Cheryl Dunye

All Rise (2019) s01e09 – How to Succeed in Law Without Really Re-Trying

Okay, when I said “All Rise” reminded me of “Major Crimes,” maybe I shouldn’t have cursed the show with an Ever Carradine guest star. Carradine plays an old defense lawyer nemesis of Simone Missick’s, who’s got an appeal—she wants to get alt-righter, white supremacist Ben Leasure out of jail—and Carradine’s confident because she’s up against Wilson Bethel not Missick. I mean, Missick’s only got the bionic arm, Bethel never misses. Wait, wrong shows.

Better shows.

Good shows.

Anyway, Missick wants to help Bethel but not too much. Meanwhile she’s pissing off a prosecutor (Suzanne Cryer), who’s trying to railroad some defendant in an unmemorable case but has it out for Missick and it doesn’t at all seem like Cryer doesn’t like Missick because Missick’s a Black woman. Oh… wait… it does. As it seems Cryer will be back to report Missick to her manager… maybe Cryer ought to fire her agent.

The thing about the episode is it’s directed by Cheryl Dunye, who’s an excellent indie filmmaker; usually “All Rise” is just wasting Missick and Bethel’s time, not the director’s. This episode, though, it’s well-directed but with that same tepid “All Rise” writing. At least it’s engaging to watch to see the direction. I couldn’t help wishing it’d lead to Dunye, Missick, and Bethel teaming up on something worth their talent.

Back to Carradine. She’s playing this neuroatypical (but self-aware) defense attorney who’s seemingly convinced Leasure is innocent even though he’s obviously guilty. Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if she thinks he’s innocent. It’s unclear. The show’s not smart enough to delve into the defense attorney of the guilty client thing, even as third lead Jessica Camacho is defending obviously guilty John Ales and doesn’t want to defend him because he’s a pain in the ass. I guess Ales is good? Maybe. He’s at least not unwelcome when he’s in a scene. Carradine hovers around like a threat. The scene where she has a showdown with Missick is patently absurd as Missick starts seeing herself from Carradine’s warped perspective, which has its own optics the show doesn’t seem to recognize.

Also good is Audrey Corsa, as the new law clerk in the district attorney’s office who teams up with Bethel on the Leasure case.

In addition to actually being good, Corsa also reveals J. Alex Brinson isn’t so much interested in Camacho as he is a hot to trot capital D dog, which is fine. I resent liking Brinson given he’s still the murderous spousal abusing cop from “Travellers,” also a much better show. And good.

Last thing—the episode’s weird with the other white people in the alt-right case. Michael Graziadei is a reformed alt-righter who might be a co-conspirator but gets a pass because Christian and no one talks about how “resister” Tamara Clatterbuck, sister of defendant Leasure, is actually a perjuring monster with half-Asian kids her brother wants to kill and she picks the brother.

“CBS woke” is not woke at all.

Though it’s nice to great to see a Dunye credit and pretty please, universe, let her make something else—something actually good—with Missick or Bethel.

Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


An Untitled Portrait (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

When it starts, An Untitled Portrait is about Dunye’s brother. But it’s also going to be Dunye’s family in general. But it’s also going to be about Dunye herself. The short runs three minutes, Dunye’s narration set to home movies, old film clips, but also some stylized original footage of shoes.

Dunye’s recollection starts with her brother’s shoe size (but really her family’s shoe sizes). With memories of his shoes as the frame, Dunye gets to her father, her mother, herself, while still keeping her brother (and her relationship with him) at the forefront of Portrait.

It’s short–three minutes is very short, with only enough time for a couple distinct anecdotes–with the visuals shifting in style as the film progresses. The visuals of shoes, active and still, are where Dunye does the most stylizing. She doesn’t shy away from the videotape medium, even doing the squiggly rewind at one point. She also finds a way to edit videotape sublimely, with the action pausing and then restarting, but with a calm flow. Videotape editing is often herky-jerky (it’s just a “feature” of the medium). Not here.

The film clips (formal parties with Black Americans) change the scale and context of some of Dunye’s rememberences. Her brother goes from being an unseen “Star Trek” nerd to a classic film action hero (there’s the possible additional layer of Black men not getting to be classic film action heroes very often, and certainly not in mainstream Hollywood productions).

At the end, Untitled Portrait gets positively playful. Joyous. After zooming in so close on her specific subjects, Dunye pulls back and–thanks to a jarring shift in music set to a familiar visual motif (shoes)–captures (or creates) an entirely different emotionality for the finish.

An Untitled Portrait is thoughtful and well-executed throughout and more than worth it regardless (it’s three minutes and Dunye’s masterful with the medium), but its entirely unexpected capstone makes it a delight.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


Vanilla Sex (1992, Cheryl Dunye)

Vanilla Sex is the combination of a short anecdote from director Dunye, which she recounts to someone else, set (mostly) to a series of photographs scrolling up the screen. Occasionally, the footage changes to what seems to be home movie of Dunye and some other people playing around, nude (until Dunye shows up, it almost seems like it’s historical nudist footage), in the great outdoors. Fun playing not sexy playing. Fun non-sexy playing.

The photographs are of Dunye and a couple other women. They appear to be process photographs–they’re trying to stage, presumably, another photograph or installation piece–but it’s not clear it doesn’t matter. What matters is how they relate to the anecdote, which is about a time Dunye went to California and heard the white California lesbian definition of “vanilla sex”–no toys–versus her own, East Coast, Black lesbian definition–a Black person with a white partner.

At least one of Dunye’s friends in the photographs is white–the other appears to be Gail Lloyd, because even when Dunye’s short subjects have no narrative (or even titles or credits), there are familiar faces–and the anecdote echoes off the imagery. Same with the home movie footage. It doesn’t directly relate, other than showing how Dunye’s community, but it does echo with that anecdote.

Vanilla Sex doesn’t have a narrative (at all, even as the series of photographs gets more and more interesting, they don’t have a conclusion); instead it’s a visualized musing, with its three elements–the monologue, the progression of photographs, the wilderness party footage–playing off one another, informing one another. Dunye’s got a superior sense of filmic narrative, even when she isn’t doing narrative.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


She Don’t Fade (1991, Cheryl Dunye)

She Don’t Fade opens with Zoie Strauss sitting down in front of the camera and directly addresses the viewer. She talks about how we’re going to see a video from the director, Dunye, and then Fade cuts to a shot of Dunye cleaning up a sidewalk vending table. The title card gradually comes up.

Then director–and soon to be star–Dunye sits down and talks about the video, what it’s about and who she plays. She’s a woman a year out from a breakup who’s getting back into dating, but she’s got a new style she’s going to try out when meeting women.

Then either there’s another scene with her in character, or it’s photographer Paula Cronan appearing onscreen to talk about the video. And her character. Scenes play out, Dunye talks about them. Dunye meets a woman–Wanda Freeman–and they go on a date, which doesn’t get much interruption, only for the subsequent sex scene to just be raw footage of them shooting the sex scene and Cronan directing them.

Oh, I forgot: Dunye sometimes talks, in character, directly to the viewer. Sometimes she and Cronan will come up with scene ideas. For a while, Fade is very much about seeing the conceptual process behind the video. Though not the filmmaking itself.

Dunye soon meets another woman, Gail Lloyd, and starts pursuing her. But off-screen. In the first-person, looking in the camera narration about it, however, it’s never clear if Dunye’s in character or not. Not really.

And all the scenes with Dunye (in character) and Freeman and Lloyd are without diegetic sound. We never get to hear what Dunye’s new approach to dating sounds like.

The finale is just the narrative, no more talking about how the video is going to go or work. It’s well-executed, but nowhere near as engaging, confusing, or compelling as the earlier scenes. During the oscillating “reality” and narrative, Fade is urgent. It loses that urgency as it goes on.

Still quite good, Dunye just doesn’t go anywhere with the narrative format, which has been distinguishing Fade since the first shot.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Paula Cronan; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Cheryl Dunye (Shae Clarke), Paula Cronan (Paula), Wanda Freeman (Margo), Gail Lloyd (Vicki), and Zoie Strauss (Zoie).


Janine (1990, Cheryl Dunye)

Janine is shot–and edited–on video. So when Dunye cuts to an insert shot for mood, there’s a jerky quality. She does a lot of freeze frames and the format just means it can’t gracefully return to motion. Seeing the cuts as Dunye relates the story–of Janine–causes attention to refocus. If your attention was waning for some reason, wake up, remember what you’re doing.

The short is nine minutes. Dunye is talking to the camera, only rarely looking into it. Her eyes look down and to her right usually, not wistfully lost in the memories–because there aren’t wistful memories of Janine.

It’s a non-fiction spoken word piece, with visual asides and occasional emphasizes (text of something Dunye has just said). Dunye’s monologue focuses on Janine, a high school classmate and basketball teammate and ostensible close friend, who couldn’t be more different. Dunye’s Black and a lesbian. Janine’s a shallow, straight white girl turned shallower straight white woman. Orbiting the stories about Janine is Dunye’s journey through high school.

Dunye relates her memories consecutively, never slowing down to follow up on a point; the short ends with Dunye talking about her last conversation with Janine, which serves not just to close the short (and Dunye’s relationship with her) but to package the short. Dunye’s never evasive–it’s unclear how much she’s prepared the monologue, there are definitely times where she gets off track and will have some wonderful slippage–but she doesn’t fully present her feelings until the end. We’ve been hearing her tell the story, but she’s been talking about herself at a distance.

Dunye’s performance as a monologist makes Janine. Her chosen recollections, those occasional slips away from the “outline.” The editing of the visual inserts is better than the videos themselves, except the emphasizing with text inserts. Those inserts are all around awesome.

Janine’s good. Janine doesn’t sound good, but Janine’s good.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, edited, and produced by Cheryl Dunye.


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