a protagonist of the film.

On the other hand, Allen does not so much as attribute a Masters in the Arts to Cristina, in fact in attributes nothing more than her fixation on men and relationships. The narrator describes how Cristina had spent sixth months writing and directing a film about love, but dismisses this quickly in describing how she hated it in the end, and then informs the audience that she ‘had just broken up with yet another boyfriend and longed for a change of scenery.’ There isn’t much hope for our two female protagonists, right? Once again, Allen constructs a female character around the premise of men and relationships and ultimately, portrays Cristina as a hopeless romantic, and quite literally, hopeless: throughout the rest of the narrative, Cristina is flighty, unsure of herself and ultimately lacking in any depth that could drive the plot line forward.

Maria Elena presents a different character type, nevertheless still completely driven, arguably the most out of all three of the characters, by male presence. The first time the audience is introduced to Maria Elena is when Juan Antonio receives a call that she is in the hospital after harming herself, and when we eventually come face-to-face with her, she is erratic, emotional and arguably mentally unwell. Dialogue, as with the other two characters, becomes increasingly important in that the first things we hear Maria Elena discuss are the flaws in her relationship with Juan Antonio and the way in which he affected her. This frames Juan Antonio and their toxic relationship as perhaps being to blame for her poor mental wellbeing, and as Allen frames her, her craziness. Her crazy and erratic nature (Allen frames as being caused by Juan Antonio and their relationship), is what embodies Maria Elena and is arguably the only element of substance, as I keep referring to it, that Maria Elena has in the story. Thus, once more, a female character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is portrayed as having a plot line dependent on the existence and actions of a man. 

Secondly, a cinematic approach that Allen continues to use and manipulate throughout ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is the strategic use of costume and framing in relation to the female characters. Once again sequencing Vicky, Cristina and Maria Elena, Allen continues to embody the women with their rigid character types through careful use of their clothing, the colours of said clothing and the framing of each female within shots predominantly with Juan Antonio.

Vicky, from the outset, wears clothing that could be considered stereotypically ‘sensible,’ arguably even modest. I quote the adjective of ‘sensible’ in inverted commas, because in what world should a woman’s choice of clothing depict her character type or level of value within a cinematic plot line? Unfortunately, as theorised by the likes of Stuart Hall and Roland Barthes, these are the codes and conventions that audiences are conditioned to respond to. Vicky’s covered shoulders and cargo pants/jeans rarely reveal much skin, in contrast to her counterpart Cristina (analysis of which I will delve into shortly), suggesting her mindset to be, as aforementioned, modest and could even suggest a nod toward her loyalty to Doug, though this is largely questioned in the latter of the film due to her dalliances with her classmate and Juan Antonio, also solidifying Allen’s use of the male characters to drive forward Vicky’s storyline. These connotations are further enforced in one particular scene, whereby Vicky is due to meet with Juan Antonio, and the audience observes her making her outfit choice, in the end opting for her usual cargo pants and a modest top. We’re in Oviedo/Barcelona in the Summer, right? Am I mistaken in thinking the heat during a Spanish Summer may leave a woman in cargo pants and shirt wishing to be in Antarctica instead? In all, these costume choices only reenforce the perception that Vicky embodies the respectable woman with only the utmost loyalty to her fiancee, and even her actions may deviate from this character type, the costume remains in place to give us, as an audience, the subtle reminder and reenforcement of this pre-established stereotype.

Cristina reinforces her predetermined character type through costume, too, however as we have already established earlier on, her character type differs a lot to that of Vicky’s. From the outset, Cristina is framed in shots wearing vests, exposing both her chest and her shoulders. You may be thinking, what is wrong with that? We’ve already established the setting of the film; a hot, Spanish summer, so why shouldn’t she wear a vest? Totally, I agree. Women can wear whatever they like, and dress weather appropriately, right? In the context of ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ wrong. In a lot of mid-shots of Cristina, she exposes a lot more cleavage than Vicky, Allen arguably constructing his film in line with Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory which I will make heavier use of later on in this article (what would a feminist theory article in relation to film be without integrating Mulvey’s words of wisdom?). Could it be that Allen makes this costume choice in order to reinforce the flighty elements of Cristina’s character? He attributes not much else to her, which leaves the conscious audience questioning whether her more revealing of outfits is Allen’s attempt at attributing some depth of character to her or whether he is, in fact, constructing a character for the purpose of the Male Gaze. The contrast between Vicky and Cristina with regard to their costume is largely apparent in the scene whereby they first meet Juan Antonio – the restaurant scene. Cristina wears a khaki coloured vest top with exposed chest and shoulders, seductively sipping her wine, whilst Vicky wears her usual shirt and is the more pragmatic of the two when Juan Antonio approaches and states, ‘lets fly to Oviedo.’ Note the costume of Juan Antonio in this scene – his red shirt connoting both danger and passion, and pop of colour against the warm, neutral colours of both the restaurant itself and the girls’ costumes screaming out to the audience that this is the character that will drive forward the plot line.

Maria Elena holds some similarities to Cristina in Allen’s choice of costume, namely in the scene whereby Cristina takes photos of Maria Elena. She wears what seems to be a piece of underwear, similar to that of a babydoll, and like Cristina, shows a lot more skin than Vicky, supporting my previous suggestion that these characters feed into the Male Gaze. However, one particular scene that I’d like to focus on, which I believe embodies Maria Elena’s character and supports my earlier point that her character is based on crazy and erratic personality traits in relation to Juan Antonio and their relationship, is the scene in the garden when Maria Elena returns home. She wears a white gown, white connoting purity and innocence and perhaps even virginity, but the smudged mascara under her eyes, the cigarette in her hand and the conscious stream of abusive Spanish leaving her lips corrupts these connotations, representing the corruption that perhaps her relationship with Juan Antonio has had on her character. Once again, Allen uses costume and particularly colour of costume in this scene, to convey the link between the female personality and plot line and the male characters, in this case Juan Antonio.

Aaah, and then there is that plot element. The one we could not avoid addressing in this article, the plot element that seemingly appeared out of thin air – the relationship between Juan Antonio, Maria Elena and Cristina. Namely the scene in which Cristina and Maria Elena kiss, is the scene which seems to be the most problematic. I have argued that the storylines of the females in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is driven predominantly by the presence of males within the film, however I have also argued with respect to Cristina’s character specifically that she is perhaps constructed with the Male Gaze in mind, and Mulvey’s theory specifically becomes important when considering the kissing scene. There is no developed growth of a relationship per se, nor a logical reasoning as to why the two women decide to become intimate, be that with Juan Antonio involved or not, this scene and particular plot line seems to, as I have already said, come out of nowhere. Thus I would argue that the females, in this scene particularly, and their kiss are sexualised for the purpose of the Male Gaze, their kiss is sexualised and feeds into a male fascination with lesbianism. Perhaps this is a bold claim to make, yet not such a bold one when considering the prior construct of Cristina’s character in particular. Thus whilst it is argued that the plot line and the very existence of the female characters depend on the presence of men, the only scene that is not driven by Juan Antonio or otherwise said-male, is constructed through the lens of the Male Gaze. Perhaps the superficiality of this scene is further solidified in the latter whereby Cristina leaves their polyamorous relationship by stating that she is sure that this isn’t what she wants.

In all, I argue that without the existence of male characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the female characters would have little value in driving any plot forward. Their characterisations are limited to relationships and feelings toward the opposite sex, and any possible achievement they may have or be working for (a Masters degree, producing a video), is either dismissed or portrayed as of lesser importance in comparison to their relationships with men. I’m sure there are critics that could argue that whilst the female protagonists storylines couldn’t progress without the presence of the male protagonist, the same could be said in reverse? You may be correct, what would be Juan Antonio’s plot line be without Maria Elena’s abusive rants and shooting of a gun, or Vicky and Cristina’s arrival in Barcelona, but the difference lies in his establishment of character – his art, his house, his ability to travel to Oviedo on his jet. Without him, the girls never would have made the trip and their summers would likely have passed without incident. So, in the case of ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ this really is a man’s world.

grace-2

culture · thoughts

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books
⌲ 84 Marylebone High St, Marylebone, London W1U 4QW

Daunt Books, Marylebone. Every book lovers dream? I think so. From the interior decor, to the plethora of literature on offer, Daunt Books has every aspect of a perfect bookstore you could ever dream of. Nestled amongst chic boutique stores and eateries on Marylebone High Street, Daunt Books is an independent booksellers selling a variety of books, but with a main focus on travel writing. If Marylebone isn’t the location for you, they also have stores in Holland Park, Hampstead, Cheapside, Chelsea and Belsize Park, but the Marylebone store really is the diamond in the crown jewels.

On entry into the Marylebone store, Daunt Books seems like a standard bookstore: shelves galore and a counter at the front. But walking through the small corridor into the larger of rooms, a literary Narnia exists. Adorned with books wall-to-wall and ceiling high, Daunt’s main features are for sure the ethereal stained glass windows and the overarching balconies that you can walk along, overlooking the oak wood floors and reupholstered armchairs below. Tables scattered around the floor are filled with the current, most popular literature from all around the world, and beside these are brown leather armchairs in which you can sit and peruse the best that Daunt has to offer. The balconies offer not only a view over the store but also more space for books – every book you could imagine is in the store. Coming down from the balconies leads you to a staircase; this one leading to the lower floor. The lower floor is a treasure trove of novels relating to international travel and exploration, sectioned into continents, you can travel around the world by visiting this one room in the store. Tables adorned with vases of flowers, and even more armchairs for reading, this floor is just as charming as the other.

For any book lovers in or around Marylebone, or London in general, Daunt Books is a must-visit. Whether you’re on the hunt for some new reading material or would just like to visit one of the most calming and charming bookstores in London, Daunt Books is the place to go.

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books

Atonement by Ian McEwan

After seeing Joe Wright’s cinematic adaptation of ‘Atonement’ (2007) when I was younger, being a big fan of both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, I was enamoured. The cast, the cinematic landscaping, costume and make-up, the mise-en-scène in general: I thought it was perfection, and arguably this was one of the films that inspired my love for cinema and cinematic adaptations of novels. I noticed recently that it had been uploaded to Netflix and couldn’t help indulging in another watch, it felt strange to watch a young Saoirse Ronan take on the role of Briony after becoming a big fan of hers after seeing more of her recent films such as ‘Brooklyn’ (2015), and was pleased and not at all surprised to see that she was nominated for an Academy Award in the category for Best Supporting Actress. In short, the film is one of my favourites and I would recommend it to anybody interested in historical female subjectivities, British history as a whole or skilful and concentrated use of location and setting as a cinematic technique.

On the contrary, after seeing Wright’s adaptation as an early teen, I had attempted to read Ian McEwan’s novel; inevitably I wanted to draw the contrasts and the similarities and to understand and analyse the book that inspired the cinema. Unfortunately, after around 30 pages, I put the book down. I found it difficult to engage with, I wasn’t lost in 1935 England as I was with the film, the characters inspired no feeling in me and in all, I wasn’t motivated to continue with McEwan’s novel. I largely now attribute this to my age, as an early teen I was engaging in teen literature along with some of the classics, but I’m not sure I could’ve appreciated McEwan’s writing style or understood some of the literary techniques that he employs. Now, as a 23 year old, much more educated woman, I took on the challenge once more of picking up Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, and I did not regret it…

Admittedly, the first 100 pages of the book may have been tougher than the remainder. The book is separated into three parts, and the first one has the slowest version of events. In fact, you almost feel as though nothing of substance has really happened. But when you gain understanding that this is a literary technique employed by McEwan to represent how one small action, that of Briony, can escalate the events of the whole novel, you begin to appreciate the varying speeds of progression within the novel as a whole. Briony’s running away with Robbie’s letter, in which he includes the crude use of the word ‘cunt,’ her latching onto Lola’s insecurity and uncertainty and accusing Robbie of being a ‘maniac,’ leads onto both part two and part three of the book, whereby Robbie is imprisoned, World War II begins and Cecilia becomes a trainee nurse in London, a path which Briony also follows. Thus McEwan, by using varying modes and speeds of progression, represents the escalation of events and creates a book which becomes impossible to put down, even giving a nod toward the theory of The Butterfly Effect.

For me, I became largely attached to the characters. Robbie took on a level of softness in my eyes, I found him to be warm yet stoic and extremely admirable. His story was the one in the novel that I most wanted to follow. Cecelia, for me, is a character of contrasts, of binaries that make up a complex character, yet a character of clarity. Strong willed yet messy, determined and stoic, just like Robbie. Warm, yet cold. One of my favourite parts of the novel is during the first section, whereby Cecelia is dressing for dinner, a dinner which Robbie is due to attend. Her uncertainty regarding her outfit, how she looks, the aura and character which she personifies, this doubtfulness contrasts against the strong willed nature we have previously experienced, especially in her address of Briony and her cousins. As for Briony, I have read many a review stating that by the end of the novel, a certain level of sympathy and understanding for Briony was invoked. Throughout the course of the novel, I only felt a level of disdain and disappointment for Briony, arguably due to my investment in Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship. But it is McEwan’s character development and the complexities within these characters that is created which makes the book so literarily perfect and so beautifully constructed.

However, my favourite part of this novel and yet the most controversial, is the ambiguity of the ending. I have seen many reviews speculating on the the ending – some writers argue that in fact, Robbie died in Dunkirk and Cecelia died in Balham Underground station, and that neither survived the war, as Briony writes in the post-script of the book. Others debate over the fact that in actuality, as depicted in Part Three of the novel, both characters survived the war and went on to live happy lives together after so many years of separation. I couldn’t say that I came to such a definite conclusion, but I think that this is the beauty of the novel – it allows you to make your own judgements on the plot, as it does with the characters, and through this use of ambiguity, McEwan has created a novel that stays with you for not only days, but weeks after putting it down. ‘Atonement’ is now back on my bookshelf, amongst some of my other favourite novels, but I am almost certain that in years to come I will pick it up again and indulge once more. 

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books

The Sun & Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

Toward the end of Rupi Kaur’s second installment of delectable poetry, ‘The Sun and her Flowers,’ she writes, ‘the road to changing the world is never-ending.’ A fitting quote for the book that has undoubtedly touched on some of the most politicised issues affecting the lives and cultures of people all over the planet. A step up from ‘Milk and Honey’, Kaur’s first instalment of poetry of which I wrote about here, ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ has become a staple on my book shelf, and a book I have reached for time and time again. As always, Kaur’s words are both relevant and comforting, and a source of reassurance in testing times. Though this time, her words are politically charged and socially situated in the current climate of social pressures and rape culture. Kaur relates her words to topics such as the refugee crisis, perceived images and expectations of women, sexual abuse and cultural heritage. Nobody can deny the importance of her work in a climate such as the one that we, the society of today, are living in.

After reading ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ over and over, bookmarking the pages that held the most relevance to me, and continuously returning to Kaur’s words, I became as attached to this book as I did with ‘Milk and Honey’, but also curious as to the perception of her work amongst critics. For the most part, Kaur is praised for her attention to detail, social relevance and words that relate so perfectly to the young female generation and the challenges they face. However, existing criticism for both ‘Milk and Honey’ and ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’, most notably from male critics of the older generation, critique Kaur’s writing style: her lack of poetical structure, punctuation and any real pentameter. Of course, Kaur’s work is a far cry from Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it is seemingly a pioneer in revolutionising a genre that is becoming more and more accessible to the youth of today, and further than that, more and more engaging. Kaur tackles polemic struggles of predominantly the female generation through what could be described as a stream of consciousness, thoughts, words spilling onto the page. Unconventional, but in no way should this reduce credibility. Kaur forms a pathway for an ever-emerging genre of poetry, and this should surely be celebrated.

Kaur does make use of a common theme in the poetry genre that has been utilised by the greats over and over again throughout the years from Frost to Wordsworth: nature. Kaur separates her book into chapters titled in relation to the evolution of a flower: ‘Wilting’, ‘Falling’, ‘Rooting’, ‘Rising’, ‘Blooming’. Kaur’s poetry starts with the emotional struggle of grappling with events in her life which have heavily affected her: ‘Wilting’, ‘Falling’. As aforementioned, this emotional struggle is both contemporarily relevant and of utmost importance for many, and the development of her chapters correlates with the development of her recovery, of her overcoming the effects of these events: ‘Rooting’, ‘Rising’, ‘Blooming’. Kaur’s symbolic description of her emotional growth and recovery, becomes a source of inspiration and support for a generation of youth who have continuous impending societal pressure placed upon them. Kaur not only tackles the issues of body image and societal popularity, but also the issues that more and more young women face today, including sexual assault. Kaur shows once again her bravery to face these issues with determination and grit. Her writing is frank, targeted and determined.

‘Wilting’ and ‘Falling’ mark the start of the emotional process depicted in the book. ‘Sun becomes moon and moon becomes sun and I become ghost,’ the line which conveys the ever changing of the days, the continuation of time along with the continuation of sadness. Kaur grapples with herself, conveys the conflicting emotions plaguing her mind and symbolises the internal suffering that most go through during a break-up, during a loss. A concentrated use of nature is present here, one of my favourite lines being ‘I explain how a honeybee does not dream of kissing the mouth of a flower and settle for its leaves.’ However, whilst Kaur describes sadness and struggle, she, too, is empowering, strong and conveys the way in which we should never settle for less than we deserve: ‘if I’m not the one of your life I’ll be the greatest loss instead.’ Kaur foreshadows the emotional growth and strength that she achieves toward the end of ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’. She also presents the issue of societal pressure, of feeling the need to conform: ‘I hear a thousand kind words about me and it makes no difference yet I hear one insult and all confidence shatters,’ a quote which is all too relevant, and something which I myself, as a 23 year old woman, could relate to. In the same chapter, she tackles the issue of sexual violence. The placing side-by-side of the two issues represents the plethora of struggles that women, and people in general, face in today’s society. ‘Home’ is the poem which describes one particular experience of sexual assault. Kaur creates irony through the juxtaposition of both the imagery of sexual violence and the subversion of connotations of the word ‘home,’ a conventional place of comfort and solitude. Through techniques such as this, Kaur takes subjects of a somewhat ‘taboo’ nature, subjects that are both sensitive and scarring, and places them in the everyday, situates them into the norm, into the lives of today’s youth and more broadly, today’s society. She does not shy away, she confronts these issues with full force: expletives and all.

‘Rooting’, ‘Rising’ and ‘Blooming’ mark the evolutionary section of the book. These three chapters are where Kaur grows, in emotion and in strength, where Kaur begins her recovery from her aforementioned trauma. ‘Rooting’ makes reference to Kaur’s immigrant background, both politicizing the book and offering it a place in today’s society, when considering the current refugee crisis and debate in both the UK and the US (used merely as examples) surrounding immigrants, refugees and borders. Kaur writes ‘borders are man-made. They only divide us physically, don’t let them make us turn on each other.’ Her words ring loud and clear in a society divided by prejudice and opinion surrounding the refugee crisis. Rupi Kaur also addresses her own cultural heritage, making reference to the strong female figures in her life, small trinkets of memory that remind her of her childhood, of her roots, her past. It is in this part of the novel that Kaur’s prose becomes personal, and culturally rich. This section of the book is what particularly sets ‘The Sun and her Flowers’ apart from ‘Milk and Honey’. Whilst ‘Milk and Honey’ is emotionally rich, addresses the internal conflict and emotion faced by many in today’s society surrounding the circumstances of break-ups, broken friendships, familial conflict, ‘The Sun and her Flowers’ is much more politically representative of worldwide issues, whilst simultaneously addresses her own, personal culture and heritage. The combination of the two juxtaposed together is wonderful.

In all, and in true Rupi Kaur fashion, the undercurrent of feminism and empowered female strength is what makes ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ stand out for me. Kaur maintains her ‘girl power’ ethos, no matter which issue is being tackled in which section of the book, her feminist undertones are maintained throughout, and this, more than anything, is why I continue to engage with her poetry. She writes, ‘I am busy learning the consequences of womanhood when I should be learning science and math instead,’ an idea which may seem preposterous to some, but is wholly relevant in a world where women are largely underrepresented in industries such as Finance and Engineering. She also describes the way in which we, as women, engage with ‘a trillion dollar industry that would collapse if we believed we were beautiful enough already.’  Once again, addressing the issue of body image and self confidence, alongside the issue of underrepresentation and women’s education, Kaur covers the plethora of issues faced by the women of today. Last but certainly not least, and arguably my favourite element of Kaur’s works, her words are an ever-comforting source of support and inspiration for those who are struggling to deal with or overcome issues in their lives, no matter what those issues could be categorised as. Her words of comfort come as a breath of fresh air in her poetry which deals with heavy, suffocating issues. She reassures the lonely that ‘the irony of loneliness is that we all feel it together at the same time,’ and reminds those who have suffered that ‘here you are living, despite it all.’ And, much like Milk and Honey, Kaur not only reassures but reinstates faith lost through her words, and here is where I will finish, with arguably my favourite quote from the whole book:

‘Like the rainbow after the rain, joy will reveal itself after sorrow.

grace-2

culture

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive
⌲ The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramilles Street, Soho, London, W1F 7LW

During my wanderings on a dreary day in London, I found myself in The Photographer’s Gallery. Being an avid fan of photography and holding a certain fondness for losing myself in a cultural exhibition or two, I had nothing to lose, right?

Despite having never known of Prager prior to visiting The Photographer’s Gallery, I had coincidentally stumbled across Silver Lake Drive: an exhibition chronicling a decade of her work. And what a discovery it was. The spectrum of large-scale works cover two floors of the gallery, a real treat for photography fans alike, colour igniting each frame hanging on the walls of each floor with the audio backdrop of Prager’s short films playing in various corners of the gallery. The experience is almost mystical with the meticulous composition of each individual work drawing the eyes this way and the next.

My introduction to both Prager’s photography and filmography turned my previous knowledge of these particular cultural arts upside down. Her use of colour, costume and retrospective mise-en-scène broke all the codes of conventions I previously had in my mind. Each of her pieces boasts narrative possibility and depth, and seemingly evokes images in the mind reminiscent of the Pop Art era, perhaps inspired by the likes of Warhol or Litchenstein. Her composition and costume most definitely gives a nod to the late 50’s to early 60’s era.

Her subjects, predominantly female, reflect the promise of perfection. Never a curl out of place, lips perfectly lined and delicately pressed pinafore dresses galore, the performative females are a visual picture of almost perfection. However, Prager uses both body language and facial expression to relay an undertone of darkness, unsettling in nature. As Prager has previously stated in interviews, she grew up in LA where visual image takes priority, perfection is the goal in all aspects of life, but behind this perceived perfection often lies a hidden darkness. Her personal analysis of LA’s environment is clearly the influence behind her works, such as Sheryl (Week-End, 2010) and Eve (The Big Valley, 2008), where both subjects, though visually perfect, appear visibly frantic and perhaps even slightly fragile.

While it is true that emotions connoting a ‘damsel in distress’ character type are evident in a portion of her works, don’t be fooled. Prager’s portrayal of rebellious, androgynous women are very much present in her decade of work, too. Take Amy and Michelle (Week-End, 2010) for example, Amy sporting what seems to be a Mia Wallace inspired, black hair cut whilst Michelle injects the colour Prager is renowned for with her fiery red hair. Wearing prints seemingly iconographic of the early 70’s era, perhaps taking a step away from the prim and proper realm of the 50’s/60’s, a common theme in Week-End, Prager migrates from the emotive undercurrent of distress and steps into rebellion as the two light a cigarette with a rather large flame. Defiance, androgyny.

But Prager’s blurring of emotive lines and nostalgic recreations of eras gone by doesn’t end at photography. When asked in interviews what inspired her progression into the art of film, Prager explains the questions asked by her audience – what happened before you took this photograph? What’s the story? Prager makes the point that these questions could be construed as odd, as the audience are aware that the photos are staged: nothing happened prior to the photograph being taken. These questions don’t seem so odd when observing the emotion-filled scenes that these photographs capture – from the low angle close-up shots of the female protagonists, conventional of emotive filled narratives, to the long shots of women hanging from cars or floating in the Pacific: no matter the angle, Prager always manages to display an undercurrent of overwhelming emotion.

That undercurrent of overwhelming emotion transforms into melodrama in her short films. Featuring at The Photographer’s Gallery, Despair (2010) is a great example of this. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World, The Help), her eyes glistening with tears are transcendent of the building danger, evoked by the symbolism of the colour red, in both her Oz-like ruby heels and the pillar box red door she enters before leaping from a top storey window. Enter the paradox: much like her photography, Prager seemingly uses the symbolism of red not only to convey impending danger, doom and the distress of the female protagonists, but perhaps even power. The femme fatale imagery seems to take precedence within the females characterised by despair. Despite their despair, freedom seems always within their grasp. Upon leaping from the window, Howard’s tears seem to disappear and an expression of bewilderment dominates her face: she is free, free of the previous emotion. Perhaps as free as the plane that crosses over her at the beginning, perhaps as free as the bird which passes behind her. This realisation of her floating freedom seems to kiss the edges of her red stained lips, much as the final shot of her ruby slippers suggests: she’s not in Kansas despair, anymore.

Face in the Crowd (2013), Prager’s three screen installation is also screening at the Silver Lake Drive exhibition. Starring Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, Modern Family), and featuring as part of her larger exhibition, Face in the Crowd depicts the disconnect of the people despite being so close in proximity, and presents the paradox of loneliness in a crowded room. Prager skilfully and effectively evokes the flustered and almost claustrophobic feelings of the protagonist in her audience – the three screens creating an overwhelming feeling for the spectator, and as Banks faces onto the audience, her hand resting on the window pane in front of her with a face full of bewilderment and despair, Prager invokes the same feeling of entrapment in her spectators. Whilst Prager’s photography conveys the undercurrent of emotion, her filmography makes way for a certain level of melodrama which demolishes any possible undercurrent and simply makes each short film jam-packed with emotion: despair, entrapment, loneliness, bewilderment, the list is endless. In consequence, Prager invokes those feelings onto her spectators, her short films staying in their minds for the duration of time afterward.

Prager’s success is evergrowing, her photographs featuring in galleries and museums all over the world, Musée des beaux-arts Le Loche (Switzerland), Lehmann Maupin (Hong Kong), FOAM Fotografiemuseum (Amsterdam), the list is endless. A brief Google of her name brings up a plethora of credible works she has done for the likes of W Magazine, Vogue and The New York Times. The future for Alex Prager looks as bright as her protagonists’ lipstick.

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travel

A Few Of My Favourite Things About Madrid

Having spent months living in Madrid during my year abroad, I definitely fell in love with the city. I thought it would be interesting to share a few a favourite of my aspects and places in the city!

  • La Plaza de Cebada, La Latina – I had heard so much about the edginess of Madrid; the youth, the flea markets, the cool cocktail bars etc. La Plaza de Cebada was my first taste of this, having visited the first time on a Sunday, it was full of young people like me. There was live music, cold beers on sale for €1 and really cool graffiti everywhere. It was super chilled, and a really good place to relax on a Sunday afternoon. Take the metro to La Latina and you’ll find it straight away – super cool, ‘edgier’ area.
  • La Bicicleta Café – Malasaña in general is one of my favourite areas of Madrid: home to the best tapas restaurants, cocktail bars and book shops. Having mentioned cocktail bars, La Bicicleta is definitely my favourite in Madrid. My usual order being the red fruits mojito, it’s definitely the best place in Madrid to people watch, drink cocktails and listen to some really good music – a mixture of Spanish and English. It’s usually filled with young people, of all different cultures, and a great place to socialise. There’s usually a long wait for a table/space, being that it is so popular, but it is definitely worth the wait.

  • El Teleférico de Madrid – Having caught the metro to Casa de Campo and walked all the way to the top of the hills to catch the teleférico (cable car) to the city centre (Templo de Debod), I can safely advise you all to not do this. In the heat, and definitely the wrong footwear, I was exhausted by the time I reached the top. But the teleférico was absolutely gorgeous, you could see the whole of Madrid, the views were stunning. I would recommend walking to the the Templo de Debod (you can navigate your way from Plaza de España metro station) and take a return journey to the top of Casa De Campo and back again – the views are incredible.
  • Casa de Campo – Speaking of Casa de Campo, how could I not include this area? Being on the same line as Casa de Campo is amazing, as if I’m ever feeling bored of the city, of business and traffic, it’s easy to escape to the somewhat countryside. Casa de Campo is almost entirely rural, with huge parks and gravel pathways allowing you to wander through the trees and escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Madrid. (I sound like a travel guide, don’t I?) But seriously, it is a super tranquil, calm area to relax. Also, the theme park and zoo of Madrid are at the bottom of the hill in Casa de Campo, so if that’s more your thing, or if you even just have a fondness for nature, this is definitely an area for you.
  • La Azotea del Círculo de Bellas Artes – This was one of the first places I ever visited in Madrid – the rooftop bar at el Círculo de Bellas Artes. We made the effort to visit it at sunset, and though it was extremely busy, it was absolutely stunning to watch the sunset behind the Madrid skyline. It costs €4 to go up, but it is so worth it. A popular spot for sunset watching, there are tables, sun-loungers and comfy corners to relax and watch the skies.
  • Cuatro Torres – maybe this is one of the more boring ones? But I know that when I see the Cuatro Torres, I’m home. Whether that’s coming out of Chamartín train station after a journey to another part of Spain, or landing on the runway in terminal one and just seeing the towers in the distance after a visit to England or Portugal – you know you’re back in Madrid when you see them. The four towers are made up of Torre Espacio, Torre de Cristal, Torre Pwc and Torre Cepsa. They represent the business district, wealth and overall luxuriousness of such an amazing city, and when I see them, I instantly feel at home.
  • La Rosadela de El Retiro – the Retiro in general, is one of my most favourite places in Madrid: it’s beautiful, and there is so much going on. There can be yoga in one corner, live music in another, and even birthday parties going on. But my favourite part of the Retiro (aside from the Palacio de Cristal – a must see!) is La Rosadela: the rose garden. Walking under the archways of roses into the garden thats filled with all the colours of the rainbow in rose form, fountains and lines and lines of flowers is stunning! In a cosmopolitan city that is constantly bustling, visiting the quiet of the rose garden and ambling through at your own pace is refreshing.
  • El Edificio Metrópolis – in English, the Metropolis building, is my favourite building in all of Madrid. It is the first building that stuck in my memory during my first few days of living here, I am so in love with it. You can see a beautiful view of it from La Azotea del Círculo de Bellas Artes which I wrote about earlier in this post. On the corner of Calle de Alcalá and Gran Vía, and inspired by French architecture, it really is one of the most spectacular and famous views in Madrid.

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books

Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur

The first time I wrote about Milk & Honey was in the first ever edition of my Wishlist series, which you can read by clicking here. There was much hype surrounding the book, the implications and meanings of the poetry and almost every female within a 30 mile radius had this book in hand. Shortly after writing my wishlist post, I actually went on to buy the book. I’ve had it for a few months now, and read and re-read it I would say over ten times. I have completely fallen in love with Kaur’s prose, but I didn’t want to write a post on the book until I felt completely compelled to: until I understood the meanings and intentions behind her work, and until I felt like I could do the book justice. I think the time has come!

Firstly, I want to comment on the appearance of the book, how beautiful is the cover? I suppose it’s arguable that the book itself doesn’t affect the content: ‘do not judge a book by it’s cover’ etc, but it just looks so super pretty on my bookshelf. It had a matte black cover which feels so luxurious, and the monochrome colour scheme with a hint of honey-gold is both appropriate and gorgeous. I know it doesn’t affect the skill of Kaur’s words and the effect they have on the reader, but there is nothing quite as satisfying as a beautiful, well constructed book.

While on the topic of appearance, I’d also like to comment on the illustrations of the book. They aren’t the epitome of art; they aren’t super detailed, but they are functional, simple, and through this, become skilful and almost beautiful. The way in which the images seem to be hand-drawn almost with a ballpoint pen, makes the words even more relatable to everyday life, makes the pages adaptable to your own personal situations. Much like her words, the images are so simple that they take on their own beauty.

But now for the actual book itself: the ‘poetry.’ I quote the word ‘poetry’ because I’m not sure how far to argue that Kaur’s words do classify in this genre. Of course, the words themselves are not a novel, they do not progress into a storyline of such, but they do not seem to follow a metric, they do not form a conventional form of poetry. I’ve read much critique of Kaur’s work because of this, but isn’t this what makes the book unique, beautiful? The simplicity of her words and the uncomplicated nature of the structure, for me, is what makes the book so special. She is unapologetically brutal, she doesn’t miss a beat, and she talks of her themes with the utmost candour. For this, I have the utmost respect for Rupi Kaur. Anyone who is planning on reading this book should be aware of triggering topics such as sexual abuse and rape, topics of which she is very frank about. Her frankness and openness about such topics, are what make her a bold and incredible writer.

The book is split into four parts: The Hurting, The Loving, The Breaking and The Healing. It becomes almost a process; a cycle that I’m sure every woman has experienced or will experience at least once in her life. I love every part just as much as each other but I would say that The Healing is my favourite, it’s both empowering and reassuring. Below I have left some of my favourite quotes from each section. I fully recommend purchasing this book and giving it a read, you won’t be disappointed.

The Hurting

‘A daughter should not have to beg her father for a relationship’ (28)

‘I was made heavy: half blade and half silk, difficult to forget and not easy for the mind to follow’ (30)

‘the thing about having an alcoholic parent is an alcoholic parent doesn’t exist, simply an alcoholic who could not stay sober long enough to raise their kids’ (39)

‘you tell me quiet down cause my opinions make me less beautiful, but I was not made with a fire in my belly so I could be put out’ (30)

The Loving

‘I want to be so complete I could light a whole city and then I want to have you cause the two of us combined could set it on fire’ (59)

‘You might not have been my first love but you were the love that made all the other loves irrelevant’ (63)

‘you look like you smell of honey and no pain, let me have a taste of that’ (66)

‘how do you turn a forest fire like me so soft I turn into running water’ (65)

The Breaking

‘don’t mistake salt for sugar: if he wants to be with you he will, it’s that simple’ (85)

‘I didn’t leave because I stopped loving you, I left because the longer I stayed the less I loved myself’ (95)

‘I am a museum full of art but you had your eyes shut’ (100)

‘I had to leave, I was tired of allowing you to make me feel anything less than whole’ (107)

‘You cannot leave me and have me too, I cannot exist in two places at once – when you ask if we can still be friends’ (136)

The Healing

‘Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself’ (153)

‘If you were born with the weakness to fall, you were born with the strength to rise’ (156)

‘fall in love with your solitude’ (161)

‘your body is a museum of natural disasters, can you grasp how stunning that is?’ (173)

‘the world gives you so much pain and here you are making gold out of it – there is nothing purer than that’ (185)

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