Monday, July 14, 2008

Directing Movies Without The Benefit of a Penis

Why are there so few female movie directors and why do their careers seem to have so little momentum?

Last night a friend and I stood in the 7th Avenue subway station in front of the token booth discussing this. I hate the conclusions we came up with which were about the really disgusting Hollywood boy's club, about how most movies are geared towards little boys, about how one box office disappointment (I mean disappointment, not disaster) will kill a female director's career flat*, about the Sofia Coppola exception (more to follow on this below), and on and on. It's all very dispiriting.

Far fewer women go into directing film than men. It's a much more complicated prospect. Whose career to emulate? Who would I like to be? There are so few women, and almost no American woman to look to to see how it was done before. I mean who wants to be a pioneer? It totally sucks having to justify your very existence within an industry that clearly doesn't want you there. Maybe I'm wrong, and please post comments if you think so. Through this and subsequent posts I will create a list of female directors, with some discussion of their careers. One more sweeping generalization before I begin listing: no female director has ever, or could ever in the current climate weather the various non-performing movies, egotastic lunacies, creepy scandals and drug fueled shenanigans of some of our most respected male film directors. For example. Women simply cannot afford to fuck up.

The List, Part 1: Oscar Nominees

Sofia Coppola: The only American woman EVER to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing a film, and is only the third woman to be nominated. Look. I love her movies. From her short "Lick the Star" through the problematic but still worthwhile Marie Antoinette, she is making truly interesting films. But, she is also the great exception as she has the weight of the film establishment behind her in a way that cannot be matched by any other woman working in US filmmaking today or possibly ever. The executive producer credit on each of her three features is her father, Francis Ford Coppola. I want to be really clear. The happy circumstance of her birth did not make her movies good. I particularly want to give a shout out to her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, a nearly unfilmable tone poem of a book, which is absolutely pitch perfect. The fact of who her father is, and the power he wields within the industry got her movies made, which of course is step one to becoming a legend.

Jane Campion: Full disclosure- I HATED The Piano for which she was the second woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Direction. Moving on. She's had a really great career that seems to have faltered recently. Angel at My Table is fantastic (based on Janet Frame's three autobiographies, which knocked my brain out of the back of my head when I read them), Sweetie is a great suburban gothic, lot's of people liked The Piano although it did not work for me, Holy Smoke I have not yet seen, and In The Cut was a disaster. To me, this is a really solid career. She has a film about Keats in the pipeline, which is kind of worrisome.

Lina Wertmuller: I'm in really dicey territory here, as I (embarrassingly enough) have never seen one of her films. She got her start as Fellini's assistant director on 8 1/2. She directed the original version of Swept Away (i.e. not the Madonna one). Was a communist and a feminist. She directed her latest film in 2004 when she was 78 years old. She sounds super awesome, actually, and I'm sure she benefitted from never having to work in Hollywood where lefty feminists have traditionally not fared very well (the Streisand exception will be in a later post).

To be continued!

* After Waterworld, that douchebag Costner was allowed to make The Postman, possibly the worst movie ever made.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Part of why women can't get away with a scandal or flop, though, is that no woman has ever made a movie that made money like The Deer Hunter, Bull Durham, or Jaws (with the arguable exception of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which is why Heckerling has been able to survive so many career reversals).

What could really change the equation would be if more actresses went into directing---then they, like Costner, could leverage the money their appearances command into having a little more creative freedom, including the freedom to fail (Costner gets to make his expensive bombs because he's worth so much cash as an actor).

Happily, this seems to be slooooooowly changing, as actresses who made their reputations in the 80s start moving into directing. Helen Hunt, most recently, is starting to make a name for herself, and fingers crossed this trend will continue.

By the way, to add some names to your list:

Allison Anders, who's been very smart about grabbing the increased freedom working for HBO and Showtime offers

Amy Heckerling, who made possibly the best teen comedy of the 80s and has had an interesting and varied career since (and did some fascinating interviews with The Onion AV Club).

Shirley Clarke, a fascinating beat filmmaker, who appeared as herself in kindred spirit Agnes Varda's Lion's Love.

Kathryn Bigelow---I'm not a big fan of her stuff, but she has done a lot to show that a woman can make action entertainment as silly as any man.

Penelope Spheeris: From the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization Part 2 (I am convinced that her gender gave her an extra ironic perspective on the world of hair metal) to Wayne's World.

Carolyn Raship said...

I actually have a really, really comprehensive list that I am working off of. I find Penelope Spheris's career to be particularly interesting.

I have a post planned where I will focus on women who make really ordinary mediocre films. I'm actually kind of excited about that.

Have you seen The Postman? If you haven't, you should. I think it might truly be the worst film ever, and is therefore really not to be missed. It ends with a group of humble citizens worshipping a 30 foot statue of-you guessed it- that douchebag Costner. There is really no excuse.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Definitely check out Heckerling's AV Club interviews---they're mesmerizingly bitter.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

And to see Costner looking even more douchebaggy than usual---which is saying something---check this out:


Carolyn Raship said...

I just vomited all over my keyboard.

He really has managed to achieve some sort of douchebag Nirvana.

Carolyn Raship said...

"Part of why women can't get away with a scandal or flop, though, is that no woman has ever made a movie that made money like The Deer Hunter, Bull Durham, or Jaws"

I definitely agree with the above. But I think the problem starts with the fact that the sweeping majority of blockbusters cost more to make and, in general, women aren't entrusted with budgets of that size, so that it becomes a bit of a Catch-22.

Bend it Like Beckham made more money than almost anything. We'll see what happens to Gurinder Chadha - who, interestingly enough, has refused all Hollywood offers and is instead working in Bollywood. I sort of believe that her decision is kind of representative of how lots of people feel about mainstream Hollywood right now. Most of the movies are just dreadful, and would rather, if they have the opportunity, work elsewhere.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Well, BIlB make about $30 million, which is a respectable number, but nowhere near anything on this list: The problem's exacerbated by the fact that BIlB doesn't have any toys, happy meals, or video games associated with it. Which is a shame, actually, as the game coulda been awesome (certainly better than the Clueless game, which looks like it's gonna be a total drag).

But you're right about the budgetary catch-22. Like I said, I think actresses directing is really the answer, at least in the short term. It'll also be interesting to see how the decline of the movie theater affects the logic---it could push us even more towards movies for 11-year-old boys, as toy licensing becomes the only dependable revenue stream, or towards TV movies becoming a bigger part of the landscape, a field where there are a lot more women directing.

And yeah, Chadha's decision to stay in Bollywood is fascinating. Certainly it's a safer career move---Hollywood is a place where you can make huge money or get chewed up completely, and I can certainly see a director wanting to stay in a context where they actually have some connections. We're seeing more and more countries making moves to unseat Hollywood's dominance---China and Russia are proving that they can make dopey CGI spectacles with the best of them---which could lead to some real shake-ups in the business.

Carolyn Raship said...

Domestic was 32 mil. You add in international and it's up to 77mil. The video game would be completely awesome.

Well, back to working on the screenplay for Caviglia and Fuzzy Bastard's art film!

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Which is, I think, unlikely to make $77 million or $30 million (though who knows?).

Btw, I assume you're going to get to Agnes Varda, but let me also put in a good word for Vera Chytilova. Unfortunately, you can't get most of her films on DVD, but her debut, Daisies, was released in the States, and there are bootlegs of her fantastic Panelstory out there. Unfortunately, what we don't get is her vast 80s input, which makes her seem like an artier director than she really is---she made loads of fairly ordinary (but often quite good) thrillers, melodrama, and horror movies, including Wolf Chalet, a bizarre Communist-Christian anti-Lord of the Flies.