Week of February 6, 2002

Feb 6, 2002 at 4:00 am
Art and Cultural Awakenings: Middle Eastern Film. The Missouri Historical Society presents a series highlighting Islamic and Arab cultures. This week's film is Jafar Panahi's The Circle (1991). The image of the circle resonates on multiple levels in Panahi's austere but emotionally devastating examination of women's lives in Iran. The film itself is structured in circular fashion, and narratively the story moves from one agitated woman to the next, the camera trailing along as they scurry restlessly through the streets and alleyways, always in motion but essentially running in place. For much of the film's first half, Panahi denies us the backstory necessary to explain why the film's initial protagonists, a jittery trio we meet outside the hospital, are so afraid of the police in particular and so wary of men in general; although some will find this an annoying frustration, the withheld information, in addition to heightening the dramatic tension, helps drive home Panahi's message that all Iranian women live in perpetual fear. Western viewers, conditioned by Hollywood's increasingly frantic cutting, may also grow restive during Panahi's lingering close-ups, but the shots' duration allows us time to reflect on the haunted, constantly darting eyes of his marvelous actresses and to understand more completely their characters' sense of hopelessness. A film of great subtlety and constant surprise -- not since Howard Hawks' movies, for example, have cigarettes been put to such richly symbolic use -- The Circle is an extraordinary work. Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Missouri Historical Society. (CF)

Black History Month Film Series. The St. Louis Art Museum presents a series in honor of Black History month. This week features Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, which tells the story of the Peazant family as they ready themselves for a move to the North from their isolated life on an island off the coast of South Carolina. Plays at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the St. Louis Art Museum. NR

Cinefeminism: Three Decades of American Female Directors. Fontbonne College presents a series dedicated to underappreciated films by female directors. This week's feature is Barbara Loden's Wanda (1971). Praised when it opened in 1971 but largely forgotten since, Barbara Loden's only feature fits comfortably among a small group of Vietnam-era films (Medium Cool, The Last Movie, David Holzman's Diary, to name a few) that called for a revolution in film production, inspired by the changing winds in Europe and the underground. Loden nods in the direction of Cassavetes, Antonioni and -- most of all -- Breathless with a rambling account of a footloose woman who falls in with a two-bit crook, but her film is too original and harshly honest to be dismissed as mere homage. Loden, who was better known as the wife of director Elia Kazan, gives a flawless portrayal of a small-town girl with no future -- she sometimes recalls the Tuesday Weld of Pretty Poison, but she's more like a directionless woman who might once have dreamed of being Tuesday Weld. Michael Higgins is nearly as good as the loutish criminal whose path crosses that of Wanda. Despite its now-unfashionable bleakness, Wanda is a powerful, searing film about dead-end lives, the female equivalent of a Five Easy Pieces and a likely inspiration for such recent films as Allison Anders' Gas Food Lodging. Plays at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Fontbonne College library. (RH)

Cinema in the City. Webster University sponsors once-a-month Wednesday screenings in Beatnik Bob's Cafe. This month features Edward Dymtryk's Captive Wild Women (1943). A doctor who turns an ape into a woman but he's less successful at controlling her libido. Plays at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at Beatnik Bob's Cafe, City Museum, 15th and Lucas streets. NR

Films of Frederick Wiseman. Webster University presents a series of films by documentary director Frederick Wiseman. If Wiseman isn't the greatest living American filmmaker (as one recent magazine article boldly claimed), he certainly holds the undisputed title of the cinema's greatest social scientist. Wiseman's films, ranging in length from a lean 85 minutes to day-long marathons, are no-frills cinema verité at its purest, chronicling -- perhaps even dismantling -- the inner workings of social structures and institutions ranging from high schools, boot camps and welfare offices to racetracks and department stores. Though he avoids narrative or offscreen commentary, he's no simple voyeur; carefully editing weeks of footage with an analytical eye, Wiseman's cameras slip through the cracks of their subject matter and penetrate their public images to expose the subtle dynamics of power within. The first film in the series is Titicut Follies. Shot in 1967 and banned from public screening for nearly 30 years, Titicut Follies was Wiseman's first film and remains his most disturbing. Filmed at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass., it records the casual brutality of an institution where prisoners are held without clothing, trivialized, dehumanized and, from all indications, given little serious treatment. Though it has a reputation as a brutal film (Wiseman records an inmate being force-fed with a nasal tube, intercutting later shots of the same prisoner in the morgue), the real horror in Titicut Follies is the sheer banality of life within the prison, where the banter of the guards and questionable efforts of the staff attempt to mask their complete disregard of the broken men in the cells. Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 at Webster University. (RH)