Joanna Arnow on ‘Provocative’ Directors’ Fortnight Debut

Joanna Arnow is understandably pressured. The author/director/actor is recovering from a protracted bout of COVID and about to premiere her narrative function debut, “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,” within the Directors’ Fortnight part at Cannes. “Having COVID while trying to finish this is such a crunch,” she says.

On the one hand, she shouldn’t be too nervous. Indie movie sensation Sean Baker is exec producing it, and she or he received a Berlinale Silver Bear Jury Prize for her 2016 quick “Bad at Dancing.” Her semi- and absolutely autobiographical works have passionate admirers like Andrew Bujalski and Baker. “When he saw ‘Dancing,’ he wrote me a kind message about it and stayed in touch,” Arnow says.

But she additionally has detractors like New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis, who described Arnow’s 2013 autobiographical and darkly comedian documentary “i hate myself :)” as “whiny,” and referred to as her apparently emotionally abusive relationship along with her then-boyfriend “a pretty standard sadomasochistic setup, only without the kinky accouterments.”

That could have been prescient. In “Feeling,” she portrays a glum New Yorker in an ongoing BDSM relationship with an older man, performed by Scott Cohen (“The Americans”), together with different lovers. When requested to explain it in her personal phrases, she primarily repeats the press notes’ description of her character’s “low-level corporate job and quarrelsome Jewish family.” The characters primarily communicate with a flat have an effect on and say precisely what’s on their minds, revealing the hidden meanings and absurdity behind regular conversations. 

Why did Arnow forged her non-actor mother and father, seen in her 2013 doc recoiling from footage of her having intercourse, as her character’s mother and father? “They’re not playing themselves, but it’s reflective of the auto-fiction style of the film, with me playing a version of myself as well,” she says. “I like to make films that draw on personal experiences. I developed this deadpan, self-deprecating, humorous character [in ‘Dancing’], and playing a version of myself lent it a kind of authenticity and idiosyncrasy that was helpful.”

She has been in comparison with Lena Dunham, who additionally has an affinity for auto-fictional explorations of dysfunctional relationships, casting relations, onscreen nudity and utilizing uncomfortable conditions for comedian impact, although Arnow’s earlier movies are clearly extra surreal and experimental. “I admire [Dunham’s] trailblazing work, but think our work is very different and don’t really understand or appreciate the comparison,” she says. “I hope, as more women direct films, that will give other female filmmakers a broader group of women to be compared against. We also don’t only have to be compared to each other.

“I don’t try to be provocative for the sake of being provocative,” she provides. “The sexuality and nudity are used to explore aspects of being in a relationship, essential parts of the stories I’m trying to tell.” And if some discover her characters annoying, that’s OK along with her. “It’s important for people to be able to be depicted as flawed characters that don’t necessarily have to be ‘good,’ but portrayed on screen with a full range of humanity.”

A lifelong Brooklynite, Arnow studied movie at Wesleyan, does freelance manufacturing work and lately left her day job at a pharmaceutical firm. Her major targets? “I’d like to have a sustainable lifestyle as a filmmaker and writer that allows me to work on projects that I’m excited about.” She’s open to engaged on extra mainstream movies or TV exhibits within the vein of “The White Lotus,” and is on the lookout for an agent.

“I think progress is being made for women and underrepresented groups in the film industry, but there’s a long way to go,” she says. “People weren’t beating down my door to fund my films, and it’s been a long road to getting my first feature. I hope [this film] contributes to a more varied representation [of women] in its own small way.”

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