He Said/She Said Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

He Said/She Said Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

Turn Me On, Dammit!
dir: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (Norway, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.2
JM rating: 9.0

This “dialogue review” of Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit!, a new Norwegian teen-sex comedy, is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael Glover Smith’s film studies blog, White City Cinema. Funny and refreshingly honest, Turn Me On, Dammit! centers on Alma, a sex-obsessed teenage girl who becomes a pariah in her town after she claims that Artur, a popular boy at her high school, poked her with his dick at a party. The film opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

JM: This film was written and directed by two separate women. Given that you are a writer and director, what is your take on a female voice/female voices?

MGS: This is a provocative and complex question. I have to say that most of the time I don’t think about such things but when I was watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I certainly did. For instance, I thought it was totally bizarre that a fifteen year old girl would call a phone sex line. My first reaction was “There’s no way a fifteen year old girl would do that!” But then I remembered that the film was written and directed by a woman and based on a novel by another woman and then thought “Aw, hell, I guess they would know better than me.” I also thought that the scene where we see Alma masturbating was interesting. I’m sure you agree that there was nothing titillating about the scene. It was just there to establish her character and yet . . . if we watched the exact same scene believing it had been directed by a man, it would have been disturbing, no? On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that the reason why Helene Bergsholm gave such a convincing performance as Alma is because she felt more comfortable being directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen than she would’ve had she been directed by a man. Also, it’s possible that only female writers/directors would feel that confident portraying a girl that young as a sexual being. What do you think?

JM: What puts my answer into perspective is that I have no idea what is involved in a young man’s coming-of-age life. The concept of what a guy goes through when he becomes a man eludes me, and I think that only someone who has walked in those shoes knows the answer. Alternately, a man cannot know what a young girl goes through, even if he has daughters or sisters, though that would give him a little more insight than if he hadn’t. A man knows a man’s body, and a woman knows a woman’s body. She can remember her own experiences and tap into that firsthand knowledge.

To answer your question concerning a man’s take on the masturbation scene, I can only imagine it failing miserably. In sex scenes, or even nude scenes, where women are directed by a man, I feel that the vast majority of them are from what a man desires, or what he thinks a woman wants or needs, which pretty much always leaves me shaking my head because they are so opposite of what I find to be even somewhat believable. To illuminate my point further, during the filming of your second movie, At Last, Okemah!, you were filming a fight between the main character and his girlfriend. The girlfriend was supposed to act frustrated because she wasn’t getting the attention that she believed she deserved, and you were having some trouble getting her to react appropriately. One of the male crew members blurted out, “act like you haven’t had sex in months and you really want to get laid.” It took about every fiber of my being to keep from saying, “man, you don’t know anything about women.”

Going back to your station as a male director, do you feel that you have a particularly male perspective when writing and/or directing?

MGS: I’m sure that I do but I don’t think it plays that big of a role. I mean, I’m sure I also bring to my work a white male perspective and an American perspective and a thirty-something perspective and so and and so forth. I try not to think about those things when I’m working because that kind of thinking can be crippling for an artist. I think it’s best to operate more instinctively and not think about how your background might be manifesting itself when writing and directing. Same thing for writing a blog post, actually.

I think that you, Jillian, probably bring a more explicitly gendered perspective to your blog because of your women’s studies background and also because “teasing out feminisms” is the theme of your blog. Or would you disagree?

JM: My background definitely shapes what I think and put out on the page and I write from all those points of view. I agree that we are all a conglomeration of different selves: gay; lesbian; mother; father; high school education; etc., and I do pull from my own given the occasion, just as the writer and director of Turn Me On, Dammit! pulled from different areas of their past lives, such as being a teenage girl, being a girl growing up in a small town, et al. I can also say that I don’t write for a particular audience but for myself, what interests me and is on my mind, as opposed to writing for a particular audience in mind.

Do you think that a mirror of this movie could have been made by a male writer/director about young, coming of age boys?

MGS: Absolutely. I think that kind of movie has been made many times in America (that’s how I’d describe a lot of contemporary teen-sex comedies, of which Superbad is a prominent recent example) but it has rarely, if ever, been done well. What’s great about Turn Me On, Dammit! is its frankness about teenage sexuality, but I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with a male or female perspective. I think Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is the closest good male equivalent that is coming to my mind right now but, on the other hand, that movie does a lot of things aside from explore adolescence. For instance, even though Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are great, the scenes with Jeff Daniels as their novelist/professor father are probably the most interesting in the film. Turn Me On, Dammit!, by contrast, doesn’t show much interest in the adult word, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

JM: When watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I thought back to when I was in high school and I could definitely identify with a lot of what the girls, especially the main character, were going through. Specifically, life during high school and the “mean girls,” awareness of my own developing body, inflated and unrealistic ideas about love and sex, to name a few. Watching this movie as a man, did you feel any sense of alienation or could you identify with what these girls were going through?

MGS: I didn’t feel alienated at all. The film evokes a lot of emotions that I think cross gender lines – adolescent boredom, loneliness, sexual frustration, wanting approval from the cool kids, etc. Having said all that, no one ever poked me with his erect dick at a party! But there were moments where I could relate to Artur as well – like when he pretends not to be interested in Alma and lies to her about having another girlfriend. He was afraid of taking an emotional risk and I could relate to that.

JM: The girls in this film were born and bred in a small Norwegian town. Given that we both grew up in small towns up until after high school (me Villa Park, Illinois and you, Charlotte, North Carolina), do you see any parallels?

MGS: Well, Charlotte had a population of about half a million people when I was growing up there (and it’s gotten considerably larger since) so I think my experience was different than the characters in the film. They live in a truly rural area. However, I could relate to the desires the characters had about wanting to move away. I certainly never had the hostility towards Charlotte that they do towards their town. I wouldn’t flip off signs of my town like they did, but I did feel like I needed to get away and move to a bigger city and expand my horizons a bit. I guess I felt a bit like Saralou wanting to move to Texas. You’ve always stayed close to home though so I’m assuming your experience was different.

JM: It is true that I’ve always wanted to stay close to family, but suburbanites in Illinois are lucky enough to be able to move to Chicago, which is as different in many ways from Villa Park as you can get. It’s amazing how, though it’s so close, how far to the right, politically speaking, towns can be right outside of larger cities. My own experience is almost identical to what Alma experiences as she takes a trip to a bigger city, and seems somewhat of a small town/big city universal.

MGS: I’d like to conclude by saying that even though Turn Me On, Dammit!‘s focus on sex is going to be the main thrust of every review written about it, I think it also does a few other things extremely well. It feels very real and evocative in its portrait of what it’s like to be a kid working a dead end job in a small town grocery store, to ride the same bus to school with the same kids every day, and to escape for a magical weekend to a big city to hang out with college kids who have their own apartment. Finally, in Saralou’s anti-capital punishment crusade, which is arguably the funniest part of the movie, Jacobsen absolutely nails the very specific way in which teenagers can get overzealous about something. I thought Turn Me On, Dammit! was a very pleasant surprise when we caught it last year at the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m glad that its getting a fairly wide release now, even if, absurdly, it was recently banned in Tuscaloosa. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: If you were ever to make a movie that was the male bookend to this, would you have had the same “poking” story as the young man in the movie? Let’s hope not…

MGS: My male bookend to this would involve a nice guy like me receiving the equivalent of a “female poking” from a feisty gal like you.

47th Chicago International Film Festival Overview

The Last Rites of Joe May
dir. Joe Maggio

This film takes place in Chicago after what we assume to be an aging crook (there’s really no proof of this, we are just non-verbally told by his bad-boy leather jacket) gets out of the hospital after having pneumonia for two months.  When he is released, he finds his apartment inhabited by a young mother and her elementary age daughter after his landlord gives his apartment away during his hospital stint.  When the female lead sees Joe sitting in the cold at a bus stop, she invites him to live with her and her daughter for a hundred bucks a week.  And why wouldn’t a single mother with a young daughter invite a strange man to live with her?  Because, it’s Chicago.  My problem with this movie is that it relies heavily upon stereotypes of Chicago and the Midwest at large–that all Chicagoians are blue-collar, live in a perpetual gray and freezing city that is economically depressed, the police officers are corrupt, and the women are poor and uneducated.  Fuel for the latter is that the mother is dating a cop (big surprise, huh?) who beats her, but she can’t leave him because he’s just really, really stressed out.  Watching this movie as an educated, Midwestern woman who hails from a single-mother household, it seems to me that the director pigeonholes Chicago women based on his wide-sweeping assumptions.

Grade: C

dir. Aharon Keshales

This movie was a first for many—the first time that I had ever seen an Israeli movie, and also the first time an Israeli horror flick has ever come out of the country.  Initially, the plot appears fairly formulaic, four teens—two boys and two girls—are driving and get sidetracked by a  bloody person in need in the woods.  However, as the story unfolds, we are given a giant onion, if you will, of layers upon layers of gruesome, complicated, bloody, loud, terrifying and yes, even loving and beautiful story lines that sets this film apart from your run of the mill horror film.  Another unique facet is that it doesn’t rely on predictable film and horror conventions, such as implying a sexual relationship between siblings, the good guy getting punished, the juxtaposition of a truly good cop and a truly bad cop, and a psychotic killer having a sense of humor.  To add to the film’s intrigue, there are some rocking female characters, especially one of the young cheerleaders who we meet in the beginning of the film whose backbone and morals are as tough as the Hoover Dam.

Grade: B+

Le Havre
dir. Aki Kaurismäki

This film tells the tale of a French shoeshine who takes in a young African immigrant on the lam from French authorities.  Marcel (Andre Wilms) hides young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) so that he may be reunited with family, but all the while he is being sought in order to extradite him back to his native country.  Just as Idrissa is discovered hiding amongst the boats at the local harbor, cold, homeless and hungry, Marcel’s wife is admitted to the hospital for several weeks.  Over that time, Marcel and Idrissa take on a father/son relationship of sorts and the townspeople all come together to help hide him.  What can I say, it’s a heart warming story and with a slight touch of whimsy as only French movies can do (though the director is Finnish).  Director Kaurismäki shines a light on the plight of the immigrant–homelessness, hunger, broken families and loneliness and how young children are amongst the casualties of immigration.

Grade: B+

A Lonely Place to Die
dir. Julian Gilbey

Though listed as a part of their horror/After Dark program at the CIFF, I don’t know if I would stick this movie in the horror section at my local video store.  Like the aforementioned Rabies, when this film begins it seems very formulaic and you think that you have it all figured out–woods, cabin, creepy killers.  And though while some of this true during the first half of the film, the second half blind sides us and turns into a thriller/action/adventure.  The story takes place in Scotland where a group of friends go mountain climbing and along the way, they happen upon a young girl who is buried in a box in the ground.  One by one, each of the group begins to get knocked off by two men with rifles, though we have no idea why until the end of the movie.  The main character of this film becomes the mother figure/savior to the young girl and while it is slightly predictable and relies on the supposed nurturing nature of women, I bought it.  Not only was she willing to put her neck out for some girl that she didn’t know, but she kicked butt and stood by her guns, and the little girl.

Grade: B+

Turn Me On, Dammit!
dir. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen

What can I say about Turn Me on, Dammit! besides if you’re a woman of any age, watch it.  I was shocked at moments by this movie’s brutal honesty in telling the tale of young women discovering their own sexuality, and yet it was done in an incredibly quirky, cute and down to earth way.  Essentially, it is the story of three young friends living in a small town in Norway, all experiencing high school and relationships in very different ways: one who inflicts torment and is filled with jealously, another having big dreams of moving to Texas to help abolish capital punishment, and the last discovering and exploring her own sexual urges while being labeled an outcast.  And so, so many more coming of age issues are up for discussion including mother/daughter relationships, single-parent households, mean girls in high school, small town life and collective small town mentality, young women’s bodies, self-discovery…I could go on and on but trust me, it’s all good stuff!

Grade: A

This film also wins Exploring Feminisms Audience Choice Award for 2011!  Congrats!