The films of Amy Heckerling occupy the realm of Hollywood mass culture rather than the feminist art cinema of Sally Potter or Chantal Akerman. It is thus tempting to dismiss them by claiming that they’re intellectually lightweight, or adolescent (they are mostly comedies, and many of them have become cult films among young audiences), or generally not politically or aesthetically radical enough to count as the work of a Great Female Director. The late Nora Ephron suffered similar criticism for her hugely successful romantic comedies. But the genres in which these filmmakers work(ed) reveal differences in their aesthetic politics, as well as in their fundamental attitudes toward gender, cinema, and ideology. While Ephron’s “women’s films” draw on the generic traditions of the melodrama and the screwball comedy, the conventions of which have always been the property of the Hollywood studio system, Heckerling has continually been attracted to the genre of the teen film, which has always lived on the margins of Hollywood. The independent studio American International Pictures (AIP) was the king of the teen drive-in movies of the 1960s, and, in general, the teen movie has often been maligned as a lowbrow genre, kicked around, waved off, and not taken seriously (much like its characters). Lowbrow genres like the teen film, the horror film, and pornography certainly are certainly not free of the ideological imperatives that structure more mainstream fare, but their very marginality gives them a bit of room to wiggle around them. Because they are often ignored or not taken seriously, these genres become places where filmmakers can often explore ideas and subject matter that would be unpalatable in a prestige picture.
What is a thriller? What does it mean to thrill? To be thrilled? Sally Potter’s short film Thriller (1979) frames these questions within the context of gender and narrative by examining the circumstances surrounding the death of Mimi, the tragic heroine of Puccini’s La Boheme. Potter’s film begins with Mimi realizing that she is dead and setting out to investigate how and why she came to be that way. She arrives at the conclusion that she has been killed for the sake of the plot, in order that her beloved—as well as the audience—can get off on the spectatorial pleasure that attends her untimely death. Dead women make for good stories.
“I rejected [the label ‘feminist filmmaker’] at the time but now I want to keep it. I want to take it back. I thought that we had arrived at a moment when it was not necessary anymore, but I realized that it’s […] not true. It’s just not true. So now I am saying loud, ‘I am a feminist.’” -- Chantal Akerman, in a 2010 interview with GreenCine Daily
Chantal Akerman’s feminism is a feminism of the everyday, the mundane, the quotidian. Her films are perhaps the purest cinematic expressions of the notion, central to so many theories of feminism, that the personal is political. Built out of the seemingly innocent or unremarkable details of everyday life—phone calls, meal preparation, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, checking into a hotel, riding in a car—they call into question the meanings of such acts, particularly for the women in whose lives they have become familiar routines. In drawing our attention to these “simplest” of details, and by defamiliarizing them via her beleaguered heroines, Akerman reveals the extent to which gendered codes structure even the most casual of interactions or experiences.
I’m puzzled about what to say about Sara Gómez’s De Cierta Manera (a.k.a. One Way or Another), which I watched for the first time a week or so ago, in part because the film is itself a tangled knot of styles, forms, and voices. It is both a documentary and a narrative film, a mixture of scripted scenes and cinema verite footage of Cuban life. Scenes of a fraught romantic relationship between a progressive schoolteacher (Yolanda Cuellar, pictured above) and her traditionally-minded boyfriend (Mario Balmaseda) are intercut with live performances by a writer of political folk songs and shots of urban housing, accompanied by voice-over narration. The film is also marked by a complex production history. It was left unfinished by Gómez, who died suddenly at the age of thirty-one, and was completed by fellow Cuban filmmakers Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García-Espinosa. Begun in 1974, it was not released until 1977. Today, it is unavailable on DVD and is practically impossible to track down; I screened a dismal VHS copy—which looked like a bootleg—from my university library.
Above: Shirley Stoler as the Nazi commandant in Seven Beauties (1975), the film that led Lina Wertmüller to become the first woman nominated for a Best Director Academy Award. As I discovered over a year ago when I first saw Swept Away (1975), Wertmüller’s films are fascinating in their slipperiness: just when you think you’ve figured out her position, she makes a sharp turn. They are finely attuned to the ways in which gender and power can undergo sudden shifts, reversals, and transformations, making them difficult but ultimately rewarding for those who don’t require that art be reducible to a party line.
The, um, “stars” of Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons (1974), namely the 73-inch breasts of Liliana Wilczkowska, better known as “Chesty Morgan,” here billed as “Zsa Zsa.” That such a puerile exploitation film as Deadly Weapons was made by a woman raises potentially interesting questions—but, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe all that it confirms is that, as Pauline Kael wrote about Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), “women can make junk just as well as men.”
Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972) is, paradoxically, a motion picture that resembles a still-life painting. Set almost exclusively in and around the rustically beautiful town house where Isabelle Granger (Jeanne Moreau) lives with her two young daughters and another woman (lover? sister? friend?), it doesn’t move: it meditates. The film is a (successful) attempt to convey a sense of what it is like to inhabit the space of that house. It’s my understanding that Duras herself lived and worked there, and that it’s where she wrote the screenplay for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). It’s an extraordinary setting for a film: cool, serene, lived-in, rich with dark shadows. The house itself is adjoined to a lush wooded garden, and Duras’ camera routinely looks out on the grounds through the house’s latticed doors, accompanied by the vague, hesitant sounds of a child pianist drifting in from the adjoining room. The whole film is cloaked in a kind of late-afternoon half-light. Watching the film I was uncannily reminded of a vivid dream I once had in which I was at a country farmhouse, a place wholly invented by my unconscious. That house was also inhabited by two women, and it had just that same quality of light, those same shadows, that same placid calm. It is a surreal experience to see one of your dreams suddenly made manifest in a film.
Pictured: one of the many stray cats that inhabit the French fishing village of Agnes Varda’s La Pointe-Courte (1954), her debut feature film. It’s an odd piece; a mere 80 minutes long, it cuts together moody, Bergmanesque scenes of a marriage on the verge of collapse with neo-realist footage of the village’s fishermen and their wives, many played by non-professional actors, as they work, eat, and gossip. The two halves of the film are ostensibly related insofar as the husband, one of the village natives, has brought his Parisian wife home for the first time. But their mororse, angst-ridden marital quarrel, accompanied by unsettling atonal woodwind music on the soundtrack, sits uneasily next to the earthiness of the scenes set among the other villagers. Perhaps this disconnect is meant to mirror that of husband and wife? I rather got the sense that Varda was contrasting the cerebral, urbane, neurotic relationship of the central couple with the unfussy “naturalness” of the salt-of-the-earth locals, a binarism that began to bug me more and more as the film went on. (No atonal music accompanies the scenes of the villagers; they are associated with folk tunes performed by their own local band of amateurs.) At the end, when the married couple decides to reconcile and join in a dance being held in the town square, I suspect that we’re supposed to feel that they’ve decided to let go of their big-city hang-ups and embrace love in all its simple joys. Instead I found myself taking offense to the notion that the love lives of middle- and upper-middle class people would be a lot less tumultuous if they just got in touch with their inner peasant.
Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953) is a film noir that dances on the edge of the “women’s picture,” in which the noir themes of adultery and the divided self unfold not within a stylized night-world of expressionist shadows but within the familiar realm of the domestic. It’s tempting to read the film as a kind of feminist reversal of noir convention, where, instead of an “innocent” man being done in by a femme fatale, two women are effectively double-crossed by the same man (played by Edmond O’Brien). But in Lupino’s noir world, which is perhaps all the more cynically rendered because it is so rooted in workaday reality, even the bigamist himself escapes villainizing. The film is almost mind-bogglingly dark in its portrayal of people trapped in worlds of private loneliness, driven to keep secrets and tell lies. In the end, the film dutifully puts the blame on O’Brien (in keeping with the strictures of the Production Code), but it’s perfunctory—no one knows who is to blame, or why, or what should be done with them. The film fades out on its characters looking around at one another, lost and confused.
It’s no surprise that one of Katharine Hepburn’s earliest films was Christopher Strong (1933), directed by virtually the only female filmmaker working in mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner. Nor is it a surprise that Hepburn plays a headstrong, independent-minded aviatrix who dreams of setting world flying records and proudly announces that she’s never been in love—not much time to flirt with men when you’re 5,000 feet in the air and all that. In hindsight, the role almost seems like a collection of Hepburn clichés, especially when she starts speechifying to her lover about never putting restrictions on her ambition. While the film has its strengths, Hepburn’s performance, surprisingly, isn’t one of them, and one can almost begin to see how, around this time, she famously got branded “box-office poison.” She reduces her character to a collection of disconnected mannerisms, and her chemistry with Colin Clive, playing the married man with whom she falls in love, is nil. (Clive is as much to blame for this as Hepburn is. Many gay actors are able to make love convincingly to opposite-sex partners on screen; Clive wasn’t one of them.) Meanwhile in the background, Billie Burke (better known to most film fans as Oz’s Glinda the Good Witch) titters and smiles and nearly goes mad with jealousy as she watches her heretofore-faithful husband become smitten by another woman.
Since the early 1980s (when B. Ruby Rich’s “From Repressive Tolerance to Erotic Liberation” first appeared) Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931) has enjoyed canonization as a lesbian film classic, all the more remarkable for having been made by a female director, Leontine Sagan, in Weimar Germany. Rich’s early essay, written at the dawn of gay and lesbian criticism, spends much of its time trying to convince people that Mädchen in Uniform even is a lesbian film; seen today, the film’s sapphic sexual tension feels so thick that it’s a wonder people ever needed convincing. This is a movie set entirely within the world of a militant boarding school for girls (with nary a single male actor to be seen, it might make an interesting double bill with George Cukor’s The Women ) in which a rebellious young charge named Manuela develops an intense passion for the kindest and most humane of the school’s teachers, Fraulein von Bernburg. Shockingly, the attraction is mutual, and both Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg find themselves moved to defend their feelings for one another to the school’s sadistic, dictatorial principal (pictured above).
The suspicions of Mrs. David Graham (Claire Windsor) are awakened by a perfumed letter addressed to her husband from his old flame in Too-Wise Wives (1921), a small gem of a film by the prolific American filmmaker Lois Weber (the Internet Movie Database lists over one hundred titles to her credit as a director, most of them made between 1912 and 1921). I wrote in my last post that not all female directors’ work can be read in terms of feminist politics, but much of Weber’s work can; an unabashedly political filmmaker, she consistently tackled hot-button social issues such as abortion, birth control, censorship and poverty, and her views were complex and eclectic enough that the films are consistently surprising. (Her fascinating Where Are My Children?, made in 1916 [!] handles various sides of the abortion debate so gracefully and sensitively that it becomes difficult even to know, finally, what it’s trying to say about it, and I mean that as a compliment.)
For the next several weeks here at Primal Scenes I’ll be looking at twenty or so films by women directors from the silent era to the present, beginning with Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Ocean Waif (1916, pictured above). My approaches to these films will likely be scattershot, my hypothesis being that the only essential thing that all films by women can be said to have in common is that they are made by women, and that this in itself is no guarantee of any other aspect of the film. This is just to say that it’s been my experience that films by women (as distinct from “chick flicks,” “women’s films,” or “feminist cinema”) are as diverse and scattershot as the spectrum of cinema itself. The films I’ll be examining not only engage with issues of feminism, gender, and representation, but also dip into unlikely genres and subgenres (horror, exploitation), take up a wide range of political positions, and employ a variety of styles and tones. To refer to “films by women directors,” then, is really to say almost nothing, not even that they’re likely to take female characters as their subjects, as the recent work of Kathryn Bigelow proves: Bigelow’s films are (gasp) often heavily male-driven, a fact that caused some consternation even among her supporters during the lead-up to her Best Director Oscar win back in 2010.
I recently screened Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) for the first time as part of a spate of documentaries that I’d been meaning to get through and which I unfortunately won’t be writing much about here (though it’s largely been great stuff. How is it that Errol Morris’ shattering Abu Ghraib doc Standard Operating Procedure  came and went so quietly?). Koyaanisqatsi is one of those films that have been on my radar for the better part of fifteen years but that I’d never actually seen; I can even recall reading capsule descriptions of it as a kid while paging through my first movie books (ex. VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever) and thinking, “this sounds weird/cool,” and then later hearing that one of my parents’ co-workers had a copy of the Philip Glass soundtrack. It occurs to me that when I first came upon it I had been browsing around for films that were unusual or off-beat in some way or another (my eye was probably caught by that confounding title), and that Koyaanisqatsi qualifies as a cult film in some ways, not least because of its resistance to categorization.
After much hemming and hawing on my part, the blog previously known as The Primal Screen will now go by Primal Scenes--a minor change, yes, but one to which I've given much thought, and which I've decided is worth going to the trouble of making. Although there is a plethora of books/sites/articles etc. that go by some variation of "Primal Screen," and so maybe I shouldn't have been bugged by it, the unavoidable evocation of Andrew Sarris's classic The Primal Screen: Essays on Film and Related Subjects has never really sat well with me. So there's that. All of you faithful readers have been nothing short of a delight to write for, and I hope you'll find your way to this new version of the site as often as you did its former incarnation.