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Women's Cinema Spans Computers to Woody

By Stephen Brophy

Sixth Annual Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema

Brattle Theater, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge, through May 15

This year, the Brattle Theatre will once again play host to the Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema. The week-long series of programs gets underway May 8, with a controversial adaptation of events in the life of Artemesia Gentileschi, probably the most important female painter before modern times, and another film focusing on a very different art world, one which marks the come-back of Ally Sheedy, who starred in so many troubled teen' movies in the 1970s and 80s. The Festival culminates with another movie about a controversial figure, Barbara Kopple's portrait of Woody Allen, in Wild Man Blues. The latter movie will occupy the Brattle screen when the Festival ends, for an exclusive Cambridge run from Friday, May 15, through Thursday, May 21.

Two films in the Festival should be of considerable interest to the MIT community. Conceiving Ada focuses on Ada Byron King, the Countess Lovelace who, together with Charles Babbage, developed the first computing machine and its associated language back in the early 1800s. And Modulations, made by the same people who gave us Synthetic Pleasures two years ago, documents the rise and spread of electronic music as it becomes a world phenomenon.

Conceiving Ada, with the ever-fascinating Tilda Swinton in the title role, concerns Emma, a modern-day researcher in "DNA memory extension," who is attempting to establish contact with the spirit of the computing pioneer with her own computer program. Director Lynn Hershman Leeson blends a subtle science-fictiony tone and understated computer graphics perfectly suited for the job with a dual story of women bearing children and working in science, to give us an entrancing meditation on the meaning of creativity. She also brings in Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein, as a character, and Timothy Leary, playing Emma's aging mentor, as an actor who both deepens and complicates the film's central themes.

Iara Lee's previous documentary, Synthetic Pleasures, tried to cover so much territory that it ended up feeling superficial, for all its surface flash. By concentrating on just one field of contemporary world culture, the growth and mutation of electronic music, she manages to make a much more fascinating film which still brings in lots of different elements to its mix. Bouncing from brief clips of interviews with various technicians and artists as varied as Robert Moog, Africa Babbaataa, Giorgio Moroder, and Prodigy, and frenetic shots of them in action, Lee documents the changes the music has gone through, particularly since 1970. You definitely will not be bored.

Director Lisa Cholodenko will be present for the screening of her High Art, a moody, atmospheric piece in which a young magazine editor discovers that a legendary photographer, played by Ally Sheedy, who disappeared from the trendy New York City art scene more than a decade ago, is now living upstairs from her. As she tries to talk her neighbor into allowing some of her recent work to be published, she warily samples the heroin-hazed lifestyle which gathers around the artist. Movies like this can very easily bog down just like their characters, but this one works.

Artemesia arrives with a built-in controversy in that several feminist activists and art historians have decried the many differences between this biographical movie and the documents which are available about the life of the noted artist. Gentileschi's father hauled another artist, Agostino Tassi, into court on the charge of raping his daughter while she was studying with him. The movie implies that Artemesia was in love with Tassi, even when she learned that he already had a wife and family in another city. The documents don't really sustain this interpretation, and further establish that Tassi had an extensive reputation as an abuser of women.

If you can set this rewriting of history, and the blindness towards the misuse of women that it implies, you might be able to appreciate the story that director Agnes Merlet has put together, which shows how a young woman manages to follow the dictates of her talent and of her desires against the opposition of a possessive father and of a society which put even more barriers before women than those faced in contemporary times. This apparently mostly fictional Artemesia is convincingly portrayed by Valentina Cervi, an Italian actor last seen in this country in Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady.

A different controversy haunts the closing night program. In Wild Man Blues acclaimed documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA; American Dream) follows Woody Allen and his present (at the time of filming) girlfriend on an extensive tour of Europe with a Dixieland band that Allen has been playing clarinet with for more than two decades. As you very likely know, Soon-Yi Previn, the girlfriend (whom Allen has since married) was the adopted daughter of his previous girlfriend, Mia Farrow, and their relationship started when Soon-Yi was not yet 18. The documentary only barely touches on this scandal, and only when Allen makes off-hand remarks about it. It shows the familiarly cranky comedian firmly in the control of his younger consort, as she coaches him on how he should behave towards other members of the band and comforts him when he gets seasick in a Venetian gondola. It is a remarkably intimate portrait, and culminates with an amazing scene back in New York, when Allen and Previn visit his parents for the lunch from hell. He shows them all the awards he has brought back home, and they lament that he never became a pharmacist.

Other programs worth checking out include Clockwatchers, a dark comedy about temp office workers starring Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow, and Toni Colette (the Sprecher sisters, who wrote and directed, will be at the screening); My Best Girl, which kicks off a small retrospective of Mary Pickford movies and will continue through the next several Sundays (Pickford, the first movie star, co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks); and two programs of short films, one for Mother's Day, and the other a compilation of recent movies on lesbian desire.

For more information on these and the many other programs in this year's festival, pick up one of the catalogs, or call the Brattle Theatre at 876-6837.