Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
American cinema is about more than just creative output. It’s about a studio system thriving under the glitz, glam, and gossip banner known as Hollywood. One could easily argue that no system has achieved the power and allure of Hollywood, whose city-centric tourist traps are just as recognizable as the classic output it’s produced. Hordes dream of making it famous under the big sign, of strolling over labeled stars, and pressing hands into cement indentations.
The system focuses, unsurprisingly, on the “show” part of the biz, and today Tinseltown is the flashy warehouse where games, shows, and especially foreign films get pushed down a You Can’t Do That on Television conveyor belt until they are cast in a sheen of bling and wrapped in American-friendly packages of style over substance. Money is the glue that fills plot holes; special effects are the bows that hide tears in the wrapping paper.
What’s strange, and more than a little ironic about this whole system, is how much it latches onto foreign content while uniformly dismissing how that content comes to be and refusing to foster that creative environment themselves. Let’s face it – much of our television shows and films are direct spins on entertainment created overseas, whether we’re talking about general inspiration like Kurosawa’s classic The Hidden Fortress helping George Lucas craft Star Wars, U.K. series becoming U.S. hits likes The Office, or distinct, money-fueled reproductions like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Through remakes, Hollywood is continually acknowledging and appreciating the creativity thriving beyond its borders while ignoring the setting that inspired it, systems that have also increasingly cultivated dynamic female filmmakers who are boosting the 2012 cinematic landscape.
Looking at limited and wide-release films hitting screens this month, there is not one dramatic feature directed by an American female filmmaker (and only one documentary, Dori Berinstein’s Carol Channing: Larger Than Life). There are, however, four features directed by European female filmmakers, including the critically applauded award contenders We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay) and The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd), and Valerie Donzelli’s Declaration of War. The remaining film has a distinctly American feel – Katharine Heigl’s One For the Money – but that is clearly linked to the influence of Tinseltown. The U.K. creator moved to American TV back in 2007.
Slip into February and you’re immediately greeted with Madonna’s W.E. She’s the only female director (of the three for the month) that’s American, but she’s also heavily influenced by British culture, which the (unfortunately not-so-great) film reflects. She is joined by Agnieszka Holland’s highly regarded In Darkness, and the Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky-helmed The Turin Horse. Skip to March, and only one of six femme features was made by an American, Laura Lau and Chris Kentis’ Silent House (Elizabeth Olsen’s next film, which again sees her lakeside, this time descending into madness). The European offerings for March include Tsangari’s Attenberg, van der Oest’s Black Butterflies, and Losier’s Genesis P-Orridge documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.
There are a few notable American women already scheduled to hit screens as 2012 continues. Elizabeth Banks has directed a segment in April’s Movie 43, and Lorene Scafaria wrote and helmed April’s Keira Knightley/Steve Carell romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Lynne Shelton’s simply wonderful Your Sister’s Sister will be out in June, and Anne Fletcher’s Rogen/Streisand comedy My Mother’s Curse is slated to hit screens in November. Alas, each and every one of these films is a comedy, most of which are romantic or have noticeable romantic elements.
There’s a bit more diversity with the yet-to-be-scheduled films like Susan Seidelman’s Musical Chairs, about a wheelchair ballroom dancing contest, and Victoria Mahoney’s Yelling to the Sky, featuring Zoe Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe. Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria could mix things up, if it ever gets a release date. Ela Their’s feature Foreign Letters also breaks out of the usual mold, but it’s also about her immigration experiences; she was born and raised in Israel.
Meanwhile, additional foreign offerings by women slated to hit screens in 2012 include Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles, which will hit Berlinale, and Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?, a dramedy about Lebanese women trying to ease religious tensions in their village. We should also be seeing two very different takes on sex and romance from Canada – Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz and Anne Emond’s Nuit #1 (different from each other, and from what we’ve grown to expect from cinematic romance). Canadian-born Mary Harron also offered up The Moth Diaries at TIFF last year, but its poor reception will likely keep it from hitting many screens. And one can’t forget Andrea Arnold’s intriguing take on Wuthering Heights.
Obviously, international cinematic communities are fostering more than just a captivating roster of films Hollywood is hungry to remake. This environment that appreciates dynamically unique visions is creating an increasing number of notable female filmmakers whose work transcends geographic barriers and expectation. They aren’t all funny, or romantic, or sexual, and even when they are, the themes branch off in a myriad of unexpected directions. There’s no neat, stereotypical box encapsulating these female filmmakers.
It’s the U.K. that shoulders the brunt of the responsibility to reveal dynamic, English-language films made by women. While Hollywood languishes with its indifference towards female creators, Britain is pumping out talent that dominates much of the discourse about notable female filmmakers. The Sally Potters and Antonia Birds paved the path for directors like Andrea Arnold, Phyllida Lloyd, and Lynne Ramsay. Arnold and Ramsay, in particular, are not only crafting critically lauded films – they are also creating notable, commanding bodies of work that are increasingly valued stateside. Arnold helped put Michael Fassbender on the map with Fish Tank, while Ramsay became one of the roughly 2% of female filmmakers boasting Criterion releases with her first film, Ratcatcher.
See, Hollywood is not only stifling the opportunity to create dynamic films from scratch, but also the environments that would let its abysmal male-female ratios to shift towards balance. Most of America’s female filmmakers are found in the indie world, hoping for that feature that will hit avid moviegoers and critics just right, turning their modest production into a mainstream whirlwind. They continually struggle to finance, create, and distribute their features. There is no solid support of their voices, and the films that hit screens are the fortunate. Remember, Dee Rees’ Pariah was a fest hit that almost missed Sundance because Rees was trying to get the money to finish it (she, luckily, succeeded). Many of the mainstream names we recognize had help/support/connections from men already successful in the business – Kathryn Bigelow and ex, James Cameron, Sofia Coppola and father, Francis Ford Coppola. This, of course, is also the system where Penelope Spheeris directed the hit Wayne’s World, tried to follow it up with her own screenplays and passion projects, and was given only crap studio fodder.
She told filmcritic.com in 2002:
“ My whole career up until Wayne's World didn't produce any monetary funds. When I directed Wayne's World, I made close to $150,000 - the biggest payday I had to date. My percentage points from Wayne's World enabled me to pay off all of the debts from my previous works, but I only came up even in the end.
So I'm looking around for some coin and when someone offers you $2.5 million to direct a film, you just fucking take it. I took the money and made a bunch of movies - Little Rascals, Beverly Hillbillies, Black Sheep, and Senseless.
After I did Wayne's World - I tried like hell to direct movies I had written and books that I wanted to adapt for film. I tried so hard to do something beside television remakes but I couldn't get anything going. That is where the sexism in the film industry becomes all too apparent. If I was a guy, I swear to God I would have been able to get my own shit going after Wayne's World.”
Spheeris was boxed into that fluff stereotype, while being seen by the mainstream as a producer of shlock, while being fueled by passions like her documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization.
If Hollywood remains content with simply regurgitating old films and foreign fare, American female filmmakers will never get the traction and power to balance the male:female ratio and to stand on its powerful own against the increasing number of intriguing foreign female filmmakers. We can hope that Kimberly Pierce directing a Carrie remake helps, or that Bigelow maintains the success of The Hurt Locker when she hunts down Osama bin Laden.
But really, Hollywood needs to wipe the crust out of its eyes and put 2 and 2 together.
Taking a cue from foreign cinema is about more than just remaking its ideas. It’s about recognizing why their content is stellar, and reworking Hollywood to have the same effect. If Hollywood focuses on the importance of original ideas and fostering creative minds, female filmmakers will flourish. They can finally leave behind the Sisyphean quests to prove their worth to a system eager to discount them.