Reviews

‘Joanna’: Sex, Shoplifting and Sarcasm in Swinging London

This is a film that constantly wants to break out of its shell and shatter conventions. It's sometimes a thriller, sometimes a romance, sometimes a surrealist sex-romp.


Joanna

Director: Michael Sarne
Cast: Genevieve Waite, Donald Sutherland, Calvin Lockhart, Glenna Forster-Jones
Distributor: BFI [UK]
Rated: 18
Release date: 2011-04-25
Website

First, there can be no denying the huge difficulties with this film in an early 21st century context. Joanna contains scenes of casual violence against women, as well as ingrained racism; it has vastly hypocritical double standards on show and women are generally portrayed as infantilised sex objects. How to find some redeeming features then? What it does possess is an important, riveting (in a deliberately kooky and surreal fashion) very dated and kitsch experimentalism.

In the generous extras on this BFI release that demonstrate his very mixed career, director Michael Sarne describes the original pitch as offering ‘the female Alfie'. We are very definitely in the territory of film inspired by work such as Alfie and Georgie Girl. Joanna defines itself early on with the transition from black and white to colour (think Wizard of Oz) to represent the shock of the new contrasting with the drab, provincial world she abandons for Swinging London in the late '60s.

Genevieve Waite’s performance as the central figure is both tiresome and mesmerising. She adopts a monotonous, lisping little girl lost voice and attitude that she sustains throughout. It does communicate in an odd sort of way. The surrealist elements (her dream sequences interspersing aspects of domestic violence, father/daughter tensions, and sexual encounters) make her more of a fantasy character.

There lies the significance and the way in which the piece works. It's pure ‘art’ film of the satirical and inventive unconventionality of the late '60s. Sarne’s comments in the on-stage interview at the BFI are an essential accompaniment for contextualising the work. He describes the ‘sarcasm’ of his outlook and the basis in reality for the narrative: his ‘Joanne’ was a real young woman who ‘hoisted’ goods from shops, including designer dresses, but lived on the margins and experienced a deeply troubled and promiscuous lifestyle. In the film he stylises her and creates the doll-like figure using Waite’s natural physical qualities. Waite, an actress/model who was later part of Warhol’s scene, went on to marry John Phillips and is mother to Tam and Bijou Phillips.

Donald Sutherland’s performance as Lord Peter Sanderson is an oddity. He is louche and tragic and occupies the role of prophetic soul who instructs Joanna, from his deathbed, on the importance of extracting as much out of each day as possible. Things are symbolically driven here, with cultural icons (Brando, Monroe, Dean) punctuating her experiences with friends and lovers, as huge prints emblazoned on walls of studios and bedrooms gazing down on her. And Monroe is the type upon which she is styled, yet with a more exaggerated childlike substance and less comedic charm.

Despite the enveloping of permissiveness, liberation, pro-choice and independence that surround Joanna and her set, a woman’s place is still very much the kitchen or the bedroom. It's with this kind of visual aside that Sarne’s sarcasm works best. Along with petty crime and casual love affairs, Joanna is also depicted as the little housewife; with typically feminine clothing and carrying a tea tray at times. She waits upon and services her various boyfriends, and yet maintains an aloofness from it all and a yearning for, it turns out, the man of her dreams who will treat her right.

This film works out to be an idealistic romance; more along the lines of The Wizard of Oz with its coming of age and journey of self-discovery than Alfie. By contrast, there is a new hope at the end of Joanna with her expecting the birth of her child, who will be mixed race. She finds brief happiness in the person of Gordon (the beautiful Calvin Lockhart), a black nightclub owner, and her spirit of rebellion works to defy convention and find a real connection with him. His sister Beryl (Glenna Forster-Jones) has been Joanna’s best friend and her mentor throughout her initiation in to the swinging lifestyle.

But Joanna takes things a stage further and breaks more than just social boundaries with her relationship with Gordon. Sarne enjoys this activity so much that he continues the motif through to the end with, as he calls it, a ‘Brechtian’ fragmentation of the film-making act itself. Waite is seen interacting with the crew as she departs London for her return to provincial security and single parenthood.

This is a film that constantly wants to break out of its shell and shatter conventions. It is sometimes a thriller, sometimes a romance, sometimes a surrealist sex-romp. During Joanna’s studious phase, as an art student – at which she shows real promise, she gossips through a lecture delivered by a be-spectacled female professor. She would do well to have listened to it, Sarne is suggesting, because it is on the baroque. The professor describes the locked-in forms that adhere to convention in the baroque, but with a constant ongoing battle with ornamentation and demoncratisation of the fashion threatening to break boundaries. Seemingly docile, and yet always yearning to be liberated, she suggests that the baroque is about one word, which she writes on the blackboard: ‘Rebellion’.

Joanna suggests a faltering evolution in society and cinema, but an evolution nonetheless. Its qualities are contradictory and patchy – genuine outbursts of brilliance and clunky stereotyping coexist - but it represents transition and development. Silliness and surrealism are contrasted with the notes of seriousness. The prominent roles given to Lockhart and Forster-Jones were still unusual for British cinema at the time. It contributed to the normalising of interracial and intercultural relationships. If the sarcasm that Sarne insists is there in Joanna is lost on you then the other features on the disc might help to clarify it.

With the BFI interview comes the short films Road to Saint Tropez (Michael Sarne, 1966) and Frankie Dymon Jnr.’s Death May Be Your Santa Claus (1968); a generous package of late ‘60s rarities. There are also critical essays included in the accompanying booklet by Chris Campion and others. Altogether ‘a must’, as they say, for film students and enthusiasts.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image